Photo: Coastal view of Cape Town, South Africa

Cape Town's natural setting attracts tourists from all over the world.

Photograph by Massimo Ripani, Corbis

By Carolyn Beeler

Spilling out of the area between the iconic Table Mountain and the churning waters of the Atlantic, Cape Town provides visitors with a heady mixture of striking natural beauty, incredibly diverse cultures, and notoriously friendly locals. Although many of the upscale hotels, restaurants and attractions in this otherwise affordable city are priced for tourists, the savvy traveler can find plenty to do in the Mother City without shelling out a single rand.

Art and Culture

The entrance fees for many of Cape Town's museums are waived on about eight "commemorative days" throughout the year. The following museums are free on those days:

The South African National Gallery boasts an impressive collection of British artwork and is concentrating on beefing up its South African selections, which already include authoritative collections of beadwork and indigenous sculpture. Across the Company's Gardens (a colonial vegetable garden turned public park, today worth a stroll for its leafy elegance) is the South African Museum, which features more than one-and-a-half million artifacts in the natural and human sciences. Check out the exhibit on the indigenous peoples of southern Africa.

Centrally located in Greenmarket Square, Koopmans-De Wet House, a restored neo-classical Cape Town house, is decorated as it would have been in the 18th century with Cape furniture, Chinese and Japanese ceramics, paintings, glass, and silverware. Drop in for a quick rest after you're worn out from haggling at the market, and see what life was like for upper-class Cape residents in the 18th century.

The Bo-Kaap Museum focuses on the legacy of Islam on the Cape, featuring Islamic decorative art and outlining the history of Bo-Kaap, the Muslim neighborhood perched directly above the central business district. Make a stop at the museum before taking a walk through the streets of the neighborhood, located on the slopes of Signal Hill. Many of the area's residents are descendants of the slaves brought to the Cape by the Dutch during the 16th and 17th centuries, and the area retains its strong "Cape Malay" culture. The houses, mosques, and shops are painted in a whimsical array of pinks, yellows, oranges, and greens. The small area is home to nine mosques, including the Auwal Mosque, the oldest in South Africa, which is located directly behind the museum.

In the southern suburb of Constantia (about eight miles from the city center) is Groot Constantia, the oldest wine-producing estate in the country, located in the famed Constantia Valley. A tour through the Manor House, fitted with period furniture, paintings, textiles, ceramics, brass, and copper, gives visitors a peek at how a wealthy Cape farming family would have lived in the late 18th and early 19th century. Visitors can also tour the coach house and the wine cellar, where wine storage and drinking vessels from antiquity to the early 20th century are on display.

The Slave Lodge attempts to confront the legacy of slavery in South Africa and pay homage to the estimated 63,000 African and Asian slaves who were brought to the city between the mid-17th century and the early 19th century. Erected in 1679 as a windowless brick building to house the slaves of the Dutch East India Company, today the lodge features exhibits focusing on the slave history of South Africa, slave family roots, and the peopling of South Africa. Ask a curator to show you the highlights, and don't miss the exhibit addressing the Jim Crow South.

Entrance to many of Cape Town's museums is free or by voluntary donation only. Those museums are listed below:

The Cape Town Holocaust Centre, which serves as a memorial to the six million Jews killed during the Holocaust. The museum intends to teach the consequences of racial discrimination, and draws parallels between the Holocaust and the injustices of apartheid. The local survivors' testimony and portrait gallery are worth a look.

The Old Town House, also in Greenmarket Square, was built in 1755 as the city's first public building, serving as the Burgher Watch House, Senate, and City Hall before being converted to Cape Town's first art museum in 1914. It is home to the Michaelis Collection, one of the most significant collections of Dutch paintings outside of Europe and North America. Today this beautifully restored building can be rented out for swanky parties, or used as the backdrop for wedding photos.

Rust en Vreugd, a well-preserved 18th-century Cape Dutch mansion is worth a visit for its tranquil garden and collection of prints, drawings, and watercolors depicting scenes of life in early Cape Town.

On the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, the Maritime Centre features an overview of shipping in Cape Town. The museum exhibits a collection of ship models, images of Table Bay's development over the last 300 years, and the earliest existing model of Table Bay harbor. (Entrance by donation.) Just off the waterfront in Green Point is the Cape Medical Museum, where visitors can see reconstructions of turn-of-the-20th-century doctors' offices, operating theaters, and hospital wards, and learn about early medicine in the Cape.

The Goodman Gallery and the Michael Stevenson Gallery, both in Woodstock, are some of South Africa's premier contemporary art galleries and house regularly rotating collections.

