Cliff-hugging roads on scenic drives, epic sunsets, lush mountains, tasty cuisines, and colourful neighbourhoods. Here are 20 reasons why Cape Town should be on your bucket list.
After six years of living abroad and travelling every chance I get, 2016 was the year I finally visited Africa. I was lucky enough to spend three fun-filled, tiring, yet thrilling weeks on the road in South Africa. There is so much to see and do here.
I knew parts of South Africa would be picturesque, but I wasn’t prepared for just how visually awesome it would be as the landscape constantly changed.
South Africa is a great destination for most people to travel to as it’s crazy inexpensive. Currently, the South African Rand to US Dollar is about 14 : 1 which means that everything is great value for my money.
I’m not going to lie, leading up to the trip I was apprehensive about my personal safety. Over the years I’d heard so many stories from the media and South African expats about how dangerous parts of South Africa were. Maybe I was lucky, but I didn’t feel unsafe or encounter any dodgy situations like I’d been warned about. Instead, everywhere I went I was met with big and bright smiles from the endearing locals.
Of South Africa’s nine provinces, I visited eight. I witnessed the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly. From the multi-coloured ‘informal settlements’ to the enormous white seaside mansions. I got an unbiased view of South Africa which made it all the more special. If I had flown everywhere, I would’ve got a sugar coated view of South Africa.
Stopping off in Cape Town was the last major leg of the trip. Don’t be fooled, visiting Cape Town doesn’t just involve walking around the city centre. For the big bucket list items, you’ll have to venture further afield. If you can, I recommend allowing up to a week to fit it all in. My only regret was not having enough time here. While I did almost everything I wanted too, it was a bit rushed.
Cape Town’s cliff-hugging roads and picturesque beach communities deserve more attention than my measly four-day trip. But it’s a start! Promise me you’ll stay here longer.
A Brief History of Cape Town
Cape Town was first developed by the Dutch East India Company as a supply station for Dutch ships sailing to East Africa, India, and the Far East.
The first permanent European settlement occurred on 6 April 1652 with the arrival of Jan van Riebeeck. Soon Cape Town outgrew its original purpose and became the economic and cultural hub of the Cape Colony. Until the Gold Rush and the development of Johannesburg, Cape Town was the largest city in South Africa.
Now that you’re a bit more clued up on it’s history, here are my top 20 bucket list things to do in Cape Town and beyond!
1. Get a Birdseye View from Table Mountain
On your first morning, take the cable car up Table Mountain. It’s a wonderful way to let the city introduce itself to you. Alternatively, head up late afternoon for a spectacular view of one of South Africa’s electric sunsets. I swear more guidebooks should mention how much sunset game South Africa has.
If you’re feeling more adventurous, you can also hike up the mountain with an option to take the cable car back down.
Table Mountain doesn’t just offer panoramic views of the city, it is also a national park which is home to about 2,200 species of plants and 1470 floral species. Many of these plants and flowers are endemic to this mountain. Make sure you allow enough time to appreciate the flora and fauna up here and not just the views below!
If you’re lucky, you may even spot a Dassie, which looks like a large guinea pig and is the closest living relative of the African Elephant (although, it does require a bit of imagination to see it’s similarities). Remember, don’t touch them guys. As always respect the wildlife 😉
Here a couple of hot tips to remember when planning your trip to Table Mountain.
First, constantly check the weather beforehand. A natural phenomenon known as ‘the tablecloth’ regularly occurs on top of Table Mountain. Essentially, the entire mountain is covered in a thick blanket of cloud which looks like a tablecloth.
This occurs when a south-easterly wind blows up the mountain slopes and meets with colder air at higher altitude, this causes condensation and soon a thick mist coats the top-most regions of the mountain. As the cloud cover pours over the side of the mountain, the process is reversed.
Depending on how much wind there is, the tablecloth can come and go relatively quickly. But it can ruin a few hours of your precious time if you’re waiting for the cloud to clear.
Secondly, book your tickets online in advance. I had been well-warned about the hideously long queue for the cable car and was dreading what it would be like on the day so I made sure to arrive early. Even at 10am there was a queue.
On arrival, an announcement said we could buy our tickets online to skip the queue. That handy tip allowed me to skip a thirty-metre ticket box queue and head straight to the cablecar queue. By purchasing my ticket online from my phone (something most tourists couldn’t do because they didn’t have a local SIM card) I easily shaved an hour off waiting.
2. Cocktails as Camps Bay Beach
If you’re brave enough to swim in the freezing open ocean, by all means, go for it. Otherwise, relax on the beach then grab drinks at one of the many bars and restaurants which overlook this palm treelined beach.
