It was already late afternoon when I arrived in Observatory, but the inner-city neighborhood in Cape Town, South Africa, was only just waking up, it seemed. A single young woman with a backpack skateboarded down the otherwise empty main street, and as the sun began to set over Table Mountain, a few bars played thumping house music through still-locked doors.I wandered into a guitar shop, interrupting a lively conversation between three gray-haired men.“What kind of music do people like around here?” I asked.“White people tend to go for rock; black guys go for kwaito, rap and jazz,” answered store owner Lionel Jordan. Kwaito, he added, is dance music with African vocal samples. Jordan and his friends, however, mostly play classic rock.“There are 14 cultures in South Africa,” chimed in Richard Pitcher, Jordan’s friend and bandmate. “It’s hard to be part of them all.”Bordered by two oceans and one mountain range, Cape Town is a rare city that abuts actual wilderness. On the eastern side of town, the warm Indian Ocean crashes into the continent, sending a salty spray across the coastal highway. On the western side, the cold Atlantic periodically tosses unlucky ships onto the rocky shore. For people on the outskirts of town, baboon break-ins are a perennial problem, and in at least one southern suburb, penguins regularly waddle into hotel lobbies, looking for handouts.But as I ran through six lanes of traffic to escape an overzealous panhandler one day, I realized that the real dangers of Cape Town are of the typical urban variety. “I won’t rob you if you just give me some money,” the panhandler yelled as I trotted back to my hotel.I’d been trying to walk a half-mile to the waterfront. But I quickly discovered that in a city with homicide rates that are about on a par with Detroit, casual strolls are generally inadvisable.I shouldn’t have been that surprised. Cape Town is, after all, still recovering from the scars of apartheid — including economic inequality and an unemployment rate of almost 50 percent among young adults. In fact, it was only 50 years ago that the South African government declared the city center to be for “whites only” and began forcibly removing blacks and mixed-race people from their homes.Although most of Cape Town quickly succumbed to segregation, apartheid’s enforcers somehow overlooked at least two inner-city neighborhoods: Observatory and Woodstock. In recent years, these multicultural enclaves have led the city’s renaissance — attracting artists and other creative types from all over the world. Still hoping to do a little urban hiking, and perhaps even catch a glimpse of Cape Town’s reawakening, I resolved to explore these lively neighborhoods on foot.City of contrastsIf music tastes divide along racial lines, Observatory’s residents seem decidedly multiethnic, not to mention young and attractive. As I walked the streets, I saw one mixed-race couple, arm-in-arm, contemplating their tempera-paint options at an art store, and a diverse group of chatty teens debating where to go to eat.I found the surrounding neighborhood, however, to be decidedly less friendly. Many homes hunkered behind tall concrete walls topped with razor wire. Prominently placed placards named the security company that protected each property, complete with illustrations of a revolver’s business end.As I snapped a picture of a placard for a particularly festive-sounding security company (Shock-o-loza), a curly-haired 20-something stopped to assure me that Observatory isn’t as dangerous as it looks.“It’s like a small town,” he said. “Everyone knows everyone else.”His favorite part about living in Observatory, he said, is the fact that you can go shopping or out to eat without traveling downtown — though the train takes you there in just 10 minutes, he said.The next morning, my boyfriend and I drove to Woodstock, a trendy neighborhood in the heart of Cape Town. Once a sparsely populated industrial area, Woodstock has become the epicenter of Cape Town’s emerging design industry. Foodies soon followed, starting a popular gourmet market and a smattering of high-profile restaurants.As we neared the market, at the Old Biscuit Mill, several young men trotted after our car, offering parking spaces and car-guarding service for the equivalent of a few dollars. Suckers, we let one flag us down and ended up parking nearly a mile away from the