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What to do in Cape Town (For First Time visitors)


On my second day in Cape Town, I called home and announced to my mom that she was “lucky I hadn’t visited in my 20s because I never would have come home.”

I wasn’t just being dramatic. Superlatives get thrown around with ease on travel blogs. The best this and the top 10 that. What I will say is this: Cape Town (and the surrounding winelands) live up to the hype. It truly is that spectacularly beautiful. There is that much to do, see, and explore. And the food and the wine really is that good. If you go to any website or blog about Cape Town, the options presented are infinite. How can you narrow down the itinerary of what to do?

I could have spent months in Cape Town (and am not-so-secretly hoping to do so in the near future). For a first-time trip to this magical city, I wanted to share some of the must-dos and highlights for a 4-5 day itinerary. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. [Updated Feb 2020]

What to do in Cape Town:

Recommendations for a first trip to Cape Town

  • Table Mountain: this is a must for what to do in Cape Town. Here’s the thing about Table Mountain: it closes often for weather (clouds, wind, etc.). Try to go your first day – if that doesn’t work, try the next, and the next. The moment it gets sunny & calm, head over. Trust me, you don’t want to be the person who doesn’t make it to Table Mountain. If you’re so inclined, or want some sort of masochistic bragging rights: hike. However, If you’re like me and can’t make it more than one flight of stairs without getting winded: take the cable car to the top and enjoy the sweeping views of Cape Town, the mountains, and the ocean. Buy tickets in advance (like before you head over) to avoid the lines. Bring layers – it gets cold and windy.
  • Cape Point Day Trip: Any Cape Town itinerary requires this! Hire a car service/guide for the day to do this 90 mile loop (or self drive). Start down the famous Chapman’s Drive, past Cape Town’s beaches (Bantry Bay, Clifton, and Camps Bay) under the majestic Twelve Apostles Mountain range; stop for seal watching at Hout Bay; continue to the Nature Reserve at the Cape of Good Hope (the national park where you can check out the view from Cape Point at the end of the African continent). Yup, that’s right – you can go to the end of the freaking continent. Loop north and stop to see the colony of endangered African penguins who have made Boulder’s Bay their sanctuary. Finally, stop in Simon’s Town or the picturesque harbor of Kalk Bay for lunch or a snack, and continue back to the city via False Bay (erroneously considered the point where the Indian and Atlantic Oceans meet) and Muizenberg’s beaches to spot Great Whites.
  • Robben’s Island: take the ferry for a tour led by an ex-prisoner at this infamous political prison, where Nelson Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in prison. Tickets sell out, book in advance.
  • Kirstenbosch Gardens: gorgeous botanical gardens located on the slopes of Table Mountain. If you’re into nature, you could spend all day here; if not, go for an hour or two, or tack it onto the end of your Cape Point day (above) on your way back into town. Don’t miss the colony of cycads above the Colonel Bird’s bath pool – they are one of the rare species to survive since prehistoric times. While I’m generally not not even that into plants, this place is worth a stop. Summer Sundays have sunset concerts!
  • Check out Cape Town itself: Go on a Cape Town Free Walking Tour – we loved the first-hand overview provided by the Apartheid to Freedom tour. Central CPT: Bree Street, Kloof Street, and Long street for cafes and shops. Learn about Cape Malay history (and food!) and go on a walking tour to see the colorful houses in the neighborhood of BoKaap and learn about the Cape Malay culture. Take a street art tour of the changing Woodstock neighborhood and hear from locals about the changes the gentrification has brought in recent years to their community. Feeling like a lunatic? Go to Gansbaai for Great White Shark diving (several hours required). Explore Cape Town’s beautiful beaches (especially Clifton). Check out the Sunset! Hike Lion’s Head (strenuous!).
  • The new Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art is incredible – go on the free highlights tour (3pm and 11am) and then get an audio-guide to take you through Floor 5, which provokes interesting questions about art, conservation of cultures that have had mostly oral traditions, and the relationship between Africa and its Diaspora.
  • SHOP! Buy crafts and gifts from the vendors at the Watershed at the V&A Waterfront, or from other independent vendors at the Woodstock Exchange or The Old Biscuit Mill (go on Saturday morning for the Neighborhoods Market to eat as well!).


