“It’s not a new phenomenon,” J. John Lennon, a professor of tourism at Glasgow Caledonian University told The Washington Post in 2019. “There’s evidence that dark tourism goes back to the Battle of Waterloo where people watched from their carriages [as] the battle [took] place.” Lennon and his colleague Malcolm Foley are credited with coining the term dark tourism in 1996, and together they wrote the book Dark Tourism: The Attraction to Death and Disaster.
In recent years, foot traffic to Civil War battlefields and places like Auschwitz have even been on the rise, perhaps because tourists want to better understand some of history’s most tragic chapters. Below are some of the most well-known dark tourism destinations from around the world.
1. The Ruins of Pompeii // Pompeii, Italy
In the fall of 79 CE, Mount Vesuvius erupted with the force of 100,000 atom bombs, releasing toxic gas, ash, and other volcanic debris into the air. It subsequently wiped out the nearby cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii. Nearly 2000 years later, the ruins of Pompeii, as part of Vesuvius National Park, have become one of Italy’s most frequented tourist attractions, in large part due to the volcanic ash deposits that completely coated and preserved the ancient city.
There are a number of guided tours and excursions that take tourists to historical sites around the ruins that are still frozen in time, such as Pompeii Archaeological Park, The Forum, Teatro Grande, and more.
2. Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum // Oświęcim, Poland
One of the most harrowing places on the planet to visit is the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, which opened in 1947 in Oświęcim, Poland. Auschwitz was the largest Nazi concentration camp during World War II (an estimated 1.3 million people were sent there before 1945); it was also the site of a mass genocide where more than 1.1 million people—including over 960,000 Jewish people—were murdered or died due to illnesses like typhus, tuberculosis, and dysentery. Poor sanitary conditions also led to issues like scabies, and many prisoners suffered from boils, rashes, and abscesses that were largely caused by vitamin deficiencies.
Today, Auschwitz is a memorial and museum that’s dedicated to history, education, and remembrance of the atrocities inflicted on fellow humans.
3. National September 11 Memorial & Museum // New York City, New York
Ever since the terrorist attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, people from around the world have flocked to New York City’s Financial District to pay their respects to the nearly 3000 lives lost at Ground Zero.
In fact, according to a 2022 survey by Passport Photo Online, Ground Zero is one of the most popular dark tourism destinations in the world. The National September 11 Memorial and Museum, which opened in 2014, features twin reflecting pools containing the largest man-made waterfalls in North America where the Twin Towers once stood. The names of every victim are engraved in bronze panels surrounding each acre-sized pools. The museum itself has artifacts on display, personal stories, special exhibitions, and more. There are also exhibits focused the World Trade Center bombing that happened on February 26, 1993.
4. The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek // Phnom Penh, Cambodia
From 1974 to 1979, the Khmer Rouge regime murdered more than 1 million political prisoners in Cambodia (about one-fourth of the country’s total population), burying the bodies in mass graves known as “killing fields.” The largest of the killing fields was Choeung Ek, located on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. The site was an orchard and Chinese cemetery before the Khmer Rouge used it for widespread massacres.
In 1980, after the regime was overthrown, the remains of nearly 9000 people were exhumed from the mass graves surrounding Choeung Ek (although some graves were left untouched). Roughly 8000 skulls that were taken from those graves are now on display behind glass panels at the Choeung Ek memorial stupa, a Buddhist-style structure which was erected in 1988 to remember the victims who were lost.
In 2019, more than 250,000 visitors—a mix of international travelers and Cambodians—explored the site; prior to the COVID-19 epidemic, approximately 300 to 600 guests visited daily. Attendance rates sharply declined after 2020 because it was closed, but in 2022, more than 45,000 foreign guests and over 21,000 Cambodians visited. In addition, the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center is a focal point every year during Cambodia’s National Day of Remembrance, which is observed on May 20.
5. Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum // Hiroshima, Japan
Since it opened in August 1955, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum in Hiroshima, Japan, has been dedicated to preserving stories, photos, and other artifacts that convey the unimaginable terror and loss of life that the city endured after being on the receiving end of the world’s first atomic bomb strike on August 6, 1945. (The U.S., in case you missed it in your history classes, was responsible for dropping the bomb.)
