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World Travel Guide > Guides > Africa > South Africa > Cape Town

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Cape Town History

Cape Town wasn’t always so beautiful. It was thought to date back almost 27,000 years, when its first incarnation was as a small seaside settlement inhabited by nomadic hunter-gatherers.

This state of affairs continued until 1488, when the Portuguese discovered the area and were swiftly followed by compatriot Vasco de Gama in 1497. Opening up an isolated part of the continent to European influences would change the course of the Cape’s history. In the 16th century, Spanish and Portuguese dominated trade but were surpassed in the 17th century by the Dutch and English, who both wanted greater control.

Dutch merchant Jan van Riebeeck arrived in 1652. He asked for slaves to be brought over and more than 60,000 arrived between 1658 and 1807. At the same time, the Dutch authorities began ruthlessly suppressing any opposition, with the indigenousness Khoe people among those imprisoned by the Dutch on Robben Island. The Cape became a Dutch colony and Boer farmers prospered and became empowered.

Further arrivals from Scandinavia, Russia, UK, France, Switzerland, Germany, Holland, India, Java and China fuelled Cape Town’s growth but Dutch power was on the wane and the British wrestled control, incorporating the Cape into the British Empire by 1814.

With British rule came liberalism and a move for reform - all unpopular with the conservative Dutch population. The gulf between British and Afrikaners widened, all the more so when in 1834, slavery was abolished.

Between 1901 and 1948, Cape Town modernised, but new laws and old prejudices separated the population on racial lines. After WWII, apartheid kicked in with segregation extending to education, healthcare and even beach access. During the next five decades, uprisings were frequent and culminated in 1964 with the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela on Robben Island.

Although Mandela was released in 1990 and elected president in 1994, the transition from apartheid to majority rule was difficult and today, Cape Town continues to face challenges. Nevertheless, with its African feel and European appearance, Cape Town remains the face of modern South Africa.

Did you know?
• Built in 1679 for the Dutch East India Company, the Slave Lodge is the second oldest building in South Africa.
• The first ever heart transplant operation took place at Cape Town’s Groote Schuur Hospital in 1967.
• The Cape Peninsula has had several names, including Cape of Storms. Its alias as the Cape of Good Hope was due to its worth as a sea route to the east.

Featured Hotels

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Once in Cape Town

Situated in Kloof Street, conveniently close to many of Cape Town’s attractions, Once in Cape Town is the definition of a poshtel (basically, an upscale hostel). It’s clean, comfortable, funky and affordable, and accommodation ranges from mixed and single-sex dorms to double rooms. Yours Truly, the on-site restaurant, serves delicious, fresh food (breakfast is included).

Hippo Boutique Hotel

Just off Kloof Street, close to Cape Town’s CBD and within easy reach of many bars and restaurants, the Hippo Boutique Hotel has sleek, modern rooms with wooden floors and whitewashed ceilings. Facilities include kitchenettes, air-con and Wi-Fi, and there’s also a small rooftop pool. Although there’s a bar downstairs, double glazing keeps the noise out.

Cape Royale Luxury Hotel & Spa

This all-suite hotel is as big on space as it is on design and luxury. The Sky Bar with a rooftop pool deck is the perfect spot to enjoy ocean views before dinner; stay in and try one of their restaurants (which offer Italian Indian and Asian among others) or walk ten minutes to the V&A Waterfront. A complimentary shuttle will transport guests within a 5km (3 mile) radius.

The Grand Daddy Boutique Hotel

This hotel in the CBD offers funky rooms and suites, but it’s the Rooftop Trailer Park which everyone loves here. Seven Airstream trailers imported from the USA have been revamped and individually (and playfully) themed, and although they’re not cheap to stay in they’re certainly unique. There’s also a rooftop bar and cinema, a restaurant and an inside bar called The Daddy Cool that’s a local favourite.

Cape Grace

This award-winning hotel offers stylish accommodation as well as world-class facilities and service. Located on its very own private quay at the harbour of the V&A Waterfront, the Cape Grace enjoys a convenient location at Cape Town's most popular shopping district. The Cape's colourful past can be seen in the hotel's exquisite furniture, rare fabrics, intriguing artefacts and original antiques. Sumptuous tasting menus, rare whisky pairings, luxurious spa treatments and indulgent Afternoon Teas are all thoughtfully created to enhance your stay at Cape Grace.

Daddy Long Legs

Rooms in this art hotel have been decorated by artists, poets, photographers and musicians and themes include music, travel and the tattoo artists, among others. There’s a bar/lounge and balcony overlooking lively Long Street, and self-catering apartments are located nearby. No breakfast, but Long Street is filled with breakfast options.