Thanks to technology, the world is virtually accessible to everyone. If you have the money, you can take a plane and get to most destinations in the world under 24 hours. That’s why it’s fascinating to think about how even the wealthiest couldn’t (or shouldn’t) go to certain locations. You have to be in-the-know, a head of state, a priest, or a native member of a tribe that hasn’t had contact with the modern world (don’t worry, you’ll see in the list). From top secret government locations to sacred spaces to radioactive cities lost to time, these are the most travel-restricted places in the world:
LASCAUX CAVES (DORDOGNE REGION, FRANCE
It would be pretty cool to explore these caves which are home to paintings that are an amazing 17,300 years old. The cave system was discovered in 1940 by a teenaged boy. 8 years later, the caves were opened up to the public but in just 7 short years, the emissions and exposure to the elements caused the Paleolithic paintings serious damage. The caves were closed to the public in 1963 but unfortunately, the degradation process has continued. Lichen, mold, and fungus have beset the cave walls and affect the pigment of many of the paintings. So much so that only one person is allowed to go into the caves for twenty minutes, once a week. And as of present day, a preservationist or scientist can only enter a few days out of the month in effort to monitor the growing problems. Lascaux II has been built so visitors can see replicas of the paintings from the Hall of the Bulls and the Painted Gallery without harming the original paintings which are under constant threat of evisceration from environmental contaminants.
US BULLION DEPOSITORY – FORT KNOX, KENTUCKY
Fort Knox has served multiple purposes throughout US history and plenty of conspiracy theorists have come up with pretty fantastical ideas of what actually lies inside (alien space ships, anyone?). However, what we do know about Fort Knox is that it’s an important safeguard for America’s gold. It holds 2.4% of the world’s refined gold – that doesn’t seem like a lot but that’s more gold holdings than any other country. (Yeah, UAE and your gold bar vending machines, looking at you!) During WWII, the depository had the U.S. Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. It also held the Magna Carta and other documents from across history. During WWII and into the Cold War, morphine and opium were held at Fort Knox because synthetic pain killers had yet to be invented and the US was worried it would be cut off from sources of opium. If you’d like to take a tour of Fort Knox, well that’s too bad. It has been opened once for the news media and Congress in 1974. And that’s it. There are separate doors and vaults but the gold vault is surrounded by granite walls and a 25-ton door. The depository has fences guarded by a special US Mint Police force and because it’s within the army base Fort Knox, it also has extra Army members for security. Just a few of the security measures you’ll run into if you are crazy enough to try and break in: alarms, mine fields, barbed razor wire, electric fences, cameras, armed guards and all of the Army units based at Fort Knox who have things like Apache helicopters ready at their disposal.
SVALBARD SEED VAULT (NORWAY)
If you enter this place – it’s not a good sign, it means something of apocalyptic proportions has happened. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is a seed bank located on Spitsbergen, an island that’s part of Norway. The vault holds multitudes of seeds in the case of global catastrophes destroys most of the earth’s crops. Currently, it holds about 864,000 distinct seeds and has the capacity to hold up to 4.5 million. It has 1/3 of the world’s most important food crop seeds inside of it. The vault is 390 feet into a sandstone mountain with no permanent staff and no one person has all the codes you need to get inside. For hundreds of years, these seeds will be kept safe and a study done on the feasibility of the vault suggests the seeds might be preserved for even thousands of years. Each seed is packaged in a three-ply foil packet sealed with heat to ensure there’s no moisture. It’s fully automated and is remotely monitored. The vault is only open for special visitors and a few days a year when it accepts new seeds. And, also, it’s in the middle of the Arctic, very close to the North Pole.
ISE GRAND SHRINE (ISE, JAPAN)
There are actually over 100 shrines within this sacred space dedicated to the goddess Amaterasu-Omikami. It has existed since 4 BC. Legends say that the goddess herself chose the site thousands of years ago for its peacefulness and seclusion. The shrine is the holding place for precious spiritual and sacred objects that are of historical importance like the Sacred Mirror or Yata no Kagami. But don’t waste your time trying to get in to see anything. Priests and priestesses of the royal family are the only ones allowed inside. It’s also guarded by Japanese military and surrounded by a fence. The only parts of the shrine the public can view are the thatched roofs of the structures. The shrine is destroyed and reconstructed every 20 years in adherence to the Shinto concept of death and rebirth.
