To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect from Cape Town, South Africa’s most popular city for tourists. I was a child living halfway across the world in 1994 when Nelson Mandela was elected president and apartheid ended, and I can’t claim to understand what South Africans went through. What I can tell you is that I discovered a city that felt very cosmopolitan and familiar, yet entirely unique. I was reminded a bit of New York and L.A. by its scenic coastline, dramatic mountain peaks, modern apartment buildings, and hip restaurants and bars, where a diverse cast of characters mixes and mingles, but when I dug a little deeper, I found a fascinating history of Dutch settlers, whose descendants still speak Afrikaans, black South Africans with roots from all over the continent, and Asians, who have a long history in the region as well. I learned that the Dutch brought slaves from Malaysia and other parts of Southeast Asia, resulting in a distinctive Cape Malay culture and flavorful, curry-heavy cuisine. Their influence can be seen and felt all over the city and the Western Cape, and many artists, designers, and chefs celebrate their heritage.
New developments in the CBD (Central Business District) and the V&A Waterfront are transforming the character of these neighborhoods and the whole city is buzzing with anticipation for the soon-to-open Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa , the groundbreaking museum dedicated to African art. All signs point toward Cape Town’s emergence as one of the world’s next hot must-visit destinations. Ready to go? Here’s what to do when you arrive.
Where to Stay
The Silo: Having just opened in March, this grain silo-turned-sleek hotel has already become a favorite with locals and visitors alike for its geometric glass (read: Instagrammable) exterior and luxe amenities. It's about to make even more of a splash with the aforementioned Zeitz MOCAA, that will house the single largest contemporary African art collection in the world, opening underneath and to which guests will have a private entrance and free admission.
Ellerman House: If you’re going to splurge on a luxurious hotel, make it this one. The intimate Relais & Châteaux property has just 13 rooms and two spacious villas. Its intimate scale, beautifully manicured grounds, expansive collection of South African art, and top-notch service make it especially popular for honeymoons and romantic getaways. Grab a lounge chair by the pool and soak up the spectacular views of the coastline.
Delaire Graff Estate: If you decide to extend your stay (which obviously you should, since you’ve come all this way), book a lodge at the luxurious Delaire Graff Estate in the Cape Winelands. The spacious lodges look out over the vineyards and so does the pool and Jacuzzi. This is definitely the kind of place where you’ll want to treat yourself to a spa treatment.
Where to Eat & Drink
Mulberry & Prince: This very Instagrammable little restaurant in the CBD feels like it could easily be located at the corner of the Manhattan streets it’s named after. Small plates like squid with radicchio and burrata with black garlic and cucumber are meant to be shared. This place works equally well for a romantic date or a girls’ night out and is a short walk from some of the city’s coolest bars.
Mother’s Ruin: The décor is nothing to write home about, but this little bar on hip Bree Street is a gin lover’s paradise. The list features over 100 craft gins distilled around the world, including a strong showing of local spirits. The expert bartenders know exactly which tonic and garnishes will best accentuate the gin’s flavor profile, whether you want a rooibos-tinged gin with orange peel or a more herbal gin with burnt rosemary and thyme.
What to Do
V&A Waterfront: The opening of Zeitz MOCAA has been a catalyst for the waterfront’s renaissance, and the neighborhood is bound to become even cooler. Formerly a touristy area full of big box malls and cheesy souvenir shops, the waterfront is now home to the Southern Guild and a clutch of other cool design boutiques and galleries.
Go gallery hopping: Cape Town’s art scene has exploded recently, and the MOCAA is fueling increased interest in African art. Visit SMAC (which has locations in Cape Town, Stellenbosch, and Johannesburg) to see the most cutting-edge contemporary art. Everard Reade is another major player in the art scene, representing leading artists like Lionel Smit, who had a major temporary installation at Union Square in Manhattan. There are also a bunch of cool galleries and artist studios in Woodstock, a formerly scruffy neighborhood that’s rapidly gentrifying.
Day trip to the Cape Winelands: About an hour outside of Cape Town, the Winelands are perfect for a day trip or relaxing weekend. Rolling hills and vineyards are dotted with white farmhouses in the Cape Dutch style that have been transformed into hotels, restaurants, and boutiques. Stroll through the charming towns of Stellenbosch and Franshoek, then head into the hills for lunch at Idiom Wines, which recently added a clean-lined, minimalist restaurant overlooking the vineyards.
Where to Shop
Southern Guild: Everything is swoon-worthy at this top-notch design gallery, which recently moved to this new, larger location on the waterfront. All the furniture and decorative objects are by African designers and artists, with a large concentration of South African works. If the price tags make your eyes pop, check out the section of the store with smaller, more affordable items like hand-painted ceramic bowls, jewelry, and patterned leather clutches by many of the same artists.