South Africa has many big cities, and a whole lot of smaller towns and villages sprinkled in between. The country is also well known as ‘The Rainbow Nation’, and for good reason. South Africa almost has it all in as far as cultural diversity goes.
But over and above local cultures, there are also Germans, Chinese, Malaysians, Australians, Americans, Belgians, and the list goes on. You will find these various international cultures sprinkled through out the country, yet there is one city where South Africa’s cultural diversity is the most apparent, one city where you will find someone from almost anywhere.
Are you planning to visit Cape Town and would like to learn more about the city, its culture and its history? Or would you just love to know more about this amazing city and learn some new, fun and interesting facts about Cape Town most people probably don’t know? We’ve got you covered.
Interesting Cape Town facts
Considered to be one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world, an international cosmopolitan melting pot of people, culture and food, the city I speak of is…..drum roll, if you please……see the title of this article.
So, here are just a few of the countless interesting Cape Town facts that make it what it is: Mine, and millions of other peoples favourite place to live or visit.
Cape Town is also known as ‘The Mother City’
Founded in 1652 by Jan Van Riebeeck as a place for The Dutch East India Company to grow fresh produce for passing ships, Cape Town is also affectionately known as ‘The Mother City’ as it was the first established European settlement in South Africa. A very common running joke however is that Cape Town is a very laidback city (that part is true) and it takes 9 months to get anything done (this is debatable though).
The Company’s Garden is the oldest garden in South Africa
The original veggie patch, or ‘The Company’s Garden’ as it is officially known still exists to this day, smack bang in the middle of the city. It still has the oldest cultivated pear tree (the saffron pear tree) in the country, which was planted circa 1652 during the time of Jan Van Riebeeck. Now a very well maintained garden full of indigenous plant species, it makes for a nice relaxing stroll or picnic right in the bustling city centre of Cape Town.
Cape Town is one of the three capitals of South Africa
South Africa has three official capital cities, each with their own roles. Pretoria is the administrative and executive capital, Bloemfontein the judicial capital and Cape Town the legislative capital.
Table Mountain, A Cape Town Icon
Long before anyone actually got to Southern Africa, the sea levels dropped, and this huge rock appeared out of the ocean. Previously an island millions of years ago, Table Mountain now towers over 1000 metres above the city creating what is probably one of the most famous cityscapes in the world. Table Mountain is also one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature. One of the most interesting facts about Table Mountain is that the mountain gets its name from the table cloth like cloud that covers it when the infamous South East wind blows. Capetonians are so proud of it they even light the whole mountain up, on some nights. Table Mountain is definitely a very photogenic iconic landmark in Cape Town.
The first Cableway on Table Mountain was built in 1929
The first Cableway to the top of Table Mountain opened on October 4th, 1929 and took four years to build. The cable cars in the early days could carry up to 25 people each. In 1997, ‘Rotair’ cable cars were installed to replace the old ones. These advanced, much faster cables cars have a rotating floor, giving the 65 visitors they can hold the opportunity to enjoy a 5 minute 360° view of the city of Cape Town.
The V & A Waterfront is one of the most visited tourist attractions in Africa
As part of South Africa’s oldest working harbour, The Victoria & Alfred Waterfront receives in excess of 20 million visitors a year. With over 450 retail shops spanning 123 hectares, the shopping centre contributed around ZAR 200 billion to the South African economy in its first 15 years, and counting.
The Noon Day Guns of Signal Hill
Also known as ‘The Lion’s Rump’, Signal Hill is home to the worlds oldest working ‘guns’ (very big cannons). Before telegraphs were brought to South Africa, the guns were originally used to signal the arrival of ships as their sound travelled faster than a messenger on a horse. This was to notify the farmers in the interior to bring fresh produce. The guns were initially set up in the city centre, but due to the rather loud bang upsetting people and horses, they were moved up to Signal Hill where they are still in use to this day.