THE MORMON CHURCH SECRET VAULT (LITTLE COTTONWOOD CANYON, UTAH)
Not far from Salt Lake City you can find Granite Mountain – which, ironically, is mostly composed of quartz monzonite. There’s a vault built 600 feet into the Little Cottonwood Canyon which is owned by the Mormon Church. The vault is used for various things like document storage but also houses administrative offices, has shipping and receiving docks and a laboratory for restoring microfilm.
The records stored are genealogical documents showing family history information. The microfilm archive increases by up to 40,000 rolls each year. For security reasons, the public is barred from entry. It’s protected by two 9-ton doors and built so it can survive a nuclear blast. Of course, with a religious organization and a highly secretive vault comes plenty of conspiracy theories. But, it’s all speculation.
Surtsey is a volcanic island off the coast of Iceland that was formed by a series of volcanic eruptions. Scientists have been studying it for years to watch the evolution of the island from barren volcanic landscape to a place teeming with plant and animal life. Because of it’s importance to the scientific community, no one is allowed to visit the island for fear of disrupting the natural processes happening untouched by the outside world. Except for a few research scientists, the island is basically devoid of any human trace. Around 12 species of birds, grey seals, orcas and various forms of plant life call this volcanic island and the area around it home.
NORTH SENTINEL ISLAND (THE ANDAMAN ISLANDS, BAY OF BENGAL)
There are approximately 50 – 400 Sentinelese on this island. They represent one of the last groups of humans who have rejected the modern world to continue their primitive way of life. The island is about 28 square miles and is actually an ideal place to keep out unwanted visitors. There are no natural harbors and the island is bordered by unmapped (read: dangerous) coral reefs. There have been several different attempts to contact the people who live on the island but not all of these interactions have been successful. In the 60’s, lukewarm contact with the tribe was successfully made. In the mid 70’s, a Sentilese fighter shot a National Geographic film director in the thigh with an arrow – so things have been hot and cold, you could say. Finally, in 1991, friendly contact was made with the help of gifts and offerings. After a while, however, the Indian government decided these interactions were fruitless. They permanently ended the visits in 1996. The stories that come from the area these days are usually lone fishermen who are killed on site when they accidentally drift too close to the island.
WHITE GENTLEMAN’S CLUB (LONDON, ENGLAND)
Located on St James’s Street in London, this gentleman’s club is the oldest and most exclusive in the city. It was founded in 1693 and has a list of impressive members. Current members of the club include Charles, Prince of Wales, Conrad Black, Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, and Tom Stacey. David Cameron used to be a member but renounced his membership over the club’s refusal to allow women. Queen Elizabeth II was allowed in for a brief visit but that’s been the only lady to have seen the hallowed walls that wasn’t employed there. The building itself is three stories, a basement, and an attic. It’s compact in size compared to other clubs – maybe to keep out all the riffraff. Membership costs $85,000 a year and you have to be invited to get in. A coke at the club costs $20 but also has a rotating, impressive menu that I imagine would help you forget the astronomical price you pay for the food.
AREA 51 (NEVADA)
Area 51 – the storied location of secret military aircraft, high security, and UFO sightings. To this day, the main purpose of Area 51 – which is an outpost of the Edwards Air Force Base – is unknown. Most agree that the site is where the military tests secret weapons and aircraft that are still in development also known as black projects. Area 51 known as the “Groom Box” (because of its proximity to Groom Lake) is a 6- by 10-mile area of restricted airspace – even unauthorized military planes that fly over the area may receive disciplinary action.
The government has been reluctant to reveal any information about the area which is part of the reason why conspiracy theories about the “true” purpose of the area flourish. Surveillance around Area 51 is 24/7 and includes cameras and underground motion sensors. Photography is strictly prohibited and if you decide to venture across into the area, deadly force is permitted.
