Urbex tourism

Urbex, or Urban Exploring, is the exploration of abandoned and non-public urban locations. Urban exploration (often shortened as UE, urbex and sometimes known as roof-and-tunnel hacking) is the exploration of man-made structures, usually abandoned ruins or not usually seen components of the man-made environment. Photography and historical interest/documentation are heavily featured in the hobby and, although it may sometimes involve trespassing onto private property, this is not always the case.[not in citation given] Urban exploration may also be referred to as draining (a specific form of urban exploration where storm drains or sewers are explored), urban spelunking, urban rock climbing, urban caving, building hacking, or mousing.

The nature of this activity presents various risks, including both physical danger and, if done illegally and/or without permission, the possibility of arrest and punishment. Some activities associated with urban exploration violate local or regional laws and certain broadly interpreted anti-terrorism laws, or can be considered trespassing or invasion of privacy.

Urbex is most commonly understood as the exploration of parts of cities that no-one visits, be it abandoned buildings, steam tunnels, metro systems, or even dangerous underground locations such as sewers. Infiltration, which involves exploring used/inhabited (but not necessarily public) areas, is often lumped in with urbex, but it tends to attract a different crowd. Virtually any building can be an infiltration “destination”, but the most popular are architecturally interesting commercial buildings, industrial sites and hotels.

Whilst urbex has gained a notorious reputation of being illegal (such as requiring by definition trespassing), the bulk of exploration happens in places no-one cares about (which explains both their abandonment and/or the fact that no-one bothered to lock them up or even post a no trespassing sign). Although some urban exploration does indeed occur in areas that are legally off-limits, few “practitioners” would ever recommend that you do this.

However, many individuals and organizations involved in the genuine research, documentation and recording of older (and abandoned) buildings, works and infrastructure strongly advocate against “casual” urbex, preferring that those who are interested join specialist organizations that have built up appropriate access procedures and goodwill with site owners.

Novelty, thrill seeking, boredom, and photography are the main reasons urbex expeditions occur. Urbex opens up a whole new field of sightseeing, and makes for good stories. Many explorers find the forgotten, abandoned, and otherwise undiscovered places to have a certain beauty not to be found elsewhere—hence the popularity with photographers and fans of architecture. Infiltration is popular too for thrill seeking, but is more valued for aesthetic and other pleasures that would otherwise be off-limits. Visitors to ghost towns and abandoned structures inevitably wonder what these places must have been like in their heyday.

Exploration sites

Ventures into abandoned structures are perhaps the most common example of urban exploration. At times, sites are entered first by locals and may suffer from large amounts of graffiti and other acts of vandalism, while other locations may be better preserved. Although targets of exploration vary from one country to another, high-profile abandonments include amusement parks, grain elevators, factories, power plants, missile silos, fallout shelters, hospitals, asylums, schools, poor houses, and sanatoriums.

In Japan, abandoned infrastructure is known as haikyo (廃墟) (literally “ruins”), but the term is synonymous with the practice of urban exploration. Haikyo are particularly common in Japan because of its rapid industrialization (e.g., Hashima Island), damage during World War II, the 1980s real estate bubble, and the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami.

Many explorers find decay of uninhabited space to be profoundly beautiful, and some are also proficient freelance photographers who document what they see, as is the case with those who document some of the infrastructure of the former USSR.

Abandoned sites are also popular among historians, preservationists, architects, archaeologists, industrial archaeologists, and ghost hunters.

Active buildings
Another aspect of urban exploration is the practice of exploring active or in use buildings which includes gaining access, by various means, to secured or “member-only” areas, mechanical rooms, roofs, elevator rooms, abandoned floors, and other normally unseen parts of working buildings. The term “infiltration” is often associated with the exploration of active structures. People entering restricted areas may be committing trespass, and civil prosecution may result.

Catacombs such as those found in Paris, Rome, Odessa, and Naples have been investigated by urban explorers. The Mines of Paris, comprising much of the underground tunnels that are not open to public tourism like the catacombs, have been considered the “Holy Grail” by some due to their extensive nature and history. Explorers of these spaces are known as cataphiles.

Sewers and storm drains
Entry into storm drains, or “draining”, is another common form of urban exploration. Groups devoted to the task have arisen, such as the Cave Clan in Australia. Draining has a specialized set of guidelines, the foremost of which is “When it rains, no drains!” The dangers of becoming entrapped, washed away, or killed increase dramatically during a heavy rainfall.

