A sprawling city that excels in natural splendour
You really can’t overstate the case for visiting Cape Town. First, there’s the in-your-face beauty of a craggy mountain range that drops precipitously into a glittering sea, its flanks carpeted in greens and delicate florals. Then there’s the pristine white beaches lapped by – it must be said – a chilly Atlantic, their curves defined by giant granite boulders to bake on, and burbling mountain streams in dappled forests. And no visit is complete without at least one full day exploring some of the surrounding vine-carpeted valleys, their rich terroir spawning not only award-winning wines but superb produce.
Yet Cape Town has a cool urban edge, too: excellent art galleries, hip bars, world-rated restaurants, and design-savvy shops. It’s also home to many of Africa’s innovative artists and designers, drawn by the city’s innate beauty, and with MOCAA the city is now home to the biggest repository of contemporary African art. In short, this pulsating city will leave you hungry for more.
Hot right now . . .
Pippa de Bruyn, our resident expert, offers her top tips on the hottest places to eat and stay this season.
Salsify at The Round House (Roundhouse Road; 00 27 21 010 6444) is the latest restaurant from Luke Dale Roberts, widely regarded as Africa’s best chef, and Ryan Cole. Tucked into a glen on the slopes of Lion’s Head, the restaurant offers superb mountain and sea views from the Sea Room along with world-class fine dining. It’s not as famous (yet) as his Test Kitchen so move now and you might still get a table (bookings open online at 8.30am on the first of every month).
BAO Down (3 Vredehoek Ave; 00 27 66 022 1165) is an excellent little neighbourhood restaurant that’s worth scoping out. Tucked away on a corner in residential Oranjezicht, husband-and-wife team Graham and Phillipa Oldfield opened last year with no fanfare, but you still need to book to secure a spot.
48 hours in . . . Cape Town
Schedule Table Mountain (00 27 21 424 8181) for the morning, when the wind is least likely to blow. It’s a relatively easy two- to three-hour walk up along Platteklip Gorge, the oldest, most direct route, following a well-constructed trail up the front face of the mountain, but as we’re pushed for time, lets ascend by cable car. Purchase the ticket online, dated for the day of your arrival; the single-use ticket is valid for one week. The cable car starts running at 8am in summer and 8.30am in winter. How long you spend exploring the top is entirely up to you, but it can be done in an hour.
Descend by no later than 10am to be at Nelson Mandela Gateway (Waterfront; 00 27 21 413 4200), the Robben Island ferry departure point, 30 minutes before an 11am departure. The island where Nelson Mandela spent many years in prison is the most popular tourist attraction in Cape Town, so pre-book this online well before your arrival (though sold out online doesn’t always mean sold out in reality, so call before you panic).
This is a three-hour trip (including an approximate one-hour round-trip by ferry) of which the highlight is seeing the cell where Nelson Mandela spent 18 of the 27 years he was imprisoned. The tour experience is very dependent on the guide you get (an ex-prisoner) but most people find it edifying, moving even.
Alight around 2pm and have lunch at nearby Den Anker (Pierhead, Waterfront; 00 27 21 419 0249) with its marvellous view of Table Mountain. The pepper steak is famously good, and the Wagyu burger gets rave reviews, but it is the 1kg pot of mussels that always hits the spot: big juicy critters in a herby broth, served with frites and a mustard-flavoured mayonnaise.
Then retrace your footsteps and pop into MOCAA (S Arm Road, Waterfront; 00 27 87 350 4777), as much to see how Thomas Heatherwick and his local team repurposed the 1930s grain silo that houses it, as to view its contemporary African art collection. It’s a wonderful collection that puts paid to old-fashioned ideas of African art being ‘figurative’ or craft. Hallelujah.
Freshen up, then head out to Camps Bay to watch the sun sink into the Atlantic Ocean. Opt for dinner at Bilboa (The Promenade; +27 21 286 5155), which serves a simple but good menu with a Middle Eastern influence. The real bonus is the front-row view of the palm-lined beach.
