Saturday, April 13, 2024

The 20+ Best Things to do in Cape Town, South Africa


Over repeated visits, Cape Town has completely stolen my wanderlusting heart. From epic panoramas atop Table Mountain to cuddling penguins at Boulders Beach to sundowner cocktails at vibey Camp’s Bay, I never run out of things to see, do, taste or explore in this spectacular seaside city.

Through trial and error, immersive adventures, and engaging conversations with locals often sparked by Pinotage, I’ve unearthed extraordinary destinations that transcend conventional guidebook recommendations. Here, I’m delighted to share my handpicked favorites, spanning from exhilarating shark cage diving to serene escapes in fynbos-filled nature reserves, all while embracing and honoring the richness of poignant historical experiences, offering a blend of affordable luxury vacations.

Follow my detailed suggestions to create your own unforgettable experience in Cape Town. Just don’t be surprised if you start planning your return trip before even boarding the flight home.

Top Unmissable Cape Town Attractions

No visit is complete without taking in these iconic Cape Town experiences:

1. Table Mountain

Towering over the city, Table Mountain draws over a million visitors a year for good reason. Options abound for getting to the top and enjoying breathtaking vistas of Cape Town, Devil’s Peak, Lion’s Head and beyond.

For exercise addicts, there’s the challenging Platteklip Gorge Trail, the India Venster path or the 3 hour hike up Snake Trail. Thrillseekers may prefer paragliding off the top of the mountain while the gondola makes it easy for those with mobility issues.

I suggest budgeting at least 2 to 3 hours up top since there are walking trails plus restaurants and gift shops. Early morning and late afternoon tend to be less crowded.

Pro Travel Tip: Check the live webcam before heading up since low clouds occasionally obscure views.

2. Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden

Spread over 1,300 acres on the slopes of Table Mountain, these world-renowned botanical gardens showcase 7,000+ native Southern African flora species including vibrant proteas, delicate ericas and more.

Exploring the interconnected trails weaving through diverse themed gardens could enthrall a nature enthusiast for an entire day, making it an ideal option for budget travel. Guided tours, available Monday through Saturdays, delve into intriguing topics such as the Garden of Extinction or the practical applications of healing plants.

Don’t miss the popular Summer Sunset Concerts held here on Sundays featuring a variety of local musicians – perfect for a picnic surrounded by fynbos as the sun goes down. Entry fee is affordable making this a must-do!

3. Victoria & Alfred Waterfront

Without question, Cape Town’s most buzzing tourist hub remains the lively V&A Waterfront situated around the large working harbor and offering all sorts of entertainment. Wandering the complexes of souvenir shops, trendy boutiques, art galleries and restaurants could keep you busy but there’s loads more happening.

Adrenaline seekers may enjoy the world’s highest commercial bungee jump from the top of the central clock tower. Families flock to activities like the Cape Wheel giving aerial views of the harbor or the small Two Oceans Aquarium housing penguins and shark tanks.

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Hungry? Everything from fine dining like Baia Seafood Restaurant to grab-and-go fish ‘n chips or African street food can be found here, not to mention the international chains like McDonald’s and KFC.

With over 500 businesses operating in the Waterfront, all sorts of tours also kickoff from here from wine tasting outings to Robben Island visits to scenic cruises making this area the perfect base.

4. Robben Island

Sobering yet profoundly moving, the boat ride and subsequent tour of the Robben Island prison delivers powerful insight into South Africa’s traumatic apartheid era and the triumph of the human spirit.

Visiting the cell where Nelson Mandela spent 18 years alongside other political prisoners is an emotionally impactful experience. Guides offer invaluable insights into the inhumane treatment and appalling conditions endured by inmates, making this visit a must-see in one of the more affordable cities.

Interestingly, you’ll also learn how political meetings, chess games and news passed secretly helped forge solidarity and hope.

Book tickets online in advance to avoid long queues. The ferry ride itself takes 30 minutes allowing great photo opportunities of Cape Town fading away. Budget 3 to 4 hours total.

5. Boulders Penguin Colony

One of my all-time favorite Cape Town experiences remains watching the delightful antics of the African Penguins in their protected area of trendy Boulder’s Beach. There are multiple viewpoints where you can watch these tuxedo-clad characters waddling in the sand, swimming in groups or tending lovingly to their burrows.

I suggest taking the elevated boardwalk for minimum disturbance (yes, definitely do as signs instruct and keep back 10 feet!). There’s a small conservation levy collected to support their protection.

