Heritage Square - Top 10 Cape Town Courtyard Cafes

In the thick of summer, when Cape Town is heaving with visitors and locals let loose from their work cages, you might feel the urge to find somewhere quiet to hide. Here are a few wonderful Cape Town courtyards to try when you need to step out of the fray.

196 Victoria

196-Victoria-facade - Top 10 Cape Town Courtyard Cafes

If you’re looking for a peaceful retreat in beautiful surroundings, the approach to 196 Victoria might not immediately seem promising: persevere, and you’ll be delighted you did. In the middle of the bustling, restless, noisy urban Woodstock Main (Victoria) Road, you’ll see the gracious old façade. But once you step inside, you’ll find yourself in an oasis of calm that seems to be miles (perhaps centuries?) away from the street you’ve just stepped off. I first went there to see an exhibition by a local artist – wonderful work, exhibited in a light, clear space – and it felt like I’d stumbled, Narnia style, into a different world.

196 Victoria Courtyard - Top 10 Cape Town Courtyard Cafes196 Victoria was conceived as a hub where creatives and holistic health practitioners (and those who feed and water them) could work in a beautiful, conducive environment. The focus of the centre is on supporting physical, mental and emotional wellbeing. The building houses several artists’ studios (to the right as you walk in), a yoga studio, therapy rooms and workshop rooms as well as an extraordinary old world café room, an exhibition space, and, tucked away at the back, a courtyard café. The eatery has just changed hands, and the new Veg Kitchen and Coffee Shop opens in January. I’ll definitely be paying them a visit.

Café Ganesh

If you’re looking to put yourself into the thick of it rather than to escape, head to Café Ganesh in the heart of Observatory. Café Ganesh started by accident. Literally. Anthony Baker was knocked off his motorbike in the early 90s and was eventually paid out for his medical expenses in 1995. He took a 7-month trip to India (hence the name Ganesh), and decided to start a local eatery when he came home in late 1996.

An “Obs” institution since its inception, Café Ganesh serves up hearty food (think bobotie, umnqusho, pap ‘n veg) and even heartier conversation, Mzansi style, from before noon until the wee hours. The look is urban shabby chic, and the feeling is everyone’s welcome. Most of the action happens at the long tables in the main courtyard area (through the main Trill Street entrance) but Ganesh expanded some years ago to include an extra room, featuring work by well-known SA artists – don’t forget to check out the floors.

If you’re wanting something more tranquil and less “happening”, try the fabulous fare at the High Tea cake shop in Wynberg.

High Tea

High Tea - Top 10 Courtyard Cafes In Cape Town

Kerneels and Irma Brümmer started High Tea in Wynberg as a tea and cake shop in 2004, but it has since expanded. High Tea now serves up breakfast, lunch or afternoon tea in a really beautiful, peaceful English-styled garden. The baking is still done by Irma and her staff in a home-based kitchen. You can hire out the venue for functions or order custom-made cakes for birthdays, weddings or other special occasions.

High Tea - Top 10 Courtyard Cafes In Cape Town

If it’s a seaside courtyard retreat you’re after, make your way to the South Peninsula, where you’ll find the Courtyard Café in Kalk Bay or try the Winchester Mansions in Sea Point.

The Courtyard Café

Courtyard Cafe Kalk Bay - Top 10 Courtyard Cafes Cape Town

The Courtyard Café is set in a sheltered courtyard in Kalk Bay between the Artvark Gallery (through which you enter the café) and the Kalk Bay Theatre (which featured in the Secret Cape Town “Intimate Theatres” blog). The café has inside and outside areas, some of which overlook the bustling activity of Kalk Bay and the False Bay ocean beyond. The Courtyard Café prides itself on their healthy, high quality ethically sourced food, serving many inventive salads as well as vegetarian and vegan options.

Courtyard Cafe Kalk Bay - Top 10 Courtyard Cafes Cape Town

Winchester Mansions

Winchester Mansions in Sea Point is home to one of my all-time favourite courtyard hide-aways. I’ve been treated to a fabulous breakfast buffet there and it’s a perfect place for afternoon tea, but Harvey’s (as the restaurant here is called) also serves dinner in this uber-romantic courtyard setting. They offer Summer Serenade evenings during season on Fridays and Saturdays from 5 to 8, high tea on Saturday afternoons from 2 to 5 (R360 for 2) and their legendary jazz brunches on Sundays from 11 to 2 (R345 and you can help yourself to anything from the breakfast or lunch buffets) – just make sure you book in advance. If you’re after a spectacular sunset drink, the bar (with a stoep) at the front of the hotel looking out onto the promenade and the sea beyond is a winner.

