Back in the day, you really didn’t have a whole lot of options for vacation destinations. If you were lucky enough to be able to even afford to travel you probably didn’t get much further than the nearest major metropolis – or whatever passed for a metropolis.
But even back then there were men of means (and, let’s be honest – massive wealth) who made it their mission to search out the furthest locales to holiday in. Men like Jacques Cartier, Zheng He, and Christopher Columbus. Oh sure, you could argue that they were famous explorers who were performing a vital service for their home country, but let’s drop the pretense here: they managed to convince some very rich people to hand over their riches so they could go on the most expensive vacation that money could buy.
While most of those guys were looking for places that they at least knew existed, others had even more exotic tastes. Some explorers wanted to go places that had only been spoken of in legend, and many spent their entire lives looking for a place that was never found.
Does that mean they never existed in the first place? Probably. But that hasn’t stopped their legends from carrying on even to today.
Here are 15 legendary locations that may (or may not) have ever existed.
15. Hanging Gardens of Babylon
There’s no question to historians and archaeologists that the city of Babylon was a real place. Located right in the middle of modern-day Iraq, Babylon was a lush jewel found in a sea of sand, the capital of the Neo-Babylonian Empire and home to a population of over 200,000 by the year 400 BC.
The crowning achievement of Babylon was an architectural marvel known as The Hanging Gardens, an ascending series of tiered gardens holding a wide assortment of flora and all of it meticulously maintained. Roman and Greek writers of the period described the Hanging Gardens as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
And yet, despite ample archaeological evidence proving the existence of Babylon, there has been nothing to prove the Hanging Gardens ever existed. Some now believe it was a romanticized image of the Middle East imagined by Greek poets, but others say it was destroyed shortly after the birth of Christ.
14. El Dorado
Most of us know of El Dorado from the Disney film of the same name, and how it came to be associated with Spanish conquistadors searching for a mythical city of gold. In real life, the city has always eluded explorers seeking fortune in South America, but as with all great legends, it had an element of truth behind it.
The phrase El Dorado means “the golden one”, and was first used to describe a ceremony performed by the tribal chief of the Muisca native people of Colombia. The chief would cover himself in gold dust and then throw emeralds and gold into Lake Guatavita before submerging himself. When he re-emerged he was then recognized by the rest of the tribe as their leader.
Much like El Dorado, the lost city of Shangri-La has come to take on mythical status as a legendary oriental city hidden deep in the Himalayan mountains. Unlike El Dorado, however, Shangri-La doesn’t come from a centuries-old game of broken telephone. In fact, the origin of Shangri-La is less than a century old.
The lost city was entirely imagined by British author James Hilton for his book Lost Horizon. The book details the life of a British service member who finds a Tibetan monastery and then inner peace after a lifetime of struggle. The monastery was called Shangri-La and was thought to be based on descriptions from 1800s explorers winding their way through the Chinese empire.
It seems every great culture needs to have a sunken city. The Greeks had their Atlantis (which we’ll get to later) while the medieval Celts had Lyonesse.
In Arthurian legend, Lyonesse was the country that bordered Cornwall on the southernmost tip of England. Home to the hero Tristan, it was thought to connect England with the Isles of Scilly before mysteriously sinking beneath the waves. Legends say the city did something to anger God, who was a lot more vengeful back in the day, so He submerged the whole city for being unholy. To this day, nobody knows why God destroyed Lyonesse, and nobody is brave enough to ask Him.
11. Tower of Babel
We return to Babel (that’s Babylon’s Hebrew name) for the infamous Tower of Babel. According to the Torah (or Bible if you’re new-age) the Tower was built with the intent of reaching heaven, something that would anger any bouncer trying to keep their club as exclusive as possible. In an act of holy sabotage, God then makes everybody start speaking different languages so nobody could understand one another, causing construction of the Tower to grind to a halt.
As with The Hanging Gardens, archaeologists have yet to find any evidence the Tower ever existed, but some scholars now believe ancient Jews may have been referring to the Etemenanki, a Babylonian ziggurat dedicated to the Mesopotamian god Marduk. It never quite reached Heaven, but it was pretty big.
10. The Island of Hy-Brazil
Believe it or not, Hy-Brazil has absolutely no relation to modern-day Brazil. In fact, it probably never existed. I say probably, since with rising oceanic water levels it now seems perfectly plausible there was an island off the coast of Ireland that has now become submerged.
In Irish myth, Hy-Brazil is said to be an island West of Ireland, forever cloaked in mists but for one day per year in which the isle becomes visible yet still remains out of reach of even the most determined sailor. Hy-Brazil appeared on nautical maps right up until the late 1500s and even had several explorers on the hunt for it like notable Italian navigator John Cabot.
9. The Isle of Thule
While some islands may turn out to be areas of underwater mountains that sometimes show up due to the tides, others are known islands that just turn out to be misidentified. That’s what most modern scholars believe to have happened with the Isle of Thule.
Thule turns out to be different parts of the world depending on who you ask. The ancient Greeks thought Thule was Britain, and then thought it was Norway. The Romans thought it was Iceland or Scotland, with medieval Europe eventually settling on Iceland as the true Thule.
