8 Extraordinary Public Elevators

The Santa Justa Lift is an eye-popping neo-Gothic tower that rises nearly 150 feet above the tiny street of Rue de Santa Justa in Lisbon’s 'lower town' of Baixa. . (Photo: Javier Gonzalez/flickr)

Aside from those of suffering from phobias that make hoofing it up and down the stairs a necessity, riding on an elevator is no biggie. Many of us, particularly those of us who live and work in cities, do it daily.

For some, however, riding on an elevator can also be an integral part of a daily commute. That's right, the residents of some cities don't just take an elevator at work, they take an elevator to work.

In many cities, particularly older coastal cities where neighborhoods are separated by difficult-to-navigate escarpments, lifts serve much the same function as subways, light-rail and buses: They're used to move large numbers of people from point A to point B. While often viewed as a shortcut (and a welcome alternative to daunting hillside staircases), the elevator as a mode of public transit is quick, efficient and smart. Of course, opting to take the stairs or walk the long way around is the better-for-you option. However, public lifts are preferable for residents who are elderly, young, disabled or simply in a hurry.

What's more, public elevators often serve as hard-to-miss tourist magnets. The reasons are threefold: From an architecture standpoint, they're unusual (how often do you encounter a freestanding outdoor elevator tower with a walkway that extends from the top?); they're often designated historic landmarks; and, last but not least, the panoramic views from up top are usually breathtaking.

Like with historic funiculars, taking a public elevator, even if there are only two "stations" involved, is an excellent way to explore a new city via public transportation. (It can be easy to confuse public elevators with funiculars given that transit systems in some particularly hilly cities boast both vertical lifts and inclined railways and often refer to them interchangeably as elevators even though they're very different things.)

Need a lift? Here are eight exceptional public elevators from around the globe.

1. Asansör — İzmir, Turkey

Asansör — İzmir, Turkey
Asansör is a landmark brick edifice that rises 183 feet above Karataş, the old Jewish quarter of Turkey’s third largest city, İzmir. (Photo: Yılmaz Uğurlu/Wikimedia Commons)

If you're in the mood — and if you're wearing the right shoes — climbing a 155-step hillside staircase can be a worthwhile, calorie-burning endeavor. Other times, you'll probably want to cut hoofing it out of the equation and just take the elevator.

Providing residents with a stair-circumventing "vertical connection" is the primary purpose of Asansör (the "Elevator"), a landmark brick edifice that rises 183 feet above Karataş, the old Jewish quarter of Turkey's third largest city, İzmir. Completed in 1907 as a steam-powered shortcut for less able-bodied neighborhood residents (it's since been modernized), the finial-topped structure conveniently links Mithatpaşa Street (up top) with Şehit Nihat Bey Street (down below).

As the İzmir tourism website explains, the purpose of Asansör is also largely social: "Back it the days when it was built it did not only just function as an elevator but also had social uses to add value to its main job description. Today, it still maintains the same attribute and embodies locations being a restaurant, a pub, a cafeteria, a conference hall as well as serving the purpose of a vertical bridge." This being said, the (free) ride up is very much worth the detour: The panoramic views of the Gulf of İzmir with the city fanning out around it are so stunning that you’ll likely want to enjoy a beer or three at Asansör's al fresco café and linger for as long as possible.

2. Elevador Lacerda — Salvador, Brazil

Elevador Lacerda — Salvador, Brazil
Elevador Lacerda is an Art Deco public elevator in Brazil's third largest city. (Photo: Ferreiraandreza/Wikimedia Commons)

Although often (understandably) overshadowed by the monumental modernist works of Oscar Niemeyer and one very large TV tower, one of Brazil's most iconic — and most photogenic — architectural landmarks is an Art Deco public elevator in Salvador.

Unless one plans on isolating themselves to the lower (Cidade Baixa) or upper (Cicade Alta) sections of Brazil's third largest city, visitors will inevitably board one of Elevador Lacerda's four cars and make the 236-foot journey from the top to the bottom of the city or vice versa. The total travel time? Thirty seconds. Originally erected in 1873 as the first public elevator in the world according to Brazil's tourism website, Elevador Larcerda in its current, postcard-perfect form took shape in 1930. The panoramic views of Baía de Todos os Santos (the Bay of All Saints) from Elevador Larcerda are simply breathtaking. However, don't expect to be wowed while ascending or descending in the actual elevators — they're windowless. All of the Instagram-worthy ooh-ing and aah-ing takes place within viewing areas located in each of the lift's two bridge-connected towers.

