Cape Town Tips For Travellers : Must-See and Must-Do Sights and Attractions
I have been to Cape Town at least six times and it remains one of my favourite places in the world to visit. I always have a great time and find new and interesting things to do on every visit, helped by the fact the city is constantly changing and developing.
Cape Town. What is it and why is it so important?
Cape Town is on the very southern tip of Africa, and is one of the administrative capital cities of South Africa. They alternate the meetings of Parliament between Cape Town and the official capital city of Pretoria. Johannesburg is one of the best known cities in the country and many people think it’s the capital. While it is the largest city this is from the major financial activity that takes place there and where the traditional gold wealth is centred.
South Africa is made up of a number of previously independent states and each of them had a capital. When it became one nation, Cape Town and Pretoria became the two administrative capitals, one originally more English (Cape Town) and one more Afrikaans (Pretoria).
Cape Town is stunning. Not only from the coast but because of the iconic symbol of Table Mountain. The city itself mostly nestles between the mountain and the sea.
Huge amount to do
There are many amazing restaurants. The choice and variety is vast. The city is a real foodie lover’s idea of heaven. There’s also plenty of fantastic places to stay. It’s a trendy place as Cape Town is home to many creative industries are particularly, film making. A lot of movies and commercials are made by European companies there. There is a vibrant creative atmosphere around the city.
There is a lot to do, no matter your interests. They range from Table Mountain, the Victoria & Alfred Center, Robben Island, Cape Point, Simon’s Town and the penguins (yes penguins), beaches, and so much more.
But let’s talk a little bit about some of the downsides of Cape Town. The less glamorous side before returning to the positives.
It has beautiful beaches, beautiful scenery, beautiful people, beautiful architecture, lots of interesting architecture dating from its early settler days with English and Dutch influences through to modern trendy guest houses and hotels.
But that’s within the area of Cape Town that nestles between the famous and iconic Table Mountain and the beaches. When you land in Cape Town and journey from the airport into town you pass miles and miles of shanty towns where large concentrations of the black population live. There are rows and rows of little shanty houses made of iron and other bits and pieces. And obviously a lot of poverty around.
There are people walking in the streets and lots of buses. Although within South Africa the apartheid system ended some time ago, there still feels and looks to be quite a big division between the “haves” and the “have not’s”. Particularly in Cape Town, it still seems to be split on racial lines, unlike my experiences in Johannesburg.
So you travel pass all of these shanty town areas before entering the city of Cape Town. You feel like you are entering a completely different world. It’s very European like. It feels like you are in Spain or the Mediterranean.
Although it seems to be changing, in all the restaurants there seems to be mostly white students working there. It’s strange when you consider all the political changes within South Africa. But it is, without a shadow of doubt an absolutely stunningly beautiful place, and you do feel things are changing. But it feels at a slower pace than one would have expected.
The city used to have a reputation for crime, and at one stage had a murder rate of the scale per thousand close to places like Mexico. A lot of the crime was in the various townships and suburbs which had been racially divided in the apartheid days. I have to say that it has felt safer each time I have been. I am not sure if this is through being more familiar with the city, but talking to locals they too feel the same, and feel a lot has been done to bring down crime.
You do still have to be cautious and you are encouraged to drive with car doors locked, and at night not to stop and be highly aware of where you go. People will guard your car when you park it, and these are regulated and you pay them a tip to ensure your car stays safe.
Cape Town used to be a fairly cheap place to visit, and the exchange rate made eating and shopping quite reasonable. But as it is far from both now, the flights are quite expensive and internal flights seem expensive (though of course the distances are vast).
So what are my tips for travellers to Cape Town?
Best time to visit
As Cape Town is in the Southern hemisphere at the southern tip of Africa, the best time of the year to visit is in their summer which runs from about August/ September time through to about March/ April time.
I’ve visited Cape Town in both March and December, and both times have been great weather. The peak season is Christmas time which is the middle of summer. It’s a very popular time for both international and local South Africans to vacation in , and tends to be more expensive for accommodation and is harder to get into restaurants – but on the plus side it is beautiful weather and vibrant.
Getting there and around
Cape Town is an 11 to 12 hour flight from most of the major cities in Europe. Much further if you’re coming from North America of course. Many European airlines fly direct to the city. If you can it is worth doing as from Johannesburg it is over a 2 hour flight and internal flights are quite costly. It is not worth driving from Johannesburg as the drive is very long, and not very scenic or interesting.
