Cape Town is often described as being like a European city, as if this were something African metropolises should aspire to. In some ways it is not an entirely inaccurate description. The compact city centre, hemmed in by the harbour and the curve of Table Mountain, Lion’s Head and Signal Hill, is almost entirely walkable. Or, if you prefer, it’s also an easy trip on a MyCiTi bus or a hop-on, hop-off open-top Red Bus.
The “grachts” – Buitengracht, Heerengracht, Keizersgracht – all sit above what were once freshwater canals, running from the mountain to the sea (gracht is the Dutch word for canal). The early Dutch-era street grid has been overlaid with later Victorian structures, and there are clusters of 20th-century brutal modernist buildings pointing towards the Foreshore (which is built on land reclaimed from the sea).
Long Street has an assortment of bars, clubs, backpackers’ lodges, shops and restaurants. Just two blocks up, Bree Street, particularly between Buitensingel and Strand, is a little less frenetic and much more stylish. And there are hundreds of other little spots to be discovered, not just on the trio of Long, Bree and Loop Streets, but in the side alleys in between.
The problem with labels like “European”, though, is that, in South Africa, they tend to function as a euphemism: rather than positioning Cape Town as a majority black, multicultural space in transition, it perpetuates the misconception that the settlement started in 1652 with the arrival of white colonisers. Organisations such as Future Cape Town and the Cape Town Partnership offer exciting glimpses of an alternative, integrated Cape Town of the future.
Cape Town is trying to reconnect its myriad pasts and peoples, and it’s all the more wonderful (and welcoming) when seen as a whole rather than just picture-perfect postcards of exclusion. The independently run District Six Museum is a small but superb centre of memory, that looks at both loss and restitution.
East of the centre, the working-class, industrial areas of Woodstock and Salt River are also being transformed, but this time through parallel programmes of urban regeneration and the almost unavoidable knock-on of gentrification. Albert and Victoria Roads now have pockets of cool hipsterdom: artisan coffees, design houses, art galleries. As a starting point, the Woodstock Exchange is an enjoyable and central mixed-use spot. For those interested in graffiti and street art, Woodstock boasts a number of rather glorious murals – but those looking for something a little more authentic might want to try one of wheatpaste artist Grant Jurius’s street art tours of the Westridge neighbourhood, in Mitchells Plain, to the south.
Music and nightlife
There aren’t enough places to play jazz in Cape Town. Tagore’s in the Observatory neighbourhood is a little underground kind of venue. We used to play there when we left university – it was the kind of bohemia we were looking for: a place to be frantic, crazy, experimental. We’d play four or five nights a week for virtually no money. If there were 20 people, the entire place was full. But it intrinsically had this creative nature, with a lot of free-thinkers.
Straight No Chaser (formerly The Mahogany Room) on Buitenkant Street is still standing after three years. It was opened by some of my colleagues and friends, as a place for music, by musicians. There’s a certain charm if you are an artist performing there. It is set up for us to do our thing and experiment, without being burdened by crowd responses as in other more formal places. The very nature of this music we call jazz is in the smaller spaces. Having played around the world, in more so-called formal settings, these kinds of places create energy and good vibrations. It helps the music, and feeds us, so we can play some crazy stuff.
There’s a sort of University of Cape Town jazz students’ night at the Great Wizoo in Rondebosch. There’s quite a vibe there, with lots of students, and people who actually don’t like jazz, spending an evening enjoying it. It’s interesting that, when it comes to improvisational or jazz music, you still find a lot of young people in the audiences in South Africa. It kind of says: jazz in South Africa has urban appeal where in other parts of the world it’s regarded as a “classic” form.
The annual Cape Town International Jazz Festival is one of the top three jazz festivals in the world, but this city has a rich jazz history beyond the harbour and the foreshoresuch as Jazz in the Native Yards, in Gugulethu, and Moholo Live House in Langa. Local tour operator Coffeebeans Routes offers a Jazz Safari, which actually takes you to musicians’ houses. There is so much love for jazz in these communities.
