Cape Town Culture

Discover Cape Town's eclectic mixed culture and heritage

There is much that can be written about culture in Cape Town and the Western Cape. Cape Town, fondly named the Mother City, is the oldest and most culturally aware city in South Africa. Situated at the southern most tip of South Africa and bounded by the Indian and Atlantic oceans, it is an exciting mix of first and third world cultures.

The gateway to Africa, it is here where indigenous cultures - San, Khoi and Xhosa followed by Europeans and peoples from the Malaysian and Indian Archipelagos first set foot before exploring the rest of South Africa. Indelible cultural fingerprints remains, creating a diverse melting pot and a fascinating travel destination.

Said Richard Busch, Travel Editor for National Geographic Traveler, "By any standard, the Western Cape region of South Africa is one of the most beautiful and compelling places to visit on the planet. Here, in addition to a city with fascinating historical sites, excellent museums, vibrant markets and a handsomely restored waterfront, I encountered mountain wilderness, rugged coastlines, sandy beaches, lush gardens, beautiful wine estates, superior hotels and some of the warmest, most welcoming people I've ever met."

The Cape Malay Culture

Cape Malay Culture, Cape Minstrels

The Cape Malay people of the Western Cape are the direct descendants of political exiles imported from the East Indies as slaves by Dutch settlers who colonized the Western Cape over 300 years ago. This is a community where tradition is strong. The Malays brought Islam with them to South Africa. Devout Muslims, they observe Islamic practices. You will see the men going to prayers at the call for prayer from the mosques. The Malays settled in Cape Town at the foot of Lions Head, known today as Bo-Kaap. Cobble stoned streets and brightly painted Georgian-style houses are characteristic of Bo-Kaap. Today you will find the majority of Malays living on the Cape Flats, other areas of the Western Cape and South Africa. This is a close knit community. In many instances the "it takes a community to raise a child" still holds true. They are also a sharing community, eager to welcome visitors and share their world with those who are interested. On New Years Day you will see the Cape Coons entertain the crowds along the streets of Cape Town. Dressed in their brightly coloured outfits with their faces painted, the coons dance and sing through the streets. This is a tradition started by the slaves. The end to slavery (1 December 1834) was greeted by the slaves with fireworks and street parades. The street parades are now held on New Years Day and on 2 January (known as Tweede Nuwejaar or Second New Year). This is the time of year the Malay choirs are also in full voice. Malay choirs parade through the streets of Cape Town on New Years Eve. Dressed smartly in their suits, they sing in the New Year as they walk along the streets. One way to experience the Malay culture is through the food. Malay cooking and baking is delicious. Try the mutton curry - slightly spicy with a sweet undertone, or a homemade coconut tartKoeksisters (a kind of doughnut) is the breakfast of choice on a Sunday morning. It is not just about the food, Malays believe food is better when shared with others. 

The Fisher-Folk of Cape 

Cape Fishermen Culture

The Cape has, what may sometimes seem like, endless miles of coastline. With the Indian Ocean (with the warm Mozambique current) on the east and the Atlantic Ocean (with the colder Benguela current) on the west, fishing is an integral part of life in the Cape. Along the Cape coast you will find villages like Yzerfontein, Hout Bay, Kalk Bay, Struisbaai and Arniston where, in certain respects, time has stood still. The fishermen who live here, learnt the art of fishing from their fathers, who in turn learnt it from their fathers.Though times have changed, the skill of fishing has remained the same. Here you will find old men tending the nets.

Ensuring each net is in perfect working order. They have seen the sea in all its guises. This is a world where the only teacher is experience. Experience of the sea, the currents, the weather and the tackle are what makes a man a fisherman. You will see the fishermen going out to sea in the early hours of the morning. Their boats brightly painted in all shades of the rainbow. Returning in the afternoon with their bounty. Snoek, Yellow Tail, Mackerel and Cob are just a few of the variety of fish caught.

