Live like a local: Cape Town

There's no disputing the beauty of the Mother City, lying in the shadow of Table Mountain and fringed with rugged beaches. From Afro-chic bars and a flourishing foodie scene to laid-back shopping — she'll show you a good time

By Kerryn Fischer
Published 5 Jun 2013, 16:01 BST, Updated 30 Jun 2021, 13:54 BST

Like the perfectly proportioned models that flock here for photo shoots, Cape Town is every inch South Africa's supermodel city. More of a large village than a bustling metropolis, the Mother City, as she's affectionately called by locals, is blessed with spectacular natural beauty, good infrastructure, a working harbour and a cool urban vibe that have made it, in the minds of many, the perfect South African city.

Here, life is experienced against a pristine backdrop of mountain and sea, with instant access to nature. Whether you're wanting to soak up some sun at Clifton 4th Beach, climb Table Mountain at sunset, stroll among the 7,000 indigenous plant species at Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden, or take in an al fresco film at a roof-top cinema, it's all within a 10-mile radius of the centre.

And its rich historic fabric, unparallelled in South Africa, together with a climate that's more Milan than Mogadishu, results in a lifestyle that doesn't concern itself with being overtly 'African'.

Cape Town's other claim to fame, bar its beauty, is that it's the only South African metropolis that's managed to retain a vibrant city centre. Laid out in a series of historic squares with a wealth of Cape Dutch, Victorian and modernist architecture, it's an easy city to navigate and great for walking or cycling.

Take part in Moonlight Mass, a monthly night bike ride under the full moon. The only thing faintly religious about this event is the devotion of the cyclists who have turned an experiment on Twitter into a cult urban event, raising awareness of safety for cyclists. There's also a dedicated 10-mile cycle lane running from the city centre to Table View on the other side of the harbour, with its iconic views of Table Mountain. And while plans for a system of bike paths in the centre have yet to be rolled out, there's probably no better way to discover this attention-grabbing beauty, than from behind the handlebars.

Food glorious food

The city's talented chefs are doing it proud, using produce from the profusion of local farms and vineyards with flair. Take the Neighbourgoods Market. Housed in an old Victorian biscuit mill, this independent initiative was founded in 2006 and offers up all kinds of artisan edibles, in the process helping to resurrect the industrial neighbourhood of Woodstock.

Over the past few years an air of culinary creativity has transformed Cape Town's restaurant scene. There was a time when French cooking was considered the ultimate in fine dining, leaving steakhouses to sate the remainder of the nation's appetite for meat. South Africans still love a good steak, preferably on their beloved braai (barbecue), but you're more likely to find organic lamb, wild venison and ostrich on most restaurant menus, although French fare is still appreciated. Bizerca is an award-winning French bistro with a difference — chef Laurent Deslandes' food is robust with occasional local and Asian twists, and the service is excellent.

The city's dining landscape is truly reflective of its three and a half million residents and their changing tastes. Local chef Luke Dale-Roberts' restaurants — the Test Kitchen and Pot Luck Club & Gallery in Woodstock — are good examples, with inventive and classic combinations across their two-, three- or five-course menus, although you'll need to book your dinner date months in advance.

Lovers of seafood won't go hungry here either. First stop should be Willoughby & Co in the V&A Waterfront. Sure, it's in a shopping centre, but the relaxed cafe-style interiors belie a serious Japanese kitchen serving up excellent tempura dishes and a vast seafood menu. Another great option for lunch or dinner al fresco is the Grand Cafe & Beach. A little like Ibiza-come-to-town with its 150ft sundeck and man-made beach, it's hard to believe this was once an abandoned old warehouse.

