Dark Tourism Destinations: Where Will You Go Next?

For many years, the main appeal for most people on holiday was to relax. Travellers sought out destinations with white sandy beaches and warm ocean temperatures. Throw in a sun lounger and this was the perfect holiday.

The Rise of the Dark Tourism Destination

However, recent years have seen a shift in the type of experience that travellers are looking for, with many hoping to return from their trip wiser than before they left. Coupled with the airing of the Netflix show Dark Tourist, a whole new kind of traveller has emerged. 

The motivation behind visiting dark tourism destinations is to explore places that are associated with death and suffering. It might sound morbid on the surface but there is plenty to learn about history from exploring dark tourism sites. 

As dark tourism has moved into the mainstream, long-abandoned places have sparked interest within the community. As such, dark tourism destinations are now visited more than ever before. 

Despite it’s emerging popularity, dark tourism is a highly controversial travel style and one which has long raised ethical questions. Sadly, travellers have not always been known to act responsibly when visiting dark tourism destinations. This has led others to call into question the motivation for visiting these kinds of sites. 

Although I understand such criticisms, I am a firm believer in visiting dark tourism destinations responsibly. There is so much to be learnt by visiting these sites and I would encourage others to check out some of these destinations for themselves, rather than just reading about them. After all, travel is not just about seeing the best of the world but instead, opening ourselves up to the reality of life on planet Earth, whether it be good or bad. 

For avid explorers looking where to visit next or for those currently toying with the idea of visiting a dark tourism destination, I, along with some of my travel blogging friends, have compiled a list of dark tourism sites to inspire your next visit. 

Dark Tourism Destinations

Sucre Cemetery – Sucre, Bolivia

Sucre Cemetery graves in block
Sucre Cemetery is a place much visited by locals and tourists alike!

I have always been fascinated by cemeteries. Instead of finding them creepy, they are always places where I have found peace and I believe that they are very pleasant places to visit. However, this hasn’t always been met with understanding. 

In the UK, we have a very strange attitude towards death which seems to treat this natural part of life as something to be hushed away and not talked about. When I told one of my friends I had spent my free college hour hanging out in the cemetery reading a book, she was very confused and told me I was weird. 

I don’t think it is weird at all, after all, why wouldn’t you want to visit a beautiful and peaceful outdoor space? Despite all of my opinions about the tranquillity of cemeteries, I will still confess I was surprised to see one feature on the Sucre tourist map. 

Sucre Cemetery is one of Bolivia’s capital city’s most famous attractions. This doesn’t just go for tourists either, locals also come there to catch up with friends, study and also to pay homage to the dearly departed. 

After seeing the cemetery feature on the map, I knew I wanted to visit. However, I was a little concerned about being intrusive, especially when I knew I could meet people who were in the grips of their grief. I didn’t want the fact that I had visited with no personal connection to be an insult to the people who held this place in their hearts. 

Upon entering the cemetery, I was surprised to see just how well maintained it was. A beautiful green space stretched out ahead of me and manicured bushes danced in the wind at the path’s edge. There was no denying that this cemetery was visually stunning. 

As I walked around, I took note of the graves. Unlike in the cemeteries I was used to seeing, it was arranged into a block system above ground to save space. It was apparent that this is not just a place where people come to be buried either, the vast majority of the graves were carefully tended to and even contained gifts for loved ones. Small bottles of spirits were a common sight inside the graves, along with slices of cake!

Although my visit to Sucre Cemetery was unlike any other I had seen, I had a hugely positive experience. The locals were very welcoming and never once made me feel like I was intruding. They approach death with such an open mind which means that these kinds of spaces aren’t the dreary places they are elsewhere in the world. Surely, it is only by accepting the inevitability of death that we can begin to deal with it when it comes? 

Contributed by Sheree at Winging the World.

Paneriai Massacre Site – Vilnius, Lithuania

Paneriai Massacre Site - Vilnius, Lithuania
Thousands of people were murdered at Paneriai.

Paneriai was once a small village just outside of Lithuania’s capital city, Vilnius. Today, it is one of Vilnius’ many neighbourhoods. Although there are homes and shops within Paneriai (also sometimes called by its Polish name, Ponary), it will be forever remembered as a Nazi massacre site.

The Baltics are often overlooked as a victim of the Nazi regime but the Jewish populations of the Baltic states were almost completely eradicated. Vilnius, in particular, had a rather large Jewish population and consequently the largest ghetto in the region, Vilna Ghetto.

The Paneriai Massacres began in July 1941. The Einsatzgruppen (Nazi death squads) rounded up groups of Jews from the Vilna Ghetto, took them to Paneriai, executed them and forced other Jewish prisoners to dig mass graves and bury them.

