Chills & Thrills: 7 Spectacularly Spooky Destinations for Your Next Adventure
When the leaves begin to fall and the air turns crisp, our thoughts often turn to Halloween and all things spooky and supernatural. Ghastly ghost stories, wicked witches, creepy crypts, and haunted houses are just a fraction of the tricks and treats lending their frightful fun to the spirit of the season.
But chills and thrills don’t have to be just for the kids. Many people enjoy traveling the world to search for haunted hangouts and bewitching attractions. These incredible destinations counterpoint their scare factors with surprising history lessons and unique insights into the lesser-known facets of the local culture. Some places are shrouded in centuries of myth and legend; others reflect the all-too-true tales of real-life human horrors.
From a cathedral covered in bones, to a mass of mysterious military bunkers, here are some of our favorite places where you can have a ghoulishly good time, on All Hallows’ Eve or anytime of the year.
Prague, Czech Republic
Don’t let fairytale appearances fool you: despite the city’s romantic riverside setting and exquisite concoction of art and architecture, Prague is often said to be one of the spookiest cities in the world, riddled with tales of ghosts, magic, and terrifying events.
During the 16th and 17th centuries, Prague garnered a reputation as a well-known meeting place for astrologers, alchemists, and black magicians. A number of these secret gatherings were rumored to have taken place in the so-called Faust House on Charles Square, where Doctor Faust was supposedly carried off to hell after he made his nefarious deal with the devil. The interior of the Faust House is closed to visitors, but you can still admire the building and its handsome baroque facade from the outside.
Another of Prague’s ominous occurrences? Defenestrations. Rather than take to the pulpit, the populace here once expressed dissatisfaction with their leaders by tossing them out of an open window — an alternative means of execution. Though the act has its origins in the early 15th century, the most famous incident happened in 1618, when two imperial regents were flung out of a window of Prague’s Royal Palace, thereby igniting the Thirty Years’ War. You can view the spot where the shocking act happened on a tour of Prague Castle.
Tourists love to flock to Prague’s famous Charles Bridge for its riverside views, but the scene here in the early 17th century was horrifically different. After the Bohemian’s unsuccessful revolt against Emperor Ferdinand II in 1620, 27 leaders of the ill-fated rebellion were executed, and their heads displayed in iron baskets at either end of the bridge. It’s said that the emperor ordered the heads to remain mounted here for several decades in the hopes of deterring further uprisings.
Discover Prague’s historically haunted spots on our Essential Central Europe flexible independent itinerary, or on a hand-crafted private tour, customized to your interests, pace, and dates.
Bran Castle, Romania
Vlad the Impaler, the ruthless medieval prince said to be Dracula’s forebear, never actually lived in Bran Castle. However, the fortress served as inspiration for Bram Stoker’s enduring 19th-century novel, and the name “Dracula’s Castle” stuck despite its inaccuracy. You can easily imagine the creepy vampire count crawling down the tower walls of this 14th century castle.
Aside from all the inevitable Dracula kitsch, some of the highlights of Bran Castle are the labyrinthine architecture and low-timbered ceilings of the castle’s interior, as well as the wonderful Gothic furnishings collected by Romania’s Queen Maria herself nearly a century ago. Among some of the finery on display are full suits of armor and beautiful Persian carpets.
Dedicated vampire hunters can track down even more devilishly fun Dracula sites in the historic Transylvanian city of Sighisoara. The marvelous medieval town was the birthplace of Vlad Tepes, and today you can tour his childhood home and the old room where he spent his earliest formative years.
Hill of Witches, Lithuania
Lithuania’s forests have long set the scene for many a haunting tale, and the eerily named Hill of Witches is no exception.
Located near one of the oldest settlements on the Curonian Spit, the Hill of Witches weaves a trail through groves of carved wooden figures straight out of old Lithuanian folk tales and mythology. The fantastically sculpted creatures range from charming fairytale animals to grotesque devils and monsters.
