Most travelers can think of a situation that’s made them frightened—say, riding in a bus on a windy mountain road at 14,000 feet or encountering an uninvited animal guest in a dark hostel dorm. These adrenaline-packed moments often make for some of the most memorable parts of a journey because they force us to navigate through a scary situation, all in the name of survival and adventure.
However, a number of people suffer from mild to severe phobias that compel them to avoid certain uncomfortable or frightening situations that others might embrace as worthwhile experiences. Phobias are quite common (as many as ten percent of people have one), and the intensity of these fears can range from embarrassing anxiety to crippling panic attacks. To be clear, phobias are nothing to be ashamed of—they are irrational fears sewn deep into the mind that can take years to overcome. (I still can’t believe that after flying hundreds of times, I shake whenever I board an airplane.) But what’s essential as travelers and human beings is that we don’t allow our phobias to limit the ways we’re willing to experience the world. It’s all too easy to let our fears persuade us to stay within our comfort zones and be observers rather than explorers.
So instead of planning travel in avoidance of the things you dread, I propose planning a trip inspired by your fears—with the intent of facing them head on and discovering that you are a stronger, more independent person than you may have thought possible. While it’s probably unwise to put yourself in a challenging situation if you suffer from an intense phobia, use your next trip as an opportunity to pursue an experience that terrifies, thrills, and ultimately rewards you for having done it. Below are six destinations that are tailor-made for conquering several of the most common phobias that travelers face.
Fear of spiders and snakes (Arachnaphobia & Ophidiophobia)
The Australian Reptile Park in Somersby, Australia, one hour north of Sydney, encourages visitors to get hands on with animals of all kinds, from cuddly koala bears to wombats. After you hand feed a kangaroo and build up your courage, you can *gulp* say goodbye to the warm-blooded creatures and visit the park’s Lost World of Reptiles exhibit. The Australian Reptile Park boasts more than 36 species of snakes, including 11 of the continent’s most venomous varieties, whose names may have you briefly rethinking your visit to Australia (Common Death Adder?). Visitors can cuddle a Burmese python, drop in on a Snake Safety Awareness Seminar, or watch snakes get milked for their venom as part of the facility’s world-renowned anti-venom project.
If your fears are more of the eight-legged variety, never, um, fear—there’s also Spider World, featuring more than 500 species of spiders from all over the world. Visit Tarantulaville and observe tarantulas and scorpions behind a layer of bullet-proof glass (no joke), the only opportunity to view live tarantulas in all of Australia. After that you can head to the spider laboratory and watch feedings and venom milkings of the world’s deadliest arachnid, the Funnel-web spider. Fortunately, if the idea of spending the afternoon around creatures of the night still makes your skin crawl, the park offers Bust-a-Phobia workshops that help visitors conquer their snake and spider-related fears. (Or, for the absolutely insane, try their Fear Factor challenge and let giant stick insects crawl over your face. However you prefer to spend your vacations.)
Fear of heights (Acrophobia)
The straight-out-of-the-future skyline of Shanghai is home to two of the world’s tallest buildings: the Shanghai World Financial Center and the Oriental Pearl Tower. The twisting, elegant Shanghai World Financial Center currently boasts an observation deck at 1,555 feet, or 100 floors, above the city and Huang Pu River. Visitors shoot up to the top of this “Vertical Complex City” in high-speed elevators that travel up to 10 meters per second, and a second observation lobby is available at a slightly less ear-popping height on the 52nd and 53rd floors. The view is particularly phenomenal at night when you can watch Shanghai morph into a brightly-lit kaleidoscope of architectural spectacles.
For travelers who want more options for just how high they float above Shanghai, the Oriental Pearl Tower offers 15 different viewing levels. Start off in Space City (worth it for the name alone), a mere 295 feet up, then test your mettle further by grabbing a meal in the building’s revolving restaurant and watching Shanghai gracefully twirl beneath you. The bravest souls can go straight up to the tower’s highest observation sphere, the Space Module, at 1,148 feet, where you can walk over see-through floors and marvel at the tiny world underneath your feet—or cower in the café with a soda until the next elevator down becomes available.
Fear of flying (Aerophobia)
Tucked into mountains and lined by some of the most famous beaches in the world, Rio de Janeiro has plenty to enjoy at ground level. However, if you want to better appreciate the magnitude of the city’s sprawl and conquer one of your fears at the same time, hang gliding is a great way to experience Brazil’s second-largest city.
