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City life: Cape Town

The South African urban sprawl is full of character; from its majestic Table Mountain and epic coast to its alternative arts scene and mouthwatering cuisine, the Mother City never disappoints

City life: Cape Town
Clifton Beach. Image: Slawek Kozdras

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The magical African light is beginning to fade. Above the Atlantic swells, jagged rocks and thick belts of white sand, Chapman’s Peak Drive looms — one of the word’s most breathtaking, cliff-hugging ocean drives. And this evening, like thousands that’ve gone before it, it’s privy to a spot of sun worshipping. The winding curves of this five-mile road are dotted with pilgrims: drivers, cyclists, walkers and picnickers who’ve stopped to stare and draw out the dipping of the sun with an ice-cold beer.

This view takes some beating, but then, so does the Mother City. Since marrying a Capetonian several years ago, my British passport has repeatedly boomeranged from Blighty to Cape Town and back again. These have been a mix of short and luxuriously long trips filled with braais (South African speak for a barbecue), cocktails and lazy days on the hipster-filled beach of Camps Bay — the type of stay marked with the milk-white imprint of a flip-flop on tanned feet and a local’s regard for surf reports (if it’s windy, stay at home).

The Cape’s southeasterly wind, or ‘Cape Doctor’, which blows in cleansing bouts between August and April, forces you to abandon the beach and instead cafe-hop, rummage for antiques or hike the shaded, forested trails around Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden and Signal Hill. Like many of the awesome mounds of earth that surround the city bowl, the Cape mountains are smothered in fynbos — indigenous vegetation spiked with a rainbow of blooms that famously withstands South Africa’s soaring temperatures and limited shade.

Cape Town’s tenure as World Design Capital in 2014 may have passed but its legacy is a vibrant mosaic of arts, architecture, craft and design that weaves its way through the city’s sprawling yet ever-developing townships and out across the bohemian settlements of painters and artists that fringe the coast. Tack this onto a melting pot of golden beaches, boutique hotels and a burgeoning food scene, and you’ve really got it all.

What to see & do

Even if you shy away from the tourist checklist, don’t miss out on Table Mountain. You can ascend the 500-million-year-old monolith by the popular Table Mountain Aerial Cableway — each of the cable-car’s two pods gently rotates 360 degrees to reveal eagle-eye views of the Cape below. If you’re feeling a little more energetic, don your walking boots. Hike Table Mountain are a seasoned bunch of guides who offer half- or full-day treks to suit fitness levels and interests. Intrepid nomads will love the ruggedly challenging, ravine-strewn — and rarely walked — Hiddingh-Ascension route.

At the southern tip of the Table Mountain National Park sits Cape Point, a nature reserve that’s home to an abundance of flora and fauna. It marks the meeting point of two oceans — the Atlantic and the warmer Indian, the latter much loved by the fair-weather surfing fraternity. Keep your eyes peeled for mythical ghost ship The Flying Dutchman while snapping the many real-life shipwrecks that form a posing ledge for basking seals and sea birds. On your way to Cape Point, stop off at Boulders Beach. It’s home to a colony of around 2,000 endangered African penguins, which waddle around the many inlets, coves and sandy bays they share with sandwich-munching crowds.

From the V&A Waterfront — an enclave of shiny designer shops and restaurants — take a ferry over to Robben Island. Over hundreds of years the Island has variously served as a prison, mental hospital, military base and leper colony, yet it’s most famous for iconic former prisoner, Nelson Mandela. Visitors can inspect the cell he called home for 18 years on a tour led by some of the island’s erstwhile political prisoners. Over 20 years since the end of apartheid, the island is a sobering reminder of the country’s fragile, chequered history.

Kirstenbosch Summer Sunset Concerts, Cape Town. Image: Slawek Kozdras

Kirstenbosch Summer Sunset Concerts, Cape Town. Image: Slawek Kozdras


Introduce your inner culture vulture to a bit of night-owl action by heading to First Thursdays Capetown. Once a month (yes, you guessed it, on the first Thursday night), Cape Town’s close-knit hub of museums and galleries throw their doors open wide for after-hours art appreciation. It’s a great chance to share the pavements with art-loving revellers. Make sure you carve out time for drinks on either Bree, Long or Kloof Streets, which are lined with some of the city’s coolest watering holes.

Throughout the year, Cape Town plays host to a raft of world-class music and arts events, including the Cape Town International Jazz Festival and Kirstenbosch Summer Sunset Concerts, which are held in the lush surrounds of Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden. Concerts — ranging from folk singers to DJs and candlelit carols — are rotated with weekly film nights at the Galileo Open Air Cinema. It’s game on for blankets, popcorn, boozy picnics and an al fresco take on classic cult movies.

Elsewhere, in the shaded wood of Newlands, Montebello Design Centre showcases the creations of an eclectic range of designers and artists; from Cowgirlblues’ handmade knitwear from Karoo farms to woodwork, jewellery and art. Lesley Charnock, who specialises in evocative oil paintings of South African scenes, joined Montebello 10 years ago, working from one of the converted farm buildings. “I was attracted to the diversity of the artists,” she explains. “I loved the fact we were from different backgrounds and cultures but we joined together in sharing ideas and encouraging one another.”

Preparing a ‘love sandwich’, The Kitchen, Cape Town. Image: Slawek Kozdras

Preparing a ‘love sandwich’, The Kitchen, Cape Town. Image: Slawek Kozdras

Where to eat

The Kitchen, located in the industrial hubbub of urban Woodstock, is a feast for the senses. I join the buzzy queue of hungry city workers who place their orders from a line-up of global dishes, ranging from Vietnamese slaw to lamb koftes, satay lentils and homemade dips. Then there’s the legendary house special, the ‘love sandwich’. Piled high with delicious zingy salads, marinated meats and a squirt of ‘love potion’, this is no ordinary sarnie, rather an “utterly bespoke experience to fit the need of the sandwichee,” as owner Karen Dudley puts it. In 2009, she welcomed in none other than US First Lady Michelle Obama for lunch. “The food and what we do is a celebration of the riches of Cape Town,” she adds. “The different flavours, cultures and people — we’re all these things together.”

