Travel: Cape Town – South Africa’s Rainbow City
Cape Town could be South Africa’s official gay city – rainbows are everywhere, from tourism board leaflets to the floor at the airport. While there’s no handholding to the same degree as Madrid or Amsterdam, it’s evident there are plenty of gay couples out and about, and although there is a lively gay scene, that is certainly not the only place you’ll find the odd homo.
The city centre could easily be mistaken for Melbourne or Brisbane. The combination of good weather, great food, relaxed atmosphere and hoards of tanned, sickeningly good-looking people definitely has an Australian feel to it. But the ever-present Table Mountain and subtle yet distinct African feel quickly brings you back to Cape Town.
Cape Town city centre is quite small and easily navigated on foot, with all the main sights within easy walking distance from each other, although some sights, such as the District 6 Museum and the V&A Waterfront, might be better approached by taxi if you’re alone as they involve a short hike through some deserted areas. The crime here isn’t on the same scale as Johannesburg, it’s pretty safe during the day, but bear in mind that huge numbers of locals live in abject poverty away from the affluent city and coastal suburbs. Taxis are so cheap, and it makes sense to use them at night for anything more than short trips around the centre.
There is much to do in the city during the day. Table Mountain is an obvious must, although try to do this on the first clear day of your stay as the mountain is often surrounded by cloud. This, along with frequent windy days, means the cable car to the top could be closed. The area around Greenmarket Square has a large crafts market with vendors from South Africa and the rest of the continent offering traditional carved ornaments, jewellery, and African art.
For beach lovers, the suburbs of Camps Bay and Clifton have white sand and clear waters. Camps Bay has a large beach with a promenade of eateries and shops, and is popular with surfers as well as wealthy locals and tourists. Steps take you down to the secluded Clifton’s beaches from the main road. The beaches here are named, imaginatively, Beaches 1, 2, 3 & 4. Beach 3 is popular with gay people, while Beach 4 is larger and more family orientated. Clifton has the luxury of being ‘wind free’; a label applied to a select few suburbs along the coast that are sheltered from the strong South-Westerly winds by the Table Mountain range. Clifton and Camps Bay are a little out of the city centre, and are best visited by car, but there are minibuses going there from the centre, just look for one heading in the right direction and wave it down to ask where it’s going. There is supposedly a municipal bus service, but relying on this isn’t advisable, as we saw no evidence it existed for the entire duration of our stay!
With several large universities and a youthful population, Cape Town has developed a lively nightlife. You can enjoy a decent night out with dinner, drinks, dancing and a taxi home for less than £40, so there’s no excuse not to. Areas such as Camps Bay and Clifton specialize in high-class nightlife, and Prince Harry has even been seen partying in the beachside bars around here. In the centre, the scene is more aimed towards local 20-somethings and backpackers, with prices and dress codes to match. Long Street and Kloof Street are the main centres of nightlife here.
There are quite a few gay venues, mostly to the North-West of the centre around Somerset Road. We visited Bronx, which has established itself as a mainstay of the scene. It has sensibly built the dance floor around a central bar, meaning you’re never too far away from the next drink. Free or cheap entry, lots of cute boys with their tops off and friendly staff make this a great place to end up at on a night out.
If you’re looking for something more relaxed, The Shack is a huge, grungy place with lots of seating, pool tables, a pizza kitchen and beers for a little over a quid. It’s not specifically gay, but it shouldn’t be too hard to make new friends here. All the taxi drivers know where it is; it’s best not to go by foot as it is a little out of the centre. If you’re hungry when you leave get yourself a snack at the hotdog stand across the road – watch out for dripping sauce as they are rammed full of salsa.
Another mixed venue is Neighbourhood on Long Street. Like many bars on this street it’s on the first floor and has a balcony you can sit out on and watch people going about their evening. On the night we went it had a fairly lethal offer on cocktails that were not only cheap but expertly made. For a more civilized evening head to the V&A Waterfront, a huge development of restaurants, bars and shops that caters for every taste possible, although it can feel a little sterile and generic; you could be in an historic version of Portsmouth’s Gunwharf Quay (if Portsmouth was 30 degrees in January and had seals frolicking on the beach that is). Additionally, close to the Bronx there is a new, large centre called Cape Quarter, where there are loads of restaurants and bars. This is on the edge of the gay village, making it a convenient place to begin the evening.
It’s worth remembering drinks are not only cheaper in Cape Town, but a lot stronger. Many of the local beers are over 5% and spirit measures are usually larger. While many venues stay open until 4am, there is often a 2am limit on serving alcohol.
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Accommodation is actually quite expensive compared to everything else in Cape Town. We stayed in Upperbloem, which offers a range of rooms with a communal kitchen offering free drinks and a continental breakfast all day, perfect for those hungover mornings where you can sit with a Danish and coffee on the balcony admiring the view of the city and its Table Mountain backdrop. There’s also a pool should you want to cool off. Located in colourful Bo Kaap, a predominantly Muslim area where the call to prayer resonates through the air throughout the day, you’re only a 10 minute walk or a £2 taxi ride from the centre – the streets here surpass San Francisco in their epic gradients, so you may want to walk into town and get a cab back! The warm and welcoming owner Katrin has an extensive knowledge of the city and is always happy to suggest activities.
If you venture a little further out of the city you’ll find a range of activities. Within a few hours drive there are vineyards, whale watching, beaches full of penguins, excellent hiking, adventure activities such as bungee-jumping, scuba diving, cage diving to see sharks, ostrich farms and safari parks with elephants and lions.
South Africa is an 11-hour flight from London, with minimal time difference and most flights operating overnight, allowing you to get out and explore the moment you arrive. A bus service costs around £5 from the airport to the centre. A taxi will cost around £20. There are approximately 10 rand to the pound, so no complicated calculations paying the bar tab. Gay people here were among the first in the world to have the freedom to marry and are protected by some of the most progressive legislation – but such legislation can be somewhat ahead of local attitudes, particularly if you venture out of the cities.
British travelers don’t need a visa to enter the country, but you’ll need a certificate of vaccination if you’ve travelled from a country where Yellow Fever is endemic. Unless you’re heading out of the cities, there are no major health concerns, but it’s worth having up to date typhoid, polio and hepatitis A vaccinations. South Africa has more people living with HIV and AIDS than any other country; if you’re planning on a bit of holiday romance, bring plenty of condoms with you and be sure to use them.
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