Treated to extensive upgrades and renovations over the years, most recently in 2002, Salvador's historic lift carries an estimated 900,000 passengers per month paying a mere 15 cents for the ride.

3. Elevator Castello d'Albertis-Montegalletto — Genoa, Italy

Nestled not-too-uncomfortably between a series of steep hills and the Mediterranean Sea, the historic Ligurian port city of Genoa truly has it all when it comes to public transportation: a single subway line, buses, funiculars, public elevators and, last but certainly not least, a truly unusual inclined railway-vertical lift combo that would seem more at home in Disneyland than in Italy's sixth largest city.

Known as Ascensore Castello d'Albertis-Montegalletto, this odd hybrid is indeed both a funicular and an elevator. Serving as a link to Albertis Castle, an opulent late 19th century sea captain's residence that serves now serves as a popular museum, the Ascensore starts out as a traditional, tunnel-bound funicular with its petite little cabins moving horizontally along an inclined track spanning roughly 770 feet. And then it happens: Those same little cabins start moving straight upwards in a vertical fashion. As the above video explains, how exactly the elevator operates is more obvious than mind-blowing in that the funicular car doesn't transform into an elevator car — it simply disengages itself from its track and secures itself within an oversized elevator before the second leg of the journey, the lift part, begins. There's simply nothing else out there quite like it — except maybe in Disneyland.

4. Katarina Elevator — Stockholm

Katarina Elevator — Stockholm
This 128-foot-tall structure's vertigo-inducing walkway and viewing platform are open to the public and continue to attract visitors, despite the elevator itself being out of operation. (Photo: Arjan Richter/Wikimedia Commons)

First things first: Sweden's most touristy public elevator is not operational. Furthermore, those looking to skip the semi-scary hillside staircase that connects Stockholm's Slussenområdet waterfront area with the Södermalm district are out of luck. Yet despite the defunct nature of the elevator itself, the 128-foot-tall structure's vertigo-inducing walkway and viewing platform are still very open to the public and continue to attract visitors by the busslast. What's more, lauded chef-restaurateur Erik Lallerstedt's high-end eatery Gondolen is tucked underneath the lift's outdoor walkway. Sure, it served as a convenient shortcut but, really, do you need a brief elevator ride when you have panoramic views, cocktails and salmon carpaccio?

The first incarnation of the Katarina Elevator — Katarinahissen — was completed in 1883 as a steam engine-powered means of moving Stockholmers to and from two tricky-to-navigate-between sections of the city. The old elevator went electric in the early 20th century and was replaced by the current lift structure in 1936. The elevator made its last trip in 2010, which was perhaps for the best: "The elevator is very old and in a bad shape. When we fix one part, another part breaks," a press officer for insurance company Folksam explained to English-language Swedish newspaper Nordstjernan. Yeah, not reassuring. While repairs are out the question, there's talk that the elevator will eventually be completely replaced.

5. Oregon City Municipal Elevator — Oregon City, Oregon

Oregon City Municipal Elevator — Oregon City, Oregon
The Oregon City Municipal Elevator is technically considered its own street — the only vertical street in North America. (Photo: Steve Morgan/Wikimedia Commons)

Located on the Willamette River just south of Portland, the former trading post of Oregon City is best known as being home to a historic hydroelectric power complex that, alongside a ripe-for-redevelopment abandoned paper mill, straddles Willamette Falls, a horseshoe-shaped force of nature that's the largest waterfall (by volume) in the waterfall-heavy Pacific Northwest.

Not as dramatic but certainly just as noteworthy landmark in town is the Oregon City Municipal Elevator, a neighborhood-linking public lift that's been in operation since 1955. It replaces an older wooden public elevator that, when first built in 1912, was hydraulic-powered. The ride itself took a somewhat harrowing 3 to 5 minutes. To speed the journey up, the lift switched to electricity in the mid-1920s. In fact, the National Register of Historic Places-listed Oregon City Municipal Elevator is technically considered to be its own street — "Elevator Street" — and, as such, is the only vertical street in North America. The 130-foot-tall concrete and steel structure, topped by a UFO-esque observation deck, is also the only outdoor municipal elevator in the United States.

Manned by an operator, the Oregon City Municipal Elevator is free to ride (total travel time: 15 seconds) although it does have limited hours and is closed on major holidays. However, during the summer months the elevator is open a bit later than usual (9:30 p.m. versus 7 p.m.) so visitors can take advantage of spectacular sunset views from up top.

