Cape Town is one of Africa’s most beautiful, most romantic and most visited cities. Its physical setting is extraordinary, something its pre-colonial Khoikhoi inhabitants acknowledged when they referred to Table Mountain as Hoerikwaggo – the mountain in the sea.
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Even more extraordinary is that so close to the national park that extends over much of the peninsula, there’s a vibrant metropolis with nightlife to match the city’s wildlife. Swim with penguins at Boulders Beach, see the continent’s southwestern tip at Cape Point, enjoy lunch on the chichi Atlantic seaboard and taste fine wines on a historic Constantia estate, before partying the night away in a Long Street club. It’s all in a Mother City day.
Read our Cape Town city guide for everything you need to know before you go.
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 pushed inland some two thousand years ago by the arrival of Khoikhoi migrants from the north. Over the following 1600 years, the Khoikhoi held sway.
Portuguese mariners first rounded the Cape in the 1480s, and named it Cabo da Boa Esperança (Cape of Good Hope), but their attempts at trading with the Khoikhoi were short-lived.
In 1652 the Dutch East India Company cruised into Table Bay and set up 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 resisted, 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 but were defeated. By 1700, the settlement had grown into an urban centre – “Kaapstad” (Cape Town).
The Brits arrive
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. By 1750, Cape Town was a town of over a thousand buildings, with 2500 inhabitants.
In 1795, Britain grabbed Cape Town to secure the strategic sea route to the East. They ordered the emancipation of slaves in 1834 and introduced freedom of religion, and South Africa’s first mosque was soon built by freed Muslim slaves in the Bo-Kaap.
By the turn of the nineteenth century, cosmopolitan Cape Town had become a seaport of major significance, growing under the influence of the British Empire. Since slavery had been abolished, Victorian Cape Town had to be built by convicts and prisoners of war. Racial segregation wasn’t far behind, and an outbreak of bubonic plague in 1901 gave the town council a pretext to establish Ndabeni, Cape Town’s first black location, near Maitland.
The birth of apartheid
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. Increasing industrialization brought an influx of black workers to the city. In 1948, the whites-only National Party came to power, promising a fearful white electorate that it would reverse the flow of Africans. A new policy favoured coloured people over black Africans for employment, yet only black African men who had jobs were admitted to Cape Town (women were excluded altogether). The construction of family accommodation for Africans was also forbidden.
The exclusively black Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) organized a peaceful anti-pass demonstration in Langa on 30 March 1960, which sparked the government to ban anti-apartheid opposition groups, including the PAC and ANC. The notorious Group Areas Act was used to uproot whole coloured communities from District Six and move them to the desolate Cape Flats. In 1972, the National Party stripped away coloured representation on the town council.
A decade later, the re-formed United Democratic Front heralded a period of intensified opposition to apartheid. In 1986, influx control was scrapped, and blacks poured into Cape Town seeking work and erecting shantytowns. On 11 February 1990, just hours after being released from prison, Nelson Mandela made his first public speech from the balcony of City Hall and, four years later, he made history as South Africa’s first democratically elected president.
In the 1994 election, while most of South Africa delivered an ANC landslide, the Western Cape voted in the National Party – the party that invented apartheid. The majority of coloured people had voted for the party that had once stripped them of the vote, regarding it with less suspicion than they did the black-dominated ANC. Since 2006 both have been governed by the liberal Democratic Alliance (DA), which maintains Cape Town as the city in the country with the least corruption and best infrastructure and facilities. Nonetheless there have been violent protests in the townships about non-delivery of services.
Modern day inequality
The city also suffers from a slew of other problems – poverty, unemployment, housing, rampant crime and high infection rates for HIV and TB. Cape Town remains a divided city, and one where inequality is extreme.
Where to go in Cape Town
More than a scenic backdrop, Table Mountain is the solid core of Cape Town. The flat-topped mountain divides 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 summit, the capital of the Western Cape unfurls before you. Look north for a giddy view of the city centre, its docks lined with matchbox ships. To the west, beyond the mountainous Twelve Apostles, your eye sweeps across the beautiful Atlantic seaboard. To the south, historic vineyards and the marvellous Kirstenbosch Gardens creep up the forested lower slopes.
