Exploring Cape Town’s City Bowl on walking tours
Exploring Cape Town's History
I highly recommend taking guided tours from locals or an educated tour guide. You will get so much more out of the experience and understand the place you are visiting by learning the history, experiencing their lives and hearing their stories.
I also strongly believe in contributing to the places that are gracious enough to welcome you into their countries, cities and natural landscapes.
Travel is more than TAKING pictures and using the location as ONLY a backdrop. For me, cultural exchange is the priority.
On my recent trip to Cape Town, I definitely wanted to take some tours in the city, however, I had not planned this part as my 8-week tour through many countries and planning this was at the bottom of my list and just did not get done. Fortunately most cities have a Free Walking Tours options which allows anyone to join a tour last minute on a scheduled route.
I took three tours while in Cape Town:
Historic City Tour
This tour will take you back in time to when the the Dutch East India Company, officially the United East India Company (Dutch: Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie and referred to as “VOC”) came to Cape Town and setup a trading settlement. You will walk through the VOC’s company gardens, go by the Castle of Good Hope which used to be at water’s edge, learn about the slave trade, British rule, visit several of the churches that were central to the community causes both pro and against Apartheid and see the historic balcony at Cape Town City Hall where Nelson Mandela gave his speech.
This was a great intro tour of the history of Cape Town and orientation to the historic sights in town.
Apartheid to Freedom Tour
Growing up, I heard about Apartheid. As an adult, I have read books about it. It’s still a mentality that is difficult for me to understand. The tour walks you through many of the sites key to the Apartheid movement including park benches designated for whites vs black, the High Court City Annex where many of the class decisions were made.
This tour was very impactful at describing the conditions of Apartheid and how it controlled people’s lives and split up families.
These type of tours are often very sobering and leave me at a loss for words. I also believe it’s very important to learn history (even the horrors) to understand people and make sure injustices are not repeated.
Bo Kaap Tour
The Bo-Kaap contains the colorful houses you often see in photos of Cape Town. This neighborhood is on the edge of the “City Bowl” of Cape Town going up the slopes of Signal Hill. Bo-Kaap’s origins date back to the 1760s when numerous “huurhuisjes” (rental houses) were built and leased to slaves. These people were known as Cape Malays, and were brought from Malaysia, Indonesia and the rest of Africa to work in the Cape. They also brought with them a rich food culture with curries, spices and more.
The houses are a mix of Cape Dutch and Georgian architecture, in distinctive multi-colored rows. There were a few versions of the why the houses are so colorful. There was one story of one-upness, one of being able to find your house, and one detailing that the choice of color is said to be attributed to the fact that while on lease, all the houses had to be white. When this rule was eventually lifted, and the slaves were allowed to buy the properties, all the houses were painted bright colors by their owners as an expression of their freedom.
My guide for the Bo-Kaap tour was excellent. This one touched on the history of the Bo-Kaap, the close knit culture that exists today, as well as the cultural struggles it is experiencing today with gentrification. The guide grew up in Cape Town and had friends in the neighborhood, so he was in their houses often and a part of that community. his insight and stories were spot-on for providing information with personal touches (but not too personal). He also provided several restaurants to return to to experience more of the Bo-Kaap.
I would highlight recommend taking a tour in this neighborhood. It’s more than taking a picture in front of the house. I was also given the impression that the neighborhood was not taking kindly to drop-ins by people just using their houses for backdrops. As with many areas in Cape Town, it is simply not safe to be there alone or even in a small group.
After the tour which ended in the Bo-Kaap, the guide even recommended to either walk back with the group to the coffee shop or take an Uber for the short 15 minutes walk to the V&A Waterfront. There had been just too many muggings and other unfortunate incidents to walk alone or even in a small group of women (and especially foreigners). He said to a group of 3 women in my group “I know of at least 3 different characters who will give you trouble if you go down this road to the V&A Waterfront”. Aggressive begging have increased in the area. I experienced this when I lagged behind the group in one section of the walk. I quickly rejoined the group. Muggings have also increased with the many tourists with expensive cameras. One was even stabbed.
