Things to do in Cape Town’s East City

October 1, 2023 (Last Updated: September 30, 2023)
East City - Cape Town

Eastern Promise 

Like a film set packed with rapidly changing backdrops and a multitude of newly unfolding locations, Cape Town’s East City is buzzing with reinvention.

Picture: Clair Gunn for Cape Etc Magazine

Stare up as you stroll towards the mountain on Harrington Street, and high up on one building, you’ll spot a humongous Jack Russell aviator by Belgian street artist Bart Smeets. It was originally painted to advertise Baz-Art’s 2019 International Public Art Festival. Now the day-dreaming pup watches over a fast-regenerating pocket of Cape Town’s so-called East City.

The bustling, compact precinct of burgeoning cool is centred on Harrington and, running parallel, Buitenkant Street; the latter is where, on another wall, you’ll spot Mila Jovovich holding her multi-pass in a scene from The Fifth Element. Such murals suggest something of the gritty texture of this area, where there’s a rambunctious juggling of styles and tastes, an amalgam of grungy old shops and ambitious new ventures, and a growing swath of hipster hangouts alongside vintage shopfronts ready to star as movie backdrops.

The East City goes by many names, from Zonnebloem to the Fringe, and was once (in 2014) labelled the ‘Innovation District’ – that’s when it headquartered Cape Town’s tenure as World Design Capital. It’s been undergoing a stop-start revitalisation for over a decade, and while many thought the COVID-closure of The Fugard Theatre might put an end to the East City’s renaissance, with the pandemic behind us, gentrification is back in full swing.

You can once again get your culture fix at either the Avalon or the Star, former Fugard theatres now incorporated into the newly expanded Homecoming Centre. And, on the far side of the block, there’s the ‘Truth to Power’ exhibition at the Desmond & Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation, where South Africa’s favourite cleric is remembered in videos, wall displays and a set of the purple vestments he wore.

While the past is always on display here – in the architecture and at the District Six Museum – the East City is also looking to the future. Nearing completion on Harrington Street is what The New York Times has referred to as the world’s ‘first hemp skyscraper’; it’s 12 storeys high and built primarily from blocks of hempcrete, which is made of hemp shiv (the chopped, woody core of cannabis plants) and lime mix. The environmentally friendly building’s Hemp Hotel will have 50 apartments, a flagship Hemporium store, and a restaurant. Not to mention that gigantic Jack Russell watching from next door.

Adventures In The East

Start with a steampunk brew

There’ve long been a few mavericks here (including Mavericks strip club), but when self-proclaimed coffee evangelist David Donde moved into an old warehouse on Buitenkant, it was his lovechild – Truth Coffee (021 201 7000; truth.coffee– that proved Capetonians (and tourists) were prepared to trek east for a quality caffeine kick. Haldane Martin’s steampunk design for the café centres on a vintage roaster (adorned with copper dispensers, gauges and contraptions) that remains the venue’s heart and soul. The place is fun, but never frivolous, and they take their food and beans very seriously.

Picture: Clair Gunn for Cape Etc Magazine

Bon appétit

The savoury buckwheat galettes and sweet crêpes at Swan Café (079 454 4758; swancafe.co.za) are a great alternative to typical breakfast and lunch menus. The stylish, naturally lit crêperie exudes Parisian charm with its blue and red accents, dangling wooden bird cages, and pizazz, all thanks to the inherent style of the French proprietor, a former model. French classics feature, too: croque monsieur, ratatouille, raclette, and petite boulette (meatballs), plus all the teas (and coffee) you’ll ever need.

Picture: Clair Gunn for Cape Etc Magazine

Must like Lycra

From road and gravel bikes to the latest in trending electric ponies, you need only follow the well-toned legs into East City Cycles (021 426 6000; eastcitycycles.com) for a sense of just how deep cycling culture runs in Cape Town’s blood. While the prices of the premium machines will make your eyes water, to aficionados, this is a pedaller’s paradise – plus there’s apparel, parts, advice, and the chance to meet a whole peloton of new mates to clack about in cleats with.

