Insider Itinerary is an occasional series here at Dandelion Chandelier that shines a light on the best places to see, stay, and dine in some of the hottest travel destinations worldwide. Our far-flung correspondents are sharing their inside tips about how to best experience their chosen cities, especially if you’re visiting for the first time. Consider it your local luxury GPS. You’re welcome!
First up, our Paris Bureau Chief shares the ideal itinerary for a first trip to Cape Town, South Africa. His (lightly edited) suggestions follow. The coastal city is the second-most populous urban area in South Africa after Johannesburg, and the legislative capital of the country. In 2014, Cape Town was named the best place in the world to visit by both the New York Times and the Daily Telegraph. It made several lists of the best places to go in 2017. Several of our correspondents name it as one of their favorite destinations in the world. After reading this, we’re pretty sure you’ll want to see it for yourself.
Why Cape Town? What made you want to go there?
I discovered the Cape (as it’s fondly referred to) in talking with friends who said it was the spot on the map of up-and-coming places. They said they were done with St. Barth’s, Rio, Mykonos, and Ibiza and looking for something new. But what really attracted me was much deeper: the very controversial and painful history of South Africa. Wanting to see how the wounds of apartheid were healing and society evolving; a desire to meet real local Afrikaans and discuss their feeling towards the past; and curiosity about how a whole society was transforming itself, much like China had to do 50 years ago. I moved to China to live through that, and I wanted to do it again. I started going to Cape Town two years ago, and I have gone back on average every 6 months. Because once I got there, I discovered the richness and the breadth of what’s there. It’s totally blessed by nature – it’s not just safari and jungle, there are also pristine beaches, surfing, and aquatic life from whales to dolphins to Seal Island. There is the awesome Kirstenbosch Garden, there are vineyards and wine country that rival France or California; there is a thriving foodie scene; chic design shops; a local opera and symphony. The newly opened Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Zeitz MOCAA) has put South Africa on the map in the contemporary art world. The awesome Heatherwick design preserves the original roots of the building.
How long did you stay? How long is the ideal first visit?
I stayed three weeks the first time I went, but I think one could get a flavor in a week to 10 days for Cape Town and the surrounding wine lands. I highly recommend driving along the Garden Route, but that would add a few days. [The Garden Route is a 300-kilometer stretch of the south-western coast of South Africa which extends from Mossel Bay in the Western Cape to the Storms River in the Eastern Cape. The name comes from the verdant and ecologically diverse vegetation found there.]
What hotel(s) do you recommend? Or did you rent a house?
Tourism is now in full swing — the 5-star grand dame hotel in Cape Town is the Mount Nelson, and the newest splashy and world-class property is the SILO Hotel at the waterfront by the Zeitz Museum. I went for the grand opening, and it’s definitely up to par, but so is the price (approximately $1,000 per day, which is a first for Cape Town). There are many boutique hotel properties like the Twelve Apostles, which I stayed at once and found a bit small and too stifling. If you can, renting a fabulous house is the way to go — in Camps Bay, Constantia, or Clifton [an exclusive residential area home to the most expensive real estate in South Africa, with dwellings nestled on cliffs that have sweeping views of the Atlantic Ocean]. There are awesome homes available that rival Malibu, East Hampton or the South of France for a quarter of the price.
What are the 5 most important “must see” sights — natural wonders, museums, etc?
Must see: the Kirstenbosch Garden; a trip up Table Mountain; a boat to Seal Island; a visit to wine country (both Franschhoek and Stellenbosch —go to Babylonstoren!!!); the communities of Kalk Bay [a fishing village on the coast of False Bay], Constantia and Muizenberg [a beach-side suburb]; and the drives to Chapman’s Peak and the Garden Route.
Is there good shopping? If so, where?
Shopping is great in downtown Cape Town on Kloof Street, Bree Street and in the Tamberskloof area. Also, the V&A (Victoria and Alfred) Waterfront is a big shopping complex. And not-to-miss are the markets in Hout Bay and various communities with food and crafts. It’s refreshing to not find the typical European designer labels, but instead the local, often high end artisans doing clothing, jewelry, home wares and crafts.
What are the local foods that are must-try? Which restaurants did you love?
This is a major foodie city with so many restaurants I can’t even begin to list, but the ones I love are Chef’s Warehouse, La Colombe, Test Kitchen, Pot Luck Club and countless less “fancy” places that are turning out innovative world-class food that put New York, Paris, London and San Francisco on notice. The prices in Cape Town are about a third less than those in those cities and the quality is so high. Babylonstoren is a must for lunch or dinner and staying there for two nights is bliss.
Of everything you did on your first visit, what was the one most memorable thing?
The most memorable thing was seeing the sweeping views and vistas — like the first time I saw the Swiss Alps or maybe the Taj Mahal. The grandeur and majesty of African nature are without any comparison, really. It’s just a category within itself.
What would you take a pass on if you had it to do again?
I might pass on trekking up the Lions Head peak, which was a lot of walking for not that much of a better view than Table Mountain.
What’s on your list to see next time that you didn’t get to on your first visit?
Next time I’d like to spend more time staying in the wine country — it’s a totally different vibe than the sea or city, and just one hour away.
Is this a good vacation for families with kids? Teenagers? Romantic partner? Solo traveler? Any or all of the above?
Kids — yes — tons of animals, sea fun and sports. Romance — yes — find a lovely inn and delight your senses in every way. And yes, gay travelers are openly accepted. Solo travelers – yes – there’s a vibrant arts, food and design community. It’s really got it all!
Describe the city in three words.
Mind-boggling, delicious, surprising.