Grazed by windswept clouds, Cape Town’s iconic plateau watches over the city below. Strong and proud the mountainous backdrop stands streaked in the light from a setting sun. To the south, a busy harbour grows quiet. Ships rock gently in the waves and without anyone noticing a lone seal glides silently through the bay. Hand in hand we stroll across the Victoria & Alfred waterfront. Cozy restaurants line the streets, lit from within by the warmth of good company. It is here that we enjoy our first South African evening.
Like many cities around the world, Cape Town bears several nicknames. The most common of these is the Mother City. In the 1930’s a local newspaper claimed that Cape Town was the only city in South Africa that could consider itself a metropolis. Therefore, leveraging Greek derivatives, metros meaning mother and polis meaning city, the Mother City was born.
From the moment we arrived we knew that Cape Town would be a city that we would not only enjoy but that we would yearn to return to in the future (this is certainly already the case). Sophisticated, vibrant and visually stunning this coastal city is the perfect primer for your South African adventure. Thanks to what we would consider the ultimate Cape Town experience, here are our top picks for exploring the city.
Located in the heart of a working harbour, the Victoria & Alfred waterfront was originally established in 1654 as a small jetty for the Dutch East India Company. In the 1800’s, Queen Victoria’s son Alfred expanded the area. Today, it is a popular destination to enjoy artisanal shopping, live music and local eateries. You can easily spend a few hours or an entire day perusing the shops and enjoying the atmosphere.
During our stay we had the pleasure of booking in at the V&A Hotel. Sharing it’s name with the Queen of England and her son the hotel showcases colonial elegance and unparalleled service. We felt especially pampered when the staff already knew that we were celebrating our honeymoon and went out of their way to cater to our every need. The rooms are modern and comfortable and we were in love with our view every day. To the north sat Table Mountain, to the west the Cape Grace and to the south the harbour.
The V&A waterfront is the ideal location for those seeking to stay in area where everything is easily accessible. The pier is home to a number of tour companies for those seeking a same day excursion, some of the best restaurants in the city, the Cape Wheel with elevated views of the harbour and the jump off point for those taking a trip to Robben Island.
Most of us will recognize Robben Island as the notorious prison that held Nelson Mandela for 18 years. History, however; recounts the island as a food station for the mainland and a mail post for international communications. In the 1600’s, Dutch settlers sent convicts and prisoners to the island. 200 years later a whaling station and leper colony joined the community. In 1931, all that remained was an overgrown cemetery. It wasn’t until 1959 that the Robben Island of recent memories was officially declared an apartheid-era maximum security prison. Nelson Mandela arrived in the winter of 1964.
The trip to Robben Island begins with a choppy 6.9 kilometre boat ride. Upon arrival, visitors are escorted to buses through a gate built by those imprisoned. The guides waiting to tour us around the island are former political prisoners. While I couldn’t even begin to imagine how difficult it is to remain in the very place that you were once held prisoner, for many of these men, this position is necessary to support their families and continue to have their story told.
The bus tour provides a snapshot into the island’s history, covering first the leper cemetery and Robert Sobukwe’s house. Sobukwe, founder of the Pan Africanist Congress, required solitary confinement. As a result, the South African government built a secluded house specifically for his incarceration. He is the only prisoner ever to stay in the building. Also on the island is the infamous limestone quarry where political prisoners worked everyday in the glaring sun as well as a Muslim shrine commemorating Sayed Adurohman Moturu. Exiled to the island, the Prince of Madura died there in 1754. These sites provide evidence of the many cultures, ethnicities and religions that once suffered on the island.
Upon entering the prison we are lead to the room that our guide shared with up to 30 other prisoners. Lining the walls are simple bunk beds with a single blanket. Here he describes his time at the prison and the injustices experienced by varying ethnicities. In the photograph below you can see an example of meals served based on skin colour.
From here we enter Courtyard B and the corresponding cells where Mandela began writing Long Walk to Freedom. The cells inside are small and bare. Each with a metal gate followed by a wooden door to prevent prisoners from communicating. Mandela’s cell, roughly 2×2, includes a mat, blanket, small table and a bucket. Also housed in the prison is an infirmary, kitchen and recreation room however each space is stark and desolate. Consequently, a person’s time here would have been anything but enjoyable.
Now considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the remains of Robben Island symbolize the triumph of the human spirit. As an authentic representation of the brutality of history but the power of freedom, this tour is a worthwhile experience for everyone visiting Cape Town.
What better way to understand a new destination then by exploring the communities that make it unique. While some travellers opt to accomplish this with a hop-on hop-off tour others go it alone. However if your means allow, we highly recommend booking a private driver. Working with Wilderness Touring we had an absolutely amazing guide whose dedication made our trip the ultimate experience.
Taking into account our interests he customized an itinerary that would showcase all the best of Cape Town. After an amazing coastal drive along the peninsula (which we will share in the next post) we entered the Constantia wine region. Dating back to 1865, the region is home to 8 award winning wineries. For those short on time this is the perfect opportunity to experience South African wine within 15 kilometres of the city centre. Be sure to stop at Steenberg winery, we promise it will be worth it! For those with more time for a full day wine tour stay tuned for our post of Stellenbosch and beyond.
Next, we made our way to Bo-Kaap. A widely recognized neighbourhood due to its cobblestone streets and brightly coloured houses. Today, the area is vibrant and cheerful however it was formerly known as the Malay Quarter due to its original inhabitants being slaves from Malaysia and surrounding areas. If you are a fan of Notting Hill in London, consider this the South African version. Spend some time strolling through the streets or if time allows check out the Bo-Kaap museum or Bo-Kaap cooking tour.
At this point we would highly recommend a trip up the aerial cableway to experience the views from atop Table Mountain. However, keep in mind that the cable cars only run when the wind is low and the cloud cover minimal. Be sure to check before going because medium to high winds prevent the cable cars from running. This was unfortunately the case for us and we were unable to take advantage of this highly popular experience. Due to this misfortune our guide surprised us with a trip up Signal Hill, an elevated rise accessible by vehicle. The top of Signal Hill offers panoramic views of the city but most of all it showcases the stunning landscape of Table Mountain and Lion’s Head.
The above recommendations provide just a snapshot of what Cape Town has to offer. While exploring make sure to also stop and eat. South Africans love food, hence, the variety of cuisines available is endless. There wasn’t a single meal during our trip that we didn’t enjoy. Also, be sure to drink the coffee and drink it often. Mugg and Bean is a local favourite but every coffee shop seems to produce an amazing cup of joe. Finally, for those spending more time in Cape Town stay tuned for our posts on driving the cape peninsula and exploring wine country.