Cape Town is a city that never stops to surprise me. Vibrant and always changing, the Mother City has plenty to offer regardless how many times you return. You want to eat in world-class restaurants, spend time in hap bars or pay a visit to the expanding scene of art galleries and design shops? Suit yourself.
Certainly it does not hurt either that it also has one of the most beautiful sceneries in the world. Plus, as soon as you leave town you will be overwhelmed by an abundance of nature and wildlife.
Table Mountain National Park and the Cape Peninsular are home to hundreds of plant species, large numbers of baboons, zebra and wildebeest and a huge variety of birds. Along the coast, you can have close encounters with whales (from May to November), sharks and huge colonies of the African penguin.
And speaking of the coast, a visit to Cape Town would not be complete without spending time at one (or more) of its beautiful picture-perfect beaches.
Check out my list of 10 things you should put on your to-do list on your first trip to Cape Town.
Top of Table Mountain, off course
For many, Table Mountain is the most iconic landmark of South Africa and it clearly dominates the scenery. But the most astonishing view you can have is from its top, offering a 360 degree view over Cape Town and Table Mountain National Park.
Yet it can be trickier to get to the top than you might imagine, due to the local micro-climate. The mountain top is covered in fog or clouds quite frequently and that will prevent you from having that magnificent views that bring you up there in the first place. At other times, it will be too windy for the cable car to go up (or down, so when you are up and you hear the horn of the cable car blowing make sure you find your way back to the station immediately, otherwise you might find service has been suspended due to weather conditions, leaving you with the only option to hike down).
Also keep in mind that the line in front of the ticket office can be huge (a an hour or more of waiting time is not unheard of) so make sure you buy tickets in advance. That way you can head straight to the cable car entrance. Alternatively, you can also hike up to the summit which takes about two and a half to three hours.
Cape of Good Hope / Cape Point & Chapman’s Peak Drive (plan a day trip and take your time along the way
Get down right to the most south-western edge of the continent where the Atlantic and Indian oceans collide. On the way down, take your time to stop at some of the most scenic places along the coast: Muizenberg Beach with its colourful beach huts (and a hot spot for surfing), Kalk Bay, Hout Bay and Noordhoak are definetly worth a stop. Make sure you include Chapman’s Peak Drive – a nine kilometre strech of incredibly scenic views along the edge of the cliff, overlooking Long Beach from above.
Driving through Cape Point National Park, chances are high you will come across large herds of baboons living in the Cape Point area. Pay attention however. Don’t get out of the car, and don’t open the windows. These animals can get fairly cheeky, especially if they sense food.
At Cape Point, take the Flying Dutchman funicular up to the viewpoint below the lighthouse. From here you can hike down to the old lighthouse which takes about 30 to 45 minute. The views are worth it!
And off course, go all the way down to the Cape of Good Hope to have your picture taken at the infamous signpost!
Hang out with South Africa’s largest penguin colony at Boulders Beach
Just outside of Simons Town, a 45-minutes drive from Cape Town, you will find South Africa’s largest penguin population. Although you can spot penguins directly at Boulders Beach your best bet to see them in large numbers is to go to Boulders Visitor Centre at Foxy Beach. you have to pay an entrance fee but as part of the fee is going into a conservation scheme to support local nature and wildlife this is totally worth it.
If you have enough time, it’s perfectly worth spending some time exploring close-by Simons Town and then spend the rest of the day at the beach.
Take a stroll through colourful Bo-Kaap
Get your dose of bright colourful painted houses at the Bo-Kaap neighbourhood. Nestled right at the foot of Signal Hill, this is the so-called Cape Malay community of Cape Town. Most people living here are descendent from African and Asian slaves brought to South Africa by the Dutch. The area is in easy walking distance from downtown, the central railway station and even the V&A Waterfront so you don’t have to struggle for parking (which is literally impossible here unless you are the most luckiest person in the world).
