In the last four months, I’ve spent nearly three weeks in South Africa on two separate trips. One of my biggest takeaways, along with the impact of the South African drought on native wildlife, was that the African art and design scene is a force to be reckoned with. I now have perhaps too many favorite art galleries in South Africa, and a newfound appreciation for the modern, sustainable architecture at the forefront of Cape Town’s expansion plans.
When traveling to Cape Town for the first time, heading to the top of Table Mountain and touring the Cape Peninsula are both likely to be on your itinerary. While both are valid pastimes, my best days in Cape Town over the last few months have been spent visiting their up-and-coming neighborhoods and marveling at the creativity going into each space, be it a coffee shop, crêperie, art gallery, or apartment building.
Touring with African Travel, Inc., I saw Cape Town in a new light by spending time in local neighborhoods and embracing South African food, art, and design. For your next trip to Cape Town, here’s how you can orchestrate an eye-opening design tour of the Mother City.
We’ll start with East City because it was my favorite neighborhood in Cape Town. East City is arguably the Williamsburg of Cape Town. And as someone who fully believes that finding the Brooklyn of global cities is far superior than spending time in actual Brooklyn, I was immediately sold.
Your first stop in East City is Truth Coffee. A refurbished 18th century furniture factory and shop, Truth Coffee is the only entirely green roastery in the world; their 1943 roasting machine runs entirely off biodiesel, and they have an in-house coffee sommelier. If you return to East City at night, Truth Coffee owns a speakeasy around the back of the building called the Art of Duplicity. The whole building has an industrial feel very reminiscent of the organic coffee roasteries of downtown Los Angeles.
You’ll notice most of the local businesses in East City were a) renovated recently, b) have a strong penchant for design, and c) put a premium on sustainability. Swan Cafe, for example, is a design-forward French crêperie with edgy lighting and a fusion of Parisian-chic and industrial design. Nude Foods is designed to have a co-op, community feel, and is Cape Town’s first plastic-free grocery store (BYO Glass Tupperware). Finally, East City has many artist co-working spaces that house shops like Legacy Collection, where artist Charmaine Taylor is making art and jewelry out of the original Robben Island prison fence.
Next up on the art and design agenda is Bo-Kaap, the Cape Malay quarter of Cape Town. Contrary to popular belief, Cape Malay culture does not refer to Malaysians who came to Africa. It’s actually the Indonesian population of South Africa, and they are known for their flavorful cuisine—which Cape Malay chefs would sneak into colonial meals to give it some taste. In terms of design, the most famous part of Bo-Kaap are the brightly colored residential homes, whose facades feature pastels and bursts of oranges, blues, pinks, and greens.
For a high-end design experience in the Bo-Kaap, African Travel, Inc. works with locals in the art community to arrange a tour of Skypad. Skypad is the high-concept design home of renowned African Art collector Michael Fitzgerald. The design, which was overseen by Team Architects, is a triumph of vertical space with a pool deck, a study overlooking Table Mountain, and wide open spaces designed to exalt the art Fitzgerald collects.
V & A Waterfront
The Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, named for Queen Victoria and her son, Prince Alfred, is home to modern design and colonial Cape Dutch-style buildings. But most importantly, the V & A Waterfront features The Silo Hotel and Zeitz MOCAA (the Museum of Contemporary Art Africa).
The Silo Hotel is one of the most ecologically friendly buildings in the southern hemisphere. The building is meant to embody residential, cultural, and economic life in Cape Town. The hotel occupies the six floors above Zeitz MOCAA, and helps fund a certain percentage of the museum below. The Silo Hotel’s design reflects that it was built in the “grain elevator portion of the historic grain silo complex,” with pillow windows meant to let the outside in and the inside out.
Below The Silo Hotel is, of course, Africa’s largest collection of contemporary African art at Zeitz MOCAA. From a design perspective, it’s worth at least peeking in to Zeitz MOCAA’s atrium—the interiors of the atrium are made to look like an ear of corn the architect found when first visiting the building.
In terms of shopping, the V & A Waterfront celebrates the sustainable fashion trend in Cape Town. While, of course, there are tourist-trap shops, you’ll find some beautifully designed high-end boutiques and galleries here. The three-story African Trading Port, housed in the pastel-blue Old Port Captain’s Building, has commercial shopping on the first level and an art gallery on the top floor. You’ll also want to visit The Watershed, a sustainable fashion hub.
Cape Town’s Central Business District (CBD) has only recently come into its own as a creative destination. Once reserved for the business traveler, there has been an influx of public design in the CBD, one of the most notable pieces being Arch for Arch, affectionately referred to as “Tutu’s Arch” by the locals. It’s an arch built in honor of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, designed by Snøhetta and Johannesburg-based architecture firm Local Studio.
While you stroll through Cape Town’s CBD, it’s worth considering that the Victorian, art-deco, and Cape Dutch influence you’re used to seeing around the Mother City is ever-present, even in the business-centric neighborhood. Something striking about the CBD’s design is that it effortlessly weaves the art deco-style from Cape Town’s past into its up-and-coming designs.
On the border of the CBD and Bo-Kaap, stop in to one of Cape Town’s best galleries What If the World. They feature mainly local artists who are making a name for themselves both within Africa and on the global art and fashion scene.
Where to Stay to Complete Your Design Tour
One of my favorite stops on my design tour with African Travel, Inc. was Ellerman House, because it blends the natural beauty of Cape Town’s coast with Riviera-chic architecture and African art. Thanks to art collector Paul Harris, Ellerman House has one of the biggest collections of African Art in the country. And while there is a lot of art here that details the history of South Africa, Ellerman House also has a contemporary art gallery and a particularly impressive wine gallery, with high-concept design meant to honor the African wine terroir.