Think about the last time you toured an attraction. Did you have to wait in line? Was it overpriced? Did it involve cheesy souvenirs, embarrassing transportation, or lackluster landmarks? Were you left feeling completely and utterly underwhelmed (we’re looking at you, Hollywood Walk of Fame and Times Square)?
We feel you — and so does Atlas Obscura, the online guidebook and event organizer redefining the way we travel, one tour at a time. Forget everything you think you know about tourist attractions, and skip the overcrowded and overdone in favor of a city’s hidden landmarks, off-the-beaten-path destinations, and untold stories. Welcome to the weird, the unique, and the jaw-dropping. Welcome to the world through the eyes of Atlas Obscura.
Atlas Obscura is reshaping the way we explore the cities around us, from revealing a secret Japanese village in Los Angeles to gaining access to a magician’s workshop in New York City. We spoke to Megan Roberts, Atlas Obscura’s Director of Events, about how they inspire a sense of curiosity through their ticketed events.
“Events are a real-world extension of the types of places, people, and stories we feature on our website,” Roberts told us about the quirky online guidebook’s event programming. With events organized in NYC, DC, Philadelphia, Chicago, LA, Denver, and Seattle, local chapters not only host outings but also build communities of people with the same sense and style of exploration.
A typical Atlas Obscura event fits three main criteria: Events must inspire a sense of wonder and curiosity, highlight a specific sense of place, and offer access. For Atlas Obscura, offering access often means literally opening doors that are typically closed, with events taking place after hours, in places or with groups usually closed to the public, or behind the scenes. But as Roberts explained, Atlas Obscura events may also provide attendees with a different type of access — access to experts in fields you might not otherwise get to know, like shoemaking, beekeeping, or glassblowing.
Atlas Obscura isn’t only about introducing travelers and locals to unique attractions — its events might also focus on a unique angle to a popular attraction. “We probably wouldn’t feature a tour of the Eiffel Tower,” Roberts says. “But what we would offer is a tour of Gustave Eiffel’s secret apartment in the Eiffel Tower.” In fact, one of her favorite events ever put on by Atlas Obscura centered around one of the most touristy events in the country: the dropping of the ball in Times Square on New Year’s Eve. But Atlas Obscura didn’t miss a chance to put its unique spin on the popular annual event — they hosted a once-in-a-lifetime tour of the penthouse apartment and rooftop at One Times Square where a caretaker maintains the floating orb for the other 364 days a year.
“We approach local programming as curators for a museum without walls,” Roberts told us. Appropriately, it’s not just the art they’re looking for — Atlas Obscura also hopes to champion places, businesses, and fields that may be at risk of disappearing. In an age where gentrification and skyrocketing rents can often erase the past, Atlas Obscura’s tours help preserve local color, history, and culture.
While each of the city-specific chapters — called Atlas Obscura Societies — offers events that capture a sense of place and local flavor, the community reaches far beyond the seven current locations. Roberts herself is primarily in charge of organizing Atlas Obscura’s large-scale events, including a music and cultural festival around the total solar eclipse in Oregon and the annual after-dark Halloween events at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. These programs draw attendees from across the country (and the world!) and combine various topics of interest into a single multi-feature event.
If you’re looking for somewhere to start, Roberts suggests trying out an Atlas Obscura event in your own backyard — especially if you live in one of the seven society cities. Here are some of Roberts’s picks for the most anticipated upcoming events:
New York City
Following a sold-out, critic-adored run in Los Angeles, close-up illusionist Siegfried Tieber brings his extraordinary mastery of card magic to this show in Brooklyn. See/Saw is an intimate experience where attendees will keep an eye on the magician’s every move, and even participate, as he astounds with his card conjuring. Throughout the evening, Tieber will answer questions and share the philosophy behind his unique form of magic.
At this workshop, guests will learn about the competitive world of locksport, an abbreviated history of seminal moments in lockpicking, and — of course — how to get started picking your own. An expert will demonstrate his impressive skill set while sharing the tricks of the trade, and attendees will leave with their own pick set and transparent lock for practice.
After a critically acclaimed run in New York, Atlas Obscura is bringing “Into the Veil” to Chicago’s historic Graceland Cemetery. On the first night of fall, join Atlas Obscura for an ethereal evening of interactive performance, live music, and visual storytelling, including a solo performance by Jamie Stewart from Xiu Xiu and composer Mark Korven playing his own musical creation, the Apprehension Engine, within the cemetery chapel.
Join Atlas Obscura for a very special concert at James Turrell’s Skyspace, a unique Quaker meeting space and acclaimed art installation with a retractable section of the roof that opens during select dawns and dusks. Turrell’s “Greet the Light” consists of programmed hues of lighting on the cove ceiling, which interact with the natural light offered by the changing colors of the sky. Visitors experience a constantly shifting perception of light and space that’s perfect for “quiet contemplation” or, in this case, inspired sounds. For the second installation of Sonic Seasonal, the featured musician is Steve Gunn, of Kurt Vile’s band The Violators.
You won’t find yourself lost without a paddle at this kayak exploration of the largest ship graveyard in the Western Hemisphere, which features more than 200 sunken ships. While the earliest dates back to the American Revolutionary War, most were scrapped after a World War I shipbuilding surge; today, the vessels function as habitats for the many water species living in the bay. Tickets include kayak rental, paddles, life jackets, safety equipment, and a certified guide.
This evening tour will explore Comet Lodge Cemetery, and highlights its history as a Duwamish Indian burial site, a pioneer cemetery, and an abandoned cemetery bulldozed for housing developments. As attendees roam the cemetery by flashlight, they’ll have the opportunity to visit its few remaining upright headstones and discuss what became of its more than 400 inhabitants. Ten percent of each ticket sold will be donated to the Duwamish tribe.
Celebrate Veterans Day Weekend with a rare “sleepover” excursion aboard the USS Iowa, arranged exclusively for Atlas Obscura Society Los Angeles, the only civilian adult group ever to receive permission for such an extended, immersive experience. Atlas Obscura is teaming up with Chase Sapphire on this event to give cardmembers exclusive access to pre-sale tickets. Attendees will eat, stay, and tour the battleship moored in San Pedro at the Port of Los Angeles.