Halloween may only be one day out of the year, but in certain places around the world, the goblins and ghouls don’t go away after October 31. If you have a weakness for scary stories about ghosts, vampires, and witches, and are brave enough to delve beneath the rumors to uncover the truth, you can visit the very places where such spirits and monsters are said to reside. Three top destinations for year-round ghost hunting are Edinburgh, Romania, and Salem.
Edinburgh: Ancient sites reveal ghostly secrets
With a history filled with violent sieges, witch burnings, the plague, and other ghastly occurrences, it’s no surprise that Edinburgh is said to be one of the most haunted cities in Europe. To learn more about Edinburgh’s darker side and perhaps encounter a restless spirit from its past, visit three of the city’s most haunted sites, Edinburgh Castle, Mary King’s Close, and the South Bridge Vaults.
Ancient Edinburgh Castle, a fortress set on an extinct volcano above the city, is said to haunted by several tragic figures from its bloody past. Among the spirits in residence are the Lady of Galmis, who was imprisoned there and burned as a witch in 1537, and the ghostly piper, a bagpiper who disappeared in a tunnel underneath the castle several hundred years ago. You can visit the castle year-round for a fee of $17 per adult and $6 per child.
Edinburgh’s Old Town is a multi-layered city, with one generation of citizens building on top of the remnants of past dwellings, meaning that many of the city’s haunted historic sites are underground. Mary King’s Close, a series of grim chambers and passageways that lie underneath the Royal Mile, is one such hot spot for paranormal activity. Once a bustling medieval street, the area was hard hit by an outbreak of the Bubonic Plague in 1645 and its residents were “enclosed” within their homes to prevent the disease’s spread. A century later, the city built the Edinburgh City Chambers on top of the old buildings, sealing off the remnants of the old street. Now it’s reopened as a tourist attraction, and you can tour the dark alleyways and rooms of Mary King’s Close and hear stories of its unfortunate residents. Admission is $14 per adult and $11 per child.
To explore more of Edinburgh’s buried past, tour the South Bridge Vaults. They were built underneath the 19 stone arches of Edinburgh South Bridge in the late 1700s to serve as storage space and workshops for local merchants, but the dark caverns quickly became the dens of criminals, prostitutes, and other unsavory characters. Closed off in the early 1800s, the vaults were rediscovered in 1985 and are now open for tours. Since then, many visitors have reported ghost sightings and other strange encounters. Mercat Tours, which has exclusive access to the vaults, offers a variety of history and ghost walks that include the South Bridge Vaults. Tour prices start at $11 per adult and $5 per child.
For more information about things to do in Edinburgh, go to the Edinburgh Tourist Board website.
The official Edinburgh tourism website has an excellent lodging section that includes detailed information about accommodations in hotels, B&Bs, serviced and self-catered flat and home rentals, college dormitory accommodations, and camp sites. Many of the properties offer online booking through the site.
Edinburgh hotel rates are expensive, but you’ll pay less if you avoid stays over the peak summer months and during popular festivals. Generally you’ll find the lowest prices of the year during the cold dark days from November to March. For stays in mid-November, we found hotel rates starting around $53 per night as compared to $88 per night for stays this coming June.
November flights from New York to Edinburgh start under $500 round-trip before taxes. Travel later in the low-season, and you’ll find fares dipping below $400.
Romania: Where the legend of Dracula just won’t die
Most everyone knows the story of Count Dracula, the fictional monster created by Bram Stoker whose legend spawned countless other vampire stories and films. But, few know the fascinating history of the Count’s real-life inspiration, Vlad Dracula, the brutal 15th-century ruler of Wallachia (a region of Romania), who was famed for his cruelty and his use of impalement as a favorite method of execution.
Today, as Romania responds more and more to outside interest in Dracula tourism, you can now visit numerous Dracula attractions and historic sites throughout the country and judge for yourself where the line between fact and legend falls. One of the top sites is Castle Bran, or Dracula’s Castle, a fortified medieval castle located outside the town of Bransov in Transylvania. This restored site fits the Hollywood ideal of what a vampire’s castle should look like, and has even been used in the filming of several Dracula movies. However, some Dracula tourists prefer Poienari Fortress, a ruin perched high on the hill where Vlad Dracula was besieged by the Ottomans in 1462.
