Because a conventional isolation system with constant isolation frequency is usually a long-period dynamic system, its seismic response is likely to be amplified in earthquakes with strong long-period wave components, such as near-fault ground motions. Seismic isolators with variable mechanical properties may provide a promising solution to alleviate this problem. To this end, in this work sliding isolators with variable curvature (SIVC) were studied experimentally. An SIVC isolator is similar to a friction pendulum system (FPS) isolator, except that its sliding surface has variable curvature rather being spherical. As a result, the SIVC's isolation stiffness that is proportional to the curvature becomes a function of the isolator displacement. By appropriately designing the geometry of the sliding surface, the SIVC is able to possess favorable hysteretic behavior. In order to prove the applicability of the SIVC concept, several prototype SIVC isolators, whose sliding surfaces are defined by a sixth-order polynomial function, were fabricated and tested in this study. A cyclic element test on the prototype SIVC isolators and a shaking table test on an SIVC isolated steel frame were all conducted. The results of both tests have verified that the prototype SIVC isolators do indeed have the hysteretic property of variable stiffness as prescribed by the derived formulas in this study. Moreover, it is also demonstrated that the proposed SIVC is able to effectively reduce the isolator drift in a near-fault earthquake with strong long-period components, as compared with that of an FPS system with the same friction coefficient. Copyright (C) 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.