Local artists first carved these wooden sculptures here in 1979, but the hill has been a place of pagan celebrations for hundreds of years. It was believed that this spot was a mystical place where the world of the living and the magical realm converged.
During midsummer’s eve, pagans came here to sing, dance, and convene with the unseen spirits. These traditions became part of the Festival of Kupole — now associated with John the Baptist and called St. John’s or St. Jonas’ Day — which is still celebrated by Lithuanians here every June 24.
Old Town Wroclaw, Poland
Poland is steeped in a multitude of ancient legends and folklore – including fascinating stories of demons, witches, and monsters – and perhaps no city embodies them more than the medieval city of Wroclaw.
Originally a Slavic settlement already established by the year 1000, Wroclaw was for hundreds of years called Breslau and ruled by Germans. Today, the city retains the beauty of its Old Town, a handsome mix of Germanic Gothic, Viennese baroque, and Flemish Renaissance architecture and culture.
Walking the city’s winding, cobbled alleys on a misty fall day ought to get you in the spooky spirit, but a real spine-tingling treat you won’t want to miss is the Gothic St. Mary Magdalene Church, founded in the 13th century. One of the church’s highlights is the footbridge, called the “Witches’ Bridge,” which connects its twin towers. Not only does it offer some of the best views of the city, but it’s said that the shadows seen on the bridge are the souls of girls gone bad, doomed to sweep the bridge for all eternity.
Among Wroclaw’s other haunting highlights are the so-called Hansel and Gretel houses on the magnificent main square, the Rynek. The beautiful 13th century tenement homes were once the site of a gruesome murder said to have been carried out by a man possessed by an evil dwarf. Some city-dwellers claim to have heard the shrieks of the man’s unfortunate victim on dark and eerie nights.
Sedlec Ossuary, Czech Republic
Fans of the mysterious and macabre are sure to appreciate Kutna Hora’s UNESCO-listed Sedlec Ossuary, otherwise known as the “Bone Church.”
The unusual chapel’s history dates back to the 13th century, when the local abbot brought back a handful of sacred soil from his pilgrimage to Jerusalem and sprinkled it across the abbey cemetery. News spread of the church’s direct association with the Holy Land, and soon it became one of the most desirable places in the region to be buried.
It wasn’t long before they ran out of room — the plague swept through Europe in the 14th century, and the Crusades brought thousands more bodies back to be buried here. Cramped quarters eventually forced the church to exhume the remains of some 11,000 people and move them into a separate crypt. They were left undisturbed until 1870, when the church rediscovered the bones and commissioned local woodcarver Frantisek Rint to create something out of them.
Rint took the well-preserved remains and fashioned them into dozens of memento mori — reminders of the impermanence of human life. The church’s interior is covered top to bottom with his dark, yet beautifully designed pieces, including chalices, crosses, a chandelier composed from almost every bone in the human body, and an intricate coat of arms to honor the aristocratic family that funded the peculiar project.
See the spine-chilling Sedlec Ossuary on a customized version of our Essential Central Europe flexible independent itinerary, or on a hand-crafted private tour, customized to your interests, pace, and dates.
St. Petersburg, Russia
St. Petersburg may be better known for dazzling imperial palaces and cathedrals, but the city also claims its fair share of dark secrets, rife with tales of royal intrigue, restless ghosts, and haunted palaces.
One of St. Petersburg’s most mysterious sights is Mikhailovsky Castle, also known as the Engineer’s Castle. This peculiar take on a medieval castle, complete with moats and drawbridges for protection, was built by Czar Paul I, the notoriously cruel and erratic son of Catherine the Great, who initiated the project because he feared an assassination attempt.
The czar’s premonition, as it turns out, was right – Paul only lived for 11 days in his new abode before he was murdered by high-ranking dignitaries and guard troops so that his son could take the throne. Residents of St. Petersburg say there’s a castle window where the ghost of the unfortunate czar has been seen playing the violin, his favorite instrument.
