Cape Town is Southern Africa’s most beautiful, most romantic and most visited city. Its physical setting is extraordinary, something its pre-colonial Khoikhoi inhabitants acknowledged when they referred to Table Mountain, the city’s most famous landmark, as Hoerikwaggo – the mountains in the sea. Even more extraordinary is that so close to the national park that extends over much of the peninsula, there’s a pumping metropolis with a nightlife that matches the city’s wildlife. You can hang out with baboons and zebras at Cape Point in the morning, dine at an Atlantic seaboard bistro for lunch, tipple at a Constantia wine estate in the afternoon and party the night away in a Long Street club. All in a Cape Town day.
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More than a scenic backdrop, Table Mountain is the solid core of Cape Town, dividing the city into distinct zones with public gardens, wilderness, forests, hiking routes, vineyards and desirable residential areas trailing down its lower slopes. Standing on the tabletop, you can look north for a giddy view of the city centre, its docks lined with matchbox ships. To the west, beyond the mountainous Twelve Apostles, the drop is sheer and your eye sweeps across Africa’s priciest real estate, clinging to the slopes along the chilly but spectacularly beautiful Atlantic seaboard. To the south, the mountainsides are forested and several historic vineyards and the marvellous Botanical Gardens creep up the lower slopes. Beyond the oak-lined suburbs of Newlands and Constantia lies the warmer False Bay seaboard, which curves around towards Cape Point. Finally, relegated to the grim industrial east, are the coloured townships and black ghettos, spluttering in winter under the smoky pall of coal fires – your stark introduction to Cape Town when driving in from the airport on the eastern outskirts of the city.
To appreciate Cape Town you need to spend time outdoors, as Capetonians do: they hike, picnic or sunbathe, often choose mountain bikes in preference to cars, and turn adventure activities into an obsession. Sailboarders from around the world head for Table Bay for some of the world’s best windsurfing, and the brave (or unhinged) jump off Lion’s Head and paraglide down close to the Clifton beachfront. But the city offers sedate pleasures as well, along its hundreds of paths and 150km of beaches.
Cape Town’s rich urban texture is immediately apparent in its diverse architecture: an indigenous Cape Dutch style, rooted in northern Europe, seen at its most diverse in the Constantia wine estates, which were influenced by French refugees in the seventeenth century; Muslim dissidents and slaves, freed in the nineteenth century, added their minarets to the skyline; and the English, who invaded and freed these slaves, introduced Georgian and Victorian buildings. In the tightly packed terraces of the present-day Bo-Kaap and the tenements of District Six, coloured descendants of slaves evolved a unique, evocatively Capetonian brand of jazz, which is well worth catching live if you can.
Brief history of Cape Town
San hunter-gatherers, South Africa’s first human inhabitants, moved freely through the Cape Peninsula for tens of millennia before being edged into the interior some two thousand years ago by the arrival of sheep-herding Khoikhoi migrants from the north. Over the following 1600 years, the Khoikhoi held sway over the Cape pastures. Portuguese mariners, in search of a stopoff point en route to East Africa and the East Indies, first rounded the Cape in the 1480s, and named it Cabo de Boa Esperanza (Cape of Good Hope), but their attempts at trading with the Khoikhoi were short-lived.
The Cape goes Dutch
Europeans did not seriously attempt to create a permanent stopping-off point at the Cape until the Dutch East India Company (VOC) cruised into Table Bay in 1652 and set up shop.
The VOC, the world’s largest corporation at the time, planned little more than a halfway house, to provide fresh produce to their ships trading between Europe and the East. Their small landing party, led by Jan van Riebeeck, built a mud fort where the Grand Parade now stands and established vegetable gardens, which they hoped to work with indigenous labour.
The Khoikhoi were understandably none too keen to swap their freedom for a nine-to-five job, so Van Riebeeck began to import slaves in 1658, first from West Africa and later the East Indies. The growth of the Dutch settlement alarmed the Khoikhoi, who in 1659 tried to drive the Europeans out; however, they were defeated and had to cede the peninsula to the colonists. By 1700, the settlement had grown into an urban centre, referred to as “Kaapstad” (Cape Town).
During the early eighteenth century, Western Cape Khoikhoi society disintegrated, German and French religious refugees swelled the European population, and slavery became the economic backbone of the colony, now a minor colonial village of canals and low, whitewashed, flat-roofed houses. By 1750, Cape Town was a town of over a thousand buildings, with 2500 inhabitants.
Goodbye slavery, hello segregation
In 1795, Britain, deeply concerned by Napoleonic expansionism, grabbed Cape Town to secure the strategic sea route to the East. This displeased the settlement’s Calvinist Dutch burghers, but was better news for the substantially Muslim slave population, as Britain ordered the abolition of slavery in 1834. The British also allowed freedom of religion, and South Africa’s first mosque was soon built by freed slaves, in Dorp Street in the Bo-Kaap.