Early morning or late afternoon avoids crowds. Pack a picnic and make a day relaxing on the beach as penguins porpoise just offshore. A special place for nature lovers and kids especially!

Top Alternative Cape Town Experiences

Beyond the well-trodden sightseeing path of visitors lie wonderful surprises just waiting to be uncovered if you know where to look:

6. Bo-Kaap

Wandering through the cobblestone streets of vibrantly-painted Bo-Kaap with its Cape Dutch architecture remains one of my favorite non-touristy things to do.

This lively multicultural district comes with an ocean-view mosque, charming museums and many sites explaining the slave history and Islamic culture of the Cape Malay community.

Fuel up on fiery Cape curries and other traditional dishes before shopping for spices at Atlas Trading Company and souvenirs. Soak in those Instagrammable scenes before encroaching gentrification further erodes this delightful time capsule.

7. Chapman’s Peak Drive

Considered one of the world’s most stunning stretches of roadway, the winding 9km Chapman’s Peak Drive skirts the rocky coastline of Cape Point delivering nonstop gorgeous views.

Numerous scenic lookouts allow you to soak in the breathtaking vistas where abundant marine life like whales, sharks and seals are often spotted. Stop at the picnic areas dotting the route for lunch with a view or have someone else do the driving while you snap photos galore.

This toll route has a dedicated bus service starting from Kalk Bay for those without vehicles. Check site for schedule.

8. Franschhoek Wine Tram

Rollout shot of vineyards

Embark on a delightful tasting journey aboard the Franschhoek Wine Tram to sample world-class vintages from the Cape Winelands most scenic wine valley. The hop-on, hop-off tram makes pre-scheduled stops at well-known estates like La Motte and Dieu Donné along its two routes where you can wander charming grounds or enjoy meal pairings.

I highly suggest booking the chocolate and wine pairing at Haute Cabrière. Their bubbly vintages and small-batch artisanal chocolates are out of this world!

Know you’ll be spat sampling so no need to stress over transport back to Cape Town. Just sit back and take in gorgeous vineyard views between sips.

Thrilling Cape Town Experiences

Should a relaxing beach holiday start to bore, plenty of adventurous ways to get hearts pumping await in Cape Town!

9. Sunset Hike Up Lion’s Head

photo of view from the top of Lions Head at sunset

While summiting Table Mountain understandably dominates must-do lists, I strongly recommend the shorter yet equally scenic hike up neighboring Lion’s Head instead.

The upward combination of ladders, chains and granite steps makes for a fun workout capped by watching the sunset with 360° views of both the mountain and Atlantic Ocean. Go early enough and you may witness the rare “tablecloth” phenomenon when clouds spill dramatically over Table Mountain like a frothy waterfall – truly a magical sight!

Just be sure to time it so you’re not hiking down in the dark. Bring flashlights just in case!

10. Great White Shark Cage Diving

I’ll admit it – dipping into the frigid waters off Seal Island to come nearly eyeball-to-eyeball with a Great White shark rates as one of my all-time travel thrills!

Several worthy outfitters operate shark cage diving trips allowing you to safely observe these magnificent apex predators in their natural habitat.

The guided excursions start early (6am!) with participants suited up in thick wetsuits and outfitted with masks/snorkels. Arriving at the location where hundreds of Cape fur seals swim about, you wait in the submerged cage for the crew to start “chumming” to attract curious sharks swimming by.

My heart raced watching their fearsome forms suddenly materialize out of dark waters and I’ll never forget that first close pass by a shark showing interest in me dangling inside the bars!

Yes the water is very cold but the overall experience is unforgettable! Remember to bring motion sickness tablets if prone.

11. Paragliding Off Lion’s Head

photo of tandem paraglider over Cape Town with Table Mountain seen in distance

If getting a bird’s eye view over iconic Table Mountain appeals yet the idea of leaping seems crazy, try gentle tandem paragliding instead.

I recently enjoyed the awesome experience taking off with an experienced instructor from the launch area atop Lion’s Head. After checking wind conditions, we took a short run downhill as the chute unfurled above us then suddenly all sound faded while we silently gilded high over neighborhoods and rocky coastline taking in gorgeous sights.

While scenic beach landings cap most flights, my guide was able to catch thermals letting us soar almost effortlessly for over 45 minutes. No experience necessary and equipment provided – this fun outing is suitable for ages 5 and up. Just be sure to wear closed shoes and layers.

