International visitors love Cape Town. It’s their favorite South African city to eat, drink (the wine culture dates back to 1659) and make merry. And it’s easy to see why on a clear day with Table Mountain looming and the restaurants, beaches and the many distinct neighborhood hubs and suburbs buzzing.
“We’re meeting for coffee at Helen Zille’s tomorrow,” my friend and informal Cape Town guide tells me. This friend has lived in the Côte d'Ivoire in West Africa, she’s lived in Greece, she’s traveled extensively in Europe (and still does) and has based herself in Cape Town for the past dozen years. “The place is a gem,” she says. “Just so much going on.”
I don’t ask her why Helen Zille has invited us for coffee, which is what it sounds like. Zille is the former mayor of Cape Town. She’s Premier of the Western Cape, where Cape Town, South Africa’s legislative capital and the seat of Parliament, is located. She’s the leader of the Democratic Alliance or DA, the country’s chief opposition party (to President Jacob Zuma’s African National Congress or ANC).
As it turns out, coffee with Zille is a euphemism for coffee in her garden. When Cape Town’s biggest and best foodie market, the Saturday morning Oranjezicht City Farm Market had to vacate its old premises, Zilla offered them the use of the huge garden at Leeuwenhof, her official residence; a garden where Table Mountain hovers as the backdrop. It’s a favorite with the more affluent and sustainably conscious set who arrive in droves to picnic and stock up for the week. It’s a great place to make like a local and get a feel for what’s cooking in this part of the world if you’re a tourist.
Last year (2014), Cape Town was named the best place in the world to visit by both the New York Times and the British Daily Telegraph. It’s South Africa’s most European city. The climate is Mediterranean. Capetonians who visit San Francisco often remark that there are similarities. One is that in both cities, no matter how hot the weather, it’s always wise to take a jacket because on a dime, the fog can descend and the temperature can change from balmy to biting.
I just spent five days in Cape Town. Not my first visit, but my first in a while. There are things I didn’t do that lots of people go there for, like diving with great white sharks off Gansbaai, a two-hour scenic drive from the city center and hanging out with cheetah cubs near Stellenbosch (I did go to this historic wine country and university town and you must too), both of which a friend from Oakland, Calif., previously traveled to Cape Town to do.
Let Me Share Some Highlights
Straight from Cape Town International, we headed for the (V&A) Waterfront. Unlike Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, which many locals will tell you is just for tourists, this waterfront is a magnet for both Capetonians and the international set.
That evening, wandering around, we watched people riding the imposing Cape Wheel, which is the city’s equivalent of the London Eye, and checked out the Table Bay Hotel where President Barack and Michelle Obama and daughters Sasha and Malia have all stayed.
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The hotel, which looks across Table Bay to Robben Island Prison, where the late Nelson Mandela spent much of his 27-year prison sentence (take a guided ferry trip from the Waterfront), has seen many other big-name visitors. Charlize Theron, Michael Jackson, Chris Rock, Stevie Wonder, Robert De Niro, and Snoop Dogg to name a few. (Cape Town — the Hollywood of Africa — is one of the world’s new filming hot-spots.)
That first night we drank beer and snacked on “slap chips” (the South African version of fries) at Mitchell’s Scottish Ale House (and waterfront brewery).
Over the next few days, we returned to the Waterfront a few times. Highlights: lunch at the V&A Market on the Wharf, a two-storied artisanal food court with offerings ranging from raw vegan to plump and juicy beef burgers; exploring The Watershed, the new arts, crafts and design (shopping) space; browsing and buying a couple of bottles from the Vaughan Johnson Wine Shop.
And having lunch with our feet in the sand at the Grand Africa Café and Beach restaurant where, as the blurb for the place says, “grand-chic meets retro-romance” in tongue-in-cheek X-treme fashion with chandeliers, a seasonal menu offering a variety of seafood including great piles of it on platters, wild game dishes (kudu loin), and tables in the sand in good weather (you dine inside the renovated grandiose warehouse building in inclement weather).
Can't Miss Food Destinations
Meanwhile, on day two we headed for the city bowl, as they call their downtown with its mountain vista. The rest of Africa meets South Africa and the world at Greenmarket Square where traders from Central, West, East and Sub-Saharan Africa set up shop each day. This is a short stroll from the Long Street Antique Arcade, if you’re into vintage items from jewelry to clothing or militaria, maps and antiquated cameras. Just round the corner is the Church Street antique market where we stopped in at Cafè Mozart for coffee, cake and a little Parisian ambiance.
Also check out the Pan African Market on Long Street, which is a multi-level maze of stores where you’ll find traders busy packing carvings, folk art and other African art items to send to clients and customers overseas. The gorgeous old Victorian building with its balconies wouldn’t be out of place in New Orleans. The restaurant spilling onto the balcony upstairs is also worth a stop.
You can walk to Parliament from here, past (Anglican) St. George’s Cathedral, known as “the people’s cathedral” for its role in the resistance against apartheid and the oldest cathedral in Southern Africa. When you’re passing, check out who’s playing in the basement Crypt Jazz Restaurant. It’s near the National Gallery for art lovers and the Company’s Garden, which dates back to 1652, for plant and urban landscape enthusiasts. At the Company’s Garden Restaurant you’ll find fresh and local flavors and I can vouch for their excellent melktert (milk tart), a South African specialty.
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From Zille’s, we headed to another of Cape Town’s can’t-miss foodie destinations, the Old Biscuit Mill. Here, dozens of food stalls open up to the crowds on Saturday morning. When you get tired of standing in endless lines and wowing at the selections, you can shop in a bunch of stores that are open all week or sit in a regular restaurant in this trendy old renovated mill complex. If you want to visit The Test Kitchen, which has a six-month waiting list, plan ahead and book.
Side Trips from Cape Town
We drove via Stellenbosch to Franschoek, sometimes called SA’s food and wine capital. Just near Franschoek we made sure to stop in at Babylonstoren, a most amazing farm with designer veggie gardens and a restaurant with a two-month wait list. They also have a café in a large glassed-in greenhouse. There you can make up your own sandwich from the fresh farm ingredients, choose from their cheese room or charcuterie selection, sip on a Babylonstoren viognier or shiraz. And drink a toast to life down near the southern tip of Africa.