Less than a century ago, the sea lapped up to the bluestone-walls of the Castle of Good Hope. South Africa’s oldest surviving colonial building is the headquarters for the Western Cape military command, as well as the location of a couple of interesting museums and a spectacular backdrop for events including festivals, plays and concerts.

The History

Designed to protect the logistical and financial interest of the VOC (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie; Dutch East India Company) the fortress was constructed between 1666 and 1679, and replaced the original 1652 clay and timber structure commissioned by VOC Commander Jan van Riebeeck just two days after setting foot on the shores of Table Bay.

Governor Simon van der Stel moved into the castle in 1680; it was under his instructions that the main gate was moved from the sea-side of the fortress to between Leerdam and Buuren bastions, where it remains today. In 1795, when the Dutch lost the Battle of Muizenburg to the British, the castle was taken over without a single shot being fired there. The flag of the Batavian Republic fluttered from the ramparts between 1803 and 1806 when the British once more returned to power.

Never lovers of the Dutch fortress, Cape Town's British rulers tried several times to have the castle demolished, to no avail. In 1922 the old South African flag was raised over the castle, to be replaced in 1994 by flag of the new South African democracy. There are military units still stationed here.

The Layout

Shaped as a pentagon, the castle has defensive bastions jutting out from its five corners, each of which is named after the official titles of the Prince of Orange (from left to right from the entrance: Buuren, Catzenellenbogen, Nassau, Oranje and Leerdam). Climb up to and around these to take in the fort’s layout, and for the panoramic view across the Grand Parade and towards Table Mountain.

Across the fort’s centre and around its walls are various buildings, some of which continue to be used by the military. You can peep into the torture chamber, the 18th-century bakery (Het Bakhuys), a replica of the forge, and the Dolphin Pool, so called because of the ornate dolphin fountain at its centre.

The Museums

The interesting Castle Military Museum occupies the castle’s original bayside entrance. Inside you can see examples and vivid paintings of different military uniforms down the centuries, as well as a very good exhibition on the Anglo-Boer War, and a shop selling military memorabilia.

A large chunk of the William Fehr Collection of oil paintings, furniture, ceramics, metal and glassware is displayed in the former Governor's Quarters. Temporary exhibitions with more contemporary themes are also held here. The businessman William Fehr started his collection in the 1920s with South African–related paintings, later adding furniture and other art objects; much of it has been on display at the castle since the 1950s, with works on paper mainly being shown in Rust en Vreugd.

Fronting the former Governor's Quarters is a beautifully restored 18th-century balcony with a pediment bas-relief created by the German sculptor, Anton Anreith.

Next door is the Secunde’s House, formerly the home of the Cape’s vice governor. There’s no original furniture here, but the rooms are designed to reflect what they would have looked like during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Restoration has revealed some the house’s original wall paintings.