October 3, 2010
Cape Town is without a doubt one of my new favorite cities in the world. There are so many things do there I found myself busy every single day, and I still wish I had more time to explore. Cape Town offers a little something for everyone: beaches, wildlife, adventure sports, shopping, museums, art, history, great food it is such a cool city. It is the oldest city in South Africa and has a long and sordid history full of conquerors, slave trade and of course apartheid. I would suggest that you need at least a week when you come visit to really get the breadth of what the city has to offer, but if you are on limited time you can cram a lot of activities into a short amount of time. My first day in Cape Town was the first day of Spring, but the weather was still very wintry, which meant a lot of wind and heavy fog. Because of the meeting of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans at the Cape you will find extreme amounts of dense fog, which often roll in on Table Mountain and is known by locals as the tablecloth. I was told again and again a local saying, “In Cape Town if you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes.” The weather, especially in the winter constantly changes and can change from a downpour to bright sunshine in a matter of minutes. I planned out my time in Cape Town very carefully and then each day had things change because many activities are dependent on weather. Any boat ride you take (and I took many) is dependent on the weather because if the seas are too choppy you can’t go. I got horribly sick on the shark diving boat (more on that later) I went on and that water was only considered mild, so if that was mild I wouldn’t want to see choppy! Table Mountain was closed every day I was there except two due to weather and I had already planned full day tours so I never made it up. I’m pretty bummed, but it just gives me an excuse to make it back! Luckily I made it out to Robben Island, but my boat got canceled once so I would advise planning that at the start of your trip so you have time to reschedule in case it gets canceled because you really don’t want to miss it!
I took my first day in Cape Town to sleep in and relax and recover from my last project. I was starting to feel a bit desperate for something American so I took the day off from sight seeing and went to a local mall and saw a movie. It was pure bliss and I will write more on that later. On my second day I did a full city tour although because of weather I had to heavily modify it. I had planned on hitting up Table Mountain and Robben Island that day, but both were cancelled so I spent more time in the city itself and at museums. If weather is not an obstacle I would suggest a day itinerary of Table Mountain in the morning then the castle, company gardens, greenmarket square, a choice of 2 or 3 museums, and then the 3pm boat to Robben Island. There are so many museums to choose from and you could easily spend all day just at the museums (as I did). Some of the best ones I would suggest would be: The District Six Museum, The Slavery History Museum, The SA National Museum, The SA Art Museum, The Jewish Museum, and the Holocaust Museum. I met a really nice couple in their 80’s at the Jewish Museum who were from New York City and ended up having a coffee with them and the manager of the museum so I ended up missing out on the art museum, but it was worth it. Sometimes with travel you have to embrace the unexpected moments, as they may be the best memories.
One of the sites not to be missed in Cape Town is the Casteel de Goede Hoop (Castle of Good Hope). The castle was built between 1666 and 1679 and it is the oldest surviving building in SA. The castle was considered the center of civilization in SA and was the administrative and military capital of the Cape. Today the castle is the seat of the military in the Cape and serves as a museum. It is worth a walk through to see the old architecture and collections of furniture and antiques inside. There is also a military museum worth a walk through that shows the different incarnations of the castle from its establishment to now. At 10am there is a changing of the guards, which is always fun to watch in different cities to compare cultures and traditions.
The next stop on my tour was a drive through District Six and a stop at the District Six Museum. District six was a residential area in Cape Town that was made up of a mix of races including Blacks, Malays, Asians, Coloureds and more. The government declared the area whites only in 1966 and by 1982 over 60,000 residents had been forcibly removed and relocated to areas classified by their race. The government then bulldozed the houses and all infrastructures other than places of worship to insure that the people could never come back. When apartheid ended in 1994 the ANC allowed the former residents to move back and pledged to help build, but 16 years later the area is still remarkably underdeveloped. My guide who took me around the city was born in District Six and had been forced out when he was a small child. He has since moved back and now lives there with his wife, children and parents, but next door to his house is an empty lot full of weeds, which is true of most of the area. If you have the time the museum is worth a quick walk through. The museum was a community effort established in an old church that was very vocal in the anti-apartheid movement. The floor of the main room in the museum shows a street map of what District Six used to look like and many old residents have come in and written their names on their houses. There are also portraits of some the displaced people, as well as short personal stories from former residents and household objects from some of the destroyed homes. Many in America may not have heard of District Six, but this is the area that the fictional movie District 9 was based off of and represents a very sad piece of SA history.
A nice stop after the District Six Museum is to visit greenmarket square. The square is a famous shopping area right near the Company Gardens, which used to be owned by the Dutch East India Trading Company and therefore dubbed the Company Gardens. The market used to be for locals only, but has become very touristy in the last few years. You can find great crafts there and the bargaining is excellent- I was told 200 rand each for bangles I liked and I ended up buying seven of them for 150 rand total. Be prepared for the hustle though- each stand will try and get you to buy something and will not be happy to see you go empty handed, it can be a lot to take after a while. It’s a fun spot though and if you want any African crafts like jewelry, pottery, carvings, clothes and basically any other souvenir you can think of this is the place to go.
Next post will be on the Company Gardens and the surrounding museum mile.