It’s funny how these mythical cities get their start. Many of them, like Shangri-La, are complete fabrications made by the author. Atlantis is another example, this time by the Greek poet Plato who was just trying to describe a hypothetical utopian society. Renaissance writers misinterpreted his writing as historical fact, and the race to find Atlantis was on.
That doesn’t mean that Plato wasn’t thinking of a real place when he imagined Atlantis, and some historians say he could have been thinking of the island of Thera, a small island off the coast of Greece. The island was the victim of a massive volcanic eruption which devastated all life living there and coated the entire place in a thick layer of ash and rock.
7. The Kingdom of Saguenay
South America had its El Dorado, but North America had its Kingdom of Saguenay. However, while El Dorado had some basis in fact for its mythological status as a city of gold, The Kingdom of Saguenay may have turned out to be a complete hoax by the native Iroquois people.
When French explorer Jacques Cartier first traveled the Saguenay River he had with him one of Chief Donnacona’s sons who told him about a mythical city of blonde people rich with gold and furs. Cartier then relayed the tale to other French explorers who scoured the countryside for this kingdom filled with riches and hot blondes.
Of course, they never found anything but a butt-load of mosquitoes, as does anyone who decides to explore the northern reaches of Ontario. I’m sure the Iroquois had a pretty good laugh over the whole thing though.
6. The Island of St. Brendan
This time we head south for the lost island of St. Brendan, so called because it was discovered by the saint while he was traveling down the coast of Africa evangelizing every island he came across.
As the legend goes, Saint Brendan landed on the island with 14 monks, held mass, and then went on their merry way. Supposedly the monks with him described the island as a verdant paradise, filled with fresh water and fruit. It sounds a little too much like the fever dreams of monk lost at sea who was dying of scurvy.
Which may have been the case. Many explorers after the good saint tried to find the island to no avail. Some legends say it was never an island at all, and instead a great sleeping whale that one day woke up and submerged, never to be seen again.
5. The Kingdom of Prester John
Christianity eventually caught on in Europe and later in North America, but it’s always had a bit of trouble making inroads in Asia and the Middle East. To sort of shore of support for sending monks east to try and convert heathens, and to maybe give those monks some hope that they’d eventually find a friendly face, the legend of Prester John and his Kingdom were created.
As with most of these legendary cities, the Kingdom of Prester John was said to be filled with riches, exotic animals, and marvelous architecture. It was also filled with Christians, something that would be really weird to find in India where the Kingdom was first said to reside. Later, when Christian explorers actually found India, but not many Christians, they moved the Kingdom to Central Asia near modern-day Mongolia. Once again, explorers found no Christians, and this time moved the Kingdom to Ethiopia. They didn’t find the Kingdom there either, and eventually just gave up.
4. Bermuda Triangle
The Bermuda Triangle is loosely defined by the triangle made by connecting Bermuda, Puerto Rico, and Florida. It’s taken on a sort of conspiracy-theory-esque reputation for the number of planes and ships that have disappeared within the boundaries of the Triangle since the early 1900s. The explanation for disappearances run the gamut between alien abduction to the vengeful magic of the lost city of Atlantis.
While that part of the planet the Triangle covers certainly exists, the concept of a triangle deadly to human navigation is questionable at best. Nearly every notable disappearance can be attributed to human error or storm systems that regularly pass through the Caribbean. Modern GPS and telecommunications have virtually eliminated the Triangle as a hotbed for paranormal activity and instead have revealed it to be a hotbed of hurricanes.
It’s pretty easy to imagine a tired explorer dying of thirst in the hot Saharan desert believing that he sees a beautiful city built around an oasis. In writings as early as the 13th century, authors spoke of just such a city far west of the Nile River in Egypt or modern-day Libya. The city was said to be guarded by black giants and led by a king and queen who forever slept atop a pile of treasure.
For the longest time, Zerzura was impossible to disprove due to the inhospitable nature of the Saharan sands. Then in the 1930s, British explorer Ralph Bagnold and Hungarian László Almásy led an expedition using Ford Model A trucks, which broke down about as often as camels needed to rest, but required less water. They never found the city, and subsequent aerial reconnaissance leading up to World War II never found it either.
2. Roswell, New Mexico
Location of the famous Martian landings, Roswell was supposedly a secret military base where little green men were dissected by the American air force after their spacecraft crashed in the desert. The incident would capture the imaginations of conspiracy theorists for decades, but at the time it was little more than a footnote.
Roswell New Mexico absolutely exists, but the location of the Martian landing sadly does not. What actually happened was a sensor-carrying balloon crashed in the desert just outside of town, and the military couldn’t say that the balloon was actually monitoring secret nuclear testing. Instead, they called it a weather balloon to try and kill the story, which it initially did.
In medieval times, the castle symbolized safety, security, and vast wealth. But believe it or not, castles were actually few and far between in Europe around the turn of the millennia, at least in terms of the grand structures we might imagine from Disney movies.
So when King Arthur needed a place to call home, the legendary Camelot was born. Standing along a river and built into a hillside, with stories-tall walls to either side of it and a massive gated entrance, Camelot was the ideal castle of chivalric romance writers.
While the writers all agreed that Camelot was somewhere in England, they never quite agreed upon where in England it was. There are still heated debates today among scholars as to the exact location of Camelot, with some saying it never existed in the first place. Considering the Arthurian tales were essentially medieval romance novels, that’s probably the case.
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