A neighbourhood guide to Cape Town

The South African city’s dramatic location is well known, but its ongoing transformation into a modern, 21st-century city is just as remarkable as the scenery.

By Zane Henry
Published 3 May 2019, 10:32 BST
Rands, Khayelitsha
Rands, an outdoor nightclub in Khayelitsha, Cape Town’s largest township. Khayelitsha's a young place, with more than 40% of inhabitants under 19.
Photograph by Teagan Cunniffe

The white sand beaches, verdant botanical gardens and inimitable outline of Table Mountain — Cape Town is rightly famous for its iconic setting. And recently, whole blocks in the centre have mushroomed into mini-villages of galleries, cafes and community spaces. You can find formerly rough districts courting travellers with distinct cultural experiences, design-forward neighbourhoods being brought to life and sections being rejuvenated by homegrown restaurateurs, artists and architects. But Cape Town is more than a theme park for visitors. Rippling just behind the shiny new developments is a rich and complex history that shapes the city’s character.

East City Precinct
Buitenkant and Harrington Streets, two parallel roads on the outskirts of East City Precinct (formerly known as District 6), are lined with coffee shops, design studios and tattoo parlours, and are on the vanguard of the area’s regeneration. They’re also home to three of the city’s best foodie experiences.

A fixture on Cape Town bucket lists, Truth Coffee is located in a former furniture factory on Buitenkant Street. This coffee shop is a spectacle in itself, doubling as a temple to steampunk, crammed with ostentatious gear-and-cog flourishes.

“The whole area is popping off,” James, a waiter here, says. “In the past year or so loads of new places have opened. You can walk around here at night quite safely and there’s just a great vibe in the air.”

Across the street, Swan Cafe is a newer addition to the neighbourhood. It’s a gleaming incarnation of a Parisian creperie, serving featherlight galettes (traditional French flat cakes) and beetroot lattes in an interior designer’s dream — tungsten bulbs hang from the ceiling in burnished copper bird cages and the counter is scalloped with tiles in many shades of blue.

We eat dinner at Belly of the Beast, a new restaurant owned and run by chefs Neil Swart and Anouchka Horn. Every day, they create fresh menus of stripped-down haute cuisine, with an emphasis on sustainable, seasonal local ingredients. No more than 20 people are served in this minimalist space with black walls, brown wood and raw brick.

This kind of elevated gastronomy is light years away from what would have been served in District Six homes, like my grandparents’, a few decades ago. This multicultural slum fell foul of the government’s Group Areas Act in the 1970s; houses were bulldozed and the area was decreed suitable for white people only.

District Six Museum is the place to learn more of this, housed in a former Methodist church across the street from Truth Coffee. The guide, Abubaker Brown, is standing in the vestibule surrounded by sunburnt tourists, having already started his tour. The museum features old street signs, government declarations and actual rubble from the demolitions. The floor is covered in an illustrated map of the district with handwritten notes from former inhabitants indicating where their homes used to be. There’s even a recreation of what a home of that time would have looked like, down to a poignant pile of kids’ toys in the corner.

It’s a stirring, powerful experience that underlines the chequered history of the area.

Buitenkant Street, on the outskirts of East City Precinct, is home to Truth Coffee, a fixture on Cape Town bucket lists. Located in a former furniture factory, this coffee shop doubles as a temple to steampunk, crammed with ostentatious gear-and-cog flourishes.
Photograph by Teagan Cunniffe

Rashied Staggie, the former leader of one of the largest gangs in Cape Town, now lives in cosy retirement on Woodstock’s Gympie Street. Once the most dangerous street in Cape Town — almost entirely owned by gangs — it was a no-go zone. Now both Staggie and Woodstock live in the shadow of towering construction developments.

This former textile neighbourhood has become the focus of intensive regeneration and urban development. Kids are kicking footballs against construction site barriers, and old people are screwing up their faces at the noise from angle grinders.

The epicentre of Woodstock’s gentrification is the Old Biscuit Mill, a regenerated urban village of markets, office space, boutique shops and restaurants. Every weekend, Neighbourgoods Market is filled with people who have no business being so good-looking on a Saturday morning. This food market is one of the best in the country — the aromas of Ethiopian injera, Spanish paella, Philly-style chilli cheese steaks all duelling for supremacy in the air.

The real jewel in the Old Biscuit Mill’s crown is the Test Kitchen. Chef Luke-Dale Roberts’ boundary-pushing restaurant has been featured in many international best-of lists. Making your way through the tasting menu is a proper experience — around four hours of being dazzled by dish after dish.

