My Kind of Town: Cape Town’s welcoming reception should be a model to countries everywhere

Dexter Moren


The great bonus of travelling from London to Cape Town is that despite an 11-hour flight you arrive without jet lag on ‘European’ time to a welcoming reception that should be a model to countries everywhere. The incredible Table Mountain dominates the city; Cape Town is the only coastal location I know where inland-view hotel rooms are more prized than those facing the sea. Thankfully, with the exception of one notable 1960s threesome, buildings haven’t challenged that dominance and the increasingly tall structures in the city centre seem to huddle unnoticed like infants gathered around a parent.

The waterfront has been eroded by land reclamation, and the now-landlocked 1679 Castle of Good Hope is the only reminder of the Table Bay shoreline that nineteenth-century maps record. Sadly, twentieth-century transport engineers embraced this reclaimed foreshore, as in Manhattan, to locate a freeway that now separates the CBD (Central Business District) from the sea. Thankfully it missed the bustling old Victoria & Albert Waterfront, which has been transformed as a mixed-use development. Shipping activity, retail, hotels, housing, offices and public facilities, including a wonderful aquarium and Heatherwick Studio’s new Zeitz MOCAA gallery, co-exist in a dynamic development that is buzzing with locals and tourists alike.

Cape Town is the only coastal location I know where inland-view hotel rooms are more prized than those facing the sea”

From here you can also embark on a moving journey to Robben Island, and the cell where Nelson Mandela was interned. His ‘rainbow nation’ legacy of forgiveness and inclusivity defines the vibrant post-apartheid culture of Cape Town, though some physical scars remain, such as the as yet undeveloped District Six, from which an entire community was totally cleared in the 1970s.

The gridded CBD nestling into the mountain affords views of green space down most of its axes, and its buildings are an eclectic mix of smaller-scale seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Cape townhouses, Victorian shops with cast-iron-balconied accommodation above, some wonderful 1950s modernism and international contemporary architecture housing a good urban mix of uses.

Building heights once followed a 59-degree angle from the opposite building line, giving a stepped massing of a low-scale street wall with set-back towers. Sadly, this policy has been eroded so that many new towers rise to their full height on the pavement line, but we chose to follow the traditional line in designing the recently completed SunSquare and StayEasy City Bowl hotels, thereby maintaining the quality of light permeating to the pavement and street trees in the public realm.

Beyond the CBD very distinct neighbourhoods exist, from the low-rise multicoloured houses of Bo-Kaap to the designer districts of Cape Quarter and Woodstock. Stretching further along the Atlantic seaboard are the beautiful beaches of Sea Point, Bantry Bay and Camps Bay, home to a collection of stunning contemporary houses seemingly in competition for the best ocean view and coolest shade of grey.

I might be partial, but I defy anyone to visit this extraordinary city and not want to return”

What I most love about the city is the range of interesting experiences within easy reach of its centre. At the ‘back’ of Table Mountain, the University of Cape Town is an impressive composition, with Herbert Baker’s original buildings joined by notable contemporary extensions. Beyond are the botanical gardens of Kirstenbosch, with Proteas and other species unique to this location, and then the historic wine estates of Constantia where fields of vines stretch out from distinctive white, thatched Cape Dutch-style homesteads. The Southern suburbs lead via Simonstown naval port and the Boulders Beach penguin colony to Cape Point Nature Reserve, where in theory the Atlantic & Indian Oceans meet alongside magnificent unspoiled beaches.

I grew up in South Africa, and though based in London for many years I return often to Cape Town. I might be partial, but I defy anyone to visit this extraordinary city and not want to return.