Historic buildings and architecture in Cape Town
As the oldest city in South Africa, Cape Town boasts a number of historical buildings, many of which are still in use today and open to visitors. The city’s architecture is a testament to the many and varied influences on South Africa’s unique history.
South Africa’s oldest building
The Castle of Good Hope, erected between 1666 and 1679 by the Dutch East India Company, is the oldest building in South Africa. The castle is a blend of medieval and 17th-century architecture, designed in a pentagon.
The building consists of five bastions, Oranje, Nassau, Leerdam, Catzenellenbogen and Buuren – titles of Prince William of Orange. The bastions were used as prisons and storerooms. It houses the Western Cape military headquarters and is home to the South African Military Museum. Tours of the Castle are very popular.
Cape Dutch influence
The Cape Winelands are famous for Cape Dutch architecture, and vineyards dotting the landscape. The buildings were influenced by Dutch farmers who first settled in the area during the 1600s and 1700s. The resultant unique gable, combined with thatched roofing, is a feature of this design style, recognised today as distinctly South African. Many original Cape Dutch-style buildings are protected as being part of South Africa’s national heritage under the country’s heritage legislation, so their façades cannot be changed.
Groot Constantia, a superb example of Cape Dutch architecture that has been converted to a museum, is located on a working wine farm. A visit to the restored homestead will give one perspective on early South African life. End on a modern note by visiting the impressive wine cellar. Other examples of Cape Dutch architecture can be seen at Vergelegen and Zevenwacht wine farms near Somerset West.
Just off the coast lies Robben Island, home to the infamous prison where Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners were held during South Africa’s apartheid era.
Today Robben Island is a World Heritage Site and museum and a constant reminder to a democratic South Africa of the price paid for its people’s freedom. Ferries run several times daily from the V&A Waterfront to the island, where prison tours are conducted.
Central Cape Town
Downtown Cape Town is home to dozens of beautiful old buildings, which are best enjoyed by taking a walking tour. Contact Cape Town Tourism for recommended tour guides who specialise in history and architecture.
Cape Town’s City Hall, in the heart of the city, is a neo-classical building designed in Renaissance style. The building features 39 bells used for festivals and celebrations. Its tower is 61m tall. Today the Cape Town Municipal Library is housed in the City Hall.
Rhodes Memorial is a monument with classical influences constructed in memory of Cecil John Rhodes, a former South African politician and diamond magnate. Located on the eastern side of Devil’s Peak, the memorial gives visitors a panoramic view of the Cape Flats and surrounding mountains. It has a good tearoom where you can enjoy tea and a slice of cake.
Cape Point Lighthouse
In 1488 Bartholomeu Dias, the Portuguese seafarer, was the first to sail around the Cape. On his return voyage he named it Cabo Tormentoso, or “Cape of Storms”, due to the treacherous seas. This area, today known as Cape Point, is notorious for its perilous passage.
Following one shipwreck after another, construction eventually began on Cape Point’s first lighthouse in 1857. It stood on Cape Point Peak, 238m above sea level, but due to its elevation, clouds and fog often obscured the lighthouse from shipping.
A second lighthouse was built in 1914, but the original lighthouse still stands on the highest section of the peak and today is used as the central monitoring point for all lighthouses along the coast of South Africa.
Houses of Parliament
It is from the Houses of Parliament that the president gives his State of the Nation address, after the opening of Parliament – a colourful spectacle for visitors.
Visitors are also welcome to buy tickets, which entitle them to sit in the public gallery during Parliamentary sessions between January and June. Remember to take your passport with you for this option. There are also guided tours though the Houses of Parliament buildings during the week.
The Parliament building itself, which also houses the Library of Parliament, is beautiful, with a central dome flanked by Corinthian porticos and pavilions.
Henry Greaves, who oversaw the building until its completion in 1885, supplanted the original designer, Charles Freeman. The new House of Assembly was designed by Sir Herbert Baker, who also designed the Union Buildings in Pretoria and Rhodes Memorial, among many others.
The oldest original homestead in the colourful Bo-Kaap (Cape Malay Quarter) today houses the Bo-Kaap Museum.
The Slave Lodge, Cape Town
One of the oldest buildings in Cape Town, the Slave Lodge in Adderley Street was constructed in 1679 to house the slaves of the Dutch East India Company. The Slave Lodge now falls under the Iziko Museums in Cape Town, and is open to the public.
Other historical buildings worth visiting include:
The Central Business District of Cape Town city showcases many architectural flavours. The Modernity Movement (1920 to 1930) contributed Art Nouveau touches to Cape Town’s streets. Defined by their geometric forms, these urban structures are reminders of a past era.
The Mutual Heights building on the corner of Darling and Parliament streets was built at the same time as New York’s Chrysler and Empire State buildings. Previously the corporate headquarters of Old Mutual, today it consists of privately owned apartments, with triangular windows and detailed relief carvings and figurines, cladding a structure that was once the tallest building in Africa.
Opposite the Mutual Heights building is the old Cape Town post office, a granite edifice also well worth a visit.
The curved arches of the old Provincial Administration building overlook the Company’s Garden and the magnificent St George’s Cathedral. A stroll from Keerom Street to Wale Street takes pedestrians past an array of interesting and different structures and shapes.
If you are looking for a place where you can taste the Cape’s finest wines, dine in one of two modern restaurants and still have a plethora of things to do, then the Steenberg Vineyards are for you.
Diamonds were formed three billion years ago by molecular-changing heat of around 1 300 °C, deep within the Earth’s crust. If you didn’t know that, then you have not been to the Cape Town Diamond Museum.
Cape Town sport enthusiasts are lucky enough to live in the city that is home to the South African Rugby Museum. Located just a drop kick away from the Newlands Rugby Stadium in the Southern Suburbs of Cape Town, home of the Stormers, the South African Rugby Museum is a full of tokens, collector’s items, memorabilia and history of one of the country’s most watched sports.
As the oldest city in South Africa, Cape Town boasts a number of historical buildings, many of which are still in use today and open to visitors. The city’s architecture is a testament to the many varying influences in South Africa’s unique history.
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