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Visiting Robben Island

A yard, prison blocks, and guardtowers in Robben Island

Visiting Robben Island

Robben Island is a small but important landmass off the coast of Cape Town in South Africa. Home to a profound chapter in the nation’s history, it’s now a museum for all to see. Visiting Robben Island is one of the best experiences in Cape Town, and a must for any tourists.

A ferry docked with the words "Visiting Robben Island" superimposed

Its rugged terrain and raw beauty disguise the dark history it holds. Once a place of isolation and imprisonment, particularly during the apartheid era, Robben Island has transformed into a symbol of resilience, reconciliation, and the triumph of the human spirit.

A woman gazing towards Cape Town from the distant shore of Robben Island

History of Robben Island

The history of Robben Island is deeply intertwined with South Africa’s struggle against oppression and the fight for equality. Its origins as a place of banishment for political dissidents date back to the 17th century when Dutch colonizers first used it as a place of exile.

However, it was during the 20th century that Robben Island gained notoriety as a maximum-security prison, particularly for anti-apartheid activists. The most prominent figure associated with Robben Island is of course Nelson Mandela, who spent 18 of his 27 years of imprisonment within its walls. Mandela’s incarceration, alongside countless other freedom fighters, transformed Robben Island into a potent symbol of resistance against apartheid.

A rugby field behind a fence

Today, Robben Island stands as a beacon of hope, commemorating the sacrifices made in the struggle for democracy and serving as a testament to the resilience of the human spirit.

The name “Robben Island” is derived from the Dutch “Robbeneiland,” which translates as “Seal Island”. This name was given by Dutch explorers who arrived in the area in the 17th century and observed the large colonies of seals present around the island.

Robben Island Essential Information

Robben Island is now a World Heritage Site and serves as a museum, providing visitors an intimate insight into South Africa’s tumultuous past.

Where is Robben Island?

Robben Island is located in Table Bay, approximately 7km off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa.

A view of Cape Town, Table Mountain, and Lion's Head from offshore

Spending a few days in Cape Town? Check out our 4-day Cape Town itinerary.

Looking for a longer plan for South Africa? Here’s our guide to a 3-week South Africa Road Trip.

Accessible by ferry, the island stands as a symbol of both the oppression endured during apartheid and the triumph of democracy.

How Long Does a Robben Island Visit Take?

A typical visit to Robben Island lasts around 3.5 to 4 hours, including the ferry journey to and from the island. The guided tour, which explores the island’s various landmarks and historical sites, lasts approximately 2.5 hours.

Where Does the Ferry Depart for Robben Island?

The Nelson Mandela Gateway at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town serves as the departure point for ferries to Robben Island. It’s advisable to arrive at least 30 minutes before the scheduled departure time to allow for ticket collection and boarding.

A waterfront with boats and a ferris wheel

What Time Does the Ferry Depart for Robben Island?

There are currently four daily ferries from Cape Town to Robben Island at 9:00am, 11:00am, 1:00pm, and 3:00pm.

A large navy and white ferry docked at a stone breakwater

Is Robben Island Worth Visiting?

Absolutely, a visit to Robben Island is unequivocally worth it for anyone interested in South Africa’s history, human rights, and the enduring legacy of Nelson Mandela. Robben Island stands as a poignant symbol of both oppression and resilience, offering visitors a profound and educational experience.

The guided tours provide firsthand accounts from former political prisoners, offering invaluable insights into the struggles faced by those who fought against apartheid. Exploring the prison complex and seeing the cells provides a striking understanding of the sacrifices made in the pursuit for freedom and equality, making it a destination that is truly worth visiting.

Robben Island Tour Experience

The Robben Island Museum guided tour includes visits to the significant locations around the island offering a painful glimpse into what the daily life of the prisoners entailed. The museum’s guides, many of whom are former political prisoners, offer firsthand accounts and invaluable insight into life on the island.

A man giving a talk to a group inside a large communal prison cell

The Prison Complex

Robben Island’s prison complex serves as a haunting reminder of South Africa’s tumultuous past. It housed political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela, Robert Sobukwe, and Jacob Zuma, who endured years of harsh conditions and isolation.

A sandy and grassy yard with a grey stone prison block

The prison’s stark architecture and cramped cells offer visitors a glimpse into the hardships faced by those who fought against apartheid. Guided tours by former prisoners provide detailed narratives of the inmates’ experiences, highlighting the resilience and determination that characterized their struggle for freedom.

Nelson Mandela’s Former Cell

Nelson Mandela’s former cell holds a particular significance within the prison complex. As one of the most iconic figures in South Africa’s history, Mandela spent 18 years of his 27-year imprisonment confined within these walls.

A small prison cell behind a locked door with stool in the corner

The small, sparsely furnished cell offers visitors a poignant insight into Mandela’s daily life and the sacrifices he made for the cause of freedom.

The Lime Quarry

The lime quarry on Robben Island is a demonstration of the brutality of the prison regime. Here, political prisoners were subjected to grueling forced labor under harsh conditions. Forced to toil under the scorching sun, often with inadequate food and clothing, inmates endured physical and psychological hardships.

A quarried area of limestone rock

The quarry became a place of central importance for the political prisoners offering an opportunity to communicate more freely with one another. Mandela and others later wrote of the informal education system that the inmates were running here with classes in history, English, and Xhosa – the second most widely spoken language in South Africa after Zulu.

Various Historical Landmarks and Buildings

Robben Island is dotted with various historical landmarks and buildings, each with its own unique story to tell. From the crumbling ruins of the leper colony, which operated on the island in the late 19th century, to the lighthouse that guided ships through treacherous waters.

A set of long rows of prison cells

There’s also the church, schoolhouse, and military fortifications, each providing a glimpse into different chapters of Robben Island’s history.

Where to Book a Robben Island Tour

It’s possible to get tickets on the day to visit Robben Island, however due to the high demand we wouldn’t advise doing this.

You can book Robben Island tickets in advance which include a hotel pickup and one-way transfer to the V&A Waterfront.

A collection of boats and cranes at a shipping port

Where to Stay Near Robben Island

The best place to stay when visiting Robben Island is in nearby Cape Town. The city has a huge number of hotels to fit every budget. Here’s some suggestions depending on how much you want to spend:

Affordable: The quaint Tintagel Guesthouse with a cozy atmosphere, located in a serene setting, inclusive breakfast, and affordable nightly rates starting from $75.

Mid-Range: Our personal favorite in Cape Town, The Glen Boutique Hotel & Spa is a peaceful retreat with a pool and spa area. It’s just short way from the city center and includes a delicious breakfast, with rooms starting at around $170 per night.

Luxury: The exclusive Labotessa Luxury Boutique Hotel in the heart of Cape Town’s historical center features deluxe décor and a personalized service. Rooms start around $500 per night.

Final Thoughts on Visiting Robben Island

A visit to Robben Island is a journey through South Africa’s turbulent past and a reminder of the resilience of its people. Through guided tours and immersive experiences, we can gain a deeper understanding of the country’s struggle for freedom and democracy.

As a UNESCO World Heritage Site and museum, Robben Island stands as a symbol of hope and offers us a chance to reflect on the power of forgiveness and the triumph of the human spirit.

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