You may or may not believe it, but this is my last post on our trip to Africa. After spending a week in Harare, seeing Victoria Falls with a quick trip to Botswana for a safari in The Chobe, and finding a new meaning to life on our epic safari in Hwange National Park at The Hide, we took two flights to Cape Town, South Africa. Hitting the big city after being about as far away from urban life as possible took some getting used to. Flying in, the first thing I noticed about the city were the stop lights! We had just three days in Cape Town and we made the most of it, doing everything we were supposed to and finding a few more fun things on our own. So here are my 9 must do activities in Cape Town!
P.S. A few tips on packing for Cape Town. The weather changes a lot throughout the course of the day, so bring layers. It can also be very bright and very windy, so sunglasses, chapstick, and hand lotion are a must!
1. Table Mountain
If you only have one day or even a half day in Cape Town and you’re wondering what’s the one thing to do… it’s Table Mountain. It was cloudy our first morning in the city so when the skies cleared around lunchtime, we were greeted with this overwhelming view of Table Mountain which really IS Cape Town. From the top of the mountain, you can see all of Cape Town and a bit beyond with views of city, seaside, and so much in between! The thing about Table Mountain is that the gondolas are dependent on the weather, so oftentimes they have to shut them down. It’s not a permanent closure, however, so if they’re closed the morning you plan to go, keep checking back in as they’re likely to reopen that day. Additionally, if the weather doesn’t clear for you that day, your ticket will still be valid. So start to plan your trip to Table Mountain day 1 of your stay.
Once on top of the mountain, allow about 45 minutes to do the large walking loop, which I really recommend. There are quite a few people on the shorter loops and you really get a better feel of what it means to be on top of Table Mountain in South Africa the further out you go from the gondola station and gift shop. Paths are very clearly marked and there are still others on the path with you, but you can get the view, snap the photos (obviously!), and really take in the experience!
2. Take a City Tour
I’m really big on taking tours on your first day in a new city (nothing beats the bike tour in Nice or the walking tour in London for me)! Though I’m not usually one to opt for the big city tour company, everyone recommended City Sightseeing Tours. The tour starts down near the V&A Waterfront. You get an audio tour of the city and you can hop on and off the whole day, including a stop at Table Mountain, the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, Bo Kaap, and Greenmarket Square (more below). The tour gives you a great layout and a decent background of the city while allowing you to enjoy stops of interest.
If you’ve seen a photo of Cape Town, the chances are high the photos were here in Bo-Kaap. The few blocks of buildings are brightly painted, commemorating the freed slaves who lived in this area. I heard on our trip former slaves painted their homes as a sign of freedom and independence when all else that they did in their professional life was so confined and limited by law (similar things happened in the US). I’ve since read that these former slaves (mainly their descendants), mostly Muslim, painted their homes in preparation for Eid…
It’s a fun part of town to take photos, especially if Table Mountain is in sight behind. Besides visiting the Bo-Kaap Museum, there isn’t much to do in this part of town and we were encouraged not to stray off the main road by a woman who lived there for safety reasons, so I’d recommend getting here on the city tour bus (stop #6) and then continuing on your tour of the city.
4. Greenmarket Square
One of my favorite things to do when traveling is to visit food and craft markets. I think it’s such a fun way to see the local culture(s) and I love supporting locals whenever I travel. Greenmarket Square is FULL of everything you can imagine. I bought a painting there, but there were also carvings, jewelry, purses, drums, kitchenware, belts, and the list goes on and on. Be prepared to haggle for prices and be confronted by the sellers if you look at anything in particular, but a fun experience nevertheless. There was also music and dancing by local children! There are restaurants right around the square and plenty within walking distance.
If you take the city tour, this is stop #5!
5. Day Trip to Cape Point and The Cape of Good Hope
I’m a day trip lover no matter what part of the world I’m in! One of the highlights of being in Cape Town is heading out of town a little bit to the famous Cape of Good Hope and Cape Point. Your first stop can be a boat trip out to Seal Island. I love boat rides and the seals were cute, but if I were to cut out one thing on this long day, it would be this excursion. We ran into a lot of tourists and it was a bit overwhelming. A highlight just after this, however, was driving along Chapman’s Peak Drive which overlooks the water and provides breathtaking views as you make your way further and further south…
The Cape of Good Hope is actually the most southwestern point of the African continent (not the most southern), but it’s beautiful nevertheless. If you thought Cape Town was windy, hold on to your hat down here. The wind and fog can be overwhelming, but in those moments of clarity, the view is stunning with red and white rocks juxtaposed to the blues of the Atlantic Ocean and the bright white caps. At Cape Point you can visit the lighthouse via gondola or a fairly steep though paved path. Before the trek up, however, I highly recommend lunching at the Two Oceans Restaurant in the same parking lot. They offer a variety of dishes including sushi, salads, pasta, chips (fries), and so much more. It’s quite delicious. You can see our pasta dish below that was as tasty as it was beautifully presented! Finally, stop by Boulder’s Beach where you can see penguins and get a giggle when they hee-haw like donkeys. It is literally the best!!
