Right in the middle of the bustling CBD of Cape Town lives a grand old lady, The Company's Garden. Started by the Dutch East India Company way back in 1652, this beautiful laid-out garden provides a cool, leafy break from the city noise. Besides its green lawns, huge trees and cooling fountains and ponds, it's all set about with fascinating places to visit.
Take a day off from the beaches, the mountain, the wine farms, and hang out in the gardens. Learn about the stars at the planetarium, the geology of the land at the Iziko SA Museum, marvel at the wide array of art at the Iziko SA National Gallery, find out the history of Jewish South Africans at the Jewish Museum, the options are limitless.
And in between? Laze on the lawns, have a cool drink at the tea room and feed the hungry squirrels.
We'll start at the Adderley Street side and stroll up Government Avenue:
Light a Candle
As Adderley Street turns the corner and morphs into Wale Street, St George's Cathedral stands at the entrance to the Company's Garden. This beautiful old stone church, built in the early 1900s, to replace the smaller church that stood there from 1834, is the seat of the Anglican Church of SA. Designed by Herbert Baker and Frances Masey, it's worth stopping in, to gaze at its lofty eaves and beautiful stained glass windows.
It is not only beautiful, but it carries many stories in its cool air. The Cathedral is known as 'The People's Cathedral' because of its role in the resistance against apartheid. People of all races were welcome, throughout the dark days of Apartheid, resulting in plenty of trouble for everyone involved at various stages. Take a couple of minutes to sit in the cool silence and light a candle to celebrate democracy in South Africa.
Be sure to stop at the entrance to the gardens to buy nuts for the gardens' 'wildlife'. The trees and paths are filled with squirrels and their not-as-cute but luckily more shy cousins, rats, all of whom are particularly partial to a nut snack, or six. The squirrels are very tame. Settle yourself somewhere and wait quietly, some will even eat from your hand.
If you're lucky, you may even come across this li'l guy, the famed Albino Squirrel.
Where the Big Brass Hang Out
Walking up Government Avenue, the grand buildings on the left are Parliament and Tuynhuys. The houses of Parliament are where the government sits and makes laws and does important governmental stuff. Tuynhuys, built in the 1700s, was originally the home of the Governor of the Cape. It is now used by the President on State Occasions, and for photo opps with visiting Important People.
If you're interested, you can sit in on a parliamentary debate. Booking is essential (with your passport) and can be done through the Public Relations Liaison Office.
Stop to Smell the Roses
Further up, on the right is the Public Garden which includes the Herb and Succulent Garden, Aviary, Slave Bell, Rose Garden and ancient Pear Tree. This Saffron Pear Tree is thought to date back to the original food gardens, circa 1652. The tea garden, currently undergoing renovations after being taken over by Cape Town restaurant magicians, Madame Zingara, is nestled within the Public Garden too. When it opens (November 2014), called Haarlem & Hope, be sure to stop in for a sandwich or a piece of cake beneath the trees.
While graffiti on trees is normally reprehensible, there's something endearing about the bamboo (and it is replenishable) graffiti next to the gracious old tree. Look out for it - a natural metaphor of city life.
The South African National Gallery, situated just above the Public Gardens, on the left of Government Avenue, has ever-changing exhibitions, to showcase both old and modern art. The gallery is home to a vast permanent collection of South African, African, British, French, Dutch and Flemish art.
From paintings to sculptures, ceramics to beadwork, expect to see some of South Africa's (and further afield's) most talented artists' work on display. It's a cool, quiet place, for some artistic contemplation.
Learn Some Yiddish
Behind the gallery, get to know the fascinating history of the South African Jewish Community at the Jewish Museum. It's a fantastic, interactive experience that takes one through the over 150 years' of history of the Jewish community in South Africa, set against the backdrop of the country's political and social history throughout those years. The design of the building, with its gorgeous central spiral staircase is a marvel.
Be sure not to miss Isaac Kaplan's Netsuke collection at the bottom of the staircase, behind the shtetl. These tiny Japanese ceremonial figurines, made of bone, wood and stone, have to be seen to be believed. Made in the 17th to 19th Century in Japan, you'll need a magnifying glass to see the intricately carved details of the figures.
Next door to the Jewish Museum is the Great Synagogue - South Africa's oldest and arguably most beautiful synagogue, with its beautiful spires. Across the courtyard, stop in at Cafe Riteve for coffee and a cinnamon kichel.
Above Cafe Riteve is the Holocaust Centre, a place of remembrance of those brutally murdered by the Nazi regime during World War II. A sobering reminder of the devastating effect of racism and discrimination.
Crossing back over Government Avenue, you'll see the pigeons flapping about above the Delville Wood sculpture and the dome of the Planetarium behind the Iziko SA Museum quietly looking down on the furore. Here the history - geological, archaeological, political - is laid out, along with large exhibitions of the animals, birds and sea creatures that you'll find in Africa.
There are dinosaurs and, in its centre, there's a 3-storey high whale well, with life-sized whale skeletons and whale sounds which mingle with the excited cries of kids. Be sure to get a picture at the ??? jaws.
Don't miss Virtual Earth, the interactive 3-D gaiasphere. Using a touch screen different animations can be chosen - from earth surface temperatures to atmospheric predictions. This is climate (and global warming) made colourful and easy to understand.
Stargazing in Cape Town's Planetarium
Adjoining the museum is the Planetarium. Step in and learn about the African night sky.
As the lights go off and the enormous, space machine-like projector rises in the centre of the room, the dome above turns into the galaxy, with the stars moving and glinting as they do on the clearest Karoo night. It’s incredibly beautiful. Add to that the fascinating stories of our stars... It's kinda magical, really.
The Pink Lady
Reaching the top end of Government Avenue, one finds busy Orange Street. Look across the road to see the monumental gateway into Cape Town's most well-known hotel - the Belmond Mount Nelson. Known affectionately as the Pink Lady, due to its pink hue, this gracious old hotel has played home to the rich and famous since 1899.
If you're feeling the need for a decadent high tea, complete with delicate finger sandwiches and scones with clotted cream, this is the place to do it. Booking is essential.
You can come to Cape Town on many of our affordable African trips. See our upcoming tours departing from Cape Town.