Dark tourism is generally defined as tourism involving travel to places historically associated with death and tragedy. It’s an interesting, somewhat macabre idea and as such its definition has recently been expanded upon to include the reasons people may want to visit a site beyond its gruesome appeal – namely its historical value rather than associations with death and suffering.
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Whatever the reasoning behind it, dark tourism is on the up. And shows like the recent smash hit Chernobyl have only heightened people’s focus on visiting places with a grisly appeal. In particular, Pripyat in the Ukraine – the hometown of Chernobyl – is on track to become 2019’s surprise hit tourism destination.
In a nod to this strange trend then, My Late Deals has looked into the top dark tourism destinations around the world that explore, commemorate, try to understand and pay tribute to some of the greatest tragedies humans have inflicted upon themselves over our short but checkered history.
National 9/11 Memorial and Museum
New York, USA
A tribute of remembrance and honor to the 2,977 people killed in the terror attacks of September 11, 2001 and the six people killed in the World Trade Center bombing of February 1993. Twin reflecting pools sit within the footprints of where the Twin Towers once stood and bear the names of every victim etched into the bronze panels surrounding the pools. They’re a sombre but powerful reminder of the largest loss of life from a foreign attack on American soil.
Visitor info: The 9/11 Memorial is free and open to the public daily from 7:30 am to 9 pm. You can buy museum tickets with entry to all exhibitions online at the museum website up to six months in advance.
Memorial and Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau
Near Krakow, Poland
The largest German Nazi concentration camp and extermination center ever built, Auschwitz stands as a global symbol of terror and genocide that saw more than 1.1million men, women and children lose their lives. As well as a heart-rending testament to the evil humans can inflict upon each other, it also acts as a vital reminder and tool of education to try and prevent such atrocities happening again. As the museum explains, “There is no way to understand postwar Europe and the world without an in-depth confrontation between our idea of mankind and the remains of Auschwitz.”
Visitor info: It’s free to enter the grounds of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial but you should reserve a ticket on the website in advance as there are only limited individual tickets available on site daily from 7:30 am. The museum is open year round except for Easter Sunday, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. Due to its content, the museum advises it’s not suitable for children younger than 14 and visitors are, of course, urged to dress and behave appropriately.
Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum
A moment that changed the course of history and shape of the world forever, on August 6th 1945 an atomic bomb detonated around 600 metres above the city of Hiroshima signalling the beginning of the end of WWII but at an unimaginable cost to life, the numbers of which will never be known for certain. The Memorial Museum is a call to action for all mankind: ‘No more Hiroshimas’ and hosts exhibitions of artefacts from the explosion and its victims, and testimonials from those who survived. Don’t miss the compelling letters sent to every nuclear world leader annually on the A-bomb anniversary calling for universal disarmament.
Visitor info: Open every day of the year except December 30 and 31st, an entry ticket costs 200 yen for adults and less for students.
The world’s worst nuclear accident occurred behind the closed doors of the Iron Curtain on April 25-26th 1986 at the remote Chernobyl nuclear reactor. Its effects are still a long way from over, with scientists estimating it will take up to 20,000 years for the exclusion zone around the plant to become habitable again. But that doesn’t mean you can’t take a look for yourself on a carefully guided tour of the town and surrounding area to try and understand the impact it had. Top tip – if you haven’t seen the TV series before you go, maybe wait until after in case it puts you off (which would be entirely understandable).
Visitor info: A lot to take in here as the tour guide rules are understandably explicit and strict to keep you safe from radiation poisoning so make sure you read up on them properly, so you’re prepared before you go. Chernobyl tours are open year round with one-day and multi-day trips available.
Murambi Genocide Memorial
Near Murambi, Southern Rwanda
There’s no possible way to compare mass murders and genocides across history with each as terrible as the next, but of all the global memorials, Murambi’s is perhaps the hardest to bear. It sits atop a picturesque green hill in rolling countryside on the site of an unfinished technical college where, in April 1994 an estimated 50,000 Tutsi men, women and children were massacred by the Interahamwe militia and soldiers loyal to the government responsible for the genocide. Uniquely and horrifically, the corpses of some 800 victims were exhumed, preserved in lime and put on display rather than being reburied – where they remain to this day
Visitor info: Open daily from 8 am to 5 pm (except on Umuganda Saturdays – the last of each month when it’s open from 1 pm to 5 pm) the memorial is free to enter and has an accompanying audio guide. Once again, be warned that it’s not an experience for children or those easily overwhelmed.
Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary
San Francisco, USA
The Rock has become a cultural icon, a place embraced by Hollywood, music, folklore and tourists – and as such is San Francisco’s most popular tourist destination. The notorious former maximum-security federal penitentiary was home over its 29 years to everyone from Al Capone to Machine Gun Kelly and many of its cells remain much as they were when the prison was open, offering a glimpse of the hardships its guests had to endure. Many said the worst thing about being incarcerated here was being able to see the mainland and people going about their everyday lives – something many of the prisoners would never do again and so described as torture to witness.
Visitor info: Open daily except Thanksgiving, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, with ferry times to get you there varying through the seasons. Most timetables start around 9 am from Pier 33 Alcatraz Landing in San Francisco and you should arrive at least 30 minutes before your ferry departs. Alcatraz Cruises is the official tour operator to the National Park Service.
The Ruins of Pompeii
This year saw the 1,940th anniversary of the Mount Vesuvius’s legendary volcanic eruption that wiped out the Roman city of Pompeii in 79 AD. And while some may raise an eyebrow at its inclusion as a dark tourist site, the passing of years shouldn’t diminish the devastation of the eruption (which was many thousands of times more powerful than Hiroshima’s A-bomb) nor the number of lives it took. What makes it so compelling is its extraordinary condition thanks to the vast amount of ash that coated the city, thus preserving it for tourists to take selfies against nearly two thousand years later.
Visitor info: Open daily except for New Year’s Day, May 1st and Christmas Day from 9 am. You can buy tickets in advance online or on the day at the ticket offices on site. EU citizens aged 18-24 can pick up tickets for €6 and kids for €3, while everyone else has to pay €18.90.
The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek
Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Some 10 miles southwest of the Cambodian capital at Phnom Penh, this previously peaceful orchard was transformed between 1975 and 1978 into a mass killing ground under the orders of infamous despot Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge regime. Removing prisoners from the S-21 prison (now Tuol Sleng Museum in Phnom Penh), around 17,000 men, women and children were transported here to be murdered without ‘wasting bullets’. The remains of 8,895 people were exhumed from mass graves in 1980 and many skulls are on display graphically showing the brutal way they were killed.
Visitor info: Open daily from 7:30 am to 5:30 pm, admission to the Killing Fields costs $6 including an audio tour. Most hotels in Phnom Penh can also put you in touch with a local tour guide.