I arrive into Cape Town, South Africa in search of a killer coffee I desperately need after my time spent in rural Kenya. The central hip strip that is Long Street has my mission easily accomplished but what I didn’t expect was spending an entire 12 hours (a full-day excursion, basically!) walking from one end up towards Table Mountain on this one street – this one arty, gritty, characterful, historic street.
South Africa is unlike the rest of the continent. The early immigration of the Dutch in the 1600s saw a long history of racial strife, yet is what has built the country to be the developed, ethnically diverse city it is today, much that can be seen on Long.
Taking the time to talk to locals and admiring the pretty corners of Victorian-era architecture and blossoming sidewalks, I’ve found a must-visit street of the world that’s touched my traveller’s spirit.
Hey TOA readers, meet Long Street.
1. “Dude, Capetonians live Cape Town. There’s no such thing as tourist traps here, we’re hanging where you’re hanging.” – Justin, Uncle Bear Coffee.
Walk down Long and you can easily miss Uncle Bear Coffee, a coffee ‘shop’ that’s just a table holding one coffee machine accompanied with a bright barista. I mean, if a business delivers just one thing – no frills, no fuss – I’m sure they’ll do it right. The result? Divine.
“So Justin, tell me, what makes Cape Town so special?” I broadly ask my first acquaintance as I sip silky goodness, someone I end up having rooftop beers with later that week in typical Long Street style.
“We’re a progressive city but we’re so chilled,” he says, reminding me of Sydney. “We’ve got the best of everything – the countryside, the ocean, the beaches,” reminding me again of Down Under, “but it was only when I hiked up Lion’s Head during sunset and looked down on Cape Town that I was so taken away and thought… Oh shit, this is my city.”
The seaside mountains? Cape Town 1, Sydney 0. I better hike up that thing.
Justin concludes: “I’ve been outside but I’ll always return here.”
Lion’s Head, the hike that confirmed Justin’s (Uncle Bear Coffee) home.
2. “Aren’t we all just searching for something raw and real?” – Nizaam, The African Portrait.
I continue devouring my coffee and stop in my tracks to read a poem on a shopfront window:
“Look to this day: for it is life, the very life of life. In its brief course lie all the verities and realities of your existence. The bliss of growth, the glory of action, the splendour of achievement are but experiences of time.” – Kalidasa (classical Sanskrit writer).
Of course I’m walking in. I suddenly find my entire soul blown away by the energy in a small art gallery, my feet stamped to the floor in front of a portrait of a face-painted Surma village girl with floral head decorations by local artist Grant Oxche. I almost shed a tear.
I slowly step around gazing at other paintings, admiring the use of light and colour, while lively gallery manager Nizaam explains why I’m feeling this way.
“Landscapes are the thing of the past now. We don’t want another painting of the Maasai Mara, we want the human element. Grant chooses to paint African portraits because they represent a deeper sense of human sadness from past apartheid (racial segregation). This is why he pays particular attention to the eyes.”
After an hour of flowing conversation about the continent’s indigenous inhabitants and Cape Town’s economic situation, it is here in this room that I gather a deeper understanding and appreciation of African history and culture, reminding me of Aboriginal history at home. I guess we’re not so different after all…
I take a big breath to step outside again.
Satisfyingly stuffing myself with ‘Croque Madame’ (honey glazed ham, mature cedar and mustard mayo topped with a poached egg, 55 ZAR ) at Café Mozart, a café tucked within a sidewalk under a tree with draping fairy lights.
The most comfortable yoga pants in the entire world made possible from resort-style clothing store Just Cruizin’. The local brand sells high-quality 100% cotton-wear.
Rummaging through ethnic-inspired, hand-embroidered ensembles at Mali South (90 Long Street, Cape Town). You can even request for bespoke outfits.
3. “No where in the world is what it used to be. Change is inevitable, some people like it, others don’t. But Cape Town remains one thing – vibrant. ” – Henrietta, Clarke’s Bookshop.
I enter Clarke’s Bookshop – ahh, the smell of books – and am impressed by a wide selection of unusual, interesting books, mostly on South African art. Walking up creaky steps, I’m faced with another wooden-floored room, but this time with stacks of second-hand, out-of-print and antique reads.
I tell the owner Henrietta of my endeavour down Long, and she responds, “I’ve got something for you.” Handing me ‘Walking Long Street Cape Town’ by Desmond Martin, I cosy up on a couch and flip through the coffee-table book filled with gorgeous watercolour pictures of what I’ve seen these past hours. While it’s not for sale, you can kindly ask to borrow the book for a light read (and break from walking) to get a stronger sense of place.
“I do miss the bigger community of delicatessens and small local shops on Long, but that’s okay. We are very lucky to still be on Long Street. It’s just an interesting place to be.”