In addition to signal duty, the guns were also used since 1806 as a time keeper for ships to synchronise their chronometers to. If a ship was many kilometres away, they would have to instead synchronise their clocks on the puff of smoke in compensation for the speed of sound. Representing one of Cape Towns oldest living traditions, the British made 18 pound smooth bore muzzle loaders are still being fired at exactly 12 noon everyday, except Sundays and public holidays. Both the main and backup have only ever failed to fire on schedule once since 1806 due to a technical difficulty with the remote control relay in 2005.
TIP: You may go up to the guns everyday, except Sundays and public holidays, for free, to watch them being fired. Do not set up cameras/GoPros too close, and put your fingers in your ears, trust me. Stand well back, they will advise you of this. Visiting the Noon Guns at Signal Hill is one of the many nice and free things to do in Cape Town.
Cape Town is home to two Unesco World Heritage Sites
Both Robben Island, since 1999, and the Cape Floristic Region, since 2004, have been inscribed as a World Heritage Site and can be visited while in Cape Town. The Cape Floristic Region protected areas include eight areas of which Table Mountain national park is one.
Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens were the first in the world to be devoted to a country’s indigenous plant life
Founded in 1913 in order to preserve South Africa’s unique flora, The Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens boasts over 7000 plant species. Nestling on the eastern slopes of Table Mountain, the gardens are one of 9 in the country covering 5 of South Africa’s 6 biomes. Kirstenbosch gardens are also the first gardens in the world to be founded on the ethos of preserving a country’s indigenous plant life.
Robben Island was not always a prisoners island
Robben Island is located 11 kilometres from the shores of Cape Town in Table Bay. It was named Robben Island (Afrikaans for seal island) after the huge colonies of seals found there. It became world famous during Apartheid when former South African president Nelson Mandela was jailed there for 18 of his 27 years of imprisonment. During the 19th century, the island was used as a leper colony and animal shelter station. Today, Robben Island is a museum in remembrance of the atrocities of Apartheid. It is also a conservation area to protect local bird and marine life.
Cape Town is partly built over the sea
Known as the ‘Cape Town Foreshore Plan’, land was claimed from the Atlantic Ocean in Table Bay way back in the 1940’s. As the city of Cape Town grew bigger, and seeing as they could not build further up the slopes of the mountain, the idea arose to claim land from the sea. The expansion of new land was around 194 hectares and is where today one can find the railway station, the Cape Town International Convention centre and the civic centre.
The Castle of Good Hope is the oldest colonial building in South Africa
Built in the 17th century, it has the distinctive shape of a pentagon. It was completed in 1679 as a bastion fort to protect the city from intruders by sea. The position of the castle used to be on the original shoreline, but is now more inland due to the Foreshore Plan to claim land from the ocean. This is also why the Caste of Good Hope is located on Strand street. (strand means beach in Afrikaans, or Dutch)
The first wine in The Cape Winelands was produced in 1659
The origins of the Cape Winelands dates back to the Dutch settlers. Among other things, and due to the favourable climate, Jan Van Riebeeck was also tasked with planting vineyards in Cape Town to produce wine and table grapes for passing sailors as a means to help ward off scurvy. The South African wine industry has since grown into one of the most well known in the world. It is also the oldest wine industry outside of Europe and has one of the longest wine routes in the world. Starting just outside of Cape Town, Route 62 runs for 850km and ends in Port Elizabeth.
Boulders Beach Penguins – Happy Feet in Cape Town
Not only does Cape Town have many geological attractions, it also has a lot of wildlife attractions, and in their own natural habitats. In the early 1980’s at Boulders Beach in Simon’s Town along the Cape Town peninsula, just 2 breeding pairs of African penguins showed up, and never left. Today, there are now thousands of penguins in Cape Town calling Boulders beach their home. What makes this even more interesting is Boulders beach is right in the middle of a residential area which allows the little birds to be observed at very close range.
The worlds first heart transplant was in Cape Town
The worlds first ever heart transplant was performed in Cape Town at Groote Schuur Hospital by Dr Christiaan Barnard on 3 December 1967. Although the patient only lived for 2 weeks afterwards, having died from pneumonia, it was considered a success. This transplant pioneered and paved the way for what has become one of the most routine operations today.
