No stranger to tourists, Cape Town has typically staked its reputation on being an adventure capital more than an arts center. The city’s natural beauty draws even the laziest of travelers on hikes up Table Mountain, to penguin-packed beaches sheltered by rocky coves, and across the rolling hills of 200 nearby vineyards.
But change is afoot in the Mother City. I was living here in 2014, when it was dubbed a World Design Capital, and I witnessed the emergence of a local cultural scene. The Central Business District and once-gritty Woodstock area were then morphing into art hubs brimming with studios and world-class galleries such as Stevenson, Gallery Momo, and Whatiftheworld. Even outside the city, vineyards like Leeu Estates, Le Quartier Français, and Delaire Graff Estate are now showcasing homegrown artistic talents.
This long-simmering creativity came to a boil in September when philanthropist and ex-Puma Chief Executive Officer Jochen Zeitz opened the 500 million-rand ($36 million) Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Mocaa). The German businessman has been a passionate collector of art from the African continent and diaspora for a decade, painstakingly amassing a collection—rumored to include more than 1,000 works—that ranges from Zimbabwean political commentary and African American pop art to Tunisian photography.
Previously, the only way to see part of his collection was to pay upwards of $1,800 per night to sleep among a handful of special pieces at his Segera Retreat safari camp in Kenya. The 100,000-square-foot museum does more than bring the collection to the masses; it gives the city its own version of London’s Tate or New York’s Whitney Museum and cements Cape Town as a bona fide global art capital. On a continent loaded with imagination and talent, the vanguard is right here.
The building itself is a marvel. Thomas Heatherwick—the British architect behind Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., and King’s Cross in London—has transformed an abandoned 1920s-era grain silo into a concrete cathedral to creativity. Inside is an airy, almost diaphanous atrium that Heatherwick carved out of the factory’s 42 hulking cylinders. Suspended from the ceiling is Nicholas Hlobo’s haunting Iimpundulu Zonke Ziyandilandela (“All the Lightning Birds Are After Me”), a dragon made from rubber inner tubing that references South African Xhosa mythology.
A wander through the 80 galleries that circle the building’s light-filled atrium will reveal nebulous cowhide sculptures by Swaziland-born Nandipha Mntambo, portraits featuring intricate spectacles fashioned from trash that Kenyan artist Cyrus Kabiru collects on the streets of Nairobi, and textured canvases layered with sari fabrics by Madagascan Joël Andrianomearisoa.
The neighborhood around the museum, rechristened the Silo precinct, is changing more than its name. Until recently it was nothing more than a barren stretch adjacent to the Victoria & Albert Waterfront—a glossy-but-bland shopping plaza that draws more tourists than the Egyptian pyramids. Now tenants include edgy accessories designer Kirsten Goss; Kat van Duinen, who makes extraordinary ostrich bags and python clutches; and Guild, a showcase for South African furniture. Meanwhile, the Yard and other restaurants are bringing locals to an area they once avoided the way New Yorkers bypass Times Square.
Conveniently perched above the museum is Cape Town’s best new place to stay. The Silo hotel is anchored by geodesic windows that bulge out of the 28 rooms and look onto Table Mountain. (Guests are currently being asked to avoid soaking in its decadent baths, because of a local water shortage.) Surveying the landscape from my suite, I thought about how easy it would be to assume that this progress all resulted from the Zeitz Mocaa, but the opposite is true: The museum is merely a reflection of the city’s momentum.
Walk this Block: Bree Street
At the heart of Cape Town’s revitalized Central Business District, Bree Street has become a magnet for stylish shoppers— in addition to its long-standing coterie of culinary pilgrims.
A stern, charcoal-colored facade belies what you’ll find inside: leather handbags in a kaleidoscope of hues and shapes. 229 Bree St.
This boutique brings several local labels under one petite roof, with leather brogues from Aya Goods, laser-cut dresses by Isabel de Villiers, and Black Betty’s citrine and quartz rings. 233 Bree St.
The first city outpost of this award-winning Stellenbosch coffee roaster, it’s one of Cape Town’s best pick-me-ups. 221 Bree St.
Alexandra Höjer Atelier
Find minimalist fashion—long denim coats and plaid shirtdresses—at Swedish transplant Höjer’s rock’n’roll-inspired boutique, set in a former stable. 156 Bree St.
Robert Sherwood Design
The interiors maven has spiced up homes and hotels across South Africa, Zanzibar, and the UAE; his eclectic showroom stocks fantasy-style photography by Athi-Patra Ruga and sculptural clay vessels by Louise Gelderblom. 173 Bree St.
SeaBreeze Fish & Shell
Famished? Skip the seafood on the Waterfront and come here for Knysna oysters and kingklip with braaied corn salsa. 211-213 Bree St.
The Day Trip: Franschhoek
Less than an hour away from Cape Town is the Winelands hamlet of Franschhoek, with its gabled Cape Dutch-style buildings, stuck-in-time churches, and now, one of the world’s best tasting rooms. There, you can swirl and sip funky syrahs and chenin blancs by Andrea Mullineaux, named Wine Enthusiast’s 2016 Winemaker of the Year. Her family’s bottles are the focus of the tobacco-toned studio at Leeu Estates, a year-old, 17-room hotel and spa. (Try the Passant Stellenbosch chardonnay; it’s popular for its balanced peach and pear notes.) For dinner, a new destination restaurant has cropped up on nearby Huguenot Street: La Petite Colombe, a spinoff of a similarly named fine-dining stalwart in Cape Town, offers unexpected flavor combinations such as linefish with smoked parsnip, pancetta, and buckwheat.