South Africa is on my mind lately. Perhaps it is because we have had a rough winter up here at the other end of the world, made worse (for me) by stupidly breaking my wrist and needing surgery. Perhaps because I keep getting SoMe reminders that I was in Cape Town exactly ten years ago (how is 2013 a decade ago?). Whatever the reason, an African journey this year would not go amiss.
I mean, what’s not to love? Friendly folks, good food, great music, pleasant temperatures pretty much year round, astonishing variety of animal and plant life, interesting political history, and some of the most beautiful natural surroundings in the world. And that’s just off the top of my head.
Meanwhile, I thought I’d gather up a few fabulous experiences to have in, and around, Cape Town.
Things to do in Cape Town
1. Visit Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden
Let’s begin with a walk in the park. Or in the garden, rather. Set on the slopes of the elusive Table Mountain, this is one of the seven most beautiful botanical gardens in the world, according to Wanderlust – right up there with Kew Gardens and Jardim Botânico in Rio de Janeiro.
Cecil Rhodes, PM of the then Cape Colony has made his mark on this garden. Cecil is as controversial as they come, inextricably linked to the history of colonialism as he is. His connection to Kirstenbosch is not entirely uncomplicated either. He bought the garden in 1895, and planted an impressive avenue of camphor and fig trees, now known as Rhodes Drive. Sadly, the garden was left to crumble after that, and soon mud-wallowing feral pigs had taken over.
Back in the present, Kirstenbosch Garden is a lovely place to wander on a sunny day – and sunny days abound in South Africa. You don’t have to be a gardening enthusiast to admire this serene spot, all 528 hectares (ca 1300 acres) of it. Immaculate gardens, a tranquil atmosphere and trails aplenty, including the elevated Boomslang Canopy Trail.
You will also find lots of lawn to play on, a tea room, a restaurant, a little shop, an amphitheatre and art exhibits. And you can get your face painted with tribal dots.
Works with Ingrid’s fair Scandinavian skin, too.
Note: If you plan to climb Table Mountain from Kirstenbosch, make sure you know how – and where – to do this safely. Nursery Ravine and Skeleton Gorge are the only safe routes from here. Stay on the paths! Better yet, take a guide along.
2. V & A Waterfront, for shops, food and South Africa’s 4 Nobel Peace Prize winners
Granted, V&A Waterfront is a bit touristy. Still, it is well worth a visit when you are in Cape Town.
Named for Queen Victoria and her beloved Albert, this area has always reminded me of Aker Brygge in Oslo. They are both upmarket malls, with shops and restaurants and bars and cafes and galleries. But just as interestingly, they both have long waterfront promenades and serve as wharfs. And they both have plenty of outdoor art. At V&A, you can see sculptures of all four of South Africa’s Nobel Peace laureates.
- Albert Luthuli, leader of ANC, famous for his non-violence activism against apartheid,
- Archbishop Desmond Tutu,
- South Africa’s last president of white minority-rule, FW de Klerk, who helped dismantle apartheid, and won the Nobel Peace Prize jointly with the most famous of them all,
- Nelson Mandela, who needs no further introduction.
Further reading: World at a Glance: While we’re waiting for Nobel…
3. Visit Robben Island
And that transitions well to an absolute must-see when you are in Cape Town.
Mandela’s bed: imagine sleeping like this every night for 20 years: two rough blankets on a stone floor.
It is not an easy experience, because it is unpleasant to be reminded of human cruelty. But even if you and I are very unlikely to ever take part in systematic injustice (or any injustice at all, hopefully), I think we need to be reminded from time to time. Chances are, that will make us less likely to condone such acts of barbarism by being silent bystanders.
The ferry from V&A Waterfront takes about 30 minutes, and you must join a guided tour. Do it!
Further reading: Postcard from Outcast Isle.
Things to do around Cape Town
4. Gorgeous drive to the Cape
Hire a car and drive down to Cape of Good Hope in Table Mountain National Park. The drive takes about one hour, but count on more, because I can guarantee you will be making heaps of photo stops along the way.
5. The penguins at Boulders Beach
In case you have opted for the train rather than driving, Simon’s Town is the final stop of the railway. This little harbour town is pleasant enough, with nice little cafes, vegetarian-friendly ones, too – and not least, beaches. The best known is Boulders Beach, famous for these lovelies:
Used to be, you could go out on the beach and get up close and personal with the little cuties. Not anymore. Now, we humans have to contend with looking at them from behind a fence, and you have to pay a fee (R152 for foreigners, R39 for South Africans), which goes towards conserving this rare breed of penguins. That is as it should be! Especially when I hear people have stolen penguins. Stealing penguins! We can be quite the nefarious species, can’t we!
That said, the penguins do not always stick to the beach. The curious little ones sometimes wander off into town, like these two:
Dude! Hurry, before someone sees us.
6. Cape of Good Hope
North Cape is not technically the real northernmost point in Europe (Knivskjellodden is). In the same way, Cape of Good Hope is not the southernmost point in Africa (Cape Agulhas is). That said, both have such dramatic natural features, they are generally referred to as the end of the respective continents.
Standing on the edge of this rocky headland feels like standing at the end of the earth. Especially when the wind blows and waves are raging. First time I was here – and we’re back in the 90s now, folks – the fog came in as I stood there, covering everything, including me. A little eerie. A lot exciting.
End of the earth
And just like the Atlantic Ocean meets the Arctic Ocean at North Cape, here at the other end of the world, the same Atlantic meets the Indian Ocean at this mesmerising rock.
Take the Flying Dutchman funicular up to the historic lighthouse at Cape Point – or better yet, walk up through the verdant greenery and be rewarded with the spectacular vista as you arrive. And who knows, perhaps you’ll spot the fabled ghost ship the funicular is named after.