COCA-COLA VAULT (ATLANTA, GEORGIA)
Coca-cola really values its secret recipe – so much so that they have stored it in a huge, secret vault that you’re definitely not allowed into. Sure, there are no secret government operations or weapons development programs happening but the legendary formula for one of America’s favorite soft drinks is still highly protected. The original drink was invented in 1886 and was one of many “cola” drinks on the market that purported health benefits. The formula for the drink was kept in the Guaranty Bank in New York from 1919 to 1925 and then moved to the Trust Company Bank where it was held until 2011. From then on, it moved to a special vault in an exhibit where visitors can get close to the actual recipe but you’ll still be separated by thousands of pounds of metal.
CHAPEL OF THE ARK OF THE COVENANT (AXUM, ETHIOPIA)
This Ethiopian chapel has been rumored for centuries to be the final resting place of the Ark of the Covenant. In case you’re not up to snuff on your Biblical knowledge, the Ark of the Covenant is the alleged vessel for God’s Ten Commandments given to Moses on Mount Sinai. Conveniently, nobody is allowed to see the Ark. Not even the Ethiopian president. But according to reports, there is a single monk who watches over it, never leaving the chapel grounds. If the Ark of the Covenant sounds familiar to you but you’re not particularly religious, it may be because of a certain fictitious professor-archeologist-adventurer by the name of Indiana Jones went searching for it in the movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark.
GOOGLE DATA CENTERS (VARIOUS LOCATIONS)
If you’re one of the biggest digital companies on Earth, it makes sense to protect your assets and Google’s assets are data. There are both physical and digital measures to shore up the data centers. Fences, checkpoints, badges, and iris scans are just a few of the security features surrounding the data centers. Google admits to other security measures but they refuse to disclose what they are. No public tours of the centers are allowed. IT processes use up 2% of the world’s energy so Google has attempted to make their data centers as green as possible. In many cases, the data centers are partly powered by wind turbines as well as using energy efficient facilities.
JIANGSU NATIONAL SECURITY EDUCATION MUSEUM (NANJING, CHINA)
If you’re a Chinese citizen you’re allowed entrance into this museum but foreigners are strictly barred from entering. Why? The museum allegedly houses sensitive spy information. Several halls show the history of Chinese security devices and practices throughout time – dating back to 1927 when communists fought against their Nationalist enemies. An employee who works at the museum and spoke on the condition of anonymity said that collections house things like classified documents, guns disguised as everyday objects, weapons, and uniforms. People who appear to be Westerners are turned away but if you have Chinese characteristics, you are usually granted entrance without further questioning.
CHERNOBYL (PRIPYAT, UKRAINE)
In terms of scale and casualties, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster was the worst nuclear power plant accident in history. On April 2, 1986, an explosion occurred during a routine test at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. Fire and plumes of smoke spewed out radioactive particles into the sky which traveled over the western USSR territory and the rest of Europe. 31 deaths were caused by the incident directly by acute radiation syndrome (mostly first responders and power plant workers). However, by 2008, radiation-related deaths rose to 64. The Chernobyl Forum has predicted the death toll could reach 4,000 among the people who were exposed to the most concentrated fallout which includes 200,000 first responders, 116,000 evacuees, and 270,000 residents). With all of that said, it’s no surprise that travel to Chernobyl is still highly restricted because of the risk of radiation-related health problems. The Exclusion Zone is a 19-mile circle around the explosion site where there are no humans beyond 300 residents who decided not to leave. It’s overrun with wildlife because of the lack of competition with humans for resources and in many places, the forests have retaken the land. You can actually take a guided tour of Chernobyl and the surrounding towns but for a very short time frame and even then, you’re still vulnerable to massive spikes in radiation (and therefore, health problems and risks like cancer) as you get closer to the epicenter of the explosion. Explore at your own risk. Ukrainian officials believe that the Exclusion Zone won’t be safe for human residency for another 20,000 years.
BANK OF ENGLAND VAULTS (LONDON, ENGLAND)
The vaults beneath London hold the gold reserves of the UK and multiple other countries. It covers a huge floor space and needs three-feet long keys to open. It holds 4600 tons of gold which have an estimated market value of £156,000,000,000. You cannot enter the vaults unless you’re a member of the security team or an employee but Queen Elizabeth took a tour of the vaults recently. Maybe they let her in because she’s not as likely as others to slip some extra coin into her purse or under her pillbox hat. Interestingly, besides giant (almost comically so) keys, you also need a password to get in. I imagine trying to break into the Bank of England vaults is like some old-timey heist film where the would-be robber says “Open Sesame” to no avail.
