South Africa has so much variety, whether by day or by night. In fact, like the wildlife action in a safari park, sometimes it’s only once the sun is set that the real fun begins. From world-class restaurants to cocktail bars and jazz clubs full of life until dawn, there’s something for everyone to enjoy.
Cape Town is one of the world’s most beautiful cities and, while famous for its jazz, is also regularly voted one of the world’s best for food too. With the largest population of any city in South Africa, Johannesburg (usually called Joburg or Jozi for short) has the nightlife to match. Its better weather means its entertainment – already more diverse than Cape Town’s – is also less seasonal. Here’s our guide to the best of nightlife in each to help you enjoy all these great cities have to offer.
With Table Mountain behind and the ocean in front, the V&A Waterfront is a stage for Cape Town to show off its best side. Whether it’s listening to an impromptu jazz concert at the open-air bandstand, watching tribal dancers busk, or enjoying fine South African cuisine at a table overlooking the view (perhaps at Karibu, where ostrich steak is a firm favourite), this is the heart of the city for both residents and visitors. You’ll also find the Two Oceans Aquarium, with its collection of African penguins and fearsome sharks. Add to this high-end shopping and some of the city’s finest hotels, including the five-star Cape Grace. The 450 or so shops are open until 9 pm every day, including Sunday, and many of the dozens of restaurants and bars are licensed until 2 am – although things tend to quieten down a bit earlier on weekdays.
If you get to the area before nightfall, pay a visit to Zeitz MOCAA Gallery. Housed in a former grain silo dating back to 1921, the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa is the largest such museum in Africa. “Africa’s Tate Modern” is spread over nine floors and houses a seriously impressive collection from the continent and its diaspora, with work on display by award-winning artists such as Mary Sibande, Frances Goodman, Kendell Geers, William Kentridge, and Nicholas Hlobo.
MUST DO: The Fugard Theatre and Baxter Theatre Centre often have Cape jazz musicians playing as well as plays of local interest.
With its many bars and clubs busy until the early hours every day of the week, Long Street has been Cape Town’s nightlife central as long as anyone can remember. Firm favourites such as 169 On Long and Fiction play a popular mix of international and South African R’n’B, hip-hop and house with the music, drinks and party atmosphere pulling in a young, backpacker crowd from the many nearby hostels.
Bree Street, running from the foot of Table Mountain to the waterfront, is a major competitor to Long Street for a good night out. Named “Cape Town’s Coolest Block” by Vogue for its restaurants, designer stores and cocktail bars, Bree Street also has many art galleries that open late for “First Thursdays”. Browse the shops and galleries to see the very best of modern Capetonian and Southern African art and design.
MUST-DO: Hank's Olde Irish is a warm, cosy whisky bar on Bree Street. The already great atmosphere is lifted even more by regular jazz nights and DJ spots.
MUST-DO: The Cape Town Jazz Safari is an evening tour of Guguletu and its shebeens that also introduces you Cape Town’s wonderful music tradition.
The area of De Waterkant straddling Somerset Road is popular with young professionals and is the place to find the “boutique shopping experience” of Cape Quarter. It’s also a centre of gay life in the city, with many clubs and bars that are buzzing until late.
Camps Bay has a seriously upmarket set of restaurants, lounge bars and nightclubs, not to mention a theatre. Add in the long taxi ride and a night out here isn’t cheap, but the view of a long white sandy beach, lapped by Atlantic Ocean waves, makes it very special.
MUST-DO: Café Caprice is a favourite spot for Camps Bay partygoers, with cocktails, DJs and bar food, but locals prefer Dizzy’s Café, a more casual pub that often has live music and is open 'til 4am.
Rosebank is a cosmopolitan suburb between downtown Joburg and Sandton, where you’ll find shopping malls and two of the city’s best art galleries. The Everard Read Gallery and its sister Circa Gallery stand on the corner of Jellicoe Avenue and offer a great collection of contemporary sculpture, as well as fine art and photography. Nearby is the Keyes Art Mile, a growing new development based on design-led shops, including interior decor and sneakers, and restaurants serving food that will delight Instagrammers.
After an evening of culture, Rosebank has plenty of places to eat and drink. One of the more unusual is the intimate Sin + Tax “speakeasy”, which serves great cocktails until 1 am.
MUST-DO: Enjoy great views of the western suburbs from the roof of the exciting Circa Gallery, built with design elements from Zulu cattle kraals and the ruins of Great Zimbabwe.
A formerly neglected part of the central business district near Ellis Stadium, the Maboneng Precinct is now home to a creative community supporting arty cafés, restaurants, shopping and some fun nightlife.
Art lovers will enjoy David Krut Projects, run by an art dealer who specialises in South African art. It’s inside Arts on Main, a former industrial space now full of advertising agencies and shops as well as galleries and private studios for artists such as William Kentridge.
MUST DO: The Bioscope art-house cinema on Fox Street in the Maboneng Precinct shows contemporary African cinema as well as sing-along features such as The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
The city’s financial district has the ready supply of luxury hotels, restaurants, bars and nightclubs that you might expect. A Hard Rock Café and the faux Tuscan village of Montecasino, with its casino, cinemas, restaurants and even a comedy club are among the highlights. Clubs such as Taboo and Soiree are always popular, while a cocktail at The Landmark is a good way to kick off the evening.
MUST-DO: The Radium Beerhall on Louis Botha Ave in Orange Grove may not win prizes for its pub grub but has been around since 1929, so it’s doing something right. The oldest pub in Johannesburg has live jazz four nights a week.
Considered the creative capital of Johannesburg, Melville is where you’ll find artists, writers and filmmakers frequenting coffee bars and on-trend restaurants. Party central here is along 7th street, where you’ll find venues such as the Xai Xai Lounge, a cocktail lounge inspired by a namesake in Mozambique, or the Anti Social Social Club and its partner The Tiny Tiki Bar, that bring a beach vibe to the street.
Kippies Jazz Club originally put this area on the map for music and visitors will find plenty of other jazz venues nearby, as well as clubs, bars and restaurants offering live music or DJs. Try Niki’s Oasis, a restaurant and jazz bar that showcases young local talent.
MUST-DO: The Market Theatre made its name as “Theatre of the Struggle” during the 1980s for its independent, non-racial stance and is still the place to see exciting new South African drama.
FIRST THURSDAYS: As the name suggests, selected art galleries, museums and cultural spaces (as well as bars, restaurants and shops) in both Cape Town and Johannesburg stay open until 9pm or later on the first Thursday of each month. Part of the fun is mingling with a hipster art-loving crowd in welcoming spaces once thought the preserve of a privileged few. Entry is free and you’re encouraged to explore the cultural riches at your own pace.
Top image: Drinks in Cape Town © Shutterstock