In some places like Hout Bay you will find a thriving fish market. Though modern in appearance, it is still based on a centuries old tradition. The men brave the elements to catch the fish while the women work in the processing plant cleaning and packaging the fish. At some harbours, like Kalk Bay, you can buy the fish at the quay side and have it cleaned for a small charge.The life in a fishing village is a simple life.

People work hard for the little reward they receive. But ask any fisherman, there is nothing else he would rather do. Fishing is his life. Fishing is what he knows. A fisherman is what he will be until the day he dies. 

A healthy lifestyle 

Hike Lions Head, Cape Town Culture

The Cape has sunshine, clear open skies and a people with a genuine zest for life. The Cape is known as the sport and health capital of South Africa. With a calendar of world class sport events, gyms, wellness centers, never far from mountains or the beach - few can argue. The people of the Cape love their sport. They enjoy the atmosphere and camaraderie of participating or being enthusiastic spectators.

You will see them watching or playing rugby, cricket, soccer, netball, golf or hockey, or cycling on the road or down the mountainside, running in the forest or along the seafront and kayaking on the ocean or rivers. All done for enjoyment and fun.You will find them in the gyms doing aerobics, aqua aerobics, spinning and kick-boxing. They practice yoga, pilates and tai-chi. They enjoy a healthy lifestyle and visit health food stores and restaurants for fresh local food and beverages. 

These are the people who frequently visit the natural mineral spas and wellness centers in the Cape. These centers offer various types of therapies, some unique to the Cape, and encourage total well-being of body, mind and soul. A perfect way to de-stress in an environment of tranquility and peace.

Whether you wish to increase your adrenaline levels or pursue a more relaxed approach to well-being, the Cape has it all. Fitness and wellness is part of a lifestyle that is the Cape.

Wine Estates 

Wine tasting in Cape Town

In the Cape, food and wine are an integral part of life. The search for the perfect meal with the best wine is never-ending.

  • Visit the Cape Winelands and enjoy delicious meals at some of the best wine estates in the Cape.
  • Pack a picnic basket and enjoy the ambience of Spier Wine Estate in Stellenbosch and Le Pique-Nique in Franschhoek.
  • Enjoy the olives of the Riebeek Valley on the Cape West Coast, with some of the local white wines.
  • The Cape West Coast is well known for its seafood and brilliant white wines to complement it.
  • Spoil yourself with peaches and muscadel from Montagu in the Cape Winelands. 

The Cape Winelands have a number of wine estates situated along the various wine routes. Some estates like Simonsvlei in Paarl offer light meals with wine, while other estates like Neethlingshof in Stellenbosch has a restaurant, the Lord Neethling, that offers fish, game and even oxtail. If smoked trout is your fancy, try Bijoux in Franschhoek. The trout is local and the service world class.

Should you prefer the less formal setting of a picnic, visit the Spier Wine Estate in Stellenbosch or visit Le Pique-Nique at theBoschendal Wine Estate in Franschhoek.The journey to combine the local produce with the best locally produced wine will take the visitor to all the corners of the Cape. Try the local olives of Riebeek Valley on the Cape West Coast with the locally produced white wines, or port from Calitzdorp in the Little Karoo with ostrich meat. When visiting Ceres try some fresh farm peaches with brandy or muscadel from Montagu in the Cape Winelands.

Perhaps you prefer a sweet wine with a fruit salad dessert. Cheese and wine are always a hit. Try some sweet wine with cheese from Bonnievale or Ladismith. A local favourite is green figs, cheese and savoury biscuits with a sweet wine from the Swartland on the Cape West Coast.Seafood is a big favourite in the Cape. Line fish, crayfish, mussels and oysters are always popular. Washed down with a classy local white wine is hard to beat.Good food and great wine, this is life at the Cape.

Cape Chic

Cape Town Culture

The Cape has top designer label stores, trendy bars and world class restaurants. Cape Town has become the fashion capital of South Africa with the countries leading designers getting their inspiration from the natural beauty and people of the Cape.This is a lifestyle endorsed by the hip and trendy set. These are the people who seem to communicate via cell phone and email only. They wear the latest brand names, hang out at fashionable bars and eat at vibey restaurants. This is a generation of well educated professionals.

