Cape Town, with you it’s complicated

Posted on 10 December 2017

For South African author Mohale Mashigo, Cape Town is not a city, it’s a relationship. It’s effervescent, confusing, and often infuriating. But it has the power to seduce like nowhere else.

The insider: Mohale Mashigo is a storyteller, author, singer and songwriter. Her recent novel The Yearning is set in Cape Town – her adopted, and sometimes vexing, home.

This is Signal Hill, seen from Lion’s Head. It’s popular, but be safety conscious or go in a group. Image by Teagan Cunniffe

I guess I should start off by being honest: I’m a Sowetan living in Cape Town. I didn’t grow up here, there are no sweet memories of discovering the nightlife as a teenager, the language spoken is not my native tongue, and I have no family here. In fact, I’d never even been to Cape Town on holiday before I moved down south.

Though it’s been my home for 12 years, the spaces, people, politics and culture are in many ways still new to me – I still describe myself as a Sowetan in Cape Town (not quite as sexy sounding as Sting’s ‘Englishman in New York’, right?). It is not familia rather; a friend or lover of 12 years. And every now and again I have to keep defending my choice to remain in this relationship.

Cape Town’s Beyonce (the mountain, not the person in the photograph) hugs the City Bowl. Image by Teagan Cunniffe

Our meeting was purely coincidental, and there was no honeymoon phase – my first few years in the Mother City were lonely and confusing. Getting lost was a way of life! I didn’t go to the beach once in the first year (don’t judge me); instead, I chose to get acquainted with the city centre and its dive bars (in my defence, I was a student during the day and a waitress at night).

Once I had graduated from dive bars and living on popcorn and beans on toast, I went in search of Cape Town’s finest culinary offerings. Food first, because that’s how you truly get to know a place. It was probably on these group dates where the city’s charm began to work on me.

Many small clusters of specialist restaurants/bars introduced themselves: You like gin? Come to The Gin Bar. Obsessed with bacon? We’ve got just the place for you. Tea is your thing? There is a woman in a caravan selling all kinds of interesting blends. Love expensive cars? Enjoy your coffee alongside pricey vintage cars. Drinking and eating are an occasion here; Bree Street is a great example of that. All along the street, there are eateries inspired and influenced by cultures from around the world. Every single establishment is proud of its own different (sometimes hipster) twist on enjoying food.

The thing about Cape Town is that it’s definitely not Johannesburg, and it’s not Amsterdam either; it’s somewhere in the middle and something completely unique as well. It’s a place that’s comfortable with duality. One minute you could be walking in the city, surrounded by the hurried brashness of people on their lunch break; the next you’re in the Company’s Garden, a green oasis that slows everyone down.

Movie night surrounded by nature makes Galileo Open Air Cinema a must-do activity.

On nondescript Barrack Street, hiding in plain sight, there’s one of the finest Italian restaurants in the city. The Cousins is owned and run by, you guessed it, two cousins, originally hailing from Romagna on the Adriatic coast of Italy. Every once in a while you’ll look outside just to check if you’re still in Cape Town – because why isn’t this wonderful restaurant in a better location?

Sometimes, though, the longing for something familiar is strong. That’s when I wake up unreasonably early and head to the Neighbourgoods Market at The Old Biscuit Mill in Salt River. Salt River is an area largely changed by gentrification (the jury’s out on whether this is a good or a bad thing), but it’s here where I seek a taste of home.

Pitso’s Kitchen is the only stand at the market where I know I’ll always find maotwana (chicken feet), tripe or trotters served with ledombolo (steamed bread), samp or pap. Finding my old favourites is not a problem in Johannesburg but in Cape Town you need to know someone who knows someone who has the hook up.

Cape Town’s best kept (foodie) secret is The Cousins for Italian food. Image by Teagan Cunniffe

Even now it’s difficult to say why I love this place so much. I want to say it’s because I live in a retirement village, Hout Bay (it’s not really), which smells like the sea and has great views and even better fish and chips – served right at the harbour with a side order of ‘not-for-hipsters’ gritty charm – and the mountains behind, always watching.