By the turn of the nineteenth century, Cape Town had become one of the most cosmopolitan places in the world and a seaport of major significance, growing under the influence of the British Empire. The Commercial Exchange was completed in 1819, followed by department stores, banks and insurance company buildings. In the 1860s the docks were begun, Victoria Road from the city to Sea Point was built, and the suburban railway line to Wynberg, one of the southern suburbs, was laid. Since slavery had been abolished, Victorian Cape Town had to be built by convicts and prisoners of war transported from the colonial frontier in the Eastern Cape. Racial segregation wasn’t far behind, and an outbreak of bubonic plague in 1901 gave the town council a pretext to establish N’dabeni, Cape Town’s first black location, near Maitland.
In 1910, Cape Town was drawn into the political centre of the newly federated South Africa when it became the legislative capital of the Union. Africans and coloureds, excluded from the cosy deal between Boers and the British, had to find expression in the workplace. In 1919, they flexed their collective muscle on the docks, forming the mighty Industrial and Commercial Workers Union, which boasted two hundred thousand members in its heyday.
Increasing industrialization brought an influx of black workers to the city, who were housed in the locations of Guguletu and Nyanga, built in 1945. Three years later, the whites-only National Party came to power, promising a fearful white electorate that it would reverse the flow of Africans to the cities. In Cape Town it introduced a policy favouring coloureds for employment, rather than Africans, and among Africans, only men who had jobs were admitted to Cape Town (the women were excluded altogether), and the construction of family accommodation for Africans was forbidden.
Langa township, a few kilometres east of the city’s southern suburbs, became a stronghold of the exclusively black Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), which organized a peaceful anti-pass demonstration in Cape Town on April 8, 1960. During the demonstration, police fired on the crowd, killing three people and wounding many more. As a result, the government declared a state of emergency and banned anti-apartheid opposition groups, including the PAC and ANC.
In 1966, the notorious Group Areas Act was used to uproot whole coloured communities from District Six and move them to the desolate Cape Flats. Here, rampant gangsterism took root and remains one of Cape Town’s most pressing problems today. To compound the issue, the National Party stripped away coloured representation on the town council in 1972.
Eleven years later, at a huge meeting on the Cape Flats, the extra-parliamentary opposition defied government repression and re-formed as the United Democratic Front, heralding a period of intensified opposition to apartheid. In 1986, one of the major pillars crumbled when the government was forced to scrap influx control; blacks began pouring into Cape Town seeking work and erecting shantytowns, making Cape Town one of the fastest-growing cities in the world. On February 11, 1990, the city’s history took a neat twist when, just hours after being released from prison, Nelson Mandela made his first public speech from the balcony of City Hall to a jubilant crowd spilling across the Grand Parade, the very site of the first Dutch fort. Four years later, he entered the formerly whites-only Parliament, 500m away, as South Africa’s first democratically elected president.
One of the anomalies of the 1994 election was that while most of South Africa delivered an ANC landslide, the Western Cape returned the National Party, the party that invented apartheid, as its provincial government. Politics in South Africa were not, it turned out, divided along a faultline that separated whites from the rest of the population as many had assumed; the majority of coloureds had voted for the party that had once stripped them of the vote, regarding it with less suspicion than the ANC. Apart from the period between 2002 and 2006, when Capetonians elected an ANC administration, the Western Cape and its capital have consistently bucked South Africa’s national trend of overwhelming ANC dominance. Since 2006 both have been governed by the liberal Democratic Alliance (DA), which increased its proportion of the vote in the 2011 local elections.
During the ANC’s first term in national government under Mandela (1994–99), affirmative action policies and a racial shift in the economy led to the rise of a black middle class, but even so this represented a tiny fraction of the African and coloured population, and many people felt that transformation hadn’t gone far enough. Indeed after nearly two decades of non-racial democracy, Cape Town is still a very divided city and one that is becoming increasingly so.
A tale of two cities
On the one hand, the Mother City has been titivating itself for tourists and investors, with the post-apartheid period bringing a wave of economic confidence expressed by investors in a number of monumental developments, among them the megalomaniacal Century City (1997) in the northern suburbs, a retail, residential, office-complex, theme-park, wannabe-city-in-itself, with Tuscan architecture and Venice-inspired canals. More tasteful was the expansion of the V&A Waterfront to include the hugely symbolic Nelson Mandela Gateway (2001) occupying a prime site and the nearby Cape Town International Convention Centre (2003), which finally gave the Mother City the world-class conference facility it so badly needed. As part of South Africa’s successful hosting of the 2010 FIFA World Cup, the iconic Cape Town Stadium (2009) went up on Green Point Common and Cape Town International Airport got a brand-new Central Terminal Building (2009), at last providing a facility that can cope with the city’s expanding air traffic. To cap it all, the state-of-the-art Cape Town Film Studio (2010) was already attracting major projects by 2011, kicking off with the production of 3D extravaganza Judge Dredd.
