I’ve been to Cape Town, South Africa’s oldest city a few times. It’s definitely one of my favorite cities in the country. If you’re thinking of visiting South Africa, this city should definitely be on your list of destinations.
Here are 20 facts you might not have not known about Cape Town
1. The term “Cape of Storms” was coined by a Portuguese Explorer in the 15th Century
Bartolomeu Dias is believed to be the first European to set foot on South African soil. In December 1487 he sailed down the African coast, landing at the present-day locations of Angola and Walvis Bay.
Stormy seas forced him to sail more than 1,000 kilometers off course and he was forced to sail around the Southern tip of Africa. He was the one who named the Cabo das Tormentas (“Cape of Storms”). King John II of Portugal later renamed it to Cabo de Boa Esperanca (“Cape of Good Hope”).
2. Cape Town was founded in 1652
This was when Jan Van Riebeeck (an employee of the Dutch East India company) arrived to established a way-station for ships travelling to the Dutch East Indies. The city became the capital of the Cape Colony in 1815. Today it’s the legislative capital of South Africa.
3. Lion’s Head has not seen a lion for more than 200 years
The last lion was shot in 1802. Leopards followed in the 1820s, but the area is still home to some incredible nocturnal cats. There are still small Lynx-type Caracal and African Wild Cats on Table Mountain.
Lion’s Head wasn’t actually named for its felines. During the 17th Century Dutch settlers named the peak Leeuwen Kop (Lion’s Head) and its adjacent summit Leeuwen Staart (Lion’s Tail). This was because the space between the two peaks resembles a crouching lion.
4. The Castle of Good Hope is the oldest building in South Africa
It was built between 1666 and 1679 by the Dutch East India Company. It was used as the seat of government by the company until 1795. The Castle served as the official residence of the Governor of the Cape for the first half of the 19th century.
When the governors relocated, the Castle continued to serve as the political center until the Union of South Africa in 1910. In 1917, the Castle was handed over to the South African National Defence Force who still operates the Castle today. In 1936 it was declared as a national monument.
5. The Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden has been around for more than 100 years
The gardens were founded in 1913 to preserve South Africa’s unique flora. At the time it was the first botanical garden in the world with this ethos. Only indigenous plants are cultivated at Kirstenbosch (with a few minor exceptions). Today it’s frequently used for live music shows.
6. Cape Town is the second biggest city in South Africa
According to 2016 estimates, Cape Town has a population of 3.75 million. Johannesburg (South Africa’s biggest city) has an estimated population of 4.4 million.
7. Table Mountain is the biggest tourist attraction in Africa
More than 900,000 people make their way to the top of the mountain via cableway every year. The cableway welcomed it’s 25 millionth visitor in February 2016.
More tourists visit Table Mountain than the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt. The cableway started operations in 1929. It has been upgraded three times since then.
8. The first successful heart transplant operation was performed here
Doctor Christiaan Barnard performed the operation at Grootte Schuur Hospital in 1967. Sadly, the patient passed away 18 days after the operation (due to an onset of pneumonia). Today the original theatre is a museum called “Heart of Cape Town”.
9. Robben Island wasn’t always used as a prison
During the 1840s, the island was used to house leprosy patients along with the mentally and chronically ill. This was first done on a voluntary basis and the lepers were free to leave the island if they wished. In May 1892 this changed with the introduction of the Leprosy Repression Act.
Detention on the island was no longer voluntary and movement of the lepers was restricted. The number of lepers on the island jumped from 52 to 338 after the act.
Robben Island was used as a training and defence station by the British during World War 2. The island was fortified and guns were installed as part of the defenses for Cape Town.
10. “Mother City” was coined in the 1930s
A local newspaper claimed that Cape Town was the only city in South Africa that could justly call itself a metropolis. The public took to this description and because the word metropolis is taken from the Greek derivative of meter or metros meaning “mother” and polis meaning “city”, the nickname of “Mother City” was born.
11. It took 9 years to complete the construction of the Houses of Parliament
The original building was constructed between 1875 and 1884. The building was designed by Charles Freeman. It was expanded in the 1920s and 1980s. The 1920s expansions were designed by Sir Herbert Baker (the same guy that designed the Union Buildings in Pretoria).
12. The Two Oceans Aquarium has been open for more than 20 years
The aquarium was opened at the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront in November 1995. The tank for Predators Exhibit at the aquarium holds more then 2 million liters of sea water. The aquarium showcases wildlife through interactive displays and over 3,000 marine animals.
13. The winter storms of 1858 wrecked more than 30 ships in Cape Town
After this, Insurer Lloyds of London refused to cover ships that were spending Winter in Table Bay. Two years after this, in 1860, Prince Alfred (Queen Victoria’s second son) started construction of Cape Town’s first harbour to make it a safe haven for ships year round. Over the years the harbour was expanded to accommodate the increased number of ships.
14. The Victoria & Alfred Waterfront attracts more than 24 million visitors a year
The V&A Waterfront gets its name from the two basins in Cape Town’s harbour. The area was redeveloped as a mixed-use area with a focus on retail, tourism and residential development with a working harbour at its centre in the late 1980s.
The Victoria & Alfred Waterfront covers an area of 123 hectares. Today more than 21000 people are employed by the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront company and visitors can explore more than 450 retail outlets.
15. St. George’s Cathedral is the oldest cathedral in Southern Africa
The beautiful cathedral, boasting high arches and stained-glass windows, was designed by Sir Herbert Baker and completed in 1936. It was a common meeting point for political activists of all races during the Apartheid struggle.
16. The Groote Kerk is the oldest church in South Africa
It was built by Herman Schuette in 1841 and replaced a former church on the same ground. This Dutch Reformed church houses South Africa’s largest organ with nearly 6000 pipes. During colonial times, the Groote Kerk was attended by slave owners while their slaves waited outside under the ‘slave tree.’
17. The suburb of Bellville was originally founded as a railway station
It was first known as “Hardekraaltjie” and was situated on the railway line between Cape Town and Stellenbosch. It was renamed to Bellville in 1861.
18. Newlands Stadium is the second oldest rugby stadium in the world
The first rugby match was played here in 1890. The match attracted 2400 spectators. Permanent concrete stands were only erected in 1919. Over the years the stadium was expanded and renovated. It hosted matches for the 1995 IRB Rugby World Cup. Today it has a capacity of 51,900.
19. Between 1968 and 1982 60,000 people were relocated from Cape Town’s District Six
District Six was a vibrant community before South Africa’s Apartheid government implemented the Group Areas Act in 1966. The district had a 94% Coloured / Cape Malay population. Most were relocated to the Cape Flats. Over the years all the buildings (except for places of worship) were demolished.
Apartheid ended in 1994 and by 2003 work had started on 24 new buildings in District Six. Former residents started returning to the area in 2004.
20. Khayelitsha was established in 1985
This township was one of the final attempts by the Apartheid government to enforce the Group Areas Act. A large number of people were forcefully relocated here. Today more than 390,000 people call the township home.
There you have it, 20 facts that you might not have known about Cape Town. If you have any facts that you want to add, feel free to do so in the comments below.
Feel free to read about my experience in Cape Town in 2009.
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