Famous as the site of part of Nelson Mandela's 27-year incarceration, Robben Island has variously been a prison, leper colony, defense station, mental institution and now World Heritage site and museum. Located 12km from Cape Town, it's a 30-minute ferry ride each way across Table Bay to the island in conjunction with a 2.5-hour tour.
Since the Dutch settled at the Cape in the mid-1600s, Robben Island has been primarily used as a maximum-security prison housing anti-apartheid activists such as Nelson Mandela as well as a medium-security prison for criminal offenders. The site became a museum in 1997 and was declared a World Heritage site in 1999. It's a popular destination for visitors to Cape Town, and tour tickets tend to sell out quickly so it's worth booking online to avoid missing out. The Robben Island Museum tour includes the return ferry trip, a visit to the Maximum Security Prison, interaction with an ex-political prisoner as part of the reconciliation process and a 45-minute guided bus trip. Tickets are R230 for adults and R120 for children under 18 years.
The moving and sobering tour begins at the Nelson Mandela Gateway to Robben Island, which houses interactive exhibits and historic images of prison life. You also get to walk through the actual prison and see the cells where some of the most famous South Africans were incarcerated, as well as the lime quarry where the inmates worked and the leper church. It's a significant site which recognises the triumph of the human spirit over oppression and the importance of human rights.
Robben Island is also an area of natural conservation and is home to a variety of flora and fauna including veld flowers, springboks and ostriches and around 132 species of bird – including the African or Jackass penguin which has a breeding colony on the island. On the boat trip over you can also view Cape Fur seals, whales and dolphins.