Cape Town could keep you busy for months on end with all it has to offer. We start in the City Centre and spiral out to the areas around the city detailing what there is to see and do in each area. After reading this article, remember to get a free quotation on your car rental in Cape Town.
The City Center
Quite unique in that the whole of the city centre is built on reclaimed land, Cape Town boasts some strong historic landmarks, museums and galleries that are well worth a visit. The flash map on the opening page of the site provides orientation for these places of interest and repeats the information given below.
Weather you like it or not you won’t be able to miss this one. Slap bang in the centre of the city this is by far Cape Town’s greatest asset. As if sliced by a sword, the fa�ade of ‘the mountain’ as the locals call it, is completely flat and is hugged on the one side by Devils Peak and on the other by Lions Head and Signal Hill. Accessible by an amazing rotating cableway, this is the most important thing to do in the City.
Over 1000m high this mammoth spectacle will take your breath away both from above and below. Look out, from the city side, for the lights at night that illuminate the ghostly rocks. For the more adventurous, climbing Table Mountain will provide a great sense of accomplishment. There are many routes to take, some easy and some very hard. Just remember to respect the fact that this is a mountain and weather conditions on its paths and on the top can become quite severe. Always take lots of drinking water and some warm clothes and never stray from the paths. For a more challenging route take Skeleton Gorge from Kirstenbosch Gardens and for a more leisurely route start at Constantia Neck turning circle where a contour road will take you all the way to the top. Both routes take you up the back of the mountain. Plan to put a day aside if you want to do this.
THE CASTLE (Crnr. Strand & Buitenkant St)
The Castle of Good Hope is the oldest colonial building in South Africa. Built by the Dutch East India Company (Look out for the VOC emblem on the entrance) in 1666 it stands on the original site of a small clay and wood fort built by Jan van Riebeeck, the first ‘white’ man to set foot on the tip of Africa in 1652. Interesting to note that the sea used to come right to the edge of the fort prior to major land reclamation in the city.
CITY HALL (Darling St)
This beautiful building, built in 1905 was the site of the historic speech of Nelson Mandela after being released from Victor Verster prison in 1990. Now a parking lot, the area directly in front of the building, was once a parade ground for the old Apartheid government to display military power.
HOUSES OF PARLIAMENT (Parliament St)
Opened in 1885 and modified many times since then this building has played host to historic changes that shaped the ‘New’ South Africa. If you wish you can watch parliament in session in the months between January and June.
BERTRAM HOUSE (Crnr. Government Ave & Orange)
This old mansion used to be the residence of a wealthy South African family of English descent. Now a museum filled with antiques and art it is a great example if interpretive Georgian architecture and a sign of the opulence of the past colonialists.
TUYNHUIS (Parliament St)
The President’s town Residence, this building has housed diverse people in power and has now been restored to how it appeared in 1795.
KOOPMANS DE WET HUIS (Crnr. Strand & Burg St)
A prime example of an old Cape Townhouse this residence, built in 1701 stands proud among the new buildings of the city centre. Free entrance on Fridays!
BO KAAP MUSEUM (71 Wale St)
This restored house allows a glimpse into the lives of a traditional Malay family in the city. In a colourful and historic area, this is well worth a visit to get an idea of life in this still vibrant area.
DISTRICT SIX MUSEUM (Crnr. Buitenkant & Albertus St)
Formerly a multiracial and vibrant suburb, District Six was demolished with the introduction of the Group Areas Act during Apartheid, which insisted on separation of the races. Now an open area this museum pays tribute to the people who lived there.
HERITAGE SQUARE (Crnr. Buitenkant & Longmarket St)
This beautiful old square is an example of the old trading buildings in the city. Now filled with trendy bars, shops and restaurants it’s a great place to stop off for a drink while walking around.
ST GEORGES CATHEDRAL (Queen Victoria Rd)
This place of worship (1897) designed by Sir Herbert Baker was the cathedral of world renowned Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
THE COMPANY GARDENS (Government Ave)
These stunning gardens were first planted by Jan van Riebeek and used to cover an impressive 18 hectares. Now only six remain but still provide a breathtaking glimpse of the original ‘vegetable garden’ of the first colonial settler in the cape.
This site, once a leper colony and then the site of the prison that housed Nelson Mandela is a must see. It is filled with history and gives a great insight to the struggle that was endured by the ‘freedom fighters’ of South Africa. Rising out of the waters in the middle of Table Bay, it is only accessible by boat and looking back from its shores will provide the most breathtaking view of Table Mountain imaginable.
THE V&A WATERFRONT
Situated in restored buildings of a once derelict part of the port of Cape Town, this fascinating complex of shops, hotels, restaurants, bars and clubs will keep you busy for days on end. A fantastic world-class venue, the Waterfront hugs the docks of the bustling operating port. Just sitting and watching the activities could keep you mesmerised for hours. A favourite amongst foreign visitors and locals alike.
Flanking Table Mountain, Signal hill rises above the Atlantic Seaboard and the city to provide an excellent view of the City and Ocean that surround the peninsula. A great spot for a picnic and sundowner cocktails. Also look out for the Noon Gun. Accessed via a different route, walk up Longmarket Street towards Signal Hill. This canon, fired every day at noon, except Sundays, was traditionally used to help the people of the city know the time. As a tradition, the blasting carries on to this day.
