Cape Town: Cultural Sites & Museums


bo_kaap.jpgCity Bowl

This is the name of the heart of Cape Town, the old town, and the Central Business District. It is pressed between Table Mountain, Signal Hill and the north facing Atlantic seaboard, and the commercial port and Victoria & Alfred Waterfront. Facing Table Bay and the V&A is the upmarket suburb of Waterkant, a highly sought after address for young professionals and the local gay and lesbian community as well as a number of trendy niche restaurants.

Among the attractions of the City Bowl for the urban sightseer are:

Bo-Kaap

Also within the general area of the City Bowl, and situated against the north slopes of Signal Hill, lies the Bo-Kaap, a colourful and historic neighbourhood, once known as the Malay Quarter, but now something of a multicultural showpiece, and sought after for its picturesque aspects, interesting colourscapes and narrow, cobbled lanes.

The Bo-Kaap has it’s own museum, contained in one of the oldest houses in the district, and dedicated mainly to showcasing the contribution made to the city and region by the Muslim community, many of whom were artisans, shoemakers, carpenters and tailors and builders. For a glance at one of the many unexpected cultural vignettes of Cape Town the Bo-Kaap Museum is definitely one to consider.

District Six Museum

For those interested in the fascinating social mélange of Cape Town, another must see is the District Six Museum that is one of the more melancholy reminders of a painful South African past now thankfully consigned to history.

By way of background, District Six, so named for the urban nomenclature Sixth Municipal District of Cape Town, given the district in 1867, was another focal point of the colourful Cape Malay community, made up mainly of Coloured Muslims, which evolved over the period between and after the World Wars to house a small number of poorer whites, and a handful of blacks and Indians. It was this very tendency to multi-culturalism that both worried and offended Government officials committed to an apartheid policy. Citing the necessity for a clear separation of the races, and the fact that the district was a crime ridden slum, it was decreed that rather that rehabilitate the area it would be cleared and razed to the ground. It has often been stated, but never proved, that the real reason was the high land value and desirability of the district for purposes other than housing the poor whites and mixed race undesirables. Forced removals began in 1968 under the notorious Group Areas Act, resulting in the gradual relocation to the destitute Cape Flats region – described as the dumping ground of apartheid – of some 60 000 people.

Some rebuilding and restitution is taking place under the new Government, but the soul of District Six can never be recaptured, and the Museum, in existence since 1994, attempts no more than to provide a showcase and a memorial for one of the sadder and yet most culturally vital chapters of South Africa’s divisive past.

Slave Lodge

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Following this theme, the Slave Lodge is one of the oldest buildings in Cape Town, dating from 1660, and although it has undergone many metamorphoses, it rests on the site of an old slave housing establishment that at one time held as many as 1000 individuals, of whom it is reputed some 20% died annually. Nowadays the site is a museum, and although barely reminiscent of the institution of slavery in the Cape, it nonetheless is devoted to the history of the slave phenomenon, and the enduring cultural contribution made to modern Cape Town by this aspect of its history. Another important stop.

South African National Gallery

Here the cultural sophistication of South Africa is most effectively displayed. Situated in the Beautiful Company’s Gardens at the southeast end of Adderly Street in downtown Cape Town, an area of aged oaks, squirrels, cobbled walkways and august local architecture, the gallery is housed in a particularly impressive white structure of the more formal and imperial Cape Dutch style. The permanent collection consists of local and continental work of an extremely high standard, with exceptional pieces of British, French, Dutch and Flemish origin, that reflect the range of colonial experiences that influenced the development of the city and the nation. This is regularly complimented by temporary exhibitions of a more modern flavour with a particular emphasis on modern local and regional work.

The Castle of Good Hope

Another curious attraction of the City Bowl District, and a sometime venue for National Gallery exhibitions, is the Castle of Good Hope. Configured in the classic Star Fort style that offered exceptional siege protection, the Castle is another architectural peculiarity of Cape Town, with many of the expected features of the prevailing Cape/Dutch style, but with lavish contributions of the later British Imperial style.

Constructed initially 1666 and 1679 by the Dutch East India Company as a fortification against perceived British ambitions on the colony, it has been added to and altered over the years, experiencing a comprehensive restoration during the 1980s. It has over the course of its existence housed the Western Cape HQ of the South African Army, but was declared a national monument in 1936, and currently is home to the Castle Military Museum.

The castle is a magnificent building, the best preserved of its kind in the world, and packed with interest for architecture, art and military history buffs. Even for those without any particular interest in these fields, the castle is worth a visit just for the sake of absorbing yet another aspect of the extraordinary historical ambience of the city.

South African Jewish Museum

Jostling a little for space on the Cape Town cultural museum landscape is the South African Jewish Museum which, having been founded in the year 2000, is something of a latecomer to the list. Situated on the Museum Mile of the Company’s Gardens, and in the first synagogue to be build in South Africa in 1863, the museum is a showcase for the Jewish experience in South Africa. Anti-Semitism was not a major feature of the complex race dynamic of South Africa, with some of the principal capitalists and early industrial leaders being Jewish. However another wonderful old building is available for close inspection, even if the museum itself lacks some of the pathos of others on the circuit. Perhaps to try and compensate for this fact a Holocaust Museum is part of the fixed display, which benefits from the improbability of anyone visiting a memorial to that event without being moved.

The South African Jewish Museum & Cape Town Holocaust Centre perhaps rank a little lower than other items on the must see list, but if you have the time it is definitely worth the effort.

Long Street

Also in the City Bowl, Long Street is arguably the soul of modern downtown Cape Town. It has about it the same air of revitalised kitsch as Carnaby Street in London or Bourbon Street in New Orleans, nowadays less about presenting the militant cutting edge of anti-apartheid arts and theatre than bookstores, restaurants, antique and drug dealers. It still has a pleasant bohemian flavour with street theatre and markets, a vibrant nightlife and a general ambience of cool, all set against a backdrop of Victorian Cape Town gabled and wrought iron architecture.

Long Street has probably one of the cooler backpackers lodges in South Africa. Situated in one of the older buildings along the boulevard, the Inn Long Street is dripping in ambience, and has, from the second floor veranda, a vantage over the street life below as well as an exceptional view of Table Mountain above.

Victoria & Alfred Waterfront

Victoria & Alfred waterfront is the site of the Historic Port of Cape Town founded by Prince Alfred, second son of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, who tipped the first bucket load of stone into the sea in 1860 to commence construction. Since then it has become the hub of the city’s contemporary nightlife, arts and culture set against a backdrop of a number of historic building related to the port development, as well as the nelson Mandela Gateway, embarkation point for the Robben Island Ferry.

Included, apart from a variety of restaurants (50 altogether), cinemas and shops (over 400), is the V&A Marina, the local millionaire’s hangout, with some 600 apartments and moorings for 200 yachts, a waterfront amphitheatre, which, along with a variety of other open air and closed venues, hosts most of the main annual events and summer festivals.

Robben Island & Nelson Mandela Gateway

A feature of the V&A Waterfront is the Nelson Mandela Gateway which is an aptly named embarkation point for the ferry trip across Table Bay to Robben Island, and the Robben island Museum and International Heritage Site. This unique museum commemorates a more modern phase of South African history, the anti-Apartheid Struggle, which claimed the lives and youths of many men great and small, among them Nelson Mandela, who was imprisoned on the island for many of the 27 years he was a prisoner of the Apartheid regime. A tour of the site is many faceted, and conducted usually with the help of an ex-inmate or employee, and is without doubt one of the definite stops on any tour of South Africa.

More Cape Town:

  • A Brief History
  • Hiking & Walking Trails
  • Beaches
  • Golf Courses
  • Health & Wellness
  • Adrenalin Sports
  • Festivals & Venues
  • Food & Wine