A Hedonist's Guide to Cape Town: Best Sightseeing

By Keith Bain & Pippa de Bruyn
Bo-Kaap houses, Cape Town
WALK THIS WAY: Buildings in the Bo-Kaap district of Cape Town (Walter Knirr/South Africa Tourism)

1) Bo-Kaap
With its deeply mottled cobblestone streets and vividly coloured houses, Bo-Kaap (literally 'Above Cape') is historically where Cape Town's former slaves settled following their emancipation by the British. Once known as the Malay Quarter (though it is thought that only 25% came from Indonesia, Bali and other southeast Asian islands), this was also where a number of political exiles, Muslim pioneers and holy saints established the earliest mosques in the Cape—the oldest of these is the Auwal Masjid, built in 1795. It's believed that this mosque is where Afrikaans was first taught, and it's a little known fact that Afrikaans—frequently referred to as a form of 'kitchen Dutch', used to communicate with the slaves—was first written in Arabic script here. Auwal is one of 13 mosques squeezed between the rows of Georgian and Cape Dutch houses, so the chances of hearing the call to prayer during a visit here are fairly good, and on Fridays you may even witness some of the local men praying outside one of the mosques, on the street. Although there's a dedicated Bo-Kaap Museum, you need hardly step inside to appreciate this special community—the neighbourhood, bustling with life and energy, is sufficiently intriguing. In recent years, along with slow gentrification that's begun to creep in, there are also a number of 'outsiders' and foreigners who have moved in, establishing this as a desirable neighbourhood with excellent proximity to the city centre. For a unique insight into the Bo-Kaap area, you could sign up for a Cape Malay Cooking Safari (Tel: 021 790 2592, www.andulela.com), an experiential tour of the Malay Quarter which culminates in an interactive cooking lesson where you spend time in the home of a local family, assist with the preparation of a meal, and then sit down with them to enjoy the fruits of your labours. It's fun, totally engaging, and a cut above the average tourist experience.

2) Boulders Penguin Colony
Among the quirkiest of Cape Town's 'cultural' experiences, you'll hear these inimitable little fellows before you see them, their delightful donkey-like braying having spawned their alternative moniker—jackass penguins. Authorities have built boardwalks amid the dunes at the edge of Foxy Beach, so visitors can walk among the knee-high birds without disturbing them. The penguins, many of their rituals very human-like, are surprisingly entertaining —it's not unlike watching a kind of delightful, tuxedoed soap opera. The penguins have been expanding their numbers here since 1985, having grown from just two breeding pairs to over 3,000 birds, and while human intervention has helped preserve the integrity of the environment, this remains a natural habitat for these creatures. It's possible to swim at nearby Boulders or Seaforth beaches, with the good chance of the penguins joining you in the False Bay waters, mercifully a little warmer than the sea at Clifton or Camps Bay.

3) South African National Gallery
Although there are over 8,000 artworks within its collection—including examples of South Africa's specialized indigenous crafts—this small gallery is physically limited and able to display only a small portion at any given time. Funded with a single bequest in 1872, the government-owned gallery has had to tread carefully due to financial restraints, but is still the finest repository of South African art. While the collection of Dutch and English oil paintings in the Sir Abe Bailey Collection—with English country hunting scenes and dark landscapes in the Italian-French tradition—may strike you as irrelevant, recent acquisitions have focused on contemporary South African art, including work that went unnoticed or was renounced during the Apartheid era, often because of its subject matter or because of the colour of the skin of the artists. Look out for works by such internationally renowned names such as William Kentridge, David Goldblatt, Gerard Sekoto, Jane Alexander, Willie Bester, Jackson Hlungwane, Jacob Hendrik Pierneef (known for his landscapes), Irma Stern, and numerous others. The gallery hosts regular cutting edge exhibitions that combine national and international artists, often with formidable guest curators from the upper echelons of the contemporary South African art scene—as the Dada South? and Picasso in Africa exhibitions attest to.

4) Table Mountain
A diva with multiple personalities, her sorcery affects the weather, swinging the mood of a city that can be wet and miserable one instant; sunny the next. And when her tablecloth of thick white clouds flows down her 250 million-year-old table top like a living boa, it signals the arrival of the infamous Southeaster, and the entire city groans. To some, the mountain is an ancient custodian, Umlindiwengizimu—the watcher of the south—placed here by the creator, Qamata, to watch over the entire continent. Rising from the shoreline, Cape Town's ancient inhabitants—the Khoekhoen and San—called it Hoerikwaggo, the 'mountain in the sea', and it is acknowledged as one of the world's oldest mountains, having withstood six million years of erosion. Rising to just over 1km above sea level, its iconic table top dominates the landscape, and is visible from at least 150km out to sea. Climb aboard the aerial cable car—operating since 1929, it was upgraded 70 years later to enable 65 passengers travelling in a revolving glass bottomed gondola to reaches the summit in roughly five minutes—for an invigorating journey with epic views all the way, before arriving in what feels like another universe, a flat-topped mountain wilderness. The vistas of the city and the Atlantic Ocean spreading out far beneath your feet are matchless, while closer to your feet you'll spot furry dassies (or rock hyraxes—surprisingly, they're related to elephants) and agama lizards ducking amongst the rocks. If you're feeling more energetic —or keen to view the mountain's floral kingdom (with over 1,470 species to call its own; more than are found in the entire United Kingdom), it is a relatively easy climb up, with a few hundred trails on, up, or around, to choose from, making it the world's most hiked mountain.

5) Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden
Considered one of the seven most magnificent gardens on earth, Kirstenbosch is draped against more than 500 hectares of Table Mountain's eastern slopes—an extraordinarily green wonderland designed to blend imperceptibly with the fynbos-clad mountain. With the noted exception of the almond hedge (planted by Jan van Riebeeck in 1660 to indicate the 'border' of his colony and protect his animal stock from the indigenous Khoi people), some magnificent oaks, and the Moreton Bay fig and camphor trees planted by Cecil John Rhodes, everything you encounter is indigenous. It'd be impossible to get to grips with even a fraction of the 9,000 or so species that grow here (many of them endemic, i.e. growing nowhere else on earth) but there are guided tours and audio guides that will at least give you an introduction to the Cape Floral Kingdom, the world's smallest and richest. You can seek out the fragrance garden, elevated for easier access to the scents; a pelargonium kopje (hill); a protea garden; a sculpture garden; and a section with plants used for muti (medicine) by sangomas (traditional African healers). Or you can join in with the locals who come to laze on the lawns, their children exploring the burbling brooks, and simply luxuriate in the setting—the perfect antidote to a rough night on the town. There are a couple restaurants, and probably the funkiest time to visit is during the weekly Summer Sunset Concerts that draw massive audiences to the green lawns every Sunday evening.

To discover more of Cape Town's hottest hotels, restaurants, clubs, and bars, order your copy of A Hedonist's Guide to… Cape Town here.

Published: 12 May 2010 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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