The self-proclaimed sweetheart of South Africa, Cape Town is alluring from the moment of arrival.
Found at the southwestern tip of Africa where the warm Indian Ocean meets its chillier Atlantic counterpart, Cape Town, fondly known as the ‘Mother City’, is where a 17th-century pentagonal fort, a cluster of City Bowl skyscrapers, trendy restaurants, organic markets, a 350-year-old garden, and endlessly beautiful beaches are equally appreciated by the laid-back locals.
With international flair and world-class service, the city has retained its undeniably African character and charm, as much through its people and merging of cultures, as its diverse attractions. Topping them is the instantly recognisable Table Mountain, adjacent is Lion’s Head, an easy climb and very popular with Capetonians. While the V&A Waterfront and its glitzy Silo District anchor the Table Bay shoreline, the beaches of Camps Bay, Hout Bay, and Bloubergstrand draw the avid sunseeker.
It is no wonder that Cape Town is regularly voted one of the most beautiful cities in the world.
The City Primary Landmarks
A city with world-famous attractions, heritage sites and architectural wonders to be discovered – many on foot, visit the historic Grand Parade, Castle of Good Hope and magnificent City Hall, carved from limestone sourced on Robben Island. Seek out the vintage edifices, domineering statues and once ominous Church Square, the original Slave Lodge and the esteemed parliamentary buildings. Spend time in the Company Gardens where the first European settlers to the Cape planted food to trade with passing ships.
Possibly the most photogenic of all is Bo-Kaap, the original Muslim settlement of Cape Town and an area famed for its quaint, colourful houses and cobbled streets. Here Atlas Trading spice store has been trading since 1946, the Museum offers an essential background and private and intimate Cape Malay cooking classes can be arranged.
At the most south-westerly tip of Africa is the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve, covered in endemic fynbos and home to uninhabited bays, rolling green hills and valleys. At the tip of Cape Peninsula and 60 km southwest of Cape Town, the reserve falls within the Table Mountain National Park, a declared Natural World Heritage Site. Encompassing 7750 hectares of varied flora and fauna – unique to the Cape, it abounds with antelope, baboons and Cape Mountain Zebra as well as over 250 species of birds. Climb to the original lighthouse, and pause at the point for a photo op.
The African penguin colony at Boulders Beach in Simonstown started in 1983 when the first pair was spotted on Foxy Beach. At the time, False Bay was closed to commercial fishing and the newcomers enjoyed abundant food and unlimited breeding sites, with their population soaring. Today the species as a whole faces many threats and is listed as endangered, yet at Boulders, they are protected and continue to delight.
In the bay is Robben Island where Nelson Mandela spent 19 years of his incarceration. A unique symbol of ‘the triumph of the human spirit over adversity, suffering and injustice’, the island has a 500 years old multi-layered history and is visited every year by thousands of people eager to understand South Africa’s evolution that the Island represents. A tour includes a visit to the graveyard established when the island was a leprosy colony, the Lime Quarry where Mandela toiled, Robert Sobukwe’s house and the warden’s village. The tour culminates at the now-defunct Maximum-Security Prison where thousands of South Africa’s freedom fighters were incarcerated for years.
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden lives up to its reputation as the most beautiful garden in Africa. Enhanced by the sheer grandeur of the setting against the eastern slopes of Table Mountain, the garden displays a wide variety of Cape Flora, also known as fynbos, including sugarbushes, pincushions and heaths. Plants from all the diverse regions and biomes of southern Africa are grown at Kirstenbosch, including a near-complete collection of cycads. With over 7 000 species in cultivation at Kirstenbosch, it is a plant lover’s paradise.
Each year the Cape water’s fill with Southern Right Whales who arrive from Antarctica to breed and calf in the warmer waters. Dolphins and sunfish are regularly spotted while sailing or kayaking offshore, and playful seals make their presence known, especially at the V&A Waterfront and at the quaint Kalk Bay Harbour.
To feel like a real local, walk or run the Sea Point Promenade. Bicycles can be rented next to the Sea Point Pools and dropped at the V&A Waterfront, which makes for a wonderful way to spend a morning.
