How to Immerse Yourself in Cape Town’s Vibrant Art Scene

The opening of the Zeitz Museum was just the tip of the artsy iceberg.

How to Immerse Yourself in Cape Town’s Vibrant Art Scene

A room with a view at Ellerman House

Courtesy of Ellerman House

In September 2017, the massive new Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (MOCAA) opened in Cape Town, housing the works of the continent’s diaspora in nine floors, making it the largest contemporary art gallery in Africa. It joined an already thriving art scene in the city, where the country’s complicated political and racial history has influenced creativity reaching from the streets of the townships to the mountain Winelands. Below are eight places for the art-lover in and near Cape Town.


A visit to Bo-Kaap—formerly known as the Malay Quarter—is an immersion into art as history. As you travel sloping streets framed by colorful buildings, sniff the air, scented with fragrant Middle Eastern spices. The former township was the eventual settling ground of the (mostly Muslim) descendants of political exiles, slaves, and convicts from India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, and the Indonesian Archipelago who were brought in as slaves and leased land at the foot of Signal Hill. The story behind the now colorful houses is that while they were being leased, they had to be white. When the slaves were eventually allowed to buy the properties, they picked bright colors for their houses in a joyous expression of freedom. To experience this joy yourself, take a free walking tour with Neilsen Tours. Or go on your own. Just make sure to stop by Monkeybiz, which specializes in unique African beadwork and employing disadvantaged women; the Auwal Mosque, the oldest mosque in South Africa, built in 1794 on the land of a freed slave; and the Bo-Kaap Museum, which highlights the cultural contributions made by early Muslim settlers.

Find galleries, restaurants, and a Ferris wheel at the V&A Waterfront.

Find galleries, restaurants, and a Ferris wheel at the V&A Waterfront.

Photo by Tinus Potgieter/

Victoria & Albert Waterfront

The home for the Zeitz MOCAA is a former grain mill on the V&A Waterfront, a highly trafficked area attractive for its restaurants, shops, aquarium, and Nobel Laureate square. Other museums there range from the Jetty 1, which chronicles the history of Robben Island, to the Cape Town Diamond Museum and the Chavonnes Battery Museum, housed in a former city fortification. Stop by the Everard Read Gallery, South Africa’s oldest commercial gallery, or the cavernous Guild Gallery for African design. Also on the waterfront is the South African Art Collection Gallery, with wildlife and township art, ceramics, and prints. When you’re done perusing, ride in the Cape Wheel, a sightseeing Ferris wheel offering panoramic views.


During apartheid, the former fishing hamlet of Woodstock was designated a “gray area,” meaning where mixed races could coexist. This diversity fueled creativity, and cheap real estate helped urban renewal, leading to renovations of buildings like the Old Biscuit Mill, a formerly derelict factory complex, the Woodstock Foundry, and the Woodstock Exchange, now all destinations that bustle with people seeking vibrant crafts and design, open studios, and multi-ethnic cuisines. The street art is worth a tour, as is the well-curated Whatiftheworld gallery for emerging artists, housed in an old synagogue. Also on your agenda should be the Fairweather House, home to the influential Goodman Gallery, Stevenson Gallery, and Taunina, which sells hand-embroidered bespoke teddy bears, providing full-time employment to women from disadvantaged communities in Africa.

First Thursdays Cape Town

If you happen to visit Cape Town in the beginning of the month, stop by the central city on the first Thursday night. That’s when the area’s galleries, designer boutiques, and art shops keep their doors open until 9 p.m. or later for visitors to create their own art-focused nightlife, plotting out routes using a printed map found at each of the gallery locations. Local restaurants and bars join in as well, with later hours and musical performances. Before you go, peruse the First Thursdays websites for special events and participating galleries, which may include Gallery MOMO, a contemporary art gallery in the Bo-Kaap; 99 Loop, which showcases emerging artists in South Africa; and the Cape Gallery, featuring fine art rooted in the South African tradition.

Anton Smit's Stone Head at the Delaire Graff estate

Anton Smit’s Stone Head at the Delaire Graff estate

Courtesy of Delaire Graff Estate Imagery

The Winelands

The sophisticates of Cape Town know that, besides cheese, nothing pairs with wine as well as fine art. And that’s why, when vineyard hopping in Stellenbosch and Franschhoek, you’ll also come across galleries with stunning local works. Regular shows are held at the gallery at Grande Provence Wine Estate, showcasing emerging and established South African artists like the sculptor Jacques Dhont, who creates his work from mostly natural media. The La Motte museum is the place to go for art by Jacob Hendrik Pierneef, a landscape artist and South African master. At Delaire Graff visit the sculptures of Anton Smit, Deborah Bell, Dylan Lewis, and others. If you’re craving more Dylan Lewis, visit the entire sculpture garden dedicated to him in Stellenbosch, available by appointment only.

Ellerman House

There’s only one choice for an art hotel in Cape Town: the luxurious Ellerman House. You’ll live among the works, from paintings in suites and dining areas to statues keeping you company by the pool. It even has its own contemporary art gallery. The privately owned collection of over 1,000 South African works explores the social and cultural shift that the country’s art has made from the mid-19th century, with work on display by Thomas Bowler showcasing Cape Town in the 1800s, Lionel Smith and William Kentridge taking on the contemporary, and up-and-coming artists like Phillemon Hlungwani and Alexis Preller representing the new guard. Guests can use an iPad for a self-guided tour through the collection or take a private tour with Ellerman House’s in-house guide Talita Swerts. Swerts—a fine arts graduate with an MA degree in visual arts—also does private tours of the art of Cape Town and art of the Winelands, exclusively for Ellerman House guests.

Studio Visits with Art Route

Ellerman House’s Talita Swerts also works with Art Route, a company that provides public tours of art in Cape Town and the surrounding areas (including many of the regions on this list). With their curated Collector’s Art Tour, they also do what the average person may have difficulty doing: set up studio visits and access to gallery viewing rooms for the serious art enthusiast and collector. Galleries may include the Goodman Gallery and Stevenson Gallery in Woodstock and the Everard Read Gallery on the V&A Waterfront.

The Mabonent Township is a hotspot for street art.

The Mabonent Township is a hotspot for street art.

Photo by Anna K. Mueller/

The Maboneng Township Art Experience

Cape Town still has many townships, or segregated nonwhite areas left over from apartheid, which are usually underserved and definitely stereotyped. The average visitor does not do much more than drive by and snap a few photos. The Maboneng Township Art Experience, however, aims to change that. In this creative cultural tour, you’ll see colorful street art, learn local history, and visit houses in the settlements that double as galleries for artists who may not have access to the traditional gallery system. It’s an opportunity to help change the perception of the township settlements as well as empowering the community itself, while showcasing some new voices in art.

>>Next: How to Weekend in Cape Town’s Wine Country

From Our Partners
Sign up for our newsletter
Join more than a million of the world’s best travelers. Subscribe to the Daily Wander newsletter.
More From AFAR