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Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Zeitz MOCAA), Cape Town.
‘When We See Us: A Century of Black Figuration in Painting’, 2022, Zeitz MOCAA. Photograph by Dillon Marsh, courtesy of Zeitz MOCAA

The 12 best museums and galleries in Cape Town to explore

Take a deep dive into the history and culture of Cape Town with a wander through the city’s best museums and galleries

Richard Holmes
Written by
Katherine Alex Beaven
Richard Holmes

Across its 350-plus years as a port city – and a few thousand more as the home of semi-nomadic indigenous tribes and pastoralists – the Western Cape has a rich and colourful history to discover. From the unadorned beauty of ancient rock art to the arrival of colonial settlers, and right through to the city’s vibrant art scene of today, Cape Town’s galleries and museums paint an expansive picture of the city’s complex cultural history. Here are the venues in which to start your journey, selected by two local writers.

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This article was recently updated by Richard Holmes, a travel writer based in Cape Town. At Time Out, all of our travel guides are written by local writers who know their cities inside out. For more about how we curate, see our editorial guidelines and check out our latest travel guides written by local experts.

Cape Town’s best museums and galleries

What is it? One of South Africa’s oldest museums, the Iziko South African Museum was founded in 1825 and is packed with more than one-and-a-half million natural history specimens. It’s conveniently located at the head of the Company’s Garden.

Why go? To take a deep dive into the natural history of the Cape, from dinosaur footprints to dusty displays of stuffed animals that showcase the diversity of fauna found across the region. Don’t miss the impressive galleries dedicated to San rock art, as well as the enigmatic Whale Well. The adjoining planetarium – revamped in 2017 – offers a digital discovery of the southern skies.

What is it? A gallery that’s as thought-provoking as the art within. The reinvention of historic grain silos in the V&A Waterfront precinct by designer Thomas Heatherwick is home to an ever-changing roster of exhibitions celebrating art from Africa and the diaspora.

Why go? The impressive collection of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (known as Zeitz MOCAA) spreads across nine floors, from the dramatic central atrium to exhibition spaces tailored to host a curated programme of temporary exhibits. Head to the upper-level terrace for dramatic mountain and city vistas, or book a table for lunch at the stylish Gantry Café. There are free, one-hour guided tours between Tuesday and Saturday at 12.30pm.


What is it? A must-do when visiting Cape Town, Robben Island Museum is the notorious island prison where Nelson Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years behind bars.

Why go? To explore the role this infamous island prison played in the apartheid history of South Africa, with a former political prisoner as your guide. While the island held dozens of key figures in the anti-apartheid movement, its most famous inmate was former South African President Nelson Mandela. Step into Mandela’s old cell and learn about the harsh conditions and history of this isolated island that’s now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

What is it? A contemporary gallery found in the Constantia winelands, celebrating both African artists and global creativity across a wide roster of temporary exhibitions and permanent collections.

Why go? A bellwether of the vibrant creative scene in Cape Town, Norval Foundation is a beautiful gallery and makes a fine addition to an exploration of the area’s nearby wine cellars. Look forward to airy exhibition spaces, outdoor sculpture gardens and a popular on-site restaurant.


What is it? A powerful city centre museum that explores the history of colonisation and slavery within South Africa, Iziko Slave Lodge shares the stories of the thousands of slaves brought into the country. 

Why go? The museum is housed in one of the city’s oldest buildings, constructed in 1679 as a slave lodge for the Dutch East India Company. The building’s history adds a haunting authenticity to the exhibits that explore the history and impact of slavery within South Africa.

What is it? The Heritage Centre is the highlight of this multifaceted destination that celebrates the San people, the oldest nomadic tribe in Southern Africa. An on-site restaurant and accommodation will entice you to extend your visit to !Khwa ttu San Heritage Centre beyond a few hours (the venue is a 45-minute drive from Cape Town).

Why go? For an immersive experience that gives visitors a glimpse into the current lives, history and culture of the San people, while also helping to preserve their legacy for future generations. Exhibits co-curated by the San take visitors through the history of humans in Africa, including the effect of colonisation and present-day exploitation. Workshops help supply San people with tools needed to thrive in a modern world.


What is it? Africa’s first – and reputedly only – museum dedicated to the art and history of perfume, with options to participate in a workshop where you can create your own fragrance.

Why go? While the private collection of around 4,500 decorative bottles of perfume is gorgeous to gawp at, the highlight of First South African Perfume Museum is the Ancient Roman perfume that dates back over 2,000 years. The design-your-own workshops (by appointment only) are also popular.

What is it? A heritage site and museum rolled into one, the little-known Heart of Cape Town Museum commemorates the world’s first human heart transplant.

Why go? To discover the tragedy and triumph of a medical milestone. This intimate museum offers an encyclopaedic history of the research and trials leading up to the landmark surgery, as well as profiling the surgeons, donor and patient involved. The highlight is a visit to the two operating theatres where the surgery took place in 1967, faithfully recreated using the original machines and equipment.


What is it? In 1966 the apartheid government turned a thriving inner-city community into a rubble wasteland. The worthwhile District Six Museum celebrates what was and gives context to the long-running debate on reviving one of the city’s most colourful suburbs.

Why go? Originally established as a diverse community of freed slaves, immigrants and merchants, the District Six neighbourhood was declared a white area during apartheid. This museum was established in 1994, the same year apartheid ended, and stands as a record of how and why residents were forced from the area. It was declared a National Heritage Site in 2006.

What is it? A contemporary cultural museum built as an extension of South Africa’s oldest synagogue, with exhibits marking the history and contribution of Jewish communities across South Africa. 

Why go? Originally focused on the history and successes of Jewish people in the Cape, the South African Jewish Museum has expanded to include Jewish communities across the country. Past exhibits have highlighted artwork from a school in Tel Aviv and artists from Lithuania. Built in 1863, the historic synagogue now hosts an exhibit on Judaism through the ages.


What is it? Although today surrounded by city streets, this five-pointed castle of local sandstone once sat on the shores of Table Bay, lapped by the Atlantic Ocean. Built as a defensive bastion of the new Dutch colony between 1666 and 1679, today the Castle of Good Hope is a reminder of the city’s chequered history and the country’s efforts to come to terms with its divisive past. 

Why go? While the architecture and stonework of the oldest remaining colonial building in South Africa are impressive, the dungeons and upper-floor displays offer a nod to the building’s history as a place of colonisation and enslavement. The pathway along the ramparts offers wonderful city and mountain views.

What is it? A simple but poignant museum in the Khayelitsha township, 18 Gangster Museum aims to be a life-changing resource for young people by giving an authentic, inside look at the gangster lifestyle and its alternatives.

Why go? A thoughtful exhibition tells the stories of local youths being recruited, joining and then living within gangs. These stories are placed back-to-back against examples of positive, gang-free alternatives. See a replica prison cell, talk to a former gangster or even make it a half-day experience by combining with a township tour. Each paid entrance allows one local child to visit for free. Immersive, community-led tours and activities are also available.

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