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Historical Heritage Walking Tour through Cape Town
Amble through the heart of the Mother City on this unique, self-guided CapeTownMagazine.com tour
This is your chance to explore many of Cape Town’s world-famous attractions, heritage sites and architectural wonders with a leisurely stroll through the lively city centre.
Our walking tour will take you to the historic Grand Parade lined by the Castle of Good Hope and magnificent City Hall as well as introduce you to exquisite, vintage edifices, domineering statuettes and a popular green oasis in the middle of town. Along the route, you’ll pass the once ominous Church Square, the original Slave Lodge and then the esteemed parliamentary buildings. From there, find your way to the storied Bo-Kaap, the original Muslim settlement of Cape Town and an area famed today for its quaint, colourful houses.
And these are just a few of the exciting stops on the itinerary.
So, are you keen to come to grips with our seaside metropolis’s dramatic history while taking in the scenic highlights of the historic Old City? Then what are you waiting for? Come experience the real Cape Town, through local eyes!
1. District Six (an empty section of grass on Keizersgracht Road, next to the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT))
We begin our journey at the area formerly known as District Six (now marked on the map as Zonnebloem). Picture this almost vacant spot of land flooded with houses of all shapes and colours jumbled together between narrow streets. It was once an eclectic community bursting at the seams with a mix of merchants and artisans, freed slaves and labourers, musicians and artists, immigrants and people of African, European, Jewish and Cape Malay descent. It also had some of the city's best nightlife and music.
This was District Six, a working-class residential area that, before the Apartheid government tore it down between the 1960s and 80s, was home to one of the most vibrant and diverse South African communities. Under the Group Areas Act of 1950, approximately 60 000 people were forcibly removed from the tangle of neighbourhoods, the houses were flattened by bulldozers and the land was squirreled away for “whites only”. Today, still free of development, the empty space serves as a place of sanctity and as a national and global symbol of the Apartheid struggle. On your way toward the CPUT campus note Al-Azhar Masjid, a sacred mosque in Aspeling Street that was formerly at the centre of many people’s District Six lives, and St. Mark’s Anglican Church on St. Mark’s Road. The stone church dates back to 1867 and defied the Apartheid government by providing a house of worship to District Six residents of the Anglican denomination of Christianity during the struggle. Even after they were evicted from their homes, ex-residents would travel from distant communities in the Cape Flats to attend services at the church.
2. The Castle of Good Hope
Next, we charge down Keizersgracht Street (which then becomes Darling Street), passed CPUT, until we reach Castle Street. Here we meet the oldest surviving colonial building in South Africa, the Castle of Good Hope. Built in the 1600s and originally a marker of the Table Bay shoreline (before land reclamation forced the building inland), the fortress was once the centre of civilian, administrative and military life in the Cape. These days, it houses the Castle Military Museum and is a sightseeing favourite for its unique design. Shaped in a pentagon with five bastions (all named after titles of Prince William of Orange), the building flaunts both elements of Medieval and English Renaissance architecture. Not to mention, the entrance to the castle is a homage to 17th century Dutch classicism, and the bell that hangs from the wood beams in the tower above the entrance is the original. Make sure to check out the changing of the guard, which happens at 12pm from Monday to Friday; the key ceremony, which takes place at 10am and 12pm from Monday to Friday; and the firing of Signal Cannon, which happens between Monday and Friday at 10:10am and 12:10pm and on Saturdays at 11am and 12pm.
Opening Hours: Monday – Sunday: 9am – 4pm
They offer daily tours. For more information, contact their tour office at +27 (0) 21 787 1249.
3. City Hall
Diagonal from the castle and just across the Grand Parade, a square previously used as a military training ground that now serves as a public space for parking, events, and markets, is City Hall, a large, brown Edwardian building built from honey-coloured limestone in 1905. It’s one of the last structures of its kind in Cape Town and has, over the years, come to be associated with countless memories and celebrations. Most famously, in February 1990, 250 000 people gathered on the Grand Parade and listened as Nelson Mandela addressed them from the balcony of City Hall after spending 27 years in prison.
What’s more, the turret clock that extends 61 metres above the building strikes hourly from 6:15am to 11pm; the number of gongs signifies the time: i.e. four gongs indicate a quarter of a day.
4. The District Six Museum
We now head back up Darling Street toward District Six and turn right into Buitenkant Street, home to a number of historic edifices. First up is the Homecoming Centre, an initiative that’s housed in the old Sacks Futeran building and that pays homage to Cape Town’s past struggles through exhibitions and public demonstrations that encourage interaction. Its architecture comprises five interconnected warehouses of 19th and early 20th century descent.
Take a quick detour and turn right into Caledon Street to the Fugard Theatre, a place of laughter and tears that’s also located in the antique Sacks Futeran building. Named after the venerable South African playwright Athol Fugard, the vintage russet structure is dedicated to storytelling and productions that recall memories of the past.
