1. Table Mountain – No visit to Cape Town can be considered complete with a visit to the city’s most iconic image, Table Mountain. Well, unless you’re me. When I visited the cable car to the top was out of service, so I sadly never got to see firsthand the amazing views but the mountain was a constant companion nonetheless. Named one of the 7 New Natural Wonders of the World in 2011, Table Mountain is indeed a sight to behold. I spent my formative years living in a mountain town so having the looming presence of the flat-topped mountain in Cape Town was something I didn’t just enjoy, but which I came to crave. Even better than seeing the mountain up close is to see it from a distance. One of my favorite photos of Cape Town is one I took across the water on Robben Island with the city and the splendor of the mountain in full view.
2. Cape Malay cooking class – Food is one of the most important aspects of the travel experience for many reasons, not the least of which is its power to connect us to new places and people. Cape Town is a mish mosh of peoples and cultures, but one of the most robust culinary traditions is Cape Malay cuisine. The earliest members of the ethnic group known today as Cape Malay arrived as slaves and were brought to Cape Town from Southeast Asia by the Dutch. Future generations including (now) Indonesian Muslim leaders who were sent into exile and forced to resettle in South Africa. Cape Malays also have a South Asian or Indian heritage, and it was their influence that brought Islam to South Africa. Over time their cultural, and culinary adaptations became ingrained into daily life in South Africa, especially the food and especially in Cape Town. Entering the home of a local cook in the Bo Kaap neighborhood, the afternoon I spent learning the finer points of producing amazing Cape Malay food was one of the best I enjoyed in Cape Town. By the end of the day we had made delicious fritters, breads and of course a flavorful curry. I learned a lot about food that day, but even more about the city.
3. Walk the city – This is great advice for any new city, but it’s especially important for Cape Town. This is a city with many different sides to it, each with a matching personality. I took a number of walking tours while there and I was amazed at how different the various parts of town are. The colorful Bo Kaap, the commercial downtown and the trendy Fringe district all seem to come from three different cities and not the same dynamic town. The Fringe District in particular was fascinating as it exemplifies the hope and promise for the future that is the underlying current of emotion permeating the city. The name Fringe comes from the district’s geographical location, abutting the infamous District Six. In 1966, the apartheid government declared the district a whites-only area under the Group Areas Act, with forced removals starting in 1968. By 1982, more than 60,000 people had been relocated to the sandy, bleak Cape Flats township complex some 25 kilometers away. Almost everything was bulldozed; the only remaining buildings were places of worship and police stations. The government left the area undeveloped. Since the fall of apartheid, the government has recognized the claims of former residents and the process of rebuilding has begun. Due to its proximity to the District, the Fringe has long been an area of run down buildings next to thriving shop fronts. It’s also an area of intense change, especially since Cape Town won the World Design Capital title. Some of the most cutting edge experiments in design, art, architecture and even technology are taking place there and it’s a part of town important to visit if you want to start the process of understanding the city.
4. Robben Island – Not unlike Alcatraz in San Francisco, the unique position of Robben Island just seven miles off the coast of Cape Town has lent itself naturally to being used as a prison, first by the Dutch in the 17th century and much later during the apartheid era. It was in the 1950s when the government converted the island into a maximum security prison and between 1961 and 1991 more than three thousand men were incarcerated as political prisoners. Amazingly the last political prisoner was freed only in 1991. This is also where the leaders of the anti-apartheid movement were held, including Nelson Mandela. Like so many other similar sites around the world, a visit to the island is a somber one. The prison, the isolation and the terrain are depressing, but there’s an underlying message of hope. This is amplified by the fact that former prisoners now serve as tour guides in a unique and ironic twist that transforms the experience from one of mere sightseeing to one of education.
5. Cape Point – A short distance from Cape Town, Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope was one of my favorite experiences while visiting the Mother City. Cape Peninsula is much larger than I originally thought; it stretches 52 kilometers and includes not only Cape Point and Cape of Good Hope, but the iconic Table Mountain as well. In addition to the scraggly fynbos, the area is also home to mischievous baboons (don’t feed them), Cape Mountain Zebras, wandering ostriches and more than 250 species of birds. For whatever reason, the stark beauty of standing on the edge of Africa spoke to me on an almost instinctual level and I fell madly and deeply in love with the Cape. Just imagining the sailors who voyaged around that very point and changed the world in the process sent geeky shivers up my spine. It may be a popular tourist spot, but that doesn’t detract from the simple joy I felt walking around the Cape area and even today those memories never fail to make me smile in remembrance.
Have you been to Cape Town? What are some other Must Do experiences?
I was in Cape Town as the guest of Cape Town Tourism and as part of the #LoveCapeTown promotion.