Cape Town is one of those rare cities that makes for a wonderful holiday destination – as opposed to somewhere to go for a city break – in its own right. It’s staggeringly good looking and has that winning combination of city energy, culture, history and nature.
It’d be easy enough to spend a month here and not run out of things to do, but here are five of the top things to do for the time-pressed.
#1 – Cycle down Table Mountain
Those who have visited Cape Town will always describe how stunning Table Mountain is, but no matter how high your expectations are, the “wow” factor of seeing it in person is immense. The mountain – plus its jagged cohorts, Lion’s Head and Devil’s Peak – looms over the city, and the rock has seemingly limitless levels of detail. Cloudy days are particularly impressive – the white clouds can pour over the top of the mountain like a waterfall.
There are, of course, many ways of exploring Table Mountain. There are hundreds of hiking trails, while the cable car ascent is perennially popular. But for fit and fearless, there’s the opportunity of tackling the mountain on a bike.
I’ll confess that when I booked in for a cycle down Table Mountain, I thought it’d be a leisurely glide along a few winding roads. It is nothing of the sort – this is proper mountain biking and those signing up for it should be expecting some hard work. For a start, the tracks on Table Mountain are quite treacherous. They’re fine for walkers, but on a bike you’re essentially riding the brakes down pretty steep scree slopes. Slow and steady without locking the brakes is the key – it’s very easy to fall off.
The uphill stretches can be even tougher. Winds on Table Mountain can be fiercely strong, and if you’re cycling into one of the howlers, it can be murderous on the thighs. Similarly, some stretches of track can be rather sandy – think swimming through treacle and you’re about there.
But cycling down Table Mountain is all about the challenge. It may be hard work – especially for a novice – but the rewards are worth it. The easier stretches are a delight to freewheel down, while the views of the city, the pine forests, the ocean and the mountain rarely drop below awe-inspiring.
#2 – Explore Long Street
Long Street is Cape Town’s party strip, and it is flanked by numerous bars and restaurants. Long Street’s real strength lies in its multicultural feel, however. Amongst the quirky hotels – check out the Airstream caravan park on the roof of the Grand Daddy – and clubs are tastes from all over Africa and beyond. Southern African restaurants sell dishes such as warthog medallions and springbok steaks, whilst it’s also possible to eat in traditional Kurdish and Ethiopian styles.
The real treats lie in the shops though. What seems like an average-sized store from the outside can often contain a labyrinth of interlinked outleys. They’ll sell everything from Malian dresses to souvenirs and while the displays are very basic, these Tardis-like shops are marvellous to get lost in.
Long Street doesn’t feel like the downtown areas in most South African cities. It’s a genuine fear-free pleasure to saunter along, and the racial and cultural mix is how the architects of the Rainbow Nation would have dreamt it.
#3 – Check out the new World Cup stadium
At the time of writing, construction of the new Cape Town Stadium at Green Point was facing a desperate race against time to be open for its first test event prior to the 2010 World Cup. The 70,000-seater effort has been specially designed for the World Cup football (soccer) tournament in June 2010, and has a prime position by the waterfront.
It’s difficult to see while the workmen are still working on the area, but the Green Point stadium will be surrounded by parkland.
Obviously, it’s possible to go down to Green Point for a sneak peak at the venue that will host key World Cup matches including the semi-final, but the genuinely spectacular views are to be had from the top of Signal Hill.
The design was deliberately orchestrated so that the stadium would look most spectacular from the sea or looking down from the various Table Mountain look-outs. Signal Hill offers the prime viewing, and Viator’s Cape Town Football World Cup Tour kicks off with a trip up there.
#4 – Dine with the locals
One novel concept available in Cape Town is the chance to be invited into the home of a complete stranger who will cook dinner for you and tell interesting tales about their life and work in the city.
Different hosts are used for each tour, and obviously the enjoyable-ness of the tour depends a lot on your host and dining companions. Some of the people visited are better storytellers and talkers than others, and you may or may not click with your fellow guests, but it’s an awesome opportunity to go where you’d never normally get the chance. Amongst the hosts you may encounter are local poets, entrepreneurs, journalists and musicians.
The general idea is to chat over dinner with the first host, then hop back in the bus and head to a second host for a nightcap. An hour or so is spent in each home, and Viator’s People of Cape Town History Tour is a unique way to find out about South African culture and local life.
#5 – Cruise around the coast
Many of the most appealing parts of Cape Town are along the coast. The city’s beaches are regularly cited as being amongst the best in the world – even if the waves can be brutally strong and the water absolutely freezing. Getting in the water is a better idea for would-be surfers than it is for swimmers, let’s put it that way.
Camps Bay is arguably the best known of the beach suburbs. It has a certain see-and-be-seen swagger about it, and has plenty of bars, cafés and restaurants in prime people-watching spots.
Parked right in front of the city is the V&A waterfront. The ferries to Robben Island leave from here, the boats can be watched entering the historic harbour and South Africa’s four Peace Prize Laureates are honoured with statues in Nobel Square.
But the V&A Waterfront is really about the mooching around and the shopping. Lots of quirky small outlets can be found amongst the flagship big name outlets and souvenir stalls.