Cape Town contains multitudes: the sea and the mountain, the wildlife and the wines, hiking trails and nightlife destinations. Above all, it serves as a reminder of freedom: how precious and hard-won it is.
Trek the table
Often referred to as Mother City, Cape Town is set against the backdrop of the majestic Table Mountain plateau and the sapphire Table Bay. At about 3,500 ft above sea level, Table Mountain offers spectacular vistas of the city, Robben Island and the Cape Peninsula.
Take the rotating, state-of-the-art cable car up the flat-topped mountain or hike up for some exercise. There are a number of routes to reach the mountain, with the shortest trail taking about two hours to climb from the cableway station. Locals often opt for Platteklip Gorge, a rigorous scramble to the table top. The route offers incredible views of Camps Bay, but can take as much as four hours. Whether you are welcomed with a blanket of moody clouds or crisp, clear, blue sky, you will be dazzled. If you have time to spare, sit with a cup of coffee at a mountain cafe and soak up the views from a quiet corner. Keep an eye out for rock hyrax or rock badger, mongoose, tortoise, and porcupine, as well as eagles and sunbirds flying over patches of fynbos, the Cape’s indigenous flora.
If you are keen on just a short, evening hike, go for Lion’s Head, which is only a 45-minute climb to the top. It is the little sister to Table Mountain but provides incredible views.
On the other side of Table Bay are small beaches of Sea Point, ideal for tanning sessions. Travel a little farther and you come across the four famous beaches of Clifton. This is the millionaire’s mile and the most expensive suburb in Cape Town, a far cry from the original wooden bungalows built for soldiers returning from World War I. A hop, skip and jump away is the suburb of Camps Bay, with a vast stretch of soft sand and lounge chairs for sunbathing. Or, play a game of volleyball or frisbee with the locals. Post sunset, head across the road to one of the trendy bars for a cocktail and seafood dinner. Being on the Atlantic side, the temperature of the water is 12 to 160 Celsius; only the brave can attempt a swim here.
Around the city in a sidecar
With its rolling hills and breathtaking landscapes, the city and its surrounds are heaven for a biker. If you don’t wish to ride a bike, discover the secrets of the city from the comfort of a chauffeured sidecar. These are decommissioned military bikes originally used by the People’s Liberation Army of China between the 1950s and the 1970s. They are Chang Jiang CJ750s, a version of the German BMW R71 used extensively in World War II. While the temperate climate makes the ride pleasant, the retro biking gear provided with the sidecars adds a dose of fun.
Sport dapper leather jackets, biker helmets, sunglasses and a bandana for a true-blue biking experience. You can choose from a variety of routes. The beginning of Chapman’s Peak Drive — the Hout Bay — is one of the most scenic. The winding road deposits you in Noordhoek which has a wide expanse of white sand bordering the wetlands.
The coastline becomes more rugged as you move towards Cape Point where two oceans — the cold waters of the Atlantic Ocean on the west and the warmer Indian Ocean on the east — meet. If you are a nature enthusiast looking for tranquility as well as modern amenities, stay in one of Cape Point’s villages — Scarborough, Kommetjie or Misty Cliffs.
On weekends, artisans and vendors from around the city gather at the Bay Harbour Market in Hout Bay. At this buzzing place, you can find everything from art and jewelry to fish, mojitos and live bands.
A town with a hundred hues
Bo-Kaap on the slopes of the Signal Hill is possibly the most colorful neighborhood of Cape Town, with houses in all the hues of the rainbow — from bright green, baby pink and butter yellow to lavender, fuchsia and black.
There is a reason for this colorful outburst. When Apartheid ended, Bo-Kaapers managed to buy their own homes from the city council. People say painting houses in bright colors became an expression of long-subdued individualism and a celebration of new-found freedom and identity. Also, since the owners had to maintain their houses on a budget, they often picked the cheapest paint. Before they painted their houses in preparation for Eid, the neighbors would come together to decide which color each one would use so as to avoid a clash of shades.
Bo-Kaap was earlier called the Malay Quarter and was home to the city’s Muslim settlers. A must-visit is the Bo-Kaap Museum, where you can see age-old, handwritten Korans, traditional costumes and ceramics. It has photographs of Cape Town in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Bo-Kaap’s multifaceted heritage is reflected in its food and festivals. Pop in at Biesmiellah, a family run joint that dishes out everything from traditional bobotie and denningvleis (lamb stew cooked in tamarind) to samoosas, falooda and fresh koeksisters (coconut-dusted doughnuts infused with cardamom and cinnamon). To enjoy great views of the city along with authentic Cape Malay cuisine, head to Bo Kaap Kombuis. Their recipes are a heady mix of spices and date back centuries.
Even better, you can visit one of the homes for a cooking session. Learn to make aromatic curries before a sit-down meal with the family.
Jam with the Djembe
Embrace the rhythm of South Africa with a night of djembe drumming in Cape Town, followed by a 14-course, authentic Cape Malay and South African feast. The word djembe possibly comes from the saying “Anke dje, anke be”, which means “everyone gathers together”.
And that’s exactly what you do at Gold Restaurant on 15 Bennett Street. Here you are in for a big party as you master the art of playing African drums, surrounded by stunning artifacts and contemporary artwork.
Learn the basics of djembe, like cupping your hands and playing a rhythm.
Then sit down for an elaborate meal that draws inspiration from varied parts of South Africa. From spicy meat dishes to healthy vegetarian food, there’s something for every foodie. Try the Zanzibar soup, Cape Malay spicy lamb, ostrich samoosas, Zambian sweet potatoes, Moroccan grilled vegetable couscous and more. The celebration doesn’t end here. Tall Mali puppets in flowing robes dance gracefully between tables as you gorge on the sumptuous food.
The Art Square
Greenmarket Square is located in the heart of Cape Town. You can happily spend a couple of hours in the open-air market. The cobble-stoned flea market has, at different times, been a slave market, a trading area for passing ships and even a parking lot. Today, it depicts the cosmopolitan nature and vibrancy of Africa. It has a wide range of fabrics, wooden masks, sculptures, beaded accessories, batiks, Zulu paintings — all made by artists from different corners of the African continent. But you need to know the art of haggling. If you don’t want to shop, find a table at one of the coffee shops and be entertained by buskers, drummers, jugglers and mime artists who perform at the square.
You don’t leave Cape Town without going to Robben Island, where anti-Apartheid revolutionary and later president, Nelson Mandela, was imprisoned. Mandela served 18 of his 27 years in prison here.
Learn about the legendary leader from a former inmate who will personally guide you around. It is both heart-wrenching and inspiring to sit in the same cells where prisoners were locked away for years and hear about their struggle and triumph, the food they ate and the letters they wrote to their loved ones.
Tours depart from the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, and you are shuttled across the bay to the island via ferry (R320). Ferries depart at set times.
If you haven’t read it yet, sit down with Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, which he wrote while he was imprisoned on Robben Island.
BEST TIME TO VISIT
February is the hottest month and July the coolest.