The Kitchen is one of a few establishments to link up with SecretEATS, an underground supper club that’s becoming not-so-secret, thanks to its daring menus, stellar line-up of top chefs and pop-up locations to die for. From private seaside homes to secret warehouses, it’s the antithesis to the tourist food trail. Hook up and dine with food-loving locals — the dishes are strictly under wraps but you’re not going to be disappointed.

For an edgy spin on suppertime, The Dog’s Bollocks, in the Gardens district, is the burger joint on everyone’s lips. Located in a former garage it boasts the kind of chalked-up slogans that ooze street food cool and according to local legend, the tanned clan of waiters flip only 50 burgers a night — some of the best in the Cape. The sweet, brioche-like rolls — which arrive loaded with salad, a mouthwatering beef patty and sauces such as pepperberry blue (blue cheese and sweet peppers) — are so humongous you won’t want put the burger down between bites for fear of never being able to pick it up again. Prepare to leave one saucy mess.

The vibrant, sea-fronted village of Kalk Bay is crammed with top-notch eateries. The informal and effortlessly cool Olympia Café & Deli is an institution in these parts and the best place to fill up after a surf in Muizenberg down the road. The on-site bakery churns out freshly made croissants, fit to burst with feta and spinach, or bacon and mozzarella, along with a daily-changing menu of oysters, tuna and other fish caught in the local bay. Oh, and it brews up some of the best flat whites in the Cape.

Over the road is Harbour House Restaurant, all gleaming glass and starched white tablecloths. It offers front row seats overlooking the waves of False Bay, which roll and froth below. After clocking up 10 or so trips during my visits to Cape Town, I’ve never been anything short of wowed by its gastronomic scene, fresh and fantastic in variety, from moreish tiger prawns and grilled Cape crayfish to tender rumps of ostrich fillet served with oyster sabayon. The restaurant’s latest waterside incarnation sits pretty at the V&A Waterfont, where you can watch boats chug in and out of the city’s bustling port while you sip a chilled glass of South African white.

Clifton Beach, Cape Town. Image: Slawek Kozdras

Clifton Beach, Cape Town. Image: Slawek Kozdras

Where to stay

Being on a mountainous peninsula means jaw-dropping views of either rocks or waves are a likely bonus during any stay. If you’re counting your rands, there’s a raft of cheaper options around the city including urban and rural campsites (many with built in braais) and an endless supply of self-let apartments.

POD Boutique Hotel is a slick little bolthole that fits into the lavish surrounds of Camps Bay as well as the bikini-clad beautiful people who frequent the sandy playground below. Beach life is the name of the game here. Alongside the all-inclusive mini-bar in each room there’s a beach bag with towels and bats and a ball, begging you to ditch your luggage and hit the sands. Each of POD’s 17 bedrooms is a slick, minimalist creation in wood and granite; a fine place to unwind after an evening sipping daiquiris on the pool-fronted deck, where views stretch out over the Atlantic and you can just about make out The Twelve Apostles Hotel and Spa.

Part of the Cape furniture, the tick-list of luxuries here include daily screenings at the private cinema, bespoke pillow and soap menus and access to one of the Cape’s top spas. The hotel also opens its glitzy Leopard Bar to locals — ideal for when only a cocktail with a sea breeze will do.

But it’s the decade of the boutique hotel in Cape Town and MannaBay is a strong contender for the ‘city’s best’ crown. The glass-clad building is a colour-popping Gatsby-esque bolthole that’s fit to burst with whimsical luxuries; think candy-filled decanters, a private lap pool and curated art exhibitions. The eight uniquely designed suites range from the opulent Versailles (with an extra four-poster bed under the stars) to the floral surrounds of Orchid, with views up to Table Mountain. MannaBay has a team of charming butlers who slice up giant slabs of cake for you on arrival (high tea is a daily event), before tending to your every need during a stay. Perks include free taxis to and from your choice of restaurant and even complimentary mobile phones and satnav for overseas visitors.

“Someone once described MannaBay as like staying at your rich uncle’s house,” says general manager Mitch Terry. “With only eight bedrooms, it’s easy for us to go the extra mile — every decision starts and ends with the guest.”


Getting there
British Airways and Virgin Atlantic fly direct from Heathrow. SA Airways flies via Johannesburg; KLM via Amsterdam; Lufthansa via Munich.
Average flight time: 11h.


Getting around
You’ll need wheels to explore Cape Town. The city airport is full of rental providers. Uber taxis are reasonable for long trips; the MyCiTi bus service has many routes.
A R35 (£1.90) travel card can be topped up at any time. Fares are based on kilometres travelled and start from as little as R4.80 (27p) off peak.


When to go
The shoulder seasons of March-May and September-November are the best times to visit, when the heat is around 25C, as opposed to scorching, with fewer crowds and lower prices.


Need to know
Visas: None required for a stay of 90 days or less. For longer, contact the South African High Commission.
Currency: South African rand (R). £1 = R18.16.
International dial code: 00 2721.
Time difference: GMT +2.


More info


How to do it
Expedia offers a fortnight at a four-star hotel in Cape Town, including flights, from £1,050 in May. Fly with Virgin and stay at The Twelve Apostles Hotel and Spa for a week from £1,730 per person.   

Published in the May 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)