Prepare for the apocalypse

Born from the idea that many outdoor enthusiasts also cherish old-school craftsmanship and quality, Just Like Papa (087 470 0216; justlikepapa.com) is for those among us who like stuff that lasts forever rather than needing to be replaced every few years. Their stash starts with its supply of  ‘F*ck Load Shedding’ paraphernalia, from Jackery portable power stations to Primus camping stoves and headlamps that are as useful for braaiing as they are for finding your way around the house when Eskom calls it quits. Also check out Fjällräven, the Scandinavian outdoor apparel store next door.

Picture: Clair Gunn for Cape Etc Magazine

Go vintage

If Fjällräven’s price tags give you heart failure, take a look instead at Afraid of Mice (021 423 7353, @AfraidOfMice) a vintage clothing boutique with pre-owned designer brands. Even better, go around the block – Vintage with Love (vintagewithlove.co.za) is run by a non-profit that supports literacy among underprivileged children. There’s a generous selection of used clothing at realistic prices.

Got wood?

At Woodheads (021 461 7185; woodheads.co.za) over on Caledon Street, it’s leather, not wood, that’s been crafted since 1867. They sell everything from classic leather satchels to original Karu sheepskin slippers, and there’s a wealth of knowledge available on just about every detail of leathercraft, stitching, dyeing and more.

Find your sugar rush

Their ‘mucking afazing’ cakes have been charming the socks off school children and office party fans for years. Slip into Charly’s Bakery (021 461 5181; charlysbakery.co.za) and it’s near-impossible not to walk out with something velvety and moist – they have cookies and cupcakes and petit fours to stave off the munchies. Or go for an entire cake – good luck choosing! – which is what made them famous as the purveyors of countless sugar-rush-inducing birthday parties.

Join the naked revolution

You won’t find a stitch of single-use plastic at Nude Foods (021 437 3003; nudefoods.co). Its shelves are instead heaving with pay-by-weight nuts and cocoa clusters and dried fruit and virgin olive oils in glass canisters or barrels. Most of what’s sold is priced by weight, and there are veggies, kombuchas, and even healthy, planet-friendly meals for pets. The back entrance leads into an alleyway full of colourful murals and overflowing plants, with tables and benches so you can sit and eat – the Wild Eatery trailer serves plant-based meals and freshly squeezed drinks.

Picture: Clair Gunn for Cape Etc Magazine

Caffeinate

At Simple bru Coffee Co. (060 821 9994; simplebrucoffee.co.za), the illustrations of a zany coffee-experimenting professor hint at the team’s obsession with high-calibre, often experimental roasts. Ask about your cup’s provenance and Simple bru’s MD-slash-barista, Grant Vraagom, will deliver a passionate sermon. The near-religious fervour might explain why this small space won the title ‘Best New Café’ at last year’s Coffee Magazine Awards. Plus, they do a few select food items – their soulful and manic wrap is a winner.

Picture: Clair Gunn for Cape Etc Magazine

Taste Africa’s north

While there might be a queue four people deep on the pavement outside the New York Bagels take-away hatch, next door aLa Menara (061 583 1892; @lamenaracapetown) it’ll be the aroma of  Moroccan spices wafting from the kitchen. They do a full slate of dishes from the far north of Africa, from breakfast shakshuka to slowly simmered kofta tagine – meatballs in a tomato-based sauce with Moroccan spices and fresh herbs, served in that iconic clay pot, piping hot, with bread to soak it all up. 

Heavenly mezze

On Constitution Street, the Lebanese Bakery and Kitchen (021 434 1589; lebanesebakery.co.zahas shelves brimming with fresh-baked pitas and flatbreads, khob’z and ka’ak breads, and tubs of hummus and tabouleh, labneh and baba ganoush, harissa and zaartar, and loads more traditional Lebanese mezze – all your favourite Middle Eastern flavours, all freshly created. After browsing the deli selection, grab a table – there’s a lovely little courtyard at the back where you can order some of the best hawawshi (Egyptian stuffed pitas) and Turkish doners in town. 

Picture: Clair Gunn for Cape Etc Magazine

Slurp like a pro

The stairway tucked behind a door alongside Pizzasaurus (a meat-free pizzeria with no-extra-charge vegan options for all their pizzas) leads to an East City stalwart, Downtown Ramen (021 461 0407; @downtownramen)They’ve been slinging Japanese food in unapologetically grungy surrounds for years. Most recently added to their menu of Japanese cuisine is deep-fried agadashi tofu, izakaya-style pickled quail eggs and Korean-style popcorn chicken with gochujang sauce. It’s their ramen that made them famous, though, and rightfully so. 