There are six burial sites within the complex, each the site of multiple mass executions. Because so many sets of bodies are stacked on each other, it is impossible to know the exact number of deaths. However, it is estimated to be around 100,000. If this number is correct, it is said that around 70,000 were Jews, 20,000 Polish intelligentsia and 8,000 – 10,000 Soviet POWs.

Those brought to Paneriai were burned to death in an attempt to destroy evidence of the massacres. They were then shovelled in to the pits, which today are marked with memorials. The 80 men and women responsible for disposing of the bodies knew they would not leave alive and began to devise an escape plan. They managed to dig a tunnel from the bunker they were held in. Sadly, only 22 of the 80 managed to escape and the fates of nine remain unknown.

Like many of the massacre sites in the Baltics, Paneriai is a forested area. This makes walking around a surreal experience as it is quiet, peaceful and beautiful, a stark contrast to the memorials reminding you that thousands of people were slaughtered there.

Within Paneriai there is a small museum, which tells the story of the excavation of the site, as well as those who lived through it. Hearing their stories, it was unnerving to confront the realisation that they were forced to carry and burn the bodies of friends, relatives, even children. All while knowing they were next.

Getting to Paneriai from Vilnius is quite simple. Take the train to Paneriai station and following the brown signs which point to the site. It is a 15-minute walk from the station in a straight line.

Submitted by Dagney and Jeremy of Cultura Obscura. Follow their dark travels on Facebook!

St. Nicholas’ Church – Hamburg, Germany

St. Nicholas' Church, Hamburg
St. Nicholas’ Church stands as a memorial to the victims of World War II.

I’ll never forget my experience visiting St. Nicholas’ Church in Hamburg, Germany.

Once the highest building in the world, St. Nicholas’ Church was one of five major Lutheran churches in Hamburg.  A permanent, brick church has been on the site since the 14th century but it was almost completely destroyed by fire in the 19th century. It was rebuilt in neo-Gothic style and completed in 1874. The city of Hamburg was deservedly very proud of this architecturally important monument to God.

In July 1943, Hamburg was the target of an allied aerial bombing in Operation Gomorrah. The tall spire of St. Nicholas’ Church was used as an orientation marker and this beautiful building was almost completely destroyed. All that remained were some external walls, the crypt and most of the tower.

After the war, the citizens of Hamburg decided not to rebuild the church. Instead, most of the structure was demolished, leaving only the tower and the crypt. The city was rebuilt around the ruins of the church.

St. Nicholas’ Church is now a memorial to the victims of World War Two. We visited the church on a walking tour of Hamburg and the experience of being there still haunts me. It struck me that I had never been in a place that had experienced such total destruction as had happened in Hamburg.

As I walked through the WWII memorial exhibits in the ruins of the church, I learned how the aerial bombing of Hamburg created a firestorm that lasted for days. I felt like I could never understand how horrifying the experience must have been for ordinary Germans citizens during such a conflagration. I understood that the vast majority of people in Hamburg during Operation Gomorrah would have been perfectly ordinary citizens going about their daily lives – people just like me. It honestly shook me to my core.

The memorial exhibits in the crypt of St. Nicholas’ Church provide many details of the events leading up to Operation Gomorrah, the air war over Europe and its disastrous consequences. Beautiful pieces of sculpture illustrate the futility of war. A 51-bell carillon was installed in the tower in 1993 as a memorial.

It’s been a few years since I visited St. Nicholas’ Church and I still think about it every time I hear or read something about the events of WWII.  It made the notion of war feel like more than just history. The reality is that war is awful things happening to ordinary people, just like you and me.

Contributed by Lesley of Freedom 56 Travel. Follow her on Twitter!

Comuna 13 – Medellin, Colombia

Comuna 13 slums
Comuna 13 was once under the control of drug cartels.

Medellin was named the most dangerous city in the entire world in 1988 when the infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar held control over the city. During this period, crime was extremely high and even higher in an area called Comuna 13. 

The reason Comuna 13 had such a high crime rate was because it had direct access to the main highway, making drug shipments, transportation of weapons and exporting of other illegal goods extremely easy. Comuna 13 became a very dangerous and violent place as drug cartels fought over control of this area. It was not uncommon to see dead bodies on the street, hear gunshots throughout the day and also to learn of other terrifying things happening throughout this neighbourhood. 

Even after Pablo Escobar’s death, friction and tension between the far-left, far-right and the drug cartels made Comuna 13 a war zone. Families were rarely seen leaving their houses and at times had to stay indoors for days in a row because of how dangerous it was. With a dark history like that, it might come as a surprise that Comuna 13 is now one of the most visited tourist neighbourhoods in Medellin. 

