It was instantly obvious that I had arrived somewhere special. While the plane circled over Cape Town waiting for approval to land, I was amazed by the beauty of the city, located almost as a buffer between the famous landmark of Table Mountain and the stunning Table Bay. But it was on the way into the city from the airport that I realised what I had been told was true: Cape Town is also the most beautiful city in South Africa.
Falling in awe
The cheapest way to get into town from Cape Town International Airport is to jump on the rapid transit MyCiTi bus service, which was launched for the Fifa World Cup in 2010. Busses leave the airport every 20 minutes between 4:00 and 22:00 and takes passengers directly into Civic Centre bus station in the city centre for 50 rand. However, in anticipation of exploring more of the stunning landscape we had seen from the plane, we decided to rent a car from one of the many outlets at the airport.
The drive to the City Bowl, the central area of Cape Town where the harbour and the central business district is located, took just 20 minutes, yet by the end of the trip I was positive Cape Town and I would get along wonderfully. Compared to other central business districts around the world, Cape Town’s major business centre has surprisingly few concrete skyscrapers, giving the area a very relaxed and accommodating atmosphere.
What few places boast such distinctive architecture. The city harmoniously merges the new and the old with its European and the African influences and the city has the largest concentration of Cape Dutch architecture in the country. The result is an eclectic mix of culture, history and architecture. Rental car or not, we decided to explore the city on foot.
Streets were made for walking
Due to the many architectural sites and sheer volume of history surrounding Cape Town, a guided tour is probably the best option for visitors, and especially for us, since none of us knew much about either architecture or South African history. Our tour started with the Castle of Good Hope, the oldest building in South Africa. Much more than just a popular tourist attraction, the castle serves as a time machine back to the early days of the Cape and its role in the Dutch East India Company. It was built between 1666 and 1679 by the company in a strategic location in order to improve trade links between the Orient and the West. Constructed in a star-shape, with five bastions named after the main titles of Willem, the Prince of Orange, the castle became the centre of civilian, administrative and military life in the Cape. It was declared a National Monument in 1936 and today functions as the quarters for military personnel of the Western Cape, as well as housing the Castle Military Museum and the William Fehr Collection of Art, named after a South African businessman and art collector whose antique furniture, oil paintings and delicate china is now exhibited in beautifully arranged rooms within the castle.
Next stop was City Hall, which is yet another reminder of the history of South Africa and the mix of heritage found in Cape Town. Opened in 1905, the City Hall is built in Italian Renaissance style, but with one distinctively English feature – the clock tower is built to scale and exactly half the size of its distant twin, namely: London’s Big Ben. Standing on the steps of the City Hall, the same steps where Nelson Mandela gave his powerful speech to the nation after being released from imprisonment, one couldn’t help but feel humbled by the sheer weight and significance of the location’s history.
After City Hall, the tour guide led us to Long Street, known for its Victorian architecture and quirky little shops and bars. The street, which runs along more than 20 blocks within the CBD, could have easily entertained us for a whole day with its fine mix of churches and mosques, wine and spirit stores, restaurants, bars, book and clothing shops showcasing a fascinating blend of old antiques and popular culture. But hunger then set in, so we stopped for lunch at The Fork on Long Street, a stylish tapas restaurant which served some excellent innovative Spanish-inspired dishes, including a pan seared ostrich fillet and seared salmon with wasabi mayonnaise.
The last leg of the journey was made by car to the famous Cape Winelands, which is one of the few places left in the world with a high concentration of Cape Dutch architecture. Buildings of this style were once seen all over the Western Cape, but the ones in the Cape Bowl have in many cases been torn down to make space for commercial properties. The surrounding towns, such as Stellenbosch, Tulbagh and Swellendam still feature some Cape Dutch-styled houses, inspired by Dutch farmers who came to the area during the 17th and 18th century. The buildings are characterised by several distinct elements, including standardised gable designs and the thatched roofs. Many of the old buildings are protected under national heritage laws and their facades cannot be altered. Some have even been turned into museums, while others are still functioning houses or home business enterprises such as wine farms. The gable on the Old Wine Cellar in Stellenbosch is believed to be the oldest in town, dating back to 1767.
Immersed in history and fine architecture, we eventually dragged ourselves away from the city centre to the villa we had rented in the beachside suburb of Camps Bay, guide books in hand to plan our next cultural adventure.
Plan your tour of heritage Cape Town:
- For a list of car rental companies in Cape Town International Airport and a useful price comparison tool, visit http://www.southafrica.to/transport/carrentals/car-rentals-capetown/car-rentals-Cape-Town-airport.php5
- The Castle of Good Hope is located off Strand Street, next to the Good Hope Centre. Admission is 28 rand for adults and 12 rand for children and the castle is open every day except holidays from 9:00 to 16:00. http://www.castleofgoodhope.co.za/
- The Fork tapas restaurant is located on 84 Long Street and is open Monday to Saturday from noon to 11pm. http://www.fork-restaurants.co.za/index.html
- Cape Town and Western Cape have an official tourism site with detailed information about tourist attractions, accommodation and other attractions. http://www.tourismcapetown.co.za/ctru/content/en/za/home
- The official tourism website of Stellenbosch is an comrehensive guide to everything the town and surrounding areas have to offer. http://www.stellenboschtourism.co.za/