Skip to Content

10 Famous Prisons Around the World

Once housed in some of the world's most notorious prisons, the prisoners could never have thought that their forbidding homes would one day become tourist attractions.

These prisons were either home to famous prisoners, well-known from literature, or synonymous with cruelty, which gives them a macabre interest for visitors.

Whatever the reasons, many such places are now firmly on the tourist map.

Alcatraz in San Francisco is one of the most famous prisons in the United States (photo: Dave Lee)
Alcatraz (photo: Dave Lee)

World Famous Prisons

1. Alcatraz, USA

When considering famous prisons, Alcatraz military prison is the one that springs most readily to mind.

It's America's best-known federal prison and was its first maximum security prison. Famous inmates include Al Capone and Robert “Birdman” Stroud.

The prison is situated on Alcatraz Island, a rocky island in San Francisco Bay and considered impossible to escape from, although 36 men have tried throughout its history.

Closed in 1963, the island and the former supermax prison are now open to tourists. Tours cost between $28 and $60, depending on the length and type and the boat trip out to the island.

Visitors can see the cells, including the “hole” (solitary confinement), and experience what it was like to be an inmate. There is also a popular night tour of this U.S. penitentiary.

Tower of London (photo: Amy Leigh Barnard)
Tower of London (photo: Amy Leigh Barnard)

2. The Tower of London, England

Alcatraz only operated for 20 years, but one of the world's most visited prisons was used much longer. The Tower of London, home of Britain's Crown Jewels, was once a notorious prison.

Built in the 11th century, it was a prison up to the mid-20th century. This puts it among a handful of the world's oldest prisons.

This building has seen many notorious inmates, including Henry VI, Anne Boleyn, Rudolph Hess, and several Scottish kings.

A tour of the Tower includes a visit to the cells with an audio tour and interactive displays of prison life. Visitors can also see Tower Green, where executions took place.

The Tower is open daily and costs £17.60 to £20 for an adult. Family tickets are also available.

Touring Robben Island, South Africa's most famous prison (photo: Dave Lee)
Touring Robben Island (photo: Dave Lee)

3. Robben Island, South Africa

Robben Island in South Africa is known for one extremely famous prisoner – Nelson Mandela. Another island prison, it is seven miles off Cape Town.

Although a prison for centuries, from 1959, it was a maximum-security facility for political prisoners. Over 3,000 of them were held here between 1961 and 1991, including Nelson Mandela.

The last prisoners left Robben Island in 1996, and in that year, it became a museum and a national monument of South Africa. Tours cost R230 for adults and R120 for children.

They take about three hours and include the return boat trip to the island, plus a visit to the prison and a chance to talk to a former prisoner.

Chateau d'If prison in France (photo: Jan Drewes)
Chateau d'If (photo: Jan Drewes)

4. Château d'If, France

Nelson Mandela was a real prisoner, but another famous island prison was home to fiction's best-known prisoners – the Count of Monte Cristo.

Château d'If is located off the coast of Marseille, and even if the Count of Monte Cristo was fictional, it did hold many real prisoners from the mid-1600s to the end of the 1800s.

Alexandre Dumas's book, The Count of Monte Cristo, was based on the island, and its success made Château d'If famous.

Two adjacent cells are named after Edmond Dantes and Abbe Faria, the main characters in the book. Dantes escaped from the island in the story, though nobody is believed to have done this in reality.

Ferries go to the island from Marseille, and an individual return ticket will cost €5. The entrance to the Chateau is €5.50, though there are concession prices and family tickets.

5. Devil's Island, French Guiana

Another famous French prison is on Devil's Island. This was also immortalized by a book and a film, though the story is true in this case. Devil's Island is in the Caribbean, off the coast of French Guiana.

It was open for 90 years from 1832, and around 80,000 prisoners spent time there. As with all island prisons, it was designed to be almost impossible to escape from, and the thick jungles and infested waters around it did make it so.

Albert Dreyfus was imprisoned there, but Devil's Island became famous when Henri Charriere, a former inmate, wrote a book about his successful escape. The film “Papillon” was made later.

The prison closed in 1952, and the restored historic buildings became a tourist attraction. It is possible to take tours of the island, and many visitors go there on an excursion from cruise ships that pass by.

Elmina Castle in Ghana (photo: Peace Itimi)
Elmina Castle (photo: Peace Itimi)

6. Elmina Castle, Ghana

The next two prisons are famous for the same terrible reason—both once housed enslaved people en route to the New World.

The first one is the Elmina Castle in Ghana. On the Cape Coast, just west of Accra, it was a holding prison for enslaved people for 300 years, with as many as 200 people in a cell.