On the other hand, as the biggest city within over a thousand kilometres, Cape Town continued (and continues) to attract a steady influx of people seeking a better life, mostly from the rural Eastern Cape, but also from all over Africa, with shacks proliferating wherever there are available open spaces in the townships. The city estimates that nearly a quarter of its households live in so-called “informal dwellings” or shacks. In 2005, the ANC national housing minister launched the N2 Gateway Project, to substitute brick buildings for some of the shacks that lined the N1 from the airport to the city. Whether it was a serious attempt to alleviate the housing shortage or just grandstanding for the electorate and eye candy for tourists arriving by air in the Mother City is a moot point. Either way, housing is still one of the biggest problems facing the metropolis (and the whole of South Africa), and a growing one: between 1998 and 2008 Cape Town’s housing backlog grew from 150,000 to 300,000.
The housing shortage means that hundreds of thousands of Capetonians have limited access to services, such as running water, waterborne-sewerage and electricity. It’s also symptomatic of the city’s slew of other problems: poverty, unemployment, rampant crime, and high infection rates for HIV and TB. Planners project that within the next twenty years the city’s population will grow from its present 3.5 million to anywhere between five and seven million inhabitants.
Industry has long been the route for urbanizing societies to rapidly create employment. But industrialization comes at an environmental cost and Cape Town’s environment is one of its greatest assets: a tangible source of income and employment through tourism. But on its own, tourism is not enough. The city’s planners and politicians face some tough choices.
Where to go in Cape Town
Table Mountain, frequently mantled by its “tablecloth” clouds, is the solid core of Cape Town, dividing the city into distinct zones, with public gardens, wilderness, forests, hiking routes, vineyards and desirable residential areas.
To its north lies the City Centre, home to the most important places to visit in Cape Town – museums, galleries and streets buzzing with buskers, hawkers and market traders. In the adjacent Bo-Kaap Muslim quarter, colourful terraces and restaurants serving local curries add piquancy to the city’s heart.
A stone’s throw from the centre, the V&A Waterfront is Cape Town’s most popular spot for shopping, eating and drinking in a highly picturesque setting among the piers and quays of a working harbour. It’s also the embarkation point for catamarans to Robben Island, the site of Nelson Mandela’s notorious incarceration.
The rocky shore west of the Waterfront is occupied by the inner-city suburbs of Green Point, De Waterkant and Sea Point, home to some of the peninsula’s oldest and best restaurants, their back-streets crammed with backpacker lodges, B&Bs and hotels.
Equally good for accommodation, but more leafy and upmarket in comparison, the City Bowl suburbs gaze down from the Table Mountain foothills across the central business district to the ships in Duncan Dock.
South from Sea Point, a coastal road traces the chilly Atlantic seaboard under the heights of the Twelve Apostles and past some of Cape Town’s most expensive suburbs and spectacular beaches to Hout Bay. From here, the road merges with the precipitous Chapman’s Peak Drive, ten dramatically snaking kilometres of Victorian engineering carved into the western cliffsides of the Table Mountain massif, high above the crashing waves.
To the east, across Table Mountain, the exceptionally beautiful Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens creep up the lower slopes, as do the Constantia Winelands a little further south, while the middle-class southern suburbs stretch down the peninsula as far as Muizenberg.
The scenic Metrorail train line cuts through these suburbs and continues along the False Bay seaboard, passing through village-like Kalk Bay, with its intact harbour and working fishing community, and Fish Hoek, which has the best bathing beach along the eastern peninsula, before the final stop at the historic settlement of Simon’s Town.
Most visitors see only the areas that were classified under apartheid as “white” and which still remain relatively safe and salubrious. But the townships of the Cape Flats to the east of the city can be visited on guided tours, and if you really want to get under the skin of the African areas, you can enjoy the hospitality of any of several B&Bs in Xhosa homes.
Beyond the city, the beautiful Winelands lie just an hour east of the Cape Flats, rich in elegant examples of Cape Dutch architecture, wonderful wines and excellent restaurants. Southeast of Cape Town you can take the picturesque coastal route, winding around massive sea-cliffs, to reach Hermanus, the largest settlement on the Whale Coast, and a fabulous spot for shore-based whale-watching.
The City Centre
Strand Street marks the edge of Cape Town’s original beachfront (though you’d never guess it today), and all urban development to its north stands on reclaimed land. To its south is the Upper City Centre, containing the remains of the city’s 350-year-old historic core, which has survived the ravages of modernization and apartheid-inspired urban clearance, and emerged with enough charm to make it South Africa’s most pleasing city centre. The entire area from Strand Street to the southern foot of the mountain is a collage of Georgian, Cape Dutch, Victorian and twentieth-century architecture, as well as being the place where Europe, Asia and Africa meet in markets, alleyways and mosques. Among the drawcards here are Parliament, the Company’s Gardens and many of Cape Town’s major museums. North of Strand Street to the shore, the Lower City Centre takes in the still-functional Duncan Dock.
