Cape Town
Close to the ground.

Cape Town (Kaapstad in Afrikaans) is one of the greatest cities in the world. Against the iconic silhouette of Table Mountain, the city offers beautiful beaches, incredible natural diversity, renowned restaurants and vineyards and top-notch accomodation. Travelers who let the easygoing Capetonian pace wash over them find that the longer they stay, the more they love this city. Cape Town is a cultural melting pot, but its neighborhoods and suburbs have retained distinct characters and it is worth spending some time in each to get the full flavor of the city. Bo-Kaap, De Waterkant, Green Point, Clifton, Camps Bay, Observatory and the small coastal towns along the peninsula make up the must-see list for most visitors. But too many visitors spend time in Cape Town without seeing the vibrant townships where much of the population resides. Arrange a township tour or check out the Cape Flats Townships section to explore Langa, Guguletu and Khayelitsha on your own.

The “Mother City” of South Africa has long been the focus of the country’s cultural evolution. The city’s deep roots and complex political history provide a profound foundation for the country’s metropolitan epicenter. The stunning and fertile slopes of Table Mountain have attracted settlers for more than 12,000 years. Tools and human remains found in nearby Fish Hoek tell the story of the area’s first communities - small bands of San hunter-gatherers and Khoikhoi pastoralists, who were later referred to jointly as the Khoisan.

These Khoikhoi pastoralists migrated from the north and spread their clans across large tracts of land needed for grazing their cattle and sheep, nearly two thousand years before Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias was blown ashore in a storm in 1488. Following in his wake, Vasco da Gama rounded the “Cape of Good Hope” in 1497 to open the trade route to the East Indies. For the next hundred years, the Cape was used sporadically as a midway point for sailors to rest and replenish water and meat supplies through trade with the local Khoisan population before continuing on to the riches of India and Indonesia.

It was not until 1652 that a permanent European settlement came to Table Bay. The Dutch East India Company (VOC), which needed a refueling base for its passing ships, sent a crew headed by Jan van Ribeck to regulate trade with the indigenous Khoisan and plant fruit and vegetables for the merchant sailors. When the Khoisan refused to be subjugated as laborers for their new neighbors, the VOC imported slaves from Madagascar, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Free burgher “boers” (Dutch for 'farmers') soon yearned to expand their farms and wineries beyond the confines of the VOC post in Table Bay. They established farms on the grazing land of the Khoisan, which led to conflict and the outbreak of the first Khoi-Boer War in 1659. Temporary Khoisan unity against the invaders was short-lived and they soon lost control of their traditional lands around the Cape. Subsequent wars and a smallpox epidemic in 1713 nearly wiped out the entire Khoisan population around Cape Town and ravaged the clans further inland as the Boers continued to expand their settlement.

Cape Town quickly grew from a small port town to a lively and diverse “tavern on the seas.” The VOC encouraged immigration to develop the settlement and continued to import slaves to work the Boer farms. Throughout the 1700s, hundreds of slaves were imported each year, and by the end of the century, they had outnumbered the white population. The vast numbers of slaves imported from Indonesia are the ancestors of Cape Town’s current Cape Malay and Muslim populations.

Meanwhile, in the late 1700s, Napoleon Bonaparte was making great strides across Europe. Fearful that he might gain control of the strategic Dutch colony, the British invaded and temporarily took control of the Cape in 1795. The British returned control to the Dutch when tensions subsided in 1803, but invaded again in 1806.

By 1814, the Dutch ceded the Cape Colony to the British Empire. Along with the change in colonial power came a change in culture as the British colonists introduced “liberal” reform to the Cape, which culminated in emancipation of slaves in the Cape Colony in 1834. The Boers did not welcome the change in governance or the loss of their slave labor, and thus began the Boer Great Trek of the 1830s to 1840s as they moved east and north to distance themselves from British control.

