Historic Cape Town

South Africa's oldest building, the Castle of Good Hope. Photo © Cape Town Tourism

Cape Town has a history of many intertwining threads and layers both shady and bright, from the city’s cosmopolitan trade roots under Dutch, and then British, rule, followed by the troubled history of the apartheid years.

The Company’s Garden in the city centre bears witness to the first days of settlement in the city, when the garden was established to supply fresh produce to passing ships of the Dutch East India Company (VOC). Clustered around this botanical garden are several of the city’s principal museums: the Iziko South African Museum with its collections from pre-history to the renowned Whale Well; South African National Gallery, housing art treasures and notable examples of resistance art; the SA Jewish Museum alongside the Great Synogogue; and the District Six Museum that commemorates this vibrant multiracial community that was forcibly removed by the apartheid regime.

The Slave Lodge and Church Square are a poignant reminder of the slave economy that established the Cape settlement. Wander down Long Street with its restored buildings, to the Old Town House Gallery at Greenmarket Square that has a Rembrandt tucked away upstairs. For more 18th century elegance visit Rust en Vreugd, a historic house and garden, and Koopmans-de Wet House.

The Reclaim Camissa project plans to revive the historic canals under the city that supplied fresh water to the city and port – take an underground tour and emerge at the Castle of Good Hope, Cape Town’s oldest surviving building that houses a military museum, art collection and replica 18th century forge.

Bo-Kaap offers a colourful trip into the Malay history of the early Muslim settlers, at the Bo-Kaap Museum. Stroll through the trendy 19th century streets of De Waterkant, or remember the shady past of slavery, at the Prestwich Memorial. Listen out for the Noon Gun fired from Signal Hill every day or walk up and watch the firing ceremony.

Use the City Sightseeing bus to travel between Cape Town's historic points of interest. Photo © Cape Town Tourism

The V&A Waterfront is built around Cape Town’s historic port that was founded by Prince Alfred in 1860. The Chavonnes Battery, one of the original defences at the harbour, is even older. In more recent history, prisoners departed from Jetty 1 to Robben Island. Next to the Clock Tower book a tour of the Robben Island Exhibition; take the ferry trip to Robben Island for a moving insight into the prison experience of Nelson Mandela and many other political prisoners. The South Africa Maritime Museum houses a fine collection of model ships, and records South Africa’s maritime history.

Head out to Woodstock for the exciting art galleries of the Old Biscuit Mill and surrounding restored warehouses. South Africa’s leading role in pioneering heart surgery is commemorated at the Heart of Cape Town Museum in Groote Schuur hospital. Book a private tour of the old manor house, once home of Cecil Rhodes, on Groote Schuur Estate, where the current president and chief ministers still reside. The imposing Rhodes Memorial offers broad views over Cape Town, and has a wonderful tea garden. Josephine Mill, a water mill built in 1818, has been restored to working condition, and there is a small museum and riverside restaurant.

Not to be missed is Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden, established in 1913 and now home to more than 22 000 plant species in a glorious setting. Make a wish while you throw a coin over your shoulder into the 18th century Colonel Bird’s Bath, often erroneously referred to as Lady Anne Barnard's Bath.

The Cape’s oldest wine estate, picturesque Groot Constantia, retains many of its original Cape Dutch buildings, and there is a cultural history museum in the stately manor house.

In the historic suburb of coastal Muizenberg (now a mecca for surfers) the Natale Labia Museum is a satellite of the National Gallery. Follow the charming Victorian main road that runs from Muizenberg through St James and Kalk Bay to Fish Hoek, where the the Fish Hoek Valley Museum has documentation of the famous 12 000-year-old Fish Hoek Man. A little further on is the Rhodes Cottage Museum at the historic naval base of Simon’s Town.

More apartheid era history can be found at the Trojan Horse Memorial in Athlone, and the Gugulethu Seven Memorial in Gugulethu that commemorates activists killed in police ambushes in the 1980s. Include the Lwandle Migrant Labour Museum near Somerset West in your exploration of South Africa’s complex history, perhaps also stopping off at Macassar to see one of the SA Muslim community's holiest places, the kramat (shrine) of Sheikh Yusuf of Bantam, who was exiled by the Dutch in 1694.

Serious students of the apartheid era shouldn’t miss the Mayibuye Centre at the University of Western Cape in Bellville, where  important archives of documentary records from the anti-apartheid struggle are housed. The centre is open to groups by appointment only.

If heading up the West Coast take in the Moravian Church Mission at Mamre, with its restored watermill. Stop for lunch at restaurants in historic restored fisherman’s cottages - Ons Huisie in Blouberg or the Damhuis in Melkbosstrand.