Situated in the centre of town, this flea market is an excellent place to pick up some traditional African curios. Just note that most are not actually made in South Africa but imported from the neighbouring African countries. Still, the craftsmanship is good and it is cheaper to buy there than at some of the boutique stores selling the same goods at many times the price. The market has been going since 1710 but started as a farmers market and has changed with the times to what it is today.
ST GEORGES MALL
Pedestrianised in the 90’s, this street runs through the heart of the city and is bustling with local talent busking and singing all day long. There are some great shops to explore and buildings to see that line the street. Adjoining Greenmarket Square it is a good thing to plan to see on the same day.
A beautiful street filled with old buildings and delicate wrought iron railings; Long Street is the New Orleans of Africa. Lined with Bars, Clubs, Pubs and shops this is a truly 24 hour area. Be careful crossing the street, these drivers stop for no man! At the top end of Long Street (it’s a one way) you will find the Long Street Baths. A traditional Turkish bath, they are very popular and can be frequented for a bath, massage or both. Note that men and woman must go at different times. Men are welcome Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday, 09:00 to 20:30. Women: Monday, Thursday and Saturday 09:00 to 18:00.
Cape Town is graced with some of the most fantastic beaches in the world. Cold water makes swimming an accelerated affair but it is still a great beach destination. Note that most of the popular beaches are manned by lifeguards but some of the more secluded beaches have no one to watch over you. Be cautious at all times as the ocean is very cold and on the longer beaches, the currents can get quite strong. For quick reference of what to expect we have provided a brief description of each beach. Note that drinking is not permitted on Cape Town’s beaches although the locals seem to be quite relaxed about following that rule! This list is by no means exhaustive and if you are prepared to hunt there are some great hidden beaches all around the city but we will leave finding those up to you!
This palm tree and restaurant lined beach will give you a faint hint of South Beach Miami. A great sun-tanning beach. Spotted with volleyball nets and tanned bodies. Sometimes a bit exposed to the wind.
Clifton 1, 2, 3 and 4
This string of beaches provides an excellent hide away from the wind. Hugged with beach side bungalows and separated by huge boulders that jut out of the sand, each beach in the string has its own atmosphere. If you want to see and be seen 4th beach is the place. 3rd and 2nd beach are both popular with the gay community but not exclusively and 1st beach, often under water is a great little beach and a little less crowded. All of these are great for a picnic at sundown. If you are staying close by walk to the beach as the traffic in this area can be very congested.
Slightly further a field, Llandudno is a sight for sore eyes. This small bay opens up to provide a wide beach with soft white sand. Parking can be a nightmare but if you get there early or are prepared to walk from your car (best would be to take a taxi) then it is worth it. More local and a lot more relaxed you will be greeted by families and dogs playing in the sand. Also not bad for surfing but make sure you have a wetsuit!
On the same bay as Llandudno, Sandy Bay is Cape Towns nudist beach, so if its nudity you are looking for this is the place for you. Boulders and rocks provide hiding places for the more bashful otherwise the sandy beach is great. The walk to this beach is quite long, especially in the hot sand, but worth it!
Flanked by Hout Bay Harbour and The Sentinal on the one side and the stunning Chapmans Peak on the other this beach is excellent for tanning, kayaking, swimming, running, walking the dog and much more. Not as full or as ‘trendy’ as the other beaches this is a great place to come if you want space between you and the next umbrella!
This wide and long white beach is breathtaking. Horse riders run along the surf line and the sand is so soft it fells like velvet on your feet. So much space and so much beauty. Much further from town but if it’s a beach holiday and crowd avoidance you are seeking then worth a trip.
Kommetjie, Misty Cliffs and Scarborough
All along the same route these are small seaside sleepy villages that all have excellent beaches. Great for surfing and a bit of local small town charm.
Famed for the local Jackass Penguin colony that lives there, this stunning little beach is now reserved for penguins! A lovely boardwalk will take you right up to them where you can watch them in their natural habitat. Very popular!
Fish Hoek and Muizenburg
Both on the Indian Ocean side of Cape Point you will find the water here noticeably warmer. Quite far from the city centre but again, worth the trip. Muizenburg in particular is a great place to learn to surf given the rows of small and gentle waves that endlessly stream in.
Flanking Table Mountain, this rocky pinnacle is an excellent place for sundowners and to watch the moon rise over the city. Only accessible by foot from a gravel parking area situated on the road to signal hill, it involves quite a bit of energy and at times involves some pretty steep and rocky terrain. About an hour and a half climb up and a little less down, this is a spectacular experience that will give you a bird’s eye view of the city and beaches. Significantly higher then Signal Hill, the climb is well worth the effort. Don’t forget some drinking water and stay on the paths at all times. The best time to do this is on a clear evening at full moon. Climb up by sunlight and down by moonlight. WOW!
