Cape Town is the place where South Africa’s original inhabitants (the Khoisan) first lived and where colonising Europeans first settled. As such, its history is a fascinating one, marked by maritime trade, cultural mixing, oppression and hope - and the site of both Nelson Mandela’s incarceration and release.
Indeed, the Cape of Good Hope, as named by Portuguese seafarers in the 16th Century, is the fulcrum of all that is both positive and problematic in modern-day South Africa. By experiencing the wealth of cultural attractions and heritage sites it has to offer, one can truly begin to get under the skin of our fascinating city. So if the beaches and bistros are becoming a bit much, get better acquainted with the history of the Cape ... and the characters of Cape Town.
CAPE TOWN CENTRAL
For a concentrated dose of history and culture, head for the Museum Meander, which takes you around the City Centre and includes many of the museums grouped under the umbrella of the Iziko Museums of Cape Town.
You could start at the William Fehr Collection housed in Rust en Vreugd, then visit the Castle of Good Hope, which also houses the Castle Military Museum, depicting the military history of the Cape, the Castle and the Cape regiments, head for the Michaelis Collection in the Old Town House, a rococo building that dates back to 1755 was once the City Hall.
Then wander from the top of Adderley Street up through Government Avenue and the Company Gardens. This takes you to the South African Slave Lodge and, nearby the Slave Tree, the National Library of South Africa, South African Museum and Planetarium, South African National Gallery and Bertram House.
The South African Jewish Museum and Cape Town Holocaust centre make fascinating additions to the local museum scene. The centre is closed on Saturdays but open on Sundays.
Close by in Queen Victoria Street is the Centre for the Book, Cape Town’s most distinguished Edwardian building with its wonderful domed central reading room that houses all contemporary South African publications. Koopmans de Wet House in Strand Street is worth a browse for the porcelain exhibition and fine antique furniture.
On Long Street you'll find both the Palm Tree Mosque, one of Cape Town's oldest, and the Old Slave Church. Built in 1804, today the church is a museum celebrating the history of Christian missionary work in South Africa.
If you are looking for something a little more specialised, try Gerald Shap’s Camera Museum in Long Street or the Gold of Africa Museum in the historic Martin Melck Huis at the top of Strand Street, where you can view the largest collection of African gold artefacts and enjoy the working studios, gold boutique, wine cellar and art garden. The Gold Restaurant is a wonderful dining experience of Pan African cuisine, puppet theatre and interactive drumming.
The City Centre on foot is an amazing cultural experience. You can book a walking tour of the City Centre with one of the registered walking guides, walking tours depart at regular intervals. You can always opt for the Half day Cape Town City Tour or Cape Town City Cycle Tour and they will take in many of the above sights.
A Hop-on Hop-off bus tour is also great way to orientate yourself on your own and see as much as possible of Cape Town in one day.
A key historical site in the city centre is De Tuynhuys, the office of the President. Formerly a guesthouse for visiting dignitaries during Dutch rule, the office is closed to the general public, but tours can be arranged through the Parliament.
The close-knit Muslim community of the City Bowl resides in an area known as the Bo-Kaap, which is well worth a visit. Take a guided tour, visit some of the colourful houses and cobbled streets, and enjoy the sight of children culturally dressed for Madrassa. Wherever you walk, the aroma of spices fills the air and the sound of the call to prayer, still done manually, reveal the history of slavery and the incredible spirit of the descendents of the Indo-Asian slaves. The Bo-Kaap Museum, housed in an old Cape Dutch building, depicts the community’s history.
In Bo-Kaap there are three Kramats, and on Signal Hill you will find two. Three prominent early Cape Muslim Imams lie in the Tana Baru burial grounds in the Bo-Kaap, and shrines have been erected to honour them.
The District Six Museum is a place of heritage and memory and offers the history of and dedication to the victims of forced removals during the Apartheid era .
The Holy Cross School in District Six has a mural painted by the predominantly white students of the University of Cape Town during the forced removals. It depicts the agony and sadness of the Group Areas Act and stands today as a reminder of that dark time.
Near District Six, on Roeland Street, are the National Archives. Housed in a former prison, the archives provide fascinating insight into how Cape Town looked in days gone by. Entrance is free and archive photographs are reproduced on site for a small fee.
Woodstock is one of Cape Town's oldest neighbourhoods. It has a colourful past and was home to groups of people from many different cultures. It has recently enjoyed an upsurge in property prices due to increased interest and rehabilitation of the area.
Robben Island Museum is the disused prison on Robben (the Dutch word for 'seals') Island where former South African President Nelson Mandela and many other black political dissidents were held. For a whole generation of black South African prisoners, Robben Island Prison was an alternative political university and a shared experience. Today former political prisoners act as your guides at this World Heritage Site. There are daily ferry trips to Robben Island, weather permitting, leaving from the Clock Tower Precinct at the V&A Waterfront. Allow half a day for your trip, and book in advance. You can also book Full day Robben Island and Township.
The South African Maritime Museum at the V&A Waterfront (adjacent to the Dry Dock) features a history of local shipwrecks, maritime exhibits and enough interactive displays to keep children amused for hours. Also at the V&A Waterfront you’ll find the Shimansky Diamond Museum, where visitors are given the chance to walk through the history and impressive science behind this captivating stone. Located at the Clocktower Precinct of the V&A Waterfront is the Chavonnes Battery. Dating back to 1790, it was established to protect the Anchorage. It was discovered in 1998 during excavation works.