Located ‘behind’ Table Mountain, you’ll get a view of the 12 Apostles, a series of imposing mountain peaks that run along the coast. These peaks were once covered in forests with lion, leopard and antelope.
3. Get Your Colour on in Bo-Kaap
Visiting Bo-Kaap was easily a personal highlight for me. Maybe it’s because I naturally gravitate towards neon colours.
Located at the foot of Signal Hill, is Bo-Kaap, a brightly coloured neighbourhood with cobblestone streets and home to the Cape Malay population.
The area was first settled by descendants of slaves brought to the Cape in the 16th and 17th centuries.
The museum, which dates back to the 1760s, is the oldest house in the area still in its original form, and well worth a visit. It highlights the cultural contribution made by early Muslim settlers, many of whom were skilled tailors, carpenters, shoemakers and builders.
The the most photogenic streets to visit are Wale Street, Rose Street, Hout Street and Dorp Street. Just think of the Instagram potential!
4. Wander around The Cape Town Company’s Garden
Teeming with squirrels and plants, The Cape Town Company’s Garden is situated in Queen Victoria Street, adjacent to the South African Parliament.
The garden was originally created in the 1650s by the region’s first European settlers and provided fertile ground to grow fresh produce to replenish ships rounding the Cape.
Some of the garden’s highlights include the oldest cultivated pear tree in South Africa (circa 1652), a rose garden built in 1929, historic statues, and the Dellville Wood Memorial Garden, which commemorates the World War I Battle of Delville Wood in France, in which a predominantly South African force of more than 3,000 soldiers was reduced to 755 survivors by German forces.
5. Stroll Along Sea Point Promenade
Another sunset hotspot, take a walk along this beachfront promenade that stretches the length of Mouille Point and Sea Point (approximately 7km). The walk is flat and is very popular with locals of all ages.
The broad paved sea-side path follows the coastline with views of the sea and small beaches.
Running alongside is a green lawn which separates the path from the pavement following the coastal Beach Road.
Table Mountain, Signal Hill and Lion’s Head all make appearances from different angles along the way.
6. Walk in the Treetops at Kirstenbosch
Dubbed as the most beautiful garden in Africa, Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden is acclaimed as one of the great botanic gardens of the world.
Visiting Kirstenbosch was a top priority to me, especially when I saw the photos of the Kirstenbosch Centenary Tree Canopy.
This floating boardwalk made of curved steel and timber winds and dips its way through and over the trees. The design was inspired by a snake skeleton and is informally called ‘The Boomslang’, meaning ‘tree snake’ in Afrikaans.
The walkway begins on the forest floor and bursts out above the canopy 12 metres high, giving spectacular panoramic vistas of the surrounding mountains, Garden and Cape Flats.
Unfortunately, the walkway is only 130 metres long so it can get quite busy in the middle section, but if you wait just a little you can enjoy the views in peace.
7. Go Shopping at the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront
Whenever I visit a new country, I always stake out the Pandora stores to pick up a new travel charm for my bracelet. The unique thing about Pandora is that you can only buy certain country specific charms locally. Which means only those who actually visit a place can get this exclusive memento. For South Africa, they had the Big Five charm, featuring the heads of the African lion, African elephant, Cape buffalo, African leopard, and rhinoceros. Pandora store is located here to obviously I had to come here as a matter of priority.
But, I digress.
No, but seriously, there are tonnes of retail outlets here; over 450 if you’re wondering. There’s everything from fashion, homeware, jewellery, leather goods, and audio-visual equipment.
The waterfront is still a working harbour and the fishing boats can be seen bringing in fresh fish and large container ships being towed in by the tugboats. I actually spotted a massive Cape Fur Seal chilling on one of the local fisherman’s boat. So adorable, and big!
The V&A Waterfront gets its name from when Prince Alfred, second son of Queen Victoria, visited the Cape Colony harbour in 1860 as a sixteen-year-old Royal Navy Midshipman. He was such a hit with locals that they named the first basin of the new Navy Yard after him and the second after his mother.
8. Get a Birdseye View of the Majestic City of Cape Town
Cape Town is best viewed from a helicopter. Full Stop.
I’ve only ever been on one other scenic helicopter flight in my life (around Uluru and The Olga’s in the Australian outback) and I felt nauseous, so I was a little nervous about this trip because I knew we’d be in a similar size helicopter.
I felt like I was in good hands right off the bat when I was chauffeur driven from V&A Waterfront to NAC’s office.
After a safety briefing, we were airborne. Flying over the Cape Town’s immediate surrounding area and seeing the 12 Apostles from above was out of this world.
