History Haven: A Guide To The Best Museums In Cape Town

best museums in cape town

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When I first landed in South Africa, I have to admit, my knowledge of the place was pretty slim. But that changed really quickly once I decided to dig into its history, culture, and everything in between. Lucky for me, Cape Town turned out to be the jackpot for all things enlightening.

With Table Mountain in the background and the Atlantic stretching out, it’s like a history lesson with a killer view. I found myself hopping from one museum to another, each telling a different piece of South Africa’s fascinating story. And let me tell you, these museums are like time machines, taking you through the coolest chapters of the country’s past.

Thanks to all this exploration, I can now confidently say that I have a pretty good idea of what the best museums in Cape Town are. So, I’m here to share the ones that should definitely be added to your itinerary of things to do in Cape Town!

1. Best For Art: Zeitz MOCAA

Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (MOCAA) in Cape Town is a cultural masterpiece housed within a transformed grain silo, where art and architecture converge to create an immersive and captivating experience
  • Address: V&A Waterfront Silo District, S Arm Rd, Waterfront, Cape Town
  • Hours: Mon-Sun: 10:00 – 18:00
  • Admission: R210 (adults) | Free (under 18 & on your birthday)

In the heart of Cape Town’s lively cityscape, I found myself captivated by the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (MOCAA) – a true testament to the profound impact of art. This gem of architectural brilliance, situated within the rejuvenated grain silo on the V&A Waterfront, stands as a beacon of artistic expression. It has also become a cultural landmark that draws in art lovers and inquisitive minds from every corner of the world.

What to expect

Beyond its artistic significance, Zeitz MOCAA plays a pivotal role in shaping Cape Town’s cultural identity. I could really feel how the museum’s presence has revitalized the Waterfront district, transforming it into a thriving hub of creativity and innovation.

By visiting this museum in Cape Town, you won’t only be experiencing creative exhibitions or attending fascinating workshops, but will also become a part of the vibrant atmosphere the museum has created in the city.

2. Best Outdoor Experience: Castle Of Good Hope

The Castle of Good Hope in Cape Town is a historical gem and architectural landmark, standing as the oldest colonial building in South Africa
  • Address: Castle St, Cape Town City Centre, Cape Town
  • Hours: Mon-Sun: 09:00 – 17:00
  • Admission: R70 (adults) | R35 (children aged 6-16) | Free (children under 5)

Stepping through the imposing pentagonal gates of the Castle of Good Hope, I felt I had been transported back to the 17th century. Built by the Dutch East India Company (VOC) as a vital military and administrative centre, the Castle of Good Hope has a star-shaped design and thick walls that instantly evoke a sense of history and power.

As I walked around in the castle’s courtyards and barracks, I could only imagine what it must have been like while it used as a war fortress, with the grounds crawling with soldiers.

What to expect

Whether you’re a history buff fascinated by the past or simply seeking an outdoor adventure, the Castle of Good Hope is a must-visit destination in Cape Town. Its combination of historical significance, captivating architecture, and stunning views makes it an unforgettable experience.

A visit to this landmark makes for the perfect (and educational) day out.

3. Best For Jewish History And Culture: South African Jewish Museum


The South African Jewish Museum in Cape Town is a cultural treasure trove, situated in the heart of the historic Company's Garden
  • Address: 88 Hatfield St, Gardens, Cape Town
  • Hours: Sun-Thurs: 10:00 – 17:00 | Fri: 10:00 – 14:00
  • Admission: R65 (adults) | Free (children under 12)| R35 (pensioners & students)

The South African Jewish Museum, housed in the oldest synagogue in Sub-Saharan Africa, is a treasure trove of artefacts, exhibits, and stories that tell the rich and complex tale of the Jewish community in South Africa.

I began my exploration in the museum’s permanent exhibition, “The Jewish Journey: A South African Saga”. This immersive exhibit takes visitors on a chronological journey through the Jewish experience in South Africa, from the arrival of the first Jewish settlers in the early 19th century to the present day.

What to expect

In addition to the permanent exhibition, the South African Jewish Museum also hosts a variety of temporary exhibits and events. During my visit, I was able to see an exhibit on the history of the Holocaust in South Africa. This was a powerful reminder of the tragic impact of Nazi persecution on the Jewish community, both in South Africa and around the world.

The South African Jewish Museum is also conveniently located in Gardens, so there’s no reason not to stop by for a visit.

4. Best For Science And Education: Cape Town Science Centre


The Cape Town Science Centre is a dynamic hub of discovery and exploration, located in Observatory, Cape Town
  • Address: 370B Main Rd, Observatory, Cape Town
  • Hours: Mon-Sat: 09:00 – 16:30
  • Admission: R80 (adults) | R40 (pensioners) | R60 (children aged 3-18)

This is definitely one of my favourite museums in Cape Town.

