Art and culture

The Great Escape: Prisons Turned into Hotels, Bars and Art Centres

Spend the night behind bars in one of these five former jails turned hotels, bars and art centres

Most of us hope we’ll never see the inside of a jail cell – at least not in real life. But there’s a morbid fascination about life behind bars, spawning popular hits from films like The Shawshank Redemption to TV show Orange Is the New Black, and travellers are getting in on the action. From abandoned-prisons-turned-edgy-art-centres to spending the night in the slammer, you’ll be begging for visitation rights to these captivating attractions.

Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul At Sultanahmet

Istanbul, Turkey

Credit: Shutterstock

With marble pillars towering over an ornate swimming pool and four-poster beds in all 65 rooms, the extravagant Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul At Sultanahmet feels like the opposite of a prison. But this century-old neoclassical fortress was the first jailhouse of the Ottoman empire, housing up to 1,000 inmates at a time – typically writers, artists and intellectuals who were deemed political dissidents. Look closely at those marble pillars and you’ll find engravings by some former residents. The original wooden doors, complete with hefty locks, still swing open to admit new arrivals to the lobby, too.

The Portuguese Centre for Photography

Porto, Portugal

In Portugal, people go to prison for their love of photography. At least, they visit the imposing 18th-century Cadeia de Relação prison, which closed in 1974 to be reborn as the Portuguese Centre for Photography 30 years later. Today, the dramatic carved stone building’s old cells and courtyards house exhibition galleries alongside antique cameras and other museum artefacts. Don’t miss the former cell of Camilo Castelo Branco, a revered 19th-century writer who was locked up for adultery and used his incarceration to write seminal works such as Amor de Perdição (Doomed Love) and Memórias do Cárcere (Memories of Prison).

Robben Island

Cape Town, South Africa

Credit: Hoberman Collection/Alamy Stock

Robben Island was first established as a prison in the mid-1600s, when Dutch settlers imprisoned slaves, convicts and indigenous Khoikhoi people who fought back against colonial rule. Between 1961 to 1991 it was a maximum-security prison for enemies of apartheid. Its most famous resident, Nelson Mandela, served 18 years of his 27-year-sentence here (1964-1982), and his bleak 40-square-foot box has become something of a pilgrimage for visitors around the world. Unlike former inmates trying to flee, you won’t have to navigate the 13 kilometres of treacherous, freezing water patrolled by Great White sharks – ferry tours depart from Cape Town’s Nelson Mandela Gateway at the V&A Waterfront three times a day.

Prison Inside Me

Hongcheon, South Korea

Credit: Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters

If a fancy hotel with a murky past doesn’t feel hardcore enough for you, then ramp up the correctional experience in South Korea. At Prison Inside Me, you pay to be locked away. ‘Guests’ are given standardised uniforms and marched to a small spartan cell where they sleep on the floor. Rice porridge or steamed sweet potato are passed through a slot in the door twice a day, phones and clocks are prohibited, and you’re let out twice a day for exercise. Still sounds too cushy? Pay extra to be kept in solitary confinement for 24 hours.

Tai Kwun

Hong Kong, China

Credit: Berton Chang

Need a cocktail after all that? Behind Bars at Tai Kwun is just the place, having repurposed the Central Police Station compound’s former cells into something infinitely more glamorous. Adept cocktail makers lurk behind prison doors – you’ll have to thrust your hand through the hatch to get your drink – and couples looking for a little alone time can lock themselves in smaller ‘detention cells’ towards the back. You can leave whenever you like, but don’t stage a prison break without first trying the Clock with No Hands cocktail: Chivas Regal 12 Year whisky, Ancho Reyes, maple syrup, black tea and chocolate bitters.

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