After some quiet time at Clarke’s, who also celebrate their 60th anniversary this year (wow!), I continue my trek.
Finding a lovely selection of African jazz, house and ambient music at The African Music Store. Check out “Healing Powers of Mother Africa” and “Music of the Mountains” for soothing earth vibes.
Eating a finger-lickin’ good homemade carrot cake during a pit stop at the retro R Caffe.
Just a little reminder at Orchard on Long. Do try their Breakfast Boost (48 ZAR) smoothie packed with bananas, strawberries, organic peanut butter, chia seeds, nutmilk, protein, honey and cinnamon – phew!
4. “People come to this city and somehow want to reinvent themselves,” Mariana, Gypsy.
“Visitors leave Cape Town as different people,” says the tatted-up, face-pierced Gypsy shopkeeper Mariana with envious tousled hair.
I’ve spent almost an entire day on Long and can probably say I’m one of whom she’s referring to. Perhaps it’s my personal connection to the expressive way of the indigenous African – through the earth, colours and natural beauty – during my time in Africa. Then in Cape Town, you’re faced with modern civilisation (the real world?) so you try to find your place in-between. I suddenly feel I’m in my element, in this incense-smelling shop selling colourful flowing dresses, quirky accessories and Burning Man-esque attire.
I buy a cute septum ring made in India and farewell the bohemian. I’m also interested to know how I look like that at 63.
“What’s your secret, Mariana?” I ask, as I depart.
“Peace and quiet,” she swiftly responds with deep contentment. She’s answered this question before.
Browsing through vintage stores galore at the end of Long Street towards Table Mountain.
5. “You can be anyone you want in Cape Town.” – Brian, Mabu Vinyl
A little past Long with a left turn onto Rheede, I stumble into Mabu Vinyl and the ever-so-warm Brian.
“This is where I used to hang as a kid in the 70’s. Nothing’s changed. Well, except there are more CDs.”
I’m immediately taken back to the 90’s – the nostalgic process of splitting a CD case, removing the cover to flip through lyrics, and sliding it back in making sure to get the sheets underneath the tiny plastic hooks. I have a field day digging through unheard artists.
“Brian, you’ve been around for so long!”
“I can’t think of anywhere else I’d rather be,” he says and smiles, “It’s fun, it’s safe, You can be anyone you want in Cape Town, the diversity is unreal.”
“Safe?!” I respond, surprised. “I wasn’t so sure considering all the shopfront metal gates I needed to be buzzed through. I was holding onto my camera like it’s my baby.”
“Naaah, it’s all part of the charm. Just be a part of the city, look at everyone around you – all the characters! – and run with it. There’s no need to feel tension.”
“I did notice on my way here – rich, poor, hipsters, hippies, punk-rock kids, suits…”
“And you’ll see even more characters at night. It’s completely different when the sun goes down, just like how every few blocks of Long Street is different.”
He gives me a happy, hard handshake after I buy a second-hand indie-rock album with hilarious lyrics. Bye Brian.
6. “Life isn’t about investing into money, we should be investing into living.” – Solomun, Madam Taitou.
I wander down the strip once more for dinner, noticing what Brian said was correct. This end has become almost Kings Cross-esque full with backpackers and partygoers, the music slightly louder with laughter and chatter heard from lit-up rooftops.
Then close to where I begun at The African Portrait, I find the tipping point of my one-day excursion.
The real gem of Long Street? The real gem of this entire strip for me personally was visiting Madam Taitou (77 Long Street) and meeting its owner Solomun. Oh Solomun, a balding Ethiopian with a missing tooth casually dressed with kicks. A brief chat about art effortlessly turns into a D&M about life, over traditional Ethiopian fare and red wine with a couple of locals.
The façade presents typical local jewellery, but you step into an indoor forest (with real plants!), fit with treehouse-like decks and lounges as nature’s sounds is on play, each cosy nook wonderfully drowning in antiques and African wooden art.
“I’ve read fancy art books. The ones that try to make sense out of things. Why?! What for? Just look at the work and let it speak to you! Some things don’t need explaining,” Solomun says, as we dig into our scrumptious sharing platters of tibs (fragrant grilled marinated beef, 65 ZAR) and mixed spiced vegetables (75 ZAR) with our hands.
“How close do you feel to Cape Town?” I ask the man who’s lived here for more than twenty years.
“It has very fascinating roots. You can still sense the history here. I love it like I love the whole world,” he says as my eyes sparkle in agreement, “But hopefully I won’t be here forever, I’ve had visions of living abroad but haven’t had the chance. Good on you for getting out there to see everything the world offers. People forget that life should be exciting, and it is exciting. ”
Say no more.
One day, I hope to return to this street just to say hello to my dear friend Solomun.
But for now, so long, Long.
Where in the world is another must-visit, characterful street? Write me a comment below.
Official South Africa Tourism website.