The museum reportedly gets around 1 million visitors every year and is a very popular choice for school field trips within the country. Inside you’ll find victim testimonials and exhibits depicting the horrors of war and the destructive nature of nuclear weapons. As the museum explains, “Each of the items displayed embodies the grief, anger, or pain of real people. Having now recovered from the A-bomb calamity, Hiroshima’s deepest wish is the elimination of all nuclear weapons and the realization of a genuinely peaceful international community.”
6. Murambi Genocide Memorial Centre // Murambi, Rwanda
Formerly a technical college, the Murambi Genocide Memorial Centre in southern Rwanda is one of the grimmest places for dark tourism. While the destination itself is picturesque (complete with rolling countryside hills and other scenic views), it was also the site of a brutal 1994 massacre which claimed approximately 50,000 lives during the Rwandan Civil War.
Approximately 65,000 refugees from the Tutsi minority community had fled to the technical college after being told by authorities that they would be safe there. Instead, they were confined without food or water, and subsequently massacred by a government-backed Hutu militia. Only 34 people are believed to have survived the carnage that ensued.
Throughout the 100-day period now known as the Rwandan genocide, Hutu militias collectively murdered upwards of 800,000 civilians, many of whom were Tutsis. The Murambi Genocide Memorial Centre, which opened in April 1995, is now one of six National Genocide Memorial Sites within the country. More than 800 mummified corpses and preserved skeletons are on display in Murambi, to serve as a reminder of the horrific darkness and gruesomeness of the genocide, and to honor those who were victimized.
7. The Catacombs of Paris // Paris, France
During the 18th century, Paris had a big public health problem on its hands: Local cemeteries were overcrowded and improper disposal of corpses was fueling the spread of disease. In response, the city decided to convert its subterranean Lutetian limestone quarries into sprawling underground ossuaries.
Located about 65 feet below the City of Light’s streets, the Les Catacombes de Paris (a.k.a. the Catacombs of Paris) house the remains of more than 6 million late Parisians. Today, visitors can take guided tours and learn about its unique history, all while viewing the millions of human skulls and bones that line the walls of the cavernous space.
8. Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary // Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay, California
It might come as a surprise, but one of San Francisco’s most popular tourist attractions is technically located in San Francisco Bay, on Alcatraz Island. Better known to some as “The Rock,” Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary was a former maximum-security federal prison that closed down in 1963. But before it did, it hosted some pretty infamous inmates, including Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, James “Whitey” Bulger, and others.
Over the decades, Alcatraz has been immortalized in pop culture through music and movies. It’s also considered a U.S. National Park now and has over 1.5 million visitors annually. Tourists can take guided walks around the main cell-house, dining hall, lighthouse, and other locations around the grounds.
9. Cape Coast Castle // Cape Coast, Ghana
Originally built for the Swedish Africa Company in 1653 for the purposes of trading gold and timber, Ghana’s Cape Coast Castle later became an integral part of the Atlantic slave trade. Famously, one of the doors at the slave-trade outpost was known as the “Door of no Return.” Many believe that captive Africans were led through it to ships that were about to embark on the Middle Passage, and were never seen or heard from again. (However, some have recently speculated that the door may not have been linked to the slave trade at all, and may have actually been used as a way to dispose of waste by tossing it into the sea.)
During the ‘70s, Cape Coast Castle was converted into a museum and monument, and the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) later named it a World Heritage Site for preservation and protection, as a “cultural and natural heritage around the world considered to be of outstanding value to humanity.” Over the years, it has become a major tourist attraction for some Black Americans (including former President Barack Obama) looking to reconnect with their roots.
10. Chernobyl // Pripyat, Ukraine
On April 26, 1986, nuclear reactor number four at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Pripyat, Ukraine exploded, leaving the area uninhabitable and in ruins. Although it’s currently unsafe to visit due to the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian War, the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster has been a favored destination for dark tourism since 2011, when the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone opened up for visits.
Pripyat has since become a ghost town with abandoned schools, hospitals, apartment buildings, and more; there’s also a deserted amusement park with a Ferris wheel and bumper cars. Scientists believe it could take up to 20,000 years for the land to fully recover from the radioactive damage. However, there have been very strict short-term guided tours allowed in the past throughout the exclusion zone. There are a number of very strict safeguards—like wearing restrictive clothing and using a Geiger counter—to prevent radiation poisoning. In 2019, an estimated 200,000 tourists visited the site.