Sometimes it seems that Cape Town isn’t really part of Africa at all. Rather it’s a hipster chunk of Europe that somehow found itself at the bottom of Africa. The locals spend a lot more time discussing coffee and cuisine than you’d expect to find in the wild Dark Continent.
The city is in a sublime location. When discussing the world’s most picturesque harbour cities we always find Sydney, Rio, Vancouver on the list. But for bay cities, Cape Town must reign supreme with Table Mountain looming behind it.
Here are some of the highlights.
For early mariners, the first sight of the flat summit of Table Mountain announced they were safely around the Cape of Good Hope and a well provisioned port lay ahead.
Today, taking the cable car up to walk around the mountain and survey the city and bay beyond is the one essential thing to do. Walk around the corner and you can see most of the way to the Cape and over the upmarket suburb of Camps Bay and Hout Bay beyond.
Camps Bay is one of the city's popular places for tourists
One unexpected delight of this excursion is the furry mammals you’ll find up there. They are called dassies or rock hyrax and look like marmots or large rats, depending how kindly you view them. But their closest living relative is the elephant. You’ll need a big step in imagination to see the family resemblance.
Victoria and Alfred Waterfront
The ongoing redevelopment of the waterfront has been a crowning glory to the city. Lots of hipster coffee shops, all the mainstream brand shops and a great African arts and crafts hall.
I bought a painting made from used tea bags in a dedicated charity shop. Whoever in the village had the idea, it was inspired. And it is the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront – not the Victoria and Albert Waterfront because it’s named after the queen and her second son, not her long-lamented husband.
Cruises leave from here too – a sunset cruise is a great way to see this spectacular city and the mountain from the water and if you’re lucky you may see the “tablecloth” roll in.
Cape Town has always been a cosmopolitan city and that’s reflected in the food. Whether seeking Cape Malay or any international cuisine there will be choice – and the local meat, fish and produce are excellent.
You’ll find game, from crocodile to kudu, on many menus, too. The best restaurant in town is The Test Kitchen that is listed as one of the world’s best. But book well in advance and even then, good luck getting a table.
Traditional South African cuisines bring an eclectic mix of tastes
Right in the heart of the city are the Company’s Garden, created in 1650 and featuring a large statue to Cecil Rhodes.
Whether you appreciate the legacy of Rhodes or see him as an oppressor, wandering through the gardens is a pleasant way to cool down in the city. If you want a more expansive garden, head to the Botanic Gardens in the shadow of Table Mountain.
Winnebagos on the roof
Before the rest of the world’s hotels thought of sticking seven Airstream mobile homes on the roof of premises, the Grand Daddy Boutique Hotel on Long St did it first – and then put a rooftop cinema in the middle. It may not be five star but it’s certainly unusual.
If you wish to visit Robben Island it’s a very good idea to book tickets in advance as they often sell out.
Most of us know of Robben Island – the flat 2x3km island about seven km from Cape Town – as the prison that held Nelson Mandela for 18 of his 27 years as a political prisoner during South Africa’s apartheid era. The 3.5 hour tour has two distinct parts.
The first is a general tour of the island where you learn that it also served as a leper colony and an animal quarantine staion. The circumnavigation includes a stop where penguins can be seen on the beach.
Also known as the jackass penguins, the African penguin are charismatic species
That’s a soft introduction to a tour of the prison on which you’re shown around by a former prison inmate. I asked out guide if he found it hard to be back here and he said that it took him a couple of years to come to terms with it. Of course, you are shown Mandela’s cell and learn how hard conditions in the prison were.
Cape of Good Hope
If there is one essential tour out from Cape Town, it’s down to the Cape of Good Hope. This is not the southernmost point of the African continent but it is one of the world’s three Great Capes – the other two are Cape Horn and WA’s Cape Leeuwin.
It’s a rugged place and there’s always the chance to see wildlife like antelopes, ostrich, baboons and zebra.
The rocky headland on the Atlantic coast of the Cape Peninsula
There are quite a lot of penguins to be found in the waters off Cape Town. These are African penguins and they look a lot like the Magellanic penguins of South America. Both are sometimes called jackass penguins for the braying sound they make. They can be seen on a tour of Robben Island.
Or if you wish to get close to them you can head to Boulders Beach near Simon’s Town or Stony Point near Betty’s Beach – both have boardwalks and charge an admission fee.
If you are in Cape Town when the weather is good, it’s worthwhile taking a helicopter flight out over the bay for a spectacular aerial view of the city. We used NAC Helicopters and the grand panoramas made the short flight great value.
Cape Town is picturesque from above
Cape Town has a wide range of hotels. Many are at the V&A Waterfront. A personal favourite is the Westin Cape Town, particularly the Executive Club with a lounge that offers unsurpassed views across the city to Table Mountain.
Tintswalo Atlantic is a very alternative option. It’s a unique luxury boutique hotel on Hout Bay, located within the National Park.
The waves lap the rocks below your balcony so you feel very much in the wild although the city and airport are only minutes away. The wild surrounds and the absolute luxury within create a very special experience.
Cape Province delights
Whether your interest is in the whales and sharks of Hermanus, the Cape flowers, the wines of Franschhoek and Stellenbosch, or setting off on the Garden Route, Cape Town is the perfect starting point. Just a few days here will convince you that Africa is a wonderland ripe for exploration.
Have you been to Cape Town? Share your highlights below.