Lonely Planet review for Robben Island
Despite recent problems, Robben Island justly remains one of Cape Town’s most popular attractions. Used as a prison from the early days of the VOC right up until 1996, this UN World Heritage Site is preserved as a memorial to those such as Nelson Mandela who spent many years incarcerated here.
While we heartily recommend going to Robben Island, a visit here is not without its drawbacks. The first hurdle is getting a ticket – in peak times these often sell out days in advance. Reserve well in advance via the web, and if you’re stuck, try booking a ticket in conjunction with a township tour – many tour operators have access to blocks of tickets not available to the public. Ticket in hand, you will then have to endure being hustled around on a packed guided tour that – at a maximum of two hours on the island (plus a 30-minute boat ride in both directions) – is woefully short. One of the former inmates will lead you around the prison. It seems a perverse form of torture to have these guys recount their harrowing time as prisoners here, but the best of the guides rise above this to embody the true spirit of reconciliation.
The standard tours, which have set departure and return times, include a walk through the old prison (with the obligatory peek into Mandela’s cell), as well as a 45-minute bus ride around the island with commentary on the various places of note, such as the lime quarry in which Mandela and many others slaved, and the church used during the island’s stint as a leper colony. If you’re lucky, you’ll have about 10 minutes to wander around on your own. The guides will suggest checking out the jackass penguin colony near the landing jetty, but we recommend heading straight to the prison’s A-section to view the remarkable and very moving exhibition Cell Stories. In each of 40 isolation cells is an artefact and story from a former political prisoner.