Cape Town is the second largest city in South Africa after Johannesburg, and the most popular tourist destination on the African continent. Rich in history with pristine beaches, breathtaking natural landscapes and a world class wine country, the city truly has something for everyone.
After South Africa hosted the 2010 Soccer World Cup, the country and its major cities have also become more popular with travelers. Cape Town is a sprawling metropolis, spread out over 948 square miles, that is perhaps most closely linked to apartheid and its aftermath. Nearby is Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela and many others were held prisoner for fighting against the racist practices of the previous government. And it was in Cape Town that Mandela, after being released from Robben Island, made his famous speech on the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront that would mark the end of apartheid and signify the beginning of change for this city.
While South Africa has made great strides in the post-apartheid era, a word of caution is necessary. Cape Town has a high crime rate, in large part due to an unemployment rate hovering around 40%. While this should not deter travelers from visiting this amazing destination, precautions should be taken to ensure a safe stay.
Anywhere you go in Cape Town, you will always be greeted by the sight of Table Mountain, so named because its flat top resembles a table. The mountain almost serves as the city’s mascot – a silhouette of it even appears on Cape Town’s flag. Even on clear days, billowy clouds often blanket the top of the mountain, almost appearing to be a table setting.
At 3,500 feet, Table Mountain should be at the top of your list of sights to see – from its peak you can see spectacular views of the city and ocean from every angle. To access the top, take an aerial cable car up the mountain – it takes about 10 minutes and the cars rotate so you’ll get a good view no matter where you stand.
Keep in mind that the weather is changeable, with even a clear morning rapidly becoming cloudy and windy at the top of the mountain. When the winds pick up, the cable cars stop operating. If you are on up the mountain, an alarm sounds and you will have a short time to make it down.
Table Mountain is part of a national park with over 500 hiking trails, giving hikers the opportunity to view native wildlife including a variety of lizards that make their home in Cape Town.
Aerial Cable Car Details
Hours: First car up 8am, last car up 7pm, last car down 8pm (one hour earlier in winter)
Cost: $20 for adults and $10 for kids. Seniors and students receive discounts on Fridays (website)
Victoria & Alfred Waterfront
The city’s most popular tourist spot is the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront (commonly known as the V&A Waterfront), named for Prince Alfred and his mother Queen Victoria. Prince Alfred started building the harbor in 1860, and while today the area has a similar vibe to San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf or New York City’s South Street Seaport, it is also filled with historic buildings. Most recognizable is the Victorian-style Gothic Clock Tower, completed in 1882 and renovated in 1997. Nearby is Seal Landing, where a colony of Cape fur seals has taken up residence.
Much like other waterfront developments, the area has undergone a renaissance with new apartments, offices and hotels complementing the historic buildings and large number of retails shops – over 400 and a mix of local South African companies and international chains. There is also a bazaar full of vendors in a separate outside area near the Two Oceans Aquarium.
Two Oceans Aquarium (website, open daily 9:30am – 6pm, adults $12) is named after the Indian and Atlantic Oceans, which meet at the end of the African Continent south of Cape Town. Opened in 1997, the aquarium has seven exhibits and over 3,000 animals in its collection. And if you have a Padi Scuba diving certification, you can scuba dive with ragged tooth sharks right in the aquarium.
The waterfront also serves as a departure point for several day trips and tours, including the ferry that goes to Robben Island, the infamous prison that held Nelson Mandela captive for 27 years. The prison is no longer is use but serves as a museum for tourists to view the history of what it was like for the prisoners during the Apartheid area. The tour guides are former prisoners who will walk you around the cell blocks, including Nelson Mandela’s prison cell. This is an intense day trip, but you can’t really appreciate how far South Africa has come without a visit to this sobering historical site.
Visiting Robben Island
Ferry terminal: Nelson Mandela Gateway to Robben Island, Ground Floor, Clock Tower, +27 (0)21 419 1300, website
Hours: Ferry service every hour on the hour from 9am – 3pm, trip duration 3 ½ hours
Tickets: Adults $20, Kids 4 – 17 $10
Since Cape Town is surrounded on two sides by water and on a third by Table Mountain, the sea is never far and the beaches are some of the city’s most popular attractions. The two biggest draws are Camps Bay and Clifton. However, keep in mind that in order to get to the beaches, you have take a taxi or drive since none can be reached by foot unless you are staying in Camps Bay.
South of the city center, on the opposite side of Table Mountain, Camps Bay is a great people watching beach located beneath the 12 Apostles mountains. The palm tree-lined strip along the beach is the place to see and be seen with a vibe seemingly more like South Beach than South Africa – lots of beautiful people and local and international celebrities.
