Not every community consists of neatly-aligned, cookie-cutter houses surrounded with white-picket fences — that would be incredibly boring. Some towns defy the norms and the limits of our imagination by flourishing inside the strangest houses and in the most inhospitable of climates. From an underground city to a town all living under one roof, discover what makes these seven communities around the world incredibly unique.
1. Coober Pedy, Australia
At first glance, this small town looks like any other mining relic of the Australian outback — sparsely populated and covered in a thin layer of red dust — but scratch beneath the surface and it doesn’t take long to find out what sets this town apart. At least half of the town’s inhabitants live underground to avoid the oppressive summer heat and brutal winter cold. Get a taste for tunnel life yourself by touring the Umoona Opal Mine & Museum or spend a night in one of the Desert Cave Hotel’s subterranean rooms.
2. Tent City, New Jersey
For over 150 summers, this community of multi-colored fabrics has taken over a small section of Ocean Grove, New Jersey. The original tent-pitchers were devout Methodists in town for community meetings; today’s residents are usually looking for some old-fashioned relaxation in close proximity to the beach. Residents apply through a multi-year waiting list for the privilege of renting a space for the entire season, but if you don’t have that level of dedication, just take a stroll through the 114 plots to get a sense of a summer spent under a tent.
3. Whittier, Alaska
Almost all of this remote Alaskan town’s 200 inhabitants live under the same 14-story roof. The building, once an army barracks, also holds the post office, police station, health clinic, church and laundromat. The annual tourist population can reach up to 700,000, mostly during the near-constant sunlight of summer months when the town becomes a gateway to Prince William Sound. In winter, outside conditions can become so extreme that the town’s only playground is indoors and kids go to school via an underground passage. If you visit by road, you’ll take North America’s longest tunnel — a narrow single lane behemoth that closes at night.
4. Hallstatt, China
This luxury residential project in China’s Guangdong province may have you a bit confused — it’s a replica of Austria’s Hallstatt, a UNESCO World Heritage site of undeniable charm. White trimmed gingerbread houses line the streets of this Chinese feat of engineering, where wealthy residents can beat the pollution of congested cities with a side of European architecture all within the comforts of their home country. Built during China’s real estate boom, the town has had trouble filling to capacity, but buses of tourists and newlyweds eager to be photographed in the unique surroundings have helped to keep the community afloat.
5. Maharishi Vedic City, Iowa
Welcome to one of the most unusual and, perhaps, healthiest towns in America. For starters, the official language is Sanskrit. Founded on the tenets of Veda (ancient Sanskrit texts constituting the oldest scriptures of Hinduism), MVC is all-organic, having banned pesticides and fertilizers. The town’s design was inspired by Vedic architectural principles meant to promote health, happiness, and good fortune. Spend a few nights at The Raj for healing treatments and be sure to check out the Maharishi Vedic Observatory, an impressive open-air display of sundials.
6. Setenil de las Bodegas, Spain
Originally an Arab fortress, this town in southern Spain is built into the cliffs that once offered essential protection from enemy forces. The town is best enjoyed on foot: walk in the shade of boulders hanging over street corners and marvel at homes melding into the rock faces on Calle Herreria, the town’s oldest street. Make sure to stop for refreshments, the town’s name — bodega — comes from its once flourishing wineries.
7. Giethoorn, the Netherlands
This town in the Netherlands has canals for roads, but you’ll have no trouble differentiating it from touristy Venice. Lush green yards and the sound of almost-silence are the norm in Giethoorn, where locals have “whisper boats” that glide smoothly on electrical engines. Spend an afternoon puttering down the canals in a rented boat or visit in wintertime to skate your way around town.