Daily Destination: Robben Island, South Africa

Christy Karras
CompassJuly 23, 2013

The world celebrated Nelson Mandela Day last week while the renowned humanitarian and civil-rights leader spent his 95th birthday July 18 hospitalized with a lung infection. But Robben Island National Museum is honoring Mandela all month.

The sun-baked limestone island south of Cape Town has been the site of a lepers’ hospital and a military training ground, but it is best known for the prison where Mandela and other activists were kept as political prisoners during the apartheid era.

Today, the former prison is a museum dedicated to remembering those who fought for true democracy in South Africa. Other historic places, such as Mandela’s former home in Soweto and the secret African National Congress meeting site at Liliesleaf Farm, are also popular with travelers seeking a sense of history.

Tours at Robben Island take visitors to Mandela’s cell, which still looks much the same today as it did when he left it (he was at the prison from 1964 to 1982, when he was moved to another prison). President Obama paid his respects at the site in June.

The last prisoners left the island in 1991 as apartheid was dismantled, and in 1997 it was converted to a museum commemorating its former occupants and celebrating their work. In 1999, it was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Visitors to Robben Island see other symbols of hope: African penguins, almost extinct by the late 1800s because of human activity, were successfully reintroduced to the island in 1983. And since the museum’s founding, hundreds of couples have tied the knot there in annual Valentine’s Day mass wedding ceremonies.