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Prison Tours and Prison Tourism – What’s the fascination?

Prison tours are now appearing on our list of holiday experiences. For instance, you can take a tour around Alcatraz or a trip to Auschwitz. Have you added a prison tour to your bucket list – or are you starting to question the fascination behind them?

Although Auschwitz (Auschwitz – Birkenav) was a Nazi extermination camp rather than a prison there are some comparisons and contrasts. At Auschwitz millions of people, mainly European Jews, were imprisoned and murdered against their will. In prisons, people were held due to their crimes and may have been victims of torture and death. In both places, people lived imprisoned without freedom.

There are many historic prisons you can visit that didn’t involve the horrors of Auschwitz. These archaic places are where you can learn, and experience what it was like to live without freedom. This is a subset of dark tourism, often referred to as prison tourism or penitentiary tourism.

Two members of our team recently visited Auschwitz and wished to share their experiences. Plus, where else can you have similar experiences, as well as, the fascination behind them?

Prison Tours at Auschwitz – Birkenav

Auschwitz concentration camp is 70km west of Kraków, Poland. Throughout the year, over two million people visit Auschwitz – Birkenav museum and take a tour via air-conditioned van or on foot. However, you don’t need to book a tour. There’s the option to explore alone, although it is recommended to do your research first to get the most out of a trip.

If you opt for a tour of Auschwitz, you’ll walk in the footsteps of the people who were once brought there against their will by train. Following the track, you will find your way to the four camps that lay within as well as the salt mine. For a full history of everything known that occurred there, the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum in Krakow is vital. To gain an insight into what you’ll see and learn we spoke to Cheryl and Olivia from the Free Spirit team.
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What did you see and learn on an Auschwitz tour?

  • An eye-opening and serial account of how people once lived there.
  • Many unnerving statistics are shared. For instance, on arrival 100 people would step out of each cramped train carriage.
  • You’ll experience the prisoner’s journey on foot from the track to the gas chamber.
  • The gas chambers and how long people may have lived on-site before stepping into one. Some as little as 48 hours. Others may have been there for up to 18 months.
  • The four camps included Auschwitz, Birkenau, a death camp, and a work camp. Across the camps, a hierarchy existed where people were segregated. Some had jobs, with a couple of small privileges. Others had little.
  • Hut II was the ‘prison within the prison’ because up to 3000 people lived within it at one time. You’ll see how unsanitary the conditions were in towering bunk beds.
  • The small things that bring the chilling reality to life, such as piles of shoes left by the people who were there. Plus, a wall of prisoner photos before their death.
  • Some visitors come to pay their respects and pray for the people who never left the camps.


Why did you decide to visit Auschwitz?

Olivia: “I love history. However, after reading The Tattooist of Auschwitz I wanted to see and experience Auschwitz for myself.”

Cheryl: “Always wanted to experience and see Auschwitz. You can’t comprehend it as a child – until you go there.”

Overall: “To understand the victim’s experience and remember that this serial and complex incident did happen. It’s good to go and to pay your respects.”

You may not need to pay respects while visiting other dark locations, such as prisons. However, you can visit other dark locations, where complex, historical periods took place. Wherein you can see and experience the unnerving lifestyles that some people once led. Pick from one of these dark locations to find a prison tour…


Photo by Cheryl


Alcatraz Island, San Francisco

You may have seen Escape from Alcatraz – the 1979 prison thriller where three men escape a large, American military prison. However, did you know you can book day and night prison tours there? Whether it’s a filming location on your bucket list or not. During a day trip to Alcatraz Island, you’ll hear stories of incarceration, bravery, and humanity.

What will you see and learn during Alcatraz prison tours?

  • You will approach Alcatraz by boat, while listening to a guide of the key buildings and areas, before docking into the harbour.
  • Walk the steep walkways from the dock to the main prison building and cell house.
  • Start in the cell house to begin an audio tour called “Doing Time: The Alcatraz Cellhouse Tour”. You’ll have time to picture yourself in solitary confinement. While sensing the true feeling of escape by listening to stories of jailbreak attempts.
  • Book a behind-the-scenes tour to experience the true atmosphere of the island by visiting the hospital, two cell blocks, and the inmates’ chapel.
  • If you’re there at night, listen to talks from past inmates and inhabitants to hear the finer details of what life used to be like at Alcatraz.
  • To brighten your mood, time some time out to explore the historical gardens at sunset.


Another prison you can visit, which is situated in a bright location but draped in controversial history is La Modelo Prison in Barcelona.

La Model prison tours in Barcelona

La Model was a men’s correctional facility for people who objected to the Franco regime. It is often described as a site of political and ideological oppression and reform. During the Spanish Civil War, it was the place to house supporters of Franco. Yet, when in power his political opponents and anarchists were detained there. Some were even executed.

Although executions, overcrowding, riots, and drug addiction were a usual occurrence, La Model’s rooms were for inmates to exercise and read. While detained, one guardsman could watch them all due to La Model’s design. Having just opened to the public in July 2021, La Model is unique. A trip there is not only for history lovers but for those who appreciate elegant architecture.

What can you see and learn during prison tours at La Model?

  • Discover the inspiration behind La Model’s construction and why it’s of historical value to Barcelona.
  • Learn all the details surrounding its controversy and Barcelona’s social and political history since 1904.
  • Explore the main spaces of La Model, like those who once lived there. These include the panopticon room, polygonal central hub, imposing central tower, six wings, sunny courtyards, and cramped cells.



Travel Insurance for Prison Tours

Have we inspired you to book a prison tour at one of the dark locations above? Whether these trips are for you. Or if you were wondering what the fascination is behind penitentiary tourism, we hope we’ve answered your questions. Plus, provided you with locations where you can find a prison tour, to see, learn and hear the complex and controversial stories about them.

Whichever prison tour you take Free Spirit Travel Insurance will give you the confidence to pay it a visit, before bringing you home again.


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