On the slopes of Signal Hill, the Bo-Kaap is one of Cape Town’s oldest and most fascinating residential areas. Its streets are characterized by brightly coloured nineteenth-century Dutch and Georgian terraces, which conceal a network of alleyways that are the arteries of its Muslim community. The Bo-Kaap harbours its own strong identity, made all the more unique by the destruction of District Six, with which it had much in common. A particular dialect of Afrikaans is spoken here, although it is steadily being eroded by English. Long-time residents have sold off family properties, and, with the closing of a landmark halal butchery, the area is set for substantial change. A number of trendy outsiders have moved in, and some guesthouses have started up, capitalizing on the outstanding central city position, poised between Long Street distractions and the buzzing Waterkant district.
Bo-Kaap residents are descended from dissidents and slaves imported by the Dutch in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. They became known collectively as “Cape Malay”, although most originated from Africa, India, Madagascar and Sri Lanka, with fewer than one percent actually from Malaysia.
Gold of Africa Museum
Since the discovery of gold near Johannesburg in the late nineteenth century, South Africa has been closely associated in the Western mind with the precious metal and the riches it represents. However, the outstanding Gold of Africa Museum focuses on a completely different side to gold – the exquisite artworks crafted by nineteenth- and twentieth-century African goldsmiths from Mali, Senegal, Ghana and the Cote d’Ivoire. Arguably the most important such collection in the world, it traces Africa’s ancient gold routes, and includes several hundred beautiful items including precious masks, crocodiles, birds, a gold crown and human figures; the highlight is the sculpted Golden Lion from Ghana, which is the symbol of the museum.
There’s also a small auditorium with a continuous film show about the history of gold, a restaurant that serves pan-African cuisine with Malian puppets performing between courses, a studio where goldsmiths practise their art and where you can learn smithing, and a shop selling postcards, gold leaf and beautiful little souvenirs.
Slavery at the Cape
Slavery was officially abolished at the Cape in 1838, but its legacy lives on in South Africa. The country's coloured inhabitants, who make up fifty percent of Cape Town's population, are largely descendants of slaves and indigenous Khoisan people, and some historians argue that apartheid was a natural successor to slavery.
By the end of the eighteenth century, the almost 26,000-strong slave population of the Cape exceeded that of the free burghers (citizens, mostly of European extraction). Despite the profound impact this had on the development of social relations in South Africa, it remained one of the most neglected topics of the country's history, until the publication in the 1980s of a number of studies on slavery. There's still a reluctance on the part of most coloureds to acknowledge their slave origins.
Few, if any, slaves were captured at the Cape for export, making the colony unique in the African trade. Paradoxically, while people were being captured elsewhere on the continent for export to the Americas, the Cape administration, forbidden by the VOC from enslaving the local indigenous population, had to look further afield. Of the 63,000 slaves imported to the Cape before 1808, most came from East Africa, Madagascar, India and Indonesia, representing one of the broadest cultural mixes of any slave society. This diversity initially worked against the establishment of a unified group identity, but eventually a Creolized culture emerged which, among other things, played a major role in the development of the Afrikaans language.
The southern suburbs
Away from Table Mountain and the city centre, the bulk of Cape Town’s residential sprawl extends east into South Africa’s interior. It’s here that the southern suburbs, the formerly whites-only residential areas, stretch out down the east side of Table Mountain, ending at Muizenberg on the False Bay coast, with Claremont and Newlands acting as the central pivotal point.
From anywhere in the southern suburbs you can see Table Mountain. The area offers some quick escapes from the city into forests, gardens and vineyards, all hugging the eastern slopes of the mountain and its extension, the Constantiaberg. The quickest way of reaching the southern suburbs from the city centre, Waterfront or City Bowl suburbs is the M3 highway. Alternatively, you can travel by train to Woodstock, Salt River, Observatory, Mowbray, Rosebank and Rondebosch, and all the stations southwards to Fish Hoek and Simon’s Town.
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens
Five kilometres south of Rondebosch, the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens are one of the planet’s great natural treasure houses, a status acknowledged in 2004 when they became part of South Africa’s sixth UNESCO World Heritage Site – the first botanical garden in the world to achieve this. The listing recognizes the international significance of the fynbos plant kingdom that predominates here.
Kirstenbosch is the oldest and largest botanical garden in South Africa, created in 1895 by Cecil Rhodes, whose camphor and fig trees are still here. Today, over 22,000 indigenous plants – and a research unit and library – attract researchers and botanists from all over the world. There’s a nursery selling local plants, while characteristic Cape plants, found nowhere else in the world, are cultivated on the slopes. The gardens are magnificent, glorying in lush shrubs and exuberant blooms.
The gardens trail off from the lower gardens, which are formally organized, into wild vegetation, covering a huge expanse of the rugged eastern slopes and wooded ravines of Table Mountain. The setting is quite breathtaking – this is a great place to have tea and stroll around gazing up at the mountain, or to wander along the paths, which meander steeply to the top with no fences cutting off the way. Two popular paths, starting from the Contour Path above Kirstenbosch, are Nursery Ravine and Skeleton Gorge; note that there have been muggings in the isolated reaches of Kirstenbosch and on Table Mountain, and women and hikers are advised to walk in groups and avoid carrying valuables.