If you are looking for something less crowded then try Clifton Beach, which is walking distance from Camps Bay. Clifton is divided into four beaches, each reached by steep steps from the road from Camps Bay. The first of the four is the largest and the most crowded. It’s popular with sports enthusiasts – you will find people playing volleyball or soccer as well as sunbathing. The second beach attracts a trendy leisurely crowd, while the third is gay friendly and the fourth attracts the trendy.
If you are into surfing and have an adventurous spirit, Muizenberg Beach, which is in the suburb of Muizenberg, is the most popular beach for surfers. However, it’s very close to False Bay, which has a population of Great White Sharks, so it is not uncommon for the beach to prohibit swimming because of shark sightings. Muizenberg was also the site of a battle in 1795 where the British took control of the Cape before taking over much of Southern Africa. The remains of a defensive fort built by the Dutch still stand on a hill overlooking False Bay.
Cape Point & Cape of Good Hope
Part of Table Mountain National Park, Cape Point (website) is at the end of a narrow mountainous land mass at the southwestern tip of the African continent running between the Atlantic and False Bay. It is also home to the fabled Cape of Good Hope, which while not technically where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet, is still where sailors would change from an east-west orientation to north-south.
This rugged area consists of mountains rising up dramatically from the sea, leading to the tips of the peninsula at Cape Point and Cape of Good Hope. It is also part of the Cape Floral World Heritage Site, which together contains 20% of the continent’s flora even though it is 0.5% of the landmass of Africa. But the area is perhaps best known for its baboon population, who are docile as long as you maintain your distance and do not have food on you – they have been known to attack anyone carrying food.
Visitors have the option of hiking up to the point or taking a funicular to the historic lighthouse. Below, marvel at the churning seas which are responsible for dozens of shipwrecks – a few of which are still visible at various points in the park. At Cape Point, Two Oceans restaurant has terrific seafood and an amazing view of False Bay.
On your journey back to or from Cape Point, stop at the Cape Point Ostrich Farm (M65 South, just north of the entrance to the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve, website, open daily 9:30 – 5:30pm). South Africa is the largest exporter of Ostrich meat in the world and a tour ($5) of this family-run breeding farm takes you through every stage of an ostrich’s life from incubation of eggs to adult. You can also buy food to feed the adult ostriches – just watch for your hands. It’s not uncommon that an ostrich will take your entire hand in its mouth. It doesn’t hurt but it’s bound to surprise you. Other ostrich farms, particularly in Oudtshoorn, the ostrich capital of the world, are two hours outside of Cape Town and allow visitors to ride on the ostriches. Cape Point Ostrich Farm, however, does not see it as an appropriate activity for the welfare of the animal.
Admission & Park Times
Hours: Park: October – March 6am – 6pm, April – September 7am – 5pm; Two Oceans & Funicular: October – March 9am – 6pm, April – September 9am – 5pm
Admission: Park: Adults $10, discount for kids under 12; Funicular round-trip: Adults $6, Students & seniors $2
The Garden Route
Easily accessible from Cape Town, the Garden Route runs along the scenic coast of South Africa on the N2 highway from Mossel Bay to the Storms River. A number of towns dot the route, include Mossel Bay, George, Knysna, Outdshoorn, Hermanus, Plettenberg Bay and Nature’s Valley. The Route can only be traveled by day because there are no street lights and you are surrounded by wilderness. Here it’s not deer crossing the road you have to watch for but baboons.
The name Garden Route is actually deceiving because there are no actual gardens on the route, only shrubbery, hills and a lot of greenery. The route is stunning and at times you feel that you could be in other parts of the world rather than on the African continent. While the highway is a direct route, however, the route does take you on a jaunt up a mountain through winding roads and the drive is best done with a local driver.
En route to the Garden Route, there are two towns, Hermanus and Gansbaai, that are worth making a stop in. Hermanus, a fishing town with a small strip of restaurants and stores, is known for being a rest stop for the Southern Right Whales, which you can actually see just off shore during the winter. For an up close look, there are numerous agencies that arrange excursions with local boats.
About 2 ½ hours west of Hermanus is the town of Gansbaai. Anyone who is into true adventure knows what the most popular thing to do in Gansbaai is – cage diving with Great White sharks. A local company specializing in cage diving is Shark Cage Diving with Brian McFarlane (website). After a short briefing, you will head out in a small group about 25 minutes off the coast to an area called Shark Alley. Here, they chum the waters to attract the sharks while you get in the cage and get to view these massive creatures up close. After everyone on the boat has the opportunity to experience the sharks, they take you to Dyer Island, otherwise known as Seal Island because it is only inhabited by seals. These seals are the reason Great White Sharks make their home in South Africa and why this particular area is called Shark Alley.
