There can be no better time to visit Cape Town than in the depths of an English winter. Heat wraps itself around you as you recover from the 12 hour flight, and you get reacquainted with blue skies and sunshine.
It was our first time in this South African hotspot. Cape Town is often voted the best city in the world to live in, but here are our own very personal impressions…..
Table Mountain dominates the city’s skyline and psyche. On a searingly hot day, we climbed to the plateau – via the Platteklip Gorge route – rather than wait 90 minutes in the cable car queue. I’m so glad we did, as we were unsure after a recent mugging of a group on the mountain. Stay on one of the main routes and make sure there are other climbers nearby. The views from the ‘table top’ are scintillating, and in all directions. But be warned, the famous ‘table cloth’ of cloud cover can roll in at any time, envelop the summit and restrict the views.
Spend a day touring around Cape Point, the majestic peninsula you will hopefully have seen clearly from the top of Table Mountain. We drove south via the Atlantic coast on the west, stopping at glitzy Camps Bay and the more authentic fishing port of Hout Bay. Then embrace the spectacular Chapmans Peak drive (‘Chappies‘) and enter the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve, where the natural draw is the lighthouse and Cape Point itself, the most southwestern point in Africa.
Head back along the eastern side of the peninsula, where the warmer waters of False Bay invite sharks to swim with you. Stop at any of Simon’s Town, Fish Hoek, Kalk Bay and Muizenberg along the way for refreshments and a slice of Cape history, but we preferred the tranquil unspoiled beauty of Buffels Bay, where a pair of ostriches grazed on the grassy bank near the beach, before wandering along the sand like an old married couple.
On the other side of Table Mountain, sports fans can make a pilgrimage to the affluent, leafy suburb of Newlands – home of arguably the most beautifully situated cricket and rugby grounds in the world – before heading for a wine-tasting session and lunch in Constantia, another elegant suburb and home to the oldest vineyards in the Cape, nestling in the foothills of Table Mountain. We enjoyed an educational viticultural session at Groot Constantia, before an excellent lunch at Klein Constantia.
Also on that eastern side of the mountain, away from ‘downtown’ Cape Town, don’t miss the world-class Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. We spent a few hours here on a glorious Sunday evening, not just embracing nature but also listening to a vibrant piece of Africa. Throughout the summer, the Gardens host Sunset Concerts. We saw The Soil, an internationally renowned a capella trio, hailing from Soweto and belting out cool, quintessentially African rhythms which had the huge crowd swaying in unison.
Back in the city, the V&A Waterfront is a tourist magnet. The original Victorian harbour has been imaginatively regenerated, and pulses with life from its many waterside restaurants, shopping malls and watering holes, all within sight of the iconic Table Mountain. The 19th century buildings have been retained, and it’s good to see that this focal point still also remains an active port.
The Robben Island tours leave from the Nelson Mandela Gateway on the Waterfront. We’re glad we explored this infamous island. The tour of the prison by an ex political prisoner was humbling, and to see the garden where Nelson Mandela hid the manuscript of Long Walk to Freedom was similarly a moment for introspection.
Do not miss the new Zeitz MOCAA (Museum of Contemporary Art Africa), in the spectacular Silo building, near the V&A Waterfront. Even if you’re not an art lover, you can’t help but be impressed by the building, and by its internal space and light, all designed by the renowned Thomas Heatherwick. But do make time to explore the several floors of imaginative art installations from around this enigmatic continent.
For other cultural activities in Cape Town, check out what’s on the city’s theatres. Its most famous son of the stage is Athol Fugard, a playwright best known for his political plays opposing the heinous system of apartheid. He has an eponymous theatre in Cape Town’s infamous District 6, but we went to an altogether lower key experience, at the Alexander bar, cafe and theatre. We saw a one-man performance of The Deficit, a play about a young man trying to graduate but being held back by the system, and by history. Politics and apartheid are seemingly never far away in Cape Town and South Africa, even now.
Probably our most memorable evening though was dinner at Mzansi in the Langa township, a few miles outside the city centre. We were worried that it might be a little patronising to the local community, but online reviews persuaded us to go. Nomonde Siyaka – ‘call me Mama’ – is the driving force behind the whole enterprise, and soon puts you at ease…..’this is not a restaurant, this is my home’. She started the business in 2008, initially as a jazz club, and struggled to make the restaurant side work until a group of exchange students helped her out with social media promotion in 2015. Now Mzansi’s is rated #1 on Trip Advisor out of more than 2,000 restaurants in Cape Town.
An evening at Mzansi’s is an introduction to Xhosa culture, history and language…including the impossible-to-replicate clicking sounds in conversation! The music performed in such an intimate space was outstanding, both from a 6-piece traditional Marimba band and from very young guitarists and singers. The food is served buffet-style, comprises largely vegetarian dishes, all delicious, traditional and sourced locally. And them Mama will tell you the story of her life, a stark reminder of how challenging life remains for most South Africans but how the success of Mzansi’s has improved the immediate prospects of those in the community who contribute to this remarkable venture. whether through growing vegetables, helping in the kitchen, parking cars, providing security or playing music.
The guests that night came from Brazil, France, Poland and England. We had taken a taxi to Langa, but hitched a ride back to town with a couple of French guys. They took a wrong turn and we ended in a different part of the township, late at night and with people spilling out into the middle of the narrow streets. It was unsettling.
And that, I’m afraid, is the most lasting impression of our short time in Cape Town: it is a city blessed by nature, with a stunning marriage of ocean, mountain and climate, but damaged by man. Apartheid may be over, but inequality certainly isn’t. And how can a city where you need security guards to accompany you after dark, where properties need locked gates, alarms and barbed wire, and where you have to think twice about walking up its iconic mountain, really be thought of as the best city of the world in which to live?