Cape Town explored: your first-time visitor’s guide

By Dawn Jorgensen

First time in Cape Town? Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered with a guide to the best of what South Africa’s Mother City has to offer.

Located at the southwestern corner of the African continent and regularly voted one of the best cities in the world, Cape Town’s appeal lies as much in its mild Mediterranean climate and incredible natural beauty as in the international flair and world-class service for which it is renowned. Vibrant and multicultural, it has managed to retain an undeniably African character and charm through its people and diverse attractions.  

Cape Town’s finest: topping the list

Iconic Table Mountain is flanked by Devil’s Peak to the east and Lion’s Head and Signal Hill to the west, together forming a natural amphitheatre for the City Bowl and Table Bay Harbour. At the city’s most south-westerly tip is the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve, covered in endemic fynbos and home to untouched beaches and a healthy population of baboons and antelope. The African penguin colony at Boulders Beach in Simon’s Town is always a delight and can be visited on foot or by kayak. Offshore is Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela spent 18 years of his incarceration, where you can take a tour with one of the former political prisoners once held here. Possibly the most photogenic spot of all is the Bo-Kaap, the original Muslim settlement of Cape Town and an area famed for its quaint, colourful houses and cobbled streets. Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden is a must-see for any plant lover. In season, look out for southern right whales, dolphins, sunfish and seals playing in the bay. To feel like a local, be sure to walk, cycle or run along the Sea Point Promenade. If you would like to hit up one of the beaches, look no further than Camp’s Bay, Clifton or Muizenberg.

Gastronomic gems: where to get your fill

The Cape’s impressive culinary scene’s strong international influence merges with delicate Cape Malay infusions, traditional African fare and rich delights sourced from the surrounding farmlands. For consistently delicious meals, visit Chefs Warehouse at Beau Constantia, Black Sheep on Kloof Street and Harbour House in Kalk Bay. Fine dining options include Carne, Salsify and the award-winning La Colombe Restaurant. For more relaxed yet remarkable dining, try Foxcroft in Constantia, Galjoen or The Foodbarn in Noordhoek. Il Leone Mastrantonio, Villa 47, Between Us and Café Paradiso are local favourites. If it’s just a drink you’re after, consider The Gin Bar, The Art of Duplicity, The Athletic Club & Social and Grand Africa Café and Beach, where you’ll sip with your toes in the sand.

Get your culture fix: museums and art centres

Cape Town is dotted with private art galleries, niche museums and intimate theatres. The Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in the Silo District of the V&A Waterfront is the largest art museum in Africa and showcases works of African and diaspora artists. The Norval Foundation is dedicated to exhibiting 20th- and 21st-century visual art from South Africa and beyond and features a sculpture garden, outdoor amphitheatre and research library. In Woodstock, the Goodman Gallery, Stevenson Contemporary Art Gallery and Blank Gallery feature artists from all over South Africa. For an insightful cultural fix, visit the District Six Museum, Jewish Museum and Iziko South African Museum, as well as the sobering Iziko Slave Lodge.

The market scene: shop till you drop

Cape Town has a variety of markets showcasing local designers, traditional arts and crafts, as well as healthy organic produce. The Old Biscuit Mill in Woodstock and the Oranjezicht City Farm Market in Granger Bay are the most popular ones, drawing locals and tourists each weekend to the offering of fresh foods, craft brews and unique products that range from homegrown fruit and vegetables to handmade clothing and jewellery. The Mojo Market in Sea Point features food stalls, live music and craft boutiques, while Makers Landing at the Cape Town Cruise Terminal showcases up-and-coming foodies. For fine South African products, start at The Watershed at the V&A Waterfront, which houses stalls and stands with high-end designer fashion, jewellery, art and ceramics. Don’t miss Merchants on Long, AAFRICAA, The Strangers Club and Out of this World for bold African prints and statement homeware pieces that merge contemporary Cape Town with authentic Africa.

Navigating the city

Cape Town is easy to self-navigate, given the anchoring presence of Table Mountain and the shoreline that skirts it. Self-drive enables the best exploration opportunities, especially into the immediate surroundings, while Uber, metered taxis and private transfers are available for city hopping. Do bear in mind that there is no public transport system to be relied on.

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