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 dark tourism destinations around the world. So, let’s find out, what is dark tourism.
Examples of dark tourist destinations include sites of natural and man-made disasters from Pompei to Chernobyl. Places like Auschwitz and the killing fields in Cambodia, the Unit 731 Museum in China and the Karagana gulag in Kazakhstan.
As someone with a curious interest in all things dark and spooky, I’ve been visiting dark tourism sites ever since I first start travelling. I’ve visited Iraq, North Korea twice and spent the night at Chernobyl. I’ve explored museums around the world and even use to volunteer at Highgate Cemetery in London.
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Quick Summary of Dark Tourism Sites Covered
- Albania – BunkArt Museum
- Armenia – Memorial of the Armenian genocide
- Bosnia and Herzegovina – Old front line, Mostar
- China – Unit 731 Museum
- England – Cold war nuclear bunker
- Hungary – House of Terror
- Iraq – Erbil
- Kazakhstan – Karaganda gulag
- North Korea – DMZ
- Northern Ireland – Belfast murals
- Romania – Bran “Dracula” Castle
- Transnistria – Europe’s last communist regime
- Turkey – City of Diyarbakir
- Turkmenistan – the “Door to Hell” at Darvaza
- Ukraine – Chernobyl
My Top List of Dark Tourism Destinations
Wherever I travel I am always looking out for dark tourism destinations, and below are some of my top picks from all around the world.
1. BunkArt, Albania
If there is one thing that former Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha loved, it was concrete bunkers. One of the most interesting of these is now a museum under the streets of the capital, Tirana. Th BunkArt Museum is a must-visit ark tourism destination for visitors to Albania.
Situated next to the parliament buildings in the centre of the city is a small grey bunker that descends into a dark underground tunnel. Inside is a 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. View my BunkArt guide or visit the official website for more information.
2. Genocide Memorial Complex, Armenia
The Genocide Museum Institute in Yerevan, also known as the Armenian Genocide Museum, is a museum dedicated to educating visitors about the Armenian Genocide that took place in Western Armenia (modern-day Turkey) at the beginning of the 20th Century.
The museum is located on a hill overlooking the city and houses a collection of artefacts, photographs, and personal accounts from survivors of the genocide. The exhibits guide visitors through the history of the genocide, including the events that led up to it and the aftermath.
The museum also features a memorial garden and a monument dedicated to the victims of the genocide. The Genocide Museum Institute serves as an important reminder of the atrocities committed against the Armenian people and a tribute to those who lost their lives.
3. Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina
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 famous Stari Most bridge.
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 Split an Dubrovnik in Croatia. I’ve been to Mostar twice now; in 2010 and 2022, and it’s still one of my favourite places to visit.
Address: Dr Andre Starcevica, Mostar, BiH. See location on Google maps.
Time Needed to Visit: One to two hours
4. Unit 731 Museum, 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, located in China’s coldest city of Harbin, houses a grim collection of artefacts, confessions, experiment reports and photographs (the most extreme of which are not on display). There are also disturbing dioramas detailing some of the sick experiments.
This is truly one of the darkest of dark tourism destinations and it’s surprising that the horrors that went on here are not more widely known. The museum was closed for renovation when I lived i Harbin in 2016, but I went bak to visit in 2021 and I’m glad I did.
5. Kelvedon Hatch Nuclear Bunker, England
Ever wondered where the UK government would go in the event of an all-out nuclear war? Wonder no more as this “secret” nuclear bunker is now open to the public. I visited on a trip back from China and loved the experience.
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.
The 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).
Check out my list of 10 dark tourism destinations in London.
6. House of Terror, Hungary
One of my favourite museums is the House of Terror in Budapest. This is one of the top dark tourist sites thanks to the building’s dark history as a prison and interrogation centre for both the nazis and communists.
I had always been intrigued to visit Iraq as my grandfather used to work at Baghdad University in the 1950s. He inspired my own travels by driving all the way from England, and in late 2022 I arrived in Iraq after travelling overland myself.
Lik Mostar, Iraq is a beautiful place with friendly locals and a history dating back millennia. I visited the city of Erbil in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq and was blown away by the place. Cities like Baghdad, and especially Mosul still show the scars of conflict and safety remains a concern in the region.
8. Karaganda Gulag, Kazakhstan
I visited the Karaganda Gulag (Karlag) whilst travelling from Kazakhstan’s capital Astana to Almaty. This fascinating complex includes a museum with photographs, exhibits and dioramas reflecting the history of the place under Stalin and during the time of the USSR.
Explore recreations of the officer’s quarters, dungeons and transport vehicles used to move prisoners. The camp is located in the heart of the vast Kazakh steppe, once part of the Soviet Union.