To hear the sound of Cape Town, listen to Abdullah Ibrahim’s Mannenberg. I love that piece, as irritatingly famous as it is. I always come back to it after a period when I haven’t heard it for a long time. He has made subsequent recordings, but I’m talking about the original one, from 1977. Man, that’s got that thing. Whatever that thing is.
Eating and drinking
It’s best to only buy and eat legal, sustainably caught produce: check this out using the Southern African Sustainable Seafood Initiative Mobile App. I usually get fresh fish from The Little Fisherman in Newlands and Lakeside. Ocean Jewelsin Woodstock also has an amazing offering. For classic fried fish and chips, go toFish on the Rocks at the end of the Hout Bay harbour. Just watch out for the seagulls: if you don’t hold on to your chips, they’ll come and steal them. I wouldn’t normally send visitors to the shopping mall at the V&A Waterfront, butDen Anker restaurant is outside, right on the water’s edge with a magnificent view of the mountain, and makes excellent Belgian-style moules marinières.
Sea Point is coming up as an area again, because it’s still central but has lower rents. And nothing beats Ristorante Posticino on Main Road, which has been going since 1998 and is perfect for pizza and good family vibes. Nearby La Bohème is a French bistro-tapas style place, and NV-80, further south on Regent Road, offers a classic grill, done really well.
I like to drink And Union beers: it’s a South African brand, though not brewed locally. The local craft beer scene is pretty good andgetting better, but it lacks consistency. The Viper Lounge South in Glencairn is a biker bar for everyone, and a great place for a beer. It’s the perfect stop after a ride around the peninsula. TheHoghouse Brewing Company in Ndabeni makes its own beers, but I go for its Texan-style BBQ: brisket, pork belly, lamb, and all the sides.
The nice thing about working where I do, on Bree Street, is that you can get absolutely anything – batteries, tyres, a car service, shoes, clothes, steak and chips … Chef’s Warehouse at number 92 is unbelievable, if you can get a table (it doesn’t accept bookings).
Design, craft and art
When visiting a city, one of the first things I do is find an art gallery for the perspective it provides on that culture. In Cape Town we have some excellent contemporary places, such as Whatiftheworld and Stevenson, but these mostly focus on single artist shows rather than a broad contextual sweep. I like theBoerneef Collection, at Welgemeend in the Gardens district. It’s small and old-fashioned, and you get a spread of the early South African aesthetic through artists such as Irma Stern, Erik Laubscher and JH Pierneef.
Michael Chandler is an artist-decorator who takes on the traditional Cape aesthetic with the eye of a romantic young man. His design studio-shop-gallery,Chandler House, is a treasure trove, with well-selected paintings, knicknacks and furniture alongside his own ceramics, his handmade Cape of Good Soap bars of soap, and greeting cards cut out like Cape Dutch gables. The style is very much colonial-historical but I love the contemporary way he is claiming it.
The Guild Design Fair (the next one will be in 2017) is an impressive showcase of high design that skirts the intersection with fine art. Southern Guild’s gallery has regular shows of Guild-featured designers at its Woodstock premises.
There’s wonderful street design happening all over the place, but Capetonians see it so often that it’s become part of the urban familiar. However, on the corner of Camp and Upper Orange streets, I sometimes see a man who makes life-size, beautifully constructed animal trophy heads out of cane. They are truly spectacular, and his neighbour, who constructs tiny Land Rovers and motorbikes from drinks cans, is also a showstopper.
Heartworks works with southern African craftspeople, selling a dizzying array of small decorative objects in its stores. Margaret Woermann, who started the shop, has a collection of her spectacular pressed-flower creations hanging in the tea room at the Mount Nelson hotel. The Kraal Gallery, 50km out of town on the N2 past Strand, is also interesting for the fine woven African rugs it produces.