Because it was frequently covered in mist or clouds, the lighthouse at Cape Point was rather ineffective.
7. Wildlife spotting at Cape of Good Hope
When I first visited Cape of Good Hope, it was early evening and mine was the only car in the car park. Opening the door, I was practically assaulted by a couple of large Chacma baboons, presumably looking for some high-energy food. Twenty years later, the baboons were much more reticent. Turns out, the Chacma population here at the Cape is potentially threatened and needs protection.
Other animals to spot, include various types of antelope, including elands…
An eland grazing at the Cape Peninsula
…zebra, otter, mongooses, cats, tortoises and porcupines, several breeds of snakes (cobra, boomslang, puff adder, and more)…
…as well as a bewildering array of birds – a whopping 250 species.
Further reading on points 4 – 6 above: The Cape Peninsula: penguins, baboons and spectacular scenery (Day out Cape Town)
Let’s continue with wildlife, one of Africa’s foremost delights.
A day at Inverdoorn Game Reserve, about 2 hours from Cape Town, is an easy introduction to the safari experience. Inverdoorn is a cheetah rehabilitation centre in the semi-desert Karoo, where you’ll spot the big 5 – rhino, lion, buffalo, elephant and leopard – (if they are in the mood to be spotted), as well as zebras, giraffes, ostrich, springbok, impalas, wildebeest, hippos, and of course, cheetahs.
We visited for the day, but you can stay overnight in comfortable chalets, and enjoy the swimming pool, just what the doctor ordered after a day on bumpy roads in the dusty landscape.
Further reading: Cheetahs and other rescue animals at Inverdoorn (Day out Cape Town)
9. Imizamo Yethu township
I’m ambivalent about visiting places where people live. It’s an ethical balancing act, isn’t it? On a very thin line.
If approached humbly, you can learn a lot, about history, about socio-economic issues, about culture – while simultaneously sharing your own culture. And talking with people is always interesting. You could also say it is a way to create jobs for the residents. Though I would argue that is a short-term result and not very sustainable. It might provide some income, but probably not change circumstances.
Also, I have to ask myself if I would like having tourists wandering through my neighbourhood, looking at my house, maybe even through my windows. Looking at my life.
Still, I decided to include it here. Your call.
The settlement of Imizamo Yethu, also known as Mandela’s Park, is located in Hout Bay Valley.
Further reading: Imizamo Yethu: Life in a township
10. The self-declared Republic of Hout Bay
From the road between Cape Town and the Cape Peninsula you’ll see a picturesque view of a blue harbour down below. That is Hout Bay, a tongue-in-cheek self-declared micronation, with its own passport. That’s the quirky bit. The town is also an idyllic fishing port, and a popular place to live. Three roads led down to Hout Bay, all across mountain passes. Great fish’n’chips, too, if memory serves.
Further reading: World at a Glance: Republic of Hout Bay
11. Afternoon tea at the venerable Mount Nelson hotel
Back in Cape Town, after days of exploring this alluring city and its surroundings, we decide my last day should be a thoroughly lazy one. In fact, all we do is venture a few metres across the road from our guesthouse – to this pink palace.
The legendary afternoon tea at Mount Nelson is our only goal for the day. An indulgence in opulent surroundings, it turns out, with bubbles included. And they have a tea sommelier!
Afternoon tea at Mount Nelson is served in the lounge, on the terrace, or on the lawn.
In the elegant tea lounge, we sip fresh Signature Mount Nelson tea, a blend of six teas as well as rose petals from Mount Nelson’s own garden, served in delicate china. Service is attentive; not once do we have to lift the pot to pour our own tea.
The offerings include delicious sandwiches and cakes. Be sure to try the local speciality melktert – South African milk tart. And if you’re in a slightly naughty mood, go for champers instead of (or in addition to) tea, tickling all your senses, so you’ll giggle the afternoon away.
12. Visiting the neighbouring countries
I’ll briefly mention a 12th reason to go: the proximity of numerous other fascinating countries. South Africa borders Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Eswatini, and Mozambique. Another quirky country, Lesotho, is completely surrounded by South Africa. These are all within easy reach. A bit further afield – but relatively short flights or bus rides – are Malawi, Zambia, and Tanzania.
Many more things to do…
There is much more to see and do in Cape Town, that I have not yet done. I still haven’t climbed Table Mountain; the weather has yet to cooperate. Nor have I visited Stellenbosch and the famous vineyards. I would like to explore the colourful neighbourhood Bo Kaap, and visit Slave Lodge and the District Six Museum, to learn more about the history of this fascinating city.
For biodiversity and a bit of excitement, there is horse riding along the beach, whale watching, and shark diving. (Not sure about that last bit, to be honest. Conditioning wild animals to cater to people’s whims. But again: it’s up to you.)
Cape Town practicals
- First things first: Cape Town is not exactly the safest city on the planet, so you need to know where not to go and what not to do. The usual warning applies: keep your wits about you and be aware – and sober – at all times. Do not show off cash or jewellery. Do not wander about at night, stick with official taxis.
- Getting around: I’m going to assume you have bucketloads of common sense and follow the advice above. If so, Cape Town is actually quite walkable in daylight.
- Going further afield, hiring a car is straightforward – and the best option, especially if you, like me, don’t have all the time in the world. At car parks, locals will offer to look after your car. Sadly, this is a necessity. Remember to tip when you pick up your car.
- Cape Town has a plethora of accommodations in all price categories. In the friendly Gardens neighbourhood, you could splurge for Mount Nelson, or choose the friendly Ashanti Lodge across the street. (Nope, nothing sponsored from either one, or anywhere else mentioned in this article.)