The colorful houses of Bo-Kaap are known as the rainbow streets of Cape Town. Aside from being very beautiful, these houses are also part of one of Cape Town’s oldest and most fascinating multicultural areas. Nestled along the lower slopes of Signal Hill you will find the famous Cape Dutch houses that stand in rows along the cobblestoned streets of the neighborhood. These vividly painted houses have made the area well-known among travelers. However, this stunning area also has a complex history and a rich Muslim culture. Wandering the rainbow streets in Bo-Kaap is simply a must-do when visiting Cape Town.
The history of the colorful Bo-Kaap
Even though the colorful streets of Bo-Kaap ooze happiness and cheerfulness, the history behind this beautiful area is quite the opposite. The history of Bo-Kaap is way more complex than you might think.
The Bo-Kaap neighborhood dates back to around the 1760s, when the first few rows of houses were built by Dutch Colonialist Jan de Waal. Meanwhile, convicts, craftspeople, political exiles, and everyday people were imported as slaves from Sri Lanka, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, and so forth. These people were known as the Cape Malays and the terraced Cape Dutch houses became their homes.
Most of the Cape Malays were Muslim. This meant that in 1794 the first mosque in South Africa was built right in the Bo-Kaap area. The name of the mosque is Auwal Mosque and can still be found on Dorp Street to this day. Around 1834, when slavery was abolished, the population of Bo-Kaap grew as most of the former slaves moved into newer parts of the neighborhood.
Fast forward to the 1940s when Apartheid governed South Africa. As opposed to District Six, Bo-Kaap survived the forced removals of urban areas in Cape Town. Instead, the neighborhood was designated as a ‘colored’ and ‘Malay’ only area, which meant that other religions and ethnicities were forcibly removed from their homes. Around this time, it was also decreed, by the National Monuments Council, that all houses in Bo-Kaap must only be painted white. Now you might think ‘but the houses are not white’. Many people believe that when Nelson Mandela was released from prison the residents of Bo-Kaap started painting their houses. This was done to celebrate their freedom and express their rights through the bright and beautiful colors you are able to see nowadays.
Everything you need to know for a visit to Bo-Kaap
When you are visiting new places there are always some things you might find useful before your visit. Therefore, we have gathered everything for you to know before a visit to the colorful streets of Bo-Kaap in Cape Town.
Getting to Bo-Kaap
As mentioned earlier, Bo-Kaap is found just at the foot of Signal hill and right on the edge of Cape Town Central Business District. This proximity to the city center makes it accessible for most visitors. From the city center, it is about a 5-minute walk, whereas you must set aside about 20 to 30 minutes to walk from the V&A Waterfront. However, it is also possible to take an Uber or drive by yourself. There are plenty of parking spaces – however, they tend to fill up fast. Visiting early in the day is, therefore, most comfortable if you are arriving in your own car.
Time spent in the Bo-Kaap neighborhood
The Bo-Kaap area isn’t huge. However, there are a few things to see and a lot of houses to admire. Taking your time to wander the streets and take in the beautiful sights is a must. Getting lost among the colorful houses is the perfect way to visit Bo-Kaap. We would recommend you set aside a few hours to explore Bo-Kaap. This way you are able to get a real sense of the everyday life that takes place in the area.
Dress Code in Bo-Kaap
Bo-Kaap is a Muslim neighborhood. And even though many tourists do not think about their clothing when visiting the area, it is most respectful to the residents if you do. This means dressing a bit more conservatively. For both men and women, it is best to keep the chest, knees, and shoulders covered. Especially, if you want to enter one of the many mosques in the area. Please keep in mind that women should also wear a headscarf when entering a mosque.
Be respectful of the residents and their homes
When you are wandering the beautiful streets of Bo-Kaap you might get caught up and take a lot of pictures. But do keep in mind that these are people’s homes. Respect their boundaries and do not take pictures of them without asking beforehand. Do not be intrusive or invade their personal space. It is possible to get some stunning pictures and admire the beautiful color without disrespecting the very friendly residents.
Places to visit in Bo-Kaap
In the Bo-Kaap neighborhood, there are a few places that you should swing by during your visit besides the vibrant houses along the cobblestoned streets.
Auwal Mosque: The first mosque in South Africa
Auwal Mosque was built in 1794 on land owned by a freed Muslim slave. This mosque was the first ever built in South Africa. This was once a place where the Cape Malay language and tradition were taught. Since then, Auwal Mosque has stood as a symbol of faith and freedom in the community. Inside you will find a handwritten copy of the Quran. This was written from memory by Tuan Guru when he was imprisoned on Robben Island.
You are able to enter Auwal Mosque outside of the daily prayer times. Keep in mind that both men and women must cover their legs and shoulders, as well as women, must wear a headscarf as a sign of respect.
The Museum in Bo-Kaap is one of the oldest buildings in the neighborhood as it is one of the houses built by Jan de Waal back in the 1760s. This former home of a wealthy Muslim family is furnished in the style of the time, which makes for an interesting visit. It is a great place to visit to learn about former residents’ lives as well as how the culture and history of Bo-Kaap have evolved over time.
Atlas Trading Co.
One of our favorite places to shop for spices and other dry goods is Atlas Trading Co. in Bo-Kaap. You can smell this incredible shop long before you actually find it. This family-owned shop has been in Bo-Kaap since 1946 where it has served many generations of the Cape Malays in the area. The shelves in the shop are stocked with exotic spices, fragrant teas, huge bags of rice, and so much more. Atlas Trading Co. is well worth a visit. It is almost impossible to wander the aisles without buying something delicious.
Tana Baru Cemetery
Back in 1804 religious freedom was granted in South Africa. Afterward, the Tana Baru Cemetery in the Bo-Kaap neighborhood became the first Muslim burial site in the country. Although it is no longer in use, it is still worth a visit as many of the earliest Muslim settlers have been buried here. Tuan Guru is among others one of the important Cape Malay imams that were laid to rest in Tana Baru Cemetery.
Best time to visit Bo-Kaap in Cape Town
The best time to visit the Bo-Kaap neighborhood in Cape Town is in the early hours of the day as the streets are quieter. This will probably mean that cars won’t be blocking the colorful houses – making it easier to get the perfect pictures. Another plus of visiting in the morning is that the crowds tend to be smaller. After 09:00 more tourists visit due to the arranged tours to the area.
Keep in mind that if you visit on a Friday, it should definitely be in the morning. At noon the Friday prayer begins in the mosques in the neighborhood. There are therefore big crowds (mostly local Muslims) in the streets. Moreover, many shops and restaurants close at noon on Friday due to the prayer, while others simply take a break as a sign of respect for the prayers. Therefore, it is best to visit Bo-Kaap in the morning.