The world outside your window—or the world you once knew—may be starting to feel distant after so much time indoors. Seeing images of cultural heritage sites getting sanitized was a jarring capstone on what has been months of rapid change, as meetings have moved online and masked faces have made walks in the park look like depressed superhero conventions.
The wondrous world can feel like it’s a world away—even if you live down the street from, say, the little-known Liberty Bell of the American West—and the familiar sight of unfamiliar faces has slowed to a crawl.
Now, Atlas Obscura is repurposing striking images of some of the not-quite-iconic (though we think they should be) places in the Atlas. Wonder can be experienced from home, as we’ve been saying for weeks. But the only thing better than discovering something new is being able to share that wonder with others. That’s why amazing places like the Gates of Hell—and more bucolic places, like an Ethiopian restaurant that seems plucked from Star Wars—are being unleashed into the Zoomisphere.
It’s perfectly professional decorum now to conduct your video calls with a white-walled background—or maybe a nice bookshelf behind you. But Atlas Obscura’s new Zoom backgrounds will keep your audience and colleagues amazed and guessing. These off-the-radar sites are remarkable enough to turn a ho-hum meeting into a visit to an undersea museum, or an immersion in the aging, gargantuan relics of the Soviet Age.
Below are a few options for Atlas Obscura–approved Zoom backgrounds, with the resolutions and frames you need to make a suitable virtual venue for your next video call.
- Click on the image below.
- The image will automatically save to your computer.
- Once you’ve opened Zoom, follow the guidelines to add your virtual background!
Socotra Island is a place as alien as any on Earth. A spit of land off the coasts of Somalia to the west and Yemen to the north, Socotra is rocky and noteworthy for its bizarre trees, which range from flying saucer–shaped foliage to plants with stubby branches and trunks as thick as an elephant’s legs.
The familiar teardrop shape of a hot-air balloon doesn’t hold a candle to Irvine’s helium balloon—literally. Unlike its heat-fueled cousins, the 12-story Orange Balloon of Irvine is lighter than air. When it’s not strapped to the Earth, the ship floats hundreds of feet above California, offering 40-mile views in each direction at its zenith.
Jaipur’s Palace of Winds might have been named the Palace of Windows; it has 953 of them, after all. If it weren’t so massive, the building and its extravagantly detailed sandstone façade—the same stone that gives Jaipur its nickname, “The Pink City”—could easily be mistaken for a dollhouse.
Several miles from Chernobyl’s familiarly empty cityscape lies a gargantuan radio antenna—an eerie reminder of the scale of Soviet engineering. The Duga radar was nicknamed the “woodpecker” for the chirping click it would broadcast, with signals powerful enough to be heard well beyond the Iron Curtain. The radar’s existence wasn’t confirmed outside of the Soviet Union until glasnost, when the rest of the world finally learned what was causing those woodpecker chirps.
Over a century ago, train tracks were laid on New Jersey’s Sunset Beach. Thought to have been used in glass manufacturing, and perhaps built during the First World War, the tracks were lost in the swirl of time, eaten up by the sand dunes of the beach. They emerged in 2015, after a large storm washed out much of the sand. Now the tracks lie in wait, occasionally revealed by the same natural forces that hid them away.
On the outskirts of London is an eclectic neon assemblage for your perusal, equal parts Miami Beach and Vegas Strip. The warehouse maze looks like Times Square set up a pop-up in jolly old England. Supervised by an English neon artist, God’s Own Junkyard is just as it sounds—a getaway from the gray world outside, and a reminder that all things, even old things, can glow in a new light if given the chance.
Deep in an Icelandic cave, a natural pool is heated by the volcanic activity beneath the island nation. Bathing in the pools is subject to how frenzied that activity is: When the volcanoes are busy, the pool gets dangerously hot. The Grjótagjá cave pool is always a remarkable place to visit, though, and immerse oneself in the language of geothermics (hot stuff, in plain English).
On the remote, flat plains of Turkmenistan is a topographical blip—a chasm in the ground that’s been burning continuously for nearly 50 years. The 230-foot-wide “Gates of Hell” is, by far, the brightest spot in the country’s Karakum Desert. It opened in 1971, when a drilling rig punched a hole through the ceiling of a natural gas cavern. The workers set the cavern on fire, thinking it would burn out and they could resume work. But it never did—and has been burning ever since, beckoning adventure-seekers and desert denizens to peek down into its infernal glory.
There’s a book waiting to be written about the Witley Wonder Underwater Ballroom. Just as its name implies, this smoking room was built beneath a glass dome in an artificial English lake, on the extremely large and lavish estate of Whitaker Wright, a financier who committed fraud to cover up shady business dealings. In a final flourish, Wright took a fatal cyanide pill when he was sentenced for his crime. Half a century later, his mansion was destroyed in a fire. Now, the submarine smoking room is all that remains of Wright’s contrived paradise.
The columns supporting the U.S. Capitol building today aren’t original; they’re Eisenhower-era replacements. The old columns, which stood over presidents Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln during their inaugural addresses, weren’t destroyed but sequestered in the National Arboretum. Like streetlights without a street to brighten, the Corinthian columns serve as a reminder that the past is never far off—in this case, just a 15-minute drive from the Capitol they once guarded.
Off the coast of Kent, England, the Maunsell Army Forts——rusted two-story towers on stilts, some connected by bridges—look like the AT-ATs of Star Wars. Built in the darkest days of World War II, the forts were part of the Thames Estuary anti-aircraft defense network—a safeguard in case the Germans tried anything by air. Now inaccessible (and rickety), the structures can be visited on a boat, or admired from the land eight miles away.