Further along the route is the town of Knysna, home to the dense Knysna Forest, South Africa’s largest indigenous forest. While elephants once roamed free here, today they are found at the Knysna Elephant Park (website), where you can feed, pet and ride the elephants that live here. (Tours every half-hour 8:30am – 4:30pm, Cost: Adults $21.50, Kids 3 – 12 $11.25, Students & Seniors $18, bucket of elephant feed $3.75)
Beyond Knysna, you will reach the sleepy town of Plettenberg Bay, a great spot to overnight. For the ultimate secluded and peaceful experience, stay at the Lily Pond Lodge (website), an upscale lodge run by a welcoming couple from Amsterdam. A short drive away is Bloukran’s Bridge, the highest commercial bridge that allows bungy jumping in the world. The staff at Face Adrenaline makes the entire experience fun and entertaining (jumps about $83).
South Africa is one of the world’s up and coming wine destinations and its premier region, Stellenbosch, is just 30 minutes east of Cape Town. The rolling hills of Stellenbosch are reminiscent of California’s Napa Valley, though the wineries are far less busy. The most popular, Spier Estate (website) dates back to 1692 and occupies more than 1,000 hectares.
At Spier, you not only have the option of tasting a variety of white and red wines, but visiting the cheetah and eagle sanctuary, where you pet both cubs and adults as well as handle an eagle. Also on the property is Moyo, a restaurant offering traditional African meats and vegetables served buffet-style.
About ten minutes away is the Meerlust Wine Estate (website), which has been in the Myburgh family since 1756. Meerlust is known for its chardonnay and red wines, including the signature Rubicon, a blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc.
Another well known winery is Tokara (website), which in addition to crafting fine wines, also has 15 hectares of olive trees and makes a fine olive oil. The winery specializes in whites, especially sauvignon blanc and chardonnay, and there is also a full service restaurant on site serving lunch and dinner Tuesday to Saturday.
Eat & Drink
Salt (The Ambassador Hotel, 34 Victoria Road, Bantry Bay, +021 4380404, website) is an excellent restaurant where the food actually holds its own with the view of the ocean just beyond the glass wall. Dinner for two with wine about $80. Open for lunch and dinner daily. Reservations are recommended.
Wakame (Surrey Place & Beach Road, Mouille Point +021 433 2377, website) is an extremely popular spot with a young, trendy vibe. Wakame serves Asian fusion and specializes in seafood but the people watching can be distracting. The outdoor lounge near the second floor bar has a view of the beach and makes a great place to have drinks during that inevitable wait for your table. Reservations are recommended. Open noon to 3pm and 6pm to 10:30pm Friday to Sunday.
Anatoli (24 Napier Street, De Waterkant, +27 21 419 2501, website) is a Turkish restaurant in the De Waterkant section of Cape Town housed in an old Victorian warehouse dating back to 1904. Enjoy the wide variety of appetizers and entrées, not to mention the fresh baked bread. Dinner only Monday – Saturday 7pm to 11pm.
Soho (The Village Lodge Portfolio, 49 Napier Street, De Waterkant, + 2721 421 1106, website) offers excellent Thai dishes from Pad Thai to seafood specialties. The Ridgeback Sauvignon Blanc 2008 is the perfect accompaniment to the cuisine. Open 7:30am to 10:30pm
Where to Stay
The Bay Hotel (website) should be your choice if you are looking for five star luxury right on Camps Bay Beach. Doubles from $335.
The Village Lodge Portfolio (website) is a small boutique hotel with an excellent staff and helpful owners. The hotel offers 15 rooms, the Soho Thai restaurant and a rooftop swimming pool with views of Table Mountain. Doubles from $200 in high season, $105 in low season, including breakfast.
Lily Pond Lodge (R102 Nature’s Valley Rd, The Crags, + 27 44 534 8767, website) is the perfect secluded hideaway, surrounded by forest and lily ponds. Doubles from $88 in high season, $67 in low season – price is per person, double occupancy.
Getting There: Flights arrive at Cape Town International Airport, which is undergoing a massive expansion ahead of the 2010 World Cup, including a newly built Central Terminal. Taxis take about 20 minutes to the city – Touch Down Taxis is the only authorized taxi company operating at the airport and the fare is about $35. Shuttle services such as Randy’s Day Tours run to and from the airport. Rates are about $22 per person for a shared van with discounts for multiple parties in the same group.
Getting Around: The most efficient, and safest, way to get around is by taxi. Arrange for a taxi from hotels and restaurants so you are certain to take a reputable company.
Safety: Due to the high crime level, Cape Town is not a city where you can walk around freely, especially at night. You should always be aware of your surroundings and do not walk around with flashy belongings.
Weather: Cape Town is in the southern hemisphere so the best time to visit is between November (beginning of summer) and March when it is the warmest and driest. However the ocean is the coldest at this time. During their winter months, June through August, Cape Town experiences a good amount of wind and rain.
Currency: South African Rand (R or ZAR)
Language: English, Afrikaans and Xhosa.
Tipping: In South Africa tip 10 – 15 % in restaurants (if service not included) and 10% in taxis
Visas: American travelers do not need Visas in order to travel to South Africa.