By their nature, the vast majority of travel books are dry affairs packed with boring (but useful) information. Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders, the new book from the minds behind the web site of the same name, eschews this approach by being a travel book meant more as inspiration to travel than it is a guide for how to behave once you get there.
Atlas Obscura is a web site founded by writers Joshua Foer and Dylan Thuras. Since it launched, the site has turned into a massive user-generated repository of weird and wonderful places around the world. Personally, the site has long been my first destination after booking a holiday and has guided me to an abandoned amusement park, a museum of cat art and (more than one) DIY castle. This book compiles the best of those places while providing a bit more context for each location.
Who This Book Is For
Atlas Obscura is for anyone who loves to travel, wants to travel and who generally likes off-the-beaten path locations when they do travel. If the idea of visiting something called The Gates of Hell in Turkmenistan or an everlasting lightning storm in Venezuela sounds more interesting to you than a tourist trap museum three blocks away from a chain hotel that houses a McDonald’s, then Atlas Obscura is the travel book you’ve been looking for.
The book is for people who prefer to live like locals when they travel, seek out new cultures on holidays or just prefer the weirdness of history to traditional by-the-book experiences. Even if you can’t travel, Atlas Obscura is a window into places you’d otherwise never know existed.
What You’ll Get
Atlas Obscura is a travel guide equivalent to a cabinet of curiosities which proves that, as much as we might think we know about the world, plenty of places and ideas can still surprise us. It’s a window into locations you’ve never heard of, possibly in countries you didn’t even know existed. The book is packed with hundreds of entries about different oddball locations across the entire globe, from haunted artefacts in Connecticut to the world’s largest escalator in China (which also happens to be in the shape of a dragon).
The book is divided up by country and region, then the best places in each region get a short entry describing why it’s worth visiting. Each entry includes a few paragraphs about the history of an attraction and directions, then moves on to the next one. It mimics what you find on the web site, but is organised cleanly and features added details when it makes sense. For example, there’s a sidebar about various automatons through history next to the entry for the Silver Swan, a life size, clockwork driven machine that sits inside the Bowes Museum in England. This carries on throughout the book, adding added flavour and visuals when necessary. Atlas Obscura is a fantastically laid out book, with bright visuals, full colour photos and a ton of information crammed inside of it.
One Trick You’ll Take Away
One of the best tricks you’ll take away here comes from a tiny snippet of text at the end of most entries: The directions. If it’s even remotely complicated to get to a place, Atlas Obscura tells you the best way to get there. That doesn’t mean using Google Maps either, it’s about finding the best type of transportation for each place. For example, under the entry for the Wagah border ceremony in India, it lets you know you can get a round-trip taxi from Amritsar and the driver will wait while you attend the ceremony. For its entry on the Ponte City Apartments in Johannesburg, they recommend visiting Dlala Njes, the community centre at the base of the tower, for a full tour. If you want to check out Poland’s Crooked Forest, your best bet is a the train that leaves from Szczecin.
The underlying trick here is that the further you get off the beaten path, the more you learn about getting around in general. The best way to get from point A to point B is different for every city, and the more off the beaten path you go, the more you need to understand about a city’s infrastructure.
Since you can’t pack the entirety of a web site as massive as Atlas Obscura into a book, the print version works as both a “best of” and a point of inspiration. It is the perfect coffee table book. You can pick it up, open to a random page and suddenly find yourself in a new place. There’s a good chance you’ll find yourself looking up the cost of flights for your next holiday, daydreaming about a country you hadn’t heard of 10 minutes ago or wondering how on earth you’d missed the fact there’s a Bunny Museum a few blocks away from your house.
Atlas Obscura reminds you that your own hometown is likely filled with wonderful places you’ve never bothered to visit. Not every holiday can be to a far-flung land. Sometimes, all you have time or money for is a quick overnight trip. Atlas Obscura provides just as much inspiration to seek out the weirdness a day away as it does across the globe.
For me, the book is a great source of inspiration for daydreaming where to travel to next. While the book is organised by region, it’s so easy to just pop it open to a random page that I can’t imagine reading in a linear fashion. Thankfully, the authors don’t overdo it with the entries. They know just how much to write and exactly how many images to use so when you arrive at the real world location someday, you won’t feel like they spoiled anything. It’s a balance that’s hard to meet, and one that’s often ruined by other guidebooks.
Atlas Obscura the web site is my favourite place to look after I’ve arrived at my destination. Atlas Obscura the book is now my go-to place to find inspiration for where to go in the first place.
This is part of Lifehacker’s book review series. Not every life hack can be summed up in a blog post, so we’ve decided to review some of our favourite life-changing books for deeper dives into life’s most important topics.