Few cities in the world take your breath away quite like Cape Town. Before you even step off of the plane or hop out of the car, fleeting glimpses of the iconic mountains and glistening coastline will knock you senseless and leave you wishing that you hadn’t even booked return tickets. I tried my very best to make the most of my time in this incredible city, so here are my 12 picks for the best things to do in and around Cape Town. I guarantee you’ll be back anyway, but at least you’ll have a phenomenal first visit if you can tick off a few of these activities!
Take in the view from the top of Table Mountain
Either take the cable car (R300 return) or follow one of the many hiking trails (departing from Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, the lower cable car station, etc) to summit Cape Town’s iconic Table Mountain. The views are obviously amazing, but there’s also a really nice network of paths and lookouts situated around the upper cable car station that make it easy to spend several hours on the mountain. Depending on the specific trail (and fitness level), it can take 2-5 hours to reach the summit, but then you may spend that long waiting in line for the cable car anyway depending on the time of day. Either way, it’s well worth any time and effort to take in views over the whole of Cape Town.
Explore the V&A Waterfront
Over several days, we wandered around Cape Town’s beautiful Victoria & Alfred Waterfront with its bustling markets and hectic harbour. There’s absolutely no shortage of activities here: take a ride on the Ferris Wheel, splurge at one of the many great seaside restaurants, enjoy some upscale shopping in the mall or the markets, take in the beautiful views of Table Mountain and Lion’s Head in the distance, or pop over to Robben Island to tour the prison. Due to a few booking dramas, I actually stayed in four different locations over all the time I spent in Cape Town, but the accommodation near the Waterfront was definitely my favourite— I can highly recommend Greenpoint as a great area that is walking distance to both the Waterfront and the city centre.
Take a tour of Robben Island
Departing from the Waterfront, a ferry takes you to nearby Robben Island where you can spend a couple hours on a tour of the island itself and the prison which famously held Nelson Mandela during Apartheid. The first tour I booked was cancelled due to wind conditions (which is very common), but I managed to find tickets when I was with the girls at the end of my trip— the best advice is to book online far in advance, but if you end up trying to squeeze it in last minute, it may say sold out online when it’s not in fact full. Just go to the ticket office in person (be sure to bring ID!) and buy it straight from the counter. The whole tour is 4 hours, which includes a ~40 minute ferry ride to and from the island, a 1 hour bus tour, and a 1 hour tour of the prison guided by a former prisoner. It’s R340 for adult tickets and definitely worthwhile to learn a bit more about this not-so-distant part of history.
Stock up on souvenirs at one of the city markets
Just in case you don’t have enough wooden bowls, wire animal keychains, beaded earrings, or African print skirts, visit Greenmarket Square or any of the nearby curio markets in Cape Town (off Long St is usually a good bet). There is a pretty good bargaining margin on all of the products, so expect to get great prices and come home with gifts for everyone you know.
Visit the little African penguins at Boulders Beach
One of the best animal experiences to have in the Cape Town area is at Boulders Beach, less than an hour down the peninsula in Simon’s Town, where you can see thousands of African penguins waddling around stunning turquoise beaches. It’s just R75 to enter the national park and explore the network of boardwalks that look out over the little birds and the beach. For another view, we also enjoyed a kayak tour and saw the penguins from the sea.
Drive down to Cape Point & the Cape of Good Hope
Spend a full day driving by Simon’s Town and its cute penguins to explore the dramatic Cape Point Lighthouse and Cape of Good Hope at the end of the peninsula. The drive itself is half the fun, and when you arrive at Cape Point there are truly hours of activities to entertain you, namely a hike up to the Lighthouse and a trek out to the Cape of Good Hope (Africa’s most southwestern tip). It’s R145 to enter the National Park, but parking is free and it will easily occupy your entire day, so it’s well worth the measly $18.
Have a picnic in Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens
Cape Town’s botanical gardens offer more than just a popular starting point for the hike up Table Mountain. Plan ahead and bring blankets, chairs, wine, and picnic food to enjoy in the sprawling gardens, and then walk off all the cheese on a few of the innumerable flora walks that showcase interesting plants and flowers of South Africa. In the summer, there are even sunset concerts hosted in the most beautiful setting I’ve ever seen (we saw an apparently quite popular Afrikaans rock band on my birthday). Entry into the gardens is R65 and a map is a further R5.