Retire upstairs for a postprandial drink at vibey Chinchilla (Victoria Road; 00 27 21 286 5075), or head back over the Nek to lounge-bar Asoka (68 Kloof Street; 00 27 21 422 0909) with its intimate candle-lit courtyard. Or, for a younger, hipper crowd, choose Up Yours (73 Kloop Street; 00 27 21 426 2587).
To fully grasp the natural splendour of the city, you need to go on a drive that loops around the peninsula, tooling along the west-facing coastal road that hugs the Atlantic to Cape Point, then exploring the village-like suburbs that look across False Bay, with its magnificent backdrop of craggy mountains like cardboard cutouts against a big blue sky.
Make a start at 8am to get to Cape Point National Park before the crowds, winding your way along the coastal road that connects Camps Bay to Hout Bay. Stop to enjoy the view halfway up Chapman’s Peak Drive before paying the toll and traversing the narrow road carved into the perpendicular cliffs high above the Atlantic Ocean. Cross Noordhoek Valley, skirting Misty Cliffs and Scarborough, to get to Cape Point National Park, also known as the Cape of Good Hope (Cape Point Road; 00 27 21 780 9526).
Depending on time, take one of the detours, looking out for baboons, antelope and ostrich, or head straight to the Cape Point lighthouse to enjoy vertiginous views from the most southwesterly point of Africa. Next stop is at Boulders Beach (00 27 21 786 2329) to visit the endangered colony of African Penguins – bring a costume and take a dip if the weather’s fine.
There are no brilliant restaurants in Simonstown yet, so push on to Harbour House (Main Road; 00 27 21 788 4136) in Kalk Bay for fresh fish and a fabulous location, right above the sea on the edge of the quay. If you’d prefer something quick and casual, nearby Kalky’s (Kalk Bay Harbour; 00 27 21 788 1726) does a great fish and chips. After lunch, stroll Kalk Bay’s high street, enjoying the village vibe here, with quaint galleries – make time for Kalk Bay Modern (136 Main Road; 00 27 21 788 6571) – and good clothing shops (try Catacombes, 71 Main Road; 00 27 21 788 8889).
End your peninsula tour with a winetasting or two in Constantia, the oldest wine-growing region in the New World. With beautiful 17th-century Cape Dutch buildings and a small wine museum, Groot Constantia (Groot Constantia Road; 00 27 21 794 5128) has the history but doesn’t produce the valley’s best wines; oenophiles should head to Klein Constantia (37 Klein Constantia Road; 00 27 21 794 5188), not least to sample the estate’s Vin De Constance, a dessert wine that Jane Austen described in Sense & Sensibility as a “balm for the broken heart”. Then up to Beau Constantia (1043 Constantia Main Road; 00 27 21 794 8632) for the most wonderful vineyard views.
Enjoying the same stunning view, Chef’s Warehouse at Beau Constantia is a popular fine dining option – good value too – so either stay on for dinner here (it opens at 6pm) or head back into the city centre for a table at The Shortmarket Club (88 Shortmarket Street; 00 27 21 447 2874). No view, but the venue, food and service are all excellent, as you’d expect from any Luke Dale-Roberts venture.
End the evening with a 10-minute stroll up Bree street to The Orphanage Cocktail Emporium (227 Bree Street; 00 27 21 4242004), for a couple of inventive cocktail like the hot Crematorium, or more-ish More Tea Vicar? If it’s a weekend, go dancing at Reset (71 Loop Street; 00 27 21 422 0202) – the best sound system in the city bounces until dawn.
Where to stay . . .
Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel is a green oasis right in the centre of the city, with a palm-lined driveway leading to art-strewn lawns, magnificent flower beds, two pools and tennis courts. Cape Town’s iconic pink lady originally opened her doors in 1899, and has attracted a well-heeled mix of loyal guests ever since. Service is impeccable, interiors are glamorous and the number of restaurants, bars and city sights within strolling distance of its doorstep are plentiful.
Doubles from ZAR 6,188 (£342). 76 Orange Street; 00 27 21 483 1000
A gem that manages to combine the standards of a boutique five-star hotel with the kind of relaxed intimacy and personal service of a well-staffed private home can be found at Compass House. Décor is pared down and elegant, clean-lined yet comfortable, the predominantly white and cream palette the perfect contrast to the blue sea views.