A small subset of explorers enter sanitary sewers. Sometimes they are the only connection to caves or other subterranean features. Sewers are among the most dangerous locations to explore owing to risk of poisoning by buildups of toxic gas (commonly methane and hydrogen sulfide).

Transit tunnels
Exploring active and abandoned subway and underground railway tunnels, bores, and stations is often considered to be trespassing and can result in civil prosecution, due to security concerns. As a result, this type of exploration is rarely publicized. An important exception to this is the abandoned subway of Rochester, New York, the only American city to have an abandoned, formerly used, subway system. The Cincinnati subway is also abandoned, but was never completed and placed into service. In London, there are a number of stations on the London Underground network that have been closed over the years, with Aldwych tube station being a popular location for explorers.

Utility tunnels
Universities, and other large institutions such as hospitals, often distribute hazardous superheated steam for heating or cooling buildings from a central heating plant. These pipes are generally run through utility tunnels, which are often intended to be accessible solely for the purposes of maintenance. Nevertheless, many of these steam tunnels, especially those on college campuses, often also have a tradition of exploration by students. This practice was once called “vadding” at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, though students there now refer to it as roof and tunnel hacking.

Some steam tunnels have dirt floors, poor lighting and temperatures upwards of 45 °C (113 °F). Others have concrete floors, bright light, and more moderate temperatures. Most steam tunnels have large intake fans to bring in fresh air and push the hot air out the back, and these fans may start without warning. Most active steam tunnels do not contain airborne asbestos, but proper breathing protection may be required for other respiratory hazards. Experienced explorers are very cautious inside active utility tunnels, since pipes can spew boiling hot water or steam from leaky valves or pressure relief blowoffs. Frequently there are puddles of muddy water on the floor, making slips and falls a special concern near hot pipes.

Steam tunnels have generally been secured more heavily in recent years, due to their frequent use for carrying communications network backbone cables, increased safety and liability concerns, and perceived risk of their use in terrorist activities.

“Rooftopping” refers to the ascent of rooftops, cranes, antennas, smokestacks, etc., usually illegally, and for the purpose of getting an adrenaline rush and taking selfie photos or videos and panoramic photographs of the scene below. It has been especially popular in Russia.

The rise in the popularity of urban exploration can be attributed to its increased media attention. Recent television shows, such as Urban Explorers on the Discovery Channel, MTV’s Fear, and the Ghost Hunting exploits of The Atlantic Paranormal Society have packaged the hobby for a popular audience. The fictional film After… (2006), a hallucinatory thriller set in Moscow’s underground subways, features urban explorers caught up in extreme situations. Talks and exhibits on urban exploration have appeared at the fifth and sixth Hackers on Planet Earth Conference, complementing numerous newspaper articles and interviews.

Another source of popular information is Cities of the Underworld, a documentary series which ran for three seasons on the History Channel, starting in 2007. This series roamed around the world, showing little-known underground structures in remote locales, as well as right under the feet of densely packed city-dwellers.

With the rise in the relative popularity of the hobby due to this increased focus, there has been increasing discussion on whether the extra attention has been beneficial to urban exploration as a whole. The unspoken rule of urban exploring is “take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints”, but because of the rising popularity, many individuals who may have other intentions are creating a concern among many property owners.

Urbex sites exist almost anywhere in the world. However, as a general rule, the interesting nature of a site will be based on a few key factors:

Age of local modern culture – A recently modernised country such as Australia for example is naturally going to be lacking in ancient catacombs.
History – A country with a turbulent past may have military ruins, a country in the former Soviet bloc may have communist factories, economic strife coupled with lax zoning regulations may give rise to abandoned hotels. Urbex is as much about delving into the past as it is exploring the present.
Natural biomes – The nature of the local plant life. A region hospitable towards vines, creepers and weeds may make for a more atmospheric explore than a desert… but not always.


Strict urban planning regulations and exponential urban sprawl throughout the country’s entire modern history has left Australian abandonments somewhat scarce, but not completely absent. Do not expect to stumble upon any long-lost historic sites however, as Australia has a reputation for perhaps overuse of historical preservation laws: quite willing to even list an entire building as protected (and thus maintained) on account of a single chimney.
Draining, the somewhat dangerous exploration of public works is rather popular on the east coast.

The Cold War from 1945 to 1991 left behind military installations, bomb shelters and a partly fortified border called the Iron Curtain.

Exploring abandoned communist-era factories in Iaşi

Prora – at the Baltic Sea coast lies Hitler’s beach resort for 20,000 guests which was completed but never put to use.


