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Museums Tour (Self Guided), Cape Town

It's not difficult to dive into Cape Town history, since the most notable museums are almost all located in or close to the city center. Take this tour and immerse yourself in Cape Town's history and culture.
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Museums Tour Map

Guide Name: Museums Tour
Guide Location: South Africa » Cape Town (See other walking tours in Cape Town)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 8
Tour Duration: 2 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 4.2 Km or 2.6 Miles
Author: anne
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Bo-Kaap Museum
  • Koopmans-de Wet House
  • The Slave Lodge
  • District Six Museum
  • Jewish Museum
  • South African National Gallery
  • Bertram House
  • South African Museum and Planetarium
Bo-Kaap Museum

1) Bo-Kaap Museum (must see)

Cape Town has been the home of different ethnic groups, many of them brought as slaves who either bought or earned their freedom. The Bo-Kaap Museum stands on Wale Street and is dedicated to early Muslims who settled here after they had been freed.

The house museum is situated in an area of brightly painted houses typical of Cape Dutch architecture. It is the oldest house in this part of the town, built in 1763. The Muslims who lived in the Bo-Kaap district on the slopes of Signal Hill were mainly skilled craftsmen – carpenters, tailors and builders.

The museum is decorated with 19th-century furniture that would have been used by a typical Muslim family. A large collection of black and white photos in a room on the first floor depict colonial life.

The museum isn’t very big, but it is very interesting and you will learn about Muslim life, about their customs and beliefs and how they were affected by the apartheid system. Under apartheid, many of the locals wanted the Muslims to move away from the area, but they had their mosque here and they refused to move. The museum stands today as a reminder of the tenacity and determination of this minority group.

Why You Should Visit:
Not only is Bo-Kaap is a vibrant and colorful sight to see but also a wonderful street to soak up the sun and learn more about the history of Cape Malay culture & community.

Try visiting the museum prior to walking around the Bo-Kaap area for a greater appreciation of the culture & community.

Opening Hours:
Mon-Sat: 9am-4pm
Koopmans-de Wet House

2) Koopmans-de Wet House

Koopmans-de Wet House is a former residence and current museum in Strand Street, Cape Town. The house became part of the South African Museum in 1913 and was opened to the public on March 10, 1914. It was declared a National Monument under National Monuments Council legislation on November, 1 1940. It is the oldest house museum in South Africa.

The facade of the building speaks of strong Neoclassical influence, with four pilasters, the inner ones topped by a pediment. It dates from slightly before 1793 and has been attributed to the French architect Louis Michel Thibault, although this attribution is unfounded. The portal has a teak and plaster architrave, a shaped teak transom and projecting lantern. Banisters are of teak with stink-wood returns. The ceilings are of teak throughout.

The Koopmans-de Wet House has several rooms with original furnishing. These rooms are: drawing room, dining room, lower Hall, small sitting room, music room, morning room and kitchen, main bedroom, second bedroom.

Operation hours: Thursday - Friday 9 am - 4 pm.
Sight description based on wikipedia
The Slave Lodge

3) The Slave Lodge (must see)

The Slave Lodge is located on the corner of Wale and Adderley Streets and is an interesting museum to visit as it pays tribute to the thousands of slaves brought to Cape Town between the 17th and 19th centuries.

The lodge was built in 1679 and it was here that the Dutch East India Company housed up to a thousand slaves in unsanitary, cramped conditions. The original lodge had no windows and was built of unadorned brick, but today it is a smart, white-washed building that tells the story of the African and Asian slaves who lived and worked in the city.

Through interactive displays, you will learn about slave family roots, their way of life and how some of them settled in the city after winning their freedom.

The museum has a small but excellent collection of Egyptian artefacts that date back to 3050BC, including silver items, textiles, toys, and tools. You can admire a superb collection of Greek vases and ceramics, pottery and cuneiform tablets from the Roman occupation of the Near East.

Between 1811 and 1911 the lodge changed hands several times: it was a post office, a public library, a small prison, and the Supreme Court. In the courtyard, you will see the tombstones (but not the graves) of Cape Town’s founder, Jan Van Riebeeck and his wife Maria.

Opening Hours:
Daily: 9am-5pm
District Six Museum

4) District Six Museum (must see)

District Six is the name of a former inner-city residential area in Cape Town, best known for the forced removal of over 60,000 of its inhabitants during the 1970s by the apartheid regime.

On 11 February 1966, the government declared District Six a whites-only area under the Group Areas Act, with removals starting in 1968. The old houses were bulldozed. In 1989 the District Six Museum Foundation was established, and in 1994 the museum itself came into being. It serves as a remembrance to the events of the apartheid era as well as the culture and history of the area before the removals.

The ground floor is covered by a large street map of District Six, with handwritten notes from former residents indicating where their homes had been; other features of the museum include street signs from the old district, displays of the histories and lives of District Six families, and historical explanations of the life of the District and its destruction.

Why You Should Visit:
Well worth taking a guided tour to get a real understanding of the evil that was apartheid. The guides are former residents (before they were kicked out in 1966).

Get there early and take a break at their coffee shop – it's very nice and you must try their samosas and/or koeksisters!

Opening Hours:
Mon-Sat: 9am-4pm
Sight description based on wikipedia
Jewish Museum

5) Jewish Museum

A visit to the Jewish Museum should be on everyone’s “must” list, as it is an exciting and successful mixture of the old and the new.