In fact, no matter where I am, the mountains always seem to be watching me. And that’s the other thing about Cape Town: it has so much ‘outside stuff’. The city is gorgeous – and I’m not talking about its many old heritage buildings or the people (hello, models). Of course, Table Mountain is the Beyoncé of attractions, but I became a fan of Lion’s Head, the signature peak right next to the mountain, nine years ago when depression and unemployment made me unbearable.

As I said earlier: Cape Town is like a friend or lover (of 12 years). And like any relationship, there are some things that are ‘unbeautiful’ about my ‘new home’. Every once in a while you will hear people say, quite proudly, that it is ‘like Europe in Africa’.

I struggled to find ‘real South Africa’ when I first moved here but I could find flavours of almost anywhere else easily – a result of history and the stubbornness of some who just won’t let go of old ways of thinking. This is not necessarily the ‘best place in the world’ if you’re poor or homeless. It seems Cape Town is hell-bent on denying and/or repeating history – when it comes to housing, spatial planning and evicting poor people to make way for ‘more profitable buildings’. The ugly things are ghastly and the beautiful breathtaking.

‘How do you live here?’ people often ask me. I’ve built real relationships, made memories and written parts of myself into the Cape Town story. All around me are reminders of my own broken history, as well as that of our country.

Running on the promenade in the evenings, meeting friends for sundowners, discovering new hiking trails, waking up early on a Saturday morning to buy trotters, begging friends to take me on another find-the-perfect-gatsby mission, searching for (and creating) ‘South Africa’ in this city, finding myself in its weird parts … that’s where the seduction is.

Ours is not a perfect relationship but those don’t exist, right? Embrace the duality of the city and let its madness and beauty seduce you.


3 ways to earn your Cape Town stripes

Disappear down the stairs for delicious food and a unique wine selection at Ash; a Doughssant from Jason’s Bakery. Image by Teagan Cunniffe

1. Have a doughssant

In case you’re wondering, a doughssant is a fancier, tastier and sexier cousin of the cronut (croissant meets doughnut). Jason Bakery on Bree Street makes a limited number of these treats every Saturday morning and Capetonians wake up super early to discover what the doughssant of the week is. Tel 0214245644

2. Acknowledge a no-so-beautiful past

Nobody will believe you’ve been to Cape Town if you haven’t visited Robben Island. There’s a reason why people come from all over the world to see where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for so many years. 0214134200. There’s also the District Six Museum in Buitenkant Street – a poignant reminder of all that was lost. 0214667200

3. Browse books

If you’re a book lover, The Book Lounge in Roeland Street is a must-visit– it’s the best independent bookstore in the city, and the organisers behind the Open Book Festival 0214622425. If you stand outside the store, look right for Parliament at the end of the street. On Sundays, people spill out of St Mary’s Cathedral opposite.


Where do locals go?

Marcia Shange – Artist Manager
Bascule Bar at the V&A Waterfront has the best whisky and wonderful staff.’ Tel 0214107082.

Rupert Koopman – Botanist
The Durbanville and Tygerberg nature reserves.’ Tel 0219790060/0214448971.

Nadine Sass – Finance Manager
‘I skip the restaurants and head to Kirstenbosch with a picnic basket and wine.’ Tel 0217998783.

Selaelo Mannya – Social Media Manager
Tjing Tjing in Longmarket Street for great cocktails and a fireplace on chilly nights.’ Tel 0214224920.

Telana Halley-Starkey – State Law Advisor
Hallelujah on Kloof Nek Road. The food is amazing, the bubbly selection fantastic and the vibe’s relaxed.’ Tel 0798392505.


Plan your trip to Cape Town

Getting there

Cape Town is a quick flight from Joburg and other SA cities. Tickets from R1500 return via Travel Start.

Need to know

‘Cape Town weather’. Summer is balmy (the sun goes down late, too) but it can be very windy. The best time to visit is in March and April – it’s still warm but less gusty.