The Southern Suburbs
KIRSTENBOSCH BOTANICAL GARDENS
Kirstenbosch gardens compare quite easily with the world’s best. 36 hectares of manicured gardens provide an endless maize of walkways and fascinating local flora. The gardens are almost entirely indigenous and will keep the botanist in you busy for hours. There is a snack bar and a restaurant and an interesting gallery with African sculpture. Most definitely not to be missed is one of the summer concerts that are held there through the summer months every Sunday. The natural amphitheatre provides a great spot to spread the picnic blanket and pop open a bottle of local wine while watching the light fade and listen to some great music in the shadow of the back of Table Mountain. There is a small fee to get in but get there early for a good spot as the concerts can attract up to 6000 people every Sunday.
Dedicated to Cecil John Rhodes who donated the property to the government in 1906 for preservation, this symmetrical granite monument commands an excellent view of the Cape Flats and the mountains in the far distance. Hop on the back of one of the Lion Sculptures for a favourite picture and have a wholesome meal or drink at the tea garden right behind it. Great to see if you are in the area.
THE UNIVERSITY OF CAPE TOWN
If nothing else, the beautiful faade of the original buildings is a good reason to visit this stunning campus. Most definitely one of the best views from any campus, its surprising any work gets done there. Sit on the steps in front of the columned Jameson Hall and look over the Cape Flats into the distance. Home to over 19000 students, it is an impressive institution and would be of great interest to the true academic. The Campus is totally open to the public but be sure to get a temporary parking permit from the Information Desk as you drive onto campus.
THE TOWNSHIPS/SQUATTER CAMPS
As you drive into Cape Town from the airport you will be struck by these informal settlements that skirt the highway. A result of segregation of the races, these were the areas that housed the black and coloured populations of the area. Today they are in a process of change as the government attempts to replace these previously disadvantaged communities with basic housing. As a temporary measure though, each shack has been included on the city grid with access to electricity, sanitation, clean water and even postal services. A popular outing for tourists, these areas are definitely worth a visit as they house some exciting and vibrant people. Many small ‘B&B;’s’ have opened in these areas, merely a bed in one of the shacks, and they are proving very popular. Just note that these areas are crime ridden and controlled by gangs and it is best that if you wish to explore them you take an experienced guide. The most affected areas include Gugulethu, Llanga and Kayalitsha.
A Little Further Afield
Cape Point is a horn like rocky landmass that hooks off the tip of the peninsula. Within a nature reserve it is an excellent trip and a great place to get an idea of what the area looked like when it was totally untouched by the effects of development.
Some will tell you two things about this spot, both of which are untrue. Just so you know the truth, it is not the southernmost point of the continent and it is not where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet. It is however a breathtaking place to visit! Cape Aghulas, a good two-hour drive out of Cape Town in an Easterly direction is in fact the place that claims ownership of both these facts.
Be careful of the Baboons, feeding them will just get you in trouble and encourage them to get rowdy, something that can be quite scary as they are after all wild animals, wild animals somewhat prone to kleptomania so hang on to your possessions!
If you are going to do this trip combine it with visiting Kalk Bay, Fishhoek and Simonstown all of which are small towns en-route. Also don’t miss the Penguins on Boulders Beach just outside of Simonstown.
South African wine is a great surprise. It is world class and very easy on the wallet. If you are a wine fanatic, display a mild interest or merely want to prove that the spittoon is of no use, then this is the place for you. A vibrant winemaking community tussles for dominance both locally and abroad. To wet your appetite do the Constantia Wine Route. Close to the city, a mere 15 to 20 minutes from the city centre, the farms here are well established and produce some of the best-known wines. Otherwise spend a few days exploring the other wine regions, a bit further a field, they will keep you tasting for a long, long time. Try Stellenbosch, Franschoek and Paarl. All three towns are avid wine producers and the rolling vineyards are enough to make you stand and stare, open-mouthed at the scenery. Note the traditional Cape Dutch homesteads that anchor the older vineyards. They are steeped in history and signify the opulence of past wine making generations. Most are now museums and are well worth a quick tour. Also, most farms will organise postage for you, at prices that are dictated by speed of delivery and destination. You will find that postage is surprisingly affordable.
Its all about wine in these areas. Out of town, by car about 40 minutes, these areas are home to the rolling vineyards that produce most of South Africa’s award winning wines. Excellent for a day trip or even a stay over. Stellenbosch university dominates life in the town of Stellenbosch. Historically rich and beautiful this is a great place to get a good dose of the Cape Dutch architecture that is famous in the region.
Franschoek, or ‘French Corner’ sports a strong French influence due to the Huguenots that settled there many years ago. All names are French and most restaurants serve the best of French cuisine. An excellent getaway.
This small coastal town is famous for wale watching. About an hour and a half drive from Cape Town, but a visual feast of a trip. The scenery changes so drastically and so many times that you will feel like you are in a different country every few kilometres. Definitely an excellent day trip and if you are lucky enough to be there in whale season (July through November) then you will be treated to a rare sight.
THE WEST COAST
This area, which runs up the west coast from the city centre, is very sparsely populated and beautiful. Small towns dot the coastline and the best advice for this area is to just go and explore. The West Coast Nature Reserve, about 150kms from town is an excellent day trip.