Having just finished the new Netflix series ‘Dark Tourist’ it compelled me to write an article on the subject of dark tourism and list some of my favourite such destinations. So, let’s find out, what is dark tourism?
What is Dark Tourism and How to be a Dark Tourist?
According to the Wikipedia page, Dark Tourism “has been defined as tourism involving travel to places historically associated with death and tragedy.” But goes on to state that “The main attraction to dark locations is their historical value rather than their associations with death and suffering.”
Dark tourism can mean different things to different people, but for me it is the exploration of places with a dark or similarly interesting aspect. From Dracula’s castle in Transylvania or Salem in the USA to the Darvaza ‘Door to Hell’ gas crater in Turkmenistan or North Korea and Chernobyl, these are all places I have recently visited that could be considered dark tourism spots.
The University of Central Lancashire is conducting studies into the rise of dark tourism which makes for some interesting reading.
Top Dark Tourism Sites
Most people equate Dark Tourism with human suffering, and although many such places on the dark tourist’s map will have been witness to such horrors, it can equally include creepy abandoned places (Chinese abandoned cities), cold war bunkers or just the outright weird (Ashgabat in Turkmenistan).
It is up to the individual to visit what they feel comfortable with, and if you go with the aim of increasing knowledge and a better understanding, then that can’t be a bad thing. If you are going to simply gawp at misfortune or tragedy, then better stay at home and turn on the TV!
How Not to be a Dark Tourist!
It’s important to remember that many dark tourist sites have seen tragic events and as with travelling anywhere, respect is key to coming away from the experience a better person.
Dark tourism should not be about voyeurism or ‘rubbernecking’ (like staring at traffic accidents), but for those with a morbid fascination, or even a healthy curiosity, seeking out such places can be extremely educational as well as humbling.
Check out this great list of 50 crazy destinations for lovers of the weird and macabre.
Below I list 9 of my favourite dark tourism destinations and details of how you can visit them too, if you dare!
My Top Dark Tourism Destinations:
Dark Tourism – Chernobyl
Wander around the deserted city of Pripyat where nature has well and truly reclaimed what used to be a bustling metropolis of 50,000 nuclear power plant workers and their families.
Travel through the exclusion zone with a Geiger counter to see how dangerous the radiation can be. Marvel at the massive Duga Radar Station hidden deep in the radioactive forest, ironically used by the soviets to detect incoming nuclear missiles from the West.
For tours of Chernobyl, we have teamed up with ChernobylWEL.com. Prices for a 1 day tour from Kiev start from $119.
Darvaza (The Door to Hell), Turkmenistan
Turkmenistan deserves a place all of its own on any dark tourist’s list thanks to the strange city of Ashgabat and the bizarre laws still in place in this reclusive former soviet republic. The country is made up of 90% desert, and hidden deep within is a huge flaming sinkhole that has been burning for over 40 years.
Arrive as the sun is setting and camp next to the roaring crater, but don’t get too close as there are no safety barriers and the fumes can be quite toxic! Definitely one of the top dark tourism destinations in the world!
If you are interested in visiting Turkmenistan, then check out Owadan Tourism, Indy Guide or Young Pioneer Tours.
Top Dark Tourism Destination – North Korea
Like Turkmenistan above, North Korea is an equally reclusive and paranoid country, but one we hear a lot more about in the media. For the curious, it can make a fascinating holiday destination.
How many people have had a real glimpse inside the ‘hermit kingdom’? Did you know that you can even do day trips from China to the DPRK? Visit a working soap factory, watch a musical performance at a North Korean kindergarten and sip North Korean beer (not bad) on one of the most extreme day trips there is! But to really get the most out of a visit, the capital Pyongyang makes an excellent destination for those with a curious mind.
Sighisoura might seem like a strange entry given its fairy-tale old town, cobbled streets and beautifully coloured houses, but it also happens to be the birthplace of one of the most bloodthirsty men in history.
Vlad Tepes, also known as Vlad Dracul or Vlad the Impaler was born in 1428 in a charming old house that now serves as a restaurant. Tepes was the inspiration behind Bram Stoker’s Dracula and it’s also possible to visit a castle long associated with the Dracula story in Bran further south in Romania.