It’s safe to say that my visit to this museum made me feel a bit like a kid in a candy store. From interactive exhibits to mind-blowing experiments, the centre has something to ignite the curiosity of every visitor, regardless of their age or background.

When you step into the Cape Town Science Centre, you’re instantly transported into a world where science comes alive. I was greeted by a symphony of sounds and sights – the whirring of gears, the bubbling of chemicals, and the excited chatter of fellow science enthusiasts.

What to expect

The centre’s exhibits are designed to be not just informative but also engaging and interactive. I found myself drawn to the “BodyWorks” exhibit, where I could explore the wonders of the human body through life-size models, interactive displays, and hands-on experiments. I even got to try my hand at conducting my own heartbeat!

The centre also boasts a fascinating exhibit on astronomy, where you can learn about the history of space exploration, the different types of celestial bodies, and the mysteries of the universe still waiting to be unravelled.

5. Best For South Africa’s Diamond History: Diamond Museum

The Diamond Museum in Cape Town offers a fascinating journey into the world of diamonds, tracing the evolution of these precious gems from their geological origins to their cultural significance
  • Address: 2nd Floor, V&A Waterfront, Clock Tower Precinct, Cape Town
  • Hours: Mon-Sun: 09:00 – 17:00
  • Admission: R120 (adults) | R60 (children aged 4-12)

My interest in diamonds goes beyond their sparkle and beauty. I’ve always been intrigued by their history, their journey from the depths of the earth to the hands of royalty and celebrities. So, when I found myself in South Africa, a country with a rich diamond history, I knew I had to visit the Cape Town Diamond Museum.

No diamond museum would be complete without showcasing some of the world’s most famous gems. The Cape Town Diamond Museum did not disappoint. I got to see replicas of legendary diamonds like the Cullinan, the Hope, and the Taylor-Burton, each with its own unique story and allure.

What to expect

The museum’s exhibits take you on a fascinating journey through the 3 billion-year-old history of diamonds, from their formation in the Earth’s mantle to their discovery and mining in South Africa. I was particularly captivated by the displays on the Kimberley Diamond Rush, which transformed South Africa from a sleepy agricultural colony into a global diamond hub.

Even if diamonds aren’t your best friend, I can guarantee that becoming more acquainted with their history will help you develop a new appreciation for them.

6. Best For Apartheid History: District Six Museum

The District Six Museum in Cape Town is a poignant tribute to the vibrant community that once thrived in District Six, a neighborhood scarred by forced removals during apartheid
  • Address: 25A Buitenkant St, District Six, Cape Town
  • Hours: Mon. – Sat. 09:00 – 16:00
  • Admission: R60 (booking via Quicket is essential)

District Six is a chapter in South African History that left visible scars on the lives of so many people. As a foreigner, it’s not an event that I was familiar with. However, I think it’s crucial that anyone visiting Cape Town takes the time to learn about the history of its people. Especially how over 60,000 people were forced out of their homes because of the Group Areas Act of 1950.

What to expect

I was completely engulfed by the visual, interactive and educational exhibitions the District Six Museum had to offer. As sad and disturbing as some of the photographs and stories were, it opened my eyes to a reality I’ve never been faced with before.

Leaving this museum I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude for the opportunities I’ve been given and for places like this museum, that allow the voices that were silenced to finally be heard.

7. Best For General Cape Town History: Heart Of Cape Town

  • Address: 78 Long St, Cape Town City Centre, Cape Town
  • Hours: Mon-Fri: 09:00 – 15:00
  • Admission: R60 (adults) | R30 (children aged 6-16) | Free (children under 6)

As I entered the Heart of Cape Town Museum, I was immediately transported back in time to the early days of Cape Town’s settlement. This beautifully restored 18th-century building, once the home of the city’s first mayor, offers a fascinating glimpse into the city’s rich history.

I began my exploration in the museum’s permanent exhibition: “The Heart of Cape Town: A City Shaped by People”. This immersive exhibit tells the story of Cape Town’s development, from its Dutch colonial beginnings to its vibrant multi-cultural city today.

What to expect

I was particularly interested in the exhibit’s exploration of the city’s diverse population, including the contributions of the indigenous Khoi and San people, Dutch colonists, enslaved people, and immigrants from around the world. The exhibit highlighted the challenges and triumphs of these individuals and the role they played in shaping Cape Town’s unique identity.

The museum also has a collection of fascinating artefacts, including early maps, paintings, and household items. These items really help you visualize the daily lives of Cape Town’s residents over the centuries.