One great way to get to Cape Town, if you are in the Johannesburg/ Pretoria area, and have a lot of cash, is to get either the Blue Train or Rovos Rail. These are luxury trains and an experience. For Rovos Rail I have a podcast and blog posting about and takes 2 nights. Blue Train run by South African Rail takes one night. You get to see amazing scenery at parts, and quite an experience for the rest.
It is a good idea to hire a car once there. They drive on same side as UK and it is easy to find your way around – and of course these days with SatNav every where is. There are all the usual car rental services, and their desks are just as you come out of the customs area at the airport. I also recommend a car as you will see there are many great places around the outskirts and an hour or so drive that are worth seeing while there.
There are many private mini bus taxi services, but they are hectic, packed and a bit crazy.
Where to stay
Hotels are relatively expensive for foreign tourists. One of the blossoming trends in Cape Town, which I highly recommend, is the guest house market. Many people have turned these very beautiful, old Colonial, Cape Dutch style houses, in various parts of town, into guest houses. And they’re beautiful trendy and cost effective.
I encourage you, if you go to Cape Town, to perhaps not look so much on Expedia or Travelocity and look at hotels, but actually look for guest houses on Tripadvisor.com or sites like cape town.org and cape town.net.
We usually stay at Derwent House (which is usually #1 or #2 on Tripadvisor.com). Two ex-UK ladies and their team run a fantastic place in a great location.
Table Mountain is what makes Cape Town instantly recognisable – and is what the city is best known for.
It is very impressive and creates a wonderful backdrop to the city. They have done a great job at protecting the natural beauty of the mountain.
It is a vast mountain, which is why few people had been to the top until the 1920s because you have to be pretty fit to climb it. This changed when, finally on the 1920s a Norwegian, Trygve Tromsoe, had an idea to build a cable car, and eventually raised the money. In opened in October 1929.
The cable car is now a must-do. Everybody who’s ever been there, from Queen Elizabeth II to Oprah Winfrey to Arnold Schwarzenegger has gone up in this cable car.
Today, there is a very efficient cable car than runs from 8am until as late as 10pm in the peak summer season. It carries about 40 or more and 900 people can go up or down in an hour. Saying that, it is still best to get there early or you can wait for up to 2 hours as some people did to get up and then down over the Christmas peak time.
The cable car ride is quite something, with the floor rotating so everyone gets a good view. For those not keen on heights it can be a bit scary, but it looks and feels better in the car than watching it going up!
At the top of the mountain there are paths laid out to protect the park and you have to stay on them. There can be some crime on the mountain as people target tourists, and so you are also asked to stick to the paths where more people will be.
There is also a restaurant and gift shop, though not especially good ones..
The top of the mountain is often in clouds and so people tend to wait for clear days before going up, but although you miss the amazing views of a clear day even on a cloudy day it is an experience, and as the clouds move fast giving glimpses to the views below it is worth taking the risk. If it gets windy they close the mountain and the cable cars, issuing a loud warning siren to ask you to head off the mountain.
It is a real must do, but go early!
And even on hot days take something as can be much cooler at the top.
Although Table Mountain is the best known mountain in Cape Town for people to go up for views of the city and surrounds, there is another amazing vantage point that many never get to go to – and this is Signal Hill.
Unlike Table Mountain, which requires a long trek on foot or a cable car ride that is not for anyone that does not like heights, you can drive up Signal Hill.
Signal Hill is very on tours and for locals to head up to have a glass of wine and watch the sun go down. It is breathtaking in day but even more so at night as you see Cape Town stretching out in a glistening array of light. It is a highly memorable sight.
It got its name as it was used to signal ships out at sea about coming into Port, and later a cannon was fired at noon so ships could set their navigation clocks. This cannon is still fired daily. In years past if the cannon was fired up to 3 times it would signal that a ship was in trouble or had wrecked and people should prepare to look for survivors (or cargo being washed up!).
The drive down the hill is a bit scary for those who do not like heights as you are right on the side of a huge drop, but is worth a trip up there. Do it twice, once in the day and then at night. If you only do it once, do it at night!
This is probably the most emotional day out I have ever had.
It is an essential part of your trip as it is such a key part of South African History, and the place Nelson Mandela spent most of his 25 year in prison on.
