Prisons are mysterious places, closed off from society. These formidable buildings surrounded by high walls leave the general public wondering about life on the inside. What does it really look like in there? How does it feel to stand inside a cell? Answers to these questions aren’t so hard to find, though.
Numerous secondhand accounts, news stories, and pop culture depictions help shape our ideas about prison life. Thanks to movies like The Shawshank Redemption and shows like Orange Is The New Black, curiosity about the clink (slang for “prisons”) is on the rise, and so is prison tourism. Yes, prison hotels!
Opportunities to check former prisons out for yourself are increasing. Defunct prisons are not only hosting visitors for tours, but some have renovated to welcome overnight guests at what are now hotels, resorts and hostels. We’ll take a look at some of these publicly accessible facilities around the world, from the old and spooky to the upgraded and artistic.
Stay Overnight – If You Dare
These hotels (and one hostel) used to be jails, and after major renovations have reinvented themselves as prison hotels. Check them out for an unconventional experience on your next trip!
The Liberty Hotel (Boston, United States)
First Known As: Charles Street Jail or Suffolk County Jail (1851-1990).
Why You Should Go: A few aspects of the original jail have been preserved in this luxury hotel, including the central atrium with its 90-foot ceiling. CLINK., the hotel’s signature restaurant, uses the original wrought-iron bars of jail cells as a spatial divider within the dining area.
Nearby Airport: Logan International Airport (BOS)
Hostel Celica Art (Ljubljana, Slovenia)
First Known As: A military prison built by the Austro-Hungarian Army (1882-1991).
Why You Should Go: Twenty original jail cells are now artistically decorated hostel rooms, and they’ve kept the cell bars in place. Since rooms haven’t been expanded, you get a good feel for how tight living quarters were. The hostel also hosts a free live concert on Tuesdays for guests.
Nearby Airport: Ljubljana Jože Pučnik Airport (LJU)
Hotel Katajanokka (Helsinki, Finland)
First Known As: Helsinki County Prison (1837-2002).
Why You Should Go: Since the site is an historic protected landmark, much of it is well preserved, including the exterior of the building, its central corridor, and the surrounding outdoor red brick wall. Room rates include breakfast, Internet, gym access, and a weekend sauna.
Nearby Airport: Helsinki Airport (HEL)
Hotel Het Arresthuis (Roermond, Netherlands)
First Known As: The house of detention, a state prison (1863-2007).
Why You Should Go: This 4-star hotel has complimentary breakfast, parking, Internet access, and a sauna and fitness center. The interior looks “prison chic” with three levels of cell blocks (with original doors) and catwalks overlooking a stylish lounge area.
Nearby Airports: Eindhoven Airport (EIN), Amsterdam Airport Schiphol (AMS), Maastricht Aachen Airport (MST), and Düsseldorf Airport (DUS)
Malmaison Oxford (Oxford, UK)
First Known As: A Norman medieval castle (held prisoners for approximately 900 years until 1996).
Why You Should Go: The structure dates back to the 11th century. That history in itself is enough to visit!
Nearby Airport: London Heathrow Airport (LHR), London Gatwick Airport (LGW), London Luton International Airport (LTN), and Birmingham Airport (BHX)
Your stay at any of these hotels will be far from ordinary. Take time to appreciate the original building’s architecture and the subsequent restoration and renovation work that has been done. If you choose to spend a night or two behind bars at one of these converted prisons, remember that while some of the rooms may be small, they are way more luxurious now than when they were set up for their first occupants. Enjoy the experience, and know that you at least have the option to come and go as you please.
Not up for an overnight stay?
Catch a glimpse of life on the inside with these historic and informational daytime tours and visits to former prisons around the world.
Alcatraz (San Francisco, United States)
Why You Should Go: The Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary operated for 29 years, during which only one escape attempt may have been successful. Its most well known criminals include Al Capone, “Birdman of Alcatraz” Robert Franklin Stroud, and Alvin “Creepy” Karpis, who served the longest Alcatraz incarceration at 26 years.
The Tour: You’ll need to take a ferry to get out there, but the ticket is all-inclusive. With it, you get a 45-minute audio tour, access to ranger and docent tours, and the ability to explore the island’s gardens and wildlife. The higher-priced night option includes programs, presentations, and additional tours that are not available for daytime visitors.
Nearby Airports: San Francisco International Airport (SFO), Oakland International Airport (OAK), and San Jose International Airport (SJC)
West Virginia State Penitentiary (Moundsville, United States)
Why You Should Go: Night tour in a haunted prison? If that interests you, then this 100+ year-old Gothic-style prison should be on your list of places to visit. Rumor has it that it’s haunted as a result of the number of deaths that occurred on its grounds.
The Tour: There are a few day and nighttime tours on offer as well as an escape room experience. For a truly spooky experience, join an overnight ghost adventure or private paranormal investigation (sleeping during these tours is discouraged!).
Nearby Airports: Akron–Canton Airport (CAK), Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT), North Central West Virginia Airport (CKB), and Morgantown Municipal Airport (MGW)
Robben Island (Cape Town, South Africa)
Why You Should Go: This island of isolation has a rich history, including having been home to a leper colony, criminal prisoners, and political prisoners like Nelson Mandela. An army and naval base were also active on the island for a few decades.
The Tour: There are three 3.5-hour tours daily, and you’ll have to take a ferry to access the island. Tour guides are former political prisoners who provide a narrative as you drive around the island and visit places like a graveyard, quarries, bunkers, and the Maximum Security Prison, including Nelson Mandela’s cell.
Nearby Airport: Cape Town International Airport (CPT)
Hoa Lo Prison, also known as “Hanoi Hilton” (Hanoi, Vietnam)
Why You Should Go: Originally built by the French colonial government in the late 1800s to contain political activists, this prison eventually held American POWs during the Vietnam War. On display are a French guillotine and U.S. Senator John McCain’s flight suit.
The Tour: Self-guided tour through exhibits with placards that have English translations.
Nearby Airport: Noi Bai International Airport (HAN)
Port Arthur (Tasmania, Australia)
Why You Should Go: For more than four decades, Port Arthur was a penal settlement for the worst British offenders. These were people who were convicts in Britain and sent to the Australian colonies, where they became repeat offenders and were then sentenced to Port Arthur.
The Tour: Daytime passes are valid for two consecutive days and include a map, guided walking tour, harbor cruise, and access to more than 30 historic areas. You don’t have to end your visit when the sun sets. You can also buy tickets for a nighttime ghost tour and a paranormal investigation experience!
Nearby Airport: Hobart International Airport (HBA)