Sighisoura can be reached by train from Brasov and Bucharest.
Bunk’Art , Tirana, Albania
If there is one thing that former Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha loved, it was concrete bunkers, and one of the most interesting of these is now a museum under the streets of the capital, Tirana.
Situated next to the parliament buildings in the centre of the city is a small grey bunker which descends into a dark (literally and metaphorically) museum detailing the country’s recent history as one of the harshest and most reclusive regimes in the world. As well as the interesting history and cold war stories contained below, the bunker is home to conceptual sculptures created by local artists.
Located on Fadil Deliu Street near the main square. Visit their website for more information.
The Chapel of the Capuchins, Rome, Italy
The Chapel of the Capuchins is a crypt hidden beneath Our Lady of the Conception church in Rome and is home to the skeletons of long-dead Capuchin monks. What makes this place even spookier is the decorations are all made of bones; from the pelvic chandeliers hanging from the ceilings to the stacks of bones upon which sleeping skeletons slumber in their brown robes (which is also where the word cappuccino comes from).
Situated on Calle Vittorio Venito (nearest metro is Barberini). Open 09:00 to 19:00. Entrance €6 per adult.
Mostar, Bosnia & Herzogovina
Mostar in itself is a beautiful town and deserves to be appreciated on its own merits as a tourist destination, however given tragic events in its recent history it seems appropriate to include in this list. One of the defining features of old Mostar is the Stari Most bridge spanning the translucent greeny-blue waters of the Neretva River below.
The bridge was shelled in 1993 during the Bosnian War but has thankfully been painstakingly rebuilt using the same stone quarried nearby. Evidence of the war is not hard to miss and the old front line has been preserved as a terrible reminder of what happened here during the early nineties.
You can reach Mostar by train or bus from Sarajevo in Bosnia or by bus from Dubrovnik in Croatia.
Kelvedon Hatch Nuclear Bunker, England
Ever wondered where the UK government would go in the event of all out nuclear war? Wonder no more as this “secret” nuclear bunker is now open to the public. Tucked away beneath the Essex countryside, Kelvedon Hatch would have housed up to 10,000 people, including the Prime Minister, who would have managed the response to a nuclear attack and run the country from the confines of the bunker.
Nearest rail station is Brentwood. You can take a tube from London to Epping, Debden or Theydon Boice and then a taxi (approx 7 miles). Opening hours 10:00 to 16:00. Entrance £7.50 per adult. For information see their website.
Like Mostar above, it seems a little unfair to include Tiraspol on a list of dark tourism sites, but as charming as this small city is, it gets a place due to Transnistria being a country that doesn’t exist according to the rest of the world (it is recognized only by Abkhazia, Artsakh and South Ossetia; themselves also unrecognized breakaway republics).
Stuck in a soviet time-warp, the KGB is still active here, posters of Lenin adorn the streets and tanks and troops guard the demilitarized zone separating it from Moldova.
You can take a bus to Tiraspol from Chisinau in Moldova and get a VISA/permit at the border. Journey time is approx 2 hours including border crossing and costs under 5 Euros.
Need somewhere to stay in Transnistria or looking for a tour guide? Check out Mars Hostel!
Unit 731 Museum, Harbin, China
One of the darkest chapters of recent human history is shiro Ishii’s Unit 731. The unit was set up to research chemical and biological weapons and the Japanese Imperial Army tested these on unwitting and unwilling subjects in far northeast China.
The museum houses a grim collection of artefacts, confessions, experiment reports and photographs (the most extreme of which are not on display). There are also disturbing diaoramas detailing some of the sick experiments.
So, now you know the answer to the question: what is dark tourism, which one would you like to see?! Comment below with your favourite dark tourist destination!
About the Author
Steve Rohan, originally from England, has lived in China for over six years. He has lived in the frozen city of Harbin, the ancient capital of Luoyang and now resides in the tropical paradise of Sanya on Hainan Island.
He has travelled extensively across Europe and Asia, mostly by train, and has written about his travels for this blog as well as self-publishing his first book, Siberian Odyssey.
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