Top 10 museums to visit in Cape Town, South Africa
Founded in 1652, Cape Town is the oldest city in South Africa and the country’s legislative capital and joint seat of Parliament. A popular tourist destination, it is best known perhaps for its beautiful location, buzzing restaurant scene, and world-class Winelands. However, as might be expected of such a historic city, it is also home to a fabulous selection of museums that cover most aspects of South African culture and history. Here we introduce you to ten museums that every visitor to Cape Town should think about adding to their itinerary.
Castle of Good Hope Museum
The pentagonal Castle of Good Hope is South Africa’s oldest working building. Constructed by the Dutch East India Company (VOC) over 1666-79, it went on to serve as the administrative headquarters of the Cape Colony for over a century. Stranded a mile inland as a result of land reclamation, it has long outlived its original role to defend the city against naval attacks, but it remains a popular museum. The castle has several unusual features. Dating to the 18th century, the Leeuhek (Lion’s Gate) is a sentry portal capped by a pair of stylized lion sculptures and a yellow stone belltower inscribed with the VOC symbol. The Kat Portico is an ornate internal covered balcony sculpted by Anton Anreith. There is also a grim dungeon where racks, thumbscrews, and other instruments of torture were employed to enforce a Dutch law that required someone accused of a crime to confess before they could be sentenced.
Travel tip: Situated in the castle, the William Fehr Collection of paintings, furniture, and artifacts dating from the 17th- to 19th century offers insight into settler life in the Cape Colony.
Find out more: https://www.castleofgoodhope.co.za
District Six Museum
The award-winning District Six Museum was established in 1994 in the Buitenkant Methodist Church, a former wine shop that was consecrated in 1883 but shut down in 1988 due to its association with the anti-apartheid movement. The museum’s name refers to the municipal suburb known as District Six, which was established in the 1860s and housed a diverse multiracial community of freed slaves, Malaysian immigrants, and others. This racial diversity was anathema to the apartheid government, which designated it as a whites-only area in 1966, bulldozed every single home, and forcibly relocated its 60,000 inhabitants elsewhere. The everyday life of District Six is showcased in this community-funded museum, whose evocative exhibits draw on recordings, possessions, and photographs supplied by former residents.
Travel tip: A short walk north, the Victorian-era Cape Town City Hall is where Nelson Mandela made his first public speech following his release from prison in February 1990.
Find out more: https://www.districtsix.co.za
Iziko South African Museum
Founded in 1825, the South African Museum is focused mainly on natural history and contains a collection of 1.5 million fossils and other specimens collected throughout South Africa. It also incorporates some fascinating displays of prehistoric rock art the hat adorns many of South Africa’s mountain ranges, along with collections from the stone city of Great Zimbabwe.
Travel tip: The adjacent Iziko Planetarium and Digital Dome, Africa’s most advanced digital planetarium, hosts a child-friendly schedule of immersive multi-sensory programs about the southern night sky.
Find out more: https://www.iziko.org.za/museums/south-african-museum/
Iziko Slave Lodge
Constructed in 1679, Slave Lodge is the second-oldest colonial edifice in Cape Town. As its name suggests, it was originally a hostel where many hundreds of slaves were kept in crowded and unsanitary conditions. After slavery was abolished in 1834, the building served variously as a library, a court, and even a brothel. In 1998, it reopened as a multimedia museum that documents the history of slaving at the Cape Colony (and further afield) under the theme ‘From human wrongs to human rights’.
Travel tip: Nearby St George’s Cathedral was a center of anti-apartheid activity in the 1980s under Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a Nobel Peace Prize winner whose ashes were interred there after his death aged 90 in 2021.
Find out more: https://www.iziko.org.za/museums/slave-lodge/
South African Jewish Museum
Officially opened by Nelson Mandela in 2000, the South African Jewish Museum explores the complex history of a substantial Jewish community established in Cape Town in 1841. Its multimedia exhibits and installations are housed in a striking modern building which you enter via the Old Shul, the country’s oldest synagogue, dating from 1863. It also stands alongside the Great Synagogue, an imposing century-old domed building graced by twin towers and adorned with intricate mosaics and stained-glass windows. In the same compound as the Jewish Museum, the harrowing Cape Town Holocaust Centre contextualizes racism under South Africa’s apartheid system against the holocaust that took place in Europe during World War II.