Double back down Caledon and turn right on Buitenkant Street to visit the District Six Museum, a public space that was launched in 1994 to inspire reflection on South Africa’s troubled past. As a foundation, the museum educates society through displays and moving demonstrations, while at the same time supporting the rebuilding of the Cape Town community that was forcibly removed from District Six.
Opening Hours: Monday:9am – 2pm (doors close at 13h30); Tuesday – Saturday:9am – 4pm; Sundays are by appointment only.
For more information, contact the District Six staff on +27 (0) 21 466 7200 / +27 (0) 21 466 7100
From here, let’s head down Albertus Road. On the way, we’ll pass the face-brick Magistrates’ Court. When the street dead-ends, cross into Mostert Road and do so again into Spin Street. Stop and grab a coffee and a snack at 6 Spin Street, a popular restaurant lodged in the historic Sir Herbert Baker building overlooking Church Square. Double back and turn right into Plein Street, and trot all the way down until you see the large white Parliament buildings.
5. Houses of Parliament
We’ve finally reached the Houses of Parliament, a set of beautifully crafted buildings that sit on the fringe of the Company’s Garden and boast classic Corinthian porticos and pavilions. Home to South Africa’s legislature, Parliament is where the nation’s laws are made and passed, where the executive branch of the government is made accountable and where the president makes his State of the Nation speech. Guided tours of the buildings are offered from 9am to 12pm, Monday to Friday, excluding public holidays, and visitors can also purchase tickets to sit in on parliamentary sessions between January and June. For more information, contact the Parliament tours office at +27 (0) 21 403 2911.
We journey down St Johns Street (Plein Street eventually becomes St Johns Street, which in turn changes into Hatfield Street) until we’ve reached Orange Street where we’ll turn right. Make sure to keep to the right side of the road because the Company’s Garden is coming up soon.
6. The Company’s Garden
Let’s head to the right into the fragrant Company’s Garden, a park and heritage site built in 1652 by Dutch settlers as a provisioning point where sailors could get fruits, vegetables and fresh water. Spanning eight hectares, the public space is, today, enjoyed for its magnificent flora and lush green lawns. The garden is lined by the Houses of Parliament, the National Library of South Africa, the Tuynhuys and the South African National Gallery, as well as some historic statues. The urban greenway also has its own restaurant. Relax for a few minutes under the oldest cultivated pear tree or explore the rose garden, Japanese garden, fish pond, aviary or tea garden before heading to the next destination.
7. St. George’s Cathedral
When you’re ready, we’ll exit onto Queen Victoria Street and walk to the right towards Wale Street. Along the way we’ll pass the High Court Civil Annex, where, during the 1960s, proceedings would be held in order to categorize South Africans by race. On the corner of Queen Victoria and Wale streets we’ll come face to face with the oldest cathedral in Southern Africa and the seat of the Anglican Church and the archbishop in Cape Town, St. George’s Cathedral. The beautiful Gothic-style structure towers above Wale Street with authority, and so should it, what with its long, rich history. During the Apartheid years, the church gained the reputation of being “the people’s church” because of its firm position against the oppressive government. It was a chapel of solitude for all races and classes, and many speakers, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, spouted inspirational sermons and calls to action and activism from its pulpit during those dark days.
8. The Slave Lodge
If we look ahead of us, we encounter a statue of the reputed Afrikaans politician Jan Hendrik Hofmeyr in front of the yellow Slave Lodge. Constructed in 1679 to house the slaves of the Dutch East India Company, the monument now falls under the Iziko Museums group of Cape Town. As one of the oldest heritage sites in the city, the lodge explores the saying “From human wrongs to human rights” with exhibitions that shed light on the turbulent history of slavery in South Africa. In its day, the museum was also presumed the Cape Colony’s biggest brothel, it was once the Supreme Court, was then used as government offices and in 1966 it became a museum.
Opening Hours: Monday – Saturday: 10am – 5pm
For more information on ticket prices contact +27 (0) 21 467 7229
Hop across Spin Street to De Groote Kerk, where slave owners would attend church while slaves waited outside under a “slave tree” in the Company’s Garden. The entrance is in the back, on Parliament Street and it’s guarded by the statue of Rev. Andrew Murray.
