Your Ultimate Guide to The Mother City
Fly to: Cape Town International Airport
Flight Time: There are no direct flights to Cape Town from Hong Kong, so you’ll need to stop over somewhere like Dubai or Johannesburg (depending on your airline!).
There’s a reason Cape Town is called The Mother City, and for me it’s because I love my home as much as I love my own mother! If you ask me even the simplest question, I’ll go on about it for as long as you’ll let me. Fresh off the boat in the 852, I’ve already noticed how Hong Kong is similar; a plethora of international restaurants, inspiring street style, an interesting and exciting variety of locally-produced designs, rad artisanal food and drinks, and of course, you can go from inner city to beach, hiking or cycling in less than an hour.
Like Hong Kong, the landscape and vibe in Cape Town is vastly different from one area to another, and that’s part of what it makes the city an absolute must-visit. I’m proud to say that my hometown is currently the second trending travel destination on Forbes so this handy guide is the perfect place to start your planning!
Where to stay
Cape Town’s public transport system doesn’t really cater to tourists, so when you’re deciding where to stay I’d suggest picking accommodation as close to the action as possible. There are options to suit every budget, and you can find some really cool, well-located and spacious accommodation options on Airbnb.
In the city itself, you’ll want to be within walking distance (or a short taxi ride away) from bars, restaurants, shopping and cultural sights, so look for accommodation anywhere near Kloof Street (Long street turns into Kloof Street), Kloof Nek Road or Bree Street. Vredehoek, Oranjezicht and Gardens are all central neighbourhoods near the city centre, bars & restaurants and shops. If you’re looking for peace and quiet, I’d say avoid Long Street and opt to stay higher up near these areas instead.
On the Atlantic Seaboard side (about ten minutes by car from Kloof Street), Sea Point is a top choice. With the promenade and public park stretching for kilometers, gorgeous views of the ocean, and heaps of great restaurants and shops, it’s a little quieter and definitely family-friendly. The V&A Waterfront is in this are, and Camps Bay, Llandudno and Hout Bay aren’t too far from here either. On most days Sea Point offers a rare respite from the infamous Cape Doctor (the crazy South Easter wind) so when the wind starts to howl, head in this direction.
Cape Town also offers some of the world’s best kite surfing, so if it’s water sports you’re after, look for accommodation up the West Coast (the Blouberg and Big Bay area is a kite surfers’ paradise) or towards the warmer waters of Muizenberg and Simon’s Town. Both of these areas are about a 30-minute drive out of the city. If you have a few days to spare, head here for beautiful beaches and local seaside towns (Paternoster and Church Haven are firm favourites). Drive through the lush wineland region and cultural haven of Franschoek and Stellenbosch to Elgin for Old Mac Daddy’s luxury caravan experience, or to Babylonstoren (more on this incredible place later) for a night or two of absolute farm-style luxury!
Take a Cape Town Walking Tour
Like many cities, Cape Town’s inner city and surrounding areas are best explored on foot. These (free!) guided walking tours offer you the opportunity to explore the city and learn more about its cultural and historical landmarks. You can pick between the Historic City Tour, the colourful Bo-Kaap Tour, the Apartheid to Freedom Tour, or the V&A Waterfront Tour. Exploring the Bo-Kaap is a must, so I’d suggest putting this one at the top of your list.
Visit The Company’s Garden, Iziko National Art Gallery and History Museum, Iziko Slave Lodge and District Six Museum
Immerse yourself in South Africa’s rich history by spending the day gallery and museum. Start with a walk through the Company’s Gardens, where you can visit the Iziko National Art Gallery and the National History Museum, The Slave Lodge (located at the bottom of the Company’s Gardens) and then take a walk through the East City to visit the District Six Museum and learn more about the history of Apartheid in Cape Town.
On the last Wednesday of each month, museums in a specific area of the city stay open from 5pm until 10pm, with free entrance. It’s definitely more of a social and cultural experience than gallery hopping during the day, but if that’s your vibe then Museum Night is a fun way to explore the city and visit a curated selection of some of the city’s best museums (including most of the sites mentioned above!)
Explore the City’s Arts and Culture Scene on First Thursdays
Taking place throughout the buzzing streets of the city centre and centred on uber-cool, Bree Street, First Thursdays offers a snapshot of the city’s art and culture scene. On the first Thursday of every month, art galleries and cultural attractions in Cape Town stay open until late with exhibition openings, food and vintage markets, live performances and so much more. While it’s definitely not the night for leisurely browsing or a quiet dinner, this part of the city really comes alive.
