Dark tourism is on the rise. Travellers of all sorts are now flocking to former war and disaster zones more than ever. In all my years of travelling so far, I visited my fair share of ‘dark’ places too. Among them a modest list of museums telling some of the most tragic stories of our modern times.
Though I must admit I am not a big fan of visiting museums in general, I do have a weak spot for museums telling about conflicts and troubled history. It helps me to better understand the world we live in and to ultimately become a better person. For this reason I think it is worth the harrowing and, at times, distressing visitor experience.
And so it happens that I can share with you this list of 10 must-visit museums that I can all personally recommend by experience.
1. Hiroshima Nuclear Bomb Museum – Japan
Location: Hiroshima – Japan (Google Maps link)
A pivotal moment in world history was the dropping of the atomic bomb by the USA on Hiroshima, Japan in 1945. More than 100,000 people are claimed to have died, and this museum is there to remind us all that this may never happen again. It sits just 200 meters away from the exact location where the bomb was dropped.
Inside the museum you can take an extensive and well-designed tour that makes you understand what happened, how and why. There are pictures and several stands and artefacts that all help to create a comprehensive image of the scale of the disaster.
I suggest spending between 1-2 hours inside the museum. You will also find other places of interest directly near, which are worth visiting.
2. Saddam Hussein Torture Museum – Iraq
Location: Sulaymaniyah – Iraqi Kurdistan (Google Maps link)
The Kurdish people in Iraq have a troubled relationship with former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. Under his dictatorial control in the 1980s Kurdish political prisoners were tortured inside the Amna Suraka (Red Prison).
Originally a compound of the secret intelligence services of Iraq, it is now a museum and still riddled with bullet holes on the outside. Inside the many buildings and chambers there are haunting and shockingly accurate reenactments of the various torture scenes on display.
There is no real professional guide system in place so you can roam around by yourself. I recommend spending up to 2-3 hours at the Amna Suraka to fully experience the whole site, which can get really creepy at times. You will also find abandoned tanks, armoured vehicles and artillery pieces parked inside the compound.
3. ISIS Museum – Iraq
Location: Sulaymaniyah – Iraqi Kurdistan (Google Maps link)
The Peshmerga, a Kurdish military force, were a key player in taking on the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq. They had to make many sacrificies in protecting their land and so this museum commemorates the Kurdish martyrs and celebrates the unity among Kurdish people. There are however also some disturbing photos displaying atrocities by IS, so visiting is definitely not for the faint-hearted.
The exhibition is located inside the same compound as where Saddam’s former torture cells are found. I suggest spending about half an hour to go through the entire IS-section of the exhibition, which is located over two floors.
4. Halabja Chemical Attack Museum – Iraq
Location: Halabja – Iraqi Kurdistan (Google Maps link)
Halabja is located in the northeast of Iraq, close to the Iran border. It is where in 1988 a massacre took place when Saddam Hussein launched a barrage of chemical weapons on the city. Thousands died in an instant in what experts consider the largest chemical attack against a civilian-populated area in history.
Just outside town there is now a memorial museum hosting an exhibition of the genocide that took place. Visiting is a full in-your-face experience as there are life-size dolls to visualise the deadly effects of the mustard gas and nerve agents used. Outside the museum you will also find several abandoned tanks and armoured vehicles from the Saddam era. Recently they even added an Iraqi Soviet-made fighter jet that is believed to have taken part in the attack.
5. Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster Museum – Ukraine
Location: Podil, Kyiv – Ukraine (Google Maps location)
Chernobyl has become a hugely popular tourist site since the Chernobyl Diaries aired on Netflix. Visiting the nuclear disaster site is perhaps the best-known example of dark tourism worldwide.
Back in Kyiv however there is an interesting museum showing how the whole disaster unfolded in 1986 from a Soviet perspective. It is also a place to pay respect to the liquidators – men who were forced to respond to the disaster and risked their lives cleaning up nuclear waste.
The museum is not particularly English-friendly but there are audio guides available. Please check opening times before going.
6. Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (Prison 21) – Cambodia
Location: Phnom Penh – Cambodia (Google Maps link)
Security Prison 21 is simply the most barbaric, sickening and inhuman place I visited in a long time. It is a former secondary school in the heart of Phnom Penh modified to lock up, torture and kill ordinary citizens. Between 1975-1979 around 20,000 people were imprisoned here by the Khmer Rouge regime.
These days the location is a museum, open to visit for the public. While following the audio tour you will see gruesome pictures, death cells and torture machines.
It is a common thing to feel depressed while walking around, so I suggest to allow for some time (2 hours). Most people hire a tuktuk driver to also take them to the nearby killing fields right after, but myself I split it up in two separate days.
7. Killing fields – Cambodia
Location: 8km south of Phnom Penh – Cambodia (Google Maps link)
Perhaps not as intense as visiting S-21, the killing fields just outside Phnom Penh is nevertheless another place to be confronted with the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge.
Officially known as the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, the site is a former execution site with several mass graves. There are many skulls on display and you will find a so-called killing tree where executioners are believed to have beat children to death.
Again not a fun place to visit, but kind of a mandatory thing if you are around. I reckon spending 1 hour at the site is more than enough.
8. Occupation Museum – Palestine
Location: Walled Off Hotel – Bethlehem, West Bank / Palestine (Google Maps link)
I spent two nights at the award-winning art nouveau Walled Off Hotel, which was founded by Banksy. Inside there is an interesting museum that displays the far-reaching tactics used by Israel against Palestinians in the occupation of the West Bank.
Outsiders can also visit the museum without staying as a guest. The hotel is located a bit outside the city centre of Bethlehem, near checkpoint 300 on the way to Jerusalem. I believe you can go through the full exhibition in under half an hour, which gives you some time to spend over a nice local micro-brew inside the fabulous hotel lobby.
9. Yasser Arafat Museum – Palestine
Location: Ramallah – West Bank / Palestine (Google Maps link)
This museum tells the story of the Palestinian struggle and the complex life of Yasser Arafat, freedom fighter and late leader of Palestine. He spent his last years inside the compound that now turned into a museum. As he died unexpectedly he was laid to rest inside a tomb located at the front entrance, which can be visited too.
Inside the complex you can see the actual bed room where Arafat spent his time while under siege by the Israeli army. Also there is an extensive photo exhibition displaying various historic events from a Palestinian perspective.
The museum is inside a governmental building complex, so bring your passport. You can get there by foot from the city center of Ramallah and I recommend spending about 2-3 hours there.
10. Auschwitz Museum – Poland
Location: Oświęcim (near Katowice) – Poland (Google Maps link)
Perhaps this is the most depressing place on Earth. Auschwitz I (there are multiple sites) is a complex of former Polish military barracks camp that the German Nazis used as a brutal labour camp while engineering genocide at a mass scale.
I peaked inside the cells where the first experiments with the deadly cyanide gas were performed on prisoners. I stood in front of a wall where prisoners were ruthlessly executed. I stood inside a gas chamber where people found death at mass scale.
The camp is now a museum open to the public and can be visited preferably on a guided tour. There is a ton of information to soak up and digest, so I recommend reserving a full day to visit. Just make your way to the museum location (by public or private transport) and sign up for a tour that starts every 20 or so minutes. The tour will also take you by minivan to a second location, Auschwitz II. This is the site with the infamous railway tracks, where over 1 million people died. For more information please check the official website.
What are your thoughts about dark tourism? Have you ever visited the places listed above? Any other places worth visiting? Let me know by leaving a comment or contact me via Instagram!