Sitting on the Cape Peninsula on the southern tip of the African continent, Cape Town is a vibrant tourist destination with beautiful scenery, friendly people, and loads of history. Like all cities, Cape Town is unique in its own special way. There are languages, cultures, food, scenery, fashion, and attitudes that are all unique here, all of which Capetonians are fiercely proud of.
Here are 6 crazy facts about Cape Town that may surprise you (and might surprise some Capetonians, too!).
1. The Noon Gun – One of Cape Town’s Oldest Traditions
On their first encounter with the Cape Town Central Business District, tourists may get a nasty shock when they hear a loud explosion. There’s no need to be afraid, however. It’s just the Noon Gun signaling to everybody in the City Bowl that it’s time for lunch. The gun (and its backup) are located on Signal Hill, which overlooks Cape Town and the harbor.
A handful of other cities around the world have a tradition of firing a cannon at 12 o’clock in the afternoon, but Cape Town’s version is the oldest.
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The tradition started in 1806, allegedly as a way for ships to check their marine chronometers. Considering the time delay with sound, they relied on the puff of smoke.
Over 200 years of tradition has, of course, produced a few incidents. The rammer was once accidentally left in the barrel when it fired, sending the device flying into the city, whereupon it killed a horse.
A spider interfering with the timing mechanism also caused the gun to go off one and a half hours early.
And in 2005, both the main and backup guns failed, signaling the first time since its inception that the Noon Gun failed to fire.
Since 2013, the Noon Gun has had its own Twitter account, wherein “BANG!” is tweeted at 12 o’clock every day (except Sundays and public holidays).
2. Unique Wildlife Abounds in the Mother City
From Table Mountain all the way down to Cape Point, the Cape Peninsula is filled with nature reserves and wildlife preserves. Some of the wildlife even lives outside of these areas and forays into the suburbs, giving the residents quite the surprise, depending on what animal has just wandered into their yard.
On top of Table Mountain, rock hyraxes (or dassies) make their home among the crags. It is completely normal to first think that these cute little critters are rodents, as they resemble very large hamsters, but in actual fact, they’re in a class all their own. Their closest relative on the evolutionary tree is actually the elephant!
Cape Cobras and baboons are among the most dangerous, sometimes finding their way down into the suburbs. Baboons are a tourist attraction, roaming the wilds throughout the peninsula. At Cape Point, they draw crowds, and many tourists have realized the aggressive nature of these large monkeys, although actual injuries are rare. If planning a trip to Cape Point via car, it’s advisable to close car doors and hide any food. There have been many incidents of Baboons getting in people’s cars and becoming aggressive. A surefire way to get them to leave you alone is to display a rubber snake.
At Boulders Beach are African penguins, and all around the coast are Cape fur seals and occasionally Cape clawless otters, which also make their homes inland in wetland areas. The sea also hides much other marine wildlife, including Great White sharks. These predators are famous in the Cape Town waters, as it is the only place in the world where they hunt by breaching the water’s surface with their entire bodies.
However, it is best to stick to beaches for swimming. There are shark spotters constantly on duty, and attacks are extremely rare.
Cape Town is also a perfect destination for birdwatching. Many hundreds of species can be spotted, from the Pied crow to the Malachite kingfisher, to Guinea fowl, flamingoes, and the infuriatingly noisy Hadeda/Hadada ibis. To see them all in one place, tourists can visit the World of Birds, which is the biggest bird park in Africa.
3. Cape Town has a Big Movie Industry
Many American and British movies and series are filmed in Cape Town. The city and its surroundings have a vast array of scenery that can be used to convince the viewer they’re watching something filmed in Los Angeles, Miami, Scotland, South America, and even Russia.
The Cape Town movie industry has become very big in the past two decades. Cheaper production costs and the professionalism of the local industry have attracted many filmmakers, such as Ridley Scott and Clint Eastwood, who have filmed movies there. Films such as Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), Tomb Raider (2018), and Lord of War (2005) were filmed, or partially filmed, in Cape Town, while popular series such as Outlander (season 3) (2014- ), Black Sails (2014 – 2017), Homeland (season 4) (2011 – 2020) and Raised by Wolves (2020 – 2022) were also filmed there.