I love the places in Cape Town where sheer persistence can yield hard-won treasures. Gilles de Moyencourt’s Haute-Antiques in Woodstock is crammed with extraordinary things, from African artefacts to Victorian parasols to 1950s garden furniture. The weekly car boot sale at the Milnerton Market is wedged between the highway, the railway line and the ocean, and can be full of treasures … or just loads of Tupperware and old pliers. But it’s also quite a nice way to see a cross-section of Cape Town’s residents. On a good day, you can discover modernist light fittings or Swedish dining chairs. And you can always be guaranteed to find a boerewors roll or vetkoek (fried bread).
We’re constantly faced with aerial and spatial perspectives of Cape Town from one side. The viewing deck on the top of Lookout Hill in Khayelitsha township to the south-east gives a different angle. It puts Khayelitsha’s challenges in perspective and allows you to see how fragmented even this part of the city is: it’s not homogenous. For a look at urban use and design, visit the Khayelitsha Multi Purpose Centre designed by Mokena Makeka, or the new Empower Shack housing project by Urban ThinkTank.
Also in that part of town is Philippi Village, in an old cement factory. The abandoned space has been repurposed into an entrepreneurial and recreational/retail hub. I would also visit the Philippi Horticultural Area, a 3,000-hectare site west of Jakes Gerwel Drive that produces 50% of the city’s fruit and veg, but is under threat from development.
The farm at Erf 81 in more central Tamboerskloof, is another interesting area because it’s not legally “allowed” to be used the way it is used – developers want to build on this part of the city where land is valuable. There is a small garden there, and a food market.
The Cape Town Stadium in Green Point has a bad reputation for all the wrong reasons. It’s an architectural and engineering marvel, and the argument has been reduced to “how do we make more money?” I compare the new stadium with what I experienced growing up: an old athletics stadium that was falling apart. I’m excited about how the new building, both for the structure itself and for surrounding areas, will become a more multi-purpose space, possibly including a museum, shops, markets, offices, restaurants and more.
The Sea Point Promenade is where people from all over the city can get some sense of common ground. It’s designed to handle five times as many people as it does, although this gets tested in the last week of the December holiday season, when people spill out into a space they feel they can claim. .
The great outdoors
Green Point Park has a small (less than a hectare) but very well put-together indigenous garden, with examples of local vegetation types as well as medicinal and useful plants. Rondebosch Common is also worth a visit, especially in spring (between August and October, depending on the rain). The flowers can be quite spectacular, which is incredible given its past: it served as a military campand cricket fields.
The Tygerberg Nature Reserve in the northern suburbs (north-east of the city centre) is underappreciated. It contains one of the biggest remaining intact pieces of Swartland shale renosterveld, a critically endangered vegetation type, andyou will always see something if you keep your eyes open – again the spring bulbs are a highlight. The smell of imphepho (Helichrysum patulum) and wild rosemary (Eriocephalus africanus) is always prominent. From the top of the hill there is a panoramic view over Cape Town from a really unusual angle. You can see Table Mountain, Robben Island, planes heading for Cape Town International on the Cape Flats, and into the Boland.
The northern Blouberg coast also offers great views of Table Mountain and interesting coastal vegetation. There are a couple of nice beacheswithin theBlaauwberg Nature Reserve, north of Big Bay.
For hiking, the Helderberg Nature Reserve, 50km out of town in Somerset West, is very peaceful and safe. The trails are well-marked, and easy for self-guided walks. There are places to picnic, as it’s very family-orientated. Again there’s lots to see, especially if you walk up a bit – there are ponds where you can find wetland birds and, even further up, there is quite nice fynbos (indigenous shrubland).
Bird-watchers should not miss Strandfontein sewage works on the Cape Flats to the north. Despite the name, the former waste treatment ponds are home to a rich variety of local birdlife. The coastal road (R44) from Somerset West is very beautiful, and leads to the fantastic Kogelberg Nature Reserve, which is within an hour-and-a-half of Cape Town’s city centre. The Kogelberg is considered the heart of the fynbos kingdom because of the sheer numbers and beauty of the plants and landscapes.