The ‘Cape Doctor’ keeps the city healthy and clean
If you’ve already visited or lived in Cape Town you’ve met the Cape Doctor. And if you’re planning on visiting Cape Town, be sure to be ready to meet him. The Cape Doctor keeps the city healthy and clean. Also known as ‘the South Easter’, this very strong and dry wind blows persistently from August up to April. It is locally named the Cape Doctor because it blows everything away; the smog, the pollution and the contamination, making the sky clean and clear again.
Cape Town Cycle Tour is the world’s biggest individually timed cycle race
It started in 1978 with just a few hundred participants in an effort to bring attention to the need for cycle paths in South Africa. Now with as many as 35 000 cyclists taking part, it makes Cape Town the host of the worlds biggest individually timed cycle race. In its history, The Cape Town Cycle Tour has been stopped 3 times due to bad weather: In 2002 when temperatures reached +42°C, and then in 2009 & 2017 when gale force winds (a.k.a the Cape Doctor) in excess of 100km/h blew cyclists off their bikes. Google for vids & pics.
The Jetset of Cape Town
Just over Table Mountain, palm trees, expensive classy restaurants, Humvees, Maseratis and Jaguars are the order of the day. Clifton, Camps Bay, Bakoven, Bantry Bay and Llandudno are also home to some of the most expensive and exclusive real estate in the world. You can be forgiven for thinking you are in Beverly Hills. Llandudno is also the access point to the well known but very secluded unofficial nudist beach of Sandy Bay. It is an 800 metre walk from the nearest parking to the beach.
Go on an urban wildlife safari in Cape Town
One thing you would not expect to see in a capital city is the sheer amount of wildlife that you can see in Cape Town. Surrounded by nature, mountains and sea, the Cape Town area is home to quite some wildlife. Spot the grey squirrels in the Company’s Gardens, the dassies or rock hyrax on Table Mountain, flamingos on the waterways and lakes around the city centre, Cape fur seals in the V&A Waterfront, ostriches and baboons on the Cape Peninsula, penguins in Simon’s Town and even whales (during whale season) when standing on the boardwalk of Seapoint. Also spot the Quagga when driving into Cape Town along the M3, a zebra like animal which was kind of brought back from extinction by the Quagga project.
The only nuclear power plant in Africa is in Cape Town
Cape Town is home to the only commercial nuclear power plant on the African continent. Located in Koeberg some 35 km from the Central Business District, the 2 nuclear reactors account for 5% of South Africa’s electricity production.
Of all the cities I have ever lived and worked in, Cape Town is the one I would most like to return to. It is a fantastic place for a holiday, but it also makes for an amazing standard of living and way of life. I look forward to returning one day soon.
Have you visited Cape Town on holiday? Do you live there? Would you like to visit or move to ‘The Mother’ of all cities?
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EPIC post and photo journal. brought back sooo many awesome memories of my trips to capetown. the penguins, cape point, fish and chips. driving those cobras. ahhhh good times
Great post about a beautiful city.
Many years ago I was told that a large part of the success of the gardens was the fact that Table Mountain is porous. So all of the water from the classic “Table Cloth” which falls on the top quickly filters through to water the gardens.
True? I couldn’t tell you. That’s what I was told.
I can believe that about the mountain watering the gardens, and probably the rest of that area as it all appears greener and more leafy on that side, Clermont, Newlands etc. I find the geography of the whole area fascinating.
Africa has been on our list for a long time, but now that know it also has the oldest wine industry outside of Europe and has one of the longest wine routes in the world, it jumped up! LOL So many interesting things I did know about Cape Town. Thanks for sharing!
These few facts are just part of the proverbial tip of the iceberg, there is so much more to Cape Town, and South Africa in general. So go on, book those flights! 😉
Would love to visit Cape Town one day. One of my contributors recently went and I was fawning over the pictures. Great post and lovely photos!
Even if you go to Cape Town just for the culinary experience, it’ll be worth it 🙂 I can only take credit for the writing, Sabine took all the photos.
The view of the Table mountain from Melkbosstrand looks awesome with the clouds hovering over the mountain. Its incredible that they light up whole of the mountain, must be a stunning sight to behold.
