City life: Cape Town

Is there any city on Earth with as many different faces as Cape Town? It can be gritty, chic, gregarious, refined, wild, or, if you're very lucky, all of the above.

By David Whitley
Published 24 Sept 2016, 09:00 BST, Updated 7 Jul 2021, 16:15 BST
Sunrise strolls on Camps Bay promenade.

Sunrise strolls on Camps Bay promenade.

Photograph by Alyson Smith

On Tuesday morning, the skies are clear. From the top of Table Mountain, everything seems beautifully defined. The walking trails act as scars through the rock and low fynbos shrub. Paragliders flutter down from the neighbouring Lion's Head summit. Little dassies — scuttling guinea pig-like critters that are apparently the closest living relatives to elephants — munch away, oblivious to their cooing onlookers.

On Wednesday afternoon, Pinotages and Sauvignon Blancs are being greedily sampled at Groot Constantia's cellar door. The Dutch Renaissance manor house at South Africa's oldest winery (it was founded in 1685) sits handsomely amid an idyll of vines, the splendour question-marked only by the signs warning about potential marauding baboons.

On Thursday night, the City Bowl teems with people spilling out onto the streets clutching wine glasses and beer bottles. The monthly First Thursdays event sees galleries and shops open late, wine being poured in every conceivable location, and a sprawling melee taking over Church and Bree Streets. The hard part is getting to a bar to join in.

On Friday morning, women smeared in face paint to stave off the worst of the heat are cooking sheep heads over a spitting, fierce fire. They're in the middle of the shacks of the Langa township, where everything seems to be 'illegal but tolerated'. Dubious electricity wires have been hooked up to the lamp posts, and house-proud old men show how they've fashioned lamps from defunct blenders, and skylights from old wooden panels.

Then, on Saturday, surfers hit the False Bay waves towards the wild dunes of Muizenberg Beach. Near brightly coloured beach huts, the cast of sunbathers and sandcastle-makers lives up to South Africa's Rainbow Nation tag. It's a stark contrast to the better-known, well-heeled, distinctly Anglo-sheened western seaboard beaches where cocktail glasses clink and expensive sunglasses get donned.

It's difficult to pick any of these scenes as archetypal Cape Town, yet somehow they all are. There's arguably no other city in the world that can provide such a variety of wildly different faces. Culture, heritage, chic, grit, nature, food and wine, seaside fun, adventure and shamelessly touristy mooching are all perfectly valid focuses — and you could happily leave the city without touching on any of the others.

Mix and match, though, and a beautiful, energetic, frequently eye-opening city wields a compelling magic. Leaving is always an act undertaken with the nagging doubt that the surface has barely been scratched — but with an odd satisfaction that you'd be more than happy to come back next year and do exactly the same again.

What to see & do

Victoria & Alfred Waterfront: The shiny waterfront shops and restaurants development isn't all soulless chains. The views of Table Mountain — especially when the tablecloth-esque cloud creeps over — are superb; the many boat cruises that depart from here are enjoyable; the seals splashing in the water are mighty cute.

Table Mountain: Reserve this for a clear day, as the views from the top are immense in all directions, and it becomes clear just how awkwardly the city is squeezed into the mountain's gaps. A cable-car takes non-hikers to the top.

Cape Point: After the drive through the wild, baboon-strewn fynbos and national park, the end of the continent appears. A funicular shuttles visitors up to the top, while a 90-minute walk back along the clifftops leads to the Cape of Good Hope.

Boulders Beach: Just beyond Simon's Town on the way to Cape Point, this beach is home to a huge colony of friendly African penguins.

Robben Island: The tours of the former island prison that held Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners are rushed, but insights from ex-prisoners make it worthwhile. The bus tour (visiting the quarry where Mandela et al performed years of hard labour) offers most insight.

CoffeeBeans Routes: This tour company introduces visitors to local creatives. Experiences range from backyard theatre productions in the townships to a stroll around Woodstock's street art scene with one of the artists.

District Six Museum: District Six was designated as whites-only in 1966. Houses were torn down, residents were forcibly removed. This museum is full of personal recollections.

Vamos township tours: These resident-led tours shed light on both South Africa's history and township life. They feel non-exploitative too, giving the chance to meet and talk to locals at home, in an illegal pub, a ceramics workshop and Mzoli's, a legendary meat-tastic braai restaurant.


Alfred Mall: The most nondescript mall at the V&A Waterfront is arguably the most interesting too. Its inhabitants are unchainy and distinctive. Solveig does fashion with African styles and colour, Galleria Gibello sells gorgeous photography and Chameleon recycles to make art like hippos from wine corks and bottle tops or miniature VW Combis from beads.