Address: 39, Dolinka 101604, Kazakhstan. See location on Google maps.
Entrance: 1,000 Tenge ($2)
Time Needed to Visit: Two to three hours
9. The DMZ, North Korea
Like Turkmenistan, 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.
I’ve been to North Korea twice and visited different cities across the country from Sinuiju in the north to the capital Pyongyang and Kaesog in the south. Not far from Kaesong is the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) which separates North Korea from South Korea.
10. Belfast Murals, Northern Ireland
Northern Ireland has a long and tragic history culminating in 30 years of violence from the 1970s up to 1998 when the Good Friday Agreement put an end to the “Troubles”. The north of Ireland has a population made up of two distinct groups; Irish republican/catholic and British loyalist/Protestant.
The Catholic/republican side want to be reunited with the rest of Ireland and this led to the formation of the IRA (Irish Republican Army). The loyalist/protestant side want to remain a part of the UK and set up different paramilitary groups like the UDA (Ulster Defence Association) and UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force) to take on the IRA.
The cities of Belfast and Derry are home to many brightly coloured murals depicting the years of struggle on either side of the divide. I took a three-hour political walking tour which included many of the murals and a history of the troubles from ex-prisoners. Book the tour with Get Your Guide.
11. Bran Castle, Romania
Vlad Tepes, also known as Vlad Dracul or Vlad the Impaler was born in 1428 in a charming old house in Sighisoara that now serves as a restaurant. Tepes was the inspiration behind Bram Stoker’s Dracula and it’s possible to visit Bran Castle in Transylvania which has long been associated with the Dracula story.
Bran Castle is worth a visit for its beautiful gothic architecture, but there is’t a great deal to do i the village aside for that. I spent two days there, but it’s better to take a day trip from nearby Brasov.
Address: Strada General Traian Moșoiu 24, Bran 507025, Romania. See location on Google maps.
Entrance: 40 Lei ($8.70)
Time Needed to Visit: One to two hours
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!
13. Diyarbakir, Turkey
Diyarbakir is a city in southeastern Turkey close to the border of Syria and Iraq. The city is home to Turkey’s largest Kurdish population ad has something of a troubled history. During the 2016 Seige of Sur, many houses were destroyed by Turkish forces.
I spent six weeks living in Diyarbakir in 2022 and although the city has suffered (most recently in the 2023 earthquake), it is also a fantastic destiation with lots of history dating back to Roman times.
14. The Darvaza Gas Crater, 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.
I visited the Darvaza Gas Crater (also known as the Door to Hell) in 2017 on my way overland from England to China and spent the night camping next to the crater.
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!
15. Chernobyl, Ukraine
Chernobyl is one of the top dark tourism destinations in the world and is well worth a visit for anyone interested in not only dark tourism, but also the cold war and the former Soviet Union.
Wander around the deserted city of Pripyat where nature has well and truly reclaimed the town. Pripyat was once 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, it was used by the soviets to detect incoming nuclear missiles from the West.
What Exactly is Dark Tourism?
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. 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.
Most people equate Dark Tourism with human suffering. But 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).
Dark Tourism can include sites linked to genocide (Auschwitz, the Killing Fields etc), nuclear catastrophe (Chernobyl, Fukashima etc), war or disaster tourism (Iraq, Afghanistan etc) and much more.
It is up to the individual to visit what they feel comfortable with. 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!
Is Dark Tourism ok or Ethical?
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, 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 10 of my favourite dark tourism destinations. You can find details of how you can visit them too if you dare!
The best resource for travellers interested in dark tourism is the site dark-tourism.com. The site is home to hundreds of articles on dark tourist locations across the globe.
Now you know the answer to the question: what is dark tourism, which sites would you like to see?! Comment below with your favourite dark tourism destination!
Dark tourism is popular around the world and most countries have dark tourist sites. From Pompei in Italy to Auschwitz in Poland and Chernobyl in Ukraine, these places see many visitors every year.
Dark tourism places include Bran Castle in Romania, the House of Terror in Hungary, Chernobyl, Fukushima, the Uit 731 Museum in China and many more. Countries on the dark tourist map include Syria, North Korea ad Iraq.
Dark tourists are people that search out the macabre, spooky or places with a dark history.
With so many interesting dark tourism destinations from Albania to Armenia and North Korea to Northern Ireland, which of these sites are you interested in seeing? I will continue to search out ore fascinating dark tourist sites on my travels.
About the author:
Steve Rohan is a writer from Essex, England. He has travelled to over 60 countries, lived in China and Hong Kong, and is now living the digital nomad life on the road.
Steve prefers “slow travel” and has covered much of Europe and Asia by train, bus and boat.
Where I am now: Yerevan, Armenia 🇦🇲