11 of the World's Most Famous Abandoned Cities

The world's abandoned cities and ghost towns are our passport into the past.
Marcia Wendorf
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Whether it's time, economic pressures, or natural and human-caused disasters, some cities have been abandoned. They stand as mute testimony to a time that no longer exists, and many abandoned cities have become popular tourist attractions.

Come along with us as we explore 11 of the world's most famous abandoned cities.

1. Plymouth, Montserrat

11 of the World's Most Famous Abandoned Cities
Plymouth, Montserrat, Source: Derek Galon/iStock

The first in our list of abandoned cities is on the island of Montserrat which lies between the islands of St. Kitts & Nevis and Guadeloupe in the Caribbean. The island was first inhabited in the 1600s, and its capital Plymouth was established in the southwest part of the island.


In 1962, Montserrat became a British colony, and as of September 17, 1989, the island had around 4,000 inhabitants when disaster struck. Hurricane Hugo destroyed the stone jetty in Plymouth's harbor, and many of the city's buildings and schools, and the recently-constructed hospital.

Plymouth was limping along until July 1995 when a series of eruptions began at the Soufriere Hills volcano, which had been inactive for centuries. Pyroclastic flows of hot gas, lava and ash buried parts of Plymouth, then on June 25, 1997, a massive eruption of the volcano buried parts of the city and killed 19 people.

Between August 4th and 8th, 1997, additional eruptions burned whatever was left of Plymouth's buildings that remained, and buried the city under 4.6 feet (1.4 meters) of ash.

The lava and ash had the consistency of concrete, and the soil beneath had been burned, rendering it non-arable. The British made the decision to evacuate all of the residents of Plymouth, and many residents living elsewhere on the island also chose to leave. By 2000, two-thirds of the island's population had left the island, leaving only 5,000 people today.

2. Kolmanskop, Namibia

11 of the World's Most Famous Abandoned Cities
Kolmanskop, Namibia, Source: Justin Nezrick/iStock

In 1908, German workers laying a railroad line found a diamond in Kolmanskop, and this kicked off an influx of miners from areas within the German Empire.

The diamonds mined brought enormous wealth, and the miners recreated a German town in Kolmanskop, complete with a hospital, power station, school, theater, sports facility, and an ice factory.

Kolmanskop had the first tram and the first x-ray machine in the southern hemisphere. However, following World War II, the diamond field started to deplete, and by 1956, Kolmanskop was a ghost town.

Sand started invading the houses, making Kolmanskop a popular destination for photographers. In 2010, the town was featured in an episode of the television series Life After People, which showed the effects of wind and sand on the town.

3. Pripyat, Ukraine

11 of the World's Most Famous Abandoned Cities
Pripyat, Ukraine, Source: LightFieldStudios/iStock

Probably the most famous abandoned city in the world is Pripyat, which had been built in 1970 to house workers at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant located less than 1.25 miles (2 km) away.

On April 27, 1986, Pripyat had 49,000 residents, 15 primary schools, 5 secondary schools, a large and well-equipped hospital, 25 stores, 10 gyms, three indoor swimming pools, two stadiums, and an amusement park that was being constructed.

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Just after midnight, an explosion ripped apart Reactor No. 4 at the Chernobyl complex, spewing dangerous radiation into the air. 36 hours after the explosion, authorities evacuated all the residents of Pripyat, all of whom were forced to leave their pets behind.

A 30-mile exclusion zone was created around the crippled reactor, and in Pripyat, all the clocks stopped at 11:55 when power was cut to the city. Toys remained on the floors of schools where they had been dropped, and uniforms of the Chernobyl plant workers were still at the laundry.

Nature soon reclaimed the city, with plants and trees growing into the abandoned buildings. Deer, wild boar, elk, and moose wandered the streets, attracting wolves, foxes, and lynx.

In the last several years, homesteaders have returned to the exclusion zone, but radiation levels in the soil remain high. Caesium-137 has been found in cow's milk, picked up by grazing on contaminated grass, and radiation remains high in berries and mushrooms.

Today, several tour companies take visitors to Pripyat where they can tour the abandoned schools, the hospital, and the amusement park. While the tour companies tout a lunch prepared outside the exclusion zone, you might want to bring your own.