6. Polanco Lift — Valparaiso, Chile

Polanco Lift — Valparaiso, Chile
The Polanco Lift was deemed a Chilean National Heritage Site in 1976. (Photo: Ascensor Polanco/flickr)

The vibrant Chilean port city of Valparaiso is famed for its wealth of historic funiculars, which, somewhat confusingly, are referred to elevators, or ascensores, even though they're not technically elevators as we know them. While there were once as many as 30 funiculars dotting the city's hillsides, there are now roughly a dozen in operation.

And then there's Valparaiso’s Polanco Lift, which is indeed a real-deal vertical public elevator, not an incline railway. Completed in 1915 and deemed a Chilean National Heritage Site in 1976, the operator-manned Polanco Lift is unique in that it has three "stations" that connect different sections of Cerro Polanco or Polanco Hill: One is located underground and accessible via a long and cavernous tunnel; the second intermediate station is located at street level; and the third and final station is located at the top of the lift's iconic 197-foot-tall wooden tower (pictured), which is linked to a street art-clad hillside neighborhood by an enclosed pedestrian bridge. Although the Polanco Lift often tends to be overlooked by tourists who gravitate toward the city's famous funiculars instead, the views from the top are nothing short of spectacular.

7. Santa Justa Lift — Lisbon, Portugal

Santa Justa Lift — Lisbon, Portugal
The Santa Justa Lift is a cast-iron structure that rises nearly 150 feet above Lisbon’s 'lower town' of Baixa. (Photo: Matteo Rostagno/flickr)

Much like with Valparaiso, one of the most tourist-friendly ways to get around Lisbon is by funicular — the ultra-hilly Portuguese capital city has a trio of inclined railways within its public transportation system including one that dates back to 1884.

Also like Valparaiso, Lisbon is also home to a lone ascensor that's vertical — that is, it's a proper elevator. Completed in 1902, the Eiffel Tower-inspired Santa Justa Lift — Elevador de Santa Justa — is an eye-popping neo-Gothic tower that rises nearly 150 feet above the tiny street of Rue de Santa Justa in Lisbon's "lower town" of Baixa. Particularly dramatic when lit up at night, the cast-iron lift structure (originally steam-powered, it went electric in 1907) connects Baixa with Carmo Square via a dizzying walkway.

Declared a national monument in 2002, the most extraordinary element in Lisbon's already singular transit system is open daily, although the observation area up top maintains slightly different hours. And just like riding the subway or bus in Lisbon, there is indeed a fare involved. (Out-of-towners should avoid the more expensive round-trip ticket geared toward tourists and do like the locals and invest in a metro card instead.) Although it will be hidden away in a hillside and not housed in a landmark tower, Lisbon is in the process of building an additional public elevator to help residents and visitors alike navigate the city's often daunting terrain.

8. Shanklin Cliff Lift — Isle of Wight, England

Shanklin Cliff Lift — Isle of Wight, England
The Shanklin Cliff Lift enables vacationers and locals alike to avoid circumnavigating the 150-foot cliff or braving a precipitous staircase that leads down from the center of town to the beach and its attraction-lined esplanade. (Photo: Editor5807/Wikimedia Commons)

When you're on vacation in a seaside resort town, of course you want to get to the beach as easily and as quickly as humanly possible without having to slog up and down an epic staircase or take the long way around.

As is the case at many English holiday hotspots, formidable cliffs isolate the beachfront from the main part of town. While this geographic arrangement is dramatic and affords the grand hotels up top with stunning views, getting down to the beach can be quite the effort. On the Isle of Wight, the bustling resort town of Shanklin is home to an iconic-but-aging public beach access elevator, the Shanklin Cliff Lift. Completed in 1958 to replace a late 19th century structure that sustained damage during World War II, the Shanklin Cliff Lift enables vacationers and locals alike to avoid circumnavigating the 150-foot cliff (a good 20-minute or so walk) or braving a precipitous staircase that leads down from the center of town to the beach and its attraction-lined esplanade.

In many ways, the lift, which completes a 110-foot journey in about a half-minute, serves as both a pedestrian shortcut and a lifeline given that beachfront businesses rely on the lift being fully operational. Unfortunately, the lift has been anything but operational over the last year as it underwent an £850,000 ($1.2 million) modernization project. The landmark structure recently (partially) reopened in time for the summer season with one new elevator car (another is on its way) and a temporary bridge.