The Centre for the Book, located on the west side of the Company's Gardens, is a unit of the National Library of South Africa that was formed to make books more accessible to all people. It offers visitors the chance relax in reading rooms featuring works by contemporary South African authors. You can also browse through the collection of contemporary South African texts in the reading room or surf the Web at the Internet café.

Attractions

Shopping at an open-air market is a must for souvenir-hunters in Cape Town, but it's equally as fun for people-watchers. Vendors at Greenmarket Square, in the heart of the city, hawk tapestries, jewelry, wooden figurines, and other goods to passersby. The less-touristy Green Point Market is located in the parking lot of the newly constructed Green Point Stadium, home of the 2010 World Cup. Visitors to this jumbled and expansive Sunday market will find everything from hand-painted wall hangings to piles of dodgy cell phone chargers. If you decide to buy something at either market, be prepared to bargain.

Head to the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, a posh wharf turned shopping area with upscale stores, cafés, restaurants, and bars. Stroll along the docks and past the Table Bay Hotel and stop at the enclosed handicrafts market. Don't miss a photo op at Nobel Square, where bronze statues of four of the country's Nobel Peace Prize winners, including Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, stand side-by-side next to the V&A hotel. After snapping a photo, keep your eyes peeled toward the water to see if you can spot one of the seals that live on Seal Landing or the tires lining the quays. Next, watch the sidewalks of the Waterfront for street performers who provide lively entertainment for tourists, especially on weekends and in the summer months. Check the site, under "Play," for a multitude of scheduled free events on the Waterfront.

As you drive or walk around the city center, keep an eye out for the "highway to nowhere," an incomplete overpass at the corners of Coen Steytler and Buitengracht Streets. Started in the 1960s and never finished, this four-lane highway overpass ends abruptly high above the ground, and has been featured in a number of films.

The Rhodes Memorial, at the base of Devil's Peak near the University of Cape Town campus, was erected to honor Cecil John Rhodes, who, after making a fortune in the Kimberley diamond rush, entertained grandiose plans of creating a unified British empire that spanned from the Cape to Cairo. Though he never succeeded, he did found Rhodesia (modern-day Zimbabwe and Zambia), serve as prime minister of the then Cape Colony, and leave a lasting legacy in the form of the scholarship that bears his name. The granite behemoth dedicated to him is located within the Table Mountain National Park and is a good place to start a hike or admire the view of the city, Table Bay. If the weather is clear, you can see the Hottentots Holland mountains.

Cape Town is South Africa's legislative capital (the country has three official capitals—Pretoria is the center of the executive branch and Bloemfontein is the locus of the judiciary), and if you plan ahead, you can see lawmakers in action during your stay in the Mother City. The stately Parliament building, including the galleries where the legislature debates, is open to visitors, and tours can be arranged free of charge provided you make reservations a week or more in advance. Guides explain the workings of the parliamentary system and inform visitors of the important historical events that have unfolded in the building.

If you're in the area, visit Groote Kerk ("Great Church" in Afrikaans), the mother church of the Dutch Reformed Church, dating back to the early 18th century. As you walk through, and check out the exquisitely carved pulpit, the centerpiece of the building.

Food/Drink

Cape Town's world-famous wine lands start in earnest about an hour's drive from the city, but Constantia, the well-heeled southern suburb, has vineyards close to the City Bowl. Buitenverwachting, Steenberg Vineyards, and Uistig all offer free tastings. For those who prefer beer to wine, South African Breweries offers free tours that take visitors through the historic malt house and brewery, followed by a view of the modern facilities and a generous free tastings.

A number of bars and restaurants offer food and drink freebies and discounts, especially in the winter, when the flood of tourist dollars slows and businesses are looking for patrons. Specials are constantly changing, so check the Internet close to the date of travel and pick up a local paper upon arrival. Check out www.eatout.co.za for restaurant listings and specials and www.tonight.co.za for entertainment offerings.

Families

Take the winding route up Lion's Head for panoramic views and a fun alternative to Table Mountain.

South Africa boasts that it's a family-oriented country, and indeed, Cape Town has plenty to offer the younger set. For a shorter (but at times steeper) alternative to climbing the daunting Table Mountain, trek up Lion's Head, a few miles to its northeast. The 360-degree views of Table Mountain, the city, and the Atlantic seaboard change constantly thanks to a route that winds around the knob of a summit. The option of taking a path with climbing chains and embedded metal ladders (for older children) means this quick hike has a big payoff.

