On the slopes of Signal Hill -- the arm that stretches out of Table Mountain to overlook the city and harbor -- is the suburb of Bo-Kaap. Home to a section of the Cape's Muslim community (often referred to as the Cape Malays, despite the fact that only 1% of their forefathers, skilled slaves imported by the Dutch, were born in Malaysia), this is one of the city's oldest and most interesting areas. Its character is somewhat under threat, though, from property speculators and foreign investors keen to own a piece of the city's quaintest suburb. Narrow cobbled streets lead past colorful 19th-century Dutch and Georgian terraces and tiny mosques; try to visit at sunrise and sunset when the air is filled with the song of the muezzins in their minarets, calling the community to prayer.
The protected historic core of the Bo-Kaap ranges from Dorp to Strand streets, and between Buitengracht and Pentz streets. The best way to visit is on foot, with a local guide and, preferably, one who will expose you to more intimate aspects of the community and its culture, such as you'll experience with Andulela Tours (tel. 021/790-2592; www.andulela.com), on their half-day Cape Malay Cooking Safari. It's a great way to take in the entire area, with a detailed, lively account of its history, culture, architecture, and, of course, cuisine. Rather than observing everything from the outside, you'll finish up by visiting with a Bo-Kaap family in their home, where you'll get a brief hands-on cooking lesson. I learned to roll rotis and also fold and stuff samosas. Best of all, you finish up by enjoying the three-course fruits of your labor (with a few more complicated dishes prepared by your delightful hostess).
Andulela's tour start at the Bo-Kaap Museum, 71 Wale St. (tel. 021/481-3939; Mon-Sat 10am-5pm; R10 adults, children under 16 free), set in a house dating back to the 1760s, and set out to give a basic idea of how a relatively wealthy 19th-century Cape Muslim family lived. Curatorship is lackluster, though, and proper explanation lacking, so it's best seen as part of a guided tour (such as one offered by Andulela). One block south of the museum, at Dorp Street, is Auwal, South Africa's oldest mosque, dating back to 1795 and said to be where Afrikaans was first taught.
The charm of the Bo-Kaap provides some measure of what was lost when District Six was razed; across town from the Bo-Kaap, and clearly visible from any raised point, this vacant land is located on the city's southern border. When bulldozers moved in to flatten the suburb in 1966, an estimated 60,000 Cape Muslims (referred to as "coloureds") and other "nonwhites" were living in what was condemned as a ghetto by the apartheid hardliners. Much like Sophiatown in Johannesburg, District Six housed people from every walk of life -- musicians, traders, teachers, craftsmen, skollies (petty criminals), hookers, and pimps -- and was one of South Africa's most inspired and creative communities, producing potent poets, jazz musicians, and writers. When the bulldozers finally moved out, all that was left were a few churches and mosques (in a weird attempt at morality, religious buildings were exempt from the demolition order). The community was relocated piecemeal to the Cape Flats -- a name that accurately describes both the geography and psychology of the area. Many argue sensibly that Cape Town's ongoing gangster problems, spawned in the fragmented, angered, and powerless Cape Flats communities, resulted from the demise of District Six.
Renamed Zonnebloem (Sunflower), the so-called white area of District Six remained largely vacant, as even hardened capitalists spurned development in protest, and only the state-funded Cape Technicon was ever built on the land (purchased, incidentally, for R1). Restitution is underway, with a "homecoming ceremony" held in November 2000 and construction of 1,700 homes for some of the wrongly evicted resumed in April 2003. It's still weighed down by bureaucracy and in-fighting, and life will never be the same here again, but it's hoped that by returning the land to the original families, the damage to the national psyche can be reversed. Until then, the scar on the cityscape is a constant reminder.
Most organized tours of District Six are part of a trip to Gugulethu and Langa, two of Cape Town's oldest "townships," as black suburbs are still referred to, and the shantytowns of Khayalitsha. While you can self-drive to such crafts centers as Sivuyile Tourism Centre in Gugulethu, to get an in-depth understanding of how "the other half" of Cape Town lives, a tour is definitely recommended. Most tours kick off from either the Bo-Kaap or District Six museums, then head for a short visit to the townships to visit a crafts center, an "informal" home, a shebeen (traditional drinking house), and a housing project; both can extend the tour to include Robben Island, though this really isn't recommended. You could book your tour with Grassroots (tel. 021/706-1006) or IliosTours (tel. 021/697-4056), but a more specialized and personalized approach is offered by Camissa (www.gocamissa.co.za), as well as the aforementioned Andulela Tours and the excellent Coffeebeans Routes (www.coffeebeansroutes.com). These cooperate to offer a wide variety of eye-opening experiences, such as the innovative Urban Futures tour, where you visit urban planners, township revival zones, and major transformation projects in order to get at look at the vision for Cape Town, circa 2030. The extremely successful, interactive Jazz Safari is a fantastic nighttime trip into the heart of the pioneering music scene, much of which happens in the Cape Flats suburbs. You'll meet legends such as Mac McKenzie, the "king of Goema" (a fusion of jazz, samba, and traditional drumming), and engage with musicians in casual living room conversations, listening to impromptu recitals and even getting a chance to jam along.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.