Everything you should do at Cape Town’s bustling V&A Waterfront

The historic Victoria & Alfred Waterfront is an essential part of any Cape Town itinerary. Shadowed by heaving Table Mountain and populated with restaurants, bars, shops and museums, the port is one of the most visually stunning precincts in the world. From what was once built as a refreshing station in at The Cape of Good Hope for merchant ships, the area energised the South African city and has since remained an endearing emblem for the country.

From acting as the gateway to Robben Island, to numerous museums highlighting everything from South Africa’s rich marine life to contemporary art, V&A is undoubtedly the best location to anchor yourself for a wider adventure around Cape Town. Here, I’ve put together five of my favourite things to do around the waterfront so you can make the most of your visit.

Eat Your Way Through The V&A Food Market

Over 40 local food vendors are spread over two distinct spaces and two floors for the waterfront’s trendy food hall. It’s a hub, conceptually and physically, for Cape Town’s best casual food concepts, and is essential no matter the time of day for high-quality burgers, the great Knysna Oyster Company, artisanal chocolates, and even coffee from a small version of Cape Town’s world renowned Truth Coffee.

Spend the Day at Zietz Museum of Contemporary Art

The museum’s chamber pays homage to the building’s history | Photo by @chrisdsingh.

The stunning and eccentric Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa is located on the fringes of the V&A Waterfront in one of the quieter areas. Fresh-faced – it opened in 2017 – and containing the largest collection of contemporary African art in the world, it’s admirably focused on telling a wide variety of stories with exhibitions and collections spread across 100 galleries and nine floors.

Intriguing architecture is an expression of the historical building’s old life as grain silos dating back to 1921. This industrial history makes an odd-looking atrium carved from a shape of an enlarged grain of corn, with a series of curved concrete lines looking like cross-sections of cylindrical silo structures. And the way these curious spaces are used, echoing various sounds through large speaks, is stunning to see.

There are many essential works here, that will appeal to a large variety of people, but one particular must see is a large-scale moving piece titled “More Sweetly Place the Dance” by South African artist William Kentridge. It’s a monumental multiscreen caravan procession of sickly figures dancing against a charcoal-like background of world maps, text, and Chinese characters.

Note that the William Kentridge exhibition may only be at the museum until March 2020.

Make sure not to miss the restaurant up on the very top of the museum, as well as the viewing platform which uses a patterned window to offer a one-of-a-kind view of Table Mountain.

Buy Handmade Goods at African Trading Port

Out the front of African Trading Port | Photo by @chrisdsingh.

It’s impossible to miss the African Trading Port if you’re walking around the V&A Waterfront area. The large steampunk sculptures of various animals near the swing-bridge is one of the most photographed scenes in the area. You’d be missing out if all you did was stick to the outside though.

Enter into a worthy gift shop, but head upstairs across various levels for an organised chaos of stacked African arts and crafts, many representing places from all over the continent. These handmade goods are unique and contain a lot of history, and while there are no placards, this is undeniably a museum that perfectly captures the vibrancy and meaning of everything from ceramics to tribal masks.

Take A Ferry to Robben Island

Looking back at Cape Town from Robben Island | Photo by Sherilea Gasper / GAS Photographic.

The Nelson Mandela Gateway is the ferry terminal located at V&A Waterfront that offers exclusive access to the historic UNESCO World Heritage listed Robben Island. This historic oval-shaped island was used as a prison up until the end of apartheid, and is most well-known because Nelson Mandela was imprisoned there for 18 years.

Touring Robben Island | Photo by @chrisdsingh.

Upon the island, you can take guided tours of the prison complex and even visit the cell which used to house the former president. In each cell are items and stories from prisoners, all adding to a deeply affecting experience that is amongst one of the most moving and powerful things you can do in Cape Town. Tours are led by former prisoners.

Leave around 3.5 hours to complete the round-trip and tour the island. Ferries leave from the Nelson Mandela Gateway 9am, 11am and 1pm daily, depending on weather.

Shop for Artisan Goods at The Watershed

The Watershed is the best place for shopping at V&A Waterfront | Photo by @chrisdsingh.

Just a stone’s throw from V&A Market is The Watershed, distinguished by its bright yellow exterior. Here is one of the best examples of adaptive reuse in the area, fitting out this open watershed with a ground-floor of more than 150 retail tenants representing more than 365 local brands.

This is where you should be doing your shopping, especially if you want gifts with a genuine sense of place. From fashions and homewares to art and a few scattered food stalls, the bottom floor is an energetic and well-organised collection that should easily fill up an entire days worth of shopping.

The top floor is a massive co-working space, worth checking out in case any of the resident businesses are of interest.

Rest Your Head at The Table Bay

The Table Bay is known as the best address in Cape Town | Photo by @chrisdsingh.

The Table Bay is widely known as the “best address in Cape Town” due to its long-established history as one of the city’s most lavish five-star hotel. The spectacular and sophisticated lobby, the spacious guest rooms, and some of the most sought dining experiences – including their acclaimed lobby High Tea – are just the beginning for The Table Bay, which was opened by Nelson Mandela back in May 1997.

Gorgeously dressed in an impeccable façade of yellow, blue and white, its an immense feature of the waterfront’s colourful scene, screaming luxury from across the bay and making for a view just as stunning as the one offered from within.

You can check out our full review of The Table Bay HERE.

While there is still plenty more to do around the V&A Waterfront, such as the Two Oceans Aquarium and Cape Town Comedy Club, the aforementioned five venues and activities should be enough to give you a full picture of just how exciting this area of Cape Town can be, especially if you only have a few days in this gorgeous city.

A few notes on safety. While media often exaggerate the dangers of Cape Town, not paying attention to personal safety would be naïve, even for the most experienced of travellers. I saw nothing that would even approximate any safety issue at the V&A Waterfront, even at night. I can confidently write that this area, the city’s biggest tourist hub, is far removed from the reasonable safety concerns of Cape Town. That being said, I did venture – guided – away from the V&A Waterfront areas many times during my stay and also did not run into any safety issues. Just be aware of your surroundings when you’re exploring areas such as Long Street, Bo-Kaap and Woodstock.

To plan your South African itinerary visit southafrica.net.

The writer travelled to South Africa as a guest of South Africa Tourism. All opinions are that of the writer’s.

Lead image supplied by South African Tourism.

Chris Singh

Chris Singh is an Editor-At-Large at the AU review, loves writing about travel and hospitality, and is partial to a perfectly textured octopus. You can reach him on Instagram: @chrisdsingh.