If you'd rather enjoy the views while in the comfort of your car, take a drive along Signal Hill, part of the Table Mountain range that separates the City Bowl from Green Point. Views of the sunset from the hill are magnificent, but if you time your visit for midday on a weekday, kids can watch the loading (starting at 11:30 a.m.) and firing of the Noon Gun, located just above Bo-Kaap on the slopes of Signal Hill (reachable by Military Road through Bo-Kaap), for free. The tradition of the daily firing started in 1806 when a gun was shot off at noon each day from the city center to allow boats docked in the bay keep accurate time. As the city grew, the gun was moved to Signal Hill so as not to disturb life in the City Bowl, and the same two cannons have been fired off since 1902.

The African penguins that make their home at Boulders Beach in Simonstown are always a favorite with kids, who love scrambling over the rocks and poking their heads between the boulders to look for the birds. If it's a view you're after, head to Bloubergstrand, about ten miles to the northeast of the city center. It's the best place to catch the iconic view of Table Mountain—the mist-shrouded, sawed-off peak looming above the bay—that graces postcards and guidebook covers.

Music

Buena Vista Social Club, a Cuban-style cigar bar on the Main Road in Green Point, hosts a live band every Wednesday and salsa dancing on Sundays (no cover on either night). You'll want to wear your dancing shoes as the floor is always hopping with some of the city's best amateur and semi-professional dancers.

West End, one of the city's popular jazz clubs, waives its cover if you arrive before 7 p.m. on Saturdays. Relax at this intimate club known for its great jazz musicians.

The St. Georges Cathedral choir holds free performances periodically, in addition to the full choral evensong that is sung every Sunday evening. Check their website for their schedule. Even if you can't make the concert, the Victorian-style cathedral, which played an important role in the struggle against apartheid during Archbishop Desmond Tutu's tenure in the church, is worth a stop for its historical significance.

Outdoors

Perhaps the biggest blessing for budget travelers in Cape Town is the city's location between Table Mountain and the waters of the Atlantic, which provides (free) outdoor diversions that can keep visitors busy for weeks. Table Mountain National Park stretches from Signal Hill in Cape Town to Cape Point at the tip of the peninsula, and provides hundreds of miles of trails for hiking and biking. Within Cape Town, the park encompasses the Twelve Apostles, Devil's Peak, Signal Hill, and Table Mountain, which offer a plethora of hiking trials and camp sites. Visit the park's website for detailed trail information to plan your trip, or check out a hiking guide to the Cape for trails.

If you're relatively fit, spend a clear day hiking up one of Table Mountain's trails for breathtaking views of the City Bowl, coastline, and the Cape peninsula. Stop at one of the visitor information centers (one is located at the base of Platteklip Gorge, and another is on Tafelburg Road) first to pick up a detailed trail map and check the expected weather conditions at the top, as they can change quickly. Though none of the routes up the mountain are easy (each takes 2-3 hours, depending on your pace) the Platteklip Gorge path is a straightforward path popular with visitors.

Hike back down the mountain on the Skeleton Gorge or Nursery Ravine path to enter Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden from the back of the property (bypassing the main gate and entrance fee). At 1,300 acres (528 hectares), Kirstenbosch is one of the largest botanical gardens in the world, and it is home almost exclusively to native South African species. This is a good place to see fynbos, the native scrubland vegetation, and the protea, the country's national flower. Pack a picnic dinner to eat on the expansive lawn.

The entire Cape peninsula is flanked by gorgeous beaches, and Cape Town is no exception. Coastlines closest to the city center include: Sea Point's promenade, just west of the city center, the perfect place for a long walk along the beach; Clifton, with four smaller, secluded beaches; and Camps Bay, perhaps the most beautiful white-sand beach in the Cape Town area, where the toned and tan go to see and be seen.

A bit further afield, but easily reachable by train, are the beaches and towns of False Bay, across the peninsula from Cape Town. For a day of beachcombing and meandering through seaside towns, take the 45-minute train ride from Cape Town to Muizenberg, where you can watch surfers queue up for incoming waves in this favorite surf spot. A two-mile walk along the coast will land you in Kalk Bay, a small village with antique shops and bookstores. In the mornings the docks are a bustle of activity as fishermen sell their daily catch, but the afternoon brings peaceful views of picture-perfect fishing boats bobbing in the harbor.

The same train continues down the peninsula, hugging the coast for a scenic ride to Simonstown, the home of the South African Navy and a town whose colonial style oozes old-time charm. On the outskirts of town lies Boulder Beach (part of Table Mountain National Park), the home of the famed African penguin.

For More Information

Cape Town Tourism

Cape Town in Traveler's Places of a Lifetime

Cape Town Walking Tours

Events Listings

Cape Town Photo Gallery

Cape Times

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