The entrance to the museum is in the Old Synagogue which was founded in 1863, making it one of the oldest in South Africa. You cross a bridge from the synagogue and into the ultra-modern high-tech museum and it is just like stepping forward in time.

The museum was founded in the nineteen fifties, but has been extensively renovated and the new model was opened by Nelson Mandela in 1999. Various videos are shown throughout the day, the most important one being a documentary entitled “Nelson Mandela – A Righteous Man”.

The interactive displays take you through the history of South Africa and the history of Jewish life, with a heavy emphasis and the moral and political side of being a Jew living under the apartheid reign.

There is a wonderful scale model of a “shtetl”, or small village mainly populated by Jews. There were many of these in Eastern Europe before the Second World War and the one you will see in the museum is based on a village in Lithuania, where most of the Jews in South Africa came from originally.

In the Discovery Centre you will find family trees with information about over 15000 families who can trace their origins back to Eastern Europe before settling in South Africa between 1880 and 1930.

Operation hours: Sunday - Thursday 10 am - 5 pm; Friday 10 am - 2 pm; Closed Jewish Holidays, open on Public Holidays.
South African National Gallery

6) South African National Gallery (must see)

The South African National Gallery is to be found in Company Gardens on Government Avenue and is a popular venue for tourists and locals alike.

The gallery houses one of the most important collections of African, British, Dutch and Flemish art in South Africa from the colonial period to contemporary and indigenous art. The collection of architectural designs and sketches, paintings, photographs, sculpture and textiles is so large that the permanent exhibitions are rotated so that nothing is missed out.

The gallery was founded in 1871 and the first works were those donated by the estate of Thomas Butterworth – a total of 45 paintings. Today the gallery holds thousands. You can admire the works of Anton Van Wouw, Marc Chagall, Neville Lewis, Irma Stern, and William Kentridge among many other artists.

Beadwork plays an important role in the lives of women in many tribes. In 1999 the Bead Society of South Africa was integrated into the gallery and you can learn about the meaning behind some of the magnificent head-dresses, vests and jewelry you will see on display.

The gallery has a very good gift shop where you can buy prints and reproductions, books about colonial and contemporary art, books about beadwork and other souvenirs.

Why You Should Visit:
It's a small gallery and devoted to mainly Afrocentric and struggle art, but it's quite fascinating.
The exhibits are totally different from what one would expect to find anywhere else in the world.
If you like modern art in all its forms you must make time for this.

Opening Hours:
Daily: 9am-5pm
Bertram House

7) Bertram House (must see)

Editor's Note: This museum is currently closed to the public.

No visit to Cape Town would be complete without visiting Bertram House, which you will find on the corner of Orange Street and Government Avenue Gardens.

Due to the strong Dutch influence in Cape Town, it is easy to forget that the British held the area several times during South Africa’s history, and Bertram House is a house museum which will show you how a wealthy British family lived in a country far from their own.

You should perhaps note that at the time of the British rule in the region, the settlers were, on the most part, military, trading or mining families who came from the British working or middle classes. Finding themselves in a new territory, these families were the nouveau riche and they modeled their homes on the grand houses they had dreamed about owning.

Bertram House was built in the Georgian style and is one of the last surviving buildings of its kind in the Cape area. It was built in 1839 by John Baker and its British owners lived there until 1903. When they left the country, it was bought by the South African College and taken over by the government in 1930.

The house was saved from demolition by the determination of Winifred Ann Lidderdale, a member of the South African Cultural History Museum, who insisted that it should be made into a house museum.

Restored to its former beauty, the house museum is furnished with English Georgian furniture and beautifully decorated in light colors. The 364 pieces of Chinese and English porcelain are from the personal collection of Mrs. Lidderdale.

Opening Hours:
Daily: 9am-4pm
South African Museum and Planetarium

8) South African Museum and Planetarium (must see)

A good way to spend an interesting afternoon, especially if you are looking for something to do with the kids, is at the South African Museum and Planetarium in Company Gardens.

There is something for everyone in the museum, from rock paintings to stuffed animals and skeletons. There are nine permanent exhibitions that trace the Earth from its earliest beginnings into the future and to the stars themselves.

In the Planetarium high-tech light and sound displays recreate the night sky inside a domed auditorium. You will learn about our galaxy and our place in the universe. There is also an impressive collection of meteorites.

In Virtual Earth you can take part in interactive displays about the planet and how the Earth is changing, not only through man’s clumsy approach to environmental protection but also through the natural shifting of the continental plaques and the upheavals within the Earth’s core.

Darwin and the Cape, African Dinosaurs and Boonstra Dioramas are different sections dealing with life on Earth back to over 300 million years ago, with dinosaur and reptile fossils and artefacts from the earliest human emergence on the continent.

In the Wonders of Nature section, you will find over 20 items, including ammonites, a turtle carapace, some amazing clusters of various quartz and an iron meteorite that is as old as time.

The best part of the museum is undoubtedly the section dedicated to marine life and the Whale Well, where you will be amazed by the skeleton of a huge whale, sharks and the reconstruction of a giant squid.

Why You Should Visit:
The entry-price is right and the exhibits are wonderfully curated. The coffee shop is quaint and well stocked.
The museum's highlight is on the ground floor – an excellent exhibition on ancient cave and rock paintings.

If you're here for the planetarium show, arrive early to save yourself a seat (it gets crowded!).

Opening Hours:
Daily: 9am-5pm

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