Off-The-Beaten-Path Cape Town Experiences

Should crowds start to sap the joy, there await wonderful wild settings around Cape Town to restore the soul. Here are some top nature escapes I suggest:

12. West Coast National Park

Every August through September, this massive UNESCO-protected coastal reserve located just over an hour north of Cape Town erupts in a vibrant tapestry of wildflowers that has to be seen to be believed.

Joining a 4×4 Flower Safari tour is the best way to appreciate the full scale of this colorful spectacle while spotting ostriches, zebras, wildebeest and more roaming bushy plains to white sand dunes.

Hiking opportunities also abound with trails delivering sweeping ocean panoramas dotted by lighthouses and shipwrecks. Just don’t swim as water temperatures hover under 12°C!

13. Cederberg Wilderness Area

Seeking soulful serenity surrounded only by nature’s calming elements leads me 3 hours inland to the rugged Cederberg. Here sandstone and quartz formations glow warmly among a variety of hiking trails winding past strange rock art panels, bubbling hot springs and hidden waterfalls.

Book a guide to illuminate insights on the San people or try slackpacking hut-to-hut multi-day routes carrying only a daypack and sleeping in remote refuges. Pack warm layers as gorgeous night skies make stargazing exceptional.

However you opt to experience the peaceful Cederberg Wilderness, disconnecting from cell signals and city noise lets you reconnect profoundly to yourself.

14. Grootbos Private Game Reserve

When seeking unique African wildlife interactions in an intimate setting, the exclusive Grootbos Reserve makes accessing otherwise remote regions of the Cape Floristic Kingdom possible on just daytrips.

Join expert field guides to walk hills blossoming in spring with endemic fynbos and bright proteas. Visit multiple hideouts to observe multiple antelope species, Cape grysbok, hippos, elephants and more roaming freely while learning about conservation efforts benefiting them.

Stay overnight in a luxury eco-villa to experience guided night drives, morning horse rides through Afromontane forests to the beach, flower safaris and even shark cage diving or cultural tours of Cape Town. The amazing two-center getaway options bring together the best of the city and safari!

Indulging Your Senses in Cape Town

Beyond adrenaline adventures, Cape Town also excels at pampering visitors with splendid spa retreats, epicurean delights and blissful nature encounters:

15. Top Wineries

  • Babylonstoren – Charming former fruit farm with award-winning Chardonnays and Shiraz along with stunning gardens, fine dining options using homegrown herbs/fruits and even a luxe spa incorporating vinotherapy treatments.
  • Groot Constantia – South Africa’s oldest wine estate packed with history along with famous wooded Sauvignon Blancs to enjoy paired with chocolate/cheese tastings on the veranda.
  • Buitenverwachting – Sweeping mountain backdrop for enjoying superb full-bodied Cabernets and craft gins. Catch Concerts on the Lawn held monthly.

16. Dining Scene Standouts

  • La Colombe – Constantly topping best restaurant lists for their tasting menu masterfully pairing flavors, textures and visual beauty – expect 4+ hours of foodie heaven!
  • Den Anker – My choice for waterfront fine dining thanks to their seafood focus, friendly staff and ability to pull off special occasion requests like brilliantly done vegan options.
  • Tribes Café – Tucked below Table Mountain, a local favorite serving delicious breakfast through dinners showcasing regional ingredients at wallet-friendly pricing.

17. Top Cape Spas

One & Only Spa at the Cape Town Waterfront remains a world-class pampering favorite thanks to their generous facilities and treatment menu harnessing indigenous elements like fynbos-infused body scrubs or Rooibos teas. Worth the splurge!

The Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel is perfect for relaxing genteely surrounded by lush gardens while sipping tea inside their blissful spa between massages/wraps/soaks or enjoying pool time after treatments.

Protea Hotel Stellenbosch Spa deserve applause for affordably priced spa services tucked alongside the Jonkershoek Nature Reserve’s lovely walking trails perfect for decompressing post-massage!

