The Company’s Gardens date back to the 1600s and are the raison d’etre for Cape Town. Looking for a way to the East Indies - the source of spices, silks, tea and porcelain for Europe - the Dutch East India Company chose a route around the tip of Africa. The journey took months and sailors were at severe risk of scurvy from a lack of fresh produce. So the Company sent some employees to the Cape of Storms and told them to start a vegetable patch. More than three centuries later, that ‘vegetable patch’ is now a green lung in a cosmopolitan city that bustles with workers, sightseers, squirrels and hadedahs (what South Africans call sacred ibises). Easily walkable in a morning or an afternoon, there is plenty to see and do in and around the Company’s Gardens.
1. The Groote Kerk and Slave Lodge
Starting at the ‘bottom’ – on Wale Street – you will find two buildings that encapsulate the tumultuous history of the city. The Groote Kerk (literally ‘Big Church’) is still in use: its solid walls and austere interior perfectly sum up the Calvinist approach to life brought to the Mother City by Dutch settlers. Directly opposite it, bedecked with a double row of green shutters, is the Slave Lodge. Now a museum hosting revolving exhibitions, it was once the home of the Cape colony’s slaves, an important reminder of the cruelties of the past. Right outside the Slave Lodge, you’ll find a statue of General Jan Smuts, a former prime minister of South Africa and one of the key founders of the United Nations after World War II.
2. St George’s Cathedral
On the same road as the Slave Lodge and opposite the start of St George’s Mall, an open-air pedestrian walk, is St George’s Cathedral. An Anglican church designed by Sir Herbert Baker, one of South Africa’s great architects, it played a central role in the fight against apartheid and is often graced by Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu. There is a labyrinth based on the one at Chartres in France in the cathedral’s courtyard that is very soothing to walk if you need a moment’s reflection or to clear your mind.
3. Greenmarket Square and the Old Town House
Walking slightly down St George’s Mall, turn left on Longmarket Street to get to Greenmarket Square. The original cobbles make for an uneven walking surface (not great for prams, either) but the square is a hive of activity: there are buskers, vendors, musicians and market sellers all jostling cheek by jowl. It’s a good place to pick up a special memento of your time in Africa.
Oppsite the square is the Michaelis Collection at the Old Town House. A beautifully preserved historial building with a leafy courtyard in the centre that is perfect for taking tea, the Old Town House holds a wonderful selection of 17-century Netherlandish art.
TIP On Thursdays, upper St George’s Mall hosts a fantastic organic food market featuring cuisine from across the world but also local favourites like biltong (air-cured venison), boerewors rolls (a BBQed sasuage on a roll) and droe wors (dried sausage). If you're nervous about trying something new, ask for a little taste - most traders will be happy to oblige.
4. The Company Gardens Restaurant
Walking up through the middle of the gardens, you will pass a statue of former prime minister of the Cape colony Cecil John Rhodes. To the left, in a clearing strung with human-sized birds’ nests, is the Company Gardens Restaurant, a delightful family restaurant that’s a great place to stop for lunch. It serves up fresh, natural dishes with subtle South African twists. How about a game of outdoor chess at one of the mosiac tables while you sip a cup of refreshing rooibos (red bush) tea?
5. The Cape Town Holocaust Centre & South African National Gallery
At 88 Hatfield Street, which runs parallel to the Company’s Gardens, is the Cape Town Holocaust Centre, a poignant and thoughtful reminder of the atrocities suffered by the world’s Jews. Perhaps uniquely in Cape Town, Jews, Christians and Muslims live in close proximity to each other and, like many aspects of this Rainbow Nation, there is a great deal of inter-faith acceptance and tolerance.
Just up from the Holocaust Centre is the South African National Gallery. It is the country’s premier art gallery and contains a wide variety of eras, styles and mediums – look out for special exhibitions of South Africa’s most exciting and iconic artists.
6. The South African Museum
At the ‘top’ of the gardens is the South African Museum, a playground for big and little kids who want to learn more about the continent’s natural history. Marvel at the Whale Well, delve into the world of African dinosaurs and then pop next door for a show at the Planetarium - it’s great fun to lean back and be transported into galaxies far, far away…
7. High Tea at the Mount Nelson
The Belmond Mount Nelson – affectionately known as the Nelly by Capetonians – has a rich history and impressive guest list. Nelly has hosted Winston Churchill, John Lennon and even the Dalai Lama over the past century. Harking back to a more gracious past, its afternoon tea spread is one of the best in the city. Help yourself to nibbly treats like cucumber sandwiches, petit fours, chocolate truffles and an array of exotic teas. It’s fun to play at being posh!
The Company’s Gardens and the many interesting places around them are a fitting microcosm of South Africa – in a day, you can be inspired by the best in South African art, tuck into Cape Town’s top-notch street food, shop for African mementos, and feed adorable and acrobatic squirrels… all under the welcoming embrace of Table Mountain!