Cape Town is epically beautiful. You won’t regret watching the sun set every night from a different vista. FYI: darkness sets quite quickly after sunset as you are closer to the Equator.

  1. Roof at the new Silo Hotel on the Waterfront. Reservations are required for the roof (unless you’re a guest), but walk-ins are accepted for the 6th floor bar.
  2. Bloubergstrand – the coastal suburb from which the CPT postcards are photographed; the view is absolutely beautiful; the beach is nice for long walks (the ocean is freezing!); friends recommend Café Blouberg (+27 21 554 4462) and Blue Peter beach pub (right on the beach, popular with locals) will serve you excellent sundowners [colonial tradition – a drink at sunset].
  3. Cocktails at SAS Radisson hotel – a nice terrace by the ocean, close to the V & A Waterfront
  4. Drinks at the revolving restaurant at the Ritz Hotel in Sea Point – probably “the best view and worst food on the Cape Peninsula”

Where to eat

You can’t go wrong with Cape Town’s food scene. I’d be remiss not to mention these gems. Do yourself a favor a make a reservation for at least one during your Cape Town trip.

Fine Dining

  • The Test Kitchen Our favorite meal in Cape Town and possibly my favorite dining experience ever. Consistently on the Top 50 restaurant list in the world. Prix fix. Reservations are a must.
  • The Short Market Club – great ala carte fine dining in the CBD, from the Test Kitchen Team.
  • Pot Luck Club. Same team from The Test Kitchen – but we were sorely disappointed – skip!
  • The Chef’s Warehouse – no reservations taken!
  • La Colombe  Possibly the most internationally recognized and acclaimed restaurant in Cape Town, located in Constantia.
  • Salsify at The Roundhouse The Roundhouse was known for fine dining and some of the best views in CPT. Although the original restaurant closed a few years ago, the team behind The Test Kitchen and Pot Luck Club has opened Salsify in the space.
  • Aubergine one of Africa’s best and a Cape Town icon, great wine list , east-meets-west menu.


  • If in Bo Kaap: Bo Kaap Kombious Cape Malay cuisine (milder curry). Great view of the cape malay area of Cape Town – great people own it
  • On a Saturday morning: the stalls at Neighborhoods Market at the Old Biscuit Mill

Where to Stay:

To make the most of exploring Cape Town, I recommend staying in town or on the beautiful slopes of Table Mountain with the views over the city. Avoid the touristy V&A Waterfront.

Websites to check out for CPT happenings to add to your itinerary:

Check my other posts for travel itineraries in Africa.


Filed under Africa, South Africa

Best Indonesia Itinerary: Bali & the Gili Islands


It isn’t often that the stars align for a last-minute bucket-list adventure. In October, we hit jackpot with the winning combination of last-minute time-off + award-points availability. And just like that, we put together an itinerary and were off on a last-minute ten-day trip to Indonesia (Bali & the Gili Islands).

For many, the name “Bali” conjures the images of a tropical paradise made famous 20+ years ago. However, we had been amply forewarned that undiscovered waters are far in the past. Only a three-hour flight from Australia, Bali’s southern beach areas are now over-developed and over-crowded with tourists that never leave the resort towns to explore or experience the rest of the island. It’s akin to an Australian Miami. There are plenty of snobs who have claimed that “Bali is spoilt.” Equipped with that warning, we planned an itinerary to find the oasis beneath the tourist façade. And Bali did not disappoint.

Knowing we’d be fresh off of 27+ hours of flights/layovers, we made a game plan for the itinerary; unwind with a few days of relaxation, get active with a few days of exploration, and finish with a few more days of relaxing before journeying back to the NYC hustle.

Nusa Dua

First stop on the itinerary: unwind and relax after too many hours of flying to Indonesia. Luckily, there is no shortage of beaches within 20-30 minutes of the Denpasar International airport. However, we knew the warnings about the beaches in Bali. The beaches in Bali are technically public beaches; most are, therefore, over-packed with throngs of holiday goers and an increasing amount of garbage. So we did our research and realized we had two options: find a great resort with a secluded beachfront or go to one of Bali’s off-the-beaten path options. We ended up doing both, starting with the first option so as not to add additional driving hours after a long-international haul.

