Travel is such a personal thing: one man’s art museum is another man’s prison. Personally, I can feel highly entertained just browsing in a bookstore (though if you want to kill me with boredom, plop me in the middle of a golf course.)
This is precisely why I shy away from instructing readers what to see and do in a place, especially one as rich and invigorating as Cape Town. We all enjoy very different things, so just come to Cape Town and have fun. It’s that easy.
But what did I do that I really liked? More than anywhere else? Well, everything, but these are a few of my favorite things . . . in Cape Town.
Part of the strange magic of Cape Town is that it’s a world-class city surrounded by out-of-this-world nature. The most obvious destination is Table Mountain, which I referred to as “a sundial for Cape Town.” Hike it or take the cable car, but definitely make it up to the top. If you are fortunate enough to be there for sunset, make sure you have someone with you (to kiss.) It’s unforgettably romantic.
Table Mountain National Park represents a whole network of separate and amazing parks, of which my favorite is Cape Point Nature Reserve at the Cape of Good Hope. Renting the cottage at beautiful Olifantsbos beach was the best getaway I’ve had all year (do it!). You cannot beat the peace, seclusion, and sound of the surf—and all of it less than an hour from the city center. At night, the stars shone brilliantly, and in the morning, I watched baby baboons follow their mother through the bushes. If you’re lucky (and I was very lucky), you’ll see one of the exceedingly rare Cape Mountain Zebra chewing in the fragrant fynbos.
Likewise, I loved Kirstenbosch Gardens and its living library of African plants—especially the protea. I could spend days flitting from one flower bush to the next. And last but not least, horseback riding along Noordhoek Beach was a total dream. Pro or first-timer, riding on this oversized stretch of clear sand was simply dreamy.
The streets are alive in Cape Town . . . and pumping. Long Street gets a lot of attention and with good reason. Despite the presence of other travelers, the area has kept its native soul with a number of unexpected shops, hotels, bars and cafés. I did a number of laps up and down Long and every time it feels like a new street.
Cape Town’s street art scene is vibrant and happening now. If you like your graffiti big and beautiful, check out the murals just off Victoria Road in Woodstock, and take time to wander around the edges of District Six and The Fringe. Both areas are emerging from their own little dark age and it’s fun and encouraging to see the streets take life again. Start at the design-y and hipster Field Office.
Don’t you dare come to Cape Town without venturing into the townships, especially Langa, one of the largest and richest neighborhoods in South Africa. I found especially touching the mosaic memorial to Xolile Mose, a student killed during an anti-apartheid protest in 1976. I also had a wonderful time perusing African art and learning to play the marimba at Guga Sthebe, one of Langa’s cultural centers. Griling meat at Mzoli’s comes highly-recommended, and if you can manage it, go have a drink at a shabeen, (bars operated from people’s homes).
Last but not least, do not miss the Bo-Kaap and wear sunglasses—it’s bright!
By far the best dinner I had in Cape Town was at Planet (the newish renaissance of the classic favorite Mount Nelson Hotel). If you like your food dressed up and divine, then eat here. My favorite café is Lola’s (on Long Street)—most of the clientele look like models (some of them are) and yet the food is big and filling and the mood very friendly and ambient. (I especially liked their fresh juice bar.) Bread, Milk and Honey is right next to the parliament and therefore, filled with politicos from morning ‘til night, so come have a sandwich with the big men and women government (the milk tarts get two thumbs up). For another quick and easy meal, dance into Eastern Bazaar where you’ll find out that in spite of its size, Cape Town is really just a town (Come here twice and you’ll run into someone you know).
Cape Malay cuisine is Cape Town’s history on a plate, and even if you tend to shy away from spicy food, I think you’ll find Cape Malay relatively mild. You’ll find several small cafés in the Bo-Kaap but I most enjoyed sitting down at the Noon Gun and dining on different curries while watching the city below. On the street, be sure wrap your mouth around koeksisters, a salome, and a boerwors roll (all fantastic), and if you’re traveling with friends, share a Gatsby—a gigantic sandwich that’s as mixed up and layered as Cape Town itself.
The best seafood I ate was at Two Oceans, down at Cape Point and the best steak I had in the city (no contest) was at Cape Royale hotel. If you think fine dining means sizzling meat, then go there. Mama Africa was made for tourists but I still found it a fun tradition—the kudu is truly yummy. Likewise, fish and chips at Kalky’s (in Kalk Bay) is kind of a Cape Town institution and locals love it with good reason. Get the snoek and plop on the red sauce—because it’s so very Cape Town!
Wine gets a special focus all around Cape Town, but if you’re a connoisseur, then you’ll want to visit Signal Hill Winery right in the oldest part of the city. Jean-Vincent Ridon makes his own vivid vintages using grapes grown right in the city. (Step into the courtyard and touch the oldest fruit-bearing grapevine in Africa.)
I found Cape Town’s wild range of hotel options a big plus—you can sleep at a safe and clean hostel in the city center for next to nothing, or splurge big on something elegant and dramatic.
Right on the waterfront, the Cape Grace is iconic, classy and truly personal. Nothing is an afterthought in these big and beautiful rooms, so spoil yourself for a day or two and bask in grandeur while soaking in the fun vibe at the old port.
For even more pampering, check into Ellerman House, over in Bantry Bay. A quiet refuge overlooking the sea, the Ellerman feels like you’re at home in your own mansion which happens to be loaded with South African art. I loved the comfort of Ellerman, the “elegant-yet-casual” feel, and the killer fudge they stash out in the open for guests. (Their spa ain’t bad either.) In fact, I was surprised by all the wonderful spas in Cape Town. Not to miss? The Twelve Apostles Spa right underneath the row of rocks by the same name. Space-age and soothing, the African treatments (with organic, all-African products) were so very relaxing and the mood very pure and laid-back.
For business travelers, the Westin down in the CBD is sleek, comfy and comes with reliable wi-fi and a superb top-floor pool that lets you swim laps with a panoramic view. I stayed the longest at Protea Fire & Ice because it makes sense on so many levels: the location is ideal, the design is way cool, the staff were very switched on, and the restaurant serves about 40 different kinds of milkshakes. (What’s not to love?)
Finally, do yourself a favor and get up on the roof at Granddaddy. This is the world’s only rooftop Airstream trailer park/hotel in the world. I wrote about the place almost two years ago and loved the weirdness of the rural refuge perched in the canopy of the city.
I loved, loved, loved the Two Oceans Aquarium and think that it’s one of the best in the world for kids. Horseback riding on Noordhoek beach was a real highlight for me–if you want a cinematic afternoon, then do it. The waterfront in Green Point is ideal for evening walks and morning runs and believe it or not, I had a blast riding the Wheel of Excellence down by the waterfront. If you’re a photographer, ride the wheel at sunset. If you don’t have a friend in South African parliament (like I do ) then consider taking the standard parliament tour. The buildings are historic, the stories important and I found it all exceptionally educational.
Otherwise, the mother city is your oyster. Just go and explore, like the settlers of old. Despite nearly spending three full weeks in Cape Town, I feel like I’ve only just scratched the surface of this jewel of a place. Honestly, as I sit here and reminisce about all my favorite things, it only makes me long to return sooner than later. So . . .
Totsiens Kaapstadt. (I’ll be back.)