4. Cape Town Hosts Many Famous Celebrities
Many actors who have traveled to Cape Town to star in movies and series have also fallen in love with the place and frequently visit, with some even owning homes there. Having attracted major films and famous actors, Cape Town has also attracted the attention of other celebrities who can sometimes be spotted in the Mother City (named so because it was the first European settlement in South Africa).
Unsurprisingly, Cape Town has a large sector dedicated to the wealthier portion of the population, with loads of Michelin-star restaurants and opulent hotels. Celebrities have their favorite spots to hang out, meaning that Cape Town offers some good opportunities for celebrity sightings.
The wealthiest part of South Africa is the Cape Town suburb of Camps Bay. The exquisite scenery at this beachfront section of Cape Town’s Western Seaboard is absolutely breathtaking, so it’s easy to see why the properties there are so expensive. Zac Efron, Leonardo DiCaprio, Orlando Bloom, and David Hasselhoff have all been spotted there.
The most famous hotel is Mount Nelson (named after Admiral Lord Nelson) which has hosted Katie Holmes, Charlize Theron, Oprah, and Sean Penn, to name a few. When Bill Clinton stayed there, the staff refused to comply with his security detail’s request that the hotel cut down their palm trees!
And not just the wealthy areas attract the rich and famous. One of the poorer suburbs, Gugulethu, was home to a famous braai (South African barbecue) spot called Mzoli’s (sadly now closed). Jamie Oliver, Ryan Reynolds, Denzel Washington, and the entire cast of Black Sails were spotted enjoying a traditional South African experience.
5. Robben Island Was a Notorious Maximum Security Prison
In the deep, dangerous waters north of Cape Town, Robben Island gained notoriety during the apartheid years as the prison in which Nelson Mandela spent 18 years. The island’s colonial history began as a refueling station for Portuguese and Dutch ships and was named for the seals that lived there. Robben is the Dutch word for seals. It wasn’t long before the Dutch realized the potential for Robben Island to be a prison. From the end of the 17th century, Cape Town’s administration started sending political prisoners to the island.
During the 19th century, Robben Island doubled as a leper colony. From 1845, lepers went there voluntarily, but in 1892, their movement became restricted as leprosy cases spiked, and more sufferers were brought to the island and put under quarantine.
The most notorious time for the island started in 1961 when it was converted into a maximum security prison for political prisoners. After the fall of apartheid, the prison became a museum, and the island became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Reaching the island is done by a ferry that departs from Cape Town three times a day. The journey takes three and a half hours, but once there, tourists can tour the prison, stand in Nelson Mandela’s former cell, and look out at the view he had for 18 years.
6. Getting to the Top of Table Mountain is Easy
Table Mountain is the iconic landmark that serves to create one of the biggest and most beautiful backdrops of any city in the world. It is one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. Hiking to the top takes a bit of fitness and a good few hours, but there is a much easier way to see the view of Cape Town from the summit.
A cable car holds up to 65 people and gives a 360-degree view of the city as it ascends and descends. It takes only a few minutes to get to the top, and once there, the views are magnificent. However, the temperature a kilometer (0.62 miles) above the city is significantly colder, and in winter, it often snows up there. Additionally, the summit is often covered in clouds known to the locals as “The Tablecloth,” which often cascade down the mountain creating a massive and spectacular “waterfall” effect.
Capetonians are fiercely proud of their mountain, and it is treated with much care and respect. The Cape Floral Region, of which Table Mountain is a part, is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the plants are unique to this part of the world. “Fynbos” makes up around 80% of the approximately 9,000 species in the Cape Floral Region and are endemic.
At night, giant spotlights are shone onto the side of the mountain, illuminating Cape Town’s most precious landmark.
For hundreds of years, Cape Town has evolved to become a vibrant city bustling with life. With a large tourism sector, Cape Town is very friendly to visitors. There is absolutely no shortage of things to see and do in the Mother City. From sandy beaches to beautiful buildings, interesting wildlife, museums, and vibrant cultures of art and cuisine, Cape Town offers a unique experience that can’t be found anywhere else in the world.