Thanks to the massive popularity of rock climbing, you can find decent climbing walls all over the world. Most man-made walls stick to traditional features ― uneven surface, standard holds ― designed to mirror the experience of climbing outdoors, but the entries on this list have taken this concept to new… um… heights. What they lack in points for realism, they more than make up for with striking aesthetic and clever execution.
Alice in Wonderland (Japan)
This hallucinatory, two-story course located inside Tokyo’s Illoiha Fitness Club allows climbers to scale a wall of mirrors, picture frames, vases, and other fixtures inspired by Alice’s mad journey down the rabbit hole. The idea was conceived by architectural studio Nendo as a means of “becoming beautiful through movement.”
Whitney Peak Hotel (U.S.A.)
There’s plenty of decent climbing in the hills around Reno, Nevada, but the Base Camp walls and bouldering towers are your best option for climbing in the heart of the Biggest Little City in the World. The 165-foot, single-pitch course allows climbers to ascend the side of what was once the Fitsgerald Casino, which today houses restaurants, lounges, and gambling facilities.
Diga di Luzzone (Switzerland)
The world’s highest artificial climbing wall is a doozie ― a 540-foot, five-pitch course bolted onto the concave face of a functioning dam. This wall is exclusively designed for advanced climbers, and the lowest holds have been placed several meters above the base to deter rookies from attempting it.
Sprouting 121 feet into the air, this visually striking rock wall ― which was designed to resemble a windblown streamer ― is located at the Klimcentrum Bjoeks in the city of Groningen. The Excalibur was recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the tallest, free-standing climbing structure on the planet ― until Historic Banning Mills in Georgia erected a tower that stood 140 feet high last year.
St. Benedict’s Church (U.K.)
Climbing… in church? St. Benedict’s in Ardwick was scheduled for demolition when a local climber named John Dunne suggested the building be converted into a climbing gym. Today, anyone can scale the solid, 20-meter face that used to function as a rose window. “It’s a beautiful place with all the stained glass windows, and because of the size of it, you can have really big walls, so you can do long routes and really build up your stamina,” one climber told the BBC.
It was only a matter of time before someone installed a climbing wall into the side of a nuclear reactor ― but at least the builders at Germany’s Wunderland amusement park chose a reactor that was never actually used (thus, no risk of radiation poisoning). The wall stands 130 feet in the air, and those who reach the top have an excellent view of the massive swing ride that was built inside the cooling tower.