Recently, the mayor of Medellin decided to invest a tremendous amount of money into Comuna 13. First, the mayor constructed a cable car system that links Comuna 13 with the city centre. Inside the district, the mayor created one of the few public transport escalators in the world that exists on a hill. Providing so much infrastructure to Comuna 13, the neighbourhood today is much better than it was before. 

Locals in the area are trying to forget their pasts and are instead redirecting their energy towards creative outlets such as arts and dance. If you visit you can see a lot of graffiti surrounding the area revolving around the idea of hope and change. You may also see the only hip-hop dance troop in the area: Black and White. Though it looks nice and calm on the outside, Comuna 13 still houses some of the poorest residents in the entire city. It would not be surprising if there is still a more sinister underbelly lying beneath the surface of the peace and calm.

Contributed by Sean of LivingOutLau. Follow him on Instagram! 

Gulag Labour Camps – Karaganda, Kazakhstan

Karaganda Kazakhstan
Karaganda is a relatively unheard of place – except by dark tourists.

My trip to Kazakhstan left a deep impression on me. Most of all because of its dark history that we know so little about in the West. Of course, I did learn in school about the Soviet Union and Stalin’s repression. I had heard about the so-called gulags but I did not know that most of them were in what is nowadays Kazakhstan.

I also did not know that these labour camps were not only used for political prisoners. Stalin deported whole ethnic groups that he found suspicious to the remotest corners of Kazakhstan. This is how during the Second World War the Volga Germans ended up in Karaganda.

Karaganda became the centre of attention for Stalin who wanted to develop the farms and coal mines. A network of labour camps was set up in the area to support his projects. Political prisoners and deportees provided the free labour that was necessary.

Even though not much of the labour camps remain, Karaganda is the perfect destination for dark tourists. First of all, there is the excellent Gulag Museum that is in the former headquarters of the labour camp in Dolinka. The museum talks about the camp itself and Soviet repression in Kazakhstan in general.

In Karaganda, there are two other museums well worth a visit as a dark tourist. The Regional Museum also discusses the Soviet repression, although more from the perspective of the Kazakh people rather than the prisoners. In fact, Kazakh people also suffered tremendously when they were forcibly settled in collective farms and had to end their nomadic way of life in which they were self-sufficient.

The Ecological Museum also covers other dark parts of Soviet history of which the consequences are still felt today. The museum has an exhibition on the nuclear tests done in Kazakhstan and the debris that falls from the sky from the space program in Baikonur. Karaganda is only 4 hours from the capital of Nursultan and is a must-visit if you are into dark tourism.

Contributed by Ellis of Backpack Adventures. Follow her on Instagram! 

Chernobyl Exclusion Zone – Kyiv, Ukraine

Chernobyl - abandoned bumper cars
The damage that the explosion at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant caused was unprecedented.

The abandoned amusement park of Pripyat is one of dark tourism’s crowning images. The haunting stills of the fairground that never heard the laughs of children hang in modern consciousness, a symbol of tragic loss and a warning of the mistakes men can make. 

In 1986, the nuclear reactor at the Chernobyl Power Plant exploded, the worst nuclear accident in the world’s history. The effects were huge; people were forced to evacuate their homes and the surrounding areas became a hotbed of radiation. It was predicted that never again in our lifetime, would Chernobyl be inhabited by anything living. 

Ever since learning about the accident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, I had always been intrigued by the place and had longed to visit. It wasn’t as simple as hopping on a bus and heading there though; this area is forbidden to enter without a guide and a permit.  

The trip required a bit of planning but once we were there, it was like walking around the set of a horror film. All the buildings were abandoned but personal belongings still lay behind, as if their owner would be back to collect them. The surrounding forest has been left to grow wild and trees soar up through the long-left houses. 

The only sign of recent life is the movement of things by the stalkers, Chernobyl’s very own illegal aliens. As only permit holders can legally pass through the gates of the exclusion zone, it is not easy to gain access into Pripyat and the surrounding areas. However, for some, the covert nature of exploring under the radar is exactly the appeal.

Surprisingly, the Chernobyl exclusion zone has recovered quicker than was ever predicted. Although there are still risks with spending long periods in the exclusion zone, wild animals have returned to make this area their home and are thriving. As a visitor, there is little risk. In fact, your radiation exposure will probably be higher on your flight over to Ukraine than during your tour around the exclusion zone. However, this doesn’t make this place any less creepy. 

Chernobyl’s recovery is unprecedented but also acts as a very sobering reminder of the damage humanity can do without meaning. The ecological future of Chernobyl may not always be bleak but there is no doubt that the suffering and devastation will last forever. 