At the V&A shopping area on the seafront is where the Robben Island Embarkation Building is.
Robben Island is about 10 or 12 miles out from Cape Town, in the middle of the bay. It has a long history, not at all pleasant. For about 400 years it had been used as a place where exiled and outcast people were put, such as lepers. But it’s probably best known as where, during the years of apartheid, the government housed political prisoners. So people like Nelson Mandela spent around about 25 years there.
It’s about a four hour round trip. You catch a catamaran, which takes about 30 minutes, out to Robben Island. Once you get there, an ex political prisoner who was incarcerated there shows you around. Before going to the prison, they take you all around the island, including where the guards and their families used to live.
You also visit the lime pit quarry, where the political prisoners used to work, and explain how people like Nelson Mandela used to go there day after day and work in this blazing heat. Then they take you to the prison to view the cells where men were held for. It is quite shocking the tiny cells that was home for many for 25 years.
In each cell there is a little box on the wall which has one personal item that the prisoner who occupied that cell for a quarter of a century left or gave to be displayed. It may be a comb. It may be a card. Some have recorded a short audio, talking about their time there. In every cell, there is a little laminated card with a picture of the prisoner and their story – and it’s heartbreaking.
They then show you around the workout area, the dining rooms, the dormitories, and tell you their own story. It’s an amazing experience, and something you absolutely should do. One of the things that surprised me, actually, is a lot of people who live in South Africa and live in Cape Town don’t seem to have been in there. Maybe that’s just because they’re trying to move on and they don’t want to go back and revisit the past.
But it was one of the most emotional days I’ve ever had. The sad thing is many of these prisoners are returning to the place as they have struggled to work and survive after being released.
Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens
I had been to Cape Town 4 times before finally visiting the Kirstenbosch Gardens, despite it being recommended to me many times.
It sounded like a dull day out to go and visit a botanical garden. But it turned out to be a beautiful and breathtaking activity.
The gardens were established in 1913 to protect and conserve indigenous plant life and is massive, around 528 hectares. The reason they are so much better than many gardens of the type around the world is the backdrop of the magnificent mountains that they nestle under.
The gardens are extremely lush, and framed by what I assume are the Twelve Apostles which makes for breathtaking pictures.
I am not a plant buff and so did not dwell on what the various sections were, other than to enjoy the very different ways they had been laid out and planned. All were very different and interesting. So even as non-expert and novice there was constant changing things to keep my interest, like babbling brooks, art exhibitions, sculptures and aromatic plant walkways to stimulate the senses – all while guinea fowl and other birds passed by.
In the huge grounds they hold concerts and there is a large gift shop with really good range of gifts, books and sculptures. Not full of usual tourist junk!
Well worth a visit! I can see why the car park was so full!
The beaches Cape Town are amazing. Clifton Beach and Camps Bay are the most popular.
There are four beaches in Clifton. Clifton is rated by places like the Discovery Channel as one of the best beaches in the world. The water’s freezing cold, because it’s the Atlantic, and so very few people swim. Only once did I ever go into the sea (for a bet).
To get to Clifton Beach, you clamber down steep cliff steps. All around are grand mansions and apartment blocks. It is also the place to be seen and watch the beautiful people. A lot of people prefer to go a bit further down to Camps Bay, which is just a little drive down the way and less showy.
Cape Town is always be evolving and changing. This is especially true when it comes to places to eat and go out to. Cape Town is a very social place to live in, and people seem to go out to eat a great deal.
As parts of the city get taken over by the tourist trade, new areas and places open up for the locals to enjoy. Kloof Street in the Tamboerskloof part of town, at the base of Table Mountain, is one of these.
This steep street has many beautiful old-style buildings, which in their day will have been huge houses over 2 levels with stunning views. Today they have become a series of restaurants and bars with great diversity.
They range from takeaway pizza joints through Thai, Vietnamese, healthy eating to Italian.
The street is buzzing both during the day when the cafes and healthy eating places are busy with people catching up, and in the evening when it is packed with younger crowds. There is a real sense of community and is more dominated by locals than tourists who have yet to discover the area.
We spent evenings here as we found the restaurants more efficient and more passionate than many of the better known and tourist trade focused places. The latter not really having to worry about repeat custom. We also found the owners and managers more involved and friendly in Kloof Street establishments.
It is a fun and vibrant part of Cape Town and great to stroll about – as well as to eat in.
