As far as neighbourhoods in Cape Town go, Observatory fills an interesting gap. It’s often overlooked by hurried visitors to the city, but this bohemian, hedonistic, student-centred village within a town is packed full of fascinating people – and several worthy attractions.
There are many perspectives from which to examine Observatory – but perhaps the best starting point is by looking at its heritage and buildings. Architect and local ‘Obs’ resident Kirsti Mackenzie does exactly that. Through her studio, Living Spaces, Mackenzie helps homeowners design and alter their houses in a way that aligns them with the spirit and architectural heritage of their surroundings.
Observatory is no exception, brimming with fascinating history, there’s no shortage of diversity and character in the neighbourhood. Whether dining at a quirky restaurant, looking out for wildlife in the local river or dipping into the South Africa’s astronomical legacy, there’s something for everyone.
The Armchair Theatre is arguably Observatory’s most famous landmark. Visitors hail it as one of the best late-night hangouts and live-music venues, and although it’s been through several changes over the years, it’s still a go-to spot for Mackenzie. Teaching the occasional yoga class upstairs on weekday evenings, Mackenzie is a regular. “Take a yoga class at the Armchair, then, if the mood takes you, head downstairs to grab a beer and watch some stand-up or live music if there’s something on that night,” she recommends.
Lower Main Road is the main artery running through the neighbourhood – both for traffic, and for shops and entertainment venues. The stretch is not particularly long, but there’s enough here to entertain visitors for the better part of an afternoon.
“Take a walk down Lower Main Road and pop into Hello Sailor for a burger or drink, Ground Zero Coffee for a caffeine fix, or Honeybun for a delicious breakfast or lunch,” Mackenzie says. “There’s also a great vinyl shop to explore, and the nearby second-hand book shop is home to some amazing finds, too.”
Obs really comes to life when the sun disappears behind nearby Devil’s Peak, and there’s no better way to celebrate than by ordering a drink at a local bar.
Much of the neighbourhood’s nightlife is geared towards its laid-back residents and large student population, but Mackenzie has a few suggestions for travellers.
“Stones and Trenchtown offer an authentic student experience,” she says. “Or, for something a bit more mature, head to Obz Cafe, A Touch of Madness and Rust. All are within easy walking distance of one other.”
Although primarily urban, Observatory is close to a pleasant nature trail – which Mackenzie recommends exploring during the early afternoon.
“There’s a leisurely walk along the Liesbeek River,” she says. “Be sure to look out for the endangered Cape otter, which you might be lucky enough to spot in the water. If you’re looking for more of a workout, there’s also a free outdoor gym along the route.”
Even if you’re not in the market for a new house, architect Mackenzie recommends taking in the historic architecture of Obs by going house-hunting.
“House-hunting on a Sunday morning is a great way to get a sense of the neighbourhood,” she says. “You should also sneak a peek at The Westoe on Westoe Road, the Wrensch Farmhouse on Wrensch Road and St Micheal’s Anglican Church. Most small streets have Victorian and Edwardian architectural gems just waiting to be discovered!”
The residents of Obs never miss an opportunity to throw a good party, and occasionally these take place on public streets. The most notable of these is called Streetopia, and is one to diarise.
“It’s an annual festival organised by the people behind AfrikaBurn, which takes place in November every year,” Mackenzie says. “Lower Main Road is closed to cars, and art installations take over the streets with live music, making dancing along the street irresistible.”
The Cape Town Science Centre is a fascinating attraction that serves as a great way to learn a bit more about South Africa’s scientific achievements.
“If you’re intellectually inclined, the Science Centre is a great place to learn more about all things science-related,” says Mackenzie. “You’ll find it fascinating, whether you’re a kid or an adult. With 250 interactive exhibits, experiments, workshops and talks, the Science Centre even hosts chess and robotics tournaments.”
The actual observatory is one of the suburb’s best-kept secrets. It’s an architectural marvel, and is open to the public on certain evenings.
“The suburb is home to the headquarters of the South African Astronomical Observatory, where you’ll also find beautiful architecture that dates back to the country’s earliest days of space examination,” says Mackenzie. “They host free open nights, on the second and fourth Saturday of every month at 8pm, which is the best way to appreciate this historical attraction.”