Early Dutch settlers were alarmed by the lack of good timber on the Cape Peninsula's hillsides, which were covered by nondescript, scrubby bush they described as fijn bosch (literally "fine bush") and which is now known by its Afrikaans name fynbos (pronounced "fayn-bos"). The settlers planted exotics, like the oaks that now shade central Cape Town, and over the ensuing centuries their descendants established pine forests on the sides of Table Mountain in an effort to create a landscape that fulfilled their European idea of the picturesque. It's only relatively recently that Capetonians have come to claim fynbos proudly as part of the peninsula's heritage. Amazingly, many bright blooms in Britain and the US, including varieties of geraniums, freesias, gladioli, daisies, lilies and irises, are hybrids grown from indigenous Cape plants.
Fynbos is remarkable for its astonishing variety of plants, its 8500 species making it one of the world's biodiversity hot spots. The Cape Peninsula alone, measuring less than 500 square kilometres, has 2256 plant species (nearly twice as many as Britain, which is five thousand times bigger). The four basic types of fynbos plants are proteas (South Africa's national flower); ericas, amounting to six hundred species of heather; restios (reeds); and geophytes, including ground orchids and the startling flaming red disas, which can be seen in flower on Table Mountain in late summer.
Cape Dutch architecture
Cape Dutch style, which developed in the Western Cape countryside from the seventeenth to the early nineteenth century, is so rooted in the Winelands that it has become an integral element of the landscape. Limewashed walls glisten in glowing green vineyards, while thatched roofs and curvilinear gables mirror the undulations of the surrounding mountains. The signature element of Cape Dutch manors is their central gables set into the long side of the roof. Gables became more and more elaborate and became an expression of wealth and status.
In central Cape Town, the gable only survived until the 1830s, to be replaced by buildings with flush facades and flat roofs – a response to a series of great fires in Cape Town and Stellenbosch. With pitched roofs gone, the urban gable withered away, surviving symbolically in some instances as minimal roof decoration; an example of this is the wavy parapet on the Bo-Kaap Museum (1763–68) in Wale Street.
The Atlantic seaboard
Table Mountain’s steep drop into the ocean along much of the western peninsula forces the suburbs along the Atlantic seaboard into a ribbon of developments clinging dramatically to the slopes. The sea washing the west side of the peninsula can be very chilly, far colder than on the False Bay seaboard. Although not ideal for bathing, the Atlantic seaboard offers mind-blowing views from some of the most incredible coastal roads in the world, particularly beyond Sea Point, and there are opportunities for whale-spotting. The coast itself consists of a series of bays and white-sanded beaches edged with smoothly sculpted bleached rocks; inland, the Twelve Apostles, a series of rocky buttresses, gaze down onto the surf. The beaches are ideal for sunbathing, or sunset picnics – it’s from this side of the peninsula that you can watch the sun sink into the ocean, creating fiery reflections on the sea and mountains behind as it slips away. Making the most of the views, and beautiful people-watching, are some of the city’s trendiest outdoor cafés and bars.
The False Bay seaboard
In summer the waters of False Bay are several degrees warmer than those on the Atlantic seaboard, which is why Cape Town’s oldest and most popular seaside development is along this flank of the peninsula. A series of village-like suburbs, backing onto the mountains, each served by a Metrorail station, is dotted all the way south from Muizenberg, through St James, Kalk Bay, Fish Hoek and down to Simon’s Town. Each has its own character with restaurants, shops and places to stay, while Simon’s Town, one of South Africa’s oldest settlements, is worth taking in as a day-trip and makes a useful base for visiting the Cape of Good Hope section of the Table Mountain National Park and Cape Point.
Cape Town's top whale spots
The commonest whales around Cape Town are southern rights, and the best whale-watching spots are on the warmer False Bay side of the peninsula, from August to November. You could also try your luck on the Atlantic seaboard at Chapman's Peak towards Hout Bay, and between Llandudno and Sea Point, where the road curves along the ocean. Whichever seaboard you're visiting, remember to have binoculars handy.
Along the False Bay seaboard, look out for whale signboards, indicating good places for sightings. Boyes Drive, running along the mountainside behind Muizenberg and Kalk Bay, provides an outstanding vantage point. To get there by car, head out on the M3 from the city centre to Muizenberg, taking a sharp right into Boyes Drive at Lakeside, from where the road begins to climb, descending finally to join Main Road between Kalk Bay and Fish Hoek.