Because the flight does a loop, no matter which side of the helicopter you sit on, you’ll get a chance to see the stunning views. If you can, make a beeline for the front passenger seat for the frontal view.
Our captain was equally awesome, pointing out the sights along the way and giving us the history on each of the places we saw. If that wasn’t enough, once we landed we celebrated with a champagne toast. Winning!
NAC offers a variety of tours, one of which I’ll be taking next time I’m back in Cape Town. Anyone for The Cape Point Tour? Yes, please!
9. Meet Africa’s Penguin Colony at Boulders Beach
Once upon a time, in 1982 to be exact, there were two breeding pairs of penguins at Boulders Beach. Today, the penguin colony has grown to about 3,000 birds! These penguins are special in that they can withstand the harsh African summer temperatures.
Boulders Beach gets its named from its many granite boulders that are 540 million years old.
Because Boulders Beach is part of the Table Mountain National Park, you have to pay an entrance fee.
To get really close to the penguins, stroll along the wooden boardwalks that thread through the dense vegetation, over the dunes and around Foxy Beach.
From a safe distance you can watch the penguins go about their daily business: preening, guarding a nest, waddling along the sand like an old married couple and then transforming into sleek black-and-white torpedoes as soon as they enter the water.
10. Ride the Waves at Muizenberg Beach
If you’re a surfer, then you can’t miss Muizenberg Beach, the birthplace of surfing in South Africa.
While I’ve never surfed a day in my life, what did draw me to Muizenberg Beach was it’s colourful Victorian beach huts. Again with the colours! Told you I was colour obsessed.
The bold hues and the dramatic landscape make for a winning photo combination. This beach gets busy, so to get a decent shot of these colourful beach huts arrive before 10am.
Muizenberg Beach is a Blue Flag Beach, which means it rates highly for safety, recreational facilities and eco-consciousness.
11. Visit Africa’s Southwesternmost Tip at Cape Point and Cape of Good Hope
While researching this area before my trip, I was confused by the two names. Were they two places far apart from each other or were they interchangeable names for the same place?
In fact, neither are true.
Located on the coast roughly ninety minutes drive from Cape Town centre are two significant points in South Africa’s seafaring lore. Cape Point marks the southwesternmost tip of Africa, while a couple of kilometres to the east is the Cape of Good Hope.
Cape of Good Hope, or Kaap die Goeie Hoop in Afrikaans, was named in the fifteenth-century by a Portuguese navigator Bartolomeu Dias (or Portugal’s John II, depending on the account).
This first modern rounding of the cape in 1488 was a milestone in the attempts by the Portuguese to establish direct trade relations with the Far East. Its name reflects their optimism.
The point was nicknamed Cabo das Tormentas (“Cape of Storms”; Dutch: Stormkaap), because for the brutal seas here where the warm Indian Ocean and cool Antarctic currents collide.
When following the western side of the African coastline from the equator, Cape of Good Hope marks the point where a ship begins to travel more eastward than southward.
Both points are located inside the Table Mountain National Park for which you will most likely encounter long queues. Allow an extra hour to allows for the wait.
Once in, I recommend driving straight to the Cape Point car park which is about fifteen minutes from the entrance. From here you have two options, either take the funicular or walk up the hill to reach the lighthouse. Once you reach the top of this fairly narrow finger of craggy cliff, you’ll be rewarded with sprawling views over the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. This also marks the spot where twenty-six ships lie in a watery grave below.
This World Heritage listed park is great for hikers, offering up numerous hikes of varying difficulty. One of the easiest ones is taking the ninety-minute return hike to reach Cape of Good Hope from the Cape Point car park. Alternatively, you can drive down which will take roughly ten to fifteen minutes.
The shot everyone wants here at the Cape of Good Hope is of the sign and the point itself in the background. Unfortunately, I was here is a super windy day (I’m talking 40km+ winds) and in peak season. No one was playing fair and everyone jumped all over the sign and photobombed each other. I barely managed to get a decent photo, especially with my hair blowing in my face. The moral of the story is, bring a hair tie!
12. Drive Along the coast from Betty’s Bay to Gordon’s Bay
This isn’t so much of a top tourist attraction as it is a wonderful stretch of road that shouldn’t be missed. The Western Cape encompasses some of the most spectacular scenery and coastline in South Africa, in particular from Betty’s Bay to Gordon’s Bay on R44.
During my time in the Cape, I stayed in a town called Kleinmond, which meant that twice a day gazed out of the car window in awe and watch as the road clinging to the cliffs snaked its way up the coast.
The roads lead you from beautiful beaches and mountain vistas to the low-lying fynbos fringed roads. I feel in love with the Cape alone from this drive.