Contributed by Sheree at Winging the World. 

The Eruption of Mount Vesuvius – Pompeii, Italy

Pompeii human casts
The ash emitted by Mount Vesuvius preserved the shape of the bodies which were later filled with plaster and displayed at the site.

It may be easy to feel disconnected from tragedies in ancient history compared to modern ones but Pompeii has a way of getting into our hearts. 

Pompeii was a thriving coastal city in Italy that was completely destroyed in 79AD when the neighbouring Mount Vesuvius erupted and covered the city in ash. What makes this even more tragic was that the majority of people who died were slaves, who either had no means of escaping or were simply trapped. 

When archaeologists began excavating the site they found several bodies. The ash had preserved their shape and since the body had decomposed there was a hollowed-out area which archaeologists filled with plaster, creating the human casts we see on the site today. 

Seeing these casts, in crouching positions and covering their faces, gave me shivers. Whilst these were dark moments, the rest of the visit was much more light-hearted. Similar to the bodies, the volcano preserved the entire city quite well. In fact, we can enter into the remains of buildings like the bathhouse, brothel and amphitheatre. We can also visit the houses of the rich and poor where there are even frescoes and carvings still visible on the walls. 

Many historians say that Pompeii is one of the best sites to visit in order to get an accurate depiction of what daily life was like during the Roman Empire. It tells us about people’s living conditions, how and what they ate and where they gathered socially and for government purposes. We also find out that the wealthy and poor mixed, with their houses located side-by-side.

Because the city is exposed, it’s quite hot to visit during the summer. In addition, it gets packed with people, especially around midday. It is best to visit early in the morning to avoid the crowds. 

The roads are uneven so you’re going to want good walking shoes. To get a greater understanding of the site and everything inside of it, I highly suggest finding a good tour guide. This photographic travel guide to Pompeii gives lots more tips for planning a visit. 

Contributed by Natasha of And Then I Met Yoko. Follow Natasha on Instagram!

Mary King’s Close – Edinburgh, United Kingdom 

Mary Kings Close
The residents of Mary King’s Close in Edinburgh were hit by the bubonic plague.

Below the Royal Mile in Edinburgh hides an underground street paved with a dark history. Mary King’s Close was alive with residents when the bubonic plague seized the country in 1645. The grievous epidemic turned the once-thriving close into a dreadful place, where flea-covered rats infected the thousands of people who called the overcrowded, winding closes of Edinburgh home.

Mary King’s Close was sealed off and used as a foundation for the Royal Exchange in the late 1700’s. Years passed as the air and history lay stagnant inside the close, keeping its terrible secrets trapped within the dark walls. In the 1990’s, the close was discovered and opened to the public, allowing people to explore the subterranean streets that once festered with disease. 

When the plague hit Edinburgh, people were unsure of how to treat the outbreak. Most believed it was caused by rank airborne odours. The truth was that it was caused by diseased, flea-ridden rats. The incorrect belief resulted in the creation of a new form of doctor — the plague doctor. This specialist medical practitioner was covered head-to-toe in a leather cloak, with a strange bird-like mask filled with pleasant-smelling herbs to keep the unhealthy vapours out. These alarming outfits were incredibly effective at keeping the doctors safe from rat bites and subsequently, the plague.

Visiting Mary King’s Close is like stepping back in time as you descend the dark staircase and leave the present world far behind. Walking down the steps into a land of dirt-lined paths, concrete walls and the stale air of the past transported me back nearly 400 years. I felt the heaviness enclosed within the small walkways and tiny rooms that were once brimming with life. The sad truth of all who lost their lives to the plague was still lingering in the dank atmosphere of the underground streets. The horrible history of the bleak living conditions sat heavy on my chest. 

The mental image of the street once bustling with life left a lump in my throat as the locals had no idea how many would lose their lives to the Great Plague. The entire city of Edinburgh is filled with dark tales and spooky places, like Mary King’s Close.

Today you can visit Mary King’s Close as part of a tour, where you can follow a guide plucked out of history who recounts the tales of those who lived within the close and the impact the illness that swept through the country had on their lives.

Mary King’s Close is located on the Royal Mile at 2 Warriston’s Close. The close is a very popular tourist destination, be sure to reserve your guided tour prior to arrival to avoid disappointment. 

Contributed by Crystal at Wandering Crystal. Follow her spooky adventures on Instagram!

The Killing Fields and S-21 – Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Killing Fields mass grave, Cambodia
The Killing Fields of Cambodia feature on many travellers Phnom Penh itineraries.

Cambodia is home to the Killing Fields that saw execution, starvation and disease kill an estimated 1.7 million to 3 million people. Before Vietnam invaded in 1979, the Khmer Rouge was led by Pol Pot who through brutal and inhumane policies created many sites of mass killing around Cambodia.

Today a number of these sites still stand to educate and inform visitors about the dark history of Cambodia. Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city, is home to the most well-known mass killing site and also S-21, an infamous political prison of the regime. By taking a tour of the Cambodian Killing Fields from Phnom Penh, you will visit both sites and learn much about the dark period of history that shaped the country.

While there are said to be over 20,000 mass graves throughout the country, Choeung Ek is the largest of these and sits just outside the capital. As you walk the paths around the site, you’ll find the information is difficult to swallow. There is a memorial stupa filled with skulls of victims and you can see bone fragments and strips of clothing in many patches along the paths.

During a tour of the Cambodian Killing Fields, you will visit S-21, also known as Tuol Sleng, a political prison of the Khmer Rouge. Over 12,000 prisoners were held here during the years the regime ruled Cambodia and with only 7 known survivors, it’s a place known for unthinkable torture and suffering. Once a high school, the museum showcases the faces of those who suffered at the hands of the prison. There is also information regarding those who ran this awful place.

Make no mistake, this is not an easy place to visit and a tour will not instil happy thoughts and feelings. It’s incredibly difficult to walk these halls and see the marks left by those trying to survive this dark period of human history. However, it is important to see and try to understand why it happened to ensure history doesn’t repeat itself.

Contributed by Ben at Horizon Unknown. Follow his adventures on Facebook!

Abandoned Ghost Palace – Bali, Indonesia

Bali abandoned hotel
Bali’s abandoned hotel is officially closed to visitors.

Located in northern Bali near the village of Bedugul, lies an abandoned hotel. No one seems to know the full story behind it but the most likely scenario is that in the early 1990’s the hotel started being built by Tommy Suharto, the youngest son of former Indonesian President Suharto.

Tommy was convicted of ordering the assassination of a judge who had previously found him guilty of corruption and subsequently he went to prison. The hotel was never completed.

Another story floating around, that I think fits perfectly with how this place feels, is that the hotel is haunted with the landlocked souls of labourers who were worked to death during its construction.

The hotel, originally named “Hotel Pondok Indah Bedugul”, technically isn’t open for visitors but all you need to do is hand the “security guard” near the bamboo fence at the entrance, 10,000 IDR and he’ll let you in to explore.

The vibe inside is so creepy. You can feel the souls around you. It’s an incredible experience to wander around an empty hotel with nature engulfing it. The floors can be quite slippery from mud and rain; I also noticed some random oil in some rooms too. Be careful where you walk and tread slowly and quietly.

The hotel rooms were never finished and have vines growing through the windows. The bathrooms are covered in spiderwebs as well as sand and dust and the old reception desk at the front was never used. The view at the top of the hotel overlooking the valley is scary but beautiful. It’s a spooky place to visit but I absolutely loved it and it really is a once in a lifetime experience.

I recommend seeing it as soon as possible because rumours say that visitors will no longer be permitted entrance (even with a bribe) because of how dangerous it is with parts of the roof collapsing.

Contributed by Nat of Nat Wanderlust, follow her on Instagram!

Auschwitz-Birkenau – Oświęcim, Poland

Auschwitz Birkenau in snow
Auschwitz -Birkenau is one of the most famous dark tourism sites.

The “Final Solution to the Jewish Question” was the official code name by the Nazis for the murder of all Jews within reach during World War II. At least 1.3 million people, predominantly Jews, were sent to Auschwitz by the Nazis and a shocking 1.1 million people were murdered by the SS, mainly by gas chambers.

Auschwitz-Birkenau is on two different sites. Auschwitz I comprises brick buildings with Death Block at the end where people were gassed. You are shown around the blocks where prisoners lived, were tortured and endured medical testing. 

I cried in horror seeing the piles of shoes, suitcases and false legs on display that once belonged to someone. Human hair was used to make felt for socks given to the forces in submarines – 293 sacks of hair were found on liberation. Words cannot describe the roller coaster of emotions you have upon hearing about this horrific dark chapter in our history.

Auschwitz II, known as Birkenau, was opened as they could not cope with the sheer scale of death at Auschwitz I. On arrival you see the famous train tracks where people were transported in and with one look by SS doctors, you were either sent to the gas chamber or a horrific regime of labour whilst living in wooden stables. Most were emaciated after 3 months so were gassed and replaced with new prisoners. The chimneys from the underground gas chambers rose above the snow, some were blown up by the Nazis in an attempt to hide evidence as they fled.

I visited Birkenau in December when it was a chilling -6 degrees but it wasn’t just this that made me numb. It is hard to comprehend that it would be considered right to eradicate a whole race. The Auschwitz-Birkenau tour was not a comfortable visit and my eyes were full of tears throughout. However, I do feel we have a moral duty to educate all generations about the atrocities caused by the Nazis. 

You can make the tour on your own by train and bus but it is easier to catch a tour from Krakow that includes a guide and transportation from your hotel. Either way, I recommend having a guide at Auschwitz-Birkenau as you will learn a lot more history and background of what happened in that terrible place. The Auschwitz-Birkenau tour is an experience I will never forget.

Contributed by Vanessa from Wanders Miles, follow her on Instagram!

Day of the Dead – Oaxaca, Mexico 

Day of Dead - bride and groom
The Mexican Day of the Dead festival occurs annually.

The Mexican Day of the Dead festival is a darkly uplifting event that occurs each year between October 31st and November 2nd. On these days, family and friends celebrate the lives of loved ones passed. It is widely believed that for three days each year, the veil between this world and the next is especially thin. 

During the Day of the Dead festival, the spirits of departed loved ones return to provide counsel or give advice to their living family members and friends. Much of the reunion is celebrated within the cemetery, where graves are cleaned and decorated for the occasion. On certain nights, the families and friends spend the whole night within the cemetery eating sugar skull sweets, drinking alcohol and singing and playing music. 

To ensure the safe return of the loved one, the streets and houses are decorated with marigold flowers along with pictures of the departed and their favourite food and drinks. These are called ofrendas and they are a kind of altar that can be seen all over the streets and inside houses in the days leading up to the Day of the Dead festival. The ofrendas act as a form of enticement, guidance and sustenance for the spirit of the loved one as they make their way back to earth.

Tourists are very much invited to join in on the festivities in Oaxaca, Mexico. There are parades in the main streets, music, art and markets. The cemeteries are open 24 hours during this time and there will be many other tourists around. As long as you are on your best behaviour, you will likely be welcomed with open arms by other Mexicans participating in the festival.

Day of the Dead is celebrated a little differently all over Mexico and it has roots in the Aztec, Toltec and Nahua traditions dating back thousands of years. For these cultures, it was understood that death was a natural phase in life and it was disrespectful to mourn the dead. To these people, the dead were still active members of the community, giving counsel and guidance. Nowadays, UNESCO recognises ‘Dia de Los Muertos’ as being ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity’.

Experiencing the Day of the Dead is a once in a lifetime opportunity; especially in Oaxaca where visiting graves is commonplace. You may find that everything you have ever thought about death is turned upside down and you’ll never be the same again.

Contributed by Crystal of Castaway With Crystal. Follow her on Instagram here! 

‘Red Terror’ Martyrs’ Museum – Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Many of the guides at the Red Terror Martyrs’ Museum were former victims of the regime.

When Ethiopia’s Emperor Haile Selassie was ousted by the country’s military in 1974, the general feeling was one of elation. In the months leading up to his overthrow, there had been many protests against him. Selassie was seen to be living a life of luxury while his people were dying in the worst famine ever to have hit the region. When the army removed him from power and sent him into exile in a VW Beetle (considered to be the ultimate humiliation), there were scenes of jubilation in the nation’s capital, Addis Ababa.

Unfortunately, nobody in the protest movement had given much thought to what kind of regime would replace the emperor. The military junta which took power was known as the Derg. After prolonged internal wranglings, Mengistu, a soldier from the ranks, emerged as their leader and self-professed dictator of Ethiopia.

Within a couple of years, the Derg had created an atmosphere of terror among ordinary Ethiopians, tens of thousands of whom had been imprisoned without trial and tortured, or worse, executed. Intellectuals and bright youngsters were targeted. Every one of Selassie’s cabinet of 60 highly educated men was murdered. Opposition groups and civilians were slaughtered.

The term ‘Red Terror’ comes from a famous speech given by Mengistu when he smashed what he said was a bottle of blood to illustrate the killings to come. His regime is estimated to be responsible for the deaths of between 1.2 and 2 million Ethiopians.

Today, the horrors of Mengistu’s years in power are remembered in the ‘Red Terror’ Martyrs’ Museum in Addis Ababa. Opened in 2010, this small museum graphically shows the atrocities carried out.  

Photos of victims cover entire walls alongside displays of human remains recovered from mass graves and instruments of torture. Where skeletons have been identified, families have brought poignant mementoes to the museum (photos, diaries, watches, etc.) to leave with the bones.

The museum is open from 8.30 am to 6 pm every day and is free, although donations towards the building’s upkeep and the ongoing work to identify bodies are much appreciated. I highly recommend you hire one of the official guides. Many of them were victims of Mengistu’s regime and their personal stories will add a greater meaning to the exhibits.

