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South Africa's Mother City

My first visit

My first visit to Cape Town was as a cash-strapped student, way back in 2001. Travelling by bus from Johannesburg, I had visions of arriving in an edgy South African metropolis but was surprised to discover an easy-going city full of friendly faces, with surf and mountains on its doorstep.

At the top of Lion's Head

At the top of Lion's Head

Watching over the city like a loving parent, Table Mountain is hard to resist, so I spent my first day hiking up. After dithering around at the base for half an hour, unsure of the best route up, I was approached by a local Afrikaans family who offered to guide me. Accepting their help, I trekked beside them as they pointed out Cape Fynbos shrubs, orchids and native butterflies.

At 1086-metres tall, the view from the peak was astounding: I remember gazing back down on the city, over the neighbouring hills and across the ocean to Robben Island. If you're short of time or energy and don't fancy the half-day hike up, the cable car runs every 10 or 20 minutes.

Staying in the city centre meant that I could easily explore on foot, and Cape Town's markets, galleries and museums were next on my list. At the Iziko South African Museum I saw some of Africa's earliest artworks, discovered 700 million-year-old fossils and stood gobsmacked at enormous blue whale bones; while at the District Six Museum, I learnt of the 60,000 inhabitants who were evicted from this area during Apartheid.

For souvenirs, I visited Greenmarket Square - a great place to pick up carvings, tribal artwork and textiles. Cape Town has a reputation for gourmet cuisine but cheap eats abound too, so I followed my nose to find fresh prawns, ostrich burgers and slabs of seasoned hake sizzling on street-side braais (barbecues). "You must try these," an elderly lady beamed when I walked into a city centre bakery, "they're delicious," she smiled, handing me a South African milk tart. And she was right.

Boarding a boat at the V&A Waterfront

Boarding a boat at the V&A Waterfront

On day three I sailed to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years. Boarding a boat at the V&A Waterfront, I imagined how he must have felt as he left the mainland and waved goodbye to freedom. We arrived to a foreboding, windswept island; the limestone quarry where prisoners were forced to break rocks is still here, as is the prison itself, complete with Mandela's tiny cell.

Sailing back to the Waterfront I felt both inspired by Mandela's will and disturbed by the inhumanity of Apartheid. A visit to this barren outpost is important to truly appreciate the country's struggle for equality.

Returning traveller

More than ten years later, I returned to Cape Town and was thrilled to find that the iconic sites, museums and markets I'd visited on my first trip were as exciting as I remembered. But I noticed big changes too, particularly in the city's booming coffee shop culture. With beans roasted on-site, Origin Coffee Roasting (Hudson Street) quickly became my favourite.

Seafood al fresco

Seafood al fresco

This time, I stayed just outside the centre near the Cape Town Stadium, which was built for the FIFA World Cup 2010. Green Point Park surrounds the stadium, so I spent many a happy morning walking across the lawns en route to the seafront. On reaching the water, I'd stroll south along Beach Road and scan the ocean for seals and dolphins, or wander north towards the Victoria and Albert Waterfront.

South Africa's most visited area, the V&A Waterfront is a working harbour and entertainment district that brims with life: expect everything from shopping malls and museums, to boat trips and markets. My many happy memories here include long brunches in the sun and lazy seafood lunches watching the working boats manoeuvre past, as well as afternoons spent tasting South African treats, such as Ostrich burgers and biltong (dried meat) from the food stalls at the V&A Market on the Wharf. Evenings are another good time to visit the Waterfront; I particularly love the lively atmosphere on Friday and Saturday nights, when pubs and bars spill onto the streets and fine dining restaurants cook up freshly-caught seafood, while this well-lit, pedestrian-only zone feels exceptionally safe.

A change of scene

Returning to Cape Town for the third time last year, I decided to stay in a different district: the exclusive suburb of Camps Bay, just south of the city centre. Palm trees and sandy beaches line the shore and low-rise buildings cascade up the hillside towards the green slopes of Table Mountain National Park.

Climbing to the top of Lion's Head

Climbing to the top of Lion's Head

Exhausted after my flight from London, I spent my first day relaxing on the beach, dipping my toes in the Atlantic and watching windsurfers zip across the bay. As the sun started to dip, the beachfront bars began to fill, so I grabbed a table, ordered some local wine and watched the street performers put on shows that ranged from opera singing to tightrope walking.

The next day I headed out for a hike but, taking advice from Mark - the wonderfully welcoming host at my B&B - I bypassed Table Mountain and opted for the smaller, neighbouring peak of Lion's Head. With a rugged trail winding from base to peak, there was no need for a guide this time. Taking an hour or so to summit, it makes the perfect sunrise or sunset hike and, in my option, the 360-degree view from the top is as stunning as that on Table Mountain.

My next trip

Cape Town has an infectious appeal that you simply can't shake off: I'm already planning my next visit and have some new areas lined up to explore. Locals I've stayed in touch with since my last trip assure me that, east of the centre, the trendy district of Woodstock should be top of my list. Over the past decade, Woodstock's warehouses and disused buildings have converted to become organic food markets (the Saturday stalls at the Old Biscuit Mill are tipped to be the best), innovative eateries like the Pot Luck Club (also housed in the Old Biscuit Mill), and cool bars and gentrified buildings like the Old Castle Brewery.

The Pot Luck Club in the Old Biscuit Mill

The Pot Luck Club in the Old Biscuit Mill

I've also got some important city sites and areas yet to experience, such as the markets at Hout Bay, and the townships of Signal Hill, which I've touched on in the past but never fully explored. These non-white areas reveal a crucial other side to Cape Town's culture but have received particularly bad press in recent years. While some areas are admittedly unsuitable for tourists, I'm told that many of the townships are thriving and welcoming places where you can take a guided tour to understand Cape Town's depth of culture and contrasting districts, like the colourful houses of Bo Kaap in the old Malay Quarter.

Whether it's the powerful history and iconic mountains that draw you to Cape Town, the buzzing markets, sizzling seafood and friendly locals that persuade you to stay longer, or the creative districts, hidden corners and new restaurants that entice you back, Cape Town is one African city that truly gets under your skin.

Lucy Grewcock

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Lucy Grewcock

The Escape Artist

One-off experiences, action-filled adventures and eye-popping cultural encounters: my kind of travel...

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