“Around the corner is something that will surprise the hell out of you,” Atlas Obscura declares. Although primarily an online compendium of the world’s wonders, the company understands that the real action happens in person, across the country and around the world, once readers discover magical places to visit. The idea behind the site is that one doesn’t necessarily have to go far to see a kitschy selection of curios, a haunting mechanical ruin, a secret cave or a largely unknown historical spot. On Obscura Day—this year, May 30, Atlas Obscura have a chance to uncover that nearby spot and meet some fellow curiosity seekers while there.
In our age, there’s a sense that everything has already been explored, David Plotz, CEO of Atlas Obscura, says, but “exploration is possible wherever and whoever you are.” The events, adventures and experiential tours take place this year in 39 states and 25 countries. In some ways, they’re disparate—a Brooklyn laundromat with an incredible pinball machine collection; an ancient monastery in Armenia—but what ties them all together, Plotz says, “is the idea of surprise: that the world is more wonderful than you imagine.”
Many Obscura Day events are free to attend; the laundromat with the unexpected pinball trove is even offering visitors the chance to play for free on May 30. There’s also the free and delightfully titled World’s Largest Collection of the World’s Smallest Versions of the World’s Largest Things, an exhibition of tiny replicas of iconic monuments based in Lucas, Kansas. There, one can meet curator Erika Nelson as she explains her work.
For a small fee, participants near Houston can visit the National Museum of Funeral History for a tour of beautiful hearses, funeral ephemera and even John F. Kennedy’s original eternal flame (history buffs take note).
In New Jersey, the bravest among us can hit up the Morris Museum’s collection of mechanical clowns, the stuff of nightmares for some. To get creeped out in a different way—by Soviet-era spies—there’s a private tour of a former KGB espionage station in an Estonian hotel. There, travelers can see rooms within the Hotel Viru where KGB agents surveilled guests, as well as evidence of a hasty departure in 1991: smashed electronics, scattered papers and overflowing ashtrays from the night that the spies abandoned their posts.
Obscura Day adventurers can do more hands-on activities, too, such as join researchers in Mammoth Cave, Kentucky, to help track the flow of water through the world’s largest cave system. For that excursion, Atlas Obscura warns folks of possible encounters with poison ivy, ticks and venomous snakes.
And Smithsonian.com’s own Bess Lovejoy and Matt Blitz have a hand in the day’s events. Lovejoy will co-host a boat tour through New York City’s “islands of the undesirables”—places where the poor, sick and criminal were historically confined in penitentiaries, psychiatric institutions and sanatoriums. Meanwhile, Blitz has organized all of the Obscura Day events in D.C., including an exclusive tour of an abandoned subterranean trolley station under Dupont Circle.