Considering the staggering rates of global expansion and technology development, it’s impossible to imagine that there is even a sliver of this planet that remains undiscovered or unexplored. So there’s a certain comfort in knowing that, even today, there are mysteries that remain unexplored.
From man-made, guarded structures to natural enigmas protected by environmental science, a slew of spots across the globe are entirely forbidden to outside travelers. Picture islands teeming with vipers, extraterrestrial secrets, locked mysteries of religion, virgin wildlife and entire societies that have never made contact with the outside world. Many of these locations are still shrouded in intrigue, with their goings-on staying behind closed doors. Other locations are better understood, though still off-limits due to a variety of safety, scientific or governmental regulations.
While the allure of the taboo and forbidden is undeniable, you’d be hard-pressed to swindle your way into these 15 forbidden places — and in many cases, you probably wouldn’t want to. Still, in a world full of places you can discover, it’s intriguing to consider the places you can’t.
Snake Island, Brazil
Poisonous snakes keep this aptly named island forbidden. Not that anyone is complaining.
About 93 miles off the coast of Sao Paulo, Brazil is Ilha da Queimada Granda, also known as Snake Island. To what does it owe this title? Researchers estimate there are between one and five snakes here per 10 square feet. The snakes, specifically golden lanceheads, are known for their poison, which literally disintegrates flesh around their bites.
So maybe it’s not such a bad thing that you’re not allowed to visit Snake Island.
Lascaux Caves, France
In the quest to discover the history of the human race, there is one spectacular place that provides enormous insight. The Lascaux Caves in southwestern France are home to a series of stunning Paleolithic paintings, estimated to be up to 20,000 years old. The paintings, which plaster the walls of the cave, are hauntingly vivid, depicting stags, cattle, bison, cats and more. But the most incredible of all the paintings can be found in the Hall of the Bulls, which is known for its four bull murals, one of which is 17 feet long.
Sadly, the caves have been banned to the public since the 1960s, as they have been invaded by fungi and black mold, both detrimental to human health. Plus, human presence is considered destructive to the works of art.
Fortunately, though, you can experience the next best thing: Last year, a museum and cave replica right next to the real deal opened to the public.
Area 51, United States
A conspiracy theorist’s playground, Area 51 has stumped the public for decades. The hidden military base in the Nevada desert has kept its purpose a secret for quite some time, though many like to believe it’s kept for alien testing.
One thing is for sure — attempting to access the forbidden area would be highly irresponsible, as the grounds are protected by mines and other defenses.
North Sentinel Island, India
On North Sentinel Island, a small island in the Andaman chain in the Bay of Bengal, natives have long been opposed to the influences of the modern world. In fact, the Sentinelese people who live on the island refuse communication with any outsiders and are willing to get violent to protect their isolation. Following the 2004 tsunami, when the Indian Coast Guard flew a reconnaissance mission over the island, men reportedly emerged from the forests to shoot arrows at the helicopter, which did not land.
The Sentinelese have lived on the island for some 60,000 years, and with the protection of the Indian government — which prohibits visitors of any kind — it has successfully resisted anthropologists, authorities and tourists.
Bohemian Grove, United States
Talk about a boys’ club. This 2,700-acre campground in Monte Rio, Calif., is the ultimate playground for men. Each July, the Grove hosts a two-week bacchanalian blowout for VIPs around the world. Past and present members include U.S. presidents, government members, business leaders, artists and musicians. The event comes with a saying, “Weaving Spiders Come Not Here,” which means there is to be no business wheeling-and-dealing while on the grounds. Most infamously, there are rumors that Bohemian Grove hosted a Manhattan Project planning meeting in 1942 which resulted in the atomic bomb, though this cannot be proven.
Membership is highly exclusive. Translation: You won’t be accepted. (Assuming you’d even want to be.) And the goings-on are highly top secret.
Ise Grand Shrine, Japan
Japan has shrine culture down pat. There is estimated to be upwards of 80,000 shrines in the island nation. But none is more important than the Ise Grand Shrine, an intricate temple that happens to be one of the most expensive in the country due to the detail of its architecture.
The shrine is rebuilt every 20 years (at a million-dollar price tag), in order to symbolize the Shinto tradition of death and renewal of nature. The current iteration was build in 2013. And unless you’re a member of the Japanese imperial family, there’s no chance you’ll be entering the hallowed halls of this ancient, significant representation of Japanese culture.
Heard Island, Australia
There’s the ends of the earth, and then there’s Heard Island. One of the most remote islands in the world, Heard Island technically belongs to Australia but can be found somewhere between Madagascar and Antarctica.
The island is known for its two active volcanoes, but for the most part it’s thoroughly blanketed in ice. Inhabitants include seals, birds and four types of penguins. Humans, however, are not permitted to visit, though landings to the nearby McDonald Islands are allowed solely for “compelling scientific reasons.”
