In my little black book of travel, Cape Town always makes my top ten list of greatest cities in the world. It would probably succeed based on Table Mountain alone, a majestic flat-topped mountain rising out of the earth at almost the most southernly point in Africa, but there’s just no reason to stop there.
Mandela’s life history, quite possibly one of the most inspiring of all time, is intertwined with the city. Its landscape is extraordinary, its culture complex.
Simply put: there are plenty of unusual things to do in Cape Town and a visit here will help you understand why South Africa is called the rainbow nation.
Here’s my shortlist – and as you can see it’s rather long. I’ve snuck in a few more usual activities, too, because even they seem unusual when compared against other cities in the world.
Here we go…
Quite simply, the Sleepy Hollow Riding School took me along the most beautiful route I have ever seen in my life. And I am very, very lucky to have seen many a beautiful route. Based out in Noordhoek, the horses wade through water, pass flamingos and trot (or canter if you like) along the sand and sea breeze spray while green and charcoal mountains appear in and out of the mist.
Not only is the mountain itself built in a razzle dazzle shape, the quality of its landscape is outstanding too. Table Mountain forms part of the Cape Floral Region, a protected area recognised by UNESCO for its diversity. It covers less than 0.5% of the land of Africa but houses more than 20% of its flora.
Cape Town’s Slave Lodge represents the history of slavery from within the walls where slaves were once held and sold. The modern make-up of Cape Town reflects the huge population shifts that took place during these dark hours and the museum broadens its scope to examine the practices of slavery across the world, with a focus, of course on South Africa.
Yes, flowers are a big deal here in the Cape but they’re far from dainty. Head to Groote Post to bounce around in a jeep amid springbok on a rugged flower safari. (There’s a vineyard here too if you’d like to show your appreciation for the grapes of the Cape through wine tasting.)
When I first visited, ten years ago, you had the penguins pretty much to yourself. Now it’s a much more structured affair, for better and for worse (better in that it protects the beach from the crowds. Worse because you’re now behind a fence, with the crowds.) There’s still something adorable about getting up close and almost personal with these fluffy waddling cuties though. And you will be checked for penguin theft on exit…
Now, I haven’t done it but it is possible to fling yourself into the water with some bloody meat and a great white shark. Oh yes – and a cage. One thing to stop and think about, though, is that there are some environmental concerns about “training” sharks to get used to swimming close to humans and following the scent of blood. Your choice…
Make sure to check out Coffee Beans Routes, a characterful small tour company in Cape Town that specialises in getting away from the gentrified side of the city and getting under its skin. They offer several different tours (see the next point!) but all involve in- depth information, small groups and proper, meaningful interactions with locals. The jazz safari takes in a visit to a musician’s home in one of the townships, dinner there, and then an evening in a late night jazz bar.
Another Coffee Beans special, this afternoon sees you visiting art galleries and studios in stylish parts of town, regenerated parts of town and beneath corrugated iron roofs part of town. You’ll meet artists at each place and learn something different about the city along the way.
I have mixed feelings about tours through townships. Some can feel voyeuristic but others bridge gaps, help local businesses and enlighten those who visit. Having tried a few, I’d recommend AWOL’s cycling tour through Masiphumelele. The cycling itself is pretty low key and you get to spend time in a children’s day care centre, a witch doctor’s waiting room, a women’s sewing cooperative and then you finish up with a hearty Masi lunch.
The quarter of Bo Kaap is worth a visit all by itself just for the visual treat of bright shining colours against the backdrop of Table Mountain. Iconically home to the Cape Malay population, Bo Kaap has its own story of displacement and discrimination during apartheid – when those labelled “Indian” and “coloured” categories were moved here. The Bo Kaap museum offers an interesting glimpse into the history of the place but to really get a feel for the area – not to mention having a lot of fun – take a cooking lesson.