They always have some place to be and someone to see. Meetings are not confined to the boardroom, it may be at a coffee bar, on the golf course or even the beach. Work is not limited from 9 to 5. This is a generation with a zest for life. They live to extremes. They work hard and they play even harder. On a hot day you will find them at the beach, participating in watersports, catching a tan or playing beach volleyball and then relax at Camps Bay for sundowners with the rest of the in crowd.

They'll be in the gym to de-stress and work on their bodies. The Cape offers a full calendar on a variety of events which is ideal for this chic set. They find time to watch local music, theatre, visit art exhibitions and fashion shows - it's all in a day's work. Come and experience this in the Cape - a lifestyle that is infectious and best enjoyed when shared with others. 

Outdoor Adventure 

Paragliding Lions Head, Cape Town

The Cape enjoys an average of over 10 hours of sunshine per day making. It is an outdoor enthusiast's paradise. Few places on earth can compare with Cape Town and the Western Cape as an adventure and sporting playground.

Suggestions of places to visit and things to do:

  • Get your adrenaline pumping by going parachuting and skydiving at Citrusdal on the Cape West Coast. The excitement is great and the views fantastic.
  • Bungy the world's highest commercial bungy jump at the Bloukrans River Bridge on the Cape Garden Route. This 216m jump will test your mettle.
  • Try your hand at fishing. Trout fishing in Franschhoek is becoming very popular.
  • Experience the surfing culture of Cape Town at Surfer's Corner in Muizenberg. This protected corner is excellent for beginners and longboarders.
  • For wind and beautiful turquoise water, windsurfers and kitesurfers flock to the Langebaan Lagoon on the Cape West Coast.

If jumping out of a perfectly functional aeroplane interests you, you will find plenty of like-minded people in the Cape. Citrusdal on the Cape West Coast is a haven for parachutists and skydivers. With views of the Cederberg Wilderness Area, the flowers (July to October), and Table Mountain and Robben Island in the distance, it is well worth the effort. 

Paragliding off Lion's Head offer spectacular views of the Atlantic Seaboard and beaches while Sir Lowry's Pass has a view of False Bay, the Helderberg Mountains and the Cape Flats that is unrivaled. If you need an adrenaline boost, try bungy jumping at the Gouritz River Bridge in the Cape Overberg. You should try the world's highest commercial bungy jump at the Bloukrantz River Bridge. The jump is 216 meters of pure adrenaline.

If you prefer your action on terra firma, there is plenty to do and enjoy. Road-running and trail-running are popular forms of exercise with a full calendar of events and different terrains to choose from. The Cape is also an ideal place for cycling, road cycling and mountain cycling, with well tarred roads and plenty of mountain trails to choose from. With the iconic Table Mountain rising straight out of the Mother City, countless other towns perched close to their own mountain backdrops, plus miles of beaches and rolling countryside, there's no shortage of place to stretch those legs. Hiking and walking in the Cape offers the chance to immerse oneself in a floral diversity that is unrivaled worldwide.

This is the region for water lovers. Fishermen can take their pick, choosing fresh or saltwater of every type. Surf anglers enjoy fishing on the False Bay and on the Cederberg Wilderness Area. Kalk Bay Harbour and the old harbour at Hermanus are also popular fishing spots. For the deep-sea fishing enthusiast, there are plenty of boats to charter from Hout Bay, Kalk Bay and Gordon's Bay. Inland, the fast-running mountain streams offer wild rainbow and brown trout for catching on fly. Franschhoek is best known for it's salmon trout, the local specialty that tastes best smoked. 

