Top Ten Prisons to Visit

Touring a prison for fun may sound a bit odd, but many of these iconic structures are actually interesting cultural attractions worth a visit.
Robben Island, Cape Town, South Africa
Aerial view of Robben Island, former place of imprisonment of South African President Nelson Mandela (Denny Allen/Gallo Images/Getty)

Though not always the best place to find yourself on a Saturday night, prisons are fascinating places to visit (and be free to leave), drawing millions of tourists each year. Perhaps it's the intrigue of the unknown or the slight glimpse visitors get into a life they have never known (and hopefully will never know) that makes the prison tour a highlight on an itinerary.

10. Robben Island
Robben Island—sounds picturesque, right? But the arid, barren landscape and apartheid past conjures anything but happy thoughts. Off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa, the small island, with its largest side barely two miles long, is the former isolation housing of some of the most notable political and religious leaders, as well as common prisoners.

In May of 1892, the island became a mandatory holding ground for lepers and the mentally ill. Shaded from the public under the name of a hospital, the island was a sort of prison itself for the sick, seeing as there were no cures at the time. Robben Island was in essence a place where division was made—sick from healthy, black from white. Possibly the most famous man to be imprisoned at Robben Island is former president of South Africa Nelson Mandela, who spent 18 years behind the island bars.

Open to the public in 1997, the prison is now a museum and heritage site, paying homage to the extreme suffering that went on there. Tours depart from the waterfront in Cape Town. Ferries transport visitors to the island on vessels that were once used to carry wardens, prison and hospital workers, prisoners, and their visitors to the island. Once on land, the tour can easily take up half of your day, starting with a bus ride around the island, often times lead by a former prisoner. Along the route is a graveyard where more than 1,500 lepers are estimated to be buried.

Tours continue with a look inside the prison walls. Starting at the doors where prisoners themselves first entered, and carrying on through communal housing cells where up to 52 men stayed in one room, first with only mats, and later with hard bunk beds. A preserved menu lays out the prisoners' daily meals, divvied out according to race. The tour includes a stop in a small garden once tended by Nelson Mandela.

The cruise back to shore is highlighted by the charming beauty of Cape Town's waterfront and made even more adventurous by the reality of the shark infested waters you are sailing through.


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