If you’ve ever dreamed of visiting Africa, you have to include a visit to South Africa. Specifically, Cape Town. There is something there for all ages, whether a romantic getaway or a family vacation. Cape Town is one of the most vibrant and beautiful cities I’ve ever visited. My wife and I stayed for three weeks and still weren’t able to do everything on our list. Here are our top six things to do in Cape Town.
1) Stay Central
As with most places we visit, we tried to stay in a central location specifically so we can explore on foot and submerse ourselves in the local culture. In Cape Town, we had no problem securing an Airbnb that was about a 15-minute walk to the harborfront. Our rental was in a high-rise building with a huge balcony and a great view of the cruise-ship terminal.
For a major city, we found it altogether safe and easy to negotiate our way around. Locals generally kept to themselves, but were friendly and helpful. Our accommodations were great, and we found a huge variety of craft beer, local wine, and delicious food. A pub called The Fireman’s Arms, one of the oldest in the city, was right next door. The food was awesome and more than one pizza made its way up to our balcony for dinner. The South African currency was at a favorable exchange rate to the U.S. Dollar — so everything was cheap.
2) Take a Bus
After a couple of days of acclimatizing and pounding the pavement, we signed up for the Red Bus — Cape Town’s version of a double-decker, open-top tour bus. They offer one- and two-day tours of the city and beyond, taking you up Table Mountain as well as along the various beaches on both sides of the southern tip of Africa.
The Red Bus was the best investment we made while in South Africa. All the major sights were included on the tour, with an option to get off at any stop. Getting back on another bus and heading to the next destination was a piece of cake. There’s no limit as to how many times you can get on and off the buses. If you’re only interested in sightseeing, then just sit back and enjoy the scenic ride.
3) Hit the Waterfront
I’ve seen famous waterfronts in cities like Venice, Nice, Lima, Seattle, and Boston, but none compare to the natural beauty and abundance of things to do at Cape Town’s V & A Waterfront. It is a working seaport and cruise-ship terminal as well as a safe harbor for all types of sailing, pleasure craft, and touring boats.
The Two Oceans Aquarium houses sea lions lounging on floating platforms in the sun outside the building. In addition, the area has cruises and water sports of every kind you can imagine, a giant Ferris wheel and play area for toddlers, and a variety of restaurants and food booths that offer everything from hot dogs to fresh seafood. Plus, there is an excellent shopping mall that has movie theatres. Other warehouse-type buildings house crafts, souvenirs, and food stalls.
You can safely walk the entire waterfront or rent a bicycle if you’d rather pedal your way around. There are maps and historic walking tours available. Cruise ships and watercraft from all over the world come to dock at Cape Town. We ate lunch at Mitchell’s Scottish Ale House where we sipped on craft beer and chewed on calamari. It had a great patio for people watching, which was highly entertaining.
4) Ascend Table Mountain
No visit to Cape Town would be complete without a trip to Table Mountain. It is the monumental centerpiece of the city, and of South Africa. The location and height make it especially visible from everywhere. It even creates its own weather patterns: on certain days you can see the ‘table cloth,’ a fine layer of cloud that blankets the flat top of Table Mountain. There are many ways to gain access, and you can hike up if you’re in shape. We made it one of our stops while on the Red Bus.
From the bus stop, a revolving cable car takes you to the top of the mountain. Once there, the views are jaw-dropping. Tourists jockey for positions to get the best selfies, with some stupidly climbing out onto cliffs that drop thousands of feet. The top of Table Mountain is about two miles long and most of it is accessible by walking paths that offer scenic views of Cape Town and both coastlines. It’s an overall easy hike along the boardwalks and marked walking trails. One company offers rappelling if you’re looking for a different way to get down.
5) Go Downtown in Cape Town
Whether you like to walk, ride a bike, or bus around town, Cape Town is easy to navigate. Streets run in a grid pattern that is easy to follow on a tourist map. Long Street is the main artery that is chocked full of bars, restaurants, and unique shops. A must-see is the famous Bo-Kaap neighborhood, with its multi-colored row houses. You’ll find beautiful wall murals throughout the downtown.
Different neighborhoods offer different vibes. The 17th century Castle of Good Hope gives you a glimpse of military life in the early days. A huge street market lies just outside the fort, though, and is across the street from the historic City Hall. Behind that, you’ll find shaded markets on cobbled pedestrian streets. If you’re looking for peace and quiet, there are huge inner-city parks to stroll, hang out, or picnic in.
6) Discover Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden takes up the eastern half of the city. Nestled in a lush valley on the eastern slopes of Table Mountain, it’s easily the most beautiful botanical garden I’ve ever seen. There are thousands of acres of unique fauna, wild and manicured gardens and lawns, and easy walking paths that you can spend the whole day exploring.
We enjoyed the canopy skywalk, a man-made bridge that takes you up and over looming trees, where the park views are undeniably breathtaking. The different varieties of plants and trees have name tags, some only native to South Africa. There are colorful butterflies and exotic birds fluttering about the gardens and singing in the trees. On one path, an old tortoise about the size of a bowling ball held up pedestrian traffic.
Cape Town is a place we’d easily return to and definitely recommend to fellow travelers. It is clean, safe, and easy to navigate. Taxis and Ubers were plentiful and cheap. There is convenient access to buses and trains that go to surrounding areas like the various beaches and wine regions. The people were very nice and helped us if we needed anything. We will be back in the future to explore Cape Town in more depth.
If you enjoyed this travel article, you can read more from Edmond Gagnon on his website.