Suspicion and sinister deeds have also been known to swirl around the notorious figure of Grigory Rasputin, the self-proclaimed mystic and miracle man who befriended Russia’s last czar and his family. Today, you can see the place where the plot against him unfolded at the spectacular Yusupov Palace. It was here that Felix Yusupov, the young heir to the Yusupov fortune, and several of his friends invited Rasputin to an evening party, and after serving him wine in the basement room, shot him three times. As the story goes, the bullets seemingly left Rasputin unmarred, as he attempted escape before his murderers ultimately caught and drowned him in the river.
Another of St. Petersburg’s famous haunted spots is the equestrian statue of Peter the Great on Senate Square, known to locals as the “Bronze Horseman.” The monument got its name after a famous poem by Pushkin, in which the protagonist is chased through fog-shrouded city streets and trampled to death by the statue after it was brought to life by a powerful curse.
Explore St. Petersburg’s spookier side on a customized version of our Essential St. Petersburg flexible independent itinerary, or on a hand-crafted private tour, customized to your interests, pace, and dates.
Hoxha’s Bunkers, Albania
Modern-day Albania, the country-cousin of Greece and Italy on the southern Balkan Peninsula, is dotted with thousands of strange steel and concrete bunkers. Foreign travelers might view these structures as bizarre and incongruous relics, but Albania’s citizens see them as painful reminders of their nation’s troubled past.
Late communist dictator Enver Hoxha, who led Albania from 1944 until his death in 1985, ordered the construction of these pod-shaped shelters after he cut ties with the USSR in the 1970s. His reason for building the bunkers (today currently tallied somewhere between 175,000 and 750,000) was that he was protecting the country from impending war with its neighbors. In reality, Hoxha’s enemies never came, and the bunkers only stoked an irrational, collective paranoia among Albanians.
Hoxha’s creepy constructions continue to leave scars across every corner of the country, but a number of Albanians have innovatively repurposed the old military bunkers into museums, hotels, cafes, and more.
In Tirana, Albania’s capital, Hoxha’s own presidential bunker has been transformed into a combined museum and art exhibition space called . Many of the eerie fallout chambers here have been left just as they were in the 1970s, including Hoxha’s personal office with his original furniture, desk, radio, phone, and maps. Wander elsewhere through the bunker’s seemingly endless maze of spooky corridors, and you may just end up picturing Hoxha himself trailing after your footsteps.
Uncover the sinister secrets surrounding Hoxha’s military bunkers on our Balkan Odyssey: Crossroads of Cultures small group tour. Alternatively, a visit to Tirana’s underground Bunk’Art complex is included on our Essential Albania and Essential Albania, Macedonia & Kosovo flexible independent itineraries. Or, create a hand-crafted private tour customized to your interests, pace, and dates.
Necropolis of Dargavs (“City of the Dead”), Russia
This fascinating “City of the Dead” in one of Russia’s most remote regions is more than deserving of a spot on our list — if not for its name, then certainly for its spectacular surroundings.
Set in a far-flung corner of the North Caucasus, the necropolis of Dargavs contains nearly 100 medieval tombs and crypts built of stone with stepped slate roofs, some of which are two to four stories high. Shaped like beehives, the oldest of these tombs date back to the 16th century.
Each tomb belongs to just one local family or clan. In the old days, villagers would insert the bodies of their dead through the window-like openings in each crypt, with extended families interred together. Some of the tombs are missing roofs or walls, and brave visitors can see the bones of humans scattered within, along with personal clothes and belongings of the deceased.
It’s said that during the 18th century, a plague swept through the area, forcing local clans to quarantine sick family members in the crypts until they were eventually taken by the illness.
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(Top photo: A lone resident walks the empty streets of Prague at dusk.)
PUBLISHED: October 26, 2018