Time Out Cape Town editor Lisa van Aswegen describes how European sophistication dances to a distinctly African beat in her vibrant, cosmopolitan home city
The Mother City, Cape of Good Hope, Tavern of the Seas, Cape of Storms, Cape Town: it doesn’t matter what you call this vibrant, lively city at the southern tip of Africa, as long as you’re able to call it home – whether it’s for a day or a lifetime. Cape Town is a city blessed with spectacular natural bounty, a diverse floral kingdom, an unusually flat mountain and an expansive, icy ocean. While its roots are firmly in Africa, giving it an eclectic energy and funky vibe, its European influences are palpable in its fabulous gourmet food, as well as the contemporary design, architecture and art.
Even Cape Town’s bitter history is now mapped out in tourist attractions. Colonial rule left the pentagonal fortification of the Castle of Good Hope; more recent oppression under apartheid made Robben Island prison famous as the place where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for 18 years. The Cape’s legacy of slavery is remembered in the Cape Minstrel Carnival on January 2, traditionally the only day slaves were allowed off, and the slaves’ architectural prowess can be admired in the Bo-Kaap area.
Some divisions persist from the days of apartheid – leafy suburbia remains mostly ‘white’, less affluent neighbourhoods are mostly ‘coloured’ – and violent crime, although it is decreasing, remains a problem in some parts of the city. Yet modern Cape Town is also a fusion of the best the world has to offer: from the French-speaking Congolese trader in a flea market to a beachfront ice-cream seller punting his wares in colourful Cape patois, the city is a crucible of languages, people and culture. Capetonians and visitors indulge in activities as diverse as whale-watching from the coastline, hunting for antiques in laid-back Kalk Bay, soaking up the sun at some of the trendy Camps Bay beachfront bars, sourcing fresh, organic produce at a local market, hiking up Table Mountain or lazing under the trees at Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens as a band plays on the stage.
A walk up mad, bad Long Street entertains with cutting-edge shops, lively bars and great after-hours bites. Further along, up Kloof Street, the mood is more lattés and lace, with boutiques, trendy coffee shops and fine interior finds. Wherever you go, there’s something cool and quirky to experience. And even the locals never tire of the iconic Table Mountain, a view best enjoyed with a glass of the Cape’s finest, of course.
Getting there Emirates flies direct to Cape Town, daily, with return fares from about Dhs4,200 (including tax).
No one needs a refresher viewing of Happy Feet to be convinced that penguins can be entertaining, and the jackass penguins that nest on Boulders Beach never fail to raise a smile. There are more than 3,000 in residence, ducking over boulder to slide into the surf.
Named for its distinctive donkey-like honk, the jackass is more accurately known as the African penguin (Spheniscus demersus): although some South American penguins also bray, this is the only species to breed in Africa. The African penguin grows to about 70cm tall and weighs up to 4kg. For all its Charlie Chaplin gait on land, in water it is impressive: an average swimming speed of 7kph isn’t bad (roughly the same as Michael Phelps), but the top speed is nearer 20kph.
Calm, warm-ish waters and the opportunity to swim with penguins have made Boulders popular with tourists, and since 2004 the Simonstown Penguin Festival has been a firm fixture on Cape Town’s calendar in mid-September.
Area 686sq km
Where is it? At the south-western tip of Africa.
Climate Hot, dry summers (with a temperamental south-easterly wind) and cool, wet winters.
Ethnic mix The Cape Coloured account for almost half of the population, followed by Africans at 31 per cent, whites at 18.75 per cent and Asians at 1.43 per cent.
Major sights Robben Island, Cape Point Nature Reserve, Table Mountain, Kirstenbosch, V&A Waterfront and Aquarium.
Insiders’ tips Old Biscuit Mill in Woodstock for trendy design and a buzzing Saturday food market, old-fashioned cinema The Labia, penguins at Boulders Beach at Simonstown, Sunday summer sunset concerts at Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens in Newlands.
Where’s the buzz? Long Street, Kloof Street, Camps Bay, Kalk Bay
World’s first successful heart transplant Performed on December 3 1967 by Professor Christiaan Barnard at the Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town.
UNESCO World Heritage Sites Robben Island and the Cape Floral Kingdom.
The world’s best mayor Helen Zille. As voted by website www.citymayors.com in 2008, in part for ‘questioning corruption within the South African police and opposing the disbanding of the anti-corruption Scorpions unit’.
Number of plant species found in the Cape Peninsula 2,285 – more than in the whole of the UK, which is around 5,000 times bigger.
Number of cyclists that take part in the 109km annual Argus Cycle Tour 40,000 – the world’s biggest individually timed cycle race.
Largest township (living area set up for non-whites under apartheid) Khayelitsha, 50km from the city centre, with at least 600,000 residents.
South Africa’s oldest tradition The firing of the Noon Gun, situated on Signal Hill, which has been taking place since 1806.