Cape Town has long held a certain romantic intrigue for me. If I’m being honest, this is largely due to my insatiable appetite for Wilbur Smith novels when I was younger. Actually, I still have a definite soft spot for Wilbur but don’t tell anyone. As I’ve grown older though, I’ve increasingly heard good things about the cape city. In fact I can’t think of anyone who has ever said anything bad about the place. We now know why so thought we would share the Compass & Ladle Cape Town top five things to do…
As you fly into Cape Town it’s hard not to get excited. The craggy and majestic splendour of the Table Mountain National Park rises abruptly out of the dry red and brown plains. A steady Atlantic swell rolls up from the Antarctic and breaks across numerous little bays and long sandy beaches. And there, nestled in between the mountain and the sea are the colourful suburbs of Cape Town. For a first timer into Southern Africa I couldn’t help but grin stupidly and feel pumped for the adventures ahead.
Our planning for South Africa and the African leg of our trip was even more useless than normal. Other than booking one night in a Cape Town hotel and a few catch ups, we had zero clue of what we were going to get up to. As a result our stay in Cape Town started with one night, extended to three and quickly became six. Then we decided to go and buy a Toyota Land Cruiser named Bertha (a whole different story) which meant we spent nearly a month in and around Cape Town. Time easily spent though as there is so much to do. Here are our Cape Town top five things to do:
1. An afternoon on Table Mountain
Our first bit of touristing was to get up close and personal with the iconic Table Mountain. For some silly reason we set out from our hotel in the hottest part of the day with the equally silly intention of walking up to the cable car station. What looked like an easy 4km stroll became an exhausting up hill mission on the hottest day of our stay. As the cable car left the station though, our effort felt 100% worth it. Some genius had designed the car to rotate 360 degrees giving everyone a cracking view of Cape Town regardless of where they stood.
Up on top the view was nothing less than breathtaking. With a thin bank of cloud slowly covering the below Atlantic, we really appreciated being on top of and at the end of the world. You quickly realise that it’s not just one mountain up there but a series of rugged peaks (18 to be exact) which stretch all the way down to Cape Point. We perched up to a little picnic of Jamon, Camembert and baguette and soaked it all in. You can buy meals from a fairly well stocked canteen up there but it was cheaper and we reckon more enjoyable to bring our own food and sit on a quiet rock taking in the epic views.
After lunch we took a cheeky free guided tour to learn a little history and botany of the area and then headed off for the highest point of the mountain. Within minutes we had left the crowds behind. It was awesome how quickly we found ourselves alone on the path with nothing but the wind in our ears. The highest point was an easy 45 minutes stroll away but by the time we got back, the sun was setting and we were both dying for a cold, frothy beer. Those sundowners were right up there as the best beers in the world!
2. The Old Biscuit Mill / Neighbourgoods Market
With its melting pot of cultures and access to some of the best produce going around, Cape Town is unsurprisingly full of good food and booze. There aren’t many better places to sample all this than at the Saturday Neighbourgoods Market. Half of the market features local handicrafts and designers selling their wares with some high end coffee helping to ease the sore Saturday morning heads. Once the caffeine has done it’s work there is also a conveniently located and very well stocked liquor store running tastings. We took it upon ourselves to sample a few glasses of rosé and some locally distilled gin. Yum.
On the other side of a large expanse of astro turf are two big warehouses stuffed to the gills with little stalls representing all the cape’s tasty goodness. You enter through a large marquee where sweet live tunes keep the masses entertained and then you’re amongst a foodie’s heaven. Rows of trestle tables groan with mounds of tasty treats while vendors try and tempt to you with morsels of their fare. After stuffing our faces with fluffy roti and spicy dal…then fat pork spring rolls…then short rib, bolognese mac and cheese balls (yes, you read right)… then a steak sandwich… and finally a mushroom kebab, we eventually retired to the sun with a Chardonnay and hoppy craft lager. Some dirty jazz cranked in the background while we got chatting to some locals. The whole thing was pretty much the perfect market experience!
3. A drive around Chapman’s Peak
We were lucky to have a good mate of Fi’s take a day out to act as our tour guide. Destination of choice? A drive around Chapman’s Peak with plenty of stops to sample the local watering holes. The drive was epic and started with a quick tour around the beautiful Cape Town beaches of Greenpoint and Seapoint. Before long the road was wrapping itself around the mountain ranges and the iconic Chapman’s Peak. Craggy peaks soared above us while below cliffs plunged straight down to the water.
While we were riding in a 10 year old Pajero we might as well have been in a top down Aston Martin. It’s that kind of drive. We made stops at the gorgeous old Chapman Hotel and then again at The Toad at the Noordhoek Farm Village before ending up at Cape Point vineyard for their Thursday afternoon market. From there things got a little hazy as the craft beer, then wines, then ciders took their toll. We feasted on fresh shucked oysters, spicy Portuguese pastries and various meaty treats. Other than the rubbish weather we were in heaven. By about 7:30pm we were completely sozzled but chuffed with a day well spent.
