Located in between Cape Town city center and the foothills of Signal Hill, Bo-Kaap is named for the Afrikaans phrase meaning “above the Cape”. Today, it’s known as one of the most Instagrammable places in the country, thanks to its pastel-colored houses and picturesque cobbled streets. However, there’s much more to Bo-Kaap than its good looks. It’s also one of the oldest and most historic residential areas in Cape Town. Most of all, it’s synonymous with Islamic Cape Malay culture—evidence of which can be found throughout the area, from its halal restaurants to the haunting sound of the muezzin’s call to prayer.
Bo-Kaap’s Early History
The Bo-Kaap neighborhood was first developed in the 1760s by Dutch colonialist Jan de Waal, who built a series of small rental houses to provide accommodation for the city’s Cape Malay slaves. The Cape Malay people originated from the Dutch East Indies (including Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia), and were exiled by the Dutch to the Cape as slaves towards the end of the 17th century. Some of them were convicts or slaves in their home countries; but others were political prisoners from wealthy, influential backgrounds.
Almost all of them practiced Islam as their religion.
According to legend, the rental terms of de Waal’s houses stipulated that their walls must be kept white. When slavery was abolished in 1834 and the Cape Malay slaves were able to purchase their homes, many of them chose to paint them in bright colors as an expression of their newfound freedom. Bo-Kaap (which was originally called Waalendorp) became known as the Malay Quarter, and Islamic traditions became an intrinsic part of the neighborhood’s heritage. It was also a flourishing cultural center, because many of the slaves were skilled artisans.
The District During Apartheid
During the apartheid era, Bo-Kaap was subject to the Group Areas Act of 1950, which enabled the government to segregate the population by declaring separate neighborhoods for each race or religion. Bo-Kaap was designated as a Muslims-only area, and people of other religions or ethnicities were forcibly removed. In fact, Bo-Kaap was the only area of Cape Town in which Cape Malay people were allowed to live. It was unique in that it was one of the few city center locations designated for non-whites: most other ethnicities were relocated to townships on the city’s outskirts.
Things to Do & See
There is plenty to see and do in Bo-Kaap. The streets themselves are famous for their eye-catching color scheme, and for their fine Cape Dutch and Cape Georgian architecture. The oldest existing building in Bo-Kaap was built by Jan de Waal in 1768, and now houses the Bo-Kaap Museum—an obvious starting place for any new visitor to the neighborhood. Furnished like the house of a wealthy 19th-century Cape Malay family, the museum offers an insight into the life of the early Cape Malay settlers; and an idea of the influence that their Islamic traditions have had on Cape Town’s art and culture.
The area’s Muslim heritage is also represented by its numerous mosques. Head to Dorp Street to visit Auwal Mosque, which dates back to 1794 (before religious freedom was granted in South Africa). It is the country’s oldest mosque, and home to a hand-written copy of the Quran created by Tuan Guru, the mosque’s first imam. Guru wrote the book from memory during his time as a political prisoner on Robben Island. His grave (and shrines to two other important Cape Malay imams) can be found in Bo-Kaap’s Tana Baru Cemetery, which was the first piece of land designated as a Muslim cemetery after religious freedom was granted in 1804.
Cape Malay Cuisine
After visiting the neighborhood’s historic sights, make sure to sample its famous Cape Malay cuisine—a unique blend of Middle Eastern, South East Asian and Dutch styles. Cape Malay cooking uses plenty of fruit and spices, and includes fragrant curries, rootis and samoosas, all of which can be purchased at several Bo-Kaap street stalls and restaurants. Two of the most authentic eating places include Bo-Kaap Kombuis and Biesmiellah, both of which serve staples like denningvleis and bobotie (the unofficial national dish of South Africa).
For dessert, try a koeksister—a spiced donut cooked in syrup and sprinkled with coconut.
If you find yourself inspired to recreate the recipes you taste in Bo-Kaap at home, stock up on ingredients at the neighborhood’s biggest spice shop, Atlas Spices. Be aware that traditional Bo-Kaap restaurants like the ones listed above are halal and strictly alcohol-free—you’ll need to head elsewhere to try Cape Town’s famous vintages.
How to Visit Bo-Kaap
Unlike some of Cape Town’s poorer areas, Bo-Kaap is safe to visit independently. It’s a five-minute walk from the city center, and a 10-minute drive from the V&A Waterfront (the city’s main tourism area). The easiest way to find yourself at the heart of Bo-Kaap is to walk along Wale Street to the Bo-Kaap Museum. After exploring the museum’s fascinating exhibits, spend an hour or two getting lost in the scenic side streets that surround the main thoroughfare. Before you go, consider purchasing this audio walking tour by Bo-Kaap local Shereen Habib.
You can download it to your smartphone for just $2.99, and use it to locate and learn about the area’s top attractions.
Those that want the expertise of a real-life guide should join one of the city’s many Bo-Kaap walking tours. Nielsen Tours offer a popular free walking tour (though you’ll want to bring cash to tip the guide). It departs twice daily from Green Market Square and visits Bo-Kaap highlights including Auwal Mosque, Biesmiellah and Atlas Spices. Some tours, like the one offered by Cape Fusion Tours, include a cooking course hosted by local women at their own homes. This is a great way to try your hand at Cape Malay cooking, and also to gain a behind-the-scenes glimpse of modern Islamic culture in Cape Town.
Practical Advice & Information
Bo-Kaap Museum is open from 10:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, with the exception of certain public holidays. Expect to pay a R20 entrance fee for adults, and a R10 entrance fee for children aged 6-18. Kids under five go free. Tana Baru Cemetery is open from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.
If you decide to explore Bo-Kaap independently, bear in mind that this neighborhood (like most areas of the city) is safest during daylight hours. If you plan on being there after dark, it’s best to go with a group. Ladies should dress conservatively in Bo-Kaap, in line with Muslim custom. In particular, you will need to cover your chest, legs and shoulders if you plan on entering any of the area’s mosques, while a headscarf carried in your bag is also a good idea.