Heritage Square

Heritage Square - Top 10 Cape Town Courtyard Cafes

Heritage Square houses an impressive range of places to eat or drink. There are several good restaurants (one specialising in chicken dishes, the other in beef), an upstairs drinkery, an innovative ice cream shop serving inventively boozy ice cream flavours such as whisky and orange peel alongside more traditional (and child-friendly) varieties, a cellar offering wine tasting, a coffee shop, and the Heritage Hotel which is adorned with a grape vine that has been growing there since the 1770s and still produces grapes. Whether you’re going there for a quick drink, a coffee, an ice cream or a full meal, it’s a wonderful venue – day or night.

Villa 47

Villa 47 - Top 10 Cape Town Courtyard Cafes

Villa 47 - Top 10 Cape Town Courtyard Cafes

Not far from Heritage Square in Bree Street, the Villa 47 courtyard has just been revamped into a fresh, modern terrazza with funky but comfortable-looking furniture, presided over by a great mosaic created by a young local artist. They specialise in Italian spritzers, snacks and meals and have several beers on tap. It seems like a perfect place to go for post-work drinks and stay for a good Italian dinner.

Honest and The Gin Bar

Honest Chocolate Cafe And Gin Bar - Top 10 Courtyard Cafes In Cape TownStill in the CBD, Honest Chocolate is a small, artisanal bean-to-bar chocolatier. The people at Honest are dedicated to ensuring ethical business practices and sourcing (local, organic and fair). The chocolate is handcrafted in Woodstock, and they set themselves apart from the rest by keeping their chocolate dark and minimally sugared. Their café shop is on Wale Street, with a few tables of indoors and a really pretty courtyard at the back (which is part of the original building) where you can sit and enjoy a breather and something dark, decadent and chocolatey at a table near the water feature.

If you’re a gin lover (which I confess I’m not) venture further and you will find the secret Gin Bar, which shares the courtyard with the Chocolate Café and offers a wide selection of local and international gins. You can try your hand (or taste buds) at identifying the huge variety of botanical flavours used, and experiment with different mixers and garnishes.

Jonkershuis

If you feel like going somewhere rural without leaving the city, the courtyard at Jonkershuis restaurant is a good bet. Situated in the heart of Groot Constantia, the oldest wine-producing estate in South Africa, the Jonkershuis is a relaxed restaurant with a leaning towards traditional Cape Malay dishes. There are various spaces within the venue, including a lovely courtyard area, but it’s definitely worth booking in advance. It’s a great place to take kids: there’s a children’s menu (as well as a vegetarian one) and plenty of space under the shade of the oak trees to run off any extra energy after lunch.

Sunset Sea point Swimming Pool Cape Town Emma Van Der Vliet

Sunset Sea point Swimming Pool Cape Town Emma Van Der Vliet

 

I love swimming – I always have. When I was a child, we used to take the train from Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape all the way to Joburg to visit my grandmother. There I would run the gauntlet into her garden past the homicidal sausage dog, Curly Wee (yes, actually) but it was worth it, because if I could make it past him alive I would get to… The Pool. Flanked by vibracrete swans, adorned by lilos and reeking of chlorine, it was a suburban oasis. I loved that pool. I swam in it until my lips were blue and my fingers looked like mauve prunes. Most afternoons, my long-suffering, non-swimming mother had to drive me out of the water with dire threats as the daily thunderstorm brewed and lightning was imminent.

I still love swimming, though these days I’m a bit more discerning about where and how I do it. I’m not as quick to throw off my clothes and leap into any available body of water wearing nothing but two small stripes of lycra, and I prefer somewhere that I’ll be left in peace. Luckily, there are some magnificent places to swim in Cape Town, some more secret than others, which suit my needs perfectly. There are plenty of sea swims (and that’s a story for another day) but for now I want to stick to pools: here are some of the best Cape Town swimming pools open to the public.

I have to start with my all-time favourite, the Sea Point pool. Can there be a better poolside view than there is from this large, salt water swimming-hole, which seems to continue out endlessly into the Atlantic Ocean alongside it? There are four pools, including an Olympic sized main pool, a paddling pool for kids and a diving pool with a fearsomely high diving board which is open to the public during high season when there are lifeguards on duty.

