Photograph of the week: Bo-Kaap, Cape Town, South Africa


Bo-Kaap (an Afrikaans term meaning “above the Cape”) may be a riot of vibrant colour and one of South Africa’s (and the world’s) ‘Most Instagrammable Places’, but there is much more to this friendly inner-city Cape Town community than just gorgeous good looks.

Photo of the week: Bo-Kaap, Cape Town, South Africa

These coloured houses, painted in hues best described as pastels on steroids, are home to a fascinating history and a community with deep cultural roots.

Established in the 1760s by Dutch colonialist Jan de Waal, Bo-Kaap began life as a series of nondescript rental houses – all painted a pristine white. Built to accommodate Cape Malay slaves who had been exiled by the Dutch to the Cape from the Dutch East Indies (Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia) in the late 1600s, legend has it that de Waal insisted all the walls be kept white, or the slaves would find themselves summarily evicted. As you can imagine, when slavery was abolished in 1834, and the Cape Malay slaves were able to purchase their homes, the sense of freedom must have been immense. The result? Homes, and occupants, disposed towards joy. And bright colours.

As for why so many different colours? In keeping with their reputation for being a community with strong ties and friendships forged through decades of slavery and hardship, we’re told that residents and neighbours get together to discuss who is painting which house what colour, thus avoiding colour clashes or neighbouring houses painted the same colour.

Aside from its distinctive colours of freedom, and free use of colour, Bo-Kaap is synonymous with Muslim Cape Malay culture – evidence of which can be found in the area’s numerous mosques, and the haunting sound of the muezzin’s call to prayer. Head to Dorp Street to visit Auwal Mosque, South Africa’s oldest mosque, dating back to 1794. This is also home to a hand-written copy of the Quran created by the mosque’s first imam, Tuan Guru. Which, by the way, he wrote from memory during his time as a political prisoner on Robben Island.

This isn’t the oldest building in Bo-Kaap, though. That honour goes to the building that now houses Bo-Kaap Museum, built by Jan de Waal in 1768. Furnished like the house of a wealthy 19th-century Cape Malay family, the museum is an excellent place to find some insight into the history of the community; the life of the early Cape Malay settlers; and the influence their Islamic traditions have had on Cape Town’s art and culture.

After ambling the picturesque cobbled streets, and visiting the fascinating historic sights, make sure to stop for a taste of the famous Cape Malay cuisine. A unique blend of Middle Eastern, South East Asian and Dutch cooking, Cape Malay food packs a flavourful punch of fruit and spices, couched in fragrant curries, rootis and samoosas. You can find wonderful options at several Bo-Kaap street stalls and restaurants, one of the most authentic being Bo-Kaap Kombuis. Be sure to try the bobotie – touted by many as the unofficial national dish of South Africa.

You can find Bo-Kaap above Long Street and Cape Town city centre, nestled in the foothills of Signal Hill. A five-minute walk from the city centre, and a 10-minute drive from the V&A Waterfront, the easiest way to access the beating heart of Bo-Kaap is to walk along Wale Street to the Bo-Kaap Museum. There are also many guided walking tours, some of which include a Cape Malay cooking course hosted by local women in their own homes. Keep in mind that visitors should dress conservatively and respectfully, in keeping with Muslim custom.

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Comments (9)

  1. Suzy Willis says:

    There’s that old saying that every picture’s worth a thousand words. It’s very true of this picture, then again if you need to put it in to the context of how that scene came to be then you need words to begin to tell the whole story.

  2. Ben says:

    That phrase “pastels on steroids” just about sums it all up. Nice writing.

    Has “Photograph of the week” been away travelling? Haven’t seen it for a few weeks. Missed it. One of my favourite A Luxury Travel Blog features.

    • Claire Marston says:

      I’m also a fan of the Photograph of The Week, don’t think it’s every week but I do look forward to it.
      I’ve never heard that expression before. “Pastels on steroids”, I love it! And yes, very fitting. I love seeing colourful buildings like these, perhaps partly because the concrete jungle in the UK can can get so samey and grey. It’s also interesting to learn the history of the area and the reason behind it, which makes it all the more impressive.

    • Paul Johnson says:

      We do try to keep it to every week but sometimes things just get too busy and so we have had a brief hiatus, sorry! We’ll aim to ensure that it happens every week from now on.

  3. Elizabeth Knowling says:

    Actually, it isn’t that surprising that the imam, Tuan Guru – good name for a guru – was able to write out a copy of the Quran during his imprisonment on Robben Island. Still today, admission to the very top Islamic universities depends in part on the ability to memorise the Quran. At a time when many educational systems are dismissing the value of rote learning it is interesting to see that Tuan Guru’s remarkable memory gave him faith and a purpose during his difficult years of imprisonment.

  4. Natasha Little says:

    What a vibrant way to celebrate freedom and the abolition of slavery, it’s also marking a turning point in history and keeping the importance of it front and centre of the area. It also tells you something about the culture for homeowners to chat among other neighbours to discuss who’s painting what colours. In the UK there would just be people suing each other for using bright paint or having a punch up because the next door neighbour copied their orange front door. A very good note about dressing appropriately for Muslim culture as I imagine places like this are a magnet for bloggers and Instagrammers, so it pays to be mindful of where you’re going.

  5. Marina Tan says:

    Wow! What a perfect shot. I had the opportunity of taking a short business tour to South Africa back in 2015. And every thing, you have stated about the Cape Malay cuisine is soo damn accurate. The unforgettable taste with its unique blend of the East and the West, is still etched in my tongue. My new-found love for Cape Malay food led me to discover some of the best restaurants in Johannesburg offering this cuisine. And without a shadow of doubt, The Mamasan Eatery, D6 District Six Eatery and Licorish Bistro stood out amongst all- in terms of the quality, taste, ambiance and value for money.
    My conference was scheduled in Johannesburg. So, i spent there for most part of my trip. How stupid of me for not flying to Cape Town. And I swear this picture is making me regret my decision more than ever. Goshh!! Wish I could go back in time and undo. Though I am still thankful to my lazzy ass for atleast making the effort to travel to Durban and Pretoria.

  6. Hannah G says:

    What an extra-ordinary click!
    Also, a question. My friend (who happen to get married in a Cape Malay family) told me that Cape Malays are the people who have their roots from Malaysia but currently settled in Cape Town. Is it so?

    • Minha Narain says:

      Basically, Cape Malay is an ethnic community settled in South Africa. Cape is derived from the “Cape of Good Hope” whereas Malays are actually the people that hail from Southeast Asia (countries from India to as far as Indonesia- not just Malaysia). Back in the colonial times, these people were brought to the African continent as prisoners, slaves or exiles from the Dutch East Indies (present day Indonesia).
      Hope you have got an idea now!

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