RAF MENWITH HILL (HARROGATE, NORTH YORKSHIRE, ENGLAND)
The Royal Air Force Menwith Hill is an air force station in England that has secret operations and contains numerous satellite and a missile warning site. It’s one of the biggest electronic monitoring stations on Earth. Menwith Hill is also the ground station for many satellites owned and operated by the US National Reconnaissance Office. Activists have claimed that the activities that occur at the station are undemocratic and subversive because of programs like the ECHELON Interception System – a system that taps into private and commercial communications. In 1999, the BBC made a report that the Australian Government admitted to the existence of a reconnaissance network that was expansive and possessed the capabilities of intercepting practically any communication on Earth and the USA and Britain were the heads of it. Menwith Hill was also reported to have a direct link to the National Security Agency in Fort Meade, Maryland. Speculation abounds but both the US and Britain deny this spy network exists.
MOSCOW METRO-2 (RUSSIA)
The Russian government currently refuses to confirm or deny the existence of Metro-2 which was codenamed D-6 by the KGB. Allegedly, the story goes that Joseph Stalin had the Metro-2 built for the purpose of facilitating the travel of Russian secret services and heads of state. There are reportedly four lines that connect from a central location to KGB outposts. So, does it really exist? That’s still a question. People have been interviewed over the years that claim to have been part of building it and a recent demolition under the purported spot of the Metro-2 revealed a tunnel that could be part of a larger system. I don’t see Putin admitting to this secret train system any time soon, though. The man likes his state secrets.
PINE GAP, AUSTRALIA (OUTSIDE ALICE SPRINGS, AUSTRALIA)
Global surveillance is big business for governments all over the world, it seems. About 11 miles outside of Alice Springs lies a satellite tracking station jointly owned by the US and Australian governments. There are a huge number of employees who work at the facility: about 800. It seems must operations are overseen by the CIA. The location is crucial because it controls satellites that pass over countries America has a vested interest in like China, Russia, and the Middle East. One of the most controversial aspects of its operations is its involvement in US drone strikes in the Middle East. Unsurprisingly, there have been multiple protests against Pine Gap’s operations.
DULCE BASE (NEAR DULCE, NEW MEXICO)
And now we head into some serious far-fetched territory. Dulce Base is allegedly an underground facility owned jointly by aliens and humans – see, we can all work together. A businessman from Albuquerque, New Mexico named Paul Bennewitz became convinced he was receiving alien communications in the 1970s and in the 1980s, he was certain there was an underground base. UFO-believers took the information and ran. However, there is a slight chance that there is an underground base – it just might not be the alien-human joint operation conspiracy theorists are imagining. Underground missile stations were a reality during the Cold War so theoretically, it could exist. There’s just no evidence of it. Yet.
ROOM 39, NORTH KOREA (PYONGYANG, NORTH KOREA)
Known officially as the Central Committee Burea 39 of the Korean Workers Party, this organization is known to engage in illicit activities to keep North Korean heads of state pockets’ flush with cash. The estimated earnings of the organization are between $500 million and $1 billion thanks to its suspected involvement in counterfeiting, the drug trade, and insurance fraud on an international scale. Because North Korea is practically cut off from the world, it’s been hard to track the organization’s activities and confirm any information. However, the rumors are that the money coming from the organization are critical to fund the North Korean nuclear program and international bribes.
In the Ural Mountain range, specifically on Yamantau Mountain lies a huge underground facility. There are rumors it is more than 400 miles total. Nobody is quite sure of the purpose of the complex but it’s probably an underground bunker in case of nuclear disasters and might have also been used at one point to store food and Russian treasures. The American government found out about the structure in 1992 but the Russian government has been mum on the true purpose and operations of the facility. Officials estimate it took 10,000 workers finish the structure.
