Culture & history

The central city is the oldest part of the City of Cape Town. It has been changing and growing since before the arrival of the VOC at the Cape in 1652. Middle Stone Age hand axes found in the foreshore are evidence of a time when the sea level was much lower than it is now.

Vegetable garden in Company Gardens (pic: Cape Tourism)

Khoekhoe groups came into Table Bay to trade with passing ships well before the Dutch arrived to plant the garden that was to supply fresh vegetables to their ships. Table Mountain’s freshwater sources gave precious water to the early indigenous peoples and their livestock. In fact, Cape Town used to be called Camissa – meaning ‘the place of sweet waters’ – by the Khoekhoe people.

The Company’s Garden was the Dutch-owned fruit and vegetable garden growing fresh produce which was sold to passing ships and sailors and which fed much of the early colony. You can visit the garden and see how it has been transformed into a botanical paradise and community food garden. 

Two Rivers Urban Park was the location of the second Khoi/Dutch war, which began when Dutch farmers began to settle along the Liesbeek River. Their hedges, built to protect their farms, encroached on Khoekhoe grazing ground and clashes began. The legacy of water lives on. Today, the collection of water from springs here in Newlands is an ongoing cultural practice for families who have always lived in the area, and for whom the collection of water has symbolic meaning. 

Raapenberg Bird Sanctuary, a section of the Liesbeek River, also forms part of Two Rivers Urban Park.

Spend a day at the Museums

  • The Castle of Good Hope is the oldest building in Cape Town and was built by Jan van Riebeek when he arrived in the Cape in 1652. The importance of the Cape as a halfway point in the trade route between Europe and the East is highlighted by the fact that the Cape was occupied at least twice in the late 18th and early 19th century: The Battles of Muizenberg and Blaauwberg marked the military occupation of the Cape by the British. Evidence of these happenings can be found throughout the City. Learn more by taking a walking tour of the city.
  • Castle of Good Hope (pic: Cape Tourism)

    The Slave Lodge is the second oldest building in South Africa. Once a communal slave lodge, it is now a museum showcasing the city’s slave history as well as its culture and society in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. A 1725 runaway slave (‘droster’) community – which grew to 60 people – survived at Cape Hangklip for 109 years, until slavery was abolished in 1834. The Slave Memorial on Church Square is a heritage landmark and features 11 granite blocks (some engraved with the names of slaves) that honour the contribution slaves made to our culture and heritage and acknowledges the suffering they experienced.

  • The Koopmans-de Wet House in Strand street is the oldest house museum in the country. It offers a fascinating look back into the living space of a well-off Cape family of the 18th Century.
  • The Langa Township Heritage Museum is made up of the Old Pass Office and the Old Post Office. The Old Pass Office has a sad history of being the ‘gateway’ to the city for migratory workers. Many of these workers were harshly punished when they disobeyed the pass laws of the apartheid era. The Pass Office is now used as a space for meetings and heritage workshops, and as a venue where visitors and tourists can learn about the history and urban life of the township.
  • The Gugulethu Seven Memorial remembers the deaths of seven young anti-apartheid activists in 1986.
  • The Lwandle Migrant Labour Museum was established in 1958 as a hostel for workers in the nearby fruit and canning industry. The museum is a reminder of the living conditions that the migrant labour system imposed. Pay a visit to learn more about this system. You can also view the whole township on a guided walk.
  • Robben Island Museum (pic: Cape Tourism)

    Robben Island has, over the years, been a prison, a hospital, a mental institution and a military base. It is best known for being ‘home’ to the world’s most famous prisoner and statesmen, Nelson Mandela. The Robben Island Museum is definitely worth the visit. Take a ferry from the V & A Waterfront to Robben Island. Guided tours are offered by former political prisoners, who provide personal accounts of prison life on the island.

  • The Bo-Kaap Museum is situated in the historic area that became home to many Muslims after the abolition of slavery. Bo-Kaap itself is well worth a visit to view the distinctive colourful houses, cobbled streets and calls to prayer that provide a unique Cape experience. The museum consists of a furnished house that depicts the lifestyle of a 19th century Muslim family.
  • The South African Jewish Museum is a moving tribute and detailed account of one of the great South African Jewish communities of the diaspora. The museum takes visitors on a journey back to the South African Jewry’s early roots and shows how influential the community was in building South Africa as we know it. 

Get interactive

Many attractions in Cape Town offer visitors the chance to learn about the city’s history, as well as experience it. There are many attractions in Cape Town that showcase the city’s rich historical and cultural roots, with many of these not only offering information about the city’s past and present, but also the opportunity to experience it. 

  • Cape Town Planetarium: Looking up into the night sky, the Cape Town Planetarium is a celebration of the planets and constellations visible in the great Southern African sky. Throughout the year, the planetarium hosts workshops and exhibitions of different themes, but the highlight is undoubtedly the lights and sounds created by the planetarium’s star machine, which takes visitors on an audio-visual adventure through the stars and constellations. For the little ones, there are workshops where they’ll learn about the galaxy and the stars in a fun and interactive way.
  • South African Naval Museum: Simon’s Town, located around 30 minutes from the city centre, is home to South Africa’s largest Naval base, making it the perfect location for the South African Naval Museum. Here visitors can see a collection of naval artefacts such as uniforms, torpedoes, sea mines, as well as models of ships and submarines of the South African Navy, past and present. One of the highlights of the museum is the life-size ship’s bridge and submarine operations and control room.
  • South African Jewish Museum: Known for its high tech, interactive displays and occupying two buildings, the South African Jewish Museum is one of the most popular museums in the city and gives visitors an engaging insight into South African Jewish history, as well as an area dedicated to the Holocaust.
  • Springbok Experience Rugby Museum: Rugby is one of South Africa’s most beloved sports, with the passion for the game running deep in South Africans’ blood. Through numerous interactive exhibits, the Springbok Experience Rugby Museum details the sport’s history from its introduction in 1861 to the national team’s historic World Cup win in 1995, as well as the game’s role in the country’s tumultuous political past. The museum also features the popular ‘Springbok Trials Zone’, an interactive area where visitors can test their skills to see whether they have what it takes to make the Springbok rugby team.
  • Cape Town Diamond Museum: Diamonds have played a big part in putting South Africa’s mineral wealth on the world map.  At the Cape Town Diamond Museum visitors can learn how diamonds are formed within the earth’s crust over billions of years, the workings of the country’s diamond industry, and see how diamonds are transformed from rough rocks to coveted jewels.

Source: Cape Tourism