Table Mountain, township tours and the best tea in the world are just a few great reasons to visit Cape Town. Sasha Arms advises us on these and many more, as she reports from South Africa’s splendid coastal city.
“The great outdoors, of course.” Ask anyone from Cape Town to sum up life in their city and the answer is obvious. Everything revolves around being outside. Drive through some of the wealthier suburbs at the weekend and you’ll see families commandeering patches of grass for the afternoon, their braai (Afrikaans for ‘barbecue’) in full swing. Drive through the townships and the story’s the same – extended families and friends standing on the streets, chatting, laughing and enjoying the community spirit.
As a foreign visitor, the city affectionately known as the ‘Mother City’, is what you make of it. Stick to the polished parts like the V&A Waterfront and Camps Bay and you’ll put it on a par with modern, Western European cities. Head into the suburbs in areas such as Kommetjie and you’ll find Cape Town to be the ultimate surfer’s haven and hippie retreat. Hop on and off the big red tourist bus and you’ll get a better clue of a history of slavery and apartheid. Visit the townships and hear about what the New South Africa means to the residents. The great charisma of Cape Town is that it embodies every one of these facets. The ultimate city with soul inhabited by a people who know nothing better than how to embrace life.
Best of the Beaten Track
Table Mountain is to Capetonians what Prince Philip is to the Queen – ever-present, although sometimes shrouded in cloud, and a little bit outrageous at times – get stuck at the top in high winds and they’ll make you forfeit the cable car for leisurely stroll down the near-vertical mountainside. For its over-hyped status as Cape Town’s most famous landmark, tourists can’t help but flock to Table Mountain, and nor should they. A return trip on the cable car is expensive but the views from the top on a clear day are arresting. Given the mountain’s level plane (it didn’t get its name for nothing), it’s also possible to walk a fair distance along the craggy top to escape the crowds and have a little piece of the view for yourself.
Most of the sights worth seeing in Cape Town are along the route of the city’s sightseeing tour via the ‘Hop On-Hop Off’ bus. For all its barefaced touristy-redness, the bus is actually a sensible option for those on a budget or tight schedule – it stops near the major attractions, while those wanting to branch out on their own can wander off and rejoin the bus at any time.
The District Six Museum and surrounding area provides a community’s account of the shock of apartheid – something no visitor to South Africa should avoid learning about. The Iziko South African Museum, Company Gardens and Slave Lodge Museum are all good stops to widen your overview of Cape Town and there are still ‘Whites Only’ and ‘Non-Whites Only’ benches outside the nearby High Court, making apartheid a stunning reality to foreign passers-by.
The beauty of Cape Town is that is has the mountains, the ocean and everything in between. The more tranquil highlights of the city include the Mount Nelson Hotel, which serves the ‘Best tea in the World’ according to The Times, Camps Bay – the beach-side hangout for trendy Capetonians and international celebrities (Robbie Williams and Leonardo di Caprio are both known to frequent the Bay) and the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens.
De Waterkant is undoubtedly the boho-chic part of the city, village-style. With cobbled streets and a combination of aged and modern cottages, De Waterkant attracts a multifarious and liberal crowd and is also the city’s gay quarter. Boutiques and Parisian-style bars and cafés can be found on the corner of every lane and make an exquisite respite from the tourist troupe in the city centre. Imhoff Farm is another retreat outside the city, run by a genial hippy community. Visit The Dream Shop, Over the Mountains and Away or have a massage by resident pressure point specialist Antoinette. Carry on the pamper session and go back to Long Street in town for a traditional Turkish bath. For a kooky Cape Town experience, head down to the Heart of Cape Town Museum. It’s a museum dedicated to transplants. In the medical sense. Not so odd when you discover that it was at the hospital next door where the first heart transplant in the world took place in 1967.
Experience & Events
The trend of township tours has really taken off in Cape Town and is an invaluable experience to grab hold of while visiting. The tours typically take you to some of the largest black and coloured townships in Cape Town. They offer a chance to meet the locals, drink with them in a ‘shebeen’ (a tavern in a shack) and sometimes visit residents’ homes and a Witch Doctor. Township inhabitants tend to feel proud that tourists want to learn about their lives and the tours generate much-needed incomes.
It may even inspire you to volunteer at projects in the townships or at least stay the night in a township B&B – another emerging trend concocted by the ever-resourceful township residents. Vicky’s B&B in Khayelitsha is a particular favourite and the annual Khayelitsha Festival is worth a look too.
Staying in a township B&B is a profound cultural experience and enables guests to spend quality time with township families. As well as Vicky’s B&B in Khayelitsha, Ma Neo’s B&B in Langa is also highly spoken of. Few people realise that there are plenty of short-term rental apartments available in Cape Town for very reasonable prices. Most agents are more than happy to rent to tourists and many of the properties on offer are modern city pads with striking views over the city and coast. For a hedonistic, loft-style hotel stay with a restaurant/bar that doubles as a film set, the Victoria Junction Hotel is an inimitable choice.
There are several things that Cape Town does very well, one of which is exceptional quality food – South African and international – for sensible prices. 221 Waterfront serves fresh fish, sushi and the token steak and meat dishes, prepared to South African-style perfection. Greek food in South Africa can be better than in Greece itself, so head on down to The Greek Fisherman for some Mediterranean cuisine and banter. Across the way is the German Paulaner Bräuhaus– superb for a spot of sausage, sauerkraut and spätzle…washed down with a Paulaner Lager, or ten, of course.
Cape Town’s nightlife is all about embracing the laid-back vibe of the Mother City, but that’s not to say Capetonians don’t know how to party. For those who plan to stay out late, it all revolves around Long Street. There’s plenty of choice on the 3.8km stretch – Cape to Cuba is distinct for a mojito and the revolutionary aura of Che Guevara to start a night. There are plenty of ‘trendy’ bars, like Boo Radley’s, but the unrivalled nightspots and where the locals go are the less smart and formal ones. Neighbourhood bar has a bookish charm and is full of animated locals. Late bars (open as late/early as 6am) frequented by a diversity of Capetonians include Jo’burg’bar and Zula Sound Bar, where a refreshing combination of upcoming and established musicians play every night of the week. Zula has an edgier feel than others, but is by far the best bar around for mingling and grooving with the locals and the musicians themselves.
Emirates are offering some of the best deals at the moment – fly from anywhere in the world to Dubai then direct to Cape Town. South African Airways and British Airways also have direct flights, without having to stop via Johannesburg. Budget airlines for internal flights include 1Time, Mango and Kulula. Otherwise you can go all-in with a package deal.
The tourist website for Cape Town, if a little dry, is packed full with useful information from attractions, weather, trips and routes. The official government website is surprisingly good and is regularly updated and has interesting information about the state’s vision for the city. For a little fun visit the Wild Cape Town blog.
The best guide to Cape Town has to be the annually published Time Out magazine for the city, as it’s the most up-to-date resource with the latest information for the forthcoming year. The Lonely Planet is always a good one too. A background-reading must is Long Walk to Freedom – Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, as is the fictional novel Disgrace by J.M. Coetze – an articulate portrayal of the realities of the new South Africa.
Soundtrack to the City
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