A little walk down the street takes me to Hope on Hopkins, a gin distillery, where Woodstock runs into neighbouring suburb, Salt River. It’s a beautiful, airy space with a tasting room on a mezzanine overlooking the distillery floor. Salt River isn’t nearly as gentrified as Woodstock, but owner Lucy Beard believes it’s likely to happen soon.

“My husband and I were living in London and decided to seek our fortune back home,” she says. “We were looking for a good home for our distillery and we fell in love with this area. It’s close enough to the buzz of the Old Biscuit Mill, while still retaining some community feel. It’s a great place.”

Old Biscuit Mill, a regenerated urban village of markets, office space, boutique shops and restaurants. The area is at the epicentre of the gentrification of Woodstock, a former textile neighbourhood.
Photograph by Teagan Cunniffe

Cape Town’s largest township, Khayelitsha, came into being in 1985. It’s hard to say for certain how big it actually is, as much of it is still informal housing and the population can’t be accurately counted in an official census. It’s a young place —more than 40% of inhabitants are under 19 — with 99% of its population black.

It’s also not a place many travellers used to visit. I’d never been here before, despite living about 20 minutes away during my childhood in post-apartheid South Africa. But this is starting to change. There’s a powerful entrepreneurial spirit among Khayelitsha’s people, manifesting itself in unique and exciting attractions that are drawing in local and international visitors.

One of the best ways to feel the township’s pulse is on a bicycle tour with ABCD Concepts. I meet Ayanda and Buntu at Lookout Hill, from the top of which you can see the distant outline of Table Mountain and the township swaggering into Friday evening below us. We set off, cycling through the haze of shisa nyama (barbecue) joints and kwaito music blasting from the boots of cars, as people shake off the week and get ready to party.

We stop off at Siki’s Koffee Kafe, lauded as the first ‘proper’ coffee shop in Khayelitsha, run out of owner Sikelela Dibela’s driveway. He spent time honing his craft in London, before returning home with a mission. “I want to educate people about coffee,” he says. “I make my own blend — accessible, but still complex — made for the local palate.”

He hosts more entrepreneurs in rooms towards the back of the property, including some dazzling homespun East African fashion. Another room is the headquarters of Ghetto Sessions, a regular series of poetry/live music events held at Siki’s.

Suitably buzzed, we cycle right up to the door of 4Roomed eKasi Culture, Khayelitsha’s first fine-dining establishment. It’s the domain of chef-owner Abigail Mbalo, a runner-up in MasterChef South Africa. On leaving the show (after an unfortunate incident with burned sugar), she decided that, rather than continuing her food dream in the city centre, she wanted to sow her seeds at home. The concept stems from traditional township houses, which comprised four rooms: a kitchen, living room and two bedrooms. Abigail serves contemporary interpretations of township classics, such as mleqwa chicken slow-cooked in fennel, while also showcasing local lifestyle ideas and art and design.

We head to Rands, an outdoor nightclub where Khayelitsha gathers on a Friday night. The air is soft and warm, and hundreds of people are dancing and drinking, weaving in and out of the braai smoke.

We’re drunk and happy. The only thing that’s remotely sad is that I missed out on this place when I lived in Cape Town. 

4Roomed eKasi Culture, Khayelitsha’s first fine-dining establishment and the domain of chef-owner Abigail Mbalo, a runner-up in MasterChef South Africa.
Photograph by Teagan Cunniffe

When in Cape Town

Contemporary African Art
The Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa is a former grain silo that’s been converted into a nine-floor collection of galleries showcasing art from Africa and the diaspora.

Cape Town is home to a number of artisanal distilleries such as Hope on Hopkins and Woodstock Gin Company. A large number of gin bars have sprung up, too, including the ‘secret’ Gin Bar in Wale Street, behind a chocolate shop.

The unofficial flagship dish of Cape Town, the Gatsby is a foot-long sandwich of chips, salad, sauces and spiced meat. Try one at the Golden Dish in Rylands, though Lekker Vegan in Harrington Street does a great vegan version.

Opening up the city
Open Streets is an initiative that promotes safe streets across the city through organised walks, debates and kid’s events. On the first Thursday of each month, galleries, shops, studios and bars open until late.

Spinach king
No longer the purview of overpriced shops in the city centre, healthy food is becoming popular across Cape Town. Founded by Lufefe Nomjana, Spinach King serves up delicious spinach-based food and drinks.

How to do it

South African Airways operates flights from Heathrow to Johannesburg and connections to Cape Town.
Kensington Place boutique hotel offers standard double rooms from £185, B&B.
The Silo Hotel offers double rooms from £740, B&B.

Published in the June 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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