History of a Cape Town Icon

Words by Belmond Editors

History of a Cape Town Icon

One of the most iconic sights in Cape Town, there’s endless history behind Mount Nelson's famed pink walls. To celebrate our 125th birthday, join us on a journey back in time – and into the future.


1743: The land upon which the hotel now stands was granted to Baron Pieter van Rheede van Oudtshoorn. Baron Pieter returned to Holland and was appointed the new governor of the Cape. He died en route back to Cape Town. His land was subdivided and sold, and his tombstone can now be seen on the outer wall of Cape Town’s Groote Kerk.

1806: The property was let to an auctioneer, Mr William Maude. On 3 August 1806 the property was advertised in The South African Gazette as ‘Mount Nelson’, taking inspiration from Cape Town’s Table Mountain and the ubiquitous Lord Nelson. Lord Horatio Nelson had visited the Cape at ages 15 and 18, and had died the previous year at the Battle of Trafalgar.

1843: Sir Hamilton Ross purchased the property, and it remained with his family for many years. The family established a beautiful garden on the grounds, complete with deer and a regal fountain. It was said to be one of the most magnificent gardens in Cape Town. The two lion statues, some ornamental plant pots and the iron boundary railing on Orange Street are all that remain of the Ross family homestead today.

Fast fact: In the 1870’s John Ross’s three eldest sons unearthed a heavy iron-bound chest. Their father thought it was a coffin and ordered them to bury it immediately. A quarter century years later, the only surviving brother tried to locate it, and had to conclude that it was under the laundry chimney (built in 1899 and now a national monument). So began the legend of Mount Nelson’s buried treasure…

1890: The Mount Nelson was purchased by shipping magnate Sir Donald Currie, owner of the Union Castle Shipping Line. His dream was to build a hotel as stylish and elegant as those in London, to cater exclusively for the Castle Line’s well-heeled First Class passengers.

Fast fact: The wooden chairs in the Garden Room and the Lord Nelson Room today were originally used as deck chairs on the Union-Castle Line ships.

1892: The Cape Town municipality assumes responsibility for The Company’s Garden–located across Orange Street—and declares the site open to the public. Founded by Dutch settlers in 1652, today they are South Africa’s oldest public gardens. Visitors today will find the gardens surrounded by important landmarks, including the Houses of Parliament, the National Gallery, the Great Synagogue and the Holocaust Museum.


1899: Mount Nelson opens on Monday, 6 March. The first hotel in South Africa to offer hot and cold running water, it received rave reviews. It was applauded for being ‘even better than its London counterparts’.

1899: The South African War began on 12 October. The British used the hotel as a headquarter from which to plan their military campaign. Lords Roberts, Kitchener and Buller were familiar figures in the corridors. A young war correspondent based at the hotel—Winston Churchill—described it as: “…a most excellent and well appointed establishment which may be thoroughly appreciated after a sea voyage”.

Fast fact: If a British soldier residing at the hotel behaved irresponsibly, he would be sent to work in the military horse stables in Stellenbosch. The word ‘stellenbosch’ found its way into the Oxford Dictionary as a verb meaning ‘to be relegated, as the result of incompetence, to a position in which little harm can be done’.

Fast fact: The grandfather clock in the lounge dates back to the early 1800s. It is said to have struck midnight and chimed so loudly that it could be heard from Cape Town’s foreshore. One day an irate guest hammered two six inch nails into the chimes and for 20 years it remained silent before a guest offered to repair it. It still chimes at midnight, but not nearly as loudly.

1918: Mount Nelson's second manager, the Italian Aldo Renato, celebrated the end of the First World War by painting the hotel pink. Pink hotels became popular throughout Europe for the next few decades, and so our pink walls remained. A definitive ‘Mount Nelson Pink’ has now been developed by paint experts, who have formulated a shade calculated to fade to a specific colour between coats.

1925: The Prince of Wales visited the hotel. The grand ‘Prince of Wales Gate’ and palm-lined driveway was built the year before in honour of this visit.

Fast fact: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stayed at the hotel at the end of 1928. A keen spiritualist, he is said to have outraged other guests and the Cape Town public by holding seances in his room.

1973: The Oasis wing was added to Mount Nelson’s main house.

1988: Mount Nelson was purchased by Orient-Express Hotels, which would become Belmond.

Fast fact: A few months before his untimely death John Lennon stayed at Mount Nelson under the pseudonym ‘Mr Greenwood’. He is said to have been exceptionally tidy, making his own bed every day, and he meditated on Table Mountain.


1989: Afternoon Tea is served on the Windsor Table in the Hotel Lounge for the first time ever on 1 November. It had previously been served from a tea trolley.

1990: A row of eight perfectly restored historic cottages on the hotel grounds were converted into the elegantly appointed Garden Cottage Suites.

1996: The hotel acquired three historic buildings adjacent to Palm Avenue along with Helmsley Hotel. All four buildings were fully restored and converted into beautiful guest accommodation. Taunton House Cottage was originally built as a guest house, Green Park was originally a hostel for nursing staff, and Hof Villa was built as a private residence for the hotel manager. Helmsley was the site of the first Jewish service in Cape Town, before becoming the first Hebrew Congregation in South Africa.

Fast fact: In 1999 the Dalai Lama addressed over 500 people in our ballroom. He enlightened his guests, who sat cross-legged on the ballroom floor, with a teaching on ‘The Four Noble Truths’.

2003: Planet Bar opened in October. Oozing urban chic and a timeless elegance, it spilled out onto the expansive outdoor terrace, overlooking the glorious gardens.

2008: Librisa Spa opened in April. An elegant destination day spa offering modern treatments in a sublime historic Victorian house, it quickly became one of the country’s leading wellness centres.

2018: The hotel launches ‘100 Years of Pink’, a year-long celebration of the hotel’s history and future to commemorate the centenary of its famous pink makeover.

2022: Mount Nelson hosts its first annual Confections x Collections, an annual coming-together of creative expression fusing five days of exclusive salon-style fashion shows, with designer-inspired confectionery.

2023: International chef and restaurateur Liam Tomlin opens The Red Room by Chefs Warehouse at Mount Nelson, a retro sophisticated celebration of Pan-Asian cuisines in the legendary underground space formerly known as The Grill Room.

2024: Mount Nelson celebrates its 125th birthday. Head Pastry Chef Vicky Gurovich and Chef Matthew pulled out all the stops, crafting a magnificent 5-tier birthday cake to honor the milestone. The entire staff gathered in jubilant celebration, marking yet another unforgettable moment in the rich tapestry of the Nellie’s history.

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