market. That, however, gave us the chance to appreciate the striking contrast between the world outside the mill and the scene inside.Outside: A yellow Yugo rusted on blocks. Inside: A shiny Mini Cooper displayed hip T-shirts. Outside: Barefoot children hustled tourists. Inside: Well-heeled teens picked through designer clothes. No one stood guard at the Biscuit Mill gates, but some invisible barrier stopped these very different worlds from colliding.A 20-something guy in skinny jeans and a scarf summed it up for me: “Outside the Biscuit Mill gates, you’re in a Third World country,” he said. “Inside, you’re in Williamsburg.”Indeed, the Saturday “Neighbourgoods” market seemed very Brooklyn-like, with a trendy assortment of artisanal, organic and pricey foods: sea urchin pasta, goat’s milk cheese, gluten-free bread and, of course, cupcakes. One food stand, however, struck me as particularly South African — a “biltong” stand selling spicy jerky made from the country’s vast variety of ungulates and other tasty beasts. A look back at District SixOur tummies full, we headed to our last stop on our tour of Cape Town neighborhoods — a small brick church that stands as a monument to one of the most shameful moments in Cape Town’s history: the destruction of District Six.“I will never forget the day they bulldozed our house,” said Noor Ebrahim, perched on a stool in the museum, one of the few District Six structures that the apartheid government left standing. A trio of young women paid rapt attention as Ebrahim told stories about growing up in the multiethnic neighborhood. Christmas, he said, was his favorite time of year, because he loved tailing the choirs that paraded through the streets.“We all celebrated Christmas, not just the Christians,” said Ebrahim, a Muslim. “I prayed with the Hindu community, the Jewish community, the African community, and there was nothing wrong with it. All my friends, they put on a fez and went with me to my mosque. That’s what made District Six such a great place,” he said.That thriving multiculturalism spooked the nascent apartheid government, which declared the area a slum and razed it in the 1970s, relocating the neighborhood’s 60,000 residents to suburbs or, more often, actual slums on the outskirts of town. All that remains are a few dozen street signs, which hang, chandelierlike, from the church’s ceiling.
Cape Town, South Africa
Where to stay
• Koornhoop Manor Guest House
Wrench and Nuttal roads, Observatory
A quaint bed-and-breakfast that’s a short walk to Observatory’s main street and a 10-minute train ride to central Cape Town. Singles about $54, doubles about $36 per person.
• Boulders Beach Lodge
4 Boulders Place, Boulders Beach, Simons Town
African penguins regularly waddle into the lobby of this charming beachside lodge. A train into Cape Town takes a full hour, but the views are breathtaking. Singles about $75, doubles about $55 per person.
Where to eat
• The Test Kitchen
Shop 104 A, the Old Biscuit Mill
375 Albert Road, Woodstock
This 30-seat restaurant began as an experiment by chef Luke Dale-Roberts and quickly became a favorite among Cape Town foodies for its clever flavor combos and vegetarian-friendly tasting menus. Call a few months in advance for reservations. A five-course dinner runs about $57.
• Gold Restaurant
15 Bennett St., Green Point
Before sitting down to a multicourse showcase of African cuisine, guests at this dinner-show spot learn some djembe drumming basics. Between courses, performers share dances and songs from across the continent. About $30 for meal and performance.
2 Upper Wale St.
This quirky spot in the picturesque Muslim neighborhood of Bo Kaap serves flavorful Cape Malay cuisine — Cape Town’s unique mix of Asian, Indian and Mediterranean flavors. Entrees $5-$11.
What to do
• Neighbourgoods Market
373 Albert Road, Woodstock
9 a.m.-noon Saturday. Assemble a picnic of gourmet, local and artisanal foods at this weekly market, or browse the hip shops at the adjacent Biscuit Mill.
• District Six Museum
25A Buitenkant St., Cape Town
Former residents staff the museum and share their memories of their lost neighborhood. 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday; 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; Sunday by appointment. $3 for self-guided tour; $4.50 for guided tour. School-age children 50 cents.
— Sadie Dingfelder, Special to the Washington Post