The Cape has waves to suit all tastes and abilities. From the gentle rollers that cruise into Muizenberg's most protected corner of False Bay, to the huge monsters that storm in from the Antarctic each year to hit the infamous offshore reef outside Hout Bay known as Dungeons. Many of the world's top wind- and kitesurfers make the Cape their home base in the off-season due to a great sociable lifestyle, with stylish accommodation right at the water's edge, and of course the ever-present waves and wind. Langebaan is attracting international recognition, with Plettenberg Bay and Mossel Bay more outstanding options. This is the Cape of great adventures.

Outdoor Cultural

Cape Town Culture, Bo-Kaap Cape Malay

The Cape is a cultural mix of Dutch, French, Malay, English, Afrikaner and Xhosa lifestyles. All sharing the treasures of the Cape to the enjoyment of all.

  • Experience the Bo-Kaap with a history that dates back more than 300 years.
  • See the spirit of "Ubuntu" (togetherness) as the people of the townships heal the scars of Apartheid.
  • Visit the Cape Winelands to see the European cultural influence in the Cape through architecture.
  • Arniston, on the Cape Overberg coast is a place where the fisherfolk have been living in the same mud and reed houses for generations.

The Bo-Kaap, nestling on the slopes of Lion's Head in Cape Town, is a treasure trove of Malay cultural heritage. Built on the ruins of the slave quarters of old, the Bo-Kaap has a history that dates back some 300 years. Many of the descendants of slaves still live here. 

The township culture of the Cape is a refreshing perspective of the region?s cultural diversity. Here rich and poor live side by side in a colourful mix of shacks and brick homes. The signs of healing from apartheid are evident in the spirited entrepreneurial activities that can be seen while walking from shebeens (township restaurant/bars), to craft markets, churches and local museums. Visitors are encouraged to visit the townships with a tour group. Tour guides will be able to show visitors the true essence of the areas.

Much of the French, English and Dutch settler influence on the Cape is particularly visible in the architecture and culture of the Cape Winelands. The impact of these cultures can be experienced in places such as the towns of Stellenbosch, Paarl and Swellendam where the architecture, art and food all enjoy a distinct Afrikaans flavour. Tulbagh in the Cape Winelands has 32 national monuments on the same street. These historical homesteads form the biggest concentration of national monuments in the world. Similarly, the town of Franschhoek, settled by French Huguenots centuries ago, is a veritable "Petit France" with its wine and culinary traditions not to miss. Eat, drink and sleep Franschhoek.

The history surrounding the origins of the fishing village of Arniston on the Cape Overberg coast, promises a blend of romance, beauty and intrigue. The fisher folk families of this area can still be seen plying their trade in the Indian Ocean as their children play between the mud and reed cottages that have survived a thousand Cape storms.

One of the best ways to experience the Cape's cultural treasures is with a tour group. Tour guides are knowledgeable and will ensure visitors are well-informed. The Local Tourism Office in every town will be able to assist visitors with maps, information on where to go and tour operators to contact.

Outdoor Lifestyle 

Kirstenbosch Bosch Gardens, Cape Town Culture

The people of the Cape enjoy an average of over 10 hours sunshine per day, mountains, oceans, forests, beaches, rivers and lakes. It is an outdoor enthusiast's paradise.

  • Take a walk on Table Mountain to witness breathtaking views and unique flora and fauna.
  • Immerse yourself in the Cape Floral Kingdom, a World Heritage Site.
  • Water sport enthusiasts will enjoy the Langebaan Lagoon, on the Cape West Coast, for windsurfing, kitesurfing, fishing and boating.
  • Relax and take it easy as you cruise the expanse of the Knysna Lagoon on the Cape Garden Route.
  • Play a round of golf on some of the best golf courses in Africa. There are courses to suite everybody.

Discover the sensational secrets of Table Mountain by walking or catching the cable car to the top. Beyond Table Mountain explore a number of walking trails in the Table Mountain National Park from the "Table" in the city centre all the way to the spectacular Cape Point at the end of the dramatic False Bay. While walking on Table Mountain, remember there are over 1 470 plant species that occur on the mountain.

