Top Things to Do in Cape Town, South Africa
It's known as the Mother City, the oldest city in South Africa. It's been called the Tavern of the Seas, a crossroads on the clipper ship route, famous as a place for meeting and “refreshing”. In 2014, it was named the best place in the world to visit by both The New York Times and London's Daily Telegraph. Lonely Planet placed it as #2 for best value destination in 2015. Cradled snugly in the lush bowl formed where the Atlantic and Table Mountain meet, Cape Town is, without a doubt, one of the most vibrant, beautiful cities we've ever visited.
There's so much to do and so much to see, you really need some time to take it all in. We're so fortunate to have visited twice for a month each time. There's much, much more, but we're happy to share with you our picks for the top things to see and do in Cape Town.
It's the backdrop for the whole city. You can hike up or take the cable car. Take a look at the mountain before you head there. Pick a clear, calm day. The views are spectacular and the walks on the plateau at the top are easy and interesting with unparalleled vistas in every direction. Consider purchasing tickets on-line in advance to cut down some of the waiting time. Early morning has shorter lines. You can also hike to the top of Lions Head for outstanding views and drive to the top of Signal Hill for views and the firing of the Noon Gun.
You cannot leave Cape Town without having visited Robben Island, Nelson Mandela's prison for 18 of his 27 years of incarceration. The museum is interesting, but it is the tour of the island, seeing Mandela's cell, observing the conditions under which the prisoners lived, the stone quarries in which they worked and listening to the accounts of former prisoners that all hit you emotionally. A 9-mile (~15km) ferry ride brings you to the island where you board a bus for the guided tour.
Cape Point and Boulders Beach
Part of the Table Mountain National Park, visit Cape Point for spectacular views and up close encounters with local wildlife. Stand on the Cape of Good Hope, see the lighthouse at the tip of the Cape, take a look at the Dias Cross, but watch out for the Chacma baboons. They're cheeky. Not far away is Simon's Town and Boulders Beach where you can swim with African penguins that call the beach home. There's a national parks fee to enter Boulders Beach, but further up the beach closer to Simon's Town, there are penguins and no admission fees.
It's busy and frenetic and definitely a don't-miss part of Cape Town. Shops, restaurants, a high-end mall, hotels, diamonds, museums, pubs, an aquarium, free movies, souvenirs galore, the Cape Wheel, buskers, the iconic Clock Tower, Cape Wheel, a swing bridge, souvenirs ... did I mention diamonds? It's all there. Walking around and enjoying the atmosphere is absolutely free. Diamonds? Well, there's a slight charge for those.
Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden
Bequeathed to the country by mining magnate and politician, Cecil John Rhodes, Kirstenbosch lies at the foot of Table Mountain and offers a wonderful respite from the busy city. Bring a picnic lunch and plan your visit when there's an evening concert.
Company's Garden and Downtown Museums
There are lots of museums in Cape Town and we certainly didn't get a chance to visit them all. We can recommend these four, for sure.
Company's Garden is a 15-acre park in the center of the city originally planted by the Dutch East India Company in 1652 to supply fresh vegs and fruits to passing ships that plied the spice route to the East. It's wonderful for a stroll and along its periphery are several landmarks and museums to visit.
Iziko South Africa Museums – Located near the historic Company's Garden, this group of museums offers so much, it's nearly overwhelming. The South African Museum is the country's national museum and it's chock full of interesting exhibits and also has a planetarium; the South African National Gallery (of art) is nearby, as well as the Slave Lodge.
District 6 Museum – a solemn reminder of the apartheid era and its influence on the country and its people.
Castle of Good Hope is a fort in the middle of the city, originally built by the Dutch East India Company for its “replenishment” station. It's the oldest colonial building in South Africa and it's fun to cross the moat and walk on the ramparts and explore.
South Africa has the second oldest wine-producing industry in the world, second only to Europe. Constantia is the oldest winery in the country and there are officially 17 wine routes, mostly concentrated in the Western Cape. The longest wine route in the world is said to be Route 62, a lovely route with vineyards and tasting rooms galore.
There's lots to be said for just walking around downtown and taking it all in. There's Greenmarket Square for cafes, antiques and Africana. Browse along St. George's Pedestrian Mall. Try the Pan-African Market for locally produced, high quality crafts. Bo Kaap is the Malay Quarter and its brightly colored houses and cobblestone streets are interesting to wander. Try Atlas Trading for spices, candles and incense. There are all sorts of nooks and crannies to explore. Be streetwise and enjoy yourself.
A couple of notes
Though Cape Town is a beautiful, dynamic city, it's only a small part of what South Africa has to offer. Game parks, scenery, wild animals along the roadside … get out of the city if you can.
Visit the Nine of Cups South Africa page for more insight, ideas and photos