4. Hashima Island, Japan

11 of the World's Most Famous Abandoned Cities
Hashima Island, Japan, Source: linegold/iStock

This 16-acres (6.3 hectares) island lies 9 miles (15 km) east of the city of Nagasaki in southern Japan. Hashima Island was established in 1887 to support the mining of undersea coal, and it reached a peak population of 5,259 in 1959.

Structures that were built on the island included apartment blocks, schools, a hospital, a town hall, movie houses, stores, and a swimming pool. However, by 1974, the coal reserves were depleted, and the residents of Hashima Island left.

The island was completely abandoned for the next three decades, but by the 2000s, interest in the island was growing, and it was opened to tourists in April 2009.

5. North Brother Island, New York

North Brother Island, New York
North Brother Island, New York, Source: reivax/Wikimedia Commons

Located in New York City's East River between the Bronx and Rikers Island sits North Brother Island. It is around 20 acres (8 hectares) in size, and it was uninhabited until 1885.

That was when Riverside Hospital was moved there to isolate and treat smallpox patients. Eventually, the island was used to isolate those with other communicable diseases, and Mary Mallon, also known as Typhoid Mary, was confined there for over twenty years until her death in 1938.

In 1943, the island began housing those with tuberculosis, and following World War II, it was used to house students of local colleges due to the post-war nationwide housing shortage.

Today, North Brother Island is abandoned, and it is off-limits to the public. Most of the island's buildings are in danger of collapsing, and trees have grown up around the ruined buildings. In October 2016, New York Magazine reported that a study had been commissioned to determine how the island could be converted into a park. It currently serves as a sanctuary for herons and wading shorebirds.

6. Wittenoom, Australia

11 of the World's Most Famous Abandoned Cities
Wittenoom, Australia, Source: capturethisphotography/iStock

In 1937, prospector Langley Hancock discovered blue asbestos in the Wittenoom Gorge. By 1940, miners were pulling tons of asbestos out of the ground, and in 1943, the Colonial Sugar Company through its subsidiary, Australian Blue Asbestos Ltd., took over the Wittenoom mines.

World War II caused a need for asbestos for use in tanks, airplanes, battleships, helmets, and gas masks. By 1951, the Wittenoom had a population of over 500 people, and more than 150 houses.

In 1955, studies demonstrated that asbestos workers have a tenfold increase in their risk of developing lung cancer. Between 1977 and 1992, eight separate air monitoring studies in Wittenoom were conducted by the Health Department of Western Australia.

In 1978, Australia began purchasing Wittenoom residents' homes, businesses, and properties in an attempt to encourage them to move out of the town. By March 1992, only 45 residents remained.

A study commissioned by the Australian government estimated that it would cost $2.43 million to decontaminate the town, and that was deemed too expensive to be practical. In 2006, the government turned off power to the town, and the town's name was removed from maps and road signs. All roads leading to Wittenoom were closed, and today, only one resident remains, making Wittenoom a true ghost town.

7. Craco, Italy

11 of the World's Most Famous Abandoned Cities
Craco, Italy, Source: tupungato/iStock

At the southeastern end of Italy sits the hill town of Craco which dates back to the 8th century BCE. The town got its name in 1060 CE when it belonged to the Catholic Church. By 1276, it belonged to Muzio Sforza a member of Italy's famous Sforza family, and by 1561, Craco's population had swelled to over 2,500 inhabitants.

Just five years later in 1566, the plague struck, reducing the number of Craco's residents, and in 1861, following the unification of Italy, Craco was beset by brigands.

Between 1892 and 1922, over 1,300 residents of Craco emigrated to North America. In 1963, the centuries of digging to create buildings, sewers, and water systems caused a series of landslides.

In 1972, a catastrophic flood engulfed Craco, followed by an earthquake in 1980 which was enough to completely empty the town. This abandoned city is ideal for filming movies, and Craco has been the setting for Judas's suicide in 2004's The Passion of the Christ, and it appeared in 2008's Quantum of Solace.

8. Centralia, Pennsylvania

Centralia, Pennsylvania
Centralia, Pennsylvania, Source: Jrmski/Wikimedia Commons

This abandoned city in the USA was first formed when anthracite coal was discovered during Revolutionary War times. Full-scale mining of coal in the region began around 1840.