Dive with Great White Sharks
As one of only 3 places in the world where you can go cage diving with Great White Sharks, it would be a crime to come to Cape Town and not hop in the freezing water! The dives actually happen in Gansbaii (and a few in Mossel Bay), which is a couple of hours away from CT and can be reached in a shuttle booked with the diving company. It’s pretty spendy (we’re talking R2000-3000), but it’s totally worth it to come face-to-face with one of the scariest (most incredible) animals on the planet. Of course, that’s purely speculative, because this season has had record low Great White sightings due to an increased Killer Whale population in the area and we only saw Bronze Whalers. I won’t lie, Cal and I were pretty disappointing not to see a Great White Shark, but at least we gave it a go. With better luck, it would have been the experience of a lifetime.
Drive up Signal Hill for views over all of Cape Town
For sunset views without any of the sweat, drive up Signal Hill and grab a good spot to watch the sunset. All the clever people have brought drinks and snacks, so plan ahead to spend a few hours enjoying the panoramic views over Cape Town’s city centre, coastline, Table Mountain, and Lion’s Head. Arrive early to get parking, as this is a popular destination and things can get a little hectic as sunset approaches.
Go for cocktails in Camps Bay
We met up with some friends on Christmas Day in the unbelievably beautiful Camps Bay area of Cape Town for great cocktails and tasty nibbles at an upscale restaurant overlooking the water, and the setting was so idyllic that I truly didn’t want to leave. On my birthday, I came back for more of the good food and views with all the girls, and everyone was equally impressed. Try out a few of the amazing bars and restaurants in the area or hang out on the impossibly nice beach for an afternoon— either way, this is one of the nicest and trendiest areas of the city and is sure to steal your heart.
Spend a day wine tasting in the Cape Winelands
Take a trip out to nearby Stellenbosch (~40 minutes) and spend the day wine tasting in South Africa’s (maybe even Africa’s?) premier wine region. Tastings range from R25-75 and most wineries also serve food, either cheese and charcuterie platters or full lunches, so it’s best to make a day out of it. The best option would be to join a hop on/hop off tour that will take you to 5 wineries so you aren’t having to drunk drive or turn down any of the delicious wines (pouring wine out should be a prosecutable crime).
Hike Lion’s Head for sunset
Lion’s Head, the pointy little hill visible from pretty much everywhere in Cape Town, offers stunning 360 views over the city and the iconic Table Mountain that are hard to beat. The hike departs from a trailhead on Signal Hill and it only takes about 45 minutes to reach the top, where you can scramble out on a little rock ledge and watch the sunset over Camps Bay and the sparkling Atlantic Ocean. This was without a doubt one of the best activities in CT and a surprisingly easy hike, so it is an absolute must-do and something I would have been happy to do many nights in a row (if we weren’t so busy doing other fun activities!).
When to visit
Southern South Africa tends to be hot (although not unbearably hot) and dry during the austral summer, which means that November to February is a great time for hiking and sightseeing in Cape Town.
Getting to Cape Town
Unless you’ve been driving the Garden Route from Port Elizabeth (which I’d highly recommend!), you’ll probably arrive into town at Cape Town International Airport. There aren’t any obvious ways to take public transport into the city, but it’s easy to get a taxi or Uber onwards to your accomodation.
Getting around Cape Town
Uber is actually a great means of transport for getting anywhere in Cape Town. I had a car, but friends exclusively used Uber and I was frequently jealous of their flexibility and freedom (not having to park or worry about drinking with dinner). For the Cape Peninsula, the Cape Winelands, and any off-the-beaten-path excursions, though, you will want to drive, and thankfully car hire is extremely reasonable. We paid about R260 ($26AUD) per day for our compact car in Cape Town.
Where to stay in Cape Town
The best area to find accomodation is near the waterfront in Green Point, as it’s not too expensive, close to all the V&A action, and has some great points of interest.
- You’ll want at least 4 days in Cape Town to really see all the highlights, but you could easily spend weeks and not get bored in this colourful city.
- Overall, Cape Town felt very safe and I was comfortable walking around alone with my camera out pretty much everywhere. As long as you’re using basic common sense, you should be totally fine.
- There’s really no need to join any organised tours in Cape Town, as it’s incredibly easy to get yourself around and see all the main attractions on your own.
- Try to get reservations at Mama Africa in advance. I heard constant rave-reviews of this place, but was unable to check it out during my entire week in Cape Town because it’s so popular.
- Definitely make time to explore South Africa beyond Cape Town, especially for a safari! I had a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience in Kruger and Sabi Sands, and I can’t recommend these destinations highly enough.