Moses Gates is not your average tourist. The self-described “urban explorer” has scaled the top of New York’s Brooklyn Bridge, waded through Moscow’s underground rivers, slept in the Paris catacombs, and even been arrested in the bell tower of that city’s Notre Dame Cathedral. Given his unconventional trespasses, Gates, 38, has about as much use for a Fodor’s guidebook as he does for a Do Not Enter sign. In Gates’s travelogue, “Hidden Cities: Travels to the Secret Corners of the World’s Great Metropolises” (Tarcher, 2013), the New York urban planner and tour guide chronicles his gritty adventures.
Q. Local knowledge is important when traveling to foreign cities, so how do you identify places to explore?
A. There’s a network of like-minded people around the world that helps a great deal. But a lot of times it’s just figuring out how to get into a place that everybody knows. In the book I have stories about sneaking into Stonehenge and climbing the Great Pyramid, Notre Dame, and the Brooklyn Bridge. Each time, all I did was go there and find a way to get in or up. Not everything is like that, but even places like the catacombs, the Ancient Roman Cloaca Maxima sewer system, and the underground Neglinka River in Moscow have had books written about them or Wikipedia entries. So a lot of times it’s really basic: Figure out what you want to see and go see if there’s a way to get there.
Q. Is there any code among urban explorers to be honored?
A. Not really. This is a hobby that attracts people who will not follow rules they think are dumb. There are occasional attempts at “codes,” but they get treated the same way as the legal code — people follow the parts they agree with and ignore the ones they don’t. Ultimately in this hobby, you just have to accept that everyone is going to do what they’re going to do.
Q. Urban exploration often involves trespassing. What is the likelihood of getting arrested?
A. It’s always a risk, but every place is different. Most of the time I don’t know the answer. The times I have gotten caught are always when I’ve thought the chances were really small.
‘It’s always a risk, but every place is different. . . . The times I have gotten caught are always when I’ve thought the chances were really small.’
Q. Have increased homeland security concerns among authorities in the last decade changed the landscape for urban explorers?
A. It’s much better for safety to have the general public more aware of and involved in their city, no matter where in the city we’re talking about. It’s the old Jane Jacobs “eyes on the street” theory.
Q. For beginning urban explorers, where are some of the best places to cut their teeth?
A. Just start walking around town and look for the stuff you find interesting.
Q. What city has been your favorite to explore?
A. Probably Paris. Their underground is just amazing, and their attitude toward urban exploration is really chill. I could go to Paris for a week, not see the light of day once, and be fully content.
Q. How does your nonconventional approach to travel — going off-limits — enhance your knowledge of a city?
A. It’s dessert in a way. People, streets — these are the lifeblood of a city, how you get to know it. Seeing the off-limits stuff is interesting and educational, but it means nothing if you don’t know a city in other ways also.