What to see
Lion’s Head and Signal Hill
Part of Table Mountain, you’ll come across a rocky outcrop on the top of Signal Hill which resembles the head of a lion called Lion’s Head. Looking out across to Sea Point and Camps Bay, and at 669 meters above sea level, it’ll take around 45 minutes’ walk to reach Lion’s Head. Locals love the spot, especially at dusk and during full moons, and it’s become almost a local ritual to head up there at these times. When walking back down the mountain, just be sure you have a flashlight with you and certainly don’t make the descent alone. The first settlers in the area used the peak of the hill as an observation point, and as they would plant a flag on the hill when they saw a ship approaching, it was named Signal Hill. When this signal was given, those below would prepare their goods for sale and get ready to go an meet the incoming ship. You can reach this hill on Table Mountain on foot, by bicycle or car, and you can be sure that breath-taking views of Cape Town are waiting for you at the top.
Castle of Good Hope
The Castle of Good Hope was built between 1666 and 1679 by the Dutch East India Company as a supply and filling station, and it has since become one of the city’s and the country’s most important historical sites. A relic from the country’s colonial era, as of 1678 the castle was a center of civic, administrative and military life. However, as the settlement grew the castle began to lose importance, and today it houses the Castle Military Museum. Here you can learn about South Africa’s colonial era and the country’s fascinating and sometimes turbulent past.
Robben Island & Nelson Mandela Gateway
Not surprisingly, Robben Island & Nelson Mandela Gateway is one of the most visited attractions in Cape Town.Between the 17th and 20th centuries, the island was used as a leper colony, military base and a prison, and of course it was in that prison that the man who would become leader of the nation, Nelson Mandela, spend 18 of his 27 years in incarceration. There’s a large monument of Mandela with his defiant fist raised in the air on the island, commemorating his struggle. At the back of the island is the point at which the shuttle ferry arrives, affectionately named Nelson Mandela Gateway. Standard tours of the island last 4 hours, and include travel to and from the island, a tour of the old prison where you’ll see the very cell Mandela was kept in, and a 45-minute bus tour of the whole island. As you leave the island through Nelson Mandela Gateway, you’ll have some idea of the monumental ordeal the man and his comrades suffered, and the courage he must have had to base his subsequent leadership on the tenet of forgiveness.
There’s no better place than Company’s Garden to escape the heat of a hot Cape Town summer’s day. The garden was created in 1652 by the Dutch colonialist Jan van Riebeeck as a place to grow fresh vegetables for the ships of the Dutch East India Company, hence the name Company’s Garden. In 1700, the townsfolk turned the area into a botanical garden, but today it’s one of the city’s major parks, full of fountains, exotic trees and rose gardens. In the lower section of the garden you’ll find a water pump which was installed in 1842, but was engulfed by an oak tree and carried up as its body grew.
District Six Museum
The District Six Museum is named after the name this area was known by during the country’s era of Apartheid. Opened in 1994, the museum was established to commemorate the event which saw 60,000 people forcibly removed from their homes. The floor of the museum is covered with a huge map of the area, which shows where the former residents once lived. The museum exhibits belongings of those who were forced from their homes, as well as other documents recording this terrible event. It’s difficult not to be moved by the records and photographs detailing the ordeals suffered by individual families, while model homes and items such as traffic lights from the area give you an idea of what it must have been like before the original residents were made to leave. The museum also documents other shameful chapters in the country’s history, in an effort to make sure that the same mistakes are never made again.
Formerly known as the Malay Quarter, Bo-Kaap is the historical center of the country’s Malaysian community, though it’s now one of the city’s most cosmopolitan districts. On your way to Bo-Kaap Museum, you’ll see the district’s brightly colored houses, and as you walk its cobbled streets, you’ll get a feel for the sense of history which hangs in the air. Bo-Kaap Museum examines the way of life of the Muslim population in 19th-century Cape Town, and is set in a building constructed between 1763 and 1768, which is also known as the oldest in the area.
South African Jewish Museum
The South African Jewish Museum was established by Mendel Kaplan in 2000, and is partially set in what is known as the Old Synagogue, which was built in 1863. The museum traces the history of Jews in South Africa with information made accessible through interactive displays, films and installations. On the top floor are wonderful Judaic artifacts such as a solid silver replica of the Kimberley Synagogue. There’s also a room in the museum exhibiting Kaplan’s impressive collection of delicate Japanese Netsuke figurines. The building built in 1905 now serves as the city’s Great Synagogue.
South African National Gallery
The South African National Gallery is the country’s leading art gallery, featuring a large collection of pieces from South Africa and the wider continent, as well as Britain, France and Holland. Along with the museum’s permanent exhibits, you’ll often find temporary exhibits of paintings, photographs and textiles held in the museum. One of the most interesting pieces in the museum is a carved teakwood door. The piece was created by Russian-born British artist and colonial ruler Herbert Vladimir Meyerowitz, and it depicts the travels of the Jewish people across the world. You’ll find more of Meyerowitz’s carving on other doors in the museum.
Grand Parade is a square that’s not just significant in Cape Town’s history, but the country’s as a whole. It was here in 1652 that the Dutch built their first fortress, which would become the site where slaves were bought, sold and punished. The square also played a more hopeful role in Cape Town’s history, as it was here that Nelson Mandela first addressed the people after he was released from his 27 years in incarceration. He made his speech from the balcony of the Old Town Hall which looks out onto the square. Today, that building serves as a venue for cultural and musical events. Close by the Old Town Hall you’ll find Drill Hall, which is where the 21st birthday of Queen Elizabeth II was celebrated, and now serves as the city’s central library.
The Rhodes Memorial was erected on the slopes of Devil’s Peak by the architect Sir Herbert Baker to commemorate the work towards the country’s development and prosperity carried out by English-born, South African politician Cecil John Rhodes. The monument was constructed as a result of donations from around 30,000 Cape Town residents. The 49 steps of the Rhodes Memorial represent the 49 years of his life, and there are 8 lions which flank the steps, similar to those found in Trafalgar Square in London. The architecture of the memorial clearly takes inspiration from Greek temple design, with its columns and ornate masonry. There’s a restaurant and tea garden close by where you take a break after your visit.
What to eat
Braaivleis is what the South Africans call a barbecue, and when the weather’s fine, you can be sure they’ll be gathered round one cooking meat and enjoying each other’s company. These social occasions are called Braai, and it’s one of the tenets of South African culture. It’s usually red meat that’s cooked on the braaivleis, which can use either wood or charcoal, and there’s usually a host of sauces and side dishes in accompaniment too. You’ll find several braaivleis restaurants in Cape Town as well, so you don’t have to be a local to experience this South African custom.
In the local language waterblommetjiebredie means “little water lily stew”, and mutton and water lily flowers are used in its preparation. You’re unlikely to find this dish prepared anywhere else in the world, and it really is a staple of South African cuisine. While in the modern day the dish is served on a plate, in the past it would have been served between bread. However it comes to you though, just be sure you try this unique dish while you have the chance.