How do you like the idea of a stint in prison? Not much? Well, it might be time to reconsider since there are a number of spooky, yet fascinating jails all across the globe that you can visit to really get the heart racing or learn some unusual history. Travelers who are curious to see what life could be like behind bars can opt for some jail time in prisons in all parts of the world, including the United States, South Africa, the Philippines, Latvia, Italy and more. If you’re looking for some intriguing spots to visit, you can head to prisons that have had famous faces as their inmates; check out jails that were built centuries ago; or even have a meal at an on-site prison restaurant. If you feel like testing your resolve this year, read on for seven of the most foreboding, yet fascinating jails you can add to your itinerary.
7. Cebu Prison in the Philippines
If you recall seeing inmates dancing to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” music, or performing Gangnam Style routines on YouTube, you’ve had a glimpse at the interesting facility that is Cebu Prison and Detention Rehabilitation Center in Cebu, Philippines. Although it’s still a maximum-security jail, Cebu Prison has been making waves around the world for a very different reason – dancing inmates! At the facility, a professional choreographer spends time teaching hundreds of prisoners dance steps and routines each day. Tourists wanting to check out the spectacle can head to Cebu once each month, when the prison opens its doors and invites visitors to watch a free performance by over a thousand purposeful inmates.
6. Elmina Castle in Ghana
Have you heard of the “Door of No Return”? If so, you might be familiar with the name of the Elmina Castle in Ghana. Set along the Atlantic coast of Ghana in Elmina, the white-washed European castle was built in 1482 by Portuguese traders to protect the gold trade, but it became one of the first slave-trading posts along the West African coast. The dungeons in the castle housed as many as 200 slaves at a time, all of which had to endure horrific conditions that didn’t even allow them to lie down. On one side of the Elmina Castle lies the Door of No Return, the infamous place where slaves were herded onto ships that would see them bound for North and South America, on an extremely treacherous journey. These days, Elmina Castle is a UNESCO World Heritage-listed site that has been restored by the Ghanaian government. Visitors to the site can take an historical tour of the national museum and monument for a sobering look into the horrors of slavery.
5. Kilmainham Gaol in Ireland
The fact that former prison Kilmainham Gaol is regularly used as a film set (for instance it has starred in movies like The Italian Job and In the Name of the Father) should demonstrate that its atmospheric and draconian-looking facilities are particularly memorable. Less than four kilometres from the centre of Dublin in Ireland, Kilmainham Gaol is a popular tourist destination and can be explored on a 1.5-hour long tour that includes an audio-visual show and entry to a major exhibition, detailing the political and penal history of both the prison and its restoration. The Gaol is no longer in service but used to be one of the largest in Europe and was host to an eclectic mix of inmates who had to suffer the horrible conditions of the site – it even has its own hanging cell. Kilmainham was built in 1796 and housed many influential Irish figures, from rebels and politicians to poets and those that shaped the nation. The leaders of the 1916 Easter Uprising were executed by the British at this historical site, which lead to the War of Independence.
4. Karosta Prison in Latvia
If you really want to get a taste of life behind bars and don’t mind hearing things go bump in the night, then you can choose to book an overnight stay in a lock-up. Visitors to Karosta Prison in Liepaja in Latvia can spend an uncomfortable night in a jail cell at the prison that has now been converted into a hotel and museum. Travelers touring the facility can learn about the way that past inmates had to live, as well as view a documentary about the construction and history of the prison. Karosta was previously an infirmary turned military detention facility for the Soviets, then later was used by both the Nazis and the Latvians, even until as recently as 1997. The jail site is said to be one of the most haunted places in the world, so visitors should be ready to potentially see and hear all sorts of strange things during their stay!
3. Fortezza Medicea in Italy
If a good meal and fine dining is more your thing, perhaps a visit to Fortezza Medicea in Italy would be a better fit. Situated in Volterra (near Pisa in the Tuscany region), the site these days has found a new calling as the place to go for quality Tuscan food, in a rather unique setting. The restaurant at the site was set up as part of a rehabilitation program for inmates, so customers can enjoy some gourmet cuisine that is prepared and served up by convicted criminals and ex-Mafia members still in the slammer. Only the Italians would incorporate amazing cuisine into even their prisons, right? The medieval fortress is now one of the most popular spots in the region, and the restaurant program has become so well-regarded that the Italian government is planning to increase it – soon you’ll find further sites launching around the country. Before making a booking, just remember that heavy security details keep an eye on things at the prison, and each diner has to undergo a thorough background check to be permitted entry.
2. Alcatraz Island in the United States
You’ve no doubt heard of the infamous Alcatraz Island in the United States, and any visit to San Francisco is not complete without some time spent at this bone-chilling facility. Known as “The Rock”, Alcatraz was the site of the first lighthouse and fort built on the West Coast of the U.S., but is most well-known for housing some of the country’s most historical crime figures. The prison was off-limits to the public for a lot of years but travelers can now explore the many mysteries of the Island with either a day or night tour. Both options include round-trip transportation to and from the island with Alcatraz Cruises, as well as a comprehensive audio tour. Those who are prepared to get a little spooked should consider joining in the more complete night-time tour. It includes extra activities like a personally-narrated boat tour around Alcatraz Island, from the main dock and to the prison building; sunset views of San Fran as night begins to fall; and a number of exclusive presentations at the jail. During a visit to the maximum-security federal penitentiary, visitors can get a feel for the building that once housed notorious inmates like mobster Al Capone; criminal Robert Stroud, known as “The Birdman of Alcatraz”; and the bank-robbing thief George “Machine Gun” Kelly.
1. Robben Island in South Africa
If you admire Nelson Mandela and would like to walk in his footsteps at least a little, head to Robben Island, located off the coast of Cape Town in South Africa. While sadly the humanitarian and politician died earlier this year, you can still walk around the infamous jail where he was held for 18 of the 27 years he was imprisoned. Robben Island prison was a maximum-security facility that housed dozens of political prisoners and anti-apartheid campaigners over the years, with Mandela being the most well-known. The jail was also formerly set up as a lunatic asylum and a leper colony over the years, but now is a UNESCO World Heritage-listed site, and one of the most visited tourist attractions in South Africa. If you’d like to explore the prison you can take part in a 3.5-hour long tour that departs from Cape Town. The tour includes transportation; commentary about the site’s 500-year-old history from previous political prisoners who were kept on the Island; and close-up views of the jail cells, including Mandela’s previous “home”.