Touching down in Cape Town was my very first experience on the whole African continent. I couldn’t have been more excited and a little bit nervous about what I was going to find in this new country. Cape Town is the perfect place to start a trip in South Africa. It balances a unique cultural destination with modern amenities and provides a startling backdrop that’s hard to tear yourself away from.
Table Mountain will definitely be on your must visit list when you arrive in Cape Town and you get a taste of it as you’re wandering about the city. On my first day I went to the Old Biscuit Mill market and I remember turning around and seeing it for the first time. Table Mountain just surprises you with how beautiful a mountain can actually be, sounds silly but it’s true.
But Cape Town is more than just Table Mountain! I spent four weeks there trying to see as much as possible and I’ve put together my favourite things to do that I think any first time visitor should see. Whether you’re just starting off in Cape Town before exploring more of South Africa or you have just one week to enjoy your vacation this fun list should help you see the best of Cape Town.
One of the oldest residential neighbourhoods in Cape Town, Bo Kaap, is an interesting mix of Cape Dutch and Cape Georgian styles. It was previously known as the Malay Quarter and as you walk around you can definitely see the Islamic influences of that region.
Bo Kaap is not just a beautiful place to wander around but it’s also the home several historical landmarks. On a visit you can find the the countries oldest mosque, one of the oldest houses, built in 1768 and now a museum, and the resting place of three hold scholars.
On your visit consider a Bo-Kaap Cooking Tour with local resident, Zainie. Her unique take on a cooking class includes a short walking tour with a visit to the neighbourhood spice shop.
This half day trip is worth it just for the boat ride alone. If you’re lucky you can spot whales heading to and from the island. It’s a place full of history and the comprehensive tour includes a bus trip around the island and a chance to view the cell of Nelson Mandela.
Make sure to book this ticket in advance and aim for a morning departure. When I visited my trips got cancelled twice due to poor weather and I was eventually successful with a morning departure on my third try. Tickets can book out days ahead so don’t leave it to the last minute.
Tours are led by former political prisoners who will happily discuss the island’s 500 year old history. The tour route includes the graveyard of people who died from leprosy, the Lime Quarry, Robert Sobukwe’s house, the Bluestone quarry, the army and navy bunkers and the Maximum Security Prison where thousands of South Africa’s freedom fighters were incarcerated. The tour highlight is the viewing of Nelson Mandela’s cell.
The full tour to Robben Island is about 4 hours long with two half hour ferry trips. Ferries run two or three times a day depending on the season and you will usually be on a ferry that was also used to transport staff and prisoners when the prison was still in operation.
Cape Town Wine Tours
South Africa has some of the best wine in the world and the oldest wine route in the country is right in Cape Town’s back yard. 148 wine farms are situated along the route, many of them historical farms with beautiful Cape Dutch manors homes, gardens, hotels and fine-dining restaurants.
Even if you’re not into wine, this region is a beautiful area to drive around and explore. You could even consider dedicating a couple of days and basing yourself in Stellenbosch, at the heart of the wine region. This is a perfect time to go on a half or full day tour so you can indulge in some of South Africa's top wines paired with cheese without needing to drive yourself. Most tours include lunch at some outdoor dining venues so you can have an another glass of wine with a delicious meal looking out into the vineyards or a community developed farm.
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens
Even if you're not a garden person, Kirstenbosch will still captivate you. Kirstenbosch lives up to its reputation as the most beautiful garden in Africa and one of the great botanic gardens of the world. It is also the first botanic garden to be considered part of a natural World Heritage Site.
Set against the eastern slopes of Cape Town’s Table Mountain, Kirstenbosch is more than just a garden. It’s actually part of a nature reserve made up of 528 hectares so if you’re for some hiking this is perfect starting point.
Free guided tours are available several times a day led by enthusiastic guides with great insights into the garden. Make sure to time your visit with one of these tours or one of the free events held regularly, like concerts and even an open air cinema.
The highlight for me was the Centenary Tree Canopy Walkway, a curved steel and timber bridge that winds its way over the tops of the trees. You’ll get some stunning views over the mountains and the whole garden.
Usually I love to do things on my own but in order to see the best of the Cape Peninsula I definitely recommend using a tour service. A good service will usually have small groups and knowledgable guides who can get you in and out while sharing some of the culture of Cape Town. It is a long drive and there’s a lot to see along the way so a tour will help keep things on time so you don’t miss out!
Some of the sights you can see on the Cape Peninsula are:
- A drive past Camps Bay, Clifton and Llandudno – aka ‘millionaire’s paradise'
- Hout Bay and harbour with a Seal Island cruise
- Chapman’s Peak Drive and Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve
- Naval port of Simon’s Town
- Penguin colony at Boulders Beach
My personal favourite stops were Boulders Beach and Cape of Good Hope. As soon as I drove into the town of Boulders Beach we spotted a pair of penguins waddling across the street like they owned the town. I guess they really do! On you get on to the beach there are hundreds of penguins hanging out in their protected paradise.