Referred to locally as haikyo, one can explore mostly abandoned 80s-90s bubble-era service industry facilities (mostly hotels), plus the odd wartime relic (coastal military burrows). Due to the high levels of respect in Japanese culture plus a cultural regard for beauty in decay, the community is a bit more open in Japan, but do not abuse this privilege. Japanese urbex has some crossovers with cosplay. The best place to start is a bookshop, as sufficient books are available to give them a dedicated shelf in the larger Shinjuku shops. Books typically provide useful details for a site slated for future demolition, some location hints for a regular site and sometimes nothing on fragile or historically significant sites.

South Korea
Local sites predominantly are recently abandoned. What sets South Korea apart are the high numbers of entire abandoned neighbourhoods. Modern Korean urban geography consists of many skyscraper apartment block communities which contrast sharply with the former small low-rise neighbourhoods of 2-storey concrete houses and alleyway-sized streets. As such, urbex sites pop up and vanish regularly as the chaebol companies slowly buy up entire suburbs in preparation for urban renewal. Despite once being famed for the “rotting theme parks of East Asia”, the vast majority of these have in fact been utterly levelled in the name of rapid progress. In contrast to South Korea’s neighbours, urbex is not seen favourably by residents.

As abandoned sites, by their nature, are not kept up by anyone, it is essential that an urbexer leave them as they are found for the next visitor to prevent a slow but steady decay. That means:

Do not remove anything from the site.
Do not move things needlessly. If something is moved for a photo, move it back before departing.
Do not leave windows open or doors ajar where this could expose the site to the elements, causing further damage.
Do not litter.
Removing even moss from a wall or weeds, vines and creepers is frowned upon as this can negatively impact a future photo shoot.

Some sites, whose locations often but not always remain a closely guarded secret, are contenders for future historical preservation, or in a few odd cases even potential UNESCO World Heritage rating. Archaeological sites often omit specific location from their public entries on historic registers to prevent the historical record from being damaged or destroyed.

If you are exploring an abandoned business or theme park, then a single business card or flyer (in cases only when there is an entire room full of them: more common than you’d think) is sometimes deemed an exception to this rule by specific urbexer enclaves, but not by the broader community as it can constitute theft. Plus, for a popular site, that room full of discarded cards—a bizarre sight in itself — can whittle down very rapidly.

This is largely the reason why giving out maps and directions to a site in public is taboo within the community. Unless the experienced urbexer has been able to meet, talk to, and sufficiently understand the potential recipient of information, there is no way to ensure that they are not a vandal or treasure hunter. It only takes a single undignified urbexer to at best, ruin a site, at worst, erase a piece of history.

For photographers annotating photographs, in keeping with this guideline, the norm is to just state the name (often an exonym) for the site and details down to country or sometimes state/province/prefecture level. For sites of extraordinary historical value or fragility, and little fame, no detail apart from an exonym is the norm.

‘Take only photographs, leave only footprints, and avoid the latter if you can.

Stay safe
Urban exploration is a hobby that comes with a number of inherent dangers. For example, storm drains are not designed with human access as their primary use. They can be subject to flash flooding and bad air. There have been a number of deaths in storm water drains, but these are usually during floods, and the victims are normally not urban explorers.

Many old abandoned structures feature hazards such as unstable structures, unsafe floors, broken glass, the presence of unknown chemicals and other harmful substances (most notably asbestos), stray voltage, and entrapment hazards. Other risks include freely roaming guard dogs and hostile squatters. Some abandoned locations may be heavily guarded with motion detectors and active security patrols, while others are more easily accessible and carry less risk of discovery.

Asbestos is a long-term health risk for urban explorers, along with breathing in contaminants from dried bird feces, which can cause a condition known as pigeon-breeder’s lung, a form of hypersensitivity pneumonitis. Urban explorers may use dust masks and respirators to alleviate this danger. Some sites are occasionally used by substance abusers for either recreation or waste disposal, and there may be used or infected syringe needles en route, such as those commonly used with heroin.

The growing popularity of the activity has resulted not just in increased attention from explorers, but also from vandals and law enforcement. The illicit aspects of urban exploring, which may include trespassing and breaking and entering, have brought along with them critical articles in mainstream newspapers.