Travel tip: The Jewish Museum, like Iziko South African Museum and Slave Lodge, stands on the perimeter of the Company’s Garden, a lovely park that started life as a Dutch East India Company vegetable garden in the 1650s.
Find out more: https://www.sajewishmuseum.co.za
Set on the steep foothills of Signal Hill on the western verge of central Cape Town, the suburb of Bo-Kaap (literally Upper Cape) is the spiritual home of the Cape Malay community, whose colorfully painted houses form the city’s largest concentration of historic buildings. These culturally distinct people, whose ancestors were shipped to the Cape Colony as slaves, have retained their original Muslim heritage but now mostly speak Afrikaans, a Dutch-based language unique to South Africa. The history of this suburb is documented in the Bo-Kaap Museum, a restored 1760s homestead whose displays explore the Cape Malay experience from its roots in enslavement to the present day.
Travel tip: Bo-Kaap is home to South Africa’s oldest mosque. It was built in 1794 by Tuan Guru, an Indonesian prince, and religious leader who was incarcerated as a political prisoner on Robben Island between 1780 and 1793.
Find out more: https://www.iziko.org.za/museums/bo-kaap-museum/
Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (MOCAA)
This award-winning installation houses the world’s largest collection of 21st-century African and Diaspora-related art. Opened in 2017, it stands in an architecturally innovative 9-story building that was converted from a grain silo originally constructed in 1921. With more than 100 individual galleries set inside its walls, Zeitz MOCAA requires at least half a day’s exploration to appreciate its incredible scope. The permanent collections are supplemented by around a dozen temporary exhibitions, ensuring that regular visitors always have something new to see.
Travel tip: Follow your visit to Zeitz MOCAA with lunch or dinner at one of the many world-class restaurants that grace the adjacent V&A Waterfront.
Find out more: https://zeitzmocaa.museum
Robben Island Museum
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Robben Island lies in Table Bay some 7 miles offshore of central Cape Town South Africa’s answer to Alcatraz, it has been a place of incarceration since 1658, when a rebellious local trader was exiled here by the Dutch administration. By the 1760s, the island held 70 prisoners, including several prominent Muslim leaders from Indonesia. More recently, the island served as a maximum security prison where prominent anti-apartheid activists such as Robert Sobukwe, Nelson Mandela, and Walter Sisulu, were detained. After being decommissioned in 1996, it was repurposed as a museum that can be visited on guided four-hour boat tours from the Nelson Mandela Gateway on the V&A Waterfront. Landmarks include the isolated dwelling where PAC leader Robert Sobukwe was held in solitary confinement, the quarry where many prisoners endured years of hard labor, and the tiny cell that Nelson Mandela was forced to call home for 18 years.
Travel tip: On the half-hour boat trip to Robben Island, keep an eye out for dolphins, which are often seen swimming in Table Bay.
Find out more: https://www.robben-island.org.za
Irma Stern Museum
This suburban art museum is dedicated to the life and work of Irma Stern, one of South Africa’s most prominent artists. Established in 1971, five years after Stern’s death, it displays an absorbing selection of her portraits, which offer a rich contemporary take on African subjects, and provoked considerable controversy during her lifetime. Set in Stern’s former home, the museum also displays a fascinating collection of ethnic artifacts accumulated over the course of her extensive African travels.
Travel tip: The Irma Stern Museum often hosts interesting events such as art classes, live music, and other performances; check the website for details of what’s up and coming.
Find out more: https://irmasternmuseum.co.za
Iziko Groot Constantia Manor House Museum
Situated on the historic wine estate of Groot Constantia, this museum incorporates a grand manor house built by Governor Simon van der Stel in 1680 and later expanded to incorporate a handsome gabled façade and sculpted niche. It houses a collection of antique wine storage and drinking vessels, along with other historic paraphernalia related to viniculture in South Africa.
Travel tip: At Groot Constantia’s historic Jonkershuis Restaurant, you can wash down Cape Malay cuisine with award-winning wines produced by South Africa’s oldest estate.
Find out more: https://www.iziko.org.za/museums/groot-constantia/