Original T-Bag Designs: Coasters, candle holders, cards, notepads and canvas bags — all made from used teabags, by local women in the township of Imizamo Yethu as part of an anti-poverty initiative. As well as a factory shop in the township, there's also a stall at the Waterfront's Watershed mall.

The Woodstock Exchange: A former factory in up-and-coming Woodstock has been turned into a quirky shopping mall crammed with art installations. Honest Chocolate hand-makes tremendous chocs, Grandt Mason Originals sells very distinctive casual shoes and Kingdom does street art-esque handbags.

Like a local

Get crafty: Cape Town's craft beer scene has mushroomed in the past few years, which is a blessed relief given that the bog-standard Castle lager is awful. The Devil's Peak Brewing Company, Woodstock Brewery and Cape Brewing Company are among the best microbrew brands to look out for.

Trek carefully: There are hundreds of hiking trails on Table Mountain, but weather conditions can change quickly. Locals advise to always go prepared — it's properly wild, rather than being a micromanaged public park — and not to hike alone. Hike Table Mountain offers guided walks for novices a little unsure of their surroundings.

Watch the water: Whale-watching season is officially July to December, but the southern rights can often be found in Table Bay outside of this period. It's worth keeping eyes peeled while on the ferry to Robben Island — they can often be spotted breaching.

Where to eat

Cape Town's food scene is diverse, less meat-based than in the rest of the country, and exceptional value — it's rare to find mains for over 200 rand (£11.50). Bree Street in the centre, is the new-openings hotspot.

Addis In Cape: Traditional Ethiopian food and decor are found at this lovable family-run joint. There's no cutlery — the semi-spicy stews are scooped up using a piece of injera, a sourdough pancake made from teff (an Ethiopian grass).

Savoy Cabbage: A warehouse-style setting and a local slant on the ingredients give this long-standing favourite an edge over new pretenders. Grilled kingklip, sugar-cured zebra, springbok loin and brined warthog are among the unusual but exquisitely cooked fare.

Bombay Brasserie: Inside the Taj Cape Town hotel, with lavish chandeliers and peacock designs woven into the chairs, the Bombay Brasserie offers a dining experience every bit as stunning as its looks.


Publik Wine: Meat shop by day, wine bar at night, showcasing drops from smaller Cape wineries plus more unusual varietals. Bar staff really know their stuff, and the tasting flights are a great intro to the South African wine scene.

Alexander bar: A gloriously friendly, low-lit, jazz-infused cocktail haunt where old-fashioned circular dial telephones can be used to talk to bar staff or people on other tables. There's a theatre upstairs, and it hosts all manner of special events from TED-style talks to Meisner technique acting classes.

Tjing Tjing: A good-time rooftop bar, decorated with photographs of Asian street scenes, Tjing Tjing stocks an admirable selection of South African craft beers. But cocktails — lovingly made and inventively devised — are the forte, and they're prepared to throw in everything from locally made gin to pomegranate juice and jelly babies.

Where to stay

Cape Town hotels tend to be pricier than elsewhere in the country. But the low rand means bargains — especially in the tier below the clutch of lavish grand hotels.

Chartfield Guesthouse: Located on a hillside overlooking the sea and the fishing boat-stuffed harbour of Kalk Bay, the Chartfield has a small pool on its lawn, and rooms that strike a balance between simple and grimly Spartan.

Icon: The Home From Home group has several apartment options, and the Icon is a good example — well located, spacious, slick, kitted out with full kitchens, washer-dryers and free wi-fi. It's superb for families and longer-stayers, but excellent value for money for all.

Cape Grace: A handsome waterfront joint with a stellar basement whisky bar. Walls have diary entries of early explorers written on them; there's also vintage furniture and antique vases, plus hand-painted curtains and bedspreads.


Getting there & around
British Airways offers year-round direct flights from Heathrow, and Thomas Cook offers seasonal flights from Gatwick between December and March.

Taxis are plentiful and cheap, while Uber has taken off in a big way. Realistically, most visitors won't need public transport, although Cape Metrorail services are handy for reaching the False Bay beach suburbs.

More info
Lonely Planet Cape Town & the Garden Route
. RRP: £13.99.

How to do it
British Airways offers seven nights in three-star accommodation, including economy flights from Heathrow, from £907.
Virgin Holidays offers a 14-night trip, staying in a five-star V&A Waterfront hotel, from £1,754 including flights.

Published in the October 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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