Another important site is Vlad Dracula’s birth place in Sighisoara, one of the most well-preserved medieval cities in Europe and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The house where he was born in 1431 is now a restaurant and happens to be near the intriguing Torture Instruments Museum.
To learn more about Dracula tourism, visit the Romania tourism website.
Taking an organized tour is the best way to get beneath the tourist vampire kitsch and gain a fuller understanding of this complex figure. Quest Tours & Adventures has two-, four-, and seven-day Dracula tours that depart throughout the year, plus a special eight-day tour over Halloween. The company’s popular four-day “Prince Vlad Dracula the True Story” tour covers Castle Bran, Poienari Fortress, Sighisoara, plus other noteworthy sites such as Snagov Monastery, Dracula’s rumored burial place. Land-only rates start at $736 per person.
More hard-core Dracula fans may want to check out the tours developed by the Romania-based Transylvanian Society of Dracula, which offers an in-depth eight-day “Classic Dracula” tour. Land-only prices start at about $840 per person.
Many Dracula sites can be visited year-round, but because snow in the Carpathian Mountains can make travel difficult during the winter, it’s best to visit between mid-April and mid-October. You can save on airfare by traveling in the early spring rather than the summer. For example, we found round-trip flights between New York and Bucharest starting at $680 in mid-April 2006, as opposed to $910 in mid-July 2006. Taxes are extra.
Salem: Every year is 1692 in the Witch City
More than 400 years after the witch hysteria that resulted in the executions of 20 innocent victims, the town of Salem, Massachusetts, is still defined by the tragedy of 1692. But rather than hiding from its past, Salem has embraced its history wholeheartedly (even local police officers wear patches with witches on them) and has turned it into a major tourism industry that attracts thousands each year. Halloween in Salem feels like New Year’s Eve in New York City, but you can experience a Halloween-like atmosphere throughout the year by visiting the town’s numerous witch attractions.
The Salem Witch Museum provides a good overview of the events of the 1692 witch hysteria and about the history of witchcraft and witch hunts. Admission is $6.50 per adult and $4.50 per child.
Nearby is the Witch House, the former home of Judge Jonathan Corwin, who made investigations into the accusations of witchcraft in Salem. Entrance is $7 for adults and $4 for kids. Notably, the house is one of the hosts of this month’s “Haunted City 2005,” a series of horror-themed theater performances staged at select historic sites throughout Salem. Performances run through October 29 and cost $10 per adult and $5 per child. Plus, the historic House of Seven Gables, the inspiration for Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel, features its own performances in October.
A walking tour is a good way to experience other historic sites, and Salem Historical Tours offers some of the best in town May through October. The company has two hour-long afternoon tours including an exploration of historic burial places and a witchcraft walk of sites associated with the witch trials. Tours are $8 per adult and $6 per child. In the evenings, the organization runs 90-minute “Haunted Footsteps Ghost Tours” of Salem’s haunted past for $12.50 per adult and $8 per child.
Many sites are open year-round but some attractions may close after Halloween and not reopen until spring. June through August and October are the peak months for tourism, so you may be able to save money and see all the sites by coming May or September.
You can find listings and contact information for area hotels on the Destination Salem website. Accommodations in Salem start at around $130 per night for stays in May 2006. You’ll pay considerably less if you stay outside the city in nearby towns like Danvers or Peabody.
Depending on traffic, Salem is a 30- to 45-minute drive from Boston. If you’d prefer not to drive, you can take the MBTA commuter rail train from Boston to Salem for $7.50 round-trip.
While Edinburgh, Romania, and Salem are among the creepiest destinations in the world, there are many more ghostly places you can visit. Every destination has a dark side, and if you do some research, you’ll find many popular tourist destinations offer ghost tours or other spooky attractions. Happy Haunting!