8. Best For Natural History And Archaeology: Iziko South African Museum


The Iziko South African Museum in Cape Town stands as a custodian of the nation's natural and cultural heritage, inviting visitors on a captivating journey through time
  • Address: 25 Queen Victoria St, Gardens, Cape Town
  • Hours: Mon-Sun: 09:00 – 17:00
  • Admission: R30 (adults) | R15 (scholars)

The Iziko South African Museum is right around the corner from the Iziko South African Gallery. I’d highly recommend paying them both a visit as well, as the art gallery is one of the best in Cape Town.

After visiting the gallery a while ago, I finally made my way to the museum. Although everything in this museum is fascinating, the archaeology section is what really caught my interest.

As I went into the archaeology section and found myself in a world of civilizations that are no more. I tried to figure out what the strange symbols on ancient artefacts meant. I also traced the footsteps of early human settlements and imagined the good and bad times they had, learning more about the rich tapestry of human history.

What to expect

Visiting the Iziko South African Museum as an archaeology enthusiast offers a captivating journey through the depths of human history. The museum’s extensive collection of archaeological artefacts provides a window into the lives of past civilizations, revealing their ingenuity, craftsmanship, and cultural practices.

I’d recommend spending a few hours here! The museum has so much to offer and I barely made it halfway through in 3 hours (I did stop to read every little bit of information about each exhibit, so maybe that’s what slowed me down).

Fun fact: For every object on display at this museum, there are thousands more carefully kept behind closed doors. In fact, the museum is home to more than 1.5 million scientifically important specimens!

9. Best Heritage Site: Robben Island Museum

  • Address: Robben Island, Cape Town
  • Hours: Mon-Sat: 09:00 – 16:00
  • Admission: R400 (South African adults) | R600 (non-resident adults) | R210 (South African children under 18) | R310 (non-resident children under 18)

Apart from the Castle of Good Hope, Robben Island is another amazing historical outdoor experience. As you step onto the island, you can feel the weight of history.

The wind tells stories of strong people who never gave up. The island’s harsh landscape, with its flat plains and tall prison walls, shows the struggles and pain of those who were locked up here – their sacrifices are forever part of the island.

And of course, the most famous of all those prisoners was Nelson Mandela.

What to expect

Expect a lot of walking when you come here, so it’s best to wear some comfortable shoes.

Beyond the prison walls, Robben Island offers other poignant reminders of its history. The limestone quarry, where prisoners were forced to work under gruelling conditions, stands as a stark reminder of the physical and psychological toll of apartheid.

One important factor to keep in mind is that the island also gets pretty packed with tourists. It was a lot busier than I expected it to be so I’d definitely recommend buying your tickets and booking the ferry well in advance!

Note: I must warn you that the ferry ride over to the island can be quite choppy if the weather isn’t great. So, if you’re someone who battles with seasickness, it’s best to go on a clear, calm day.

10. Best For Petrol Heads: Franschhoek Motor Museum

The Franschhoek Motor Museum in Cape Town is a haven for automotive enthusiasts, nestled in the picturesque Franschhoek Valley
  • Address: R45, Franschhoek
  • Hours: Mon-Wed & Fri: 10:00 – 16:00 | Sat-Sun: 10:00 – 16:00
  • Admission: R80 (adults) | R60 (pensioners & children)

Franschhoek is a bit of a drive outside of Cape Town (around 1 hour) just to visit a museum. So, I’d highly recommend doing what I did – bribing your partner with an overnight stay at one of the wine farms to make the trip a little more worth the kilometres it’ll put on your car.

Whether you’re a serious collector or just enjoy looking at cool cars, this museum really is worth the visit!

When you step in, it’s like going back in time, surrounded by the sounds of engines and against a backdrop of the surrounding vineyards.

What to expect

From the sleek lines of early-20th-century racers to the imposing presence of classic American muscle cars, the museum’s collection spans decades of automotive innovation, showcasing the evolution of design, technology, and the unwavering passion that drives the automotive world.

The Franschhoek Motor Museum is more than just a collection of cars; it is a sanctuary for automotive enthusiasts, a place where the shared passion for cars transcends generations and cultures.

FAQs

What is the oldest museum in Cape Town?

The oldest museum in Cape Town is the Iziko South African Museum, founded in 1825. It is the first public museum in South Africa and houses a vast collection of natural history and archaeological artefacts.

What is Cape Town famous for?

Cape Town is famous for its stunning natural beauty, including Table Mountain, Robben Island, and the Cape Peninsula. It is also a vibrant city with a rich history and culture and is home to many world-class museums, art galleries, and restaurants.

Why is the Iziko Museum important?

The Iziko South African Museum is important for several reasons:

  • It is the oldest museum in South Africa and houses a vast collection of natural history and archaeological artefacts of great historical and scientific value.
  • It plays an important role in preserving and promoting South Africa’s natural and cultural heritage.
  • It is a popular tourist destination and contributes significantly to the economy of Cape Town.
  • It provides educational opportunities for people of all ages and backgrounds.

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