The discovery of diamonds in Kimberly in 1866 and vast gold deposits near Johannesburg in1886 drastically changed Cape Town’s identity. Johannesburg quickly replaced Cape Town as the economic and population hub of the region and Cape Town transformed into an important harbor city for the influx of gold prospectors and the export of mineral wealth to Europe. But this was not enough for the British Cape Colony government and Cape Town Prime Minister Cecil Rhodes, who had a keen interest in gold hidden in deep reefs in Boer territory.

Fearing that the British had growing designs for their republic, the Boers launched a preemptive strike in 1899, which commenced the Second Anglo-Boer War, or South African War. Combat was waged in the interior, sparing Cape Town itself from the fighting. The British defeated the Boers in 1902, and in 1910 the Cape Province was united with the Natal, Transvaal and the Orange Free State in the Union of South Africa, with Cape Town established as the seat of its legislature.

By the turn of the century, Cape Town had grown to a population of over 170,000 people. The emerging modern, industrialized city began to see itself as the cultural center of the region; monuments were erected and universities, sports clubs and entertainment venues established. Development also brought urbanization – inner city working class neighborhoods such as District Six, Bo-Kaap and Woodstock began to flourish. These overcrowded but vibrant neighborhoods were largely home to the city’s coloured, blackand immigrant populations and were regarded by the white elite as areas of vice and ill repute. The municipal government neglected these neighborhoods and water supply, sanitation and roads were poor. In 1901 an outbreak of bubonic plague was wrongfully blamed on the black working class and, under the pretext of health legislation, used as justification to rid the city center of its “undesirables”. People were forcibly removed from the inner city and relocated to areas such as Ndabeni, creating the first black township of the Cape Flats. In response to these actions and other laws that began to impose stricter racial segregation in the country, the black and coloured educated elite became increasingly politicized. The labor movement was especially strong in Cape Town and unionists organized to protest against the colour-bar that reserved the highest paid and most skilled jobs for whites. In 1919, clerk Clements Kadalie organized Cape Town’s dockworkers and founded the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union (ICU). The union’s strike for higher wages was successful and by 1926 it represented over 100,000 members.

However, the rise of the black and coloured upper and middle class was stifled by the rise of Afrikaner nationalism. White Afrikaners struggled to define themselves as superior and demanded policies that reserved better education and employment opportunities for whites. In an effort to maintain a sense of unity among the white population in the Union, British officials placated Afrikaner discontent. Physical segregation increased and in 1923 the Urban Areas Act restricted the black population’s movement and access to the city as it expanded the townships in the Cape Flats. In 1936 the white government abolished the right of the land-owning black elite to vote in parliamentary elections in the Cape Province. Despite the series of legislation tightening racial segregation between 1910 and 1940, the black and coloured population in the city continued to grow, peaking during WWII when blacks and coloureds stepped into jobs previously only reserved for the white population.

The post-war backlash against the growing affluence of the non-white population led to the election of the Afrikaner National Party in 1948 and the emergence of the apartheid state. “Separate and unequal” policies of racial segregation solidified restrictions on the movement and aspirations of the black population, and Cape Town further became zoned by race. In reaction to apartheid, the black liberation movement grew in the shantytowns on the outskirts of the city and townships of Cape Flats. The more militant offshoot of the African National Congress (ANC),the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), established a stronghold in Langa. Anti-pass demonstrations in Cape Town, which protested the requirement of all black males to carry identification papers at all times, were met with police repression in 1960,and a state of emergency was declared. The following decade witnessed a political clamp down as opposition parties such as the ANC and PAC were banned and the black liberation movement was forced underground. Robben Island Prison, off the coast of Cape Town, soon became a symbol of government oppression as leaders of the ANC and PAC were jailed there.

Under apartheid, the Western Cape was deemed a Coloured Labour Preference Area and the coloured population of Cape Town received preferential treatment over blacks. However they too were victims of forced displacement. In 1966 the historically coloured working-class neighborhood of District 6 was rezoned as a “white” district and over 60,000 of its residents were displaced as the area was destroyed under the pretext of “slum clearing.” Yet Cape Town’s coloured population continued to frustrate the apartheid government in Pretoria as efforts to eradicate shantytowns surrounding the city was met with increasing resistance.

