Formerly known as the Malay Quarter, the Bo-Kaap is technically a former township situated on the slopes of Signal Hill above the city centre of Cape Town. One of the main historical centres of Cape Malay culture in Cape Town, the multicultural Bo-Kaap has since garnered big tourist attention for its extremely brightly coloured homes and cobble stoned streets, with the added attraction of the area containing the largest concentration of pre-1850 architecture in South Africa – making it one of the oldest surviving residential neighbourhoods in the Cape.
Featuring a mix of Cape Dutch and Georgian architecture, the 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. The distinctive splash of colour that makes this particular neighbourhood stand out as much as it does 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 colours by their owners as an expression of their freedom.
With an incredibly strong percentage of Islamic population (upwards of 56% of its inhabitants identify as Muslim), the Bo-Kaap is home to a surprisingly large (given its relatively compact size) number of mosques – nine in total. Of particular interest is the Auwal Mosque, recognized as the first established and thus oldest mosque in South Africa. Dating back to 1768, the oldest house left standing in the Bo-Kaap also serves as the official Iziko Bo-Kaap Museum, and is a must stop if you are interested in learning more about this very distinctive neighbourhood and the history of its people.
Although primarily a residential neighbourhood (living admittedly in the shadow of ever encroaching gentrification), there are a few businesses, coffee shops and an art gallery or two to pop into, with the most famous of these probably being the Atlas Trading Company, a family owned store that has been operating since 1946 and which is renowned for its selection of sensational spices, rice and other rare products from around the world. That said though, 99% of visitors are there for pretty much one thing only – taking lots of photos of people’s very colourful homes!