The Cape Floral Kingdom (CFK), a World Heritage Site, stretches over 90 000 km². It is the smallest of the world's six distinct plant kingdoms, but one of the richest in the number of species. Of the 9 000 plant species, 70% are found nowhere else in the world. To view some of the Cape's indigenous flora, take a slow meander through the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens. A visit to the Cape West Coast during July to October is a flower lovers dream. The Cape West Coast flowers are in bloom, turning the area into a carpet of flowers. More than 8 600 species occur here. 

For those who decide to explore the Cape West Coast, the watersport opportunities at Langebaan Lagoon will not disappoint. Windsurfing, sea kayaking, kitesurfing and sailing are very popular. Surfers enjoy the wave consistency of Bloubergstrand along the Blaauwberg Coast, Kommetjie and Noordhoek on the Atlantic Seaboard. Muizenberg's surfers' corner on the False Bay coast is a popular surfing spot throughout the year. River rafting and canoeing are popular pastimes from May to September on the Breede River and the Doring River in the Cape Winelands. The Keurbooms River at Plettenberg Bay on the Cape Garden Route offers boat trips, canoeing and water-skiing.

Moving northeast, trace a path along blue seas, sandy white beaches and verdant coastal forests, or inland across the rolling Cape Overberg hills. A drive along the Cape Garden Route is a nature lover's daydream. Secure your very own houseboat and cruise the expansive Knysna Lagoon or relax on the beaches and enjoy a swim in the warm Indian Ocean. Enjoy a braai (barbeque) of fresh fish, delicious meat and tasty vegetables grilled on hot coals and served al fresco. 

The Cape offers some of the best golf courses in South Africa. No matter where you go in the Cape, you are never far from an excellent golf course. There are also a variety of fantastic sport fields for cricket, soccer, rugby and field hockey. The people of the Cape love their sport and the atmosphere at games is well worth the experience.

Shopping and crafts 

Cape Town Markets

The Cape is home to many talented designers and master crafters who produce a wide range of quality handmade goods from beaded bags to embroidered cushion covers.

Craft & DesignThe Cape is home to many talented designers and master crafters who produce a wide range of quality handmade goods from beaded bags to embroidered cushion covers.

  • Experience the magic of Greenmarket Square for bric-a-brac galore.
  • Spoil yourself with a variety of objects from sculptures to interesting wireworks.
  • Visit the craft markets and stores in each town throughout the Cape.
  • See the spirit of community at a country fair. Most towns have a country fair where you can purchase the freshest produce and the most delicious treats.

Designs are drawn from the diverse cultures and traditions of the people living in the City and province and styles range from the traditional to the contemporary.A tourist attraction in itself, Greenmarket Square is an intimate, cobblestone curiosity that nestles in the very heart of Cape Town. While admiring the scenic beauty and historic sights, look out for hand sewn clothing, beautiful beadwork, handcrafted jewellery, rare objets d?art and bric-a-brac galore.

The crafts on display are from a number of African countries. Cape Town's many other markets offer crafts and examples of African design that are more traditionalistic and ritualistic in nature. There are many items of sculpture, weaving and even cloth dyeing that reflect both the historical as well as the contemporary African mood. Examples of arts and crafts from every corner of the continent include soapstone carvings, woven reed works, innovative wirework creations as well as replicas of the weapons, shields and war masks of old.

The handcrafters work in media as varied as ceramics, textile treatments, leather, bead, metal and wirework, jewellery, items from recycled material and more. Products include the utilitarian  handpainted crockery, linen, jewellery, and handbags  to the purely decorative objets d'art.Moving further afield, at the picturesque if rather remote Karoo town of Barrydale, "Oom Lotie se Winkel" (Uncle Lotie's Shop) is a treat for old colonial period curiosity seekers. Here you'll find all manner of memories from days gone by from yellowwood antiquities to pewter statuettes reflecting scenes from South Africa's Afrikaner past. 

