Robben Island (Robbeneiland - Dutch for ‘seal island’) was home to one of the most notorious prisons in South Africa, in use since Dutch settlers came to the country at the end of the 17th century. The former prison, which is famous for imprisoning Nelson Mandela for 18 years, has been a museum since 1997 and a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1999. Tours include a round-trip ferry ride to the island and a guided tour of the different buildings and historical sites on the island, ending with a visit to Mandela’s former cell.
By Maurizio Massaro
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Tours to Robben Island
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4 Tips for Visiting the Robben Island
Robben Island Prison Entrance | Flickr: April Killingsworth CC BY 2.0
Book in AdvanceTours to Robben Island sometimes sell out months in advance, so it’s highly recommended to book your tickets in advance. Returned tickets or last-minute tickets might be available on the day at Nelson Mandela Gateway at the V&A Waterfront.
Watchtower | Unsplash: Grant Durr
Don’t Underestimate the SunThe majority of the tour takes place outdoors, so come prepared for the intense sun. Bring hats, sunglasses, sunscreen, and water to avoid sunburn or heatstroke.
African Penguins at Robben Island | Flickr: Meraj Chhaya CC BY 2.0
See the Penguins & SealsAside from the prison buildings, Robben Island is also home to some very photogenic wildlife. A colony of penguins lives right by the pier of Murray’s Bay Harbor, and the seals that the island is named after can be seen around the cliffs.
Ferry | Unsplash: Grant Durr
Prone to Seasickness?If you tend to get seasick easily, then you’ll want to prepare for the crossing from Cape Town to Robben Island, since the water can sometimes be quite rough. You’re advised to take any medications an hour before your tour is scheduled to depart.
Prison Walls | Unsplash: Grant Durr
Robben Island: Memorial to South Africa’s Dark Past
Robben Island was used as a prison for criminals and political prisoners for over 500 years, a practice that continued through the colonial times into the apartheid era. During apartheid, many black freedom fighters were imprisoned in terrible conditions. The guided tour of the museum and prison buildings helps visitors to understand the injustice of apartheid and incarceration, the struggle for equal rights, and the story of Nelson Mandela and his fellow prisoners.
Frequently Asked Questions
How long does it take to visit Robben Island?
The regular tour takes between three and four hours plus between half an hour and an hour for the ferry ride to the island, depending on weather conditions.Read more.
Is there a café or restaurant on the island?
No, so it’s important that you either eat a big meal before leaving or that you bring plenty of snacks and drinks to have during quieter points on the tour.Read more.
How do the tours of the island work?
The ferry departs for Robben Island from the Nelson Mandela Gateway at the V&A Waterfront four times a day. You’ll disembark at Murray’s Bay Harbor on the east side of the island and take a bus to the walls of the prison. The tour through the former prison is led by former inmates who will show you the limestone quarry, the house where Robert Sobukwe (a black political prisoner) was kept in solitary confinement, the accommodation where the guards and their families lived, and the museum inside the prison building. Inside you’ll see the cells where thousands of South African freedom fighters were imprisoned, some for years, and you’ll also be shown Nelson Mandela’s former cell.Read more.
Is a tour of Robben Island suitable for children?
Since the tour takes a relatively long time to complete, it’s recommended that families with children under 12 consider carefully if their children will be able to pay attention or be out in the sun for so long. However, there’s no official age limit, so younger children who are interested in learning about the island are welcome to attend with their parents. Parents and guardians should still be aware that the subject matter is quite heavy and they should be prepared to explain it to their children. There is no family-friendly version of the tour, so very sensitive children may find parts of it distressing.Read more.
General tours begin at 9 am, 11 am, and 1 pm, with an additional tour at 3 pm during the peak tourist season. The time of the tour marks the time the ferry departs for Robben Island, the full tour (including ferry trips there and back) takes between 3.5 and 4 hours, and that you should arrive 30 minutes before your scheduled departure.
Robben Island Museum Private Bag Robben Island Cape Town 7400
Tickets cost R 550 for adults and R 300 for children under the age of 18. They include the ferry trip and the tour. A reduced price is available for South African citizens, and children under the age of two can join the tour free of charge provided that their parents provide proof of their age.
How to get there:
The easiest way to get to the Nelson Mandela Gateway (where ferries for the island depart), is via taxi or a hop-on hop-off bus. Alternatively, southern line trains and bus numbers A01F and IC06 stop relatively close to the V&A Waterfront.
Written byMaurizio MassaroMaurizio is a cosmopolitan, a musician and comes around. In his role as a content manager at TicketLens, he is always striving to find new offers as well as writing about sights all over the world.Translated by Anneliese O'Malley
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