Twisted doesn’t begin to describe the history of Poveglia Island, a small island between Venice and Lido in Northern Italy. For centuries the small island has been prime real estate for, well, dumping of the dead. The island became a quarantine colony in the 14th century for victims of the Bubonic Plague. In the 19th century, Poveglia became an asylum for the area’s mentally ill, where it was rumored that a cruel doctor performed experiments on the patients.
Today the island is abandoned, save for the ghosts of the tortured souls that once lived there. Tourists and locals are banned from visiting, unless you want to undergo a lengthy paperwork process. But as this is considered the most haunted place in Italy, that’s likely for the best.
Vatican Secret Archives, Vatican City
The secrets of religion are some of the most heavily guarded in the world…and none more so than the Vatican Archives. Centuries of secrets remain a mystery within the vaults of the Vatican, from state papers to accounting to letters. Speculation on what lies beneath include evidence of demons, extraterrestrials and even the Church’s alleged contribution to the fascism of the mid-20th century.
Today only the highest qualified scholars and educators are allowed in the vault, and only after stringent review. Those looking to simply take a peek will sadly never know what sits between these storied pages.
Tomb of Qin Shi Huang, China
The Terra-Cotta Warriors at Xi’an is one of the most important discoveries of all time. Thousands of unique, one-of-a-kind lifelike statues depicting ancient Chinese warriors filled underground caverns of the burial complex of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang. But while the site is one of China’s most prominent tourist attractions, the tomb itself still remains a guarded mystery.
The tomb will likely remain sealed for the foreseeable future, as it is rumored that there are booby traps protecting it from invaders. There is also a high concentration of mercury within the tomb that would be deadly to anyone who entered without the proper precautions. The only glimpse we have into this treasure are the 2,000 warriors that are exposed to the public. Still, it is said another 6,000 remain within the tomb, along with a myriad of other treasures.
Surtsey Island, Iceland
When ticking UNESCO World Heritage Sites off your bucket list, Surtsey Island is one that might have to go unchecked. This volcanic island lies about 20 miles off the coast of Iceland, and has existed as a natural laboratory since its inception in the 1960s. Scientists have explored the island as a microcosm of natural development, gathering information on plant and animal life, tracking the arrival of seeds, and monitoring the appearance of molds, bacteria and fungi.
Today the island is home to a variety of species of lichen, fungi and birds, as well as 335 species of invertebrates. But in order to minimize human disruption, only a select few vetted scientists are allowed on the island to behold its natural wonder.
North Brother Island, United States
Tragically beautiful North Brother Island is one of the many mysteries of New York City. Located on the East River between the Bronx and Riker’s Island, this abandoned island used to be the home of Riverside Hospital in the 19th century, where patients suffering from diseases like tuberculosis, yellow fever and small pox were quarantined. Later the hospital was used after World War II to house veterans, and then as a treatment facility for heroin addicts. In the early 1960s the hospital closed its doors, and it has since been left to crumble by the forces of nature.
Today, the island is closed to the public, as it serves as a nesting colony for black-crowned night herons.
Mezhgorye sits in the Ural Mountains, about 120 miles from Ufa, the capital of the Republic of Bashkortostan. Founded in 1979, this small town is said to be home to a nuclear missile site. Though unconfirmed, it is believed that the site contains automatic missiles that can be activated remotely. The town is guarded by two battalions that prevent any outsider from visiting. The only information we have on Mezhgorye is taken from satellite images, and The Kremlin claims that the site is used for mining, an emergency bunker for Russian leaders and a vault for the nation’s treasures.
The world may never know, and if it is a nuclear site, let’s hope we don’t have the opportunity to find out.
The Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem
One of the holiest sites in the world is, without a doubt, the Temple Mount. The holiest site for Jewish believers, this temple dates back to the first century BC. It is also the third holiest site for Sunni Muslims after Mecca and Medina. But within the Temple Mount is an even more holy and exclusive site — The Dome of the Rock.
This gold-topped Islamic shrine is iconic in the city of Jerusalem. There are already stringent rules in place for visits to the Temple Mount, but the Dome of the Rock’s entry is reserved strictly for those who practice Islam. Non-Muslims are not permitted within the holy walls.
Niihau, United States
One mysterious island, Niihau, is nicknamed “The Forbidden Island,” and that is not an exaggeration. Even its visibility remains elusive, as the only way to catch a glimpse of it is as the sun sets over Kauai’s Kekaha Beach, when its silhouette emerges. The island has been owned by a single family for more than 150 years, and has been kept off limits to the outside world.
The only people who can enjoy the island’s splendor are its residents, all of whom are descendants of those who lived there before the island was purchased in the 1860s.