July 13

Why You Should Visit Robben Island in Cape Town

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July 13, 2023

Robben Island is a unique symbol of "the triumph of the human spirit over adversity, suffering and injustice" with a diverse 500-year history. Thousands of visitors make their way to the island each year, eager to understand and honour the important aspects of South Africa's history the island represents. Here's why you should visit Robben Island when in Cape Town

Aerial view of Robben Island

Aerial view of Robben Island, Image Credit: Robben Island Museum

Where is Robben Island Located?

The island lies 12km off the coast of Cape Town in Table Bay. Named after the Dutch word for seals, it's loosely translated as "island of seals". Robben Island is roughly oval-shaped and about a kilometre wide. It's predominantly flat and only a few metres above sea level.

When it comes to wildlife on the island, you can expect to see many seabirds and a colony of endangered African penguins. Over the years, several other animal species have been introduced to the island, such as various antelope species. However, in recent years only a small population of fallow deer remain to safeguard the sustainability of the ecosystem.

Robben Island entrance

A visit to Robben Island is a must if you want to learn more about South African history

The History of Robben Island

The first recorded landing on Robben Island by Europeans was in 1498, when Portuguese sailors took refuge and stayed overnight in a cave.

Robben Island was used to keep people in isolation since the end of the 17th century. Initially, Dutch and British settlers imprisoned mutineers and leaders of uprisings. However, from 1836 to 1931, the island was used as a leper colony until 1961, when it became a prison again. 

It's this period that Robben Island is most famous for, as it was used to incarcerate political prisoners under the apartheid regime. Among the many notable inmates serving prison sentences here were Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Tokyo Sexwale, Govan Mbeki, Dennis Brutus and Robert Sobukwe. The maximum security prison for political prisoners closed in 1991. And five years later, the medium-security prison for criminal prisoners was closed.

Nelson Mandela in his cell on Robben Island

Nelson Mandela looking out of the window in his cell on Robben Island, Image Credit: Jurgen Schadeberg

Becoming a Tourist Attraction 

Since the end of apartheid, the island has become a popular tourist destination. Managed by Robben Island Museum (RIM), it operates as a living museum.

In 1999, the island was declared a World Heritage Site for its importance to South Africa's political history and development of a democratic society. And now, thousands of visitors take the ferry from the V&A Waterfront in our Mother City every year to see the island and the former prison.

Visitors to Robben Island

Our Travel Experts recommend an outing to Robben Island to guests who appreciate history

Why Visit Robben Island?

The story of Robben Island is not necessarily a happy one. And as you walk between the prison's high walls, one cannot help but think of those who served sentences here to achieve the freedom South Africans get to enjoy today.

A visit to Robben Island gives a close-up and stark view of South African history. However complex and troubled it may have been, it resulted in the triumph of the human spirit over adversity. We cannot overstate the importance of this historical site, and you'll inevitably feel moved by the experience.

Your trip to Robben Island also offers incredible photography opportunities. Visitors to the island will enjoy spectacular views of Table Bay and Cape Town, both while onshore and during the ferry ride. Along with this, there's the opportunity to see some marine wildlife, such as seals, penguins and even dolphins and whales (seasonal).

Robben Island is a popular tourist attraction in Cape Town

Tourists flock to Robben Island to learn about its history, Image Credit: Fabrizio Verrecchia

What Makes a Visit to Robben Island Unique?

One of the most unique aspects of a visit to Robben Island is the guided tour of the former prison. Former political prisoners who served time in the prison conduct these tours, giving you true insights. Hearing first-hand stories and experiences from these former inmates creates a vivid reality of what it must've been like for them. 

The tour culminates with a viewing of Nelson Mandela's cell, where he spent 18 years of his 27-year imprisonment, which is a poignant reminder of the significance of this place.

A glimpse into one of the cells on Robben Island

A glimpse into one of the cells on Robben Island

Tours of Robben Island

There are four daily departure times for tours of Robben Island, with the earliest departing from the Nelson Mandela Gateway at the V&A Waterfront at 09h00 and the latest at 15h00. Tours typically take three and a half hours, including the ferry trip to and from the island. 

Visitors get to see various historical sites around the island, including the graveyard of people who passed away due to leprosy, the Limestone Quarry, Robert Sobukwe's house, Bluestone Quarry, the army and navy bunkers and, of course, the Maximum Security Prison. It's a must for those wanting to dive deeper into South African history.

Robben Island should be a part of every visitor to Cape Town's itinerary. The unique perspective and opportunity to experience an iconic piece of South African history is truly special. And with nearly 50,000 visitors making the ferry trip to the island each year, it's one of the most popular activities in our city.

Limestone Quarry on Robben Island

The Limestone Quarry you'll see on your Robben Island tour

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About the author 

Brad Mitchell

With a deep-set love of the outdoors and making moments count in all aspects of life, nothing makes Brad happier than taking in sunrises and sunsets. He can often be found either running, surfing or playing sports somewhere in Cape Town. Having grown up a stone's throw from Kruger, Brad jumped at the chance to live in the Cape and has never looked back since! With a background in all things Marketing, he is driven by creativity and turning crazy ideas into real-life actions!

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