Crime happens everywhere and while it does not deter me from never leaving my house, I do exercise necessary caution to stay safe by being aware of the issues that areas are having and planning accordingly. I have seen so many pictures of the Bo-Kaap across my social feeds and never one mention of safety in this area.
I would go into this area again but only with an experience guide as I did on this tour. I was glad I was able to learn the history and get a small peak into the culture of the Bo-Kaap.
What is the recommended tip for free walking tours?
I generally tip ~$15 per hour for the guide. This number might go up or down based on:
(1) Length of the tour
(2) Size of the group
(3) Covering what was in the walking tour description. Sometimes they don’t go to all the places or the entire route if the group is large
(4) Quality of the information.
The great perk of these free walking tours is they allow a great amount of flexibility for your schedule and last minute planning. There is no need to pre-book and the tours run on a set schedule. It’s also great for solo travelers to avoid high expenses of private guides
The guides are also very passionate about their city. This came through with all three different tour guides from this company.
While people may gripe about “free tours”, I feel they do more good than bad. Most of the people I have met who run these type of companies are passionate about their cities. They are also doing something to be not only unofficial ambassadors of their city but creating a business which educates people. I do prefer a custom private guide (who wouldn’t to maximize your time & knowledge). The tour groups usually also offer that option at a fee as well.
Large group tour: One of the tours was about right with 10 people on it. The other two were large with 25+ people. Moving in a group that big through a city is cumbersome. I also don’t like participating in the herd mentality of groups. Tour groups generally tend to hog sidewalks are run over individuals in a mentality to stay with the herd. These tour guides were conscientious in moving their groups out of many through-ways, but its inevitable. It was also difficult to hear at times as there is no headset.
Time: Each tour is about 1.5 hours long. You can do all three tours in one day, and you will have breaks in-between to grab lunch or a snack. However, it makes for a long day especially as the some of the content and routes of the Historic City Tour and Apartheid tour overlap. The guides will offer you recommendation for food stops, but not quite the same as a food tour.
11:00am – Historic City Tour – 1.5 hours
2:00pm – Apartheid to Freedom Tour – 1.5 hours
4:20pm – Bo Kaap Tour – 1.5 hours
Note: Check the website for the schedule. Other tours are offered at different times.
For the Free Walking Tours, I would overall give it a “B”. The information was consistent to what i have read and other information I have received so it did not feel like they were making up anecdotes or jokes which I often found on other tours. All of the guides too did seem very passionate about what they were doing and I commend them for that.
All three tours touch on the tough subjects of apartheid, race and gentrification. I can imagine this is difficult to explain, especially in short periods of time.
I thought it was handled well except one incident. One of the guides on the Apartheid tour was relaying the information in a game show format, making people guess, on a topic which no-one wants to get wrong. When people did not respond or gave the wrong answer, the guides response came off as superior and indignant.
I am not a fan of game-show type guiding in the first place as people are coming to learn, not be tested. I also feel that there is no way to walk in someone else’s shoes, and if they are willing to walk beside you and learn, you should not shut them down for not knowing enough. Ironically, this guide was born after apartheid had ended and was not relaying first hand knowledge. Though the ramifications of Apartheid are of course still felt today in Cape Town, the indignation directed at foreigners coming to learn did not sit right with me. Maybe the guide just had a long day and one too many tourists.
Regardless, this tour was only part of the 4.5 hours I spent on the tours and overall they provided good information, efficient tours and a great introduction to Cape Town. It delivered as advertised.
Take a walking tour in Cape Town. The history is both rich and complicated and a good guide will enhance your trip.
Free Walking Tours is a good choice if you want to keep your itinerary flexible and jump on a last-minute walking tour covering one of these topics. It would also be a good option if you are just interested in one topic.
However, I do not think the three individual tours was the best use of my time if you want to cover all of these topics and also integrate some food stops. The Historic Walking Tour and Apartheid Tour overlapped in both content and the route – though both provided information and sights the other did not that I would want to see and learn about. It was nice to take breaks between the tours and enjoy the food and some of the museums but this could be accomplished with one guide.
A better choice: I would recommend one of the following:
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