International Towns Unlike Anywhere Else on Earth

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We all strive to cross off the Parises, Romes, and Tokyos of the world from our travel bucket lists — and for good reason. But there’s also a certain appeal in veering off the beaten path. And, like no other year, 2020 makes a particularly strong case for blazing your own trail. If an offbeat destination piques your interest — when global travel is once again safe and feasible, of course — check out these six one-of-a-kind places around the globe.


Thames Town, China

Tudor style homes on the water in Thames Town, China
Credit: asiastock/ Shutterstock

On the surface, Thames Town is quite like many other places in England, but you certainly wouldn't expect to find an abandoned British ghost town on the outskirts of one of China’s biggest cities. That’s exactly what lies a mere 45 minutes from Shanghai.

Replete with cobblestone streets, Tudor-style homes, Victorian terraces, fish and chips shops, a strikingly familiar Gothic church, and even those iconic red phone booths, Thames Town will have you second-guessing exactly which country you’re in. Even the name of this English carbon copy was borrowed from London’s famous river.

Commissioned by the Shanghai Planning Committee and completed in 2006, the original goal of Thames Town was to tempt Shanghainese residents away from the overcrowded city center and into the suburbs. The idea didn’t take off as anticipated, and now Thames Town sits largely empty — with the exception of serving as a backdrop for wedding photography.


The Federation of Damanhur, Italy

Statue of founder of Damanhur outside gated garden
Credit: LorenzoPeg/ Shutterstock

Located in the alpine valley foothills of northern Italy, this eco-friendly commune is home to just about 600 people. Founded in 1975 by spiritual leader and philosopher Falco Tarassaco, Damanhur is made up of citizens who abide by its unique spiritual culture and a constitution that honors art, music, education, and, most importantly, a deep respect for the environment. Many residents even adopt an animal and plant name (e.g. Condor Sunflower, Octopus Coffee), and the United Nations recognized Damanhur as a sustainable society.

This commune possesses a slew of unique features; perhaps the most striking is the hand-dug underground cathedral known as the Temples of Humankind. The eight-hall complex adorned in mosaics, paintings, sculptures, and stained glass is dedicated to “awakening the divine spark” that lies within each one of us.


Elista, Russia

Aerial view of Elista, Russia
Credit: Maykova Galina/ Shutterstock

The chess-obsessed shouldn’t miss the chance to visit Elista, a Russian city that took its love of the game to a whole new level. “Chess City” is a domed complex constructed in 1998 by leader Kirsan Ilyumzhinov to host the 33rd Chess Olympiads and many other chess masters thereafter. The main attraction: an enormous chess board complete with life-size pawns, kings, and queens. Elista also happens to be the largest Buddhist city in Europe with monasteries, temples, and Buddhist museums and art galleries scattered throughout the city.


Sheffield, Tasmania

Horse in meadow in Sheffield, Tasmania, Australia
Credit: Tommy Atthi/ Shutterstock

The transformation of Sheffield, Australia, into the Tasmanian “Town of Murals” was more a ploy for economic revival than because of a profound love of the arts. However, the end result garners deep appreciation from artists near and far alike.

The shift took place after Sheffield’s population soared to support the development of two hydroelectric plants. It swiftly plummeted post-construction as the workers left Sheffield, leaving the town deserted and on the edge of economic collapse. So the town came up with a quirky plan to solve this issue: They encouraged local artists to create murals on every building in town. Along with an aggressive marketing strategy, the plan worked, propelling Sheffield into the limelight by transforming the tiny town into a big-time attraction. Sheffield’s 60-plus murals depict the area’s history and natural scenery, attracting 220,000 tourists annually.


Setenil de las Bodegas, Spain

Buildings carved into a cliff at Setenil de las Bodegas in Spain
Credit: Lyd Photography/ Shutterstock

A system of caves built into the bluffs of southern Spain spawned one of the country’s most charming and unusual towns. The cliffside burrows served as protection for the Moors during the 15-day siege by the Christian armies in 1484, and although the invaders succeeded in ousting the Moors, their unique dwellings remain today.

Visitors can wander the winding streets, lined with white-washed homes, cafes, and shops, all seamlessly integrated into the imposing rocky overhangs. Some of the buildings even have rock roofs, upon which the region’s famous olive groves thrive. Foodies relish the town’s lively bar and restaurant scene, touted as  one of the best in the area and bolstered by its production of top-quality chorizo, sausage, and pastries. History buffs also delight in the number of ancient attractions around town like the ruined Moorish castle, Igelsia N. S. Encarnación and the nearby Ancient City of Acinipio.


Shirakawa-go, Japan

Traditional snow-covered gasshō-zukuri homes lit up at night
Credit: Supparuj/ Shutterstock

This historic Japanese village in the Ōno District, Gifu Prefecture, became a UNESCO World Heritage Site for the dozens of traditional homes and buildings built 200-300 years ago. Known as gasshō-zukuri, meaning "constructed like hands in prayer," the building design is a nod to the shape of a Buddhist monk’s hands pressed together in prayer. Constructed from wooden beams and fashioned with steep thatched roofs, these structures were designed to withstand the weight of the region’s heavy snowfall — an average of 35 feet per year.

As an added bonus, the "upside down open book" shape happens to be incredibly picturesque. Visitors can stay in one of these cozy abodes and enjoy the scenic, snow-covered mountains and the peaceful pace of rural life in Japan.


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