Iconic Table Mountain, One of the New Seven Wonders of Nature
Table Mountain looms above the city of Cape Town. Edged by impressive cliffs and flanked by Devil’s Peak to the east and Lion’s Head and Signal Hill to the west, together form the natural amphitheatre of the City Bowl and Table Bay harbour. A significant tourist attraction, the mountain’s main feature is its three-kilometre wide level plateau.
Hoerikwaggo in Khoikhoi and Tafelberg in Afrikaans, the flat-topped mountain is a prominent landmark overlooking Cape Town and forms part of the greater Table Mountain National Park. The highest point on Table Mountain is towards the eastern end of the plateau and is marked by Maclear’s Beacon, a stone cairn erected in 1865 by Sir Thomas Maclear for trigonometrical survey. It is 1,086 meters above sea level, about 19 meters higher than the cable station at the western end of the plateau.
The flat top of the mountain is often covered by clouds, formed when a south-easterly wind is directed up the mountain’s slopes into colder air, where the moisture condenses to form the so-called ‘table cloth’ of cloud. Legend attributes this to a smoking contest between the Devil and a local pirate called Van Hunks, who spar over their pipes on the mountainside.
There are countless rewarding hiking trails carved into the mountain by avid enthusiasts, although don’t be misled, it’s a challenging climb and a professional guide is recommended to show you the way. You always have the option of climbing one way, and taking the cable car the other, if an up and down hike is too challenging for you.
Whether opting to hike or take the cable car, a summit rewards with a bird’s eye view of the concentrated city below, the busy port, and up towards the West Coast. Enjoy a coffee or bite to eat at the trendy Table Mountain Café – and be sure to keep an eye out for the dassies, or rock hyrax, who call the mountain home.
Art and Culture In The City
Cape Town is dotted with private art galleries, niche museums and intimate theatres. The Iziko National Gallery in the Company Gardens, Theatre on the Bay in Camps Bay, Artscape Theatre and the Baxter Theatre all noteworthy. During the Summer months, a series of Sunday Sunset Concerts are hosted outdoors in the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. In regenerated Woodstock, the Goodman Gallery, Stevenson Contemporary Art Gallery and Blank Gallery represent artists from across the country. The District Six Museum, Jewish Museum and the Iziko South African Museum warrant a visit too.
At the Silo District of the V&A Waterfront, is the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, a mecca for the art enthusiast. The largest art museum in Africa, Zeitz showcases, researches and collects the works of Africa and its diaspora. The public not-for-profit museum was commissioned through a public/private partnership between the V&A Waterfront and German businessman, Jochen Zeitz, who has loaned his extensive art collection for his lifetime. The building was constructed from the conversion of the 57m tall historic Grain Silo, originally built in 1921 and decommissioned in 2001.
The Norval Foundation is a centre for art and cultural expression dedicated to the research and exhibition of 20th- and 21st-century visual art from South Africa and beyond. Located in the Steenberg area, it combines the experience of art with an appreciation for nature. The innovative Sculpture Garden, outdoor amphitheatre, exhibition spaces and research library offer a multisensory experience. These are matched by the Skotnes Restaurant and bespoke museum shop.
Cape Town’s Culinary Scene
The Cape’s impressive culinary scene’s strong international influence sees delicate Cape Malay infusions, traditional African fare and rich delights sourced from the surrounding farmlands merged. Add to that the rise of artisanal producers who carefully craft their passion into the finest charcuterie, handmade chocolates, and freshly baked bread, as well as the philosophy of most chefs to have a real relationship with their suppliers, and you will understand why Cape Town has become a mecca for food lovers.
Among the restaurants to receive local and international accolades is The Test Kitchen by Luke-Dale Roberts at the Biscuit Mill, one of South Africa’s top restaurants and listed as one of the 50 Best Restaurants in the World. Other favourites include the Pot Luck Club, Foxcroft, La Colombe, Salsify, Beau Constantia and The Greenhouse.
In the City Bowl, Bree Street has established a reputation as the most happening street in Cape Town with many trendy bars and restaurants along this stretch. Among them, Chef’s Warehouse and Grub & Vine. Similarly, Kloof Street is lined with bars and cafés, here Jansen’s, Black Sheep, Kloof Street House and La Paradiso are ever-popular, and for good reason.