Alternatively, sticking close to the shore along Main Road, the stretch between Fish Hoek and Simon's Town is recommended, with a particularly nice spot above the rocks at the south end of Fish Hoek Beach, as you walk south towards Glencairn. Boulders Beach at the southern end of Simon's Town has a whale signboard and smooth rocky outcrops on which to sit and gaze out over the sea. Even better vantage points are further down the coast between Simon's Town and Smitswinkelbaai, where the road goes higher along the mountainside. Without a car, you can get the train to Fish Hoek or Simon's Town and whale-spot from the Jager's Walk beach path that runs along the coast from Fish Hoek to Sunny Cove, just below the railway line.
It's worth noting that there are more spectacular whale-spotting opportunities further east, especially around Hermanus and Walker Bay. For information on the latest whale sightings in False Bay, contact Alan on 072 930 4798.
Boulders Beach takes its name from its huge granite rocks, which create a cluster of little coves with sandy beaches and clear sea pools, which are gorgeous for swimming. However, the main reason people come to Boulders’ fenced seafront reserve is for the African penguins (formerly known as jackass penguins). African penguins usually live on islands off the west side of the South African coast, and the Boulders birds form one of only two mainland colonies in the world. This is also the only place where the endangered species are actually increasing in numbers, and provides a rare opportunity to get a close look at them.
Access to the Boulders reserve is through two gates, one at the Boulders Beach, (eastern) end, off Bellevue Road and the other at the Seaforth Beach (western) side, off Seaforth Road. Both entrances are signposted along Main Road between Simon’s Town and Cape Point. At Seaforth, there’s a small visitors’ centre and deck, from which two boardwalks lead to either end of Foxy Beach where you’ll see hundreds of penguins. Most people walk from Seaforth to Boulders, looking at all the penguins in the bushes along the paths, where there are masses of burrows for nesting. At Seaforth itself, there is safe swimming on the beach, which is bounded on one side by the looming grey mass of the naval base. While there are no facilities of any kind on Boulders Beach, there is a restaurant with outdoor seating and fresh fish on the menu at both of the entrances to Boulders.
Weather in Cape Town
Weather is an abiding obsession of Capetonians, particularly the southeaster, the cool summer wind that blows in across False Bay. It can singlehandedly determine the kind of day you’re going to have, and when it gusts at over 60km/h you won’t want to be outdoors, let alone on the beach. Conversely, its gentler incarnation as the so-called Cape Doctor brings welcome relief on humid summer days, and lays the famous cloudy tablecloth on top of Table Mountain. Read more about the best time to visit Cape Town.
The language of colour
It’s striking just how un-African Cape Town looks and sounds. Halfway between East and West, Cape Town drew its population from Africa, Asia and Europe, and traces of all three continents are found in the genes, language, culture, religion and cuisine of South Africa’s coloured population. Afrikaans (a close relative of Dutch) is the mother tongue of over half the city’s population. Having said that, a very substantial number of Capetonians are born English-speakers and English punches well above its weight as the local lingua franca, which, in this multilingual society, virtually everyone can speak and understand.
Afrikaans is the mother tongue of a large proportion of the city’s coloured residents, as well as many whites. The term “coloured” is contentious, but in South Africa it doesn’t have the same tainted connotations as in Britain and the US; it refers to South Africans of mixed race. Most brown-skinned people in Cape Town (over fifty percent of Capetonians) are coloureds, with Asian, African and Khoikhoi ancestry.
New Year, New Year – so good they do it twice
A long-standing tradition in Cape Town is Tweede Nuwe Jaar (second New Year) on January 2 – until recently an official public holiday. Historically, this was the only day of the year slaves were allowed off, and the day has persisted as a holiday of epic proportions. If you're in Cape Town over this period, Tweede Nuwe Jaar sees Cape Minstrels from the coloured community dancing through the streets of the city centre performing a traditional form of singing and riotous banjo playing. Expect each troupe to be dressed up in matching outfits, often featuring outrageous colour combinations. Some roads in the centre are blocked off during the day for the festivities, which process through the city and end up at Green Point Stadium.
Gay and lesbian Cape Town
Cape Town is South Africa's – and indeed, the African continent's – gay capital. The city has always had a vibrant gay culture, and is on its way to becoming an African Sydney, attracting gay travellers from across the country and the globe. Cape Town's gay village, with B&Bs, guesthouses, pubs, clubs, cruise bars and steam baths, is concentrated along the entertainment strips of Somerset Road and in the interconnected inner-city suburbs of Green Point, Sea Point and, particularly, the chic De Waterkant, adjacent to the centre. The Pink Map (pinksa.co.za), published by A&C Maps, lists gay-friendly and gay-owned places in Cape Town and is distributed at the visitor centres, and viewable online.
Cape Town hosts a hugely popular annual gay costume party, organized by Mother City Queer Projects (www.mcqp.co.za), a ten-day festival held each December the week before Christmas. People dress as outrageously as possible according to the official yearly theme (past ones have included Kitchen Kitsch, The Twinkly Sea Project and Lights, Camera, Action) and the event seeks to rival Sydney's Mardi Gras. There's also an annual gay pride festival in February (capetownpride.org).