Here are the top places to visit in Cape Town:
The city centre
The Upper City Centre contains the remains of the city’s 350-year-old historic core. The neighbourhood has survived the ravages of modernization and apartheid-inspired urban clearance to emerge as South Africa’s most charming city centre. It is a place where Europe, Asia and Africa meet in the markets, alleyways and mosques, while a jigsaw of Georgian, Cape Dutch, Victorian and twentieth-century architecture pieces together its complex history. Among the drawcards here are Parliament, the Company’s Garden and a cluster of museums. North of Strand Street to the shore, the Lower City Centre takes in the still-functional Duncan Dock.
Lying a few kilometres from the Waterfront, flat and windswept Robben Island is suffused by a meditative, otherworldly silence. This key site of South Africa’s liberation struggle was intended to silence apartheid’s domestic critics, but instead became an international focus for opposition to the regime. Measuring just six square kilometres and sparsely vegetated by low scrub, it was Nelson Mandela’s “home” for almost twenty years. The UNESCO-listed island is now a museum, and a tour of the former prison is one of the most interesting things to do in Cape Town.
Table Mountain, a 1086m flat-topped massif with dramatic cliffs and eroded gorges, dominates the northern end of the Cape Peninsula. Its north face overlooks the city centre, with the distinct formations of Lion’s Head and Signal Hill to the west and Devil’s Peak to the east. The massif’s west face is made up of a series of gable-like formations known as the Twelve Apostles. The southwest face towers over Hout Bay, and the east gazes over the Southern Suburbs. The mountain is a habitat for wildlife, including indigenous baboons, dassies and porcupines, and 1400 species of flora. Fabulous hikes weave up and along Table Mountain, while the highly popular cable car offers dizzying views across town to Table Bay and the Atlantic.
Boulders Beach takes its name from the huge granite rocks that cluster together to form little coves with sandy beaches and clear sea pools. However, the main reason people come to Boulders’ fenced seafront reserve is for the 2000-plus African penguins (also known as jackass penguins for their distinctive bray). African penguins usually live on islands off the Southern African coast, including Robben Island, and the Boulders birds form one of only two mainland colonies.
Top Things to do in Cape Town
From art and architecture to culture, nature and vineyards, Cape Town travel is diverse and rewarding.
Here are the 10 top things to do in Cape Town:
- South African National Gallery
Check out the sculpture Butcher Boys by Jane Alexander, the epitome of surreal menace, in one of the city’s finest art museums.
One of Cape Town’s oldest residential areas, its hilly streets are characterized by colourful nineteenth-century Cape Dutch and Georgian terraces.
- Robben Island
Visit the infamous island prison where Nelson Mandela lived for nearly two decades, breaking rocks in the quarry and planning the end of apartheid.
- Rotate up Table Mountain
The revolving cable car is the city’s easiest route to the summit, where you’ll be rewarded with spectacular views across town to Table Bay and the Atlantic.
- Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden
Hike in one of the world’s loveliest botanical gardens to discover the fynbos vegetation and its astonishing variety of plants, whose 8500 mostly endemic species make the Cape Floristic Region one of the world’s biodiversity hot spots.
- Boulders Beach
Swimming with penguins on this False Bay beach is one of the most memorable things to do in Cape Town.
- Cape Point
The dramatically rocky southernmost section of the Cape Peninsula offers spectacular views and walks.
- Township tour
See where most Capetonians live and visit an artist’s home gallery in Langa, the city’s oldest township.
- Long Street nightlife
Party till the early hours along the city centre’s nightlife hub, home to a cluster of cool places to drink and dance.
- Wine tasting
Taste fine wines on a historic Constantia estate in the Cape’s oldest winelands, which tumble down the lower slopes of Table Mountain and the Constantiaberg, offering tantalizing views of False Bay.
Accommodation in Cape Town
Cape Town has plenty of accommodation to suit all budgets, though booking ahead is recommended, especially over the Christmas and Easter holidays. The long peninsula offers many different locations, all with hotly debated advantages and varying physical beauty. 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 south as Camps Bay. One of the best ways to experience everyday black South Africa is to stay in one of the African townships as part of your Cape Town travel.
Where to eat out in Cape Town
Eating out is one of the highlights of visiting this world-class culinary destination, where the Mediterranean climate nurtures farms, vineyards and small producers galore. Prices are inexpensive compared with Western countries. For the cost of an unmemorable meal back home, you can eat imaginative dishes by outstanding chefs in an upmarket restaurant. This is the place to splash out, and you’ll find the quality of meat, from steaks to springbok, is high, with many vegetarian options also available.