Where to stay

We can’t say enough good things about the St. Regis Bali Resort in Nusa Dua. It was the most luxurious stay either of us has had, and an indulgently relaxing place to kick off our trip. When we landed at the International Airport, the St. Regis had arranged for the airport staff to pick us up at our gate and whisk us through both immigration and customs, so that we didn’t have to wait in the hours-long arrival lines for foreigners. That alone is worth it.

The resort is beautiful – with a large open lobby that shows off the manicured resort property all the way to the ocean. The service is second-to-none. The beachfront immaculate and the staff from the swim-up pool bar also serve beach guests. There are two giant pools that snake through the property – a regular pool with giant billowy cabanas and a swim-up bar adjacent to the beach – and a salt-water pool “river” that snakes through the property. The on-property restaurants were good, the cocktails were excellent, and the staff can arrange for any type of activity – we went parasailing. We spent a very-out-of-character two days not stepping foot off the property and loved every minute of it.

Pool & Daybeds at the St. Regis Nusa Dua
Parasailing in Nusa Dua

Ubud: Bali’s cultural center

After settling into vacation mode in Nusa Dua, the next stop on our itinerary was Ubud. Ubud is Bali’s cultural center; it is also the geographical center, making the jungled city the perfect base for the middle part of our trip.

Our very first impression of Ubud was…not great. We took a cab to the center of town, and we were absolutely taken aback by how touristy the city felt. The narrow, decrepit streets (and even more narrow sidewalks) were crammed with backpackers and trinket shops. Our first-impression was uninspired. However, after a few days, we realized that the city’s notorious beauty was quite literally behind the tourist exterior. Once we stepped off the streets, even into a restaurant, the shop would open to the back revealing serene backdrops of rice paddies. Do yourself a favor, when you see the Starbucks, walk through it – the back opens up to the most gorgeous temple on a pond of lotus flowers – almost completely hidden from the view from the street.

Lotus Temple hidden behind the Starbucks…
What to do in Ubud:
  • Visit the UNESCO World Heritage rice terraces – breathtakingly lush and green
  • Go on an extreme swing over the rice terraces – not for the faint of heart!
Totally terrified on this swing!
  • Campuhan Ridge Walk – a ~15-20 minute light hike/walk with lush, sweeping hilltop views, that will take you right into town. Artisan shops and cafes dot the path, so give yourself time to meander and shop. Our favorite was Wayan Rana, whose minitature paintings were a must- and he gives art classes from his studio. We loved this!
  • Try the famous Kopi Luwak, the most expensive cup of coffee in the world (definitely worth a taste) on a coffee plantation. Also known as “cat shit” coffee by my family, kopi luwak is made from coffee cherries eaten by wild civet cats…whose digestive systems remove the acidity. A pound of these beans goes for $100-500!  Want to try it yourself: order some sustainably sourced Kopi Luwak.
  • Go to the gorgeous Yoga Barn property for a yoga, meditation, or other holistic wellness class (or stop at the café for some delicious food & great ambiance). If yoga is a must for your Bali itinerary, this is the place to do it.
  • Shop! Ubud is home to dozens of artisans – painters, wood carvers, batik printmakers, sculptors, jewelers, kite makers, etc. We recommended hiring a driver (there is no shortage of taxis everywhere!) to take you to a few of the crafts villages outside of downtown, where you’ll get to see the craft process (and get better prices).
  • We hiked up Batur, the volcano ~2 hours drive from Ubud. Yes, the sunrise views were beautiful. However, each of us had done enough prior sunrise hikes to note that this would be one we might skip. Be forewarned: to arrive in time for sunrise, you will need to leave Ubud by 2am. Bring serious sneakers or hiking shoes – and LOTS of layers, it gets seriously cold. It’s a real hike, but doable. If you’re short on time in Bali (or have done other sunrise hikes in your travels), you’re not missing much by skipping this one.
Sunrise atop Mr. Batur
  • We also went to a Balinese healer in a nearby village. It was a unique experience on our Bali itinerary. Definitely do your research before you go – this is a good place to start.

Ubud has no shortage of great restaurants. A few of our favorites:

  • Balinese Home Cooking is a must. Balinese people live in compounds made up of multiple family homes for various generations of kin and several gardens centered around a family temple. None of this is visible from the street, as these compounds are behind high-walled fences. The family-run Balinese Home Cooking invites you into the family compound, where you’ll get a rare glimpse into modern traditional Balinese life, set in the family’s beautiful gardens. The food is incredible and the prices are unbeatable. The owners are keen on encouraging cultural exchange and will come by and answer questions about how Balinese families live.
  • Waring Babi Guling Ibu Oka 3. Made famous by a raving Anthony Bourdain, this roasted suckling pig joint is an Ubud institution. Just the best. Go early as they run out quickly. Once you’ve visited the original, which is sparse, try out Ibu Oka’s sister’s ambient downtown restaurant, Rai Pastis, which opens up to rice paddies, and gets Ibu Oka’s pig daily as well.
Christian beyond excited for this roast pig
  • Mozaic. Everyone told us about Mozaic, and it did not disappoint. This was fine-dining at it’s best. The restaurant tops Restaurant Magazine’s Top 50 restaurants in Asia and is rumored to be gunning for Indonesia’s first Michelin Star. We ordered from the multi-course pan-Asian menu, made from local ingredients, and sat in the heavenly twinkle-lit garden. We loved the inventive cocktails, the top-notch service, and the food (our favorite meal the whole trip!). And while expensive relative to the rest of our meals in Bali, it was worth every rupiah (and let’s be honest, it wasn’t any more wallet damage than a meal in NYC).
Where to Stay in Ubud

Do yourself a favor and stay just outside the city, avoiding the noise and traffic of downtown. We stayed at Villa Saraswati a mile north of downtown and located along the Campuhan Ridge Walk. Owned by a retired Australian couple, Villa Saraswati was heaven – and they thought of everything. It’s a 5-room, adults-only villa, and has won Trip Advisor’s best hotel every single year. The rooms all have outdoor showers, the pool is beautiful, and the staff is helpful and lovely. They provide rides into town or to the top of the ridge walk and were extremely helpful with restaurant reservations. I’ll admit that we daydreamed about buying and living in the property more than once – it’s that wonderful. Couldn’t recommend it any more highly.

The pool at Villa Saraswati – perfect after a long day of touring in the sun

Up North: Amed

The Gili islands are only accessible from by boat, so we knew our Bali itinerary would need to include a coastal town as the launchpad for this leg of the trip. We spent an evening in Amed, in Northeast Bali, which has world-renowned diving – and is especially famous for a Japanese WWII shipwreck, only a few meters from shore – one of the only wrecks accessible for beginner divers. If you’re going through Amed, we recommend the 25-minute drive to the Lempuyang Temple to see the Gates of Heaven, an awe-inspiring “split gate” style of Hindu Balinese architecture. We stayed and ate at Baliku Dive Resort, which is clean and well-appointed, with terraces that overlook a magnificent sunset over the sea. Be warned: there are dozens of steps to get to any of the rooms – not for the faint of heart.

Gates of Heaven at Lempuyang Temple

The Gili Islands

We settled into the last leg of the Bali itinerary in the picturesque Gili Islands, situated just off the coast of Lombok Island, Indonesia (not technically Bali). There are three islands in total: Gili T (the largest and party island full of young backpackers), Gili Air (quieter with a mix of nice bars and restaurants) and Gili Meno (the smallest and quietest of the three). We choose Gili Air to get a mix of seclusion with options for grabbing a bite or a drink. The speedboat took ~1.5 hours from NE Bali to the Gilis, which are only about 3-5 minute boat one from the other.

Gili Air was off-the-grid paradise. Motorized vehicles aren’t allowed. No cars – and no motorbikes. To get around the island, your options are a bicycle or horse-drawn cart. The island itself is tiny – it took us about 10 minutes to bike the diameter from one side to the other – and would’ve only been about 45 minutes to go around the entire perimeter.

In Gili Air, we found the white-sand beaches and crystal clear waters that many mistakenly attribute to Bali. And while it took a little additional traveling, it was absolutely worth it.

Gili Air is off-the-grid paradise (and see how close it is to Lombok in the background?)
Where to stay in Gili:

The Mandana Suites and Villas is Gili’s only boutique hotel. Newly constructed, it was