Cape Town Travel Guide
If you visit only one place in South Africa, make it Cape Town. Elegant Cape Dutch buildings, characterized by big whitewashed gables, often a thatch roof, and shuttered windows, abut imposing monuments to Britain’s imperial legacy. In the Bo-Kaap neighborhood the call to prayer echoes from minarets while the sweet tang of Malay curry wafts through the cobbled streets. And everywhere, whether you’re eating outdoors at one of the country’s best restaurants or sipping wine atop Table Mountain, you sense—correctly—that this is South Africa’s most urbane, civilized city.
Cape Town Sights
What you will ultimately recall about Cape Town is the sheer grandeur of its setting—Table Mountain rising above the city, the sweep of the bay, and mountains cascading into the sea. You will likely spend more time marveling at the views than anything else. Francis Drake wasn’t exaggerating when he said this was “the fairest Cape we saw in the whole circumference of the earth,” and he would have little cause to change his opinion today. You could spend a week exploring just the city and peninsula—and a lifetime discovering the nearby wonders of the Western Cape, including the Winelands, one of the great highlights of a trip to South Africa.
Cape Town has grown as a city in a way that few others in the world have. Take a good look at the street names. Strand and Waterkant streets (meaning “beach” and “waterside,” respectively) are now far from the sea. However, when they were named they were right on the beach. An enormous program of dumping rubble into the ocean extended the city by a good few square miles (this can, no doubt, be attributed to the Dutch obsession with reclaiming land from the sea). Almost all the city on the seaward side of Strand and Waterkant is part of the reclaimed area of the city known as the Foreshore. If you look at old paintings of the city, you will see that originally waves lapped at the very walls of the castle, now more than half a mile from the ocean.
Cape Town Restaurant Reviews
Cape Town is the culinary capital of South Africa. Nowhere else in the country is the populace so discerning about food, and nowhere else is there such a wide selection of restaurants. Western culinary history here dates back more than 350 years—Cape Town was founded specifically to grow food—and that heritage is reflected in the city’s cuisine. A number of restaurants operate in historic town houses and 18th-century wine estates, and many include heritage dishes on their menus.
Today dining in the city and its suburbs can offer a truly global culinary experience, since Cape chefs are now showing the same enthusiasm for global trends as their counterparts worldwide. French and Italian food has long been available here, but in the last decade, with the introduction of Thai and Pan-Asian flavors, locals have embraced the chili. Kurdish, Persian, Ethiopian, Lebanese, and regional Chinese cuisines are now easily available, and other Asian fare is commonplace. Sushi is ubiquitous. If there is a cuisine trend it is toward organic produce and healthful dishes made with foams rather than creams. Some ingredients, like foie gras and pork belly, are now so easily available that they’re on most menus.
Wine lists at many restaurants reflect the enormous expansion and resurgence of the Cape wine industry since the 1990s, with some establishments compiling exciting selections of lesser-known gems. More and more restaurants employ a sommelier to offer guidance on wine, but diners, even in modest establishments, can expect staff to be well versed about both wine lists and menus. Wines are expensive in restaurants (often three times what you’d pay in a wineshop), and connoisseurs are often irritated at corkage charges (around R20). Only a handful of restaurants will refuse to open a bottle you bring, often the same ones that refuse to provide tap water despite its being perfectly potable.
During summer months restaurants in trendier areas are geared up for late-night dining, but will accept dinner orders from about 6. In winter locals tend to dine earlier, but there are venues that stay open late, particularly at the Waterfront and the strip along the main road between the city and Green Point. Other areas that are meccas for food lovers include Kloof Street (dubbed Restaurant Mile) in the City Bowl and the beachfront road in Camps Bay along the Atlantic seaboard. Many restaurants are crowded in high season, so it’s best to book in advance whenever possible. With the exception of the fancier hotel restaurants—where a jacket is suggested—the dress code in Cape Town is casual (but no shorts).
Cape Town Hotel Reviews
Finding lodging in Cape Town can be a nightmare during peak travel season (December-January), as many of the more reasonable accommodations are booked up. It’s worth traveling between April and August, if you can, to take advantage of the “secret season” discounts. If you arrive in Cape Town without a reservation, head for the Tourism Office, which has a helpful accommodations desk.
Hotels in the city center are a good option if you’re here on business or are here for only a short stay. During the day the historic city center is a vibrant place. At night, though, it’s shut up tight (though this is changing slowly as some office buildings are converted into apartment complexes); night owls may prefer a hotel amid the nonstop action of the Waterfront. Hotels and bed-and-breakfasts in the Southern Suburbs, especially Constantia, offer unrivaled beauty and tranquillity and make an ideal base if you’re exploring the peninsula. You’ll need a car, though, and should plan on 15-30 minutes to get into town. Atlantic Coast hotels provide the closest thing in Cape Town to a beach-vacation atmosphere despite the cold ocean waters.
