The panorama of the metropolis at the foot of Table Mountain is as impressive as it is distinctive.
The narrow, three-kilometer-long plateau of the Table Mountain is flanked by Devil’s Peak to the east and Lion’s Head to the west. Together with the Signal Hill, this dramatic rocky backdrop forms a natural amphitheater whose stage is Cape Town.
The natural harbor of Table Bay caused the Dutch around Jan van Riebeeck to establish a supply station for the East India Company here in the mid-17th century.
Though the harbor’s safety soon proved treacherous during stormy winters, the first colonial city foundation in Africa was enforced against fierce resistance by the native Khoikhoi and fortified with Fort de Goede Hoop.
Soon, slave ships from Madagascar, India, Malaysia and Indonesia brought their human cargo to Cape Town and, together with Dutch and Africans from other parts of the continent, laid the foundation for the colorful mixture of peoples that Cape Town boasts today.
The modern metropolis is divided into numerous, highly diverse districts and neighborhoods. The area between Table Mountain and Table Bay is occupied by the “City Bowl,” in the center of which is the architecturally uninteresting business district known as the CBC (central business district).
The “City Bowl” also includes some of the oldest parts of the city, such as Oranjezicht, Tamboerskloof, Gardens and the colorful Bo Kaap (Malay Quarter). In addition, attractions like the Castle of Good Hope, the City Hall, the Company’s Garden Park, the Parliament Building and several museums along the “Museum Mile” draw large numbers of visitors to the city.
The Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, which has been developed into an expensive promenade on the model of San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, is a good place to start or end a tour of the city. Opened at the end of 2017, the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art (MOCAA) is the latest attraction on the waterfront, with a reputation that reaches far beyond Cape Town.
Boats to the former prison island of Robben Island also leave from the neighboring bell tower.
The “Two Oceans Aquarium” is located on the north side of the harbor basin and houses 300 species of fish from the Indian and Atlantic Oceans in more than 30 basins.
To the south of the fortress complex of the “Castle of Good Hope”, once built on the waterfront before the ocean was pushed further away by the reclamation of new land in later years, the notorious District Six of Cape Town begins. The history of the sixth district is commemorated by the “District Six Museum” with changing exhibitions. This once colorful district was declared a “white zone” in the 1960s under the terms of the “Group Areas Act,” and in the years that followed 60,000 blacks and coloreds were expelled and forcibly resettled in the desolate townships of the “Cape Flats.
Cape Town’s most important museums are united in the IZIKO Foundation. The term is derived from the isiXhosa expression for ‘hearth’.
Among them is the “South African Museum” with an impressive natural history collection, dioramas on San culture, and a room called “Whale Well,” whose showpiece is the skeleton of a blue whale.
After centuries of varying use, the Slave Lodge at the northeast end of the Company’s Gardens is now dedicated to the history of slavery in South Africa with permanent and changing exhibitions.
South Africa’s first art museum is the National Gallery, also located in the Company’s Gardens, which presents works of South African, African, British, French, Dutch and Flemish art as well as a collection of contemporary works worth seeing.
Finally, a (competently guided) township tour promises a special experience, providing impressions beyond Cape Town’s more touristy bright side.