A drive from Cape Town down to Cape Point, the most South Westerly point in Africa, is a real must.
The drive takes you along the coast mostly and you go past and through quaint towns with gorgeous beaches and incredible views. The road for most of the way is nestled between mountains and sea. It takes about an hour and half.
This is a full day trip and best to set off early and head straight to Cape Point as traffic to get there in busy times of the year can be really gridlocked and slow.
It costs around 60 rand each to get into the Cape Point Park and then is about 6 miles to Cape Point itself. There are many walks and other areas to explore, like the actual Cape of Good Hope. The first person to ever sail around the cape was a Portuguese explorer called Bartolomeu Dias in 1488. He actually named it the Cape of Storms, because it was so violent and stormy as this is where the Indian and Atlantic Oceans meet and come crashing together. King John of Portugal later renamed it the Cape of Good Hope.
There are many monuments of white crosses dotted along the edge of the cliffs to mark where ships were wrecked by the treacherous seas and rocks. The sea is perilous around here, and Dias probably had the more accurate name.
At Cape Point is a famous lighthouse built high up on the cliffs in around 1860 or so. In its day the light could be seen 60 kilometres out to sea. But as it was often surrounded by clouds and mist and ofetn not seen it was no longer used after the sinking of the Lusitania in 1909 and one built lower down.
You can walk up the steep hill or catch a funicular railway up to near the top to climb up to the old lighthouse. The views once there are staggering as it is high on cliffs and the sea is a gorgeous green. Birds sit on the cliffs on perilous looking outcrops. Despite all the people it feels incredibly peaceful here.
You’re right near the end of Africa, although strictly speaking the real end is further down the coast. But you’re on what’s generally viewed to be the southernmost point of Africa. It is also supposed to be more breathtaking and wild than the real end point!
There is a walk called the lighthouse keepers walk that takes you along a narrow cliff top further out to huge cliffs above the sea. You need to be fit and it takes about 1.5 hours.
Cape Point is a must do. On the drive there, you will most likely come across Baboons on the road. But watch out for them as they are very cheeky, and after your food if you have any. On the way back stop to see the Penguin Colony at Boulders Bay, stop in Simonstown (the South African Naval Base) and then in the very colonial looking and slightly hippy town of Kalk Bay.
Simonstown was originally founded in 1743 as a winter anchorage by the first governor of the Cape, Simon van der Stel. That’s why it’s known as Simon’s Town. When British invaded Cape Town, and took over the Cape, they based the Royal Navy there in 1806. So there has always naval heritage here. In 1957 it became a South African navy base, and today it is still the center of the South African navy. In fact, when we were there, the navy was having a big Navy Day, and you could go and have a look around at various ships.
Boulder’s Rock: Quite nearby there is a huge penguin colony. Usually everyone reacts with, “What? Penguins? But it’s hot in South Africa.” It is hot, but the sea is very cold in the Cape as it is the Atlantic. In Boulder Bay there are what are jackass penguins, which are the only species of penguin that have ever colonized the African continent. There is now over 3,000 of them.
There are raised wooden walkways through the area where you can actually get really, really close to them. Quite a sight!
This quaint and fun town is on the way from Cape Town to Cape Point, or if you prefer Boulder Bay (penguins) or Simonstown (Naval Base),
It is a popular holiday town and weekend place to visit, and the main road which runs through the town gets very clogged and slow – and it is usually hard to find somewhere to park.
The main part of town is charming and the architecture from its heyday as a weekend and holiday stop reeks of colonial times. Although the buildings could probably do with some investment, they have amazing charm and are now filled with antique shops, restaurants, quirky artwork galleries and jewellery shops. The charm being they are all made by local area artists and so unique.
There is also a distinct hippy feel a lot of the time and you see tarot reading and physics’ shops.
There is a small harbour and the Harbour House which serves great food along with great views.
It was a great town to wander around and there seems to be loads of guest houses and holiday apartments with great ocean views as it rises fast from sea level up to the mountains.
Handy also for popping along the road to see the penguins.
Day Trips and Short Stay from Cape Town
Stellenbosh is a popular drive to get into the famous wine area of South Africa. Franschoek, which is known as the culinary capital of South Africa, is about an hour from Cape Town and highly recommended as a place to visit.
Further Reading of Tips For Travellers to Cape Town, also read my articles: