In 1964, an anti-apartheid revolutionary named Nelson Mandela was arrested and brought to South Africa’s Robben Island, just west of Cape Town. He would spend the next 18 years imprisoned in an 8x7-foot cell, forced to do hard labor, and permitted only one visitor a year. Even so, Mandela went on to become his country’s first black president, a Nobel Peace Prize recipient, and known globally for his significant contributions to human rights and social justice.
Robben Island—where most of Mandela’s 27-year prison sentence was served—was a place of isolation for nearly 300 years, housing many political prisoners and serving as both a lunatic asylum and leper colony. Today, the island remains a tangible symbol of political freedom and a reminder of the difficult road to South African democracy. Read on to learn more about how to visit this UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Most tours depart from Cape Town and include transport from city hotels, the boat trip to the island, and time at the former maximum security prison. Upon arrival on Robben Island, general tours start aboard a bus. Oftentimes, island tour guides are former political prisoners who can share information about South Africa’s history, as well as their own firsthand experiences. Custom and private tours are also available, while others combine a trip to the island with a Cape Town city tour or Table Mountain visit.
Best Things to Do When Visiting Robben Island
Once on the island, you’ll be able to see human rights activist and former prisoner Robert Sobukwe’s house; a 17th-century limestone quarry where Mandela and others were put to work; a leper colony cemetery; and the Robben Island Museum, dedicated to preserving the memory and contributions of the freedom fighters once held within its walls. Some tours also include access to Mandela’s cell.
The 30-minute boat or ferry rides to the island can be choppy at times depending on the weather. If you’re prone to motion sickness, it’s a smart idea to come prepared.
If you need a snack, food and drink are available for purchase on the island.