Offbeat Cape Town, beyond the Waterfront and Table Mountain

Parading the V&A Waterfront, going wine-tasting in the vineyards, exploring Cape Point, Boulders Beach, Robben Island and Table Mountain, just a grab of the many must-do’s when visiting Cape Town. But before soaking up South Africa’s moving history on Robben Island, indulging yourself to good food, delicious wine or taking selfies from the top of Table Mountain overlooking the magnificent views of the City Bowl, there is one activity that deserves a little more attention: discovering the real Cape Town with a local.

It is in front of the Prins and Prins Diamond store and museum that we meet the passionate Ursula, our South African guide who grew up in the Mother City and who knows all of its secrets and backstreets. After giving each of us the elevator look and telling us which piece of jewellery to put away (after all, this is still South Africa!), she claims enthusiastically: “There is a story at every street corner!” As we follow her eyes to admire the beautiful colonial building: “Take Prins & Prins for instance, this used to be the wine cellar of the Huguenots back in the 17th century.”

Cape Town is intimately linked to its early Dutch history easily noticed on street signs: Hout Street, Loop Street, Breestreet, Buitengracht (or outer canal as yes, the Dutch also built canals here to supply the city with fresh drinking water). Crossing the outer canal that is long gone, we find ourselves surrounded by small colourful houses lined up along steep cobble stone streets: the photogenic Bo-Kaap area is home to the oldest Muslim community in South Africa. Often referred to as Cape Malay, this community finds its roots in the island states of the Far East where the Dutch East India Company (or VOC) operated. The Cape colony was used by the VOC to send in exile influential Muslims and slaves from Java, Indonesia, Malaysia, etc. to resupply passing ships… Ursula explains: “Over time, the populations have mixed also with other slaves from Madagascar and other African countries. Today it is a large and vibrant Muslim community.” Ursula continues: “Bo-Kaap has not always been as peaceful and colourful as today. In 1934 it was declared a slum, but the government did not tear it down as it was too expensive. Restoration started in the mid-1960s and this is when the Bo-Kaap colours appeared for the first time for no specific reason but to revamp the district and make it more joyful.” Today the brightly coloured houses that are lined up along the slopes of Signal Hill are a favourite hangout for tourists and Instagram-addicts who enjoy its vibe and its fusion food.

In the 17th century, this Muslim area was far from the Fort de Goede Hoop that Jan van Riebeeck constructed out of clay and timber upon his arrival at the Cape of Good Hope in 1652. Replaced in 1679 by the Castle of Good Hope built by the VOC, the latter still stands and is the best preserved example of a Dutch East India Company fort.

A loud “BANG!” startles me, and Ursula mechanically looks at her watch. Since 1806 every day at noon the Noon Guns are fired (initially to allow ships to check the accuracy of their marine chronometers). A bit of smoke rises up from Signal Hill where both canons still stand.

As we walk the city centre, we enter the Groote Kerk, the oldest place of Christian worship in South Africa with the country’s largest organ of more than 5000 pipes! Farmer’s families from all over South Africa used to come here every so many years for their baptisms and weddings.

Another landmark is the Saint George’s Cathedral, also known as the Tutu’s Cathedral. This is a very special place of worship where anti-apartheid and human rights activists used to gather and where Tutu took many political stances. The welcome sign on the door leaves no doubt that the people’s cathedral is still leading the way of social justice today.

A few blocks further, the beautiful Art Deco building “The Old Mutual” houses pricy apartments in the heart of town, just next to the eastern food bazar that is bustling with locals placing their lunch orders.

Ursula points out some other locals’ favourites like this former post office turned market place just a block from Strand Street. Strand Street? As in “beach street” in Afrikaans? Indeed, the shoreline was moved one kilometre out of town in 1938 to create the modern-day harbour. Ursula remembers the stories of her father and grandfather playing in the sand to dig up valuables. We stop in front of a majestic familiar building: the former Cape Town City Hall, built in 1905, was broadcasted live all over the world when future President Nelson Mandela held his first speech in 1990 after being released from prison. An historical moment that was attended to by more than 10,000 people.

The vibrant yet complicated history of Cape Town has shaped the city into what it is today: a melting pot of many different cultural and religious backgrounds living together in what sets the example for the rest of the country: the Rainbow nation that is waiting for you to be explored.

Claire & Marcella

Travel tips:

  • To discover Cape Town, get in touch with Ursula Stevens at Wanderlust. Passionate and very knowledgeable, she will literally walk you through the history of the Mother City.
  • Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area! Here is a short tutorial to download it.

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