Places mentioned
Neighbourgoods Market: The Old Biscuit Mill, 373 Albert Road, Woodstock.
Bizerca: 98 Shortmarket, Heritage Square. T: 00 27 21 423 8888.
Jason's Bakery: 185 Bree Street. T: 00 27 21 424 5644.
Sababa Kitchen & Deli: 231 Bree Street. T: 00 27 21 424 7480.
The Test Kitchen: Shop 104 A, The Old Biscuit Mill, 375 Albert Road, Woodstock. T: 00 27 21 447 2337.
The Pot Luck Club & Gallery: The Old Biscuit Mill, 375 Albert Road, Woodstock. T: 00 27 21 447 0804.
The Grand Cafe & Beach: Granger Bay Road (off Beach Rd), Granger Bay. T: 00 27 21 425 0551.
Willoughby & Co: Shop 6132, Victoria Wharf, V&A Waterfront. T: 00 27 21 418 6115. 

Party people

From sundowners on the beach to clubbing till dawn, late nights are always a temptation in Cape Town. Every year the summer season kicks off with The Mother City Queer Project in December — the highlight of the gay calendar, this themed fancy-dress party maintains a 'no costume, no entry' policy. Launched in 1994 to celebrate the new democracy, the party draws thousands of young, old, gay, straight, local and international party animals.

For those long summer evenings or if you're straight off the beach in Camps Bay, Cafe Caprice is good for a spot of people-watching with its loyal crowd of models, sports stars and the like. The Bungalow at Clifton 4th Beach is in the same league, with a beach vibe but for the older hip crowd.

If you're after something more than a drink, head to &Union in Bree Street for craft beers brewed by the Sao Gabriel Collective, served with platters of charcuterie and carpaccio.

Those who like a cocktail in civilised surrounds should visit the classy Planet Bar at the renowned Mount Nelson Hotel, which spills out into the hotel's gorgeous gardens, or the elegant Orphanage Cocktail Emporium in Bree Street.

Another great stop on an evening out is Tjing Tjing Rooftop Bar in Longmarket Street. Sitting atop a 200-year-old building, this homely, chic bar with its exposed wooden trusses and contemporary interiors is well-suited to the creative set it attracts. Beneath it lies Dear Me, an all-day brasserie with a highly recommended Thursday night a la carte menu.

The Sky Bar at the legendary Grand Daddy Hotel in adjacent Long Street shares its space with a rooftop airstream trailer park. Watch the trailers glint at sunset and lounge back on wooden decks under the protection of a Bedouin tent. It also hosts the Pink Flamingo Rooftop Cinema, which airs classics such as ET, Edward Scissorhands and True Romance.

At the top of Long Street is the Waiting Room with a roof deck for hanging out on hot summer nights and a fairy light-lined balcony with views of Long Street and Table Mountain. Don't be fooled by the laid-back vibe — some serious partying happens here, with live bands and DJs throughout the week.

The Power & The Glory in Kloof Nek Road is another must do. Besides serving good coffee and great snacks, the vintage decor and scruffy-yet-cool vibe make it a great place to wile away the afternoon. You may never leave as the adjoining Black Ram bar opens at 5pm, and is busy until the early hours of the morning.

Places mentioned
Caprice Cafe: 37 Victoria Road, Camps Bay. T: 00 27 21 438 8315.
The Bungalow: Glen Country Club, 3 Victoria Road (Old LA Med), Clifton. T: 00 27 21 438 2018.
&Union: 110 Bree Street, St Stephen's Church. T: 00 27 21 422 2770.
Planet Bar: Mount Nelson Hotel, 76 Orange Street. T: 00 27 21 483 1948.
Orphanage Cocktail Emporium: 227 Bree Street, Corner of Bree and Orphan Street. T: 00 27 21 424 2004.
Tjing Tjing: 165 Longmarket Street. T: 00 27 21 422 4920.
The Sky Bar: Grand Daddy Hotel, 38 Long Street. T: 00 27 21 424 7247.
The Waiting Room: 273 Long Street. T: 00 27 21 422 4536.
The Power and the Glory & The Black Ram: Corner of Kloof Nek Road and Burnside Road, Tamboerskloof. T: 00 27 21 422 2108.

Piles of style

Cape Town's ability to be 'all things to all people' is what makes it such a great place to live, not to mention a hub for the creative industries. The city has been named World Design Capital for 2014 and the annual Design Indaba Conference, now in its 18th year, draws top speakers from all over the world.

