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Why Cape Town is an LGBTQ Must-See

South Africa

No matter what the urban lovers tell you, gliding above a kelp forest in a kayak surrounded by a pod of Heavenside, the world’s smallest dolphins, jumping and skimming the water all around you, is one of the best ways to experience Cape Town, South Africa. Cape Town, the queer capital of Rainbow Nation, is a city imbued with natural beauty at every turn, especially from the water. Kayaking the Table Bay with Kaskazi Kayaks lets you discover Cape Town in a completely different way than on land. As you paddle past views of the breathtaking mountains that surround the city, you get to see Lion’s Head, Table Mountain, 12 Apostles, and Signal Hill, a ship wreckage that was brought down by a hurricane in 1865, Green Point Lighthouse — and a bevy of sea creatures like otters, jellyfish, cormorants, seals, dolphins, and in season, whales.

The Atlantic Ocean is a bit colder than the Pacific, but it’s breathtaking around Cape Town, and still warm enough to swim and sunbathe. Whether you’re on a kayak or on the shore at Boulders Beach, the site of quirky African Penguins is a once-in-a-lifetime joy. While anachronistic looking to Americans (who tend to think of penguins who live in the ice-capped Arctic), African Penguins have dwindled from 2 million to about 30,000 today. Since there aren’t many colonies left, watching them bop, waddle, and swim about this protected natural environment is amazing. Don’t touch or feed them — their beaks are sharp and they aren’t shy about using them — but you can certainly swim and hang out among them, marveling at their donkey-like bray and hoping they don’t walk through your picnic lunch.

South Africa penguins

Boulders Beach is part of the Table Mountain National Park Marine Protected Area and the sand is pristine, the waves gentle, and the enormous 540 million-year-old granite boulders are a beauty, too. Table Mountain actually plunges down into other noteworthy beaches: Clifton’s 3rd beach (it’s a gay-friendly sort of South Beach Miami feel) and Sandy Bay (the gay nude beach). One of the most popular beaches, Camps Bay, is walking distance to a bunch of hip restaurants you could try out.

But don’t leave Table Mountain, a range named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, too soon. You can take a rotating cable car up to the top for astonishing views and interesting clouds that form between the boulders and crags. There are dozens of myths and legends about the area, but one of the best is that the wispy clouds that settle on top of the Table Mountain are the result of a smoking contest between a Dutch pirate and the devil. If adventure is your thing, hike up the mountain and plan for the three-hour trek.

South Africa's beautiful landscape

At the bottom, you can get to the Nelson Mandela Gateway to catch a ferry to the island where the famed president and anti-apartheid activist was imprisoned for much of his 27 years in prison. It’s an emotionally stirring experience that brings you back to the struggles of South Africa’s recent past.,

Many lesbian locals say women travelers should experience the townships in groups only or on guided tours, as in some areas attitudes are still evolving toward acceptance, but Cape Town — best known as the queer capital of Africa — is one of the best cities for women to explore South Africa. Cape Town has an insurmountable splendor — giant boulders, mountains, streams, white-sand beaches, forests, and an award-winning wine country surround it. But it also has a vibrant and diverse urban core that is hip, modern, and edgy, with appeal to gourmands and culture lovers. Cape Town is also home to some of Africa’s most exciting modern artists, designers, and creatives and MOCAA is home to the largest collection of contemporary African art.

Summer in South Africa is December through April, so it’s an ideal destination for anyone wanting to escape a brutal Midwest winter or another stressful family holiday. Cape Town Pride, which is held in February each year, is the biggest LGBTQ festival with a parade and Mardi Gras party, while the outrageous Mother City Queer Project party in December is one of the city’s most popular events even for straight folks. Pride offers up a bevy of activities from pool parties and comedy shows to karaoke, a fun run, pageants, and poetry readings (for the more cultured among us).

South Africa's vibrant and diverse scene

This year, RuPaul’s Drag Race queens shined brightly at Pride, along with the annual Pink Pride Party that involved five different LGBTQ bars (that you might find easier to visit when it isn’t crowded for Pride): Crew Bar, The Prison, Zer021 Social Club, The Social Bar and Versatile.  You might also check out Beulah Bar and Amsterdam Action Bar.

Finding a LGBTQ-friendly boutique hotel is easy, especially in De Waterkant. Cape Town’s version of a gayborhood, De Waterkant is right in the heart of the city along with easy access to queer-friendly bars, restaurants, and nightclubs. 

English and Uber will help you get around Cape Town where you will be able to enjoy the city’s queerest places. Finding a LGBTQ-friendly boutique hotel is easy, especially in De Waterkant. Cape Town’s version of a gayborhood, De Waterkant is right in the heart of the city along with easy access to queer-friendly bars, restaurants, and nightclubs. And seeing some of our most popular Broadway shows in Cape Town offers a surprisingly nuanced spin. Case in point: the trans and queer themed Kinky Books, which his playing at the Fugard Theater into 2020.

The people of Cape Town are incredibly diverse and their terms of self-identity are numerous. There are 11 national languages, for example, and unlike in the U.S. the word “coloured” or “colored” is a neutral one to describe not Black residents but mixed-race descendants of Malay slaves (see below).

10 More Cape Town Bucket List To-Dos

Visit Cape Winelands: Just on the outskirts of the city lie vineyards set in little Dutch and French villages, where tastings and romantic views match.

Visit Cape Winelands

Drive Chapman’s Peak: Ever driven down California’s Hwy. 1 near San Francisco’s famed Devil’s Slide? It’s a lot like Cape Town’s unforgettable winding coastal-edge highway that leads from downtown straight to one of the vineyards. If you Uber it, you’ll get a full view and won’t have to worry about overindulging.

