Cape Town City Culture

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Cape Town City Culture
Cape Town's vibrant cultural scene draws visitors from around South Africa and the world. The cool cafés and buzzing nightlife encourage most travelers to stay downtown.
By Marie Frei, AFAR Local Expert
Photo by age fotostock
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    Historic Architecture
    Cape Town's architecture is the perfect example of the city's ability to preserve and blend new and old in a functional, creative way. While walking through the city center, you'll spot modern hotels alongside restaurants housed in Victorian-era buildings with balconies and latticework reminiscent of New Orleans. St. George's Cathedral, the center of political anti-apartheid protests in the 1980s, has a crypt-turned-jazz-club. Roxy's, a historic home converted into a dark and eclectic bar in Dunkley Square, is another example of old made new again. Take a train south to Muizenberg's Edwardian-era train station and visit the colorful Victorian-era colorful bathing houses on the beach once dubbed the "Brighton of South Africa".
    Photo by age fotostock
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    Cape Malay Culture
    The Cape Malay ethnic group was formed by the original Muslim slaves brought from Indonesia by the Dutch East India Company (VOC), who established Cape Town as a refueling station for their ships rounding the tip of the continent. Over time, the Malay label has expanded to include other nationalities and religions, but the original influences of Southeast Asia remain. One way to experience a glimpse of this culture's history and everyday life is by walking through the colorful Bo-Kaap neighborhood. Go deeper into Malay culture with a local cooking class that teaches you to make traditional foods such as bobotie (a mincemeat dish), samosas, and roti.
    Photo by Juergen Ritterbach/age fotostock
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    Cape Town Breweries
    Since the 1820s, the faint smell of hops and barley has wafted through the air in the suburb of Newlands. What began as a small brewery grew into South African Breweries, now a subsidiary of SABMiller, the world’s second-largest beer producer. For something less mass-produced, the number of local breweries making small, handcrafted batches of beer has increased in recent years. Beerhouse, located on lively Long Street, has one of the biggest selections on tap. For a quieter, more intimate drinking and dining experience, head to the Caribbean-themed Banana Jam Cafe in Kenilworth.
    Photo courtesy of Beerhouse
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    Stone Age Relics
    Around 185 miles north of Cape Town, you'll find one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world. Drive out to the Cederbergs to hike craggy rocks leading to caves decorated with preserved San people art. Closer to Cape Town, the sleepy village of Fish Hoek is home to the remnants of early modern man. In 1927, hikers and amateur archaeologists discovered and excavated 12,000-year-old Paleolithic skeletons, rock art, and stone tools nestled within what is now known as Peers' Cave. Today, a hike through Fish Hoek rewards visitors with a sweeping view of the valley, and intact rock art on the cave walls. Back in the city, the Iziko South African Museum also houses a nice collection of artifacts from the region's early inhabitants.
    Photo by Juan Carlos Muñoz/age fotostock
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    Life in the Townships
    The vast number of Cape Town residents living in poverty is visible on the drive from the airport to the city center. Forced movement into settlements under apartheid, combined with massive influxes of immigrants motivated to make a better life for themselves in Cape Town, led to the expansion of the Cape Flats area. Some of the townships welcome visitors looking to learn more about life there. Tours can be booked with reputable operators that will guide your experience in a safe, educational, and responsible way. AWOL Tours is one company that offers bicycle tours of the Masiphumelele township. Coffeebeans Routes leads a jazz safari to introduce you to the local scene through visits to musicians' homes and small venues.
    Photo by Marie Frei
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    Cape Town's Café Scene
    Cape Town has no shortage of options for securing your next caffeine fix. The last five years have seen an influx of modern, sleek cafés across the city. Order an Americano at steampunk-themed Truth roastery in the city centre, or perhaps a cold brew in a mug at Tribe Coffee in hip Woodstock, and finish and Origin Coffee Roasting headquarters in De Waterkant, where the bustling coffee tasting room in front is in stark contrast to the peaceful tea room out back. In the foothills of Table Mountain, the historic Mount Nelson Hotel serves a proper English-style afternoon tea. The combination of savory and sweet treats, served alongside flavorful Nigiro teas blended in South Africa, will have your pinkies raised in no time.
    Photo by Charlie Grosso
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    Cape Town After Sunset
    After sunset, the streets of Cape Town are filled with energy. Specifically, the restaurants and bars around Long Street, De Waterkant, and Camps Bay are the places to see and be seen. Rooftop bars are extremely popular in summertime, with the trendy Waiting Room, Tjing Tjing, and the Sky Bar at Grand Daddy Hotel leading the pack as local favorites. One of the best views of Table Mountain can be observed from the back terrace at Rick’s Café Américain. Wherever you end up, order a Springbok Shooter (or "Springbokkie"), named after the national animal and the nation's rugby team. Consider this smooth shot of green crème de menthe and Amarula cream liqueur your Mother City initiation.
    Photo courtesy of Tjing Tjing
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    Shopping with a Twist
    The city's strong entrepreneurial energy might explain the modern trend of fusing shops, galleries, and cafés. Start at House of Machines to grab a cup of coffee or a beer. La Machina, their glass-walled custom motorcycle workshop, gives this café a unique and edgy biker-chic twist. In Woodstock, Starling & Hero is not just a café, but also a showroom for restored bicycles and a retail space for cycling gear. Finish at I Love My Laundry, where you can eat dim sum while looking at the collection of vintage clothes, jewelry, and artwork. And, as the name implies, you can also get your laundry done.
    Photo by Marie Frei
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    Artisanal Markets
    The Cape Town market scene is booming, with something nearly every day of the week. As well as local vendors offering fresh produce and baked goods, the markets host talented local designers who exhibit their clothing, jewelry, and other gifts. Whether it’s the City Bowl Market on Hope, the Neighbourgoods Market in Woodstock, or the Bay Harbour Market at Hout Bay, the experience is never a rushed or hurried affair. Plan to spend some time sipping, snacking, and bumping elbows with locals as you select the perfect handcrafted souvenir to take home.
    Photo by Kristin Rust
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    Live Music in Cape Town
    Cape Town’s live music scene ranges from big-name international performers at Green Point Stadium to the small and gritty clubs that make the scene so memorable. In the summer, Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens hosts an outdoor concert series; the lawn facing the amphitheater quickly fills with picnic blankets and families. At dinner at the Gold Restaurant, the staff interweave several courses of Cape Malay and other African food with stories, song, and dance. Just down the road is Mama Africa, where diners pay a small cover fee to eat while the band plays. The Snake Bar is also a popular spot to grab a drink and dance under a Coca Cola–bottle chandelier.
    Photo by Eric Nathan/age fotostock