If you love to travel, then Europe is full of fascinating places. The tourist guidebooks are full of them. But what if you want to see the unusual sites that are sometimes missed entirely from more obvious guides?
Here are some of the more unusual places to visit if you’re in Europe, sites that I have found particularly interesting for my ARKANE thriller book research.
1. Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo, Sicily
Most people think of ancient Egypt when they hear the word ‘mummy’. Yet the Capuchin Monastery in Palermo has almost 8000 corpses and over 1200 mummies in its catacombs. The oldest corpse dates back to 1599!
The bodies are organized, with religious figures displayed separately from women or children. Some of the corpses are posed, while others are pinned to walls. They also vary in states of preservation.
The Catacombs were only intended to house friars but eventually wealthy locals paid to be interred. One of the last interments was a two-year-old girl in 1920. She’s so well-preserved that many call her “Sleeping Beauty”.
2. Sedlec Ossuary, Kutna Hora, near Prague, Czech Republic
Sedlec is definitely one of the weirdest places in Europe. The Ossuary attracts around 200,000 visitors every year, who come to see the bones of 40,000-70,000 people.
The skeletal remains have been transformed into astonishing works of art, including a chandelier, coats of arms, and even the name of the artist himself. It takes a special kind of person to immortalize themselves using the remains of the dead!
But the Ossuary wasn’t planned to look the way it does. When the cemetery was remodeled in the 16th century, the bones of the exhumed skeletons were simply stacked in the chapel. In 1870, a local woodcarver was employed to make sense of the bones.
No one knows what gave him the idea for the sculptures he created with them. But they certainly make a stunning backdrop for the showdown in my thriller, Crypt of Bone!
3. South Bridge Vaults, Edinburgh, Scotland
There are many reasons to visit Edinburgh, not least to take a late night tour of the infamous Greyfriars Kirkyard. Or perhaps you want to visit the 16th century Old Town and descend into Mary King’s Close.
But it’s in the South Bridge Vaults that things get weird.
Built right into the arches of the South Bridge, the vaults were completed in 1788 to provide storage and workshop space. But due to flooding, they became slums, providing crowded housing, brothels and even pubs for the poor.
Legend has it that even Burke and Hare, the infamous body snatchers, hunted here.
But the truth is often more strange. One of the vaults houses a Wiccan Temple. Only it’s not in their original vault.
The Wiccans refuse to practice in there.
Dare you stand in the center of the old stone circle?
4. Paris Catacombs, France
Few places in Europe hold the same aura of mystique as the Paris catacombs. But the name is actually a bit of a misnomer. Parts of the tunnels were actually limestone quarries, helping to build Paris itself.
In the late 18th century, overcrowding in the cemeteries caused a public health panic. Les Innocents Cemetery was even condemned.
The authorities relocated the bones to the disused tunnels. The section they used, the Denfert-Rochereau Ossuary, is one of the few parts of the tunnels open to the public. Visitors, including royalty, have flocked to see the bones since 1867.
But if you believe the myths, that’s not all that’s down there. Rumors persist of a secret cinema, art installations, and even a Nazi bunker.
It’s hardly surprising that some think the catacombs might mark a gateway to Hell!
5. Labyrinth of Buda Castle, Budapest, Hungary
In 1463, a bloodthirsty nobleman was taken into the Labyrinth under Castle Hill in Budapest. He spent 14 years there, tortured in captivity. His contemporaries knew him as Vlad Tepes.
We know him as Vlad the Impaler.
The Labyrinth is a weird place to visit. Forget maps or guidebooks – you’re essentially set loose to walk through the tunnels on your own. In One Day in Budapest, ARKANE agent Morgan Sierra finds more than she bargains for down there.
But you just have the Maze of Darkness to look forward to. Sounds spooky, right? It really is – if you let go of the guide rope you could end up genuinely lost in the pitch black tunnels.
Tourists will be blissfully enjoying Budapest above your head while you investigate the mysterious chambers of the Labyrinth!
6. Houska Castle, Czech Republic
Castles traditionally occupy sites of power. They’re often near trade routes, or precious resources.
Not Houska Castle.
Frequently named the scariest castle in Europe, Houska stands in the middle of nowhere in the Czech Republic. It’s by far one of the strangest places in Europe.
According to local legend, a bottomless hole existed on the site long before the castle was built around it. Locals named the hole ‘the Gate to Hell’. The area still reports sightings of strange winged creatures at night, but a chapel now covers the hole.
As you can imagine, paranormal investigation groups have flocked to Houska. But the locals won’t visit and dogs can’t be persuaded to go inside the castle.
Is it because a black magician once used the castle for his mad experiments with the occult? The Nazis also conducted experiments here and so much torture is bound to leave a psychic print on a building.
Or is it really the site of the Gates of Hell?
7. Sagrada Família, Barcelona, Spain
You might not expect to see a church in a list of strange tourist attractions. But Antoni Gaudi’s famous Cathedral has to be seen to be believed.
Construction started back in 1882 and it still isn’t finished. But one of its strangest features is its use of three facades. The Passion and the Nativity are already finished, but the Glory facade is incomplete.