You have to experience the burgeoning art scene! Of course, we have Goodman Gallery and Stevenson, but there is a number of smaller independent galleries that have popped up over the last few years, all with exciting, contemporary artists in their stable.
Some of my favourite galleries (try to visit at least two or three) include:
If you’re into art and happen to be in Cape Town in February, don’t miss the Cape Town Art Fair, where you can visit an impressive number of local and international galleries under one roof.
Muizenberg, Kalk Bay and Simon’s Town
Muizenberg, Kalk Bay and Simon’s Town are beautiful little seaside towns which offer a bohemian, artsy and laid-back environment. The streets are lined with surf shops, antique and vintage stores, quirky restaurants and bars, and boast some of the most beautiful views. If you spend the day exploring Kalk Bay and the surrounding neighbourhoods, skip the restaurant lunch and instead grab delicious fish & chips from Kalkies (in the harbour) and have picnic on the pier instead. Afterwards, go to Sotano, Cape to Cuba, or Tiger’s Milk (in Muizenberg) to wash it all down with a few drinks.
Watch an Art Circuit Film at The Labia on Orange
Treat yourself to a movie at the country’s oldest, independent Art-Repertory Cinema in South Africa. The Labia is something of an institution in Cape Town, and with new films on circuit every week, an awesome bar and snack counter (we would often use a movie as an excuse to indulge in a glass or two of their delicious ‘Gluwhein ‘– which they make hot or cold!) and vintage appeal it’s not hard to see why. You can even take your drink into the movie and sip on your tipple of choice while watching!
South Africa and Cape Town has a world-class artisanal creative scene – there are so many independent brands making clothing, jewellery, accessories, décor items and even beauty products that there is absolutely no need to hit the mainstream international shops or malls.
Conveniently, Cape Town has a number of collectives where you can find many of the city’s top local designers and brands in one spot. Here are some of my go-to stores and shopping spots for all things local, ‘lekker’, and very good looking:
- The Neighbourgoods Design Market (you can find almost all of my favourite local designers here every Saturday):
- Mungo and Jemima
- Present Space
- The Watershed at the V&A Waterfront
- AKJP Collective (by designers Adriaan Kuiters + Jody Paulsen)
- Corner Store
- The Woodstock Exchange
There are a few local brands that truly make my heart flutter:
- Famke, Dear Rae, Pichulik and Lorne for bold and interesting jewellery (Pichulik also makes beautiful, interesting clothes)
- SELFI, Mevrou & Co.(for iconic local slang T’s), Margot Molyneux, Stiebeuel (for menswear), Sol Sol and Young and Lazy for clothes
- Skinny Laminx (for fresh and exciting textiles and fabrics)
- SKOONSKIN and Deity Skin (for natural skin and facial products)
- Missibaba and Wolf & Maiden (for bags)
Something More Adventurous:
You can’t visit Cape Town without doing the real tourist thing and taking a trip up Table Mountain (and for the Insta snap – duh). Take the cable car on a clear day or lace up those hiking boots and take an exhilarating guided hike to the top. If you’re lucky enough to be in Cape Town for your birthday, you can ride up in a cable car for free!
Signal Hill is just behind Lion’s Head and offers incredible views of the city on one side and the big blue ocean on the other. It’s not the highest launch spot, so it’s ideal for beginners (or, like me, terrified of heights). If you’re bold enough to jump off a (small) mountain, go for the sunset paraglide followed by celebration drinks in Sea Point (where you’ll land) or Camps Bay.
Take a Hike
Much like Hong Kong, Cape Town is famed for its natural beauty and diverse scenery, and hiking is a favourite pastime of many Capetonians. You can take your pick of rugged mountains, dense forests and seaside walks. When I lived in Cape Town, my friends and I would meet after work at least once a week to walk the Pipe Track, and we’d often hike up to the Woodstock Cave before Sunday brunch. You can read a pretty comprehensive (and categorised) list of the best hikes in Cape Town here.
Cycle the City
Rent a bicycle from Up Cycles (next to Sea Point Pavillion) and cycle along Sea Point Promenade to Camps Bay and back. Bring your swimsuit and towel and pop into the pools for a refreshing swim and a granadilla ice-lolly. Lounge in the sun, people-watch and jump off of the highest diving board (if you dare!)
