Johannesburg has more international long haul flights and is closer to the top safari destinations, yet almost every traveler planning a South African itinerary arrives in or departs from Cape Town, which takes a slight – not much – bit of extra effort. Why? Because it’s worth it.
Cape Town is unique, but if you need a frame of reference to better get perspective, it bears some comparison to Sydney and San Francisco – it sits on the water and the waterfront is a marquee attraction. Like Sydney, its adjacent coast contains a mix of funky and upscale beach/surfing suburbs, one after another. Like San Francisco, it provides very easy access to the nation’s prime wine region. And like both, is has its own unique urban attractions and landmarks.
The biggest landmark is Table Mountain, the flattop butte that overlooks the city and is a popular hiking destination with routes from moderate to very strenuous. There is also a cable car, a la Rio, to the top, which is how most tourists experience the amazing view over the city and down the coast (I hiked up and cabled down, which I recommend).The cable car is one of only two on earth (or so they claim) that rotates as it moves, so every window view is a panorama. Visiting Table Mountain National Park may be the single biggest tourist activity in the city, but it is hardly the only one. The other “must-dos” within the city itself include the ferry trip to the Robben Island Museum, Cape Town’s Alcatraz, the infamous island prison where Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners were held; the stunning Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens; a guided tour of the Townships, where a substantial number of South Africans still live in surprisingly sophisticated and intricate hand built shanty towns; and the world-class Two Ocean Aquarium. Both the aquarium and the ferries to Robben Island are in the bustling Victoria & Alfred Waterfront.
I’ve seen the Waterfront eschewed as “touristy” by some travel publications, but I hate to break it to you, if you don’t live in Cape Town and are visiting, you are a tourist. Don’t feel bad because lots of non-tourist Cape Town residents visit too: they go because it has many of the city’s best restaurants (and hotels). It also has the nicest mall, with a broad assortment of distinctly South African stores, a great local bookshop, a well-stocked biltong shop (South African jerky, which they are crazy for) and a good assortment of South African wines. If you want to buy gifts, mementos or forgot some crucial safari wear, this is your best bet of the trip. The Waterfront has lots of other shopping, a craft market, and lots of boat trips for whale watching, fishing, scenic cruses and shark cage diving. Like many other cities, Cape Town has one fare hop-on, hop-off tour buses, but here the attraction also includes hop-on, hop-off tour boats. Most of all, the Waterfront is a nice place to walk around.
If you are taking a luxury approach, you are probably in the Waterfront already, since the city’s marquee hotel, the One & Only Cape Town is here, as well as the Cape Grace and Queen Victoria. The most notable great hotel that is not in the Waterfront is the Ellerman House, a very swank and wonderful boutique place with the nation’s largest private art collection. Set in an Edwardian mansion, Ellerman is like a bed and breakfast on steroids combined with a museum, where all sorts of things are included, the chef will cook whatever you want, the minibars come with free full-sized bottles of top shelf liquor, and cars and drivers are waiting to take you anywhere. It has a full spa and incredible wine collection, and I love Ellerman, which sits on a hillside in a residential neighborhood overlooking the city, but I think it is best for repeat visitors (or art junkies) who want seclusion and relaxation. If you have never been before, do the One & Only, in a great location in the heart of the waterfront action – the hop on, hop off sightseeing boat stops at the hotel’s dock. It has Cape Town’s best spa, on a manmade island behind the hotel, which also contains the top luxury suites, and a fantastic purpose-built supervised children’s program. It is a big full service luxury hotel with first-rate concierges and two fantastic restaurants. One is Cape Town’s outpost of Nobu – I’m a big fan of chef Nobu Matsuhisa’s consistently replicated Peruvian-Asian fusion cuisine, but if you are familiar with it you don’t have to Cape Town for rock shrimp tempura or miso black cod (though it’s a lot cheaper here). You do have to go to Reuben’s. When the One & Only opened, its second restaurant was by Gordon Ramsay but the brand’s founder Sol Kerzner decided it need more local flair. Then Kerzner ate at Reuben’s in the wine country outside the city, and was so wowed he recruited chef Reuben Riffel to open his first and only urban eatery. Reuben is South Africa’s most popular home grown chef and has won best chef and best restaurant of the year in the country several times. The result is one of the few city hotels in the world with a standout offering of real down to earth local cuisine. There are a lot of luxury hotels in China that have pretentious and overpriced Chinese restaurants, and in Italy many have pretentious and overpriced Italian cuisine, but here you get an upscale version of actual South African food and wine with great service in a very relaxed fine dining setting for prices that will blow your mind. Reuben’s features a selection of very high quality South African grass fed beef and excellent seafood – it is a great place to try kingklip, one of the best fish on earth and a local favorite. I’d go here even if I wasn’t staying at the One & Only but given the choice I’d stay here too.
Other top restaurants are the Roundhouse, suburban Grand Café, and the Grand Café’s more casual beach restaurant in Cape Town where they do excellent rectangular gourmet pizzas and a very good rendition of local specialty chicken piri piri. For more on South African cuisine, see my post earlier this week on food and the Winelands.
The two big must-do excursions from Cape Town are the Winelands, which I discussed in detail two days ago, and the Cape Peninsula. A wide variety of half and full day tours are available but the top sights include Cape Point and its lighthouse at the end of the peninsula, the Cape of Good Hope Nature Preserve, and Boulders Beach, home to the iconic penguins, one of only two land based penguin colonies on earth, and the only one you can visit. This day is also a good opportunity to visit some of Cape Town’s charming suburban beach towns along False Bay and Hout Bay where you can stop for lunch or a an early dinner.
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