Cape Town is a cultural hub and has a long and storied history, so you can bet we have plenty of both to offer visitors. The Mother City’s history is rich – and at times tragic – and has a number of world-class museums that offer up a treasure trove to the past – both the good and the bad. A number of these museums are located in the city centre – all within walking distance of each other – and together offer a view as diverse and entertaining as the city itself.
SOUTH AFRICAN MUSEUM
Situated in the Company’s Garden and part of the popular Museum Mile, the South African Museum is home to more than 1.5-million items of cultural and scientific significance. Ranging from fossils and Stone Age tools to a dinosaur exhibit. Make sure you visit the Whale Well, where among the giant whale bones and life-size casts of marine creatures, musical recitals are often held. A must for families – the kids will love it.
The history of Cape Town is a torrid one and the Slave Lodge – part of the Iziko Museums – offers a haunting reminder of a darker time. It is not easy to stomach, but it is an important reminder of how the country was built on the backs of slaves and speaks to a global audience with many other countries sharing in the global slave trade. The museum was once where the slaves stayed and as such is very much part of the exhibit, while a visit to the re-created slave ship is an emotional experience and very much worth seeing.
The Zeitz MOCAA
The Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa is the largest art museum in Africa, and the largest museum in the world showcasing the art of Africa and its diaspora. The museum is dedicated to researching, collecting, and exhibiting this art, and houses an impressive collection of work from all over the continent and beyond. The exhibition space covers 6,000 square meters over nine floors, with 100 gallery spaces. In other words; set aside at least a full day to visit.
DISTRICT SIX MUSEUM
Few areas are as vivid an example of the Apartheid regime as District Six. A once racially diverse and vibrant community, the original residents were forcibly removed from the area when the National Party government declared it a “white group area”. The District Six Museum – formerly a Methodist Mission Church – serves as a reminder of what the community once was. It contains a permanent multimedia exhibition called Digging Deeper, which includes narrated life histories of District Six residents.
CAPE TOWN HOLOCAUST CENTRE
Few episodes in human history are as dark, or tragic, as the Holocaust. The Cape Town Holocaust Centre stands alongside the South African Jewish Museum – also well worth a visit – and is home to a wealth of information on the period it covers. While undeniably wrought with emotion, the exhibition is beautifully laid out, offering written and verbal – both audio and visual – accounts of the Holocaust. The permanent exhibit is both heart-breaking and inspiring. Be warned, like the Slave Lodge, the Centre will leave its mark.
CHAVONNES BATTERY MUSEUM
The Chavonnes Battery Museum showcases the Archaeological Ruins of a Dutch East India Company Fort. Built in 1724, using rock from Table Mountain and cement made of sea shells, guests can step below sea-level among the ribs of this old VOC Fort and touch the sand of the original shoreline at Cape of Good Hope. The museum also hosts a robust schedule of international photographic exhibitions, rich in content, and relevant in terms of contemporary thinking and topics. The venue is wheelchair accessible and offers free WIFI.
CASTLE OF GOOD HOPE
The oldest building in the country and a structure that has played an integral part in its history. Completed in 1679, the Castle of Good Hope, once a fort, has been restored and now functions as a museum. Guided tours are offered Monday to Saturday with The Key Ceremony performed Monday to Friday, followed by the firing of the Signal Cannon at 12pm. The William Fehr Collection, comprising paintings and decorative arts, is partly housed here, while the building itself has many a story to tell – including ghostly ones!
The Bo-Kaap – also known as the Cape Malay Quarter – is one of the city’s most popular destinations with its colourful houses a standout feature of the neighbourhood. But beyond the houses, the area has an incredibly fascinating history with many of the residents being descendants of slaves from Malaysia, Indonesia and various African countries who were forcibly brought to the city in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Bo-Kaap Museum is the perfect place to discover the history of the area with the building dating back to the 1760s and the oldest in the neighbourhood. Among other things, the museum recreates the life of a typical Malay family.
This well-known Cape Town attraction has a very chequered past. It was first used as a prison when the Dutch Settlers were in the Cape and was briefly used as a leper colony and animal quarantine station. However, the island is most famous for being a political prison during the apartheid regime. Its most notable prisoner, Nelson Mandela, served 18 years in the island’s prison. Current visitors to the island can get a tour of the prison and see Mandela’s cell first hand. All tours are carried out by former political prisoners. It’s very interesting and everyone who leaves, does so feeling a little more enlightened about the prison and its former prisoners.
18 Gangster Museum, Khayelitsha
A first of its kind on the continent, the 18 Gangster Museum in Khayelitsha aims to debunk any societal myths around gangsterism and the circumstances which lead community members down the destructive path toward gang life and imprisonment. Ex-offenders have curated installations that use immersive text and a replica of a prison cell to show their experiences as past gang members and their time in prison. Their mission is to provide positive alternatives to gangsterism and show how they turned their lives around.
Prestwich Memorial, Cape Town
The Prestwich Memorial was founded as a tribute to the countless slaves and sailors executed by Dutch settlers in the 17th and 18th centuries. Visitors can sit in the garden and walk around to view interpretive displays showcasing the story of Cape Town’s tumultuous history of forced removals, slavery and the apartheid regime. The skeletons of slaves and sailors were first uncovered in 2003 during an apartment construction in Prestwich Street and now find their final resting place at this commemorative memorial. Both the memorial and the coffee shop form part of St Andrew’s Square set with lawns, trees and benches where you can also view artwork and sculptures.
Warrior Toy Museum, Simonstown
Escape into a childhood dream of toys, models, ships, trucks, airplanes and toy soldiers at the Warrior Toy Museum in Simonstown curated by Percy van Zyl. With over 4000 model cars, 500 dolls and teddy bears, there is something for everyone to marvel at. For those keen to start their own collections, a sales section awaits.
Koopmans-de Wet House
This is the oldest ‘house’ museum in the country – having opened its doors in 1914 after the death of its last owners Marie Koopmans-de Wet and her sister Margarita, who were known for helping orphans and widows during the South African War. If you want to see just how a well-to-do family lived in the 18th Century then this is a must!
Rust en Vreugd
Rust en Vreugd was built on what was then the outer limits of the city in 1777, for a high-ranking official of the Dutch East India Company. In the early 1960s it was restored and converted into a gallery space when William Fehr donated his private collection of works of art on paper (watercolours, prints and drawings) to the people of South Africa. You can only see part of the collection but it’s worth a visit.
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