For fine homegrown country bounty visit the region's many country markets where the broadest range of the freshest produce as well as the most delicious homemade country fare can be found at the very best prices. The local tourism office in every town will advise you as to where to find the nearest market.Treat yourself or your friends back home to unique handcrafted gifts for your kitchen, livingroom, bedroom or garden.

The Victoria and Alfred WaterfrontThe very epitome of African chic, the V&A Waterfront is South Africa's top tourist attraction with about 10 million visitors a year. Breathing life and pulse into the V&A Waterfront is the fact that the centuries old harbour around which it has flourished remains 100% operational. Punctuating the bustling sights and sounds of this "busy port come world class mall" are the 400 stores and about 80 restaurants and bars and countless year-round arts and culture exhibitions, musical shows, sporting challenges and entertainment designed to meet the discerning requirements of every cultural persuasion, every fun-filled passion of both the young and the young at heart. 

Sunset cruise catamarans and floating restaurants are moored along the picturesque stroll towards the Nelson Mandela Gateway  the museum and point of departure for visitors to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela and other South African freedom fighters were imprisoned for nearly three decades. High speed, jet-propelled catamarans leave every hour for this deeply touching tour of tribute to a living legend and South Africa's struggle for freedom from Apartheid oppression.

Booking in advance is strongly advised. The V&A Waterfront boasts a maritime museum and children can enjoy looking for semi-precious stones at the Scratch Patch, while the Clock Tower Precinct has a combination of coffee shops, clothing stores, African curio stores, jewellery stores and others. Accommodation at the Waterfront ranges from luxury apartments to five star hotels. There are office locations and luxury apartments in the residential marina. Transport to and from the Waterfront consists of buses, mini-bus taxis and taxis. Africa's number one tourist destination, the V&A features on any self-respecting list of "things to do before you die".

Shopping MallsCape Town and the Western Cape have shopping malls to suit every persuasion. Each offers the visitor excellent quality and great value for money. 

  •  Visit Canal Walk in Cape Town, the biggest shopping mall in Africa.
  • Thrive on the urban energy of Long Street in Cape Town.
  • Experience the charm of Woodmill Lane in Knysna. A converted Victorian timber mill.
  • Make a stop at the Market Square in Plettenberg Bay. This is the biggest shopping mall on the Cape Garden Route

Cape Town's picturesque southern suburbs are where you'll find malls that reflect the laid back atmosphere of their surroundings. These include Blue Route Centre in Tokai, Cavendish Square in Claremont, Kenilworth Centre in Kenilworth and Maynard Mallin Wynberg. The fashions are for the well-heeled and the entertainment is geared towards the modern suburban young. The scene is a cool, calm and collected escape from the buzz of the city crowds.

The pump and pulse of the Cape Town city bowl delivers shopping and entertainment hubs that attract a colourful mix of people. The Gardens Centre, V&A Waterfront, Kloof Street Shopping Centre and Long Street are the playgrounds of students, young professionals - city slickers that thrive on the energy of the inner city.Beyond the Cape Town city centre, expect to find shopping and entertainment destinations that are big on variety and fun. Canals, picturesque promenades and fun-fairs are all part of these imaginatively crafted super malls.

From tots and teens, mums and dads to grandmas and granddads, these virtual theme parks all offer something exciting for everyone. These malls include Canal Walk, N1 City Mall, Tygervalley Shopping Centre and Somerset Mall. Moving on up the Western Cape's famed Cape Garden Route, shopping mall precincts are collections of the best of local merchandise. Visit Knysna's Woodmill Lane which is an open-air mall built around a restored Victorian timber mill.

Look for the excellent handcrafted wood products and art. Plettenberg Bay is home to The Market Square shopping mall. This is the largest shopping mall along the Cape Garden Route. In most towns in the Cape the shopping precincts are situated along the main road. You may find a collection of chain stores, antique stores, book shops, cafes and restaurants. The Local Tourism Office in each town will assist you if there is anything specific you are looking for.

Music & Jazz. Reconnect with the beat of the drum, the swing of live music, the sound of township jazz, kwaito or the crazy minstrel carnival.