Cape Town has it all

12 min to read

Cape Town has it all

Western Cape, South Africa, and Citytrip

We came in to Cape Town with wild expectations, and it didn't disappoint, even though the travel agency had done a good job of trying to discourage us from visiting Cape Town this time of year - it was winter after all. But I'm used to terrible weather so I persevered, and I'm so glad I did! Our list of things we wanted to do was long, and time was short. We had to make drastic cuts in that list, so… some day, we'll be back!

Cape Town is a popular tourist destination in large part thanks to its natural setting (with Table Mountain & the nearby Cape of Good Hope) and because of its western feel it's a very accessible multicultural city. We spent 3 nights on the northern slopes of Table Mountain in the Tafelberg Guest House with an amazing view of the Cape Town City Bowl, the central business district flanked by Table Mountain and Signal Hill. The neighborhood our guest house was in a very quiet and relaxed. But the City Bowl is relatively small and we only had to walk/drive a few blocks to Kloof Street to find a wealth of restaurants and bars. And the other side of the City Bowl - the V & A Waterfront area - is only 5 km (3 mi) away.

V & A Waterfront

The Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, modeled after the successful San Francisco & Sydney harbor projects, has brought the Cape Town docks back to life. This is still a working harbor, but with the Victoria Wharf Shopping Center and the many restaurants, the Cape Wheel, a few museums and an aquarium, an open-air theatre for live shows, a food market and so much more, this area is perfect for shopping, drinking, eating, relaxing and soaking up the vibrant atmosphere.

I especially loved the V & A Market on the Wharf food market and The Watershed. The food market features around 35 stalls that offer a wide variety of street food and drinks. From Mexican to Thai, pizza to sushi, cheese to chocolate and juices to beer: there's something for everyone. I tried a burger with steenbok.

The Watershed is a local arts/craft market with 150 tenants, the perfect place to get your souvenir! We bought 2 of local collage artist Zoe Mafham's prints and love them. They're a nice memory of this trip as well as a nice piece of decoration that has caught the eye of all of our guests so far. The perfect segue into travel stories!

Table Mountain & Signal Hill

If you want to get to the top of Table Mountain, do no hesitate! Go for it the first chance you get - you might not get another!

Hiking to the top of Table Mountain was #1 on my list. But we wanted to make the most of our limited time in Cape Town, so we decided to cut the 2 or so hour constant uphill battle & take the cable car instead. The cable car had been closed for maintenance just prior to us getting there, so it was going to be crowded. And weather was perfect. And it was a holiday.

The lady from our guest house had suggested we'd take the hop-on hop-off bus to Table Mountain: we'd be able to buy our tickets on the bus, so we could skip some of the queue (you can also buy them online.) However, it turns out they're only allowed to sell tickets as long as they're not driving up the mountain yet, and unfortunately, I had not inquired in time.

So we got in the line, and it was pretty bad - I estimate it to have been a wait of about an hour. Not that having the tickets would've helped much: there are 2 separate queue, but both move at the same speed. The folks without tickets just have to take a small detour to the ticket office, where you probably only lose about 5 minutes.

By the time the queue had advanced halfway, clouds had come rolling in and half of the city was covered already. And it was getting worse. So we decided to take off - there's no point in taking that cable car if the view's going to be white - our time was scarce enough already! We went back to the hop-on hop-off bus to discover some more of the city. We didn't get off until we reached the other side of town, at the V & A Waterfront. By the time we'd had a drink there, the clouds had disappeared. We made plans to go back to Table Mountain later in the afternoon, but - you guessed it - cloudy again!

Instead, we drove up to Signal Hill: only a third the height of Table Mountain, but 350 m (1 150 ft) still ain't bad!

Cape Town City Bowl, flanked by signal hill (left) and Table Mountain (right)

Robben Island

Not far off the coast is a small iconic island that played a significant role in South African history. From the Dutch setlers in the 17th century up to 1996: Robben Island has been a prison for much of it's history. The location is not unlike Alcatraz: it's close enough to the coast that it's relatively convenient to get to, but far enough and with strong enough currents that few will attempt an escape (and even fewer will make it.) This is the maximum security prison where Nelson Mandela was held during the apartheid regime.

