Hidden in the fringes of Cape Town’s city centre, just beyond the hassles and bustle, you will find this little treasure neighborhood where brightly-colored houses against the milieu of religious mosques is an attraction for many visitors.

Tucked away against the backdrop of the Signal Hill, overlooking Robben Island, Bo-Kaap is full of character with its romantic streets lined with colorful traditional houses, painted in vibrant colors (pink, orange, lime green and turquoise).

This area holds the most number of buildings in South Africa per square kilometer, many of these unique houses are national monuments and date back to the 1750s and have miraculously survived through the apartheid years.

Rich in history, Bo-Kaap is also well-known for its multicultural heritage and population. Time has almost stood still in this tranquil neighborhood, with children playing carefree in the small alleys and neighbors chatting together in perfect harmony.

Architecture of Bo Kaap

The houses of Bo Kaap are characterized by either Dutch or British styles. The early houses are situated along lower Bo-Kaap between Dorp Street down to the foreshore.

Houses are mainly semi-detached and have their own unique character as a result of their brightly painted walls with a wide range of colours from lime green to rose pink.

The most common distinctive trait among the houses is the front ‘stoep’, where families and friends meet for socializing, and enjoying the coolness of evenings.

The cobbled streets are lined with colorful houses giving an excellent and perfect opportunity for some wonderful pictures and souvenirs.

Bo-Kaap’s Colourful History

Formerly known as the Malay Quarter, Bo-Kaap has a fascinating history. Bo-Kaap’s residents are a blend of cultures and are descendants of slaves imported by the Dutch in the 1700s. These slaves arrived to South Africa from Sri Lanka, Malaysia, the Indonesian Archipelago and various African countries.

In the past these slaves were known as “Cape Malays” (which is incorrect as not all residents are fully of Malaysian descendents). Yet the term has remained and Bo-Kaap is also known today as the Cape Malay Quarter. Considered as a historical centre of Cape Malay culture in the Mother City, the Cape Malay community is mainly Islamic.

Bo-kaap traditionally remains the residential area of Cape Town’s Muslim population with several mosques along the streets. The Nurul Islam Mosque, established in 1844, is located in the area and you will often see many of the locals wearing their traditional dress.

The best place for an insight into this historical area is the quaint Bo-Kaap Museum.

Bo Kaap-Tours and Points of Interest:

Today, the neighborhood of Bo-Kaap area is an attractive place to stroll around. The cobbled streets are lined with colorful houses providing the perfect opportunity for some wonderful snap shots.

Make a stop at the museum before taking a walk through the streets of the area, located on the slopes of Signal Hill. It is the opportunity to learn the history of the Cape Malay community and you can also discover traditional furniture of the 19th Century.

This small area is home to nine mosques, including the Auwal Mosque, the oldest in Cape Town, situated directly behind the museum. One should also visit the Karamats or Muslim shrines where you will find the burial sites of the Saints of Islam, which are not only of holy, but also of historical, interest.

Interesting guided tours through the suburb are recommended for the visits of the local kramats and Mosques. The annual colorful "Coon Carnival" originated in the Bo-Kaap and still takes place on January 2. It is an all-singing, all-dancing, vibrantly colourful parade, which was celebrated to mark the annual one day off work given to the Muslim slaves.

Bo-Kaap Museum – the Unique Touch To Cape Town

he museum was established in 1978 presents the fascinating history of the Bo-Kaap community and Cape Malays through many years to date. The small museum is the oldest home still in existence in the neighborhood with permanent displays that showcase the rich history of the people in Bo-Kaap.

In this unique venue, you can see the history come alive thought the different collections and Islamic decorative art. The original collections have been gathered from all parts of Bo-Kaap and focus on the legacy of Islam on the Cape.

The highlight is the cultural contributions made by Muslim settlers who came to this region of the African continent and set up shops as skilled carpenters, tailors, builders and shoe makers.

As part of your visit, you will discover authentic 19th century furniture as well as a bridal chamber which has been especially decorated to go with the bridal dress. The yellowwood floors and ceilings were restored as a highlight to the old Cape Dutch feel, as were the teak window frames, doors and shutters.

The “voorstoep” or terrace consisting of a bench on either side is the epitome of the Muslim influence in this area of the Mother City.

The Museum is a reflection of this exceptional, historic neighborhood that has witnessed a remarkable history. The past has carefully been preserved and displayed in the Bo-Kaap Museum helping visitors to really understand the heritage of this particular part of Cape Town.

The visit to Bo-Kaap Museum is a must and it is open from Mondays to Saturdays from 10.00am to 5.00pm.

* Photo by Rosalinde Bon

Eat your way around Bo-Kaap

Over 300 years ago, “malay slaves” brought fragrance and flavor of a variety of spices and herbs such as cloves, spices, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, garlic, ginger and coriander to their foods!

The Dutch East India Company continued to sail to Asia, via, Cape Town, and as such traditional spices were still available.

Dutch housewives began to include cinnamon and cloves in their pies while the Cape Malay cooks started adding the potato to their dishes.

This wonderful fusion of cuisines and diverse cultures has led to several unique South African delicacies and cuisines such as the famous Cape Malay curry, consisting of mainly with yellow rice, any meat or vegetables of your choice with delicious spices of Arabic and Asian origins.

Due to this unique quality, Cape Malay cooking turned into a key part of the South African identity, and of the tourist experience.

Popular Cape Malay dishes consist mainly of fish, stews, roasts and spicy curries.

One thing you really have to try during your visit to Bo-Kaap is to have a traditional Cape Malay meal at one of the restaurants!

Bo-Kaap Today:

As a result of Cape Town's economic development and expansion, and after the demise of forced racial segregation under apartheid, the housing boom in the past fifteen years has seen an influx of foreigners buying up the beautiful, quaint, historical homes of Bo-Kaap.

This close-knit community is facing a progressive dissolution of its distinct character as rich outsiders shift into the suburb to take over homes in the City Bowl at cut-rate prices. Even with this apparent "gentrification", there are still several little local restaurants opened where you can taste traditional cuisine.

You can walk along the streets during the day where this particular Islamic culture looks intact and thriving.

Getting there

It is situated at the foot of Signal Hill. You can reach there by walking along Wale Street, which trails up from the south, across Adderley and Buitengracht streets.

When you see the brightly painted Georgian terraces and narrow cobbled streets; you will know you are now in Bo-Kaap.