Besides the South African gay websites and resources listed, it's worth having a look at www.gaynetcapetown.co.za, aimed specifically at gay and lesbian travellers to Cape Town, with restaurants and gay accommodation listings, as well as information about HIV/AIDS. In the De Waterkant, Health4Men at 24 Napier St (health4men.co.za) provides free sexual health services to men, including access to free ARV treatment for men living with HIV.
The best listings magazine is Out Africa Magazine, available from the bars and restaurants in De Waterkant, and from GAP Leisure (gapleisure.com), on the corner of Napier and Waterkant streets, an agency that specializes in finding gay accommodation in the De Waterkant and countrywide.
Though there are many lesbians living in Cape Town, there are no dedicated lesbian bars or clubs, but the lesbian publication L Magazine is a good way to discover anything up-and-coming. Regular parties for women are arranged monthly at different venues.
Accommodation in Cape Town and The Cape Peninsula
Cape Town has plenty of accommodation to suit all budgets, though booking ahead is recommended to guarantee the kind of place you want, especially over the Christmas holidays (mid-Dec to mid-Jan). Cape Town is a long peninsula and there are many different locations which all have their hotly debated advantages and varying physical beauties. You'll need to choose whether you want to be central, with nightlife on your doorstep, or would prefer a quieter setting closer to the ocean, in which case you'll travel further to get into the city. The greatest concentration of accommodation is in the City Centre, City Bowl and the Atlantic seaside strip as far as Camps Bay. If you find everything booked up, Cape Town Tourism has an efficient accommodation booking desk, and can be contacted before you arrive.
Eating in Cape Town
Eating out is one of the highlights of visiting Cape Town, and the city is home to a large number of relaxed and convivial restaurants, which generally serve imaginative food of a high standard. Prices are inexpensive compared with much of the developed world, and you can eat innovative food by outstanding chefs in upmarket restaurants for the kind of money you'd spend on a pizza back home. This is the place to splash out on whatever takes your fancy, and you'll find the quality of meat and fish very high, with many vegetarian options available as well. There are a couple of restaurants dedicated to Cape or African Cuisine, though it's not the thing to concentrate on when you're choosing something to eat since other genres are done a lot better. You can expect fresh Cape fish at every good restaurant as well as seafood from warmer waters. Fish stocks are declining worldwide, however, and to be ecologically responsible, go for a delicious Cape fish like Yellow Tail which is not endangered.
Around the centre of Cape Town you will find a couple of restaurants offering African food, but these are geared towards tourists – you would never find a full-blooded Xhosa worker eating in Long Street. The best way to experience the African food in the townships is by staying in one of the B&Bs, or by taking a tour that incorporates an organized township meal or a drink in a shebeen.
You are not going to find authentic places to eat and drink if you just drive about in the townships, which would be unwise and unsafe in any event, but there is one notable exception: Mzoli’s, in the closest township to the centre and within easy driving distance, has even caught the attention of Jamie Oliver, who adored the barbecued meat.
Cape Town bars and clubs
Being a hedonistic city – especially in the summer – Cape Town has plenty of great places to drink and party, especially along Long Street where it's safe and busy, and there are taxis to get you home. In the summer, the Atlantic Seaboard, notably Camps Bay, is a great option, especially for sundowners. When the dust has settled after Saturday's hedonism, Sunday nights are notably quiet, though there are a couple of welcoming options. Most liquor licences stipulate that the last round is served at 2am, but this is far from strictly followed; bars often stay open until the last customer leaves. You'll find that many drinking places are also restaurants, and may be better known as the latter; in a city where wine is produced, food and wine definitely go together. Drink prices obviously depend on the venue – a local beer in a sports bar might set you back R15, with international brews costing upwards of R20. A smart bar will charge up to R40 for a cocktail, while glasses of delicious Cape wine begin at R25. Clubs get going after 10pm and are pretty international in flavour, with DJs mixing house hits you're bound to recognize. Some may have a cover charge, but this is usually only when they have live music on and it's never more than R100. It's really not a good idea to walk around late at night, so take a taxi number out with you. Many bars and clubs offer food as well, for those hungry moments before or after dancing. When it comes to live music, the best-known South African musicians are sadly better appreciated, and better remunerated, abroad than in their own country. Live music generally happens at a few restaurant/bars, where you may expect a small cover charge if live music is featured. If anyone good is in town, you will pick that up on posters or in a listings magazine. Cape Town is known for its brand of Cape Jazz, but there is nowhere regular to pick that up, though the best jazz event of the year happens in late March at the annual Cape Town International Jazz Festival. When you are in town, check out what is on at the Baxter and Artscape, which are likely venues for any good musical offerings.
Entertainment in Cape Town
There is a satisfying range of dramatic and musical performances on offer in Cape Town that are easily accessed as theatres are scarcely full, and easily affordable compared to the prices you'd pay in London or New York. Despite the virtual lack of arts funding by the government, there is a creative and lively arts scene. The best strategy in finding out what's on in Cape Town is to check out the offerings at the two major arts venues, the Baxter and Artscape, where you are likely to find something appealing, whether a play, a classical concert, opera, contemporary dance or comedy. The daily Cape Times and Argus carry listings and reviews, and the O21 listings magazine (www.021cape.com), on sale at Vida e Caffe stores and local bookshops, has a comprehensive selection of cultural listings, as well as wine festivals, sporting events, art exhibitions and lectures.
