A sea of steeples poking out of austere Gothic architecture accented by blocks of brusque, monochromatic Brutalist buildings. Historical ties to the occult, alchemy, and the dark arts. A brutal communist past and a reputation as one of the most haunted locations in Europe. For an eerie place to spend Halloween, few cities can match the pedigree of Prague, Czech Republic.
In the Old Town district, you can explore the mystique of the old buildings and alleyways that can quickly double as spooky moonlit photo opportunities. Listen for the ominous sounds of chimes, and follow them into the main square to find the Prague Astronomical Clock. The early 15th century mechanical wonder, the oldest still-functioning automaton of its kind in the world, is adorned with several mechanisms detailing the time of the year, the phases of the moon, the sun’s position in the zodiac, and other colorful bits of cosmic detail. Be sure to catch when the timepiece’s statues come to life and dance about the dials during the hourly Walk Of The Apostles. Death, represented by a skeleton on the side, menacingly brandishes an hourglass and solemnly rings a death knell during the show, as if to remind observers of the impermanence of life.
Old Town has an extensive assortment of mystifying museums to occupy the daylight hours. The Museum of Fantastic Illusions has an entertaining, Instagrammable collection of perspective tricks, and the Illusion Art Museum offers plenty of dazzling, interactive exhibits with deceptive art. Learn what the Virgin of Nuremberg and Witch’s Chair are in The Museum of Medieval Torture Instruments, or take a trip through the uncanny valley within the forest of unnerving wax figures at nearby Madame Tussauds. Finally, the Museum Of Sex Machines is a must-stop. Browse the gallery of naughty contraptions ranging from questionable to outright painful as a sexy sax melody hilariously plays throughout the multiple floors of the scandalous museum.
For a taste of Prague’s associations with the dark arts, check out Speculum Alchemiae, the old laboratory of occult-friendly Emperor Rudolf II. Hidden beneath the surface until rediscovered in the aftermath of a 2002 flood, the museum offers many vitality-boosting elixirs for sale and is also the starting point for the Magical Triangle Tour, which explores famous pagan ritual sites. The stops include the ominous hilltop fortress Vysehrad and the sprawling Prague Castle, the largest ancient palace of its kind in the world. Hidden alchemical labs are hardly the only secret beneath the streets of Prague. Consider one of the fascinating subterranean excursions, such as the Ghosts, Legends, & Dungeon tour. Hear about mythic Czech characters like the Golem and the Headless Templar as you immerse yourself within the centuries-old haunted dungeons below the roads of Old Town. The Communism & Nuclear Bunker Tour promises a memorably macabre experience, where visitors will travel four stories underground into a real former nuclear bunker. The unsettling space, originally built to house 5000 people in the event of a doomsday attack, is complete with a bleak stockpile of gas masks and chilling Cold War paraphernalia indicative of the atmosphere of fear once pervasive on the eastern side of the Iron Curtain.
Before leaving Old Town, make a quick detour into the Basilica of St. James. As you admire the ornate rounded ceiling and mesmerizing architecture, you might be surprised as you notice the four-hundred-year-old severed arm nonchalantly dangling from above. Legend has it that the decayed limb once belonged to someone attempting to steal jewels from a Virgin Mary statue and has served as a warning to other would-be thieves ever since.
Across the Charles Bridge, built in the 15th century and offering incredible views of the Vltava River, lies the neighborhood of Mala Strana. Enjoy the pleasant greenery within the Wallenstein Palace gardens and count the number of faces you see in the Dripstone Wall, an intricate stone surface that appears like a cascade of skulls from a distance. Prague was the birthplace of author Franz Kafka, known for his disturbing and nightmarish stories, and fans should experience the Franz Kafka Museum. True to the author’s works, visitors can expect surrealistic art installations and haunting music while exploring the atmospheric and dimly lit museum. The famed alchemist Edward Kelley also lived in Mala Strana, and his former residence now occupies the Museum of Alchemists and Magicians of Old Prague. Exuding a fun carnival sideshow vibe throughout, observe the museum’s replicas of alchemical scenes and instruments from the occult era and climb the weathered staircase in Kelley’s laboratory to catch a sweeping view of Prague’s ubiquitous steeples.
Any worthwhile haunted city has a cemetery or two worth exploring, and Prague is no exception. Within Old Town, few cemeteries are as unique as the Old Jewish Cemetery. The relatively small plot is notable for its density due to customs against the removal of old tombstones. Over 12,000 graves cover virtually every square meter of land, poking out at all angles and forming spooky scenes beneath the calmly swaying trees watching over the remains of 100,000 bodies, some of which are stacked 12 deep. Olsany Cemetery in the Zizkov neighborhood is also noteworthy as the largest burial ground in Prague. Initially created to house the remains of plague victims considered unsafe to bury inside the city limits, the cemetery is known for its beautiful art nouveau monuments and as the resting place of many famous Czechs like Jan Palach, a student who self-immolated in protest against the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.
The former Czechoslovakia was a communist country up until the early 1990s with an often bloody past to match it, and the proximity of that time and the art it inspired provides a unique spin on terror worth experiencing in the Czech capital. Check out the Memorial to the Victims of Communism, a harrowing series of naked, anguished figures on a Mala Strana staircase that become increasingly deformed and disturbed deeper into the installation. Mala Strana also has the KGB Museum, containing a series of relics and weaponry from the infamous Soviet organization, and Old Town offers a sobering look at recent history amongst the propaganda posters of the Museum of Communism. In the Holesovice neighborhood just north of Old Town, next to the idyllic greenery of Letna Park, the massive Prague Metronome steadily ticks by the river. Once the site of a giant Stalin statue, the metronome serves as a powerful reminder of these no-so-far removed times alongside pleasing views of the Vltava.
If you need a comedown from the dark medieval and Cold War history, head to Cross Club in Holesovice. The hip, multi-story hotspot, decorated with an industrial steampunk feel, includes a cafe and restaurant in addition to a bustling dance floor. Cross Club is also a notable meeting ground for activism and frequently hosts cultural events such as theater productions, alternative film screenings, and book readings. Another fantastic option for the evening is Karlovy Lazne, a five-story nightclub right by the Charles Bridge and the largest of its kind in Central Europe. Each level of the former 14th century bath house offers an entirely different genre of music, so if the world of one floor’s sounds isn’t for you, it’s easy enough to travel a single flight of stairs and immerse yourself in another. Don’t miss the Ice Pub downstairs, where the temperature is maintained at a frosty minus 7 degrees Celsius. Book one of the 30-minute time slots, slip on the provided thermal jacket and gloves, and enjoy a selection of cold-themed cocktails in a room where all the decor, including the seats and glasses, is made of ice.
Finally, if you have the time and resources to do so, consider a day trip an hour away to the delightfully ghastly Sedlec Ossuary, also known as the “Church Of Bones.” Estimated to have the remains of 40,000 to 70,000 people, the creepy chapel boasts several macabre arrangements of bones, foreboding towers of skulls, and a skeletal masterpiece in the extravagant chandelier containing every bone in the human body. Whether it’s Halloween or not, it’ll end your Prague adventure on a perfectly creepy note.
John Sizemore is a travel writer, photographer, yoga teacher, and visual entertainment developer based out of Austin, Texas. Follow him on Instagram at @sizemoves. In his downtime, John likes to learn foreign languages and get immersed in other worlds, particularly those of music, film, games, and books in addition to exploring the world.