There is one place a traveler should investigate when visiting Cape Town, South Africa to get the flavor of this dynamic city - Long Street. With its salad of different cultures and mix of architecture stretching from twenty-first century skyscrapers back to the eighteenth century, it encapsulates both the history and the future of Cape Town, and the country that refers to it as the Mother City. Long Street stretches from the Victoria & Albert Waterfront and commercial harbor, leading up towards Table Mountain. Once living up to its name as the longest street in Cape Town with almost three kilometers in length, Long Street is steeped in history going back over 300 years.
Long Street runs through Cape Town’s downtown area, known as the City Bowl because of its placement in a natural, bowl-shaped valley between Table Mountain, Lion’s Head, and the Foreshore, where commercial ships dock. The upper part of Long Street above Strand Street has become an attraction in its own right, particularly among younger travelers.
Initially, when one comes up Long from the harbor, there seems to be nothing special about this one-way street. Eight modern skyscrapers, dating from the early 1960s, make a steel canyon typical of any modern city. This is the heart of Cape Town’s business district, and is not particularly welcoming to visitors. It is only when one gets to Strand Street that the difference becomes noticeable, and it is this stretch of several blocks from Strand to Buitensingel where Long Street’s true mystique begins.
With architecture dating back to the eighteenth century and new businesses that cater to inreasing numbers of tourists, upper Long Street is a jumbling mix of old and new. Though many of the older buildings are now only facades, with the insides renovated to accommodate modern businesses, the ghosts of its Victorian past can be plainly seen on the buildings’ exteriors. Known for its eclectic mix of European, African, and Asian cultures, Long Street offers an array of backpacker hostels, bars, clubs, curio shops, and restaurants, many residing in buildings from Victorian times that have been well-preserved. For those interested especially in Long Street’s architecture, “Walking Long Street” by Desmond Martin offers itself as a great source of information.
The South African Missionary Museum at 40 Long Street offers a glimpse into early nineteenth century Cape Town. The museum resides in a restored former slave chapel, which was built in 1804 to spread Christianity among the 63,000 slaves brought to the Cape from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries.
A mosque still stands at number 138, where Long crosses Dorp Street and which is commonly known as the Dorp Street Mosque. Established in 1884, it shows a mix of Islamic and Victorian architectural styles. Further up the street is the Palm Tree Mosque at 185 Long Street, originally built as a house in the 1780s for an imam.
The first organized school of higher education, the South African College, which at the time received children of all races, opened on 238 Long Street in 1829 in the Dutch Reformed Church’s orphanage. This college was the precursor to the University of Cape Town, and portions of this building were still in existence until 1981, when efforts to restore it failed.
During the 1970s and 1980s, in the height of the apartheid era, anti-apartheid plays were shown in the many theaters that once existed along the street, with such internationally renowned names as John Kani, Athol Fugard, and Winston Ntshona appearing in them. The New Space Theatre at 44 Long Street carries on the tradition of live theater in a building that once housed a YMCA. The old Space Theatre, which played to non-racial crowds even during the apartheid era, moved into the building in 1976. It later became known as the People’s Space, which catered to non-racial theater crowds during the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Today, you can see backpackers and other tourists from every part of the world walking along Long Street. Though mainly known for its low cost hostels, there are other types of accommodation available, including luxury self-catering apartments and a four star hotel. There are myriad choices of food at the many restaurants along the street, including Greek, African, Italian, Irish, American, Turkish, Indian, and English fair. There are a number of curio shops, displaying traditional and modern African carvings and paintings, an antique bookstore, a music shop that sells exclusively African music, and a number of other shops containing all manner of unique merchandise. There are even a few clubs that play house, reggae, and hip hop music, though most of the drinking establishments on Long Street have a mellow atmosphere, inviting visitors to sit down and people watch.
Cape Town has become home to increasing numbers of creative people as rents in cultural centers such as New York, Paris, and London have skyrocketed, forcing bohemian artists to find other, less expensive cities in which to live and create. Long Street, with its free spirited flavor, history, and relatively cheap rents draws all sorts of artists. In September 2009, the Loerie Awards, South Africa’s advertising awards, which are as renowned in South Africa for their parties as the Oscars are in the United States, will center itself on Long Street, with the Grand Daddy Hotel at 38 Long being the hub for registration for the event.
Despite its charm, Long Street has a dark side. As with many red light districts in major cities around the world, the area can be dangerous after dark. Anyone out at night should not walk the street alone. Recent efforts to reduce crime in the City Bowl, being made in preparation of the 2010 Soccer World Cup, have made the street safer for visitors.
The ambience of Long Street, and perhaps a bit of its bohemian charm, can be compared to streets and neighborhoods in other famous cities, such as New Orleans’ Bourbon Street, San Francisco’s Haight Street, London’s Soho, Amsterdam’s Red Light District, Paris’ Avenue des Champs Elysess, and New York’s Broadway theater district. Long Street captures Cape Town’s character, and if one wants to know what Cape Town is about, it is a place every visitor should see.
By D. A. Rupprecht