While the main focus of the tightly organized 3h tour on Robben Island is the prison, there's more to be seen - even if the tour won't allow you to wander off or stay around a little longer. Just like Boulders Beach, The island is home to a colony of African Penguins. But the majestic view of Cape Town and Table Mountain is supposed to be the best! Supposed to, because we didn't get the chance to go. We had our tickets (book them ahead of time, they sold out ~2 weeks in advance!), but the tour was canceled due to bad weather. Bummer!

Bo-Kaap

A colorful area on the slopes of Signal Hill, Bo-Kaap (the Malay Quarter) is one of the oldest neighborhoods of Cape Town. According to the hop-on hop-off audio guide, the slaves that used to live here were not allowed to paint their houses. Once freed, however, they decided to go all out and paint their houses in all kinds of extravagant colors. Nowadays, these brightly colored houses are a popular tourist attraction.

Cape of Good Hope

The Cape of Good Hope is where the Dutch started to settle in the 17th century. They first set up a resupply camp, but it wouldn't be long before the farmers started moving inland and the colony grew. The Cape was once believed to be the southernmost tip of the African continent and the dividing point between the Atlantic & Indian Oceans. But this has long since been debunked.

The Cape of Good Hope was also known as the Cape of Storms, and I can definitely see why! We'd come to the Cape to escape the cloudy, rainy weather in Cape Town that day and, while we did get rid of those, it wasn't exactly beach weather either: this place is very windy! Most tourists will gather around the old lighthouse and the wooden sign at Cape Point which, to be honest, are not too spectacular. So while everyone is having their picture taken over there, you should get yours from the imposing cliffs, deserted beaches or all of the other amazing scenery in the Cape of Good Hope National Park. And if you're into hiking, this is one hell of a spot to take a walk!

Boulders Beach

40 km (25 mi) south of Cape Town is this tiny little thing called Simon's Town that you'd simply ignore on your way to the Cape of Good Hope, if only it didn't have a pretty nice beach. Not a place to go work on your tan, though. Boulders Beach is a sheltered beach full of giant granite boulders. And Penguins. The cutest little African Penguins, thousands of them.

But don't be fooled by their looks. As far as I'm concerned, this is the most dangerous animal in South Africa!

While we were still making our way to the beach, I spotted 2 of them behind a fence and couldn't wait to snap a quick picture. I got as close to the fence as I could so there would be as little of it as possible in the picture, but that was not to the liking of that devilish little penguin. In a fraction of a second, that penguin leaped forward and shoved its beak through the fence & around my finger. Before I even realized what happened, my phone was on the ground and I had a few cuts in my finger.

I guess what I'm trying to say here is: these penguins are amazing to watch, but don't provoke them.

Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens

I'm quite indifferent towards botanical gardens, so this didn't originally make it on our list of things we were going to do in Cape Town. But with the weather messing up our plans to visit Robben Island and Table Mountain, we suddenly had to improvise. And it was pretty much on our way from the peninsula (Cape of Good Hope) back to the Cape Town City Bowl anyway.

The Kirstenbosch botanical gardens, part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, sit on the eastern slopes of Table Mountain and it's the starting point for several routes to the top of Table Mountain (among which the popular Skeleton Gorge, or Smuts Track.) With 528 ha (36 of which are cultivated), the gardens are quite big and home to a wide variety of plants and over 100 different bird species. We got lucky to see this Cape Eagle-owl, still holding on to a mouse he caught. Someone had to point it out to us, though - I otherwise wouldn't have spotted it.

And there is so much more to do around Cape Town if you have some more time to spend there: from the winelands north of Cape Town to the Garden Route east. Or go on safari if you haven't in other parts of the country already. And I suppose you should at least consider visiting the townships. For your own safety, you should book an official township tour instead of going all by yourself. We didn't manage to fit this into our schedule, but going by the stories from people who did, your experience may vary: some have described it as an eyeopener into the lives of these people, while others felt like they were on an inappropriate people safari.

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