Few Westerners know what to expect when visiting South Africa. Safaris and deserts or coteries of high-energy urban meccas? The climate in the country is, indeed, temperate and dry but the country’s major cities aren’t deterred by the occasional 120-degree days. One example of the country’s active culture: Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront, where the mixed residential and commercial district plays host to hundreds of shops and countless breathtaking views of the ocean beyond. If you want some retail therapy while in the Cape, there’s no better place to go than the buzzing V&A Waterfront.
History of the V&A Waterfront
Dubbed V&A after his and her majesties Victoria and Alfred, this electrifying area draws some 24 million visitors every year. Its first chapter was written some 350 years ago, however, when Jan van Riebeeck of the Dutch East India Trading Company built a small jetty to give trading ships a respite from their long treks across the ocean. In 1858, a storm battered the port, causing extensive damage. As the port had been established as key to trade, plans were quickly put in motion to rebuild the port with much stronger materials. In 1860, then, construction began on a stone port designed to withstand all seasonal whims.
Following the discovery of diamonds in Cape Town, port traffic increased dramatically. This precipitated dramatic expansion with two new harbor basins constructed by 1920. By this point, the port served ships of every purpose; trade ships, prospector vessels, and passenger transports all docked in Cape Town, giving the city growing importance.
Fast-forward to 1988 when the waterfront was bought by Transnet LTD and renamed the V&A Waterfront. The company’s plans for the area were twofold: restore the historical elements of the port and create a mixed-use development where residents and tourists alike could flock for leisure. Since this vision took shape, several rounds of development have occurred, adding sundry office buildings, restaurants, hotels, and residences.
Where to shop
V&A Waterfront boasts more than 450 stores, so you won’t run out of outlets to explore. That said, we recommend visiting the more unique brands and steering clear of major chains you can visit back home. Here’s what we think is worth checking out:
- Luisa Spagnoli: It’s not South African, but Luisa Spagnoli does stock some breathtaking couture. Ogle Italian-inspired calfskin bags, flowing lace dresses, and sunglasses that scream “chic.”
- Absolute Pets: No, you’re not going to buy a dog bed and haul it back with you on the plane, but you can pick up a toy for your beloved pooch. We like the durable All for Paws-branded playthings, but there is a slew of offerings to fit every dog size and personality.
- Cooked: Nope, this isn’t a store — it’s a restaurant. But you have to eat some time, right? Drop by for Moroccan and Lebanese-styled fare, including our favorite, The Bacon flatbread sandwich. (Pro tip: Come early and get yourself some breaky, i.e. the stacked Latkes with smoked salmon and eggs.)
- African Design: Sporting clothes and accessories with utilitarian and colorful charm, African Design is an affordable way to round out your wardrobe. Plus, you should feel good about supporting African creatives. We picked up a woven bag and some brilliantly blue sandals that we can’t wait to wear on the beach.
- Blossom Cape Town: No, they don’t sell flowers — they sell African-print wares and handmade accessories (bags, mostly) for women. Drop by and get a clutch or a quirky purple scarf to accent your dress from African Design.
- Erosha: Exotic leather is the name of the game at Erosha, where you can find alligator skin handbags cozying up to giraffe skin totes. If the eccentric appeals, Erosha is a must. (Fair warning, however: Some of these items may not be favored by U.S. Customs, so check their site to make sure.)
- Heart at Work: As a purposeful homage to South African heritage, Heart at Work’s various pendants, pillows, plates, and wind-spinners feature images from South Africa’s heartland. These make great keepsakes.
- Kamaldien Exclusives: You’d be foolish spending time in South Africa without admiring the majesty of their diamonds. Kamaldien, a family-owned jewelry shop that’s been around for 40 years, is a delightful showcase of the best gems from South Africa, alongside high-quality, expertly-crafted watches. You likely won’t want to shell out the money for a sample — even a small one — but you can admire the unequaled jewelry.
- Tanzanite International: Another jewelry shop, Tanzanite International focuses on, well, tanzanite — a stone more difficult to source than diamonds. The tanzanite used in the shop’s many pieces comes from the Maasai Tribe Mine and is hand-crafted by specially trained jewelers.
- Zizamele Ceramics: For a more affordable browse, drop by Zizamele to see their friendship bowls, each one decorated with clay figures around the rim. The bowls can be used for a variety of purposes (they’re not just for show), and the artisans behind Zizamele also make cups, creamers, saucers, and other important kitchen wares.
Naturally, we’ve only touched the surface of the offerings afforded by the V&A Waterfront. There are also dozens of dining options, theaters, and play places for the kids to explore. To map out your entire “shopping in Cape Town” experience, visit waterfront.co.za.