Cape Town is a multi-faceted city, with something to offer everyone. Those with an interest in history are no exception. The city was home to the Khoi and San people thousands of years ago, and later became the centre of European colonisation. It has endured colonisation, slavery, naval battles around its shores, survived Apartheid and eventually, became a massive part in the birth of South Africa’s young democracy. Here’s a comprehensive guide to Cape Town for history buffs.
Visit the Bo-Kaap
In the 18th century, the Dutch brought slaves to the Cape from India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, and the Indonesian Archipelago. These individuals and their descendants largely built the city, and once they were freed many settled in the Bo-Kaap. Here, you’ll find the oldest mosque in the country—the Auwal Mosque in Dorp Street—and the oldest Muslim cemetery, the Tana Baru Cemetery. There is also the Bo Kaap Museum, housed in a building that dates back to 1768 and dedicated to showcasing local Islamic culture and heritage.
Cape Town is rightly famous for its wine production, with a viticultural history dating back to the 1650s. Cape Town’s Mediterranean climate, with its rainy winters and long, dry summers, provides the perfect growing conditions for grapes. Visit Groot Constantia to explore the history of Cape Town’s wine, including the old Manor House and Cloete Cellar. You can also taste one of the first wines produced in the Cape—sweet Grande Constance.
Visit the Iziko Museums
There are many fantastic museums in Cape Town. If you want to understand the cultural landscape of Cape Town, don’t skip the Iziko Museums. Iziko Museums of Cape Town is the official name given to the group of national museums located near the city centre, otherwise referred to as the city’s ‘Museum Mile.’ Highlights include the Iziko South African National Gallery, Iziko Michaelis Collection at the Old Town House in Greenmarket Square, Iziko at the Castle of Good Hope, Iziko Groot Constantia, Iziko Slave Lodge, Iziko Maritime Centre, Iziko Social History Centre, Iziko Rust en Vreugd, Iziko Koopmans-De Wet, Iziko Bertram House and Iziko Bo-Kaap Museum.
Check out the art
There are a few places to view important South African and African works. Zeitz MOCAA is Africa’s largest art museum. It showcases the incredible art of Africa and its diaspora and is a truly world-class institution. The architecture alone makes the museum worth a visit. The building is made up of curved concrete lines, with light pouring in through the cylindrical structures. It’s housed in an important historical landmark—the old grain silos, built in the 20s—and the building gives visitors a stunning cross section of the old industrial site.
The Iziko South African National Gallery features permanent collections of South African, African, British, French, Dutch and Flemish art. There are also temporary exhibitions of paintings, works on paper, photography, sculpture, beadwork, textiles and architecture, which provide insight into the extraordinary range of aesthetic production in this South Africa and the continent.
Experience the noon gun
Percehd atop Singal Hill is the Noon Gun, which is fired daily at noon. This is one of Cape Town’s longest-standing traditions. The gun was fired for the first time in 1806. It was used as a signal (hence Signal Hill) to ships in Table Bay. These are the oldest guns in daily use in the world. The noon gun has been one constant in Cape Town’s colourful and ever-changing history, with the tradition surviving colonial occupations, wars, and apartheid.
Head to the V&A Waterfront
Just a few decades ago, South Africa’s oldest working harbour was an uninviting, industrial port. Today, the V&A Waterfront is one of Africa’s most popular destinations, attracting millions of visitors each year. Here, the old world charm of the historical harbour collides with the truly world-class modern shopping experience. There are many museums, free audio tours, and memorial sites to explore.
Explore Simon’s Town
Simon’s Town is one of South Africa’s oldest towns, situated 35km outside Cape Town. This neighbourhood’s rich maritime history makes it worth a visit, and it is home to the South African Navy. Simon’s Town is really an attraction in its own right, and you will need to set a full day to fully explore it.
Make sure you take a walk down the Historic Mile, and stop off at the bronxe statue of Just Nusiance, Cape Town’s most famous dog. The South African Naval Museum has a lot of Naval exhibits, collections, and very interesting facts and knowledge, and you can visit free of charge. The Warrior Toy Museum houses a permanent display of 4,000 model cars, 500 dolls and teddy bears, miniature dolls’ houses and rooms, two fully operating miniature railroads, lead soldier displays, Meccano, ships, and many other miscellaneous toys and models. The museum also has a sales section for collectors. There are also a number of walking tours you can take in the area.
Visit District 6
Before the apartheid era, District Six was a vibrant mixed community of freed slaves, merchants, artisans, labourers and immigrants. When the apartheid government declared it a white area under the Group Areas Act of 1950, it was systematically bulldozed. Over 60,000 people were forcibly removed from the area. Today, much of the land is still vacant as there are disputes over what should be done with it. The District Six Museum has amazing displays and relics of what life was like. It’s a moving experience.
Take a tour of Langa
Langa is Cape Town’s oldest township, and a visit to this neighbourhood offers a glimpse into what post-apartheid life is like for the vast majority of South Africans. City Sightseeing’s LaGugu Tour is an opportunity to explore the area by bus, bicycle, and foot with an experienced local guide.
Take an audio tour at Cape Point
Shipwrecks, World War II lookouts, lighthouses, ancient middens, 16th century expeditions, even ghost stories… Cape Point has so many secrets hidden around every corner. Whether you’re a casual traveller or a history professor, one of the best things to do at Cape Point is explore the fascinating stories of its past. By far the best way to experience these stories is through the VoiceMap audio tour.
Take a boat to Robben Island
Robben Island is a must-see on any history fan’s itinerary. This is where many political prisoners were held during apartheid. The most famous was Nelson Mandela, who spent 18 of his 27 years in prison here. Tours depart from the V&A Waterfront by boat, and include visits to the cells.
Planning a trip to Cape Town? Book flights, browse accommodation, and rent a car now to get the best rates. The Cape Town City Pass gives you access to over 70 of the top Cape Town attractions, tours, and things to see and do, including the popular hop on hop off City Sightseeing bus.
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