4. A spot of history: Robben island and District 6
For all those history buffs out there, Cape Town has plenty for you. From pre-colonial days through centuries of colonial rule, the brutality of apartheid to the release of Nelson Mandela; there is a lot of history to sink your teeth into. On a sunny Sunday we took in both a visit to Robben Island and a walking tour of District 6 and while at times depressing, both were fascinating.
Robben island is situated about 40 minutes boat ride from the Cape Town waterfront. It was first a re-supply point for Dutch seafarers, then a leper colony and finally a political prison during apartheid. It’s this last function for which it is most famous due to the incarceration of Nelson Mandela and many other political activists. Nowadays there are multiple tours each day consisting of a bus tour of the island and a guided tour of the prison with one of its former inmates.
At 2.5 hours in total you really don’t get enough time on the island but it’s still super interesting and we thought worth while. Given we had such an stunning day weather wise, even just the boat ride out there was amazing. I think for most people though, the highlight comes from listening to the highly engaging former inmates talk about their time on the island. Our guide had been on the island with Mandela and had returned to this job out of need for employment. His story was well rehearsed but no less fascinating. At R300+ per person Robben island is pretty pricey for what you get but if you can score a beautiful sunny day like we did it’s totally worth it.
District 6 is an inner city area of Cape Town made infamous by the forced removal of 60000 inhabitants during the apartheid era of the 60s, 70s and 80’s. On a roasting hot Sunday afternoon we took a free walking tour to learn more about this dark corner of Cape Tonian history. As our guide described it, District 6 was one of the more cosmopolitan areas of the city where multiple different races lived happily in relative harmony. That was until 11 February 1966 when the apartheid government declared the area a white’s only zone. Over the next 3 decades 60000 people were forced out of their homes sometimes with less than 24 hours to pack up and leave.
If possible, what has made District 6 even more infamous is that nothing has ever been done with the land. Today, much of it still sits empty. When the apartheid government first bulldozed the original houses they thought they would be able to resettle it with white people. Amazingly, despite the attractive rates offered, apparently not a single person applied. Over time a university and some low cost housing has been built but large plots of land still lie vacant.
Ever since the African National Congress (ANC) came to power a compensation process has been in place to allow original inhabitants to try and claim their land back. Unfortunately this process has proved inefficient at best and down right corrupt at worst. To start with, to access compensation, people need to prove ownership through documentation which for most doesn’t exist. Then if they are able prove ownership the compensation offered is so far below market value as to be laughable. Our guide predicted that due to the ridiculousness of the process the vast majority of the land would lay unclaimed. Then, when the term of the compensation process completes the government will be able to claim the land and sell it off to developers. It’s a tragic and still very raw topic for locals. For us it was a fascinating if not sobering way to spend a Sunday.
5. Exploring Cape Town’s beaches
Cape Town has to be one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Other than maybe Sydney or Rio de Janeiro, I can’t actually think of a major city with such a wealth of natural beauty. One of the main reasons for this are the beaches. The water might not be much above freezing but the beaches are stunning. From Seapoint, 10 minutes drive out of the centre of town, all the way down the Cape Peninsular, Cape Town has some beautiful beaches. On a sunny day with the peaks of Table Mountain in the background and the deep blue Atlantic in front, these fine white sandy beaches are hard to beat. Again it needs to be reiterated that the water is COLD so don’t expect to do too much swimming.
Specific beaches worth a mention include Clifton, Camps Bay, Noordhoek, Kommetjie and Boulders at Simon’s Town. A trip down to the Cape Point National Park is also highly recommended.
Cape Town Top Five Things to do…Postscript
Since first writing this article, we returned to Cape Town for a few weeks while organising our 4WD. This Top 5 hasn’t really changed but it was amazing exploring further the various corners of this beautiful city. We have decided that we would love to come to Cape Town on less of a budge. With a little more money you could have some SERIOUS fun in this town (not that we didn’t anyway).
Cape Town Travel and feasting tips:
- Table Mountain:
- While the cable car provides great views and an easy ride to the top it’s pretty damn expensive for the less than 5 minute ride to the top. An adult return costs R255/person or one way is R135. If you have the time and energy, we reckon it would be amazing to walk the whole way to the top!
- We never saw Table Mountain in the morning but reckon that the afternoon is the best time to go. When we arrived huge crowds were lining up to go back down so we can only assume that the mornings must be packed. Plus, the awesomeness of the sunset is not something you want to miss.
- Chapman’s Peak tollway: Just before entering the actual drive from either direction there is a toll. If coming from Cape Town you can go through without paying but that will only enable you to continue a few 100 metres to a lookout.
- Madam Taitou is a kooky little Ethiopian restaurant which feels more like an overstuffed antiques shop but at around R320 for 2 for a huge delicious feast of traditional Ethiopian fair is great value.
- Bacon on Bree for a pretty red hot BLT and arguably the best coffee I had during our time in the Mother City
- I’m not usually that excited about botanical gardens but the gardens at Kirstenbosch are amazing! Stunning gardens with beautiful views looking down towards Stellenbosch make for a great escape if you’ve had enough of the city.
- The Aegir Brewery set next to the Red Herring pub in Noordhoek is a great spot to sample a few craft beers and yarn with the locals (only open Thursday – Saturday nights)