Our guide was imprisoned by the Derg for eight years and was regularly tortured.  He is clearly still very traumatised.  His sense of injustice is heightened by the fact that, shockingly, many of the perpetrators are now free and living under government protection in Addis! 

We came away from the Martyrs’ Museum appalled by man’s inhumanity to man and wondering if it will ever end.

Contributed by Andrea of Happy Days Travel Blog. Keep up with her travels on Facebook! 

Brno Ossuary – Brno, Czech Republic

Brno Ossuary
Brno Ossuary is the second largest ossuary in Europe.

Several of the attractions in Brno, the second-largest city in the Czech Republic, could be classed as dark tourism attractions. These include the 10-Z fallout shelter, the labyrinth of cellars and the Capuchin monastery. The one that moved me the most, though, was the ossuary underneath the St. James Church.

Surrounding this church, which is known as the ‘Kostnice u sv. Jakuba’ in Czech, was one of the main churchyard cemeteries in Brno. This cemetery was first established in the 13th century and since it was located within the city walls, it could not be expanded.

Eventually, as the city grew, there was no room left for new burials in the cemetery and so a system of grave rotation was adopted. When a burial took place, the body was left in the grave for around 10 to 12 years. After that, the grave was reused and the bones were taken out to make room for the next burial. They were then relocated to the ossuary, where displaced bones from thousands of graves were piled up on top of each other.

It’s estimated that the Brno Ossuary holds the bones of more than 50,000 people, which makes it the second-largest ossuary in Europe; only second to the Paris catacombs. The mortal remains laid to rest here include victims of the Swedish siege of Brno and the Thirty Years’ War, as well as many victims of plague and cholera epidemics.

Interestingly, the bones themselves tell the stories of their owners’ demise. Those with a yellow tint likely belonged to people who died from cholera, while those with a red hue probably died from the plague.

I found the Brno Ossuary to be an oddly beautiful and thought-provoking place that led me to reflect on just how short life is and how important it is to make every moment count. While it might be controversial to open up such a place as a tourist attraction, I felt that it was done respectfully.

In the first two of the ossuary’s three chambers, the bones and skulls are arranged in beautiful decorative patterns, transforming them into works of art. Playing in the background is calming classical music by Czech composer Miloš Štědroň, who composed the music especially for this place.

The last chamber, in contrast, shows the bones jumbled up together in a disorderly pile as they were found when the ossuary was rediscovered by chance. In 1784, churchyard cemeteries were closed down for hygienic reasons and the ossuary was gradually forgotten. The bones had originally been piled up in neat rows but at some point, water and mud flooded the ossuary and left them all jumbled up.

The ossuary was not rediscovered until 2001 and it has been open to the public since June 2012.

Contributed by Wendy of The Nomadic Vegan. Follow her travels on Instagram! 

Constitution Hill – Johannesburg, South Africa

Constitution Hill
Constitution Hill documents South Africa’s journey to democracy.

South Africa’s troubled past is no secret and even though apartheid was 25 years ago, Johannesburg and other parts of the country still struggle with racial segregation. Constitution Hill is in the heart of the CBD and it’s now a museum. However, little work has been done to hide its dark past.

The Museum tells the story of South Africa’s journey to democracy and the extraordinary events that took place along the way. It was once a place of injustice and cruel punishments and as you walk around the old cells and courtyard, you’ll feel a cold shiver run through your spine.

It’s hard to comprehend that people like Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi served time here in the 1960s, which is not that long ago. I was also horrified to discover that the prison was still operational until 1982.

The exhibitions are very informative and well presented but for a comprehensive guide through this part of history, it is best to visit the apartheid museum.

There are several main sites that you can visit at Constitution Hill.  The Old Fort is where the white male prisoners were housed. Although the cells were overcrowded and unhygienic, the rooms are larger than those of the black prisoners. The white men were not physically abused in the same way as the black prisoners.

The black prisoners were held in Block number 4, which you can also visit.  These rooms feel intimidating still today. There’s very little daylight and as I stepped inside for a quick peek, I was terrified that someone might shut the cell door behind me. There are woollen blankets laid out on the concrete floor to show how the prisoners slept. At the end of the block is the isolation cells which are genuinely harrowing. There’s virtually no daylight and they’re so small that you can touch each wall if you stand in the middle.

In the women’s jail, you can read about the undignified way in which female prisoners were kept.  No underwear or sanitary products were provided and showers had to be taken in the communal block with only cold water.

Finally, there’s the Awaiting Trial Block. Today, only four of its staircases remain. The block was demolished and the bricks were used to build South Africa’s new Constitutional Court. Thankfully this court serves to uphold the rights of all South Africans regardless of colour but the bricks are a poignant symbolic reminder of its troubled past.