Bree Street is a great destination for one-of-a-kind design and interior shops, as well as showrooms for some of the country's top designers, such as Chloe Townsend, whose Missibaba handcrafted leather accessories complement the clean, organic lines of jewellery designer Kirsten Goss's collection. Next door is Iracema, full of fantastic international designer and vintage fashion. Local favourites such as Pezula Interiors and Skinny laMinx are all within walking distance.

Next up is Woodstock — one of the oldest suburbs in the city, this sprawling industrial area has undergone rapid gentrification in recent years. Besides the Neighbourgoods Market, two must-sees are The Woodstock Foundry with creative studios such as, Southern Guild and Casamento, and The Woodstock Exchange, a new addition in a mixed-use building, home to artist studios, design shops and restaurants.

De Waterkant, meanwhile, is the gay quarter of the city, known for its great shops and European-style houses lining the original cobbled streets. If you're looking for unusual African artefacts, Africa Nova is edgy and stylish. For the best coffee in town, head to Loading Bay, with its delicious Lebanese-inspired menu and a selection of designer clothing. Another must for fashion lovers is Edwin in the Cape Quarter complex, which also offers Nap Living's interior decor and Pax for clever storage solutions.

Places mentioned
Design Indaba
Kirsten Goss + Missibaba: 229 Bree Street. T: 00 27 21 424 8127.
Iracema Boutique: 217 Bree Street. T: 00 27 71 405 0583.
Pezula Interiors: 17 Buiten Street. T: 00 27 21 424 2661.
Skinny laMinx: 201 Bree Street. T: 00 27 21 424 6290. Woodstock Foundry, 160 Albert Road, Woodstock. T: 00 27 21 447 6392.
Southern Guild: Woodstock Foundry, 160 Albert Road. T: 00 27 44 877 0719.
Casamento: Studio 17, Woodstock Foundry, 160 Albert Road, Woodstock. T: 00 27 21 448 6183.
The Woodstock Exchange: 66 Albert Road, Woodstock. T: 00 27 21 486 5999.
Africa Nova: Cape Quarter, 72 Waterkant Street, De Waterkant. T: 00 27 21 425 5123.
Loading Bay: 30 Hudson Street, De Waterkant. T: 00 27 21 425 6321.
Edwin Jeans: Cape Quarter. T: 00 27 21 418 1948.
Nap Living: Shop 001, Cape Quarter, De Waterkant. T: 00 27 21 421 6482.
Pax 3D: 16 Hudson Street, Cape Quarter. T: 00 27 21 418 3060. 

Top 10 local tips

01 Summer in Cape Town means the southeasterly Cape Doctor winds. Those in the know head to Queens Beach and Clifton Beach.

02 Walk up Table Mountain via Platteklip Gorge. Although steep, it's the simplest route and will have you there in an hour or so. Enjoy a sundowner and then descend by cable car.

03 Mountain bike in the Tokai Forest on a Saturday morning and afterwards munch the delicious food on offer at the quaint outdoor market.

04 Go wine tasting in the Stellenbosch winelands just 40 minutes from Cape Town. 

05 Spend the day at Llandudno Beach, one of the most private and peaceful coves on the Atlantic Seaboard.

06 Drive to Cape Point via Simonstown, stopping for lunch at Harbour House in Kalk Bay and then for afternoon tea at the deli in Noordhoek Farm Village. Take Chapman's Peak Drive back; there is a small fee, but it's worth it.

07 Visit Mabu Vinyl, the Cape Town record store featured in the cult documentary about US musician Sixto Rodriguez, Searching for Sugar Man.

08 Stay in a tented camp at the Clara Anna Fontein private game reserve just 20 minutes from the city centre. 

09 Enjoy delicious picnic-style cuisine at The Roundhouse's Rumbullion lawn and terraces during the summer months. The former hunting lodge of Lord Charles Somerset has incredible views and is child-friendly.

10 Take in an al fresco summer concert at Kirstenbosch Gardens.

More info

Published in the March 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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