This adventure begins (naturally) by driving up a very high mountain, where you will meet a professional hang gliding instructor who will assure you how safe this activity is and emphasize the only rule that matters: Whatever you do, don’t stop. As you are strapped into a safety harness and shown the launch platform jutting out the side of the mountain, the importance of this rule will become frighteningly clear—you are about to run full speed and jump into the air with fabric wings strapped to your back. Fortunately, you have little to worry about as your instructor has hundreds of hours of solo and tandem hang gliding experience, and they’re just as invested in avoiding their own demise as you are.
After you take several panicked breaths and give a nod, you and your instructor will run as fast as you can together toward the open arms of Rio, for which you will be rewarded with anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes of free flying toward the beaches below. Try not to cling to your instructor too tightly as you take in some of Rio’s most famous sights, including Sugarloaf Mountain and the Christ the Redeemer statue. When you finally land (or, more accurately, tumble) onto the safety of the beach, you’ll be able to brag that you saw Rio in a way that many people would be too scared to do—and your instructor will happily sell you photographic and video evidence of you screaming all the way down to show to your friends back home.
Fear of close spaces and the dark (Claustrophobia & Nyctophobia)
This UNESCO World Heritage site, an active salt mine from the 13th century until 2007, is a sizeable world that stretches more than 300 meters beneath the surface. Your visit begins by descending nearly 400 wooden steps into the cool depths, where the mine entrance awaits 64 meters below. From here, visitors have two options for exploring. The most popular option, the Pilgrim Route, features more than two miles of wide, well-lit passages that minimize feelings of claustrophobia and give visitors easy access to the mine’s attractions. The second option, Mysteries of Wieliczka Mine, is much more intense: travelers navigate the twisting, cramped corridors of the interior like miners of the past—but far more safely—with helmets, lamps, and even carbon monoxide absorbers. (Claustrophobes: go with Option 1.)
Although parts of the mine are dimly lit, you’re never alone in the dark at Wieliczka: the pathways are lined with full-size statues (including gnomes!) carved out of salt by miners over the years to keep themselves company. Visitors can also take in a subterranean lake and visit a sanatorium for people suffering from respiratory ailments. And you may forget your phobias altogether when you enter the enormous St. Kinga’s Chapel, a stunning place of worship 100 meters down carved entirely out of salt—including the chandeliers. (If you find you’re still feeling nervous by this point, you can always say a quick prayer before taking the elevator back up to the safety of wide spaces and sunlight.)
Fear of public speaking (Glossophobia)
In Japan, a night of karaoke appeals to all kinds. From young cosplayers to suited salarymen, you’ll find karaoke bars filled with folks eager to set their daytime reservations aside by loosening their vocal cords in front of friends and strangers. But karaoke is more than just a drunken display of bravado; it fulfills an important social function by allowing people to bond through the act of making complete asses of themselves. Fortunately for you, the karaoke experience can be tailored to your level of timidity as well as any special themes your introverted heart desires.
Karaoke is abundant in Tokyo and can be found in nearly every kind of venue—from houseboats to high-rise restaurants to swanky clubs—making it an extremely convenient way to see different parts of the city and have a great nighttime experience to boot. If you’re not quite ready to bare your soul in front of strangers, the majority of karaoke bars offer private rooms for gathering with a group of friends or crooning solo. Basic rooms include a phone for ordering food and drinks, a TV monitor, and a microphone, while many parlors offer more memorable experiences like singing in a bathtub or performing a duet with a geisha. After you’ve had a few drinks to artificially boost your confidence, you can move on to a karaoke bar with a public stage—typically replete with fancy lights and effects—and belt that Whitney Houston song you’ve only ever shared with your shower.
Fear of clowns (Coulrophobia)
This annual celebration of circus acts, considered the most prestigious circus event in the world, aims to please kids and kids at heart alike with astonishing performances from human and animal entertainers. Visitors can watch official performances led by the ringmaster inside Le Chapiteau de Fontvieille, a classic red tent that fits up to 3,800 people, or look out for impromptu acts that frequently take place outside the tent. Although the official mascot of the festival is a clown with inexplicably bloodshot eyes, don’t let that scare you away— guests can typically expect to see a wide range of gasp-inducing acrobatic feats, impressive animal performances, and just a handful of comedic clown showings (you can always bury your face into your popcorn during those parts).
At the end of the festival, hang around for the prize ceremony, when a special jury awards the best act with the Clown d’Or, or Golden Clown (essentially the Oscar® of the circus world). In the festival’s 36-year history, only five clowns have ever won this esteemed award —but perhaps that should inspire you to watch all of the performances anyway, because if you’re going to be scared witless by a clown, at least it’ll be one of the best clowns in the world.