December 14, 2011
Following on from her recent mini road trip from Cape Town to Hermanus, South African travel writer and Cape Town resident Lucy Corne is back with a guide to exploring this captivating city without spending a cent…
Compared to many holiday hotspots, Cape Town is a city that can be pleasingly easy on the wallet, but if its handful of pricey attractions leaves you short of cash, the Mother City has a sprinkling of superlative sights that can be enjoyed for free, meaning you can save your rands for splurging on souvenirs and scrumptious meals.
If you take full advantage of the V&A Waterfront, the money-spending opportunities are almost limitless, but you can still enjoy the picture-pretty setting without shopping and dining, joining boat trips or taking helicopter flips. The buskers that sing African choral music and belt out soothing marimba tunes are a near-permanent fixture, performing to a backdrop of boats docking in the harbour, charming buildings and of course the ever-present form of Table Mountain. Spare a few rands for the performers, then wander for free watching enviable yachts come and go and browsing the eclectic shops – the African crafts on sale make window shopping here feel akin to wandering an art gallery.
Reaching Table Mountain’s often cloud-cloaked flat top is number one on most people’s Cape Town must-do list, but getting to the peak can be a pricey endeavour. If you’re cash-poor and energy-rich, there are a handful of hikes crisscrossing the main mountain, some leading you to the same spot the cable car would whisk you to. The most direct route is Platteklip Gorge, essentially following the cableway route along a steep 3km path of uneven steps and superlative city views. Dozens of other hikes explore the rest of the mountain range, offering alternative views of Cape Town and its iconic centrepiece, among them the trek through forest and plateau to Elephant’s Eye Cave and the often vertiginous hike to the peak of Lion’s Head, particularly popular during a full moon.
Manicured lawns are lined with flower beds sporting local plants and dotted with the occasional statue, monument or bust, Table Mountain of course providing the background and a constant reminder of which city you’re in. It could be the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden, but in fact this is the Company’s Garden – historically important, perfectly placed in the city centre and what’s more – free to enter. Once the vegetable patch of the Dutch East India Company’s refreshment station, the garden is now the perfect place to picnic, nap and watch Capetonians as they stroll to work. The eastern border of the park is flanked by the photogenic parliament buildings – tours within are free – while the southern portion is home to the South African Museum, Planetarium and the South African National Gallery (free on special commemorative days).
In almost any coastal city, the beach provides a perfect day out for travellers on a budget and Cape Town is certainly no exception. To sun worship with the beautiful people, head to Camps Bay – sometimes referred to as the St Tropez of Cape Town. Nearby Clifton’s quartet of unimaginatively-named beaches each have their own personality – First and Second attract sporty types here to surf or play volleyball, Third is generally the gay beach while Fourth, the Blue Flag beach, plays host to families and gets crowded on sunny summer weekends. Further south, the sand at Llandudno provides a striking spot for sun seekers and photographers, though the icy waters mean swimming is a pastime only for the brave. Across the peninsula, the water gets (comparatively) warmer in the sheltered cove of Fish Hoek – another favourite for families. Muizenberg is the surfers’ beach, where novices and pros alike don wetsuits and ride the waves. Join them on a two-hour taster lesson, guaranteed to warm you up if the wind is blowing too hard for sunbathing.
Everyone wants an animal encounter when they come to Africa and while gratis wildlife viewing is tricky in Cape Town, there are a few creatures you might see for free. Start near the aquarium at the V&A Waterfront, where sea lions hang out on the jetties, as if waiting to board one of the luxury yachts anchored there. Seals delight visitors to the pier in Kalk Bay and from June to November, with a good pair of binoculars, whales are sighted along the False Bay coast. Many people strive to avoid baboons, but if you’re keen to spot them up-close, they still roam the Cape Peninsula and the southern reaches of Table Mountain, occasionally relieving tourists of their picnics – keep doors and windows closed and don’t feed them under any circumstances. An altogether cuter Cape Town icon is the African Penguin, always present on the pay-to-enter Boulders and Foxy Beaches. You won’t see as many birds, but to avoid the fees, look out for penguins nesting alongside the walkway running between the two beaches, just south of Simon’s Town.
Back in town, you don’t need cash to indulge in the favourite pastime of those wandering the Bo Kaap – photography. Whether you’re snapping on a phone, a compact or a top-notch camera, it’s virtually impossible to take a bad picture in the city’s most colourful neighbourhood. Houses painted in vivid pink and green clash delightfully with their orange and turquoise neighbours and the residents – most from the city’s Cape Malay population – are wonderfully welcoming to the visitors who flock to photograph their homes. If you’re feeling energetic, follow the steep cobbles of Longmarket Street and clamber atop Signal Hill (also known as Lion’s Rump, sitting as it does behind the Lion’s Head rock formation) to witness far-reaching city views and the daily firing of the Noon Gun. This cannon-style gun has been keeping time in the Cape for over 200 years and is fired at noon each day (barring Sundays and public holidays).
It’s rare to eat for free anywhere, but at Cape Town’s increasingly popular food markets you can at least graze on free samples while you’re deciding what to eat. The very popular and long-established Neighbourgoods Market in Woodstock happens every Saturday, 9am to 2pm but has recently been joined by a host of competitors. Try the quieter City Bowl Market on Hope Street and further south the Earth Food Fair in Tokai (Wednesdays 3pm to 8pm and Saturdays 9am to 2pm) or on Sundays (10am to 4pm), head to Hout Bay for nibbles, crafts and plenty of beer and wine. Speaking of wine, many of the Constantia wineries offer gratis tastings, as does the Vineyard Hotel on Monday evenings and from time to time, the city’s various specialist wine shops, such as Caroline’s, Vaughan Johnson and Wine Concepts.
Virgin Atlantic operates a daily flight to Cape Town between October and March. For a full range of South Africa holidays, including Cape Town, the Cape Winelands and the Garden Route, visit Virgin Holidays.
Photos: Header shot Bo Kaap © Bowie15 | Dreamstime.com, V&A Waterfront © Alexandre Fagundes De Fagundes | Dreamstime.com, Table Mountain © Jurgen Hansmann | Dreamstime.com, Camps Bay © Holger Karius | Dreamstime.com, Cape Seal © Protea | Dreamstime.com, Bo Kaap © Instinia Photography | Dreamstime.com, Neighbourgoods Market © Pcutter | Dreamstime.com.