SNAKE ISLAND (BRAZIL)
Snake Island aka Ilha da Quimada Grande is an island off the coast of Brazil that has varied terrain, from rocks to rainforest. And it does a good job of living up to its name. It’s home to critically endangered snakes – a LOT of snakes. Because of the amount of snakes on the island, the Brazilian Navy closed the island off to public access. In addition to protecting unsuspecting island visitors from the venomous residents, it was also done to protect the snakes. There is estimated to be a snake for every meter of the island. In numbers, that means 2,000-4,000 snakes slithering around. The snakes that inhabit the island are golden lanceheads. Because there’s only one species on the island, there’s a high risk for inbreeding. Regardless, maybe don’t stop here on your Brazilian vacation.
VATICAN SECRET ARCHIVE (VATICAN CITY, ITALY)
The Vatican Secret Archive holds many important and historically significant documents – some believe it also is hiding important pieces of history, too. We do know what some of the contents are: Galileo’s trial transcript, letters from Abraham Lincoln, and King Henry VIII letters. These archives were originally created by Pope Paul V in 1612 and 400 years later, some of those documents are finally on display. However, there are still questions as to whether or not the church is hiding documents that put the Church in an unfavorable light like anti-semitic sentiments and other backwards ideas. You can’t just waltz into the archives that are available for viewing, you have to be a scholar and pass Swiss guards. Credentials for access expire after sixth months and tourists, journalists, students, and armchair historians are never granted access.
BOHEMIAN GROVE (MONTE RIO, CALIFORNIA)
It’s been called “where the rich and powerful go to misbehave” by some. In mid-July each year, Bohemian Grove has a three-weekend camp hosting the most important men in the world. It’s thrown by a private San Francisco men’s art club called the Bohemian Club. Members of the Bohemian club include artists, musicians, heads of state, media execs, and other people in power. And this is no normal club – you have to be invited. There’s plenty of questionable rituals and symbols surrounded the secretive society. People who have managed to infiltrate the secret encampment have not had impressive things to say about the sights, sounds, and activities such as Alex Jones, an investigator: “My lasting impression was of an all-pervading sense of immaturity: the Elvis impersonators, the pseudo-pagan spooky rituals, the heavy drinking. These people might have reached the apex of their professions but emotionally they seemed trapped in their college years.” So basically, a bunch of dudes who are continually reliving their frat boy dreams. Of course, there are plenty of conspiracy theories that suggest there is something occult going on or that these powerful figures somehow exert control over the world from their encampment – however, let’s be real. It’s just a bunch of guys getting wasted that have a lot of money. And you’re not invited.
DISNEY CLUB 33
So this is probably the most innocent place on the list but you have to be filthy rich to get in. It’s named after its location, 33 Royal Street in Disneyland. You can enjoy a five-course menu and most importantly, booze. There are antiques to check out while you dine on a fusion of French and New American cuisine. The club opened in 1967 and has member fees that cost $10,000 annually. Oh, but that’s not all. If it’s your first time signing up, you’ll pay a $25,000 initiation fee. I mean, I guess it’s better than sorority and fraternity hazing rituals but still, that’s got to sting. The Club recently made headlines because it sent out 100 exclusive invitations to potential members to join the club.
Poveglia is a small island located between Venice and Lido in the Venetian Lagoon, northern Italy. For centuries Poveglia has been a refuge, a stronghold, a place of exile, and a dumping ground for the diseased and deceased. In 1348, the Bubonic Plague arrived in Venice and Poveglia, like many other small islands, became a quarantine colony. Fearing the unbridled spread of the disease, Venice exiled many of its symptom-bearing citizens there. At the island’s center the dead and the dying – who were mistaken for dead bodies – were burned on giant pyres. These fires would burn once more in 1630 when the Black Death again swept through the city. In the 20th century the island was again used as a quarantine station, but in 1922 the existing buildings were converted into a hospital for the mentally ill. This went on until 1968, when the hospital was closed and the island once again became uninhabited. Legends surround the island of hauntings by the victims of plague and war, as well as a crazy doctor of the mental institution who supposedly butchered and tortured patients. Today, the island is closed to locals and tourists. In recent years, Italian construction crews attempted to restore the former hospital building, but unexpectedly stopped without reason.
