Prison hotels set bar high for ‘dark tourism’

Amid lingering lockdowns, we’re still looking for the perfect escape.

Article content

After nearly a year-and-a-half of lockdowns, you’d be forgiven for assuming most law-abiding staycationers have had their fill of involuntary incarceration.


Article content

Yet, as the growing appeal of prison hotels proves, many of us can’t get enough of life behind bars.

In Italy, $100 million is being spent to transform an island jail into a tourist attraction worthy of San Francisco’s Alcatraz, arguably the most famous hoosegow in the world. The 18th century Santo Stefano fortress, located off the coast of Naples, is surrounded by rocks and Second World War shipwrecks, yet there are ambitious plans to turn it into a 30-bed hostel complete with cocktail bar boasting views of Mount Vesuvius.

During the war, political prisoners were sent here to be tortured by the Fascist government, with the few who tried to escape drowning in the treacherous waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea. It later became a regular prison, with amenities including a bakery, theatre and sporting grounds where inmates were encouraged to learn a trade.

Since it closed in 1965, the abandoned penitentiary has attracted limited tours, but only for those willing to tackle a steep 40-minute hike — and only when seas are calm enough to land on the island, which has neither a dock nor running water or electricity.

Silvia Costa, the government official overseeing the project, concedes “access is tricky” but hopes the accommodations, as well as a multimedia open-air museum and walking tours of the prison, will turn Santo Stefano into a year-round destination.

Another former lock-up cashing in on its Alcatraz-like allure is Sweden’s Langholmen Hotel, which housed some of the country’s most notorious felons during its time as a prison from 1724 until 1975. Located on a private island in the capital, Stockholm, it was also the site of Sweden’s last execution.


Article content

“It wasn’t a pleasant place to be back then,” marketing director Ola Nymen told The National newspaper of the hotel, which has retained the jail’s barred windows and metal doors. “These days it’s somewhere rather captivating for people to escape their troubles.”

Guests can choose from single, double and family rooms, while the “romantic” cell tempts jailbird-turned-lovebirds with a three-course dinner accompanied by chocolates and fruit.

In the Netherlands, holidaymakers have been clamouring to bunk down at the Hotel Het Arresthuis since its $12-million transformation in 2011 from a 105-cell prison into a five-star boutique hotel with 40 luxe rooms and four swank suites appropriately dubbed The Judge, The Lawyer, The Director and The Jailer.

A former prisoner courtyard is now a tree-lined terrace perfect for stretching out, while each room has its original door to retain the 19th century convict flavour. Now, though, people are busting to get into the hotel in Roermond, rather than busting out.

“Nobody wants to leave,” says hotel manager Rianne Balkestein. “People love to be locked up here and they pay quite a lot of money for it. It’s such a special building.”

In the English city of Oxford — renowned for its leading university, at which no less than 28 British prime ministers have been educated — the school of hard knocks lives on at the Malmaison hotel, formerly the Oxford Castle Prison, where unfortunate arrivals in less enlightened times would be taken “to be hanged by the neck until dead.”


Article content

Fortunately, the death penalty was abolished in the U.K. in the 1960s and today’s guests are more likely to be taken to the bar until they are refreshed. But there are ample reminders of its bloodier origins, which date to the time of William the Conqueror in 1086. The inside of the castle has been refurbished into a stylish shopping and heritage centre.

In Canada, the HI Ottawa Jail Hostel has been serving budget-minded travellers since 1974, selling overnight stays for as little $60 just blocks from the ritzy Chateau Laurier hotel, Rideau Canal and Parliament Hill. Site of Canada’s last public hanging, in 1869, its single-cell rooms feature biographical snapshots of previous inmates (I stayed in Room 409, where one Reginald Plucknett was caged for setting ablaze the family home ‘while sitting on a chair laughing.’) If you haven’t been spooked by the ghouls at night, there are Death Row tours available in the mornings.

Perhaps the ultimate proof of our infatuation with life inside is Karosta Prison, in the port city of Liepaja on Latvia’s western coast, where tourists pony up for a “full prisoner experience” that include being “punished” with verbal abuse and enforced laps of the exercise yard.

“You will be able to step into the shoes of a prisoner on a dark and dismal night,” the attraction promises.

Built at the turn of the 20th century, the former infirmary became a feared military prison where Latvian deserters were executed by firing squad during the Second World War or died trying to flee. Today, the sound of distant gunfire echoes off the walls as “guards” watch over guests bunking down on lumpy mattresses in dank cells. Its brutal past has given rise to many ghost stories, and a chilling inscription translated as “exit from hell” remains above the door in the solitary confinement cell.


Article content

Even as freedoms we once took for granted are only slowly being restored, the pull of the penitentiary remains strong.

John Lennon, a professor at Glasgow Caledonian University credited with jointly coining the term “dark tourism,” maintains there has always been an attraction to the bleaker side of human nature. “Evil seems to unify all these sites,” he told NBC.

Speaking to the Washington Post, Philip Stone, a director at the Institute for Dark Tourism Research at the University of Central Lancashire in the U.K., suggests we’re stir-crazy partly because we’re staring into a mirror.

“When we go to these places, we see not strangers but often we see ourselves and perhaps what we might do in those circumstances.”

— Andre Ramshaw



Postmedia is committed to maintaining a lively but civil forum for discussion and encourage all readers to share their views on our articles. Comments may take up to an hour for moderation before appearing on the site. We ask you to keep your comments relevant and respectful. We have enabled email notifications—you will now receive an email if you receive a reply to your comment, there is an update to a comment thread you follow or if a user you follow comments. Visit our Community Guidelines for more information and details on how to adjust your email settings.

Read latest breaking news, updates, and headlines. offers information on latest national and international events & more.

Related Articles

Back to top button