Insider Tips for An Awesome Cape Town Visit

Aiming to keep your Cape Town travels smooth, safe and hassle-free? Apply these pro tips:

  • Best Times to Visit: Cape Town enjoys a Mediterranean climate meaning rain primarily falls May through August. Heat-wise – summers (mid-Dec to mid-March) sizzle around 27°C on average. I prefer shoulder seasons like September/October for pleasant 20-25°C daytime highs and thinner crowds. Whale watching excels July through November.
  • Getting Around: MyCiti buses offer affordable, convenient transport around Cape Town sights costing roughly $1 USD. Departing from airport or downtown stops, tours buses like CitySightseeing make hop on-hop off exploring efficient. Uber works well for safe evening transport. Renting a car is best for accessing outlying areas like Stellenbosch or Hermanus.
  • Staying Safe: While I’ve never felt targeted walking alone even at night in main areas like Waterfront or Long Street, using general travel precautions in Cape Town is wise: avoid isolated/dark streets, don’t flash valuables, secure belongings etc. Opt for apartment rentals with secure parking over standalone houses.
  • Packing Essentials: Dress is casual throughout Cape Town but bringing lightweight layers helps during windy/cooler moments on ships or Table Mountain. Good walking shoes are crucial for all the hills/stairs/trails. Sunglasses, hats and sun protection also advised to avoid harsh sunburns!

Venturing Farther In the Cape

While most visitors cluster attractions around Cape Town itself, consider adding these rewarding regional detours:

18. Cape Point & Cape of Good Hope

Journey 90 mins south to the stunning protected reserve marking the intersection of two mighty oceans – the Indian and Atlantic.

Hiking up to the historic lighthouse rewards with fantastic seascape views and abundant wildlife sightings opportunities including whales from June through November. Wander wild beaches or try local fynbos gin tasting afterward nearby Simonstown village.

19. Stellenbosch

History buffs find exploring the meticulously preserved Cape Dutch architecture and museums of Stellenbosch town utterly fascinating. Between ivory-white gabled buildings lies excellent art galleries, charming cafes in oak-shaded squares plus world-class wineries and distilleries to sample like Kleine Zalze andSlanghoek.

20. Hermanus

From July through November, thousands flock watch southern right whales swimming literally meters from popular beaches and cliffs around Hermanus – the world’s best land-based whale watching location.

Hike the 12km cliff trail for regular sightings of these gentle giants breaching, spouting and playing happily in the bay. Hermanus makes an ideal base for embarking on whale watching tours by boat or kayak for closer encounters. Don’t miss visiting the Whale House museum to learn more about conservation efforts.

Beyond whales, the village itself charms with excellent seafood restaurants like Burgundy serving fresh crayfish and live music venues hosting local talents. Artsy travelers will love exploring abundant galleries and studios showcasing the region’s creative spirit.

21. De Hoop Nature Reserve

Journey three hours east of Cape Town to discover towering sand dunes and staggeringly beautiful vistas over an undeveloped coastline that stretches over 25 miles at De Hoop Nature Reserve.

Self-guided hiking trails wend through diverse fynbos blooming vibrantly Sept/Oct plus more challenging 5-day routes to fully immerse in this protected landscape. Pristine beaches draw swimming and snorkeling in tidal pools.

Book one of the furnished cottages or luxe guest houses on-site for experiencing incredible dark night skies undimmed by light pollution and populated by odd creatures like aardvarks, bat-eared foxes and rare Cape vultures spotted on guided drives.

22. Garden Route

No trip to the Western Cape feels complete without exploring some portion of the scenic Garden Route coastline. My favorite road trip itinerary includes:

Tsitsikamma National Park – This marine/forest preserve boasts dramatic Storm’s River Mouth gorge hiking trails plus 125 meter suspension bridges offering bird’s eye views across treetops with the Indian Ocean in the distance. Blackwater tubing and kayak adventures available.

Nearby Bloukrans Bridge hosts the world’s highest bridge commercial bungee jump for those needing an extra thrill!

Plettenberg Bay – Excellent whale watching, white sandy beaches and lively but relaxed cafes/shops. Don’t miss lunch at Enrico’s watching waves crash along lovely Robberg Beach or enjoying brillaint sunsets from Lookout Rocks uncorking local bubbly to toast the end of another perfect African day!

Knysna – Quaint but vibrant town with excellent craft breweries like Mitchell’s taproom pairing creative suds with board games to play. Nearby Pezula Golf Course impresses with sweeping ocean views and plentiful wildlife like mongooses that pop out on fairways!

Wherever your African dreams take you, may Cape Town forever hold special place in your wanderlusting heart as it does mine!

Leona D. Hansard
Leona D. Hansard
Leona D. Hansard is not just a travel writer; she's a storyteller weaving adventures through her words. With a passport in one hand and a pen in the other, Leona explores the world, capturing the essence of each destination with vivid descriptions and immersive narratives. Her passion for travel is matched only by her love for discovering hidden gems and sharing them with fellow wanderers

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