I love a thought-provoking museum that can really open your eyes to a culture, and Cape Town has some of the most underrated offerings anywhere in the world. Given the country’s troubled history, you can learn a lot about South Africa from the Robben Island Museum: the prison where Nelson Mandela was confined, or the District Six Museum, which pays tribute to a multicultural region forcibly relocated during apartheid. On the other end of the spectrum, you’ll find cultural spaces showcasing some of the country’s top athletic and artistic talents. And come 2016, the Zeitz MOCAA Pavilion plans to showcase contemporary African art in a new building designed by a world-renowned architect. From tributes to South Africa's dark history to treasuries of priceless local artwork to a celebration of the nation's favorite sport, there's a museum for every interest in the Mother City. Here are my picks for five must-visits to get a well-rounded look at South Africa, past and present.
Robben Island Museum
You can't visit Cape Town without a ferry ride to the Robben Island Museum, site of the ominous prison where Nelson Mandela spent much of his 27-year sentence. My tour through the barracks with a former inmate was one of the highlights of my first trip to the city; it's a moving experience that really helps drive home the realities transpired under apartheid. Be sure to book your tickets online, as demand has been high since Mandela's death.
District 6 Museum
This small, two-story structure on Buitenkant Street houses my personal favorite museum, best seen as a complement to Robben Island. Where Robben Island teaches visitors about the struggles of political prisoners, District 6 sheds light on the everyday lives of thousands of residents of a multicultural neighborhood who were forcibly displaced by the apartheid government in the 1960's. Pictures, newspaper clippings, oral histories, and period artifacts set up to re-create homes and businesses come together to create a deeply personal perspective on apartheid.
Springbok Experience Rugby Museum
South Africans are mad about rugby, and if all you know about the sport is what you saw in Invictus, this monument to the national team is a great introduction. Video clips, jerseys, trophies, and other memorabilia from the Springboks, as the national team are fondly known, are on display, showcasing the history of the country's beloved pastime.
South African National Gallery
African and European masters are on display in the permanent collection at South Africa's finest art venue, set amid the greenery of the lovely Company's Gardens. Particularly noteworthy is the contemporary collection, featuring works from a predominantly South African mix of artists including David Koloane, Marlene Dumas, and Nandipha Mntambo.