9. Long Street
Next, we stroll down Wale Street away from the gardens and toward Signal Hill and turn left onto the nightlife hub of the Mother City, the iconic Long Street. This popular CBD party artery has an assortment of colourful restaurants, bars, backpackers, hostels and hotels lodged in the gorgeous historic buildings; take for example Carnival Court Backpackers and the Blue Lodge Hotel, both of which claim spacious balconies lined with broekie lace and intricate ironwork. There’s also the Tyne Buildings (number 140, 142, and 148), a trio of old-fashioned facades declared provincial heritage sites, and Sgt Pepper, a popular eatery and watering hole that boasts elaborate architecture, pillars and broekie lace. On the way down Long, grab a coffee or a fresh juice from one of our favourite cafés, Lola’s, and if you’re peckish, try one of the rustic bistro’s tasty sandwiches. Otherwise, there’s plenty of other places to get some delicious nosh, so take a load off and have some lunch. Next, we finish our march to the top of Long Street to find a local treasure, St. Martin’s Evangelical Lutheran Church. This traditionally German church was established in 1861 and its grey chapel can be seen from kilometres away.
10. Bree Street
From here it’s a short trip up Buitensingel Street into Bree Street, Cape Town’s hipster-est road. We’ll start at the beginning, moving past the dark-stone St Paul’s Church, Skinny laMinx (a well-loved design store), Merry Pop Ins (a second-hand kids clothing shop) and Jason Bakery, which is housed in a dated brown and white building, before we end up at the street’s architectural gem, Heritage Square. The small block of Dutch and Georgian buildings that line the square will transport you back in time. In the 1700s, this was a place of business for blacksmiths and bakers as well as the closest thing Capetonians had to a mall. Some other great buildings to check out along the way to Heritage Square are Robert Sherwood Design, African Consulting Architects, Paul Smith and Clarke’s, which are housed in some stunning buildings too. Once you get to the square though, stop for a moment and enjoy a cold one at &Union, a local hipster hangout that was among the first bars to give beer lovers in Cape Town a taste of the craft brew movement.
From &Union, let’s trek up Church Street until we encounter the bustling Buitengracht Street. Take a left here and then another quick right onto Wale Street, and all of a sudden we’re in the multi-faceted Bo-Kaap neighbourhood. Known for its colourful rows of houses and cobblestone streets, this area is the historic centre of Cape Malay culture in the Mother City. After the abolition of slavery, the community – it’s situated on the slopes of Signal Hill – became home to many Muslims and slaves from African countries (although, not all current residents are from Malay descent), which is why it’s a spiritual home for Islamic culture up until today. Be sure to visit Biesmiellah for a Cape Malay-themed snack (samoosas and dhaltjies) and admire Auwal Masjid, the first ever mosque erected in South Africa (it’s at the end of Dorp Street, which is just parallel to Wale Street).
After some great exploration, it’s time to retrace our steps, join Buitengracht Street once again and head left, towards Strand Street. The Evangelical Lutheran Church on Strand is a must-see heritage spot for Cape Dutch architecture enthusiasts. Founded in 1708 and converted from a warehouse, it is the oldest Lutheran church in South Africa (back in the day, the Dutch East India Company had banned any other form of religion besides the Dutch Reformed Church). Not to mention, as the church is still operating, it’s the oldest Christian house of prayer still in use today in South Africa.
Continue down Strand Street and march back down Bree Street, passing more architectural wonders, like the beautiful buildings housing Eighty Nine Interior Design, the Marie Stopes Clinic and Barnet Fair Barber Shop.
Then, wander back down Church Street toward Long Street. On the way we’ll admire the Lutge Gallery, a uniquely South African old-fashioned furniture and architectural store that also features art and table designs. We’ll also pass Babette Clothing, a charismatic, petite fashion store nestled inside a cute burgundy building with a white Victorian-style gate. Cross over Long Street, and we’ll trot passed a small antique market and the charming Café Mozart.
12. Greenmarket Square
If we travel further along, we’ll reach Burg Street, and if we look to the left, we’ll see Greenmarket Square. Created in 1696, it is the second oldest public site in Cape Town (after the Grand Parade) and our final stop. The now bustling marketplace was once a space for ships to trade their goods and welcomed only the upper echelons of society. Presently, the colourful bazaar is a great place to pick up a handcrafted African curio or souvenir.
And while you’re there, don’t forget to take notice of the Methodist Church, a tall, brown Victorian boasting Gothic Revival architecture. It is the second oldest building constructed on the outskirts of Greenmarket Square, preceded only by the old Burgher Watch House, which was built in 1716 as the point from where the Burgher Watch would patrol at night. In 1761 the Old Town House (a pale yellow and white building with stairs leading up to four large pillars) was built in place of the old Burgher Watch House. This structure was both the first two-storey building in city centre Cape Town and, as of 1914, it was the Mother City’s first art museum. Also, take note of the buildings bordering the square, like the Protea Assurance Building, Market House and the Inn on the Square hotel, which houses Dish, an upmarket restaurant that does a great Friday braai special during the warmer months.
We’ve finally come the end of the walking tour, so peruse the many vibrant Greenmarket Square stalls for a unique token that will remind you of your time in the great city of Cape Town.
By Erin Hendricks
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