In Australia, the website of the Sydney Cave Clan was shut down by lawyers for the Roads and Traffic Authority of New South Wales, after they raised concerns that the portal could “risk human safety and threaten the security of its infrastructure”. Another website belonging to the Bangor Explorers Guild was criticized by the Maine State Police for potentially encouraging behavior that “could get someone hurt or killed”. The Toronto Transit Commission has used the Internet to crimp subway tunnel explorations, going as far as to send investigators to various explorers’ homes.

Jeff Chapman, who authored Infiltration, stated that genuine urban explorers “never vandalize, steal or damage anything”. The thrill comes from that of “discovery and a few nice pictures”. Some explorers will also request permission for entry in advance.

Safety is or should be the number one preoccupation of any exploration. Urbex trips are often fraught with danger. Abandoned buildings or entire ghost towns are abandoned for a reason. Decrepit floors and stairs might collapse under your weight, a brush against rusty metal could give you tetanus, you might run into a gang that’s been playing around in the place, encounters with wild animals, etc. Another risk in old buildings is the use (or disturbance) of materials whose use is for good reason no longer allowed, asbestos and lead (in paint) being two specific examples. On the upside, law enforcement is unlikely to care too much about your being there. At worst you would probably get a fine, and be allowed to walk out on your own.

Underground urbex suffers from several physical threats—again, crumbling infrastructure can be your enemy, as well as resident weirdos and animals, but there are extra dangers from steam vents, electricity, flash floods, and poisonous gases. Make sure you know what you are doing. Abandoned mines are a particularly dangerous maze of cramped, dark tunnels with sections submerged in water and vertical shafts dropping 60 metres or more. Rock may be crumbling; wooden structures which once supported the tunnels may be rotting. Cave-ins, falls, contaminated mine water and poisonous gas are hazards.

Danger from law enforcement has increased exponentially in the United States and several other countries following major terrorist attacks. If you are found on camera to be sneaking around subway tunnels, you may find yourself arrested on suspicion of terrorist activity: that’s far worse than a fine for trespassing!

A good place to check for legal dangers is to review details of your intended country’s freedom to wander.

There are universally recommended steps to keep yourself safe while exploring, and you would be a fool not to follow them. Don’t ever do this alone. Make sure that someone else knows what you are doing, and plan to check in with them at set times. Bring a phone, light source with multiple batteries, hard hat if appropriate, heavy duty boots, and some water and food. If trying something new, do research first either on the chosen site, or at least on the type of site… and lastly, if it rains, no drains!

Wandering around non-public or otherwise off-limits area of otherwise inhabited sites or buildings (without authorization or consent) may entail far less physical danger, but an exponentially increased chance of discovery and trouble with law enforcement, site operators or other authorities.

Government buildings, airports, sea-ports, as well as rail and transit infrastructure (examples being tracks, depots, rail-yards, plant rooms and car-sheds), are exceptionally paranoid due to ongoing threats from terrorism. You will end up in jail (potentially for an extended period) if discovered. In some countries and even some specific sites, it is worth considering individual staff, law enforcement, and “security” can be very direct in ensuring the integrity of their sites.

Industrial sites have also become quite paranoid.

Staff and “security” can also be somewhat direct in respect of hotels and commercial buildings, even if the concerns are motivated by more concerns about potential criminal intent, than ongoing terrorism concerns. Whilst many may respond with a demand to leave the building or a request to pay a fine, others will have no hesitation in calling law enforcement.

Even in heavy-traffic areas which are clearly open to the public (such as banks and subway/metro stations), you may be confronted if you attempt to take photographs, or make notes about certain things.

Access All Areas – Ninjalicious, the widely-accepted “definitive” guidebook to urbex, including sections on theory, technique, safety and ethics.

Photographic documentation
Many urban explorers adhere to the philosophy of cave explorers and outdoors hikers: “Take nothing but pictures. Leave nothing but footprints.” Some are photographers who specialize in documenting urban ruins and scenes of industrial decay. Professional photographers working in this field include Julia Solis, Rebecca Lilith Bathory Johnny Joo, Seph Lawless, and Andrew L. Moore. Other well-known photographers, such as Jan Saudek, use the interiors of abandoned buildings as backdrops for their figurative and portrait works. In recent years a popular photography blog PetaPixel has run numerous stories about urban exploration photography.

Methods and technology
Some urban explorers use head-cams such as GoPro or other helmet cameras for videos.

Some also use quadcopter drones for exploration and recording.

The location-based games Ingress and the following Pokémon Go based on the former have urban exploration elements. While some are concerned with keeping certain sites secret from the public at large, mainly to prevent vandalism, several apps dedicated to urban exploration exist.