It’s one of the best ways to get to know a place, but it isn’t in your guidebook. Cathedral tours and galleries can only tell you so much. If you really want to delve under the skin of a foreign land, you need to meet the local dragon. 

I’m not talking about that unfriendly barmaid. I’m talking about creatures of folklore. These are the beings that dwell somewhere between modern cities and ancient beliefs. Their stories are tangled with the history of their homelands.

Track down trolls, swim with mermaids and catch a little green man. Here are a few magical places, selected by, to get you started.

Leprechauns, Ireland

These little people are synonymous with the green isle.

Today they are so much a part of the Irish stereotype that on St Paddy’s Day, in most English towns, you can spot several inebriated 'leprechauns' stumbling down the high-street.

But these drunken pretenders are giving leprechauns a bad name. Kidnap them and you’re more likely to end up with a black eye than the three wishes of legend. Real leprechauns are always male, as female leprechauns are technically fairies. They hide pots of gold at the end of the rainbow, enjoy playing tricks on humans, and make shoes for a living.

In Dublin you can visit the National Leprechaun Museum to hear the tales that have been told for over 1,000 years. But perhaps the best way to locate these elusive creatures is to venture beyond the capital and explore some of the lush green countryside that leprechauns call home.

The Minotaur, Crete

Like all good Greek myths, the story of how the Minotaur came into being involves angry gods, bestiality and a badly-behaved king.

He lived on the sun-drenched Mediterranean island of Crete, but the poor old Minotaur never got to don his bikini on the island’s famous beaches. This mythical creature lived at the centre of an enormous labyrinth and feasted on young men and virgin girls.

Described by Ovid as 'part man and part bull', he was the son of the queen of Crete and a white bull. He was eventually slain by Theseus, who escaped the maze by following thread that he’d unravelled on his way in.

Some 600,000 people a year visit the so-called ruins of the labyrinth at Knossos. However, the true location is still hotly debated. Some scholars believe that the real haunt of the Minotaur was the Labyrinthos Caves, in southern Crete. This dark network of caves and tunnels provides some welcome respite from the Cretan sun, but before you visit make sure you invest in a very large ball of string.

The Golem, Prague

Just like the castle’s bejewelled treasures, the tale of the golem belongs to Prague.

Many 100s of years ago, this colossal creature was created by Rabbi Loew to protect the Jews from anti-Semitic attacks. Walk through the city’s now silent Jewish quarter and you begin to understand why the rabbi’s people needed such a monster.

The golem was, quite literally, made of the city – constructed from mud from the sides of the river Vltava. Impossibly strong, he only obeyed the man who brought him to life. This could be done by placing a magic talisman in the monster’s forehead. Without the talisman the golem turned back into lifeless clay.

Legend has it that the golem was hidden by his master, somewhere in Prague, waiting for a lucky tourist to breathe life into him once more. Even if you can’t find the golem, you can meet his creator (or a statue of him) in the new town hall. The rabbi’s grave, along with 12,000 others, can be seen in the Old Jewish Cemetery.

What strange creatures have you met on your travels?

PS. If you're interested in spotting strange creatures in Ireland, check out this post on The Ewe Experience too.