Our urban centres are known for being vibrant concentrations of life, from their buzzing bars and restaurants to the modern skyscrapers packed with busy business people. But beneath their lively exteriors, every city has a dark side. Think morbid history. Creepy architecture. Unsettled spirits...
Embrace the eerie and succumb to the supernatural with these spine-tingling – and at times scream-worthy – experiences in some of the world's spookiest cities, as recommended by our Lonely Planet Locals.
Bored of Eiffel Tower views? Head underground for a different perspective on Paris © Dirk94025 / Getty Images
The City of Light has a dark side. Delve into its underbelly in the subterranean skull- and bone-packed tunnels of its ossuary, Les Catacombes. Place de la Concorde, where Louis XVI was the first to be guillotined in 1793 during the French Revolution, is a busy square today but you can explore the dungeons of 14th-century Gothic palace-turned-prison La Conciergerie, where thousands, including Marie Antoinette, awaited the same headless fate.
Stay spooked: Writer Oscar Wilde is among those buried at atmospheric Père Lachaise; you can sleep at L'Hôtel in the room (number 16) where he died after allegedly quipping 'My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or the other of us has to go.'
Catherine Le Nevez is a long-time Lonely Planet writer based in Paris.
Behind the beauty of this cemetery, a hair-raising tale unfolds © CaptureLight / Getty Images
Prepare to get goosebumps on a guided walk around Havana’s Colon Necropolis, aka ‘the city of the dead’, where Cuba’s most famous names rest (allegedly) in peace. As you wander the network of mausoleums and plots, don’t miss the flower-strewn tomb of Amelia Goyri de la Hoz. Known as La Milagrosa (the miraculous one), she died in 1901 after giving birth to her son; her body was exhumed years later, and rumor has it that the baby had moved from its original position at her feet to her arms.
Stay spooked: Stay near room 511 at Ambos Mundos hotel, where many guests have mentioned hearing Hemingway’s ghostly steps in the middle of the night – you might hear him too, but only if the creepy old OTIS elevator doesn’t wake you up first.
Don't get lost in Venice's labyrinthine streets after dark... © Zefart / Getty Images
Narrow back alleys and dimly-lit passageways, not to mention blanket fog in winter, make Venice one of the spookiest cities in the world. With a street called Calle degli Assassini, the reputedly haunted Ca’ Dario on the Grand Canal and an alleyway alongside the Church of San Zaccharia where a doge was slain, you’d be forgiven for wondering why anyone would think of Venice as a romantic destination!
Stay spooked: The luxury San Clemente Palace Kempinski Hotel was once an asylum and there is a touch of The Shining about the place as you wander the corridors on a winter’s day, with the rest of Venice vanishing eerily into the fog.
Is that smog, or an eerie mist? © DANNY HU / Getty Images
Hidden away behind Shanghai’s glitzy exterior and modern wonders is a wealth of spooky happenings. Highlights include the striking Dragon Pillar, adorned with nine golden dragons supposedly marking a giant dragon’s den; the Ghost Market which sets up shop eerily early before sunrise, and Plaza 66, rumoured to be constructed on top of an ancient goddess. Ghost hunters and sceptics alike can explore Shanghai’s paranormal activity with Newman Tours, whose engaging and knowledgeable guides regale guests with ghostly folklore. Expect tales of avenging poltergeists and phantom lizards, among other intriguing Oriental mysteries.
Stay spooked: For a quirky Shanghai stopover check yourself into the Astor House Hotel. Built in 1846 it’s chock-full of antiques and old photographs – and suitably creaky floorboards!
Rosie Draffin upped sticks and swapped London for a life in Shanghai. She is on a quest to find the best noodle soup in China.
Ireland is the home of Halloween and Dublin's historic streets have more than a tale or two to tell © Westend61 / Getty Images
Halloween began in Ireland so naturally Dublin is full of ghoulish, tall tales. Follow history’s wildest gentlemen to the remains of the Hellfire Club; founded in the Eagle Tavern (since replaced by City Hall), the club later moved to a lodge in the Dublin Mountains. Legend has it they hosted animal sacrifices and card games with the Devil here before it burned down in the 16th century, taking several members with it. For something more fantastical – monster movies, gothic performances and an incredible parade – the Bram Stoker Festival runs in city centre venues in late October.