The easiest way to visit Constitution Hill and the Apartheid Museum is on the Johannesburg sightseeing bus.

Contributed by Fiona of Passport and Piano. Follow her adventures on Facebook!

Shanghai Tunnels – Portland, USA

Shanghai tunnels
The Shanghai tunnels in Portland were used to keep kidnapped men before selling them as labourers to work on ships.

In a city known for the slogan ‘Keep Portland Weird,’ the Shanghai Tunnels fit right in. It’s believed that from 1850 until 1941, men in Portland, Oregon, were regularly kidnapped and sold to ship captains as labourers. During this period, there was a shortage of labour available for the city’s booming shipping industry and this created a black market. 

To capture and hold these men, underground tunnels originally built to move inventory between businesses were repurposed for illicit use. Trapdoors were even installed in some of the local bars so that drunk men would drop into the tunnel below. Here, they would stay imprisoned until their sale. Often the boots and clothes of these men were taken to minimise the possibility of their escape.

Simultaneously these tunnels became hubs of forced prostitution and also turned into opium dens. These dark and dank spaces saw an incredible volume of illegal business for a remarkable 91 years! Whilst similar crime syndicates operated in other cities along the West Coast, it is thought that the most successful of these were located in Portland, Oregon.

Today, ninety-minute tours of these tunnels are offered daily by a non-profit organisation, Shanghai Tunnels/Portland Underground. Children are permitted on the tour but should be able to handle the dark nature of the information provided. All tour participants are advised to be prepared for spending an hour in a dark and cramped space. While the nature of the tour is sad and tragic, it’s a fascinating and important part of Portland’s history.

Contributed by Wendy Lee of Empty Nesters Hit the Road.  Follow her on Facebook

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9 thoughts on “Dark Tourism Destinations: Where Will You Go Next?”

  1. Comuna 13 is spellt with only 1 -m-.

    I wonder why choose the cemetery in Sucre, when so many others are more characteristic (eg. Père Lachaise in Paris) or even ‘livelier’ (eg. in Santiago de Chile).

    Interesting & important topic though. I’m in the process of rewriting an article about the mines of Potosi. That is one dark tourism destination I strongly oppose, for one simple reason; people are still dying in there.

    Reply
    • Thanks for the heads up Anthony! 🙂

      I chose the cemetery in Sucre because it was a little bit off the beaten track – I like visiting the lesser known places as well as the more famous ones.

      I can understand your point about the mines of Potosí and can see why you disagree with it. I must say though, from my own personal experience, I found my visit to be hugely enlightening. I was initially very torn about the idea of visiting an active mine but in the end, we chose a company run by an ex-miner who took us into the mine personally. In my opinion, our visit never felt voyeuristic at all and the miners seemed very grateful for the tourists visiting. A percentage of the tour cost went directly into the funding the healthcare of the miners when needed and also towards maintenance of the mine.

      Reply
  2. Such a great and informative post, Sheree! There were so many sites here that I was not even aware of – that is why sharing posts about dark tourist sites is so important! It really helps educate the world and helps us honour the past and the lives that were lost at some of these sites.

    Like you, I am a huge fan of cemeteries. It is so wonderful that some countries treat death as a natural normal part of life (unlike some of our countries!). It really helps people remember happy memories of their loved ones they recently lost.

    Reply
    • Thanks so much for being a part of it Crystal! I also learnt about loads of new dark tourism sites – it has definitely been an eduction as there was plenty of these I had never even heard of. It is definitely important to make sure the stories behind these places get told.

      Reply
  3. Thank you for including us in this fantastic collab!

    I love how varied these sites are, and that you’ve included a lot of lesser know dark tourism destinations mixed in with some of the big ones. Even as professional dark tourists (that’s a thing, right?), we hadn’t heard of all of these places. The Shanghai Tunnels were completely new to me, but definitely want to head to Portland now.

    I’m also a little embarrassed to admit that despite being to Hamburg MANY times, I was not aware of the St. Nicholas’ Church. I blame that on the fact that I was visiting a friend and not really touristing…

    Reply
  4. Awesome post everyone! I think it is really important for people to visit at least one of these in their lifetime. I think we are jaded from the major events that happened to our world and it’s people when we are told the stories. To see the places in real life, it puts life into perspective and how crazy life can be if we don’t fight for what is right.

    Reply
    • I couldn’t agree more. Even though visiting these kinds of places is hard, I still think it is really important to help us realise the human effect of what we see on the television. As you said, it is only once you truly understand the devastation that you realise the importance of fighting for the right things.

      Reply

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