I keep reading about Cape Town and the more I read about it the more I want to go. I’m not sure if its the penguins, the way the clouds come off Table Mountain, or something else, but I really would love to go someday, it looks amazing.
It is so amazing that Sabine and I have just taken the decision to move there 🙂 But it is also a great place for a holiday. Cape Town has just knocked Bali out of first place as the best value for money holiday destination in the world, so come on down!
I have always wanted to visit Cape Town. Would love to see the penguins on Boulders Beach! I’ll be pinning this one for trip planning.
Such a cool city! I love the fact about the guns, and I’ve actually read about the botanical gardens several times. I have no clue when we’ll make it to South Africa, but I look forward to it so much.
I didn’t know most of these facts, not that the city is so colourful! Loved reading about it: I have a friend going there in a few days for work so I’m passing your post onto her – i know she’ll love it!
My kids absolutely loved Boulders Beach. I think it was the highlight of their Cape Town experience. It has started a long lasting love affair for them with Penguins.
To see the Penguins at Boulders is so beautiful. They are so funny to watch. I can imagine this was the highlight for your children there 🙂
Will get to Africa (and South Africa) one day soon hopefully. Great article with some really great detail. I drank a bit of South African wine in Vietnam last week. Gave me a good feel about the types of wineries they must have there.
There is plenty more wine where that came from, a very wide variety. If you are any kind of a wine connoisseur, South Africa has world class quality.
This was pretty surprising, I had no idea Cape Town had penguins or such rich culture. I’m trying to live in 10 countries and have never set foot in Africa, so maybe South Africa is the place?
Yes, South Africa is definitely the place, especially Cape Town 🙂 There is something for everyone. This article is only the tip of the iceberg.
Wow Cape Town was never on my ‘possible next destination list’ but i think i have to write it on the list now.
It looks wonderful, especially Bo-Kaap.
I love reading posts like this with some usual snippets of information that I just wouldn’t have known otherwise! Like who knew that wine was thought to ward off scurvy!! I am desperate to go to South Africa and visit the wine lands. That was the last trip my father made before he passed away and he loved it.
You must come visit the Cape winelands, they are a wine lovers paradise! 🙂
My #1 bucket list item in Africa! Love the happy feet, Bo-Kaap, and the 12 Apostles. Gotta go!
I didn’t realize Cape Town is so diverse. The view from Table Mountain looks amazing. Do you know how long the hike up there takes?
The shortest route up is from the lower cable station via Plateklip gorge which takes me about 3 hours. The more scenic route from the other side above Camps Bay takes about 5 hours. If you don’t feel like hiking down again, which can be harder than the climb up, you can buy a one way down cable car ticket at the upper cable station. Start your hike early and pay very careful attention to the time and weather.
This is the second post I am reading on Table Mountain. The place has charmed me.
The penguins have surprised me. So thrilling that you could capture them so close.
There is something about the mountain which captures a lot of peoples attention. You can no longer walk among the penguins, but the wooden viewing walkways are close enough, you can be as little as 2 metres away from a penguin.
The Table Mountain is iconic and everytime I see it, I know it’s about Capetown. It makes the cityscape much more dramatic and picturesque!
I’m hoping to visit here early next year as a part of an African adventure I have planned. The penguins alone are a big enough draw for me to visit.. little cuties!! 🙂
Breathtaking views! I have always wanted to visit Cape Town. Now it is a purpose. Thanks for the inspiration!:)
What a fascinating breakdown, Sean. I learned quite a bit about Cape Town after reading your post. I never heard of the Cape Doctor but love the analogy. Strong, dry winds act like a cure call for all pollution and contaminants, blowing it all away. Some of the most impossibly blue, clear skies I have ever seen all occurred after heavy winds from both storms and high pressure conditions. Nature’s tonic.
What a fascinating place Sean. Capetown has long been on my list. I recall all of the surfing events and yes, nature documentaries on sharks, beaming from Capetown. I love those cape seals too. Beautiful creatures.
Yes, you can surf in Cape Town, with a full body wetsuit, and the seals are fun to watch, if the wind is blowing in the right direction 😉
I had no idea about the amount of natural beauty that Cape Town has. Table Mountain has now earned a place on my bucket list after seeing this.