Situated at the base of Lion’s Head Mountain, Bo-Kaap reigns as Cape Town’s most colorful and memorable neighborhood. While Cape Town has no shortage of picturesque and stunning scenery, Bo-Kaap is arguably one of the most photographed areas, and for good reason.
Bo-Kaap is known for its brightly colored homes, lining cobblestone roads overlooking the city center. The homes are a mix of Cape Dutch and Georgian architecture, with the oldest remaining home, now the Bo-Kaap Museum, dating back to 1768.
Bo-Kaap, which means “above the Cape” in Dutch, was created in the late 1700’s when homes were rented to slaves brought over from Malaysia, Indonesia, India, and various African countries. These slaves, known as “Cape Malays,” were housed in what was formerly nicknamed the “Malay Quarter,” and many of the current residents have called this distinctive neighborhood “home” for generations. The neighborhood wasn’t always so bright, though – there are many legends as to how Bo-Kaap came to be so colorful, but the “official” story is that homes had to remain white while rented, so when slaves were granted the ability to purchase their homes, they painted them bold and bright as an expression of their freedom.
Though Bo-Kaap has been multicultural since its birth, it serves as an interesting reflection of the effects of slavery and Apartheid. As slaves arrived, Bo-Kaap and its Muslim population grew, and by the beginning of the twentieth century approximately half the population was Muslim. The first mosque at the Cape, the Auwal Mosque, was built in 1804 and is still in use today. During Apartheid years, the neighborhood was designated a Muslim-only area under the Group Areas Act, forcing all other religions and ethnicities to leave – essentially preserving this ethnic enclave in an otherwise white city. The neighborhood is very atypical for Apartheid regulation, as it is one of the few predominantly working-class and non-white neighborhoods in close proximity to the city center which was allowed to remain. Many other neighborhoods, like the infamous District Six, were completely evicted of the non-white population and removed to shanty towns several miles from the city center, creating debilitating social problems and perpetuating poverty due to limited access to everyday goods and healthcare, and transportation shortages confining residents miles away from available work. Today, Bo-Kaap remains largely muslim, though it has not escaped gentrification – roughly 15% of the 1,100 residences are owned by outsiders. Residents who have lived there for generations worry their culture and identity will disappear with the neighborhood’s transformation. The appeal is unmistakable – charming homes, fascinating history, a stunning view of the city with a mountainous backdrop – it’s no surprise Bo-Kaap is attracting outside attention.
One of the saviors of the neighborhood’s culture is the food – there are a few local restaurants in the area where you can enjoy traditional Cape Malay cuisine, and a cooking school if you’re interested in taking home some recipes. Encompassing spices and staples used in Indonesian, Indian, and Malaysian cuisine, Cape Malay dishes are a tantalizing fusion reminiscent of classic Indian and South East Asian favorites with a South African twist.
Bo-Kaap remains a significant part of Cape Town’s cultural heritage, and deserves to be on your “Must See” list when visiting – be sure to try some of the delicious bobotie!