If you’d prefer to do some city sightseeing on two wheels, Up Cycles alsohas a stall in the Mandela Rhodes building where you can hire bikes within the city. Save this activity for mid afternoon on Sunday, when the roads are far quieter. Make sure you cycle the length of the Company’s Gardens too!
Set against the backdrop of Table Mountain, Kirstenbosch Gardens is one of the “great botanic gardens of the world.” Bring a picnic and some vino (the restaurants here aren’t the greatest) and spend the day exploring and getting lost in the hundreds of little nooks and paths. Don’t leave Kirstenbosch without taking a walk on The Boomslang (‘tree snake’) tree canopy walkway, a truly breathtaking experience.
Nestled in the heart of Cape Town’s lush winelands, Franschoek really is a special place. Surrounded by wine farms this charming town offers fabulous food and markets. If you have a day or two to spare you should definitely consider treating yourself to a stay in this area. If a daytrip is all you have time for, you can book a shuttle from Cape Town and then spend the day hopping on and off the Franschoek Wine Tram as it carries you from one fabulous wine farm to the next (think wine tastings and pairings galore).
Spend the Day in Tropical Kraalbaai
Rent a car (or hire a shuttle) and head out to the West Coast National Park (about 1.5 hours out of Cape Town) to spend the day at Kraalbaai. An idyllic lagoon beach, Kraalbaai offers a tranquil, tropical paradise that isn’t unlike any beach in Greece. The water is still, crystal clear and warm (which is rare on the West Coast!), and if you go on a weekday you’ll be one of only a handful of people there! There are some barbecue spots on the road to Kraalbaai, but take your own picnic and beach gear as there aren’t any shops or restaurants nearby.
About 15 minutes outside of Cape Town, the Milnerton Market is so much more than a typical roadside, weekend flea market. Satisfy your caffeine cravings before you arrive (the coffee in general is pretty bad), but save your breakfast appetite for pancakes and toasted sandwiches from the local food caravans. Once you’ve got a pancake in each hand, wander up and down the stalls that offer everything from plants and car parts to vintage jewelry and furniture.
Held every Saturday just outside of the V&A Waterfront, the OZCF Market is a bustling, community farmers market where you can find locally-grown farm produce and a variety of artisanal foods from cakes and biltong to curries and dolmades. Overlooking the ocean, the OCZF is the perfect spot to stock up on food supplies if you’re staying in an Airbnb, or buy some local goodies to keep stashed for late night munchies. Do some shopping, grab a coffee, brunch and enjoy being a part of Cape Town’s sustainable community.
Spending a few hours at the Neighbourgoods Markets (sometimes called The Biscuit Mill because it’s held inside the Old Biscuit Mill grounds) is another favourite weekend activity among locals and tourists alike. The first to pop up in Cape Town’s community market scene, this market has become something of a social institution. Here, among the hundreds of stalls, you can spend hours browsing and trying fares and wares from Cape Town’s “finest micro-merchants, designer-makers, specialty-producers and food-alchemists.”
Aside from the abundant food and drink options, Neighbourgoods also has a dedicated local design market in a separate area, and here you can shop some of the city’s coolest fashion and accessories. Once you’ve finally settled on something to eat, indulge in a delicious cocktail or two from the market’s own Copper Bar and enjoy live music. It’s vibrant, busy, and very quintessentially Capetonian. In typical Cape Town style, it can get pretty crowded so I’d suggest you go around 10am to avoid the queues and potential hanger.
Food, Glorious Food
By Hong Kong standards, Cape Town is ridiculously affordable. To give you an idea of just how cheap: most of the bars and restaurants mentioned (and these are some of the best in Cape Town) below serve a glass of wine for $25 and a full meal between $40 – $70 (this obviously doesn’t apply to the fancier options, but even then you’re at no risk of breaking the bank). I’ve categorised my top Cape Town restaurants by cuisine – so all you have to do is decide between burgers or Indian.
Caption: Me, trying to choose a restaurant in Cape Town
Health & Vegan/Vegetarian:
Nü: A chain of healthy restaurants, Nü makes amazing salads and delicious breakfast bowls.
Raw and Roxy: “There is no need to say goodbye to burgers and chocolate ganache in your quest to eat healthy food.” Rax and vegan, need I say more?
