A Day in Cape Town South Africa – Exploring the City Center

Heather Markel, Writer, Speaker, Photographer, Traveler, Business Strategist

A city that’s so much larger than first meets the eye.

When I first landed in Cape Town I expected to stay a week, maybe two. Before I knew it, a month had passed, and I was still in love with it. The city is much larger than I at first realized. That size is compounded by the very different neighborhoods that can make you feel like you’re crossing through cities even though you’re in the same one. This will be the first of two blog posts on enjoying Cape Town because it’s simply too big and has too much to see to fit in one blog post!

First view of  Greenmarket Square, Cape Town.

Photograph by Heather Markel, Copyright 2020

City Center

Central Cape Town will find you at or near Greenmarket Square. This is a cluster of vendors who delight in having you “look for free” at their many different varieties of wood carvings, fabric bags, clothing and jewelry. (Point C on the map below.) Long Street is the main one and is one to pay attention on. Most shops have iron gates in front of their doors (apparently hold ups at gunpoint happen) and all sorts of people walk around. This is definitely a street where you should not openly display jewelry, cameras, or phones. To be blunt, if you are white, you’re already going to be asked for money. I noticed some people giving me a once-over as if estimating whether I had anything worth taking. I was glad I didn’t. That’s not to say it isn’t safe! During the day there are plenty of security guards on most corners. But, you should still pay attention.

Close by are The Company Gardens (point H) where you’ll find a lovely walk through trees and a green lawn while passing by important historical monuments and a church where you can enjoy concerts once a week. Personally, I never had any trouble walking through here alone during the day. My last full day in Cape Town, I heard about a couple that had been in Cape Town all of 30 minutes and got mugged walking in these gardens. I don’t know their circumstances, so can’t tell you why they were mugged and I was not, except that I always noted who was near me and kept my wallet in my bag and my bag under my arm. Always be vigilant.

What I loved about the center was the sense of community. I went to the same places and made friends with many of the local shop owners. (See me below with Fred from Biltong and Blade and Myles from Free From Eatery!) They’re all on a really cool street, St George’s Mall, which has a small and charming food market every Thursday. Among other excellent African foods you can find, Edo Rolls offers burrito style sushi rolls, delicious! What’s even more delightful is that if you order any of the food from one of these stalls, ANY of the restaurants on the street allow you to sit and enjoy your food, free of charge, even if you don’t buy anything from that restaurant! St. George’s Mall also offers vendors of all the crafts and souvenirs you could want, without the crowded feeling of Greenmarket Square.

Here are a few favorite places on St George’s Mall I came to love during my time in Cape Town:

  • Biltong and Blade (point D on the map below) – the best biltong I had in Southern Africa. I tried, hard, to find other biltong as good, and could not. Theirs is fresh, tender, not dry, and you just cannot find all the varieties of meat they offer, from sprinbok to kudu to zebra! Ask for Fred and tell him Heather from New York sent you!
  • Free From Eatery (point E) – Nathan is the owner and has the best ostrich I tasted in Cape Town! In fact, the best in all the places I visited in Africa. He also makes some great local dishes from the townships – definitely worth eating here a few times.
  • Free walking tours (point F) – just up the street from Biltong and Blade by the coffee shop you’ll find 3 free walking tours. I recommend you do them all. They will show you the city center, Bokaap and the history of apartheid.

The map below gives you one way to take advantage of some of the highlights of the city center. You can grab your City Sightseeing bus ticket on Long Street (point A). Get there first thing in the morning for your tour because there is a LOT to see. If you get off at just one or two sites and enjoy your time at either, you might not get to complete the full circuit. The red and blue lines are the most noteworthy. I got off at the World of Birds and ended up spending two hours. There are fascinating animals, including a monkey garden where they will sit on you! Another stop features excellent wine tasting, and you can also take the bus to Table Mountain, the Botanical Gardens and the V&A Waterfront. If you have the time, buy a two-day ticket. There’s just too much to see in one day. Hint – save your ticket because it gets you discounts around the city.

“So much to see and such a beautiful city!”

By the way, if you go downstairs in the City Sightseeing bus office, you’ll find toilets, and some of the most beautiful clothing by a company called WAG. They have a store across the street, worth visiting. You won’t find clothes like these anyplace else in the world. (Note there are several branches of this store in Cape Town and the prices vary. The Long Street store has the largest selection and is the most expensive. If you buy more than one item, negotiate a better price.) Next to the City Sightseeing office is Kamili’s coffee shop on the corner (point B). Treat yourself to a Cannucino – that’s a capuccino with cannabis! It was recently legalized in South Africa, and though I’m not sure whether the coffee has actual cannabis or just hemp, it’s still really good and leaves you feeling quite nice. Speaking of coffee, it’s excellent in South Africa. While Colombia ruled the bean in South America, I found that the blend of African coffees, like Kenyan, is fabulous. If you like real, strong coffee, you will be very happy here!

Monkeying around at the monkey park in Cape Town’s World of Birds.

Photograph by Heather Markel, Copyright 2020

Must-See Museums

There are two museums I feel you simply can’t miss. If you have only a day or two in Cape Town, make these a priority.

The Iziko Slave Lodge. This is one of the most striking exhibits I saw. As an American who learned about slavery from books and the classroom, my understanding was deepened and awareness expanded. You’ll learn not just the history, but you’ll read the stories of many slaves, and feel the emotion of the experience that stripped people of their identities and their families. It’s heavy, but it’s a must-see. (point G)

District Six Museum. (point I.) I will never understand how it was possible to uproot so many people from their homes and their lives. While on a free walking tour to this neighborhood, a man randomly came up and told us about how the neighborhood used to be, many people from all over getting along, and how awful an experience it was when that neighborhood was destroyed. The museum explains what led up to this happening, and shares experiences of many of its former inhabitants.
South African Jewish Museum. (point J.) This is a fascinating museum worth a visit. It houses two exhibits – one about Jews that emigrated to South Africa and they’re community and rejection of apartheid. The other part of the museum goes into details and photographic evidence of the holocaust. I’ve never before seen the experience of Jews related to the experience of blacks in apartheid. Jews were segretated, too, so it makes sense that they radically opposed apartheid.
Right near to the District 6 museum is the square where Nelson Mandela gave his first speech after being released from prison on Robben Island. They recently placed a statue of him there. Given the history and politics in South Africa, I am surprised it’s the only statue of an important black man in its history. Hopefully that will change. 
If you stay at a hotel or hostel in the center, they will warn you not to be out at night, certainly not alone. Take an Uber instead of walking. The Onomo On The Square is a lovely boutique hotel that’s right on Greenmarket Square and very safe. If you face the square you may hear them setting up the market each morning. Staff is lovely. Booking.com rates are often less expensive than booking direct with the hotel, especially if you have a genius discount. (note – if you use my Booking.com link we will both earn $25!) The Grand Daddy is another amusing boutique hotel a few blocks away. Their roof has trailers set up like hotel rooms!

Stay tuned for more tips on the highlights of Cape Town!

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