Opposition in the 1970s peaked with the 1976 Soweto Uprising and protests broke out across the country. Police repression of the black students in Cape Town’s townships of Langa, Nyangaand Guguletu led to rioting, and coloured students joined with them in solidarity. During 1976 a total of 128 people were killed and over 400 injured in Cape Town's urban violence, drawing both national and international attention to the situation. Squatter settlements that had emerged during the 1970s on the outskirts of the city became another point of contention between the government and opposition forces. Thousands of people who had come to Cape Town for work and made homes in these shantytowns for lack of other housing were displaced as the government engaged in mass clearings of these areas.

Throughout the 1980s, the government security forces intensified their covert and low-level warfare against the “black menace.” Opposition to apartheid became increasingly militant. In response to the continued violence, community organizations mobilized and began to demand the dissolution of apartheid government and an end to repression. Women’s movements, students, labor unions and civic organizations banded together to form the United Democratic Front (UDF) in 1983. Facing increased opposition, the government began to repeal some “petty apartheid” measures and institute cosmetic changes, including the creation of a “Tricameral Parliament” which gave token political representation to the coloured and Indian communities in attempts to co-opt their support. However, the need for substantial change was inevitable and the government began to arrange for the release of political prisoners and the dismantling of the apartheid regime.

On February 11, 1990, hours after his release from 27 years of imprisonment in Robben Island, Nelson Mandela addressed his countrymen from the balcony of Cape Town’s City Hall. Four years later, he assumed the office of the Presidency in Pretoria. Cape Town has since begun a process of reconciliation and integration, as the city strives to reestablish itself as a vibrant, multicultural hub. Yet the city still struggles. In the midst of an influx of investment and rejuvenation projects to reinvent the city, Cape Town is still host to wide disparities in wealth, racial divisions both in the city center and in the Cape Flats, gang violence and high levels of HIV. This is a city that carries the heavyweight of its past behind it as its inhabitants strive toward a modern, socially equal and culturally diverse future.

Cape Town

GPS: S 33 55.427 E 018 25.401 | pop. 3.5 million | elevation 22 m/72 ft

Cape Town (Kaapstad in Afrikaans) is consistently regarded as one of the top cities in the world. With beautiful natural landscapes, the iconic Table Mountain, wildlife, beaches, oceans, good surf, top restaurants, world renowned vineyards, swell accomodation across the specturm, and a relaxed, unrushed, uniquely Capetonian way of life, the city grows on you - the longer you stay the more you'll love it.

The city is a multicultural melting pot but its neighborhoods and suburbs retain a distinct feel and it is worth spending some time in each to get a full flavor of the city. Bo-Kaap, De Waterkant, Green Point, Clifton, Camps Bay, Obzervatory and the small coastal towns along the peninsula make the must-see list of most visitors. However, too many visitors spend time in Cape Town without seeing the townships where much of the population resides. Arrange a township tour or check out the Cape Flats Townships section to explore Langa, Guguletu and Khayelitsha on your own.

Muizenberg & Kalk Bay

GPS: S 25 05.366 E 030 27.228 pop. 20,000 | elevation 1,403 m/4,603 ft

Muizenberg is considered the birthplace of surfing in South Africa and its surfer vibe is still vibrant today. It initially developed as a holiday resort for gold and diamond magnates in the late 1800s, including the once Prime Minister Cecil Rhodes, who built a small holiday cottage on the seafront. Further down the False Bay coast is St James, with its iconic colorful beach huts and the old fishing village of Kalk Bay. Once home to a large Filipino fisherman population, Kalk Bay is now a relaxed strip of town with antique stores, boutiques and restaurants lining the main drag opposite the harbor.