You can coordinate a tour from your hotel. Bring cash to pay the entrance fees for the parks if you end up going on a private tour, however.
6. Visit the Green Point Lighthouse
Wandering around the city on the city tour, you’ll see the Green Point Lighthouse. We walked by and noticed it had visiting hours, but didn’t think too much of it at the time. When my mom and I decided to walk along the water (more below), we elected to start at the lighthouse – mostly because it was a landmark that we could tell our taxi driver. As luck would have it, the lighthouse was open, so we went in to get a view. I think we donated a few dollars to climb to the top of the lighthouse, but sadly I can’t remember how much – it wasn’t much and it was worth it! You climb a few flights of stairs before smaller and smaller ladders and eventually you’re climbing up on small bars until you’re either inside the lantern/light room itself or walking around the gallery (the ‘mini porch’ just outside). You get a lovely view of the city and the water!
We also learned that you can stay at many of the lighthouses along the South African coast! How fun does that sound? That will be the first thing planned on my next trip back to South Africa for sure! If you’re on the city tour, the lighthouse is at stop #12.
7. Sea Point Promenade
Looking to really stretch our legs before we began our daylong journey back to LA, my mom and I decided to walk along the Sea Point Promenade which runs along the waterfront. We took a cab (they also rely heavily on uber in Cape Town) to the Green Point Lighthouse (above), climbed to the top of it, and then walked back to our hotel at the V&A Waterfront (about 1.5 miles). The path is well paved. If you’re looking for a nice walk, this is a good one. It can get warm and it can be windy (noticing a trend yet?), but the walk is lovely and it’s nice to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city for a bit!
8. Watershed and V&A Food Market
Along the Cape Town waterfront is the V&A (Victoria & Albert) Waterfront, including the ferris wheel, a shopping center (with a grocery store on the ground floor), tons of restaurants, and a few hotels, as well as Watershed and the V&A Food Market. Watershed is a huge warehouse that’s been turned into a market for local artisans to sell goods in stalls and shops. It’s like 150 pop ups and it is so much fun!! They have everything from jewelry to knick-knacks, pewter carvings, leather bags, clothing, dried fruits, wood carvers, and recycled material bags just to name a few. I bought an awesome dress from a South African designer, a few pewter forks and spoons with animals carved into them for charcuterie, and a small wooden bowl for my husband to use as a dish for his wedding ring. We were in the market two to three times to take it all in and pick out the items we wanted.
Right next door is the V&A Food Market which is exactly what it sounds like. You can get everything from frozen yogurt, crepes, and waffles to oysters, pastries, bbq, and Tunisian food. My favorite, however, was the Truth coffee stand. I bumped into the coffee and loved it only to learn the next day it’s been voted the best coffee in the world! WHAT?! It was tasty and I loved that the stand was so easy to access compared to their brick and mortar stores in other parts of the city. If you’re planning to do the city tour or visit Robben Island (below), the V&A Food Market is near to both of them and a great place to grab lunch or an afternoon coffee and morsel.
9. Robben Island
Last but certainly not least is a visit to Robben Island where Nelson Mandela served 18 of his 27 years in prison. He, along with other political exiles, lived in barren quarters with little in the way of food and shelter while working the limestone quarries. Tours leave from the V&A Waterfront (across the bridge from all the other shops) where you’ll take a 30 minute boat ride to the island – be sure to capture the scene of Cape Town and Table Mountain behind you! At the island, you’ll be divided into two groups one of which will get a bus tour of the island and then a tour of the quarters from a former inmate (the other group does the reverse order). The history of the island (apart from Nelson Mandela even) is fascinating though the historian in me wishes there was more of a background given. I was young when Apartheid ended and while I know the basic history, I could have used more. The visitor center on the mainland tries to do that with informative panels and movies when you’re in line, but there was too much going on for me to really read and appreciate them.
You must buy tickets for Robben Island beforehand and once you arrive, you’ll have to stand in a decent line to board the boats. It can be really hot if you’re in the sun, so bring water, sunblock, and hats.