Tortured, gaunt figures adorn the Passion facade. By contrast, the Nativity facade is the famous ‘melted wax’ side most often shown on postcards and tourist souvenirs. There are codes and engravings that meant specific things to Gaudi. The perfect place to hide secret carvings about the Gates of Hell…
8. Santa Maria della Concezione Crypts, Rome, Italy
If you haven’t had enough of Capuchin friars, then try the Santa Maria della Concezione crypt in Rome. The bones of 4000 monks, interred between 1528 and 1870, decorate the crypt.
In 1631, the friars moved to the Santa Maria della Concezione church. The Pope’s brother ordered them to take their deceased with them to keep the Capuchin monks together.
They decided to display the bones instead of burying them to remind themselves that death was inevitable. The crypt became a memento mori.
The Capuchin friars clearly prize organization since the ossuary divides its crypts by body parts – including skulls, leg bones, and even pelvises!
9. La Specola Anatomical Collection, Florence, Italy
The Museum of Natural History in Florence is an unassuming building from the outside. But inside, it houses the largest wax anatomical collection in the world. La Specola is actually the oldest public museum in Europe, and it’s one of the most fascinating places in Europe.
It’s the wax models that are the real ‘must-see’. The most famous pieces in the collection are the wax anatomical Venuses – a favorite of the Marquis de Sade. These naked women lie in semi-erotic poses, displaying the contents of their opened rib cages and stomachs.
It’s hard to imagine that Clemente Susini’s models date back to the late 18th century. Originally used to teach anatomy to eager medical students, they’re now artistic curiosities.
10. Venice, Italy
Venice is one of the most magical places in Europe. But you’ll need to venture away from the maze of streets surrounding the St Mark’s Basilica to really find the gems.
You could visit the San Servolo Insane Asylum Museum. Known as Venice’s “Island of the Mad”, the asylum opened in 1725. Over 200,000 patients passed through its doors until it closed in 1978. The asylum is now a museum, where you can see the equipment and an anatomical theater.
But if vampires are more your ‘thing’, then Lazzaretto Nuovo is for you. The island was first used for quarantine 1423. It’s now home to a maritime museum and a small museum about the island’s history.
Archaeologists discovered mass graves on the island, and a female skeleton was found with a brick in its mouth. If you’re not familiar with the ‘Shroud Eater’ variety of vampires, that’s a popular method for disposing of them …
11. Skara Brae, Orkney Islands
Skara Brae lies on the Orkney mainland in Scotland. Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Neolithic settlement is made up of 8 houses.
The village only came to light in 1850, after a violent storm tore grass from a large mound. A local laird began an excavation and had unearthed four houses by 1868. The site was abandoned until 1925.
Radiocarbon dating confirmed its age, placing it between 3200BC and 2200BC. Ironically, being buried preserved it, and now it faces threats from coastal erosion and the wear and tear from visitors.
The buildings still contain furniture made of stone, as well as stone artifacts that scholars can’t decode. What secrets does Skara Brae conceal?
12. Predjama Castle, Postonjna, Slovenia
Built in the 13th century, this fortress was considered impenetrable. It almost grows out of the cliff face.
The legendary robber baron Erazem Lueger moved into Predjama in the late 14th century. Yet when the castle came under siege, the ordeal lasted for a year because Lueger had a secret tunnel leading to the Postojna Cave. Locals from a nearby town smuggled food and drink into the castle. A servant later betrayed him, and Lueger was killed – on the toilet, no less.
The Ghost Hunters International team visited in 2008 and concluded that Predjama is haunted. It would be a shame if such a Gothic castle didn’t have any resident specters!
13. Kriminalmuseum, Vienna, Austria
Vienna is a beautiful city, boasting art and culture at almost every turn.
And then there’s the Kriminalmuseum. Dedicated to crime, the museum’s building actually dates to 1685.
You can explore rooms about counterfeiting and crime scenes. They also display plenty of murder weapons – as well as the skulls of murderers. It’s a macabre testament to crime and punishment since the Middle Ages.
The only downside is all of the text is in German, so unless you’re fluent, you might have to make up your own stories to accompany the axes and death masks…
14. Pripyat, Ukraine
Definitely one of the most unusual places in Europe! Abandoned following the Chernobyl disaster, the town is still inhabited by a handful of residents. Daily radiation readings are displayed on screens in the street.
Pripyat only gained city status in 1979 so a lot of the buildings were very new at the time of the disaster. It makes the abandoned streets all the more poignant and Chernobyl is one of the Dark Tourism sites in Europe.
You can tour the city on specified days. It is safe to visit but don’t touch any flora as it still carries the most radiation. And while we’re talking about radiation and physics…
15. CERN, Geneva, Switzerland
We’ve perhaps saved one of the strangest places in Europe for last. After all, the search for the God particle isn’t something scientists do every day!
You can book a visit to see their permanent exhibitions, as well as join various tours to see different labs or experiments in action.
As cool as that is, CERN also plays host to the statue of Lord Shiva, featured in Destroyer of Worlds. Standing at two meters high, the statue represents the parallel between the cosmic dance of the universe and the movement of subatomic particles.
So there you go! If you’re thinking of booking a holiday, why not take in a trip to one of these amazing but utterly unusual places in Europe?
If you’d like to read a thriller about some of the unusual places in Europe, check out the ARKANE thriller series by J.F.Penn.
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