Long believed to be the most southerly point in Africa (spoiler – it’s not, that’s actually Cape Agulhas) the way the rocks slice into the water, dividing the Indian and Atlantic Oceans apart, is one of the most thrilling sights on earth (alright, the technical division of the oceans also takes place somewhere else but when standing on the windswept edges watching the tumult of the waves below, it’s easy to see how people imagined that this was the end of the earth.) You can cheat and take the funicular up but the highlight of the visit involves striding through the vegetation, making the most of those spectacular views.
The extraordinary life history of Nelson Mandela is one of the most inspiring stories in the world – and plenty of the key events took place in Cape Town. Track them down yourself (through a visit to Robben Island and walking past the balcony where Mandela gave his first speech as a free man after 27 years in prison) or else have Footsteps to Freedom round them up for you through their Footsteps of Madiba tour. (NB – For more on this incredible man, don’t forget to visit Lilliesleaf farm on the outskirts of Joburg where Mandela hid for many months and of course the township of Soweto in Joburg, the crucible of many of the fights against apartheid.)
At the end of the 19th century, Cape Town’s District Six was a vibrant, mixed community of merchants, artisans, free slaves and labourers. Forced migrations began with black South Africans at the turn of the century and then in the 1960s more than 60 000 people were forcibly removed and their houses destroyed as the government relabelled District Six as a White Only area. While events like this took place across South Africa, District Six has become a symbol for the entire process, perhaps because much of the flattened area remains a wasteland in the heart of the city today. Visit the District Six Museum to find out more (and get chatting to older drivers, cooks and artists, many of whom were children evicted during the District Six reassignment and who have their own stories to tell.)
First up, let me warn you that locals say this place is for tourists. Second up, let me say that the food tastes great, the entertainment’s upbeat and until you’ve had your face painted with beautiful tribal dots, well you’re just missing out on the fun that life has to offer! Zoom around the continent on your tastebuds with Nigerian cassava bread, peri peri from Mozambique and spicy butternut squash from Kenya. Best of all is the interactive Djembe drumming session at the start of the evening. It’s demanding and surprisingly addictive. Find all this at the Gold Restaurant in Green Point. Relax and enjoy.
Formerly a slave market, vegetable market and car park (although not all at the same time) Greenmarket Square now hosts an eclectic flea market amid this network of streets in Cape Town’s historic centre.
If you’re looking for white sand, blue water and a stylish line-up of bars and eateries then Camps Bay is the place to go. It’s also a beautiful low-key area if you’re looking for a place to stay for a while.
Once a biscuit mill (how did you guess?) this red brick urban edifice now hosts experimental restaurants, designer boutiques, art galleries and more. Plus it hosts the tasty and uplifting Neighbourhood Goods Market each Saturday morning. If local produce, organic food and lashings of balsamic vinegar are your kind of thing then this will be the market for you. Visit the Old Biscuit Mill.
The Guga S’Thebe Arts & Cultural Centre in Langa injects a pulse of community spirit in Cape Town’s oldest township. Shop for coloured pottery or sit back and enjoy a musical performance as this part of town deals with its past hostel history at the nearby museum and takes steps toward a brighter future within the arts centre.
Yes, not exactly unusual. It’s Africa’s most visited tourist attraction, after all. But the V& A Waterfront is definitely worth a visit, and the yellowtail tartare at the Harbour House Restaurant just oozes with freshness and flavour.
So, yes. Do visit Cape Town’s V & A Waterfront. Just don’t let that be the only place you see.
Disclosure – Some of the items on this list were hosted, some were not. Not every hosted attraction made it on the list. In short, I’ve only included things that I’d recommend to friends, no matter who paid on each occasion. As ever, as always, I’m free to write what I like on Inside the Travel Lab. Otherwise, what’s the point?
Abigail King is an award-winning writer and author who swapped a successful career as a hospital doctor for a life on the road. With over 60 countries under her belt, she's worked for Lonely Planet, the BBC, National Geographic Traveller and more. She is passionate about sustainable tourism and was invited to speak on the subject at the EU-China High Level summit at the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris.Here she writes about food, travel and history and she invites you to pull up a chair and relax. Let's travel more and think more. Welcome!
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