There are many other scenic drives in the Western Cape, including Camps Bay to Hout Bay along Victoria Rd between, but for me, this was the ultimate.
13. Watch the Sunset at Sunset Beach
On my last afternoon in the Cape, I headed to Sunset Beach. It’s from here that you’ll get a clear view of Table Mountain from the front in the distance. Unlike at Camps Bay or Sea Point promenade, which are located on the other side of the mountain, you’ll be able to get that postcard shot of both South Africa’s white sand beach and its famous Table Mountain.
14. Visit Robben Island
This is one of my bucket list items that got away. This time around I missed out on visiting Robben Island — but it’s definitely something should make the effort to check out.
Robben Island is most famous for being the political prison which housed the Nobel Laureate and former President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela. Mandela served 18 of his 27-year sentence behind bars here before the end of apartheid. Mandela was not the only former inmate to have gone on to become President of South Africa: both Kgalema Motlanthe and current President Jacob Zuma also served time here.
Back in the mid-17th century, the Dutch settlers were the first to use Robben Island as a prison. Today, the island is both a South African National Heritage Site as well as a UNESCO World Heritage. The former prison is open to tourists who can visit Mandela’s cell while learning the history of Robben Island from former inmates who work there as guides.
15. See Chapman’s Peak on Hout Bay
Chapman’s Peak Drive is a spectacular road that hugs the near-vertical face of the mountain from Hout Bay to Noordhoek.
Located on the western side of the Cape Peninsula, this famous lookout spot is only 15 kilometres south of Cape Town, South Africa. From this inlet, you’ll get a panoramic view of Hout Bay on which it is centred.
Hacked out of the face of the mountain, the road was regarded as a major feat of engineering at the time of its construction, between 1915 and 1922. Hundreds of metres below is the Atlantic Ocean.
Chapman’s Peak was named after the English pilot John Chapman, who in 1607 was grounded here due to strong winds. The skipper sent his pilot ashore to find provisions, and the name recorded was Chapman’s Chaunce.
16. Visit the Vineyards of Stellenbosch
Wine lovers should not miss a day trip to Stellenbosch which is part of South Africa’s largest wine growing regions. Spending a day in Stellenbosch is definitely a treat. The rolling green valleys are a sight for sore eyes.
You’ll be spoilt for choice here as there are plenty of vineyards to visit. Can you believe that the South African wine industry produces about 1,000,000,000 litres of wine annually!
If you’re stuck with indecision then you can’t go past a visit to Spier. Spier is one of South Africa’s oldest wine farms dating back to 1692 and has plenty to offer. There’s a bird and wildlife sanctuary, craft market, lush picnic areas around a lake, a well-stocked deli, and a taste bud tingling restaurant, both of which serve up farm-to-table food. Everything here is either produced or sourced locally.
To give you an idea of just how special this place is, while I was having lunch at Eight Restaurant, a bunch of the staff gathered around a large table and started singing a church song. I had no idea what the occasion was, but I jumped up and started filming them singing with such emotion. It turned out they were singing to former Archbishop Desmond Tutu who was there with family!
17. Get Educated at District Six Museum
One TripAdvisor user said it best, “You cannot understand Cape Town’s history (and South Africa) without District 6 as a reference point, and this museum tells its history with passion and careful attention.”
During the first half of the 20th century, District Six was home to one-tenth of the city’s population. But in 1966 when apartheid was in full swing, District Six was declared a “white” neighbourhood, and more than 60,000 people were forced to move to the shanty towns on the outskirts of the city. The District Six Museum displays exhibits that recount their stories and informs visitors about social justice.
18. Relax at St. James beach
If you aren’t beached out, then throw on the bikini and bathe on this cute roadside beach lined with more of those fabulous Victoria beach huts.
19. Eat your way through The Neighbourgoods Market
Hungry? The Neighbourgoods Market at Old Biscuit Mill is the most epic weekend market of all time!
The Old Biscuit Mill was once a biscuit factory, but now hosts a market featuring more than 100 speciality traders every Saturday from 9 am til 2 pm. Local farmers, organic merchants, bakers, grocers, mongers, butchers, artisan producers all sell their best and finest food and beverage here.
Make sure you go on an empty stomach. You’ll thank me later!
20. Enjoy the Nightlife on Long Street
Gosh! Are we here already?
So, you’ve experienced the best of Cape Town by day, now it’s time to experience its buzzing nightlife.
Head to Long Street for a multitude of clubs vying for your attention. There’s everything from bohemian-hipster-style gatherings to out-of-the-ordinary clubs. The nightlife here is nothing short of awesome.
Over to you!
Planning a trip to Cape Town? Got a question?
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