The Hungry Herbivore: Another vegan favourite, The Hungry Herbivore makes a mean vegan burger and a pretty good raw pizza.
Scheckter’s Raw: Scheckter’s is one my ultimate breakfast spots after a cycle in Sea Point. It serves up delicious vegan and vegetarian food, and its sweet selection is to die for. Raw, vegan Snickers bar, anyone?
IYO Burgers – Inside & You’re Out: Made with all of the ‘toppings’ inside the patty (get it?), IYO offers up some crazy combinations that are all delicious. Opt for the bunless burger, which comes in a bowl of salad and get the sweet potato fries instead. So.damn.good.
Royale Eatery: Royale is legendary for making the ‘best burgers in Cape Town,’ and with a menu that is at least 12 pages long, you can mix and match and create whatever your heart desires. Royale’s boozy milkshakes are the stuff of dreams, so if you go, make sure you wear your stretchy pants ‘cos you need to fit one of these decadent babies in.
The Dog’s Bollocks: Massive burgers and delicious beer is served up in this industrial converted garage. The space has a really fun vibe, and you can spend hours sitting outside sipping on their specially-brewed beer watching the world go by.
Lefty’s: Lefty’s is a proper ‘dive bar’ offering burgers, pizzas, ribs and their famous fried chicken waffles. I usually go for the falafels, which are some of the best in Cape Town.
Sundoo: A South Indian tapas-style restaurant on Sea Point’s main road, Sundoo serves some of the best Indian food you’ll find in Cape Town.
Vintage India: Vintage India has all the charm of an old-school Indian diner, complete with plastic table covers and mismatched chairs. The food is amazing, and the portions are great value for money.
Unframed: Serving vegan ice cream with delicious toppings, Unframed is constantly experimenting and offering new flavours – from Turmeric lattes to Peanut Butter and so much more. Grab a scoop or three for a walk down Kloof Street and into Long Street, or treat yourself to late-night dessert post-dinner.
Honest Chocolate Café: Honest Chocolate Café will change your life, and that’s the damn truth. It’s almost impossible to choose from the chocolate bunny chow and nachos to raw truffles and sweet potato brownies, so order a few things to sample or to take home. Honest make incredible chocolate creations and, since everything’s made with raw, organic and vegan ingredients, there’s zero guilt factor!
El Burro and El Burro Taqueria: El Burro and the smaller El Burro Taqueria (on Kloofnek Road) are in my top 5 restaurants in the whole city. The food is fresh, authentic and too delicious to put into words. You’ve got to try the chilli & pineapple margarita, the fried fish taco and the wild mushroom burrito. You’re welcome.
San Julian: Nestled in Bo-Kaap, San Julian is the only Mexican restaurant in South Africa run by a Mexican family. ‘Nuff said!
Breakfast / Brunch:
Giulio’s: Delicious Italian fare, generous portions and a beautifully decorated dining room make Giulio’s a favourite brunch spot.
Clarkes Bar and Dining Room: Clarke’s is the go-to brunch spot in Cape Town, it’s where all the cool kids go and because there’s very little a Clarke’s Bloody Mary can’t fix. I still dream of the chickpea salad, but I’ve heard the Hash Eggs are pretty delicious too.
The Raptor Room: The Raptor Room has a drink named after Beyonce, tropical wallpaper, and serves something called ‘F*ckbread.’ Try the Big Mama Brunch burger, Ouma (Granny) Jean’s flapjacks, or their unique take on the local ‘gatsby.’
Love Thy Neighbour: Love Thy Neighbour offers authentic Greek food (both owners are Greek), barbecued meat, the most delicious bean dip you will ever taste, and a very, very impressive souvlaki. All this comes with a great selection of local wine and beer to be enjoyed in the outside beer garden area – perfect for long summer lunches.
Three Wise Monkeys: Hands down the best ramen in Cape Town, Three Wise Monkeys also serve sushi, kushiyaki and poké bowls.
Hallelujah: Seriously delicious and inventive Asian tapas, local bubbly and flamingo wallpaper – three things that make Hallelujah a true gem!
South China Dim Sum: This tiny little dim sum restaurant at the top of Long Street holds its own against the dim sum we eat here in Hong Kong. The cold sesame noodle salad is a must, and so is the green tea mojito. They also have a small selection of Asian beers, so if you find yourself craving a Tsing Tao and dumplings… this is the place to go.
