With hundreds of years of history, Cape Town has fascinating and important tales to tell, and the best way to discover them is by visiting one of the city’s many museums.
Much of Cape Town’s early history is defined by slavery and the arrival of settlers, and the subsequent onset of apartheid. Many of the city’s museums highlight this history, and along with a new wave of institutions exhibiting the best of contemporary art, they offer a fascinating insight into both Cape Town and South Africa.
Founded in 1825, the South African Museum is the country’s oldest museum and lies in the historic Company’s Garden in the Cape Town CBD. The museum exhibits a variety of natural and social history collections, including a large display of African dinosaur fossils, marine biology, hominoid fossils and San rock art. The on-site planetarium was recently upgraded with state-of-the-art technology to provide a magnificent three-dimensional space experience never before seen in Africa.
Established in 1978, the Bo-Kaap Museum is an extension of the South African Cultural History Museum. Depicting the lifestyle of a traditional 19th-century Muslim family residing in Bo-Kaap, the museum is set up and furnished as a family home. Although it is small, it offers visitors a look into the past, culture and socio-political climate of the Bo-Kaap neighbourhood. Entry costs 20 South African rands (£1), making a quick stop at the Bo-Kaap Museum worth it.
The South African Jewish Museum is located at the site of the country’s oldest synagogue in the Company’s Garden. The museum traces the origins of Jewish people in South Africa and looks at the cultural history of Jewish life through interactive displays and artefacts. There is also a fantastic collection of netsuke (Japanese miniature art) on permanent display at the museum. The miniature sculptures formed part of a private collection of Isaac Kaplan, and his son Robert was instrumental in ensuring it remained in South Africa after his death. Visitors need to present an ID or passport to enter.
Among the oldest buildings in Cape Town, the Slave Lodge housed the slaves of the Dutch East India Company between 1679 and 1811. After that time, the structure was modified and became government offices until 1960. In 1966, it was reopened as a museum that explores the history of slavery in South Africa, as well as human rights issues, through permanent and temporary exhibitions.
The Groot Constantia Manor House is decorated to recreate the home of a wealthy farm owner from colonial times | Courtesy of Iziko Museums of South Africa
The Groot Constantia Manor House lies on the historic Groot Constantia Wine Estate, the country’s oldest wine farm. The Cape Dutch homestead is decorated to resemble the home of a wealthy farm owner from colonial times, featuring a collection of antique furniture, paintings, ceramics and copperware. A few metres away at the Orientation Centre, visitors can find an exhibition of artefacts and old photographs of the estate.
Not technically located in Cape Town, the popular Franschhoek Motor Museum represents a more privileged face of South African history. A 45-minute drive from Cape Town’s city centre, the museum is a showcase of the extravagant wealth that defines the wine-rich area. However, it also provides a fascinating window into a different era – with a staggering collection of vintage vehicles. It’s a must-visit for fans of classic cars – there are more than 220 on display, including rarities like a 2003 Ferrari Enzo and even an 1898 Beeston motor tricycle.
Het Posthuys is regarded as the second-oldest building in Cape Town after the Castle of Good Hope and is found along the False Bay coastline in the suburb of Muizenberg. Originally used as a military lookout post to guard against enemy ships entering False Bay, it also served as a toll house to collect tax from local farmers. Today, the museum features a diorama, early photographs of the area and material on the Battle of Muizenberg. Though small, Het Posthuys Museum serves an important piece in the puzzle of South Africa’s colonial history. The museum is open intermittently, so be sure to call ahead before you go.
Cape Town’s District Six sits as an open wound on the landscape of the Cape Town City Bowl. Once the home of freed slaves, merchants, labourers and artisans, it was a vibrant neighbourhood until the apartheid government conducted brutal forced removals. The intention was to move non-white people from the prime land close to the city centre and to limit the mixed-race existence for which the suburb became known. Although little has been done to rebuild the area, the excellent District Six Museum, located nearby, offers important insight into the suburb and the people who lived there. The museum looks and feels like an old house that may have stood in the area, telling the story of this turbulent time in the country’s history in an immersive fashion. The museum has self-guided tours and daily site tours, with stories from former residents and historians.
The Heart of Cape Town Museum commemorates the first human heart transplant, performed by Dr Christiaan Neethling Barnard on 3 December 1967 at Groote Schuur Hospital. The museum offers an insight into the events surrounding the operation and a guided tour of several rooms, including the original operating theatres where a reconstruction of the famous surgery can be seen.
The Castle of Good Hope, or ‘The Castle’, is the oldest surviving building and military fort in South Africa, dating back to 1679. Today, it exhibits an array of military artefacts, colonial furniture, art and exhibitions with special significance to the early Cape. While it’s not on the scale of historic castles around the world, it serves as an important landmark in the heart of the city. Visitors can explore the grounds, which house several displays, and see the Key Ceremony weekdays at 10am and 12pm.