Centralia reached its maximum population in 1890, with 2,761 people, seven churches, five hotels, and 27 saloons. The Wall Street Crash of 1929 resulted in many of Centralia's mines closing, and by 1950, the population was down to 1,986 residents.

In May 1962, Centralia's city government hired the town's volunteer fire department to clean up the town landfill by burning it. Unfortunately, an opening in the pit allowed the fire to enter the labyrinth of coal mines beneath the town.

In 1979, Centralia's mayor extended a dipstick into an underground fuel storage tank, and when he withdrew it, it seemed hot. The gas was in fact 172 ° F (77.8 ° C). Two years later, a 12-year-old boy suddenly disappeared into a 4-foot wide (1.2 m) sinkhole that opened up in his backyard. Saved at the last minute by his cousin, the hole was belching steam and a lethal level of carbon monoxide.

By 1983, the U.S. Congress allocated over $42 million to relocate Centralia's residents, and by 1990, only 63 residents remained. In 1992, Pennsylvania's governor invoked eminent domain on all property in Centralia, and in 2002, the U.S. Postal Service retired Centralia's ZIP code.

The fire beneath Centralia eventually extended to the neighboring village of Byrnesville, and it too had to be abandoned.

9. Calico, California

11 of the World's Most Famous Abandoned Cities
Calico, California, Source: wsfurlan/iStock

In 1881, when four prospectors were heading northeast of the city of Barstow, California, they spotted a mountain peak which appeared "calico-colored", and the town of Calico was born.

The prospectors soon discovered silver, and the town began to grow. Between the years of 1883 and 1885, Calico had more than 500 silver mines and a population of 1,200. It also had a post office, newspaper, three hotels, five stores, and a number of saloons.

With the discovery of the mineral borax, Calico's population grew to 3,500 by 1890, however, the enactment of the Silver Purchase Act that year drove down the price of silver. By the turn of the century, Calico was a ghost town.

During the 1950s, wildly successful farmer Walter Knott bought the town of Calico and began restoring its buildings to the way they looked during the 1880s. Knott had created the Knott's Berry Farm amusement park, was the first person to commercially cultivate the Boysenberry in America and sold Knott's Berry Farm boysenberry preserves.

In 2005, then California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger proclaimed Calico to be California's Silver Rush Ghost Town.

10. Imber, UK

11 of the World's Most Famous Abandoned Cities
Imber, UK, Source: Amanda Lewis/iStock

The ghost town of Imber on England's Salisbury Plain existed during Britain's Iron Age, and Imber is mentioned in the Domesday Book, published in 1086.

The town's St. Giles church dates to the 13th century, and by 1851, Imber had 440 residents according to the census of that year. Most were doing agricultural work.

Before the turn of the 20th century, England's War Office began buying land on Salisbury Plain for maneuvers. By the time World War II began, almost all of the town belonged to the War Office.

Then, on November 1, 1943, the remaining residents of Imber were called to a meeting at which they were told they had 47 days to leave their homes because U.S. forces were going to practice for the Allied invasion of Europe there. The villagers were promised that they could return to their homes after the war.

Little training seems to have occurred in Imber, and in 1961, the villagers demanded that they be allowed to return to their homes. The Ministry of Defense refused their request, and during the 1970s, the British army used Imber for training.

Today, the public can attend St. Giles Church on the Saturday nearest to September first, which is St. Giles' Day. Imber is open to the public on certain bank holidays and around Christmas time.

11. Animas Forks, Colorado

11 of the World's Most Famous Abandoned Cities
Animas Forks, Colorado, Source: wanderluster/iStock

Another of the abandoned cities in the USA is mining town Animas Forks, which sits at an elevation of 11,200 (3,400 m), or over two miles above sea level. First settled in 1873, by 1883, the town had 450 residents and a newspaper.

In 1884, a blizzard that lasted 23 days dumped 25 feet (7.6 m) of snow on the town, and residents were forced to dig tunnels in the snow. Following the closure of the last mine in 1910, by the 1920s, Animas Forks was a ghost town.

In 2011, the town was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and starting in 2013, nine buildings have been restored and are open to the public.

We hope you have a chance to visit at least some of these "living time capsules."

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