Doubles from ZAR 3,500 (£208). 154 Kloof Street, Bantry Bay; 0027 21 430 3330
An artful renovation has seamlessly connected the interiors of three houses to create An African Villa. It is within walking distance of the city centre and rooms are lovely but personal service is what really sets this good-value gem apart. The hotel is located in Tamboerskloof, one of the original colonial-era residential suburbs on the slopes of Signal Hill.
Doubles from ZAR 1,900 (£108). 19 Carstens Street; 00 27 21 423 2162
What to bring home . . .
For exquisite heirloom-quality woven goods (towels, linen, cushions, throws, wraps) made from high-quality natural fibres in stripey colour combinations to rival those of Paul Smith, head over to Mungo (78 Hout Street; 00 27 21 201 2374).
The South African Print Gallery (109 Sir Lowry Rd; 00 27 21 462 6851) specialises in fine art investment prints – so much easier to transport than canvas or sculpture. There is a great selection of celebrated South African artists, from Tinus de Jongh to William Kentridge, as well as selected new talent.
When to go . . .
You can visit Cape Town pretty much any time of year. Summer is the most popular, with peak season falling between mid-December and early January.
Another surge of visitors descends during the hot months of February and March. In April, the temperatures are balmy, the light is softer, the Cape Doctor (the southeasterly wind that howls through the city) is dormant and the sunsets are spectacular.
The temperate winter sometimes starts in May, more often June/July. Sunny days alternate with downpours that bring verdant relief, the mountain streams gushing into rocky gullies and watering the winter-flowering fynbos, including proteas, lilies and aloes. This is the most exhilarating time of year to explore the slopes of Table Mountain on foot.
July to November is the time when the southern right whales migrate to calve and nurse, providing the best land-based whale-watching in the world – but be warned, July and August can be wet. October to November is when the Cape floral kingdom again wows with a new cycle of flowering species, while the beaches, still relatively empty, sparkle in the temperate sun. This is when some of the best deals of the summer season are to be had – especially if you book early.
Know before you go . . .
British High Commission: Cape Town; 00 27 21 461 7220
UK Embassy: Pretoria; 00 27 12 483 1200; britain.org.za
Emergency services: dial 082 911 or 084 911 (ambulance), 10111 (police and fire). To contact any emergency service from a mobile phone, dial 112
Medical care: to find the nearest private clinic, or to contact a specialist, see netcare.co.za. For travel-specific queries, see travelclinic.co.za
Tourism offices and information: the biggest and best-staffed is the centrally located Cape Town Tourism (00 27 21 487 6800) on the corner of Burg and Castle Streets.
Mon-Fri, 8.30am-5.30pm; Sat-Sun, 9am-1pm.
Local laws and etiquette
As in any large city, crime is an ongoing concern, but note that most incidents occur away from tourist areas. That said, take the usual precautions: don’t flash your wealth, don’t visit no-go zones (your host or concierge will advise), don’t walk when there are no other people around, and be alert/keep a close eye (and hand) on your belongings.
It takes only a fraction of a second to clone a card, using a skimmer concealed in the hand. Don’t let your card out of sight and keep a close eye on how it is handled.
Currency: South Africa Rand (R or ZAR)
Telephone code: From the UK, dial 00 27 for South Africa, followed by 21 for Cape Town. From within South Africa, dial 021 for Cape Town.
Wi-Fi: Most hotels and guest lodges offer free Wi-Fi, as do an increasing number of excellent coffee shops. For a list of some of them, see redbutton.co.za (click on ‘sites’). Loading Bay (30 Hudson Street, De Waterkant) ticks all the right boxes – good coffee, good food, cool people, close to Cape Quarter shopping precinct and free Wi-Fi. If you want a bit of a sea view, head to Caffe Neo at 129 Beach Road, Mouille Point.
Time difference: +2 hours
Flight time: London to Cape Town is about 12 hours
The ink had barely dried on her final exam paper when Pippa de Bruyn hot-footed it back to the city she’d fallen for while on holiday. That was 1985. The city has been her base ever since.
Experience Cape Town with The Telegraph
Telegraph Travel’s best hotels and tours in Cape Town, tried, tested and recommended by our Cape Town experts.