Simon's Town

GPS: S 25 05.366 E 030 27.228 pop. 20,000 | elevation 1,403 m/4,603 ft

Simon’s Town is a sleepy naval town in False Bay that was first founded by Simon van der Stel in 1687 and established as the official winter anchorage of the Dutch East India Company in 1743. The town was largely built with the use of slave laborers, many of who were brought from Indonesia, which contributed to the development of a vibrant Muslim community. However, Simon’s Town was deemed a “white” area under the Group Areas Act in 1967 and over 7000 coloured town residents were forcibly removed to an inland settlement that was ironically named Ocean View. Today the city is the official home of the South African Navy and is a great launching point for water activities. But the real attraction here are Jackass Penguins at Boulder Beach, one of the largest colonies of African penguins in South Africa.

Cape Point & Cape of Good Hope

GPS: S 34 21.422 E 018 28.419

The Cape of Good Hope is the southwestern-most point of the African Continent. It is commonly mistakenly referred to as the southernmost point of the African continent, however that designation rightfully belongs to Cape Agulhas, situated some 150 km to the southeast. The Cape Point (S 34 21.214 E 018 29.408) is located 2.3 km/1.4 mi to the east of the Cape of Good Hope, but is slightly higher in elevation. Near the tip of Cape Point is the original lighthouse built in 1860. From the restaurant and information center visitors can either walk or take the Funicular Railway on a 0.6 km trip along the edge of the point to the old lighthouse. Even after the installation of the old lighthouse, ships continued to wreck on the point as fog and low clouds reduced its visibility until 1919, when a new lighthouse was built further out and closer to sea level. The more adventurous can hike down a narrow and winding path to visit it.

Langa

GPS: S 33 56.637 E 018 31.609 pop. 250,000 | elevation 15 m/49 ft

Langa, meaning “the sun” in Xhosa, was named after the chief of the Hlubi tribe, Langalibale, who was imprisoned on Robben Island in 1875 for resisting the local government in Natal. Upon his release, he was confined to an area on the Cape Flats that later became known as “Langalibalele's Location.” Langa was created under the terms of the 1923 Urban Areas Act and developed as a “model” township; its layout and design emphasized strict surveillance and control of its tenants. The first residents of Langa were migrant male workers who were housed in single-sex dorms and lived in cramped and unsanitary conditions. These residences still stand today and some are being converted to family-style apartments. Langa is a popular destination for township tours and whether you arrive on your own or with a group, you are likely to see other visitors exploring the township.

Gugulethu

GPS: S 33 58.409 E 018 33.692 pop. 340,000 | elevation 20 m/66 ft

Originally named Nyanga West, Gugulethu (or Gugs for short) was established in 1958 to house the influx of workers to Cape Town from the rural Transkei region. Like neighboring Langa, Gugulethu was a site of mass resistance during apartheid and drew international attention with the murder of the Gugulethu Seven by South African security forces and the killing of American student and activist Amy Biehl in the early 1990s. Monuments now stand in memory of these past abuses and hope for the future. Today, one of Gugulethu’s largest attractions is the Sunday braai and street party at Mzoli’s, where people from all over the townships and Cape Town gather for an afternoon of eating and drinking.

Khayelitsha

GPS: S 34 02.457 E 018 40.093 pop. 500,000 | elevation 22 m/72 ft

Meaning “new home,” Khayelistsha was established by the government in the early 1980s to house "legal" black residents who were living in overcrowded townships or evicted from informal squatter settlements on the outskirts of the city. The township quickly expanded as the repeal of pass laws led to rapid urban migration during the 1990s. People formerly restricted to rural “homelands” in the Western and Eastern Cape moved to the city in search of economic opportunities. Today Khayelitsha is Cape Town’s largest township and one of the largest in the country. Infrastructure in some of the areas of Khayelitsha is poor to nonexistent and crime rates are high. But investment into the township has led to rapid development and the construction of many new municipal buildings, including a state-of-the-art tourism center and a soon-to-be-completed hospital. It can be hard to find your way around on your own and streets are not well marked, so it’s best to check out the town with a local.