At its peak, over 30,000 enslaved people passed through its doors annually. Elmina Castle reached worldwide fame when President Obama visited in 2009.

It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A tour of the castle with a guide costs around $0.50.

Goree Island in Senegal (photo: Jean Luc Angrand)
Goree Island (photo: Jean Luc Angrand)

7. Goree Island, Senegal

Another UNESCO World Heritage Site is Goree Island in Senegal. This was also a holding prison for enslaved people. It was known as the House of Slaves until the French abolition of slavery in 1848.

Many African-Americans come here to find out more about their roots, and it has also been visited by Nelson Mandela, George Bush, and Bill Clinton.

Goree Island also has a school, a university, Botanical Gardens, and a museum of the history and culture of Senegal.

Ferries are available from Dakar all day and run frequently. The prices are not high, and Full-day tours can also be booked from Dakar.

A cell block at Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Cambodia (photo: Bjørn Christian Tørrissen)
A cell block at Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (photo: Bjørn Christian Tørrissen)

8. Tuol Sleng, Cambodia

Southeast Asia is also home to two infamous and dangerous prisons, now tourist attractions. The first is Tuol Sleng in Cambodia.

The brutal Khmer Rouge opened this prison in 1975. It was only open for four years, but over 17,000 male inmates passed through its gates. Few made it out because it was a place of torture and execution.

Tuol Sleng became a museum soon after its closure as a prison. It is a memorial to all those killed during the Khmer Rouge regime.

The museum shows cells as they were at the time of the prison's operation and photographic exhibits.

The museum is just outside Phnom Penh and is open daily. There is no cost to go to the museum, but donations are welcome.

Hanoi Hilton, a well-known prison in Vietnam(photo: Kelisi)
Hanoi Hilton (photo: Kelisi)

9. Hoa Lo Prison, Vietnam

Hoa Lo Prison in Hanoi, Vietnam, is nestled somewhat incongruously at the foot of an imposing high-rise in the city center.

Once a French prison, it was called the “Hanoi Hilton” by the Americans imprisoned there during the Vietnam War.

The most famous prisoner was U.S. presidential candidate John McCain, whose flying suit is displayed in the museum.

The French originally built the prison for political prisoners, and many of Vietnam's leading independence fighters spent time there.

Exhibitions show these former inmates' harsh conditions, many of whom served life sentences, lived in.

There are also exhibitions relating to the American POWs, but they don't reflect the real horror shared by those released after the end of the Vietnam War.

The prison complex museum is open daily. The entrance is just 5,000 dong.

Port Arthur penitentiary ruins in Tasmania (photo: Keith Davey)
Penitentiary ruins (photo: Keith Davey)

10. Port Arthur, Tasmania

Finally, Port Arthur in Tasmania is another prison worth visiting. Once a penal colony, it is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It operated from 1833 until the 1850s and housed the most dangerous criminals.

You can still visit the prison, the hospital, the church, and the insane asylum. The prison was located on a peninsula surrounded by rough seas.

It was virtually impossible to escape with just a narrow strip of land known as Eaglehawk Neck connecting it to the mainland that vicious dogs patrolled.

There are various entrance fees valid for a half-day, full-day, or two-day visit. The full-day and two-day passes include lunch and snacks, and there is also a night tour, which includes dinner.

_______

This post is provided in partnership with TravelSupermarket.com.

Planning a trip? Go Backpacking recommends:

Matt Ferrantino

Saturday 4th of August 2012

Azkaban is famous-er now. Maybe it shouldn't be. But it probably totally is. I don't even think any of the various minor or major Dark Towers in Middle-Earth have the notoriety of Azkaban. Azkaban is like the Ultimate Platonic Ideal of a Prison. Freaking Dementors, man. Freakin. Dementors.

Will - Gap Daemon

Monday 7th of May 2012

Am going to make it my goal to be interred in every single one of these! Don't much fancy staying anywhere McCain did though...

Dave

Tuesday 8th of May 2012

On the list, I've only been to Robben Island so far, but it's well worth the 1/2 day trip from Cape Town. It's crazy to stand within Nelson Mandela's old cell. Hard to imagine how someone can live in such a confined space for so long, and not go crazy.

Stephen

Tuesday 1st of May 2012

I just visited Hoa Lo Prison in Hanoi and it was kind of weird to visit the two rooms with displays of the American POWs. It was just hard to believe that it was all holiday celebrations and ping pong games and big smiles on the former American pilots that were shot down over Hanoi. Maybe the Vietnamese were trying to show them the great hospitality of socialists, but still they presented it like being a POW was literally fun and games.

Also the price has now been upped to 20,000 dong.

Comments are closed.