Cape of Good Hope is situated at the very tip of the peninsula and has the Indian Ocean on one side and the Atlantic Ocean on the other. You get to stand at the most south-western point of the African continent and be treated to some spectacular views of the ocean and the Atlantic and False Bay coastlines. There’s a lighthouse set against some stunning rugged cliffs, shipwreck trails, tidal pools, whale watching, and some water activities like sea kayaking and diving.
If you’ve timed it right, have some lunch near the water where you should hopefully be able to encounter baboons, Cape Mountain Zebras, buck, and at least some of the 250 species of bird in their natural habitat. Don’t let the baboons get too close though! They’re known for walking up and grabbing food right from your hands.
Check out the latest prices on a full day Cape Peninsula tour here.
A strange sort of tourist destination, District 6 doesn’t actually have much to see but i promise you, it's worth the trip. The significant thing about a visit to District 6 is what actually took place there. This inner-city Cape Town suburb saw over over 60,000 people forcibly removed by the apartheid government in the 1960s and 1970s.
District 6 was originally established as a mixed community for freed slaves, merchants, artisans, labourers and immigrants. Families were removed by the government over the course of 15 years and most buildings were bulldozed. International and local pressure created problems for redevelopment and when you visit now it’s just a waste of open space that is largely untouched.
One notable places to visit is the District 6 Museum. It gives a great insight into the history of the old suburb, and through photographs and voice recordings, you can get a glimpse of the vibrant area it used to be. The ground floor is covered by a large street map of the former District Six, with handwritten notes from old residents showing where their homes had been.
If you’re a theatre fan or just want to experience a little more South African culture, make sure you include the historic Fugard Theatre in your Cape Town itinerary. The 320-seater theatre is located within the historic Sacks Futeran building in District Six and is named after South Africa’s most internationally acclaimed playwright.
The entrance of the theatre is the renovated Congregational Church Hall and it provides a beautiful setting for pre- or post-show drinks. On clear nights they often open up the rooftop terrace for panoramic views of the city.
The theatre holds a variety of shows including concerts, plays and musicals and tickets can be bought in advance to make sure you don’t miss out. Check out the Fuggard Theatre online to see what’s on and but tickets.
Visit the beach
Camps Bay is a suburb of Cape Town with a completely different feel to the rest of the city. It’s almost like a slice of the Mediterranean with its white sand and sparkling blue water, palm tree-lined main street with bars, cafes and clubs on the other side.
Due to its position on the Atlantic coast, and the wind tunnelling down the mountain ranges skimming any warm water from the surface, this will be some of the iciest water you’ve ever attempted to step foot in. I am not a fan of the cold and made it no further than my big toe but there were some brave Europeans at least knee-deep in the water. You’ve been warned!
Even if you’re not planning to swim, Camps Bay is a beautiful setting for some summer fun and an opportunity to soak in a unique part of South Africa.
There are a couple ways to tackle Table Mountain. One could just bite the bullet and take the 5-minute cable car, soak up the views at the top and use your rested legs for some pleasant hiking around the summit. There are free 30-minute guided walks at the top or you can try one of the three hiking trails to explore the mountain further.
Alternatively, you can hike up the 3 km distance. The hike is considered "moderate to tough” and takes up to three hours to complete depending on your level of fitness. One way tickets are available for the cable car so you can always hike up and then take the easy way down or vice versa (#me!)
Make sure you check the Table Mountain Cable Way’s website before your visit as the cable car can (and often does) close if it’s too windy.
Budget - Atlantic Point
Cape Town has quality hostels coming out the wazoo. It’s one of the only places in the world where I had more than a couple of highly reviewed hostels to choose from It’s tough to choose a favourite hostel but for me the one that offers the best value, warm and friendly service, and fun daily activities is Atlantic Point.
They offer private rooms, a female-only dorm as well as co-ed dorms, and family rooms. There is even a cool loft-style dorm with great views. An on-site bar and lounge helps get the party started for the night but they close early enough not to bother those who need to sleep early. Besides the bar there are loads of common areas to hang out in, including a lounge, balcony and bbq area, as well as a self-catering kitchen.
Atlantic Point offers daily free activities like a hike up Lion's Head or Table Mountain or a visit to the local market, as well as a tour desk to book any of the bigger day activities.
Mid-Priced - An African Villa
A beautiful townhouse in a quiet Cape Town location within walking distance to the centre. You can't go wrong with An African Villa. Modern design with a bright African theme throughout.
The house has the feel of an intimate boutique hotel but the unique layout allows you to feel as though you are the guest of old friends on an urban safari.
Luxury - Mannabay
Once a modern mansion Manna Bay is located high above the city and the views of downtown Cape Town are spectacular. The bright and fresh interior and rooms are very stylishly decorated and comfortable. Luxury facilities include 24 hour butler service, an on-call chauffeur service with complimentary dinner transfers, mobile phone to use during your stay, media centre, gym, pool, and even a rooftop bar where drinks are complimentary.
You really don't need to lift a finger when you stay at Manna Bay, every little thing is taken care of for you. Tours are even tailor made to suit guests' personal tastes.
Disclosure: Please note that some of the links included are affiliate links, and at no additional cost to you, I may earn a commission if you decide to make a purchase.