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 is 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.
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 is also host to 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 from 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. Amongst 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. But what the Island is most famous for, is being a political prison during the Apartheid regime with its most notable prisoner being Nelson Mandela who 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.