Stay spooked: Darkey Kelly, Ireland’s first female serial killer, is said to haunt the area around Harding Hotel. She was burned at the stake in 1761 after the discovery of five men’s bodies in her brothel vaults.
Prepare to be scared at Knott's Scary Farm... Image courtesy of Knott's Berry Farm
Los Angeles, California
Theme parks around LA do the Halloween season like nowhere else. Knott's Berry Farm transforms into 'Knott's Scary Farm', a blast of monster-themed shows and eerie mazes amid the park's hair-raising thrill rides and Old West-theme town. Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood include attractions based on American Horror Story, The Shining and The Walking Dead – and Chucky takes command of the park’s legendary tram ride. Both venues offer 'scare zones' where staffers are paid to frighten the living daylights out of you.
Stay spooked: Marilyn Monroe is said to haunt the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. Apparently she’s still enjoying suite 1200 where she lived for two years, appearing to passers-by in mirrors throughout the hotel.
Fancy a night in the slammer? Image courtesy of Fremantle Prison
Fremantle boasts some of the most haunted locations in Australia. Its World Heritage listed prison, constructed by convicts in the 1850s, is said to harbour the ghosts of those executed within – a chilling thought for those who visit on an after-dark torchlight tour. Combine this with a lurk around Fremantle’s cemetery on a Ghostly Tour which also takes you to the Fremantle Arts Centre, a former lunatic asylum where many visitors sense a foreboding energy, hear odd noises and feel a cold kiss on their cheek when exploring the gothic building after dark.
Stay spooked: Do time in a cold, stone prison cell at the Fremantle Prison YHA hostel. You can tour the original cell block, which sleeps about 40 people – but you’ll need to sign a ‘register of prisoners’.
Look out for the ghost of Gertrude Tredwell at the Merchant’s House Museum © Bruce Yuanyue Bi / Getty Images
New York City, USA
The site of many a nefarious deed throughout history, New York offers plenty of ghoulish encounters. Merchant’s House Museum – reportedly the most haunted house in Manhattan – hosts evening candlelit tours during October. Brace yourself for tales of murder and perturbed spirits on a night tour of Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, or get spooked at Sleep No More, the immersive Macbeth performance that takes place across five floors of the fictional McKittrick Hotel in Chelsea.
Stay spooked: Beware of poltergeists causing midnight mayhem with the elevators at the Bowery Hotel; mingle with the spirits of some of New York’s 1920s literary geniuses, including poet Dorothy Parker, at the Algonquin Hotel; and keep your wits about you while dining at the Old Bermuda Inn on Staten Island, as you may see the ghost of Martha Mesereau gliding by.
Keep an eye out for a ghost ship at the Cape of Good Hope – that's if you're not scared of heights © Jeremy Villasis / Getty Images
Cape Town, South Africa
Cape Town’s swashbuckling history makes for some seriously spooky tales. Seek out wailing ghosts and a haunted bell tower at the Castle of Good Hope, the country’s oldest building. Dating back just as far is the story of the Flying Dutchman, which sank in a storm in 1641. Keep your eyes peeled for the ship’s ghostly outline when you visit the Cape of Good Hope. Back in the city, check out Rust en Vreugd, but don’t be surprised if you feel a tap on shoulder while viewing the paintings – and turn around to find nobody there…
Stay spooked: If you’re hoping for a night time ghost encounter, try the Glencairn Hotel near Simon’s Town, whose long-term residents include the spirits of a mother and son who perished here.
Old Town Pizza's creepy basement is part of the Shanghai Tunnels. Image courtesy of Old Town Pizza
Portland has a rich history of hauntings. Diners at Old Town Pizza – formerly the Merchant Hotel, built in 1880 – report feeling a ‘presence’ behind them, or seeing a woman dressed in black: Nina, resident ghost and former unwilling prostitute. Missionaries offered Nina escape in exchange for information; she cooperated, but was later found dead at the bottom of an elevator shaft. (The shaft is now a cosy booth – sit there if you dare!) Intrigued? Take a tour of the Shanghai Tunnels – Portland’s creepy underground network has inspired many a ghost story.
Stay spooked: If the live music at the White Eagle doesn’t keep you up late, the band of ghosts that haunt the 11 rooms above this historic pub might. There are several – ask the bar staff.
Need more city travel inspiration? Check out The Cities Book, a celebration of 200 of the world’s great cities, beautifully photographed and packed with trip advice and recommendations.