From abandoned radioactive cities to volatile warzones, there is a growing phenomenon of people going in search of the surreal and bizarre rather than the safe and predictable in their holiday choices. I’ve compiled a list of the most truly eye-popping places people will actually visit given the chance.
You really would not believe the lengths that participants of ‘Dark Tourism‘ will go through to satisfy their fascination with destinations that are known for their incredible, even brutal stories. ‘Dark Tourists’ themselves are not there to exasperate the problems they see or add to any misery, far from it. They want to go visit these former war zones, forbidden areas, forsaken and forbidden places as a form of thrill-seeking, to see something different from the everyday or just out of plain boredom!
Anyone can visit the destinations that I am about to outline here, not just seasoned dark tourists. Some vary in their levels of severity and danger. Read on to find out more about these wacky dark tourism destination ideas and the origins of dark tourism itself!
Disclaimer: I must warn you before reading – this article will cover some controversial and disturbing topics. Please only continue reading with that in mind!
The Origins of Dark Tourism
The act of visiting places for their morbid, shocking or surreal qualities have existed for as long as tourism itself. Those who visited ancient Rome from other lands would’ve naturally been drawn to the bloodlust of the mighty Coliseum. And when Pompeii was buried under volcanic ash it wasn’t just forgotten overnight. I’d bet anything that wealthy Romans visited it for many years after the incident to marvel at the destruction wrought upon their compatriots. The actual term ‘dark tourism’ was coined by two Scottish academics, John Lennon (a different one) and Malcolm Foley. In their book, they investigate the human attraction to death and destruction. They correctly pointed out that national monuments like the Tower of London, or the Berlin Wall, which draw millions of tourists today, were in their heyday both structures of cruelty and despair. With that in mind, I’m going to list what I find to be the most macabre destinations for dark tourists today.
1. Pripyat, Chernobyl – A Splendid Nuclear Wasteland
A name that almost needs no introduction. It’s been the featured setting in more than one famous video game. The nuclear power plant failure here in the 1980s added impetus to a green movement against nuclear energy all over Europe that continues to this day. And what was once a thriving city by Ukrainian standards, is now literally a ghost town. So dark tourists coming here must be sadists eager to see what a city’s downfall looks like right? Not quite.
For starters, the ecosystem of the region has been altered in ways scientists are still trying to fully understand. What has been deemed an exclusion zone to prevent people from exposing themselves to dangerous levels of radiation, functions as well as any national park would. Animals are left to their own devices and many thrive in this dystopia. Deer, boars, birdlife, rodents, and even some elk and bears are known to reside here. Why go to any run of the mill national park when you can go to this one knowing there will be nobody else there to bother you or the wildlife?
Some of the visitors here are also abandoned building enthusiasts. These people seek out derelict factories, warehouses, power plants etc. and explore them as a hobby. Chernobyl is the holy place for abandoned explorers. The old Ferris Wheel in the city centre is an iconic symbol of the people who once lived here and a favourite climbing spot. Another aspect that may attract dark tours is simply the fact that it is technically forbidden to enter. We all do things that are bad for us when we shouldn’t don’t we?
2. Cambodia – A Beautiful Country With A Shocking Past
Beautiful scenery, friendly people and….killing fields? A high one on any dark tourist’s list. This south-east Asian country has been absolutely scarred by an appalling genocide that still shapes and shocks the society to this day. The brutal Khmer Rouge regime under Pol Pot sadistically and systematically over-worked, starved to death and outright murdered millions of people between 1975 and 1979. A war with neighbouring Vietnam led to the evil regime’s overthrow and subsequent end to the killings.
But the legacy lives on. Millions of tourists are attracted to the Toul Sleng S-21 Genocide Museum in the capital Phnom Penh every year. Most shocking is the cabinets and ‘mountains’ of human skulls. Included are rooms where prisoners were held and tortured. Tourists to the killing fields have more than tripled in recent years with no end in sight to the increasing demand. Some Cambodians have even complained that over-tourism is affecting the sanctity of mass graves like Choeung Ek. It will be interesting to see if a balance can be found between the curiosities of dark tourism and respecting burial sites of the countless victims.
3. Medellín, Colombia – The Capital of Escobar’s Empire
I would preface this by saying this is one of the most gorgeous, vibrant and even safest cities in all of Colombia. However, the notorious past of the drug cartels obviously draws a dark tourist here and there! While not exactly in good taste, and I would really not run around this city shouting about Narcos as it could upset a few locals, a burgeoning tour company offers an ‘Escobar Tour’, where a chauffeur dressed as the notorious kingpin drives you around the city as a twisted role play. There are however some way better things you could do here to explore the tumultuous times of the Colombian war on drugs.
For instance, you can actually visit ‘La Catedral‘ the notorious prison lying in Honey Valley southeast of Medellín! Far from being a place of punishment, it included opulent living quarters for Escobar and his family including a plush jacuzzi, bar, rotating bed and his own troop of personal bodyguards. This ended up being the scene of a tense hostage situation and shootout between the Colombian military and Escobar’s henchmen. This to me is dark tourism at its best. A story you could hardly makeup, a filthy rich crime lord going to war with everyone in a quest for power. Luckily for Colombia and the world, he lost the war.