Cape Town music
One of Cape Town's musical treasures is Cape jazz, a local derivative of the jazz genre with distinctive African flavours. Its greatest exponent is the internationally acclaimed Abdullah Ibrahim. Born and raised in District Six, Ibrahim is a supremely gifted pianist and composer, who has for decades produced an hypnotic fusion of African, American and Cape idioms. Some of his renowned recordings include Mannenberg and African Marketplace, combining the fluttering rhythms of ghoema – traditional Cape carnival music – with the call-and-answer structure of African gospel. Other Cape Jazz legends include a triumvirate of distinctive saxophonists: the late Basil Coetzee, a phenomenal tenor saxophonist; Robbie Jansen, alto player with a raunchy and original style; and Winston Mankunku, schooled on Coltrane and Wayne Shorter, and his unique brand of African inflections.
The annual Cape Town International Jazz Festival (April) features some of the world's most renowned musicians. Ghoema is the rhythm played on a ghoema drum, a sound that, for many generations, has been the basis for the popular moppies (comic songs) and ghoemaliedjies (picnic songs). The term ghoema comes from the barrel-shaped drum made out of a tin can without a bottom. Cape Town's colourful minstrel troops occupy the streets of the city over New Year, when the hugely popular Rio-style nagtroepe (literally night-time marchers) and armies of lookers-on fill the city's streets from January 1 onwards and ghoema troupes compete for honours in festival gatherings. Catch the Christmas Bands and Malay Choirs in this same season for marching music in the Mother City.
South African theatre and comedy
Athol Fugard is the best known of South African playwrights internationally. Some of his finest plays include Boesman and Lena and Master Harold and the Boys, and there is now a theatre in Cape Town named after him. Most controversial of contemporary playwrights is the brilliant Brett Bailey, a white man more "township" than many blacks, who creates electrifying, chaotic visual and physical theatre, often using untrained actors and dancers in his Third World Bunfight company (thirdworldbunfight.co.za). The company puts on theatre productions, installations, house music shows and opera, mostly concerned with the post-colonial landscape of Africa. You are as likely to catch his work in Europe as you ever are in Cape Town – the schedules appear on his website – but try to go to anything at all which may be on while you're in the city.
Cape Town's premier physical theatre company, Magnet (magnettheatre.co.za), produces consistently excellent, politically conscious, non-didactic physical theatre. Magnet sometimes collaborates with Jazzart contemporary dance/theatre company (jazzart.co.za) where you'll see the finest black dancers in town, who have forged a fusion of Western and African dance in their work. Cape Town-born RSC actor Sir Anthony Sher is the city's most famous son, appearing occasionally in the mother city in some fabulous productions, including an Africanized Tempest in 2009 and Arthur Miller's Broken Glass in 2011.
South Africa's best-known stage satirist is Pieter Dirk Uys, whose character Evita Bezuidenhout, South Africa's answer to Dame Edna Everidge, has relentlessly roasted South African society since apartheid days. He often performs in Cape Town, though the best place to catch him is on a dedicated day out, over the weekend, in Darling, an hour out of Cape Town. New generation home-grown comedians to look out for include Marc Lottering, a coloured Capetonian who derives his material from his own community; Nik Rabinowitz, an irreverent middle-class Jewish boy who uses his fluency in Xhosa to poke fun at cultural stereotypes; and Riyaad Moosa, a Muslim doctor turned comedian. If he is visiting from Gauteng, catch Trevor Noah, one of the most talented young South African stand-ups.
Sports and outdoor activities in Cape Town
One of Cape Town's most remarkable features is the fact that it melds with the Table Mountain National Park, a patchwork of mountains, forests and coastline – all on the city's doorstep. There are few, if any, other cities in the world where outdoor pursuits are so easily available and affordable. You can try activities such as sea kayaking, abseiling, rock climbing and scuba diving for little more than the price of a night out back home. Alternatively, just let everyone else get on with it while you sink a few beers and watch the cricket, rugby or football.
Shopping in Cape Town
The V&A Waterfront is the city's most popular shopping mall, with good reason: it has a vast range of shops, the setting on the harbour is lovely and there's a huge choice of places to eat and drink when you want to rest your feet. The city centre also offers variety and, for some people's taste, a grittier and more interesting venue for browsing, especially if you're looking for collectibles, antiques and secondhand books. For crafts and gifts, wander about Kalk Bay's Main Rd or Long Street, while the most sophisticated central shopping area – small, modern and full of desirable goods with great cafes – is the Cape Quarter in the Waterkant. Don't expect much to be open on Sunday afternoons, except at the Waterfront.
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