Explore The Zietz Museum of Contemporary Arts Africa: Housed in an old grain silo, this museum holds the largest collection of contemporary art of the African diaspora. And lest you think it’ll be a load of crafts or figurines (as African artists so often dismissed among Americans), this is some of the world’s most innovative African art. (There’s free entry twice a year and it’s half price every First Friday of the month.)

Eat a Pound of Mussels: A waterfront lunch at Den Anker offers amazing views of Table Mountain and an even better giant pot of some of the best mussels you’ll ever eat.

Take a Free Tour of Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden: You can get a free guided walking tour or do it on your own. Either way, you’ll find one of the most spectacular botanical gardens in the world, with a mandate to include all levels of biodiversity. Set against the eastern slopes of Table Mountain, Kirstenbosch is said to include more plant species than the entire British Isles, Table Mountain National Park boasts more plant species than all of New Zealand, and 30 percent of the plants in South Africa’s Cape Floristic Region aren’t grown anywhere else in the world.

Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden

See Cape Town from Above: You’ll get the most Instagram-worthy views of Cape Town with Cape Town Helicopters, which offers quieter and more eco-friendly Airbus craft with 270-degree views. You can do several tours, including Cape Town, Robben Island, or the VIP Winelands flight (a full peninsula flight around Cape Point that lands at Helderberg Wine Route, where haute cuisine is paired with a fusion of Italian and South African cuisine. The latter is a popular way to propose (just tip off the pilot so they can signal you when to take out the ring).

Learn to Cook with Zanie: A visit to the colorful Bo-Kaap neighborhood is worth the trip just to learn more about the Cape Malay people. The only ethnic group of their kind in the world, Cape Malays (also called Cape Muslims or Cape Coloreds) are South African descendants of South Asian (Indian) slaves and political prisoners from Southeast Asia (mostly what’s now called Malaysia and Indonesia). The slaves and dissidents and Muslim religious leaders who opposed Dutch colonization in their home country, were imprisoned by the Dutch, further colonized by the British and considered colonizers themselves by some of the Black people native to South Africa.

Cape Town's colorful buildings
Much like African-Americans or other minority groups in the U.S (from Vietnamese to Cajuns), the Cape Malays have developed a strong community built on a unique dialect, shared cultural and religious values, and their own music, political leaders, and celebrities. (Fun fact: Actress Kim Suzanne Engelbrecht, who played Marlize DeVoe on The Flash, is Cape Malay.) And their love of great cooking is a cornerstone of the culture. It offers one of the best ways to take in the Bo-Kaap, where local women give public lessons in their traditional Cape Malay cooking. The Bo-Kaap Cooking Tour is literally one of the least touristy ways to take in Cape Town, even though the experience is growing more popular among visitors. Zainie Misbach will teach you about local spices as well as how to make dishes like deep-fried dhaltjies and masala (unlike what you’d find in India). Then on a walking tour, you can visit beloved Atlas Trading Spice Shop, a local museum, and the rest of Bo-Kaap. (NOTE: Cape Malay is what we call a dry neighborhood, like parts of Utah, so no alcohol is allowed since their eateries are all strictly halaal.)

Kiff Kombi Tour
Take an Urban Safari: Yes, safaris in Africa are a hugely popular thing to do. But the Kiff Kombi Tour (a finalist for the World’s Best Sustainable Tour Operator at the Global Youth Travel Awards as well as Cape Town’s Best Sightseeing Experience) isn’t about the wildlife. It’s a view of Cape Town you won’t get from a lot of the tourist industry. There’s an urban safari tour that goes into culturally significant neighborhoods, from the Bo-Kaap to the street art lover’s Woodstock to the dark history of District Six. There are craft breweries, local wines, a visit to Africa’s most expensive neighborhood. But it’s the Street Art and Township Experience that is winning awards. With it, visitors go into Langa, a township with incredible street art, music, cuisine, and, say Kiff Kombi operators, goes beyond the expectations of stereotypical “poverty porn” to breaking down real barriers between locals and visitors. In addition to cool (and yes, Insta-worthy) street art, there are also Xhosa drumming lessons, crafts, a traditional Chesa Nyama BBQ, and local beer tasting. (Fun note: Along with the craft beer movement there’s a new gin trend in Cape Town getting the city dubbed the new gin capital.  Kiff Kombi has a tour for that as well as one including biltong (cured, dried meat that is South Africa’s favorite delicacy), Mandela’s favorite wine, a South African braai (BBQ) in Stellenbosch and a winery with zebras and wildebeest.

South Africa

Take a Selfie at Watchman’s Cave: You don’t need a camera, but the views of Signal Hill and surrounds from this cave (which is a relatively easy hike) will make you want one.

Watchman's Cave and Signal Hill

Get a Gatsby: The name was inspired by the F. Scott Fitzgerald tale, but this sandwich was invented to feed workers without much food or extra money on hand. The local Capetonian fave, the Gatsby is a foot-long sandwich that’s a staple here. It’s been reinvented by dozens of chefs, but the sharable feast included polony, fries, and achar on top of a round roll. You can still get it that way at Drawcard (with all the trimmings) and drink it down with a falooda (a homemade drink with ice cream, milk, almonds, and rose water).

Cape Town is more than South Africa’s gem of dazzling landscapes and views that you cannot see anywhere else in the world: it is a city with multiple rich intersections of culture that are drawing in more LGBTQ people day by day where you can discover the undeniable experience of a lifetime.

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