4. Belfast, Northern Ireland – Monuments to Tragedy
It’s 20 years since a peace agreement was signed between all the warring factions in Northern Ireland and its capital city has become a terrific place to visit since those dangerous times. The incredibly well-made Titanic Museum is quite simply a monument to carnage. Nobody ever said that dark tourism only manifests in the darker unknown crevices of the globe. Sometimes it’s the biggest attraction in town. A very shuddering part of the museum for me was how it illustrated the hopelessness as that ship sank, up to the last letters of a distress message that was never finished. The building and subsequent sinking of that gargantuan ship marked the high-watermark of Belfast as an industrial powerhouse from which it never recovered.
Taking that as the million dollar attraction in Belfast, there is something altogether rawer, more recent and likelier to cause strife than that ancient vessel. It is, of course, the Political Murals that are scattered throughout the city. They once marked the territories of divided communities during the worst of the Troubles. Today these paintings represent the feelings of the two opposing communities who now live at peace. Some condemn past atrocities and beg for a brighter future, others stand as a warning to rivals that the past is gone but not forgotten. Dark tourists may visit these murals but only as part of a guided taxi tour. Safety can’t be guaranteed to an ill-prepared tourist trying this without the guidance of the local drivers.
5. Budapest – The City of Terror
Although most people go to Budapest to party in its famous ruin bars and bath in the amazing thermal baths, there is a secretive and ominous side to the ‘Paris of the East.’ Take one of the most intense showcases of the dangers of ideologies coming before human dignity, The House of Terror. Used as a torture headquarters first by the Fascist Arrow Cross party in the dying days of the Second World War, it was then used for the very same purpose by the Communists after the Soviet victory. Foreboding music plays in the background as we are taken on a trip through paranoia, hysteria, and cruelty. Videos of witnesses and victims play on screens as they tell of their persecution at the hands of whoever held power. It’s powerful stuff – even veterans of dark tourism holidays better prepare themselves.
Close to the Danube, there’s also something worth seeing. Shoes line the banks of the river with no owners in site. It was the idea of the film director Can Togay to give remembrance to the 20,000 Jewish inhabitants of Budapest who were massacred by the banks of the river and then simply thrown in. To remember the good in people at these times, I would recommend a visit to the more uplifting Raoul Wallenberg Holocaust Memorial Park. Wallenberg was a Swedish diplomat who saved tens of thousands of Jews by issuing false Swedish passports to allow them to escape certain death. This shows that dark tourism can also be about celebrating shocking heroism as much as shocking cruelty.
6. London, UK – The Princes in the Tower
The Tower of London is an enduring symbol of the cityscape and a popular tourism attraction for its medieval appeal. Yet beneath the Instagram selfies and miniature Union Jacks, there’s a sinister history here! The infamous King Richard III, known as a usurper by most contemporary historians, is said to have imprisoned his two young nephews here and then had them killed to protect his claim to the crown. Other notable figures such as Walter Raleigh and Mary Queen of Scots were held here as well.
Although the Prince’s fate remains a mystery, we can still guess with reasonable certainty who was responsible. Yet a step further into the unknown is the gruesome case of the Whitechapel Murderer or, as the Victorian press named him, Jack the Ripper. Today known for its multicultural character, Whitechapel was one of the poorest boroughs in the city at the time. The Ripper’s murders shed light on the poverty there and inspired efforts to improve the conditions for people in the district. Today many tours operate to take curious dark tourists into the world of Victorian crime noir if they so dare!
7. The USA – Martyrs and Victims Both Famous and Unknown
The United States have a troubled history of great figures being assassinated. Starting with the shooting of President Lincoln in Ford’s Theather, to 20th-century icons such as President John F Kennedy and Civil Rights Activist Martin Luther King Jr as well as the musician John Lennon. Each site of these shocking murders can be visited and they are located across the country. Dark tourists often flocks to tragedy and these cases are no different.
Another chilling legacy in the US is that of plantations in the southern states which rebelled during the American civil war. These plantations are often used today as places for relaxing staycations or larger group events like baptisms and weddings. The Whitney Plantation in Louisiana certainly doesn’t try to avoid its past and has become a dark tourism hotspot. Visitors are given booklets each containing the story of a different slave interviews years after the civil war ended. Each has their own story of torment at the hands of their slave masters. Guests can even see an authentic ‘hot box’ where slaves who disobeyed their captors were punished by being locked in captivity under the sun for hours at a time.
8. Pompeii, Italy – Echoes of the Buried
There can be no list containing the greatest and most horrific destinations that dark tourism has to offer without mentioning the calamity of Pompeii. In 79AD Mount Vesuvius erupted, burying the nearby cities of Pompeii and lesser-known Herculaneum under metres of volcanic ash, killing thousands. We can walk these streets today and see ancient graffiti on the walls and shadows of bodies which disintegrated on the ground. Friends and loved ones clutching each other in their last moments. Visitors have been flocking here since the mid 18th century, thus making Pompeii and the other cities the first dark tourism attractions of this scale in the world!
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