Where’s Pablo?

What is it with the East City and a weird obsession with Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar? There are two ways to find out. The grungier option would be a round of drinks at Escobar (060 658 4641; escobarcapetown.co.za), a vaguely Colombian-inspired watering hole in the old Castle Hotel on Canterbury Street. The other place, over on Harrington, is a men’s barbering outfit named Medellin (072 698  3152). You can get everything from a manicure to unique ‘head art’, and learn more about the king of cocaine from the timeline of his life and misadventures on the wall. The barbers are excellent, they have hookahs to puff, liquor to drink, and free Wi-Fi.

Plug in

On Canterbury Street, but accessible from Harrington via the Electric Avenue alleyway, The Electric (021 461 0916; the-electric.com) is a phenomenon. The community-geared café occupies an old auto-electrics workshop that was once gutted by fire, leaving a shell. Now its front façade is done out in citrus-yellow, while much of it still looks like the singed shell it was when owner Janette de Villiers took over the double-volume space and turned it into a community hub, with good food, fresh juices, milks made from nuts, music events and social happenings, and a scheme to help feed the local homeless and hungry. 

Get in my belly!

At 110 Harrington Street, Belly of the Beast (076 220 5458; bellyofthebeast.co.za) is intimate and slightly experimental – the tasting menu is designed around choice cuts of sustainable meat (although vegetables and fish are served if meat’s not your thing). They don’t tell you what’s going to be served, the idea being to trust in what Anouchka Horn and Neil Swart decide to make with what they’ve got – whether they do something special with West Coast mussels or put some extraordinary cut of gemsbok on your plate.
It’s R550 for lunch and R750 for dinner – book in advance.

Picture: Clair Gunn for Cape Etc Magazine

Bom apetite! 

Still considered the quintessential Portuguese dining experience in Cape Town, Dias Tavern (021 465 7547; diastavern.com) has been around since May 1988. Legions of fans return again and again for those espetadas, dripping with flavour; the peri-peri chicken; the beef trinchado; the chicken livers; and the family atmosphere and booths packed with happy diners.

Hitch your horse

A few doors down from Dias Tavern, Dust and Dynamite (076 197 2396; @dustanddynamite) is a Wild West saloon with wood-panelled walls, swing doors, cowboy hats and revolver display cases, plus flickering candles, an old bank counter that’s now a bar counter, and a soundtrack of old-school rock. It’s recently been undergoing renovation, so it’ll be interesting to see what the next chapter brings.

Drag yourself to a dancefloor

From Pride after-parties to drag extravaganzas and Wednesday karaoke, Zero21 Social (071 760 3178; @Zer021Rooftop) is your go-to for all your LGBTQI+ vibes. Whether you’re looking to hook up or puff on a hookah, down a few shooters or stake your claim on the dance floor as DJs deliver all the requisite diva anthems, you’ll find your fix up the stairs behind the door on Canterbury Street.

Pick your poison

At Harrington Street (078 916 7903; harringtonstreet.co.za)you have a choice of venues, depending on your mood. Harringtons is a chic cocktail bar with libations ranging from a citrusy Pampelmouse to the intermingling of burnt honey and charred grapefruit that you’ll pick up in their Bitter-Sweet Mexican. Downstairs, a grungier atmosphere pervades Surfa Rosa, a hipsterish vintage-meets-punk dive bar with surfer-themed bric-a-brac on the walls and ceiling, beers served on skateboards, pizzas to stave off a hunger, loud music, a stuffed crocodile, and a courtyard for when the tight-squeeze dancing gets too raucous.

Picture: Clair Gunn for Cape Etc Magazine

Remember the password

We’re not kidding – the bouncer will not let you inside Art of Duplicity (170120.co.za) without the code! Interrogation over, you’ll be led down the alley (under drying underwear) and past the kitchen. The idea is to get lost not just in the spirits, but in the spirit of the place, the time-travel with low-lighting, a vintage apothecary counter, and seating between the coffee sacks. Food is another sleight of hand: your lobster roll might resemble an éclair and your beetroot soup will require a second take. To book, go to the website – you’ll get sent all the details you require, as well as that crucial password.

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Article was originally written and published by Cape Etc.

Picture: Clair Gunn

Words: Keith Bain

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