Spend time at the Museums Mile & Company Gardens
Located at Queen Victoria Street in the middle of Cape Town, not far from the CBD, this large park once belonged to the Dutch East India Company. The company used the site to grow vegetables and fruits for replenishment of their ships. The area was opened to the public in 1848 and today the whole area boasts a number of interesting landmarks, museums and galleries worth visiting including: the Houses of Parliament, St George’s Cathedral, South African Museum and Planetarium, National Library of South Africa, South African National Gallery and the Great Synagogue.
Also while in the area, head over to close-by Shortmarket Street where you will find along many shops and restaurants also endless stalls selling colourful African art.
Hike through Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens
Founded in 1913 with the aim to preserve South Africa’s diverse plant life, Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens in the Constantia neighbourhood spans an area of 1300 acres and boasts over 7,000 plant species including a conservatory with plants from different parts of the world. Aside from the plants and plenty of birds, Kirstenbosch offers amazing views over Cape Town especially from the Tree Canopy Walkway which allows you to literally walk above the trees!
The garden is worth a visit any time of the year but keep in mind that many of the plants here are winter-flourishing and the largest number of different plants will be in flower towards the end of winter and early spring (from August to November).
During the South African summer (from December to February), Kirstenbosch hosts its well-known Summer Sunset Concerts on Sundays. Do like the locals and bring your picnic basket (or buy one at the on-site restaurant), spread out a blanket on the lawns and listen to a variety of local artists performing. Do not forget to bring a warm jacket since temperatures in the evening will drop quite suddenly.
Shop, eat and get entertained at Victoria & Albert Waterfront
V&A Waterfront is part of South Africa’s oldest working harbour and with its mix of shopping, cafes, and restaurants spread across in converted warehouses and old Victorian houses, it has morphed into Cape Town’s favoured shopping and leisure spot. Everything here is open 365 days a year. Street performers and of course the Cape Town Wheel will make your experience complete.
My favourite place to hunt down some great local art at V&A is Watershed Market and V&A Waterfront Food Market next door is a great place to sample some local food.
The areas latest addition, the Silo district, has also gained almost instant fame and there is no wonder why. The old grain silo complex was completely overhauled and now hosts a museum of contemporary African art and a new luxury hotel.
V&A is also the starting point for many excursions along the coast such as sunset cruises, whale-watching tours and of course Robben Island.
Visit the former political prison on Robben Island
It’s a sobering place with lots of memories of the recent history of Apartheid and political repression. It was here that Nelson Mandela wrote ‘Long Walk to Freedom’. On the island, former prisoners will guide you around and give you first-hand insight into the conditions under which they were living here. Trips to Robben Island start at V&A Waterfront serveral times a day on a fixed timetable and there are often huge crowds seeking to get on the shuttle boats so get your tickets in advance.
Spend time at the beach
The beach is never far away in Cape Town. Camps Bay, just a ten minutes drive from the city centre is a particularly vibrant and trendy location (and cramped with tourists during the South African summer). However, it’s more than worth a visit whether you actually want to spend time at the beach or simply take in the pristine views over the beach with the breathtaking backdrop of the Twelve Apostles. The palm-tree promenade is lined with lots of restaurants and bars and makes a great spot for the most beautiful sunset viewing.
Gorge on world-winning wines and delicious food in the Western Cape Winelands
South Africa’s most renowned wine growing regions include Stellenbosch, Franschhoek and Paarl, located just around 45 minutes away from the city.
Though South African wines are officially included in the ‘New World Wine’ category and the country has gained international acclaim for its wines only over recent decades, its wine-growing history dates back some 350 years.
Today, there are hundreds of wineries nestled into the breathtaking backdrop of dramatic mountain ranges. Most are build in the typical historic Cape Dutch style surrounded by magnificent gardens but there is also a growing number of modern-style architecture wineries. Many have their own award-winning restaurants, bistros or farm-stalls on-site, which are totally worth a visit of its own, and many also offer accommodation in case you consider staying longer.
Before you go to the Winelands, it’s worth checking for local events. There are plenty hold around the year, including wine, music and art festivals and local farmers markets whilst many wineries offer special wine tasting and dining experiences.
Have you travelled to Cape Town yet? I’d love to hear about your experience.