Capetonians are known for their healthy lifestyle and environmental awareness, it is, therefore, no surprise that vibrant organic markets dominate the weekends. The Old Biscuit Mill roars to life each Saturday morning as locals and tourists jostle for a seat among the oyster shuckers, purveyors of fine foods and craft brewers showcasing their wares.
Held every weekend in historic Granger Bay is the Oranjezicht City Farm Market, a community-style market for independent farmers and artisanal food. As much about community building and celebrating the culture of Cape Town as it is about the fresh produce, you’ll find shared tables with views towards the ocean, and an array of delicious food – prepared and fresh, on offer. Maker’s Landing at the Cape Town Cruise Terminal complements these offerings.
The nearby Cape Winelands serve as a natural choice for anybody who appreciates the finer things in life. Take a helicopter to lunch, or better still be chauffeur driven in a classic 1950s Jaguar – or another Classic Car. Around Franschhoek and Stellenbosch, Babylonstoren, Boschendal, Leeu Estate and Delaire Graaff are among the finest estates.
Where to Stay
Cape Town’s location at the tip of Africa has allowed the city to draw inspiration from the continent, as well as further abroad, as it refined a well-established set of accommodation options that focus primarily on the finer things in life. Sophistication and service are key, with natural vistas almost a given. They range from historic five-star hotels to stunning architectural marvels, with exclusive private villas increasingly popular.
Set in the Silo Precinct at the V&A Waterfront, the Silo Hotel occupies the top portion of the Zeitz MOCAA Museum. Built in the top half of the historic grain silo, the hotel’s multi-faceted glass windows glisten by day, at night transforming to reflect the colours of the Table Bay harbour. With 28 rooms, including a spectacular one-bedroom penthouse, the Silo stands out for its industrial rawness, creative genius and chic décor. The Willaston Bar is ideal for sundowners with meals served in The Granary Restaurant, but the rooftop is where you’ll start, ideally with their Rose Ginvino signature cocktail.
An icon of Cape Town and painted pink since 1918, the Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel or ‘Pink Lady’ dates back to 1899. Approached by way of a wide, palm-lined driveway that leads past lush lawns to the entrance, the hotel is a tranquil oasis in the bustling city centre. Each of the accommodation wings has its unique character and guests can dine at the Planet Restaurant or enjoy lunch at the interactive Chef’s Table or stylish Oasis Bistro. Rich in tradition, the hotel is famous for afternoon tea on the terrace, among many other things.
Ellerman House in Bantry Bay is a small, privately owned hotel with spectacular Atlantic Ocean views. Originally a private home, the historic Cape Edwardian-style mansion features shaded verandas and terraced indigenous gardens. There are 13 individually decorated suites and two ultra-modern villas. A highlight of Ellerman House is the owner’s extensive South African art collection, the knowledgeable Sommelier, and the setting.
Should a more exclusive option be your preference as a discerning traveller, In Residence has the best collection of luxury villas in the city, supported by premier in-house concierge services, private chefs, housekeeping and more. Clifton’s Nettleton Road, which hugs the hillside along the Atlantic Seaboard, houses their premium offerings.
Other options include the Cape Grace and One&Only Hotels at the V&A Waterfront, the 12 Apostles Hotel and Spa near Llandudno and the perfectly located Atlantic Tintswalo, which overlooks Hout Bay and is the closest you’ll get to the water’s edge. In the leafy Southern Suburbs, the Cellars-Hohenhort and Steenberg Hotel and Spa are frontrunners for their tasteful designed suites, expansive landscaped grounds and fabulous restaurants.
Getting there and working your way around
The award-winning Cape Town International Airport is well served by numerous international airlines, as well as seamlessly connected to countless domestic and regional routes. The city serves well as a stand-alone destination, yet perfectly complements a safari, countrywide road trip or visit to Victoria Falls.
Cape Town is an easy city to self-navigate given the anchoring presence of Table Mountain and the shoreline that skirts it. Self-drive enables exploration, especially into the immediate surroundings, while Uber, metered taxis and private transfers are available for city hops. Helicopter transfers, chauffeur-driven classic cars and yacht rentals are popular. Do bear in mind that there is no public transport system to be relied on.
Read about my visit to Tintswalo at Boulders on Cape Town’s False Bay.
Read my post about the Cape of Good Hope. Cape Town.