Keep in mind that international flights from the United States and Europe arrive in the morning and return flights depart in the evening. Because most hotels have an 11 AM checkout, you may have to wait for a room if you’ve just arrived; if you’re leaving, you will be hauled kicking and screaming out of your room hours before your flight. Most hotels will try to accommodate you, but they often have no choice in peak season. Some of the larger hotels have residents-only lounges where you can spend the hours awaiting your flight. Note that many small luxury accommodations either do not permit children or have minimum-age restrictions. It’s a good idea to inquire in advance if this will be an issue.
Another option is to stay in one of Cape Town’s numerous guesthouses or B&Bs, which is what many South Africans do when they travel. Don’t be put off by the names—choosing a B&B or guesthouse doesn’t mean you’ll have to eat breakfast with the family or help wash up afterwards! Instead, there are some very classy and professionally run establishments that offer everything a hotel does but on a smaller, more personal scale.
The most reliable source of good B&B establishments is South African Accommodation (021/794-0030. www.bookabed.co.za). The Portfolio of Places (021/689-4020. www.portfoliocollection.com) brochure includes guesthouses, B&Bs, villas, and more.
If you don’t like tiptoeing around someone’s house or you want to save money, consider renting a fully furnished apartment, especially if you’re staying two or more weeks. CAPSOL Property & Tourism Solutions (021/422-3521. www.capsol.co.za) has around 1,500 high-quality, furnished, fully stocked villas and apartments on its books. Cape Stay (021/674-3104. www.capestay.co.za) has a wide selection of accommodations to suit different needs.
De Waterkant Village & Life is Cape Town’s first and only guest street, an entire little community near the harbor of houses to rent. There are more than 40 beautifully restored, self-catering (with cooking facilities) houses that are unusual, trendy, classy, and quite charming. The houses, which come with daily housekeeping services, have anywhere from one to four bedrooms. If you don’t feel like cooking, you could also stay in the Village Lodge here. The high-season double-occupancy rate for one of the houses is around R2,000 per night. 1 Loader St., Cape Town Central, 8000. 021/422-2721. www.dewaterkantvillage.com. AE, DC, MC, V
Cape Town is regarded as one of the top backpacker destinations in the world, with plenty of hostels to choose from. Contact Backpacking South Africa (BTSA. www.btsa.co.za) for information.
Cape Town Nightlife
There’s plenty to do in Cape Town after dark. The city’s nightlife is concentrated in a number of areas, so you can explore a different one each night or move from one hub to another. After all, the city is small enough to get around in quite easily. That said, however, walking from one area to another isn’t advisable, as there are some parts of the city that are completely deserted and unsafe. Women, in pairs or singly, and couples should not walk alone.
One of the best—and safest—places to start is the Waterfront, where you can choose from movies, restaurants, bars, and pubs and walk between them quite happily, as there are plenty of security guards and other people walking around. The top end of Long Street is another good nightlife area. Here you’ll find a couple of blocks of bars, restaurants, and backpacker lodges that are open late. And the area bounded by Loop, Long, Wale, and Orange streets is the best place to get a feeling for Cape Town’s always-changing nightclub scene, but ask around for the latest on the current flavor of the month.
De Waterkant is very busy at night; if you’re in the area, you can also take in the Green Point strip, where restaurants and bars open out onto the streets. On weekends these bars are packed, and you’ll get a good idea of how Capetonians let down their hair. Heritage Square, in the city center, is another vibey place to spend an evening. Here you’ll find an ever-changing mix of bars and restaurants. Mouille Point’s Platinum Mile is an excellent place for evening cocktails. The views over the Atlantic and onto Robben Island are breathtaking, and this is where the ultracool set hangs out after a hard day at the beach or gym. Be prepared to line up to get into places, especially on a Friday night.
Cape Town Shopping
When it comes to shopping, Cape Town has something for everyone—from sophisticated malls to trendy markets. Although African art and curios are obvious choices (and you will find some gems), South Africans have woken up to their own sense of style and creativity, and the results are fantastic and as diverse as the people who make up this rainbow nation. So in a morning you could bag some sophisticated tableware from Carrol Boyes, a funky wire-art object from a street vendor, and a beautifully designed handbag made by HIV-positive women working as part of a community development program.
Cape Town has great malls selling well-known brands, and the V&A Waterfront is an excellent place to start, followed by Cavendish Square in Claremont and Canal Walk at Century City, on the N1 heading out of town toward Paarl. But it’s beyond the malls that you can get a richer shopping experience, one that will give you greater insight into the soul of the city and its people. Shopping malls usually have extended shopping hours beyond the normal 9-5 on weekdays and 9-1 on Saturdays. Most shops outside of malls (except for small grocery stores) are closed on Sunday.