Step inside the box with these peculiar camera obscuras
Tucked in small, peculiar buildings across the globe, remnants of an ancient technology responsible for revolutionizing how we document and observe the world are hidden in plain sight.
Translating to “dark room” in Latin, the camera obscura is an optical device that’s been observed since antiquity—1021 AD, to be exact. A small hole is made in the wall of a pitch-black room, causing a live, inverted image of the scene outside to be projected on the opposite wall of the room (things got even fancier in the 1800s, when mirrors and lenses were thrown into the mix). The discovery allowed folks like Leonardo da Vinci and John Locke to trace highly accurate representations of the outside world onto paper. It also led to the creation of the first camera. No big deal.
Finding these unusual structures—intriguing in their own right and sometimes shrouded with a certain air of whimsy and mystery—is as much fun as it is going inside them. They’re often historic with interesting backgrounds, and/or nestled in interesting or semi-hidden spaces. It's a great excuse to get out there and see the world through a different lens...literally.
1. Giant Camera Obscura - San Francisco, California
Perched on the Observation Deck of the world-famous Cliff House, San Francisco’s Giant Camera Obscura is a destination in an of itself. What looks like a monster-sized 35mm camera—its lens pointing to the sky—is actually the last remaining structure from Playland, a seaside amusement park that ran from 1913-1972 next to Ocean Beach. Now on the National Register of Historic Places, the iconic structure's clifftop location guarantees amazing views of the crashing Pacific, and that's just on the outside. Pay the (worthwhile) $3 admission, and you'll be treated to 360-degree panoramas of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area’s jagged coastline, including Seal Rock (yes, this means seals—and whales! and sometimes dolphins). Make an outing of it: Take an easy hike among the twisted cypress trees of Land's End, explore the historic Sutro Baths, or sidle up to the old-timey zinc bar in the Cliff House bistro for some hot clam chowder. Shoutout to the Rickshaw Camera Obscura in San Francisco's Exploratorium. You're cool too.
2. Camera Obscura and World of Illusions - Edinburgh, Scotland
Scotland is full of really old stuff, and its camera obscura, fittingly, lives up to that reputation. Built in 1850 atop a six-floor town mansion in Old Town, this mysterious Victorian rooftop chamber is one of the longest standing, purposefully built tourist attractions in the whole United Kingdom. Today, the camera's present lives up to its colorful past. Visitors are treated to a live narrated show that brings the city and its history to life, with live moving images of Edinburgh projected onto a viewing table through a giant periscope. You can even scoop up tiny people or make a little bridge for cars to drive over (more on that here). Boasting a handful of eccentric owners for the last 160 years, Outlook Tower (as it's known today) has served as a museum, science exhibition center, observatory and intellectual hub. Sticking to its roots, the floors below the camera obscura still contain kooky exhibits about physics and Edinburgh’s history. Peruse a vortex tunnel, holograms, old photographs and a mirror maze all before getting to the top.
3. Torre Tavira - Cadiz, Spain
Red-and-white washed buildings sprawl all the way to the azure Atlantic in the ancient Cadiz, and the best way to admire the intricate architecture is from the Torre Tavira camera obscura. Located at the highest point in the city, it’s housed in one of hundreds of historic watchtowers dating back to when the region boomed with 18th-century trade. Jutting out high above a sea of rooftops, the tower's delicate, white and orange designs contrast vibrantly against sky and ocean. Torre Tavira takes its name from Don Antonio Tavira, the tower’s first watchman who used telescopes to spot incoming ships bearing American goods. For six euros, reserve a spot on a tour for some of Spain's most stunning southwestern vistas.
4. Mitchell’s Park Camera Obscura - Greenport, New York
The Mitchell’s Park Camera Obscura is a rare juxtaposition of old and new technologies. Famous architecture firm SHOP designed and constructed the sleek little structure entirely from digitally fabricated components, then assembled 750 laser-cut pieces of wood, steel and aluminum as a kit. Inside, a live image of the camera's surroundings is projected onto a flat, circular table, offering visitors a live panorama of the relaxed Long Island village: boats along the waterfront, quaint, brick-lined streets and residents strolling along the harbor. Visitors can even control the lens via a box equipped with a joy stick.
5. Camera Obscura Art Lab at 1450 Ocean - Santa Monica, California
Situated on Ocean Blvd just steps from the sand, Santa Monica's camera obscura lets you experience the ever-bustling beachfront destination in the least Santa Monica-y way: In complete peace and quiet. Head to the retro-looking Adult Recreation Center and leave your license at the desk in exchange for a key to the camera upstairs, which was built in 1898 and sat right on the beach before being moved to the recreation center. Take in all the pandemonium of this popular area (tourists, buskers, families with kids, etc.) like a silent movie: From your peculiar perch, observe beach volleyball games, surfer bros and street performers doing their thing as palms sway peacefully in the background. Embrace the chill SoCal vibes and complete the day with a Clocktower Manhattan at The Misfit.
6. Cloud Chamber for the Trees and Sky - Raleigh, North Carolina
Thousands of years ago, the little forest gnomes of North Carolina constructed an enchanting forest igloo made of rock and wood for their beloved queen...OK, fine, that's the story we immediately made up in our heads when we first saw this storybook hut fit for a hobbit. The Cloud Chamber for the Trees and Sky was actually built in 2003 by a British environmental artist named Christ Drury—who, by the way, has made 14 of these things. FOURTEEN. Get to this one by walking along the Woodland Trail behind the North Carolina Museum of Art off Blue Ridge Road in Raleigh. The interior is just as magical: Once inside, find yourself transported to the canopy, immersed in a serene chamber of clouds and Carolina blue skies peeking out from behind towering pine trees.
7. The Clifton Observatory - Bristol, England
The Clifton Observatory is a mini castle (mini castle! we want one) with one turret perched on green rolling hills in Bristol, England. Built in 1766, the building housed a windmill for corn and later a tobacco grinding facility, so it was called the Snuff Mill. Ironically, the poor Snuff Mill was snuffed out in a fire just a decade later. But its glory days weren't over. After sitting derelict for 52 years, an artist named William West came along and got a deal that would make starving artists in New York City red with envy: He rented himself a mini castle for five shillings, set up a studio in the old building frame and built a camera obscura for kicks. More than a century later, the 13cm convex lens still projects scenes of the Clifton Suspension Bridge and emerald fields surrounding Bristol. When you’re done checking out the city above ground, follow the (not-so) secret underground tunnel West constructed when he installed the camera obscura. It takes you to Giant’s Cave, which looks out over St. Vincent’s Rocks and a whopping 250 foot drop to the Avon Gorge floor.
Of course, this list isn't exhaustive. A quick Google search is all it takes to unearth a nearby camera obscura you never knew existed. Bid farewell to your average Sunday afternoon and gain some new perspective—not by stepping outside the box, but by getting in it.