This Obscura Day, Discover the Curiosities in Your Own Backyard

Creepy dolls, KGB secrets and unexpected pinball troves—media startup Atlas Obscura invites readers to explore their own hometowns on May 30

The Cathedral of Junk in Austin, Texas, a backyard wonder built out of trash, is open to Obscura Day participants. Image courtesy of Flickr user Chad Hanna
Spy gear where KGB agents hastily left it in 1991 at the Hotel Viru in Estonia, where Obscura Day participants can take a tour. Image courtesy of Flickr user Ana Paula Hirama
At the Mbad African Bead Museum in Detroit, Obscura Day visitors can see beads almost 400 years old. Image courtesy of Flickr user soupstance
Architecture historian and photographer Bill Lebovich will lead a trip through Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C. to see legendary stones that were part of a renovation of the Capitol. Some date back to the early 19th century. Bill Lebovich
In Philadelphia, participants can see a curated collection of books related to the occult. The Athenaeum of Philadelphia
Folks in California can visit the San Diego Model Railroad Museum, where they can learn about the tiny trains and miniature people and peer at the models up-close. San Diego Model Railroad Museum
According to Obscura Day organizers, "Congressional Cemetery in southeast D.C. has become the final resting place for sinners, wealthy madams, unscrupulous politicians, scoundrels, and secretive FBI directors." Join their tour to learn the stories of the dead. Congressional Cemetery
Obscura Day includes a trip to see the famous collection of medical specimens at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia. Here, a close-up of wet cholera specimens. The Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia
A sign for the World's Largest Collection of the World's Smallest Versions of the World's Largest Things, which visitors can see in Lucas, Kansas. Erika Nelson
Some of the miniatures in Erika Nelson's collection of the world's smallest versions of the world's largest things, replete with a tiny human replica for scale. Erika Nelson
One of the hearses on display at the National Museum of Funeral History in Houston, Texas, another spot where Obscura Day takes place. Andie Mistler
Those near Los Angeles can take a guided tour of Historic Filipinotown led by the Pilipino Workers Center, a non-profit that advocates for workers' rights and services for immigrants in the LA area. Tourgoers will ride aboard a jeepney: a military jeep converted into a colorful mode of transportation, and one that originated in the Philippines after American troops left their vehicles behind following World War II. S Sunny DeJesus
Obscura enthusiasts can experience the marionettes of one of the longest-running puppet theaters in the country, The Bob Baker Marionette Theater in Los Angeles. Bob Baker Marionette Theater

“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’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.

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.