Sawadee: If it’s Thai food you want, Sawadee delivers the best. This restaurant makes the best veggie green curry and Mongolian beef noodles in the city, in my humble opinion.
Make a Day Of It
Babylonstoren: A day at Babylonstoren is as memorable as it is delicious! The farm itself dates back to 1692 and has been reopened with two restaurants, a hotel and spa, a farm shop, bakery and wine tasting room. The sprawling garden is divided into 15 sections including fruit, vegetables, berries, a prickly pear maze, cactus gardens and so much more. You can spend hours wandering around the gardens, and eat an incredible farm-to-table lunch at either Babel (you’ll need to book at least a month or two in advance) or at the more casual Greenhouse. Babylonstoren have a selection of their own wines that are to die for, so after lunch head to the tasting room and try them all!
Die Strandloper: Up the West Coast of Cape Town you’ll find this breezy, outdoor barbecue restaurant on the beach. At Strandloper you pay a set price and then eat all the fresh seafood fresh off the grill and as much freshly-baked farm bread and homemade jam as you want/can!
The Test Kitchen recently ranked in the ‘World’s 100 best restaurants’ list for 2017. You’ll need to book months in advance to get a table but if you’re going all the way to Cape Town then this is an experience in fine dining that you absolutely cannot miss. Chef, Luke Dale-Roberts is a culinary genius, and his two other restaurants are incredible in their own right. If you can’t get a spot at The Test Kitchen, then a night at The Potluck Club or The Short Market Club make for an equally special experience (you’ll need to book these too).
Comprising a ‘Dark Room’ and a ‘Light Room’, The Test Kitchen is open only for dinners with a maximum of 40 guests per evening. It’s a magical experience worth every single cent. Expect 21 courses, each plated to perfection, with exceptional attention to detail and interesting and delightful flavour combinations. Girls, this is as fancy as it gets.
Bars and Hangouts
Luckily for us, choosing a spot to have a drink (or three) is a little easier than choosing where to eat in Cape Town. So, without further ado, here are some of my most dearly beloved bars in the Mother City:
The Power and The Glory: P&G (as it’s affectionately called) is a very cool neighbourhood bar known for its hotdogs, pickleback, oyster shots, and late night playlists. By day, P&G is a charming café serving delicious food and excellent coffee and by night, well… let’s just say it’s hands down my favourite bar in Cape Town.
Hanks: A moody whiskey bar just next to Love Thy Neighbour, Hanks holds weekly music nights and is known to turn into a bit of a dance party.
Outrage of Modesty: A fabulous and quirky cocktail bar, drinks at OOM is a delight for the senses.
Yours Truly: With two locations in the city (Kloof Street and Loop Street), Yours Truly is another go-to spot for many Capetonians. The Kloof Street bar has more of a party atmosphere than the Loop Street bar (unless it’s First Thursdays), so during the day you can enjoy drinks under the canopy of lush plants, and at night you can head upstairs (Up Yours) where there’s another bar and, on weekends, a DJ. It’s usually the number one option for Sunday drinks, when most of the other bars are closed.
The ‘Secret’ Gin Bar: Tucked away in the courtyard behind Honest Chocolate, The Gin Bar is an oasis in the city. For gin-lovers, they have a wide selection of local and international gins to choose from, and they make a killer gin cocktail. In summer they often host vinyl DJ sessions. Gin and vinyls, two of our favourite things.
Roxy Late Night: Roxy’s is another bar with an outside seating section, making it perfect for balmy summer evenings, and the cozy upstairs lounge area is perfect for cold, wintery red wine sessions. The ZAR10 (about $5) beer special draws the afternoon crowds, and I’ve heard some obscene words used to describe the Mac ‘n’ Cheese Balls.
After writing all of this, I’m equal parts hungry and homesick! Compiling a guide to Cape Town is no easy feat, not least because I want to do it justice and make sure that anyone who travels to the Mother City sees the very best that the city has to offer. Having said that, this guide is pretty personal; it’s filled with the places, activities and characteristics that made my life in Cape Town so sweet.
If I’ve forgotten anything (Shock! Horror!) or you’d like to suggest something I haven’t included (because in Cape Town a ‘cool new spot’ opens up just about every week), please let me know, I’d be happy to include them.