For all this you’ll pay the modest sum of R25.30 a day for adults, R13.20 for children or nothing at all if you are a senior citizen or have a disability. Not surprisingly, the Sea Point swimming pool is one of the best-used facilities in Cape Town, frequented by a pleasingly diverse range of people. During weekdays it tends to be quieter, with older visitors swimming or sunning themselves convivially on the lawns, and on weekends it is teeming with children from all over greater Cape Town. High season runs from the 1stof October to the end of February, when the opening hours are extended to allow a full twelve hour day from 7 to 7. And because it is filled with (treated) sea water it is open despite the drought.

Sunset Sea point Swimming Pool Cape Town Emma Van Der Vliet Diving Board

 

The pool is set near the far end of the Sea Point Promenade, another wonderfully well-used bit of public open space and one of the few places in Cape Town where one can walk alone for a good solid hour or two, with spectacular views, in relative safety. People-watching makes for excellent sport here, but if you’re keen on more physical activity you can hire a bike, run, skateboard, play soccer or putt-putt, or even land your paraglider on the grass. Once again, the promenade is a worth a story all on its own. On Sunday evenings, on the outlook next to the pool, people gather informally for a spot of Latin dancing while the sun sets over the sea, or to watch others dance while enjoying some food from the street stalls.

But back to swimming… If it’s too chilly to brave the elements – or if a heated pool seems like a more relaxing prospect – the Long Street Baths is another of Cape Town’s open secrets.

Established well over a century ago in 1908, the Long Street baths is worth a visit just for the feeling of stepping into a different era. Yes, it could perhaps do with a spruce-up, but the genteel tattiness is part of its charm. As you come in through the original imported iron turnstile and into the light, old-fashioned lobby, it’s a little like walking onto a set from The Unbearable Lightness of Being or Hotel Budapest. A staircase leads up off the lobby to a spectator’s balcony where you can look down onto the pool and the murals of local scenes that flank it.

Long Street Baths Cape Town Swimming Pool Murals Emma Van Der Vliet Web

 

Even more like a film set are the changing booths next to the steam room to the left of the lobby, in which there are small slatted wooden beds on which one can apparently “take a break from the heat”. At least that’s what I was told. Unfortunately the steam rooms are still closed due to the drought.

You access the pool itself through the change rooms, which are at the back of the ground floor lobby as you walk in. These are basic, and apparently not always scrupulously clean but perfectly adequate. And the pool is magnificent – several lanes wide, 25 meters long and an inviting bright blue. The room is vast, with plenty of natural light and raked seating for spectators or resting swimmers. The facility belongs to the City of Cape Town and the entrance fees are the same as at Sea Point.

Both the Sea Point pool and the Long Street Baths have been around for a long time and are well-known and well-loved. It took a dip into Justin Fox and Alison Westwood’s wonderful book Secret Cape Town to lead me to a much more secret swim in the Mother City.

Although it’s open to the general public between 10am and 3pm daily, very few people seem to know about the heated indoor pool at the Wynberg military base. Swimlab swim school have their home-base here, but when it’s not being used by them, this well-maintained, 25-meter long pool is the perfect place to go to train or just to swim a few laps.

The Wynberg Aquatic Centre is inside the military camp on the corner of Scoble and Buren Roads. The camp is a very strange place, a secret suburb-within-a-suburb, where you feel like you’ve been transported back in time: it’s all a bit “Toto, we’re not in Wynberg anymore”. Pre-fab buildings give it an outback feel, and everything seems oddly still and quiet.

The pool is not easy to find. There are no signposts at the entrance, so you have to be in the know or ask the guards at the boom – and even they had to consult amongst themselves. They told me to take a left at the entrance, take the right fork in the road and pass the tennis courts. I missed it the first time: again, there was no signage and the gate was unattended and looked like it was locked. I went around the block, came back to the same spot and parked. When I tried the gate I found I could open it. I eventually found the lone attendant and had a wonderful, peaceful solo swim with the perfectly-heated pool all to myself for the princely sum of R10: highly recommended! It is a lonely place though, and you might prefer to take some company rather than going by yourself. That said, it’s a pool for training in, not for a picnic or a poolside chat, so find someone who’s as keen on an adventurous secret swim as you are.

Emma van der Vliet is the author of Past Imperfect and Thirty Second World, both published by Penguin SA.