Stay here

Protea Hotel by Marriott Cape Town Victoria Junction is a great location if you want to be able to walk to and from the CBD, or catch an inexpensive Uber ride (about R30) home after a night out. From R885 per person sharing. Tel 0214181234.

Atlantic Affair Boutique Hotel in Sea Point is a favourite among my visiting friends. It merges hotel elegance with a self- catering price tag. From R445 per person sharing.

Someone’s home on Airbnb is a good way to get to know the neighbourhood, find local dive bars and self- cater. Choose a place with a gorgeous view or near the city’s hottest spots.


Do this

Take a hike up to the top of Lion’s Head on a clear afternoon for sunset views of Camps Bay. Image by Teagan Cunniffe

Experience African cuisine at Pitso’s Kitchen, in the Neighbourgoods Market. The market runs every Saturday from 10am to 2.30pm. It’s a relaxed morning of people eating and sitting in the sun with friends and family. You can also buy clothes from local designers. Meals from R65.

Taste gin at Hope on Hopkins Distillery in Salt River. It’s DIY tasting where four pre-selected gins are described, you are encouraged to taste them before you mix each one with the suggested tonic water, fruits and/or olives. It sounds bizarre until you actually experience it. R110 per person – book in advance. Tel 0214471950.

Watch a movie under the stars. The Galileo Open Air Cinema has various locations around the city – Kirstenbosch is my favourite. It’s open in summer only and you can enjoy some of your favourite classics in this spectacular botanical garden. Go with friends or take someone you want to get close to. Tickets from R100 per person.

Hike up The Mountain. Then take the cable car down. Start walking as early as possible to avoid getting stuck in weird ‘human traffic’ trying to get to the top. The cable car is from R135 for a one-way ticket.

Walk the Boomslang at Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden. For a few moments I felt like I was living my Tarzan fantasies … if Tarzan was from Soweto and afraid of heights. Take a picnic basket too – there are areas where you can eat and relax. Entry from R15 per person.

Go to the beach! There are so many – Clifton is not the only one. Llandudno is close to Hout Bay (where I live). It is small but you’ll never have to worry about overcrowding.

Also read: The best beaches in SA to swim at this summer.


Eat here

Chefs Warehouse & Canteen is famous for its Tapas for 2, consisting of eight flavourful dishes (from cured salmon with fennel and grapefruit to confit chicken wings with pickled pine rings), which are constantly changing. The food is incredible and the atmosphere laid-back. R650 for two – no bookings. 92 Bree Street, tel 0214220128.

Ash Restaurant started out as a hole-in-the-wall wine bar (Publik) and a meat merchant (Frankie Fenner) in the same space. With chef Ash Heeger joining the venture, and an edgy facelift, it’s now a charcoal-cooking- themed eatery. Meals from R65. 81 Church Street, 0214247204

Marco’s African Place has been around for 20 years, and is still going strong. Specialties such as crocodile and impala, and the ‘Pan African Platter’ of kudu,springbok and ostrich, are big hits with international tourists. The food’s authentic and delicious plus there’s always live music. Meals from R50. 15 Rose Lane, Bo-Kaap. Tel 0214235412.

The Cousins pasta is made fresh every morning. Order ‘The Cousins Tagliolini’ with cream, mushrooms and thyme (R130) – the pasta is tossed in front of you in grana padano cheese – thank me later. 3b Barrack Street, tel 0832739604.

Lucky Bao in Hout Bay is tiny – it only serves eight people around a bar. It’s Asian street food with a twist, dedicated to bao (steamed buns with a filling) and yakitori (chicken skewers). Meals from R65. Pam Arlene Place, Main Road, tel 0790674919.

Also read: 13 exciting eating spots for summer in Cape Town.


This guide first appeared in the September Getaway issue.

Get this issue →

Our September issue features 11 amazing beach cottages, two ways to see the Klein Karoo, a windswept 4X4 drive in Namibia, our guide to swimming in Greece and much more!


yoast-primary - 1002189
tcat - Destinations
tcat_slug - destinations-travel-ideas
tcat2 - Travel stories
tcat2_slug - travel-stories
tcat_final -