A few restaurants are dedicated to Cape Malay or African cuisine, though other genres are generally prepared more skilfully. Expect fresh Cape fish at every good restaurant as well as seafood from warmer waters. Try the delicious local fish such as yellowtail, which is not endangered. Also check out the fun neighbourhood markets, one of the top places to visit in Cape Town for local food.
Drinking and nightlife in Cape Town
Being a hedonistic city, Cape Town has a range of great places to drink and party, particularly along Long Street. In the summer, the Atlantic seaboard, notably Camps Bay, is a great option for sundowners. While it is possible to seek out a few longstanding watering holes with an old-world ambience, a growing crop of hipster bars with eclectic decor are springing up across the city.
Along with the Winelands, Cape Town’s Constantia is the oldest and most rewarding wine-producing region – a wine-tasting session is among the best things to do in Cape Town. Despite its fine New World wines, beer is indisputably the national drink, cutting across all racial and class divisions. In recent years, there has been a surge in the number of microbreweries, which produce craft beers and ciders.
Sports and activities in Cape Town
There are few other cities in the world where outdoor pursuits are so easily available and affordable as Cape Town. With Table Mountain National Park right on the city’s doorstep, you can try activities such as sea kayaking, abseiling, paragliding and scuba diving for considerably less than you might pay in a Western country. Alternatively, hit the spa, swing a golf iron or watch the cricket, rugby or football. To find out what major fixtures are on, and to buy tickets, visit Computicket.
Shopping in Cape Town
The V&A Waterfront is Cape Town’s most popular shopping venue, with a vast range of shops in a lovely harbour setting. Nearby, the Cape Quarter, accessed off Somerset Road on the border of Der Waterkant and Green Point, is smaller and more exclusive. While most South African malls tend to follow the American model, the city centre offers much more variety. Long Street is good for crafts, antiques and secondhand books, while Bree Street and Kloof Street are perfect for unique designer goods. For something edgier, the increasingly gentrified city-fringe districts of Woodstock and the East City have clusters of cutting-edge design shops and markets. Cape Town’s Green Map is a great source of information about ethical shopping and organic markets.
LGBTQ Cape Town
Cape Town is South Africa’s – and indeed, the African continent’s – LGBTQ capital. The city has long had a vibrant gay culture, attracting gay travellers from across the country and the globe. The centrally located Pink Village, as the gay-friendly De Waterkant is known, offers excellent LGBTQ-orientated cafés, nightlife, accommodation and a sauna. Despite South Africa’s progressive constitution legalizing same-sex marriages, outside the city attitudes remain conservative and there is a great deal of homophobia. Homosexuals are regularly harassed and attacked in the African townships, so be discreet outside the city centre. Cape Town travel is great for LGBTQ events and festivals; try the hugely popular gay costume party organized by Mother City Queer Project in December, or the fun gay pride festival in February.
Around Cape Town
In this section of the Cape Town city guide, we’ll look at the interesting neighbourhoods and nature parks beyond the busy centre.
The Cape Flats
Stretching east of the M5 highway and sprawling out past the airport, the windswept Cape Flats are Cape Town’s largest residential area. It takes in the coloured districts, African townships and informal settlements (shanty town squatter camps). Once the apartheid dumping ground for black and coloured people, these township-covered flatlands now offer rewarding experiences of everyday African life and are best visited on a tour.
Table Mountain National Park
One of Cape Town’s most remarkable features is its seamless fusion with Table Mountain National Park, a patchwork of mountains, forests and coastline. In addition to its crowning glory – the mighty summit after which the park is named – highlights include Silvermine Nature Reserve, which has beautiful walks and a dam to swim in; and Cape Point, the dramatic southwestern tip of Africa.
The Atlantic Seaboard
Table Mountain’s steep drop into the ocean forces the suburbs along the Atlantic seaboard into a ribbon of developments clinging dramatically to the slopes. The sea can be very chilly, but the Atlantic seaboard offers mind-blowing views from some of the most incredible coastal roads in the world, particularly beyond Sea Point. One of the most rewarding things to do in Cape Town is whale-spotting on the western side of the peninsula. The coast itself is a string of bays and white-sand beaches, while inland the Twelve Apostles, a series of rocky buttresses, gaze down on the surf. The beaches are ideal for sunbathing or sunset picnics, or people-watch at some of the city’s most glamorous 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 most popular seaside towns line this flank of the peninsula. A series of historic, mountain-backed suburbs are 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. Simon’s Town, one of South Africa’s oldest settlements, makes either a pleasant day-trip or a relaxing base for visiting Boulders Beach and the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve.
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