CHURCH OF OUR LADY MARY OF ZION (ETHIOPIA)
The Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion is found in Ethiopia, and it is impossible to access because it’s claimed to contain one of the most important biblical objects, the original Ark of the Covenant, which according to tradition came to Ethiopia with Menelik I after he visited his father King Solomon. Due to the holiness and relevance of the ark, only a specially chosen monk has the privilege of entering the temple, and no one else is allowed to lay eyes on it or even get close.
Niihau is the seventh largest of the inhabited Hawaiian Islands. This island has no paved roads. There are no stores, no restaurants, no electricity, and no indoor plumbing. On the other hand, Niihau has the only school in Hawaii—and perhaps the only one in the country—that relies entirely on solar power for its electricity. Elizabeth Sinclair purchased Niihau in 1864 from the Kingdom of Hawaii and private ownership passed on to her descendants, the Robinson family. In 1915, Sinclair’s grandson, Aubrey Robinson, closed the island to most visitors with the purpose of preserving its indigenous culture and wildlife. Even relatives of the inhabitants could visit only by special permission. Today, the island is generally off-limits to everyone except relatives of the island’s owners, the natives, U.S. Navy personnel, government officials, and invited guests. There are very rare helicopter tours to the isle so you can wander along one of the beaches, but getting anywhere near the locals is strictly forbidden, giving it the nickname “The Forbidden Isle.”
THE NEGEV NUCLEAR RESEARCH CENTER (ISRAEL)
The Negev Nuclear Research Center is an Israeli nuclear installation located in the Negev desert, about thirteen kilometers southeast of the city of Dimona, Israel. Its construction commenced in 1958 with French assistance, according to the Protocol of Sèvres agreements. Information about the facility remains highly classified. But in 1986, Mordechai Vanunu, a former technician at Dimona, fled to the United Kingdom and revealed to the media some evidence of Israel’s nuclear program and explained the purpose of each building, also revealing a top-secret underground facility directly below the installation. In January 2012, media reports indicated that the Israel Atomic Energy Commission had decided to, at least temporarily, shut down the research center’s reactor. The site’s vulnerability to attack from Iran was cited as the main reason for the decision. In October and November 2012, it was reported that Hamas had fired rockets at Dimona (rather Negev Nuclear Research Center), but the facility was not harmed or damaged in any of the attempted strikes. Of course the airspace over it is closed to all aircraft. They also implement the necessary measures to prevent unauthorized entry, so the area around it is heavily guarded and fenced off.
TOMB OF QIN SHI HUANG (CHINA)
Home to wonders like the famous Terracotta Army, the tomb of China’s first emperor remains largely unexcavated thanks to a very protective Chinese government.
WOOMERA PROHIBITED AREA (AUSTRALIA)
The largest land testing range on Earth is located in Australia and just in case there was any question about its accessability, it was clarified right in the name.
THE MARIANAS TRENCH, PACIFIC OCEAN
You weren’t expecting this one were you? Well goodluck trying to get there. It’s the deepest place in the ocean and only three people have ever made it to the bottom.
MOUNT WEATHER EMERGENCY OPERATIONS CENTER (VIRGINIA)
FEMA’s center of operations is the go-to spot for our country’s top officials when disaster strikes. Dick Cheney and many members of Congress were shuttled here on September 11— the 564-acre facility has offices, dorms and a dining room in a location safely outside the city of D.C. There are armed guards. And access to the president’s Emergency Alert System. So you can’t go there.
RED CASTLE MUSEUM (LIBYA)
The Red Castle Museum, also known as the Archaeological Museum of Tripoli is located in Tripoli, Libya and spans 5,000 years worth of history. It houses artifacts from Ancient Libya, Islamic architecture and natural history. Although the museum is open to the public, tourists from many western countries including the United States are restricted from travelling to Libya for non-essential matters due to security concerns as a result of ongoing conflict in the region.
MOUNT KUMGANG (NORTH KOREA)
Mount Kumgang is located on North Korea’s east coast and has been known for its scenic splendor since ancient times. The landscape includes lagoons, mineral springs and temples. In July 2008, however, a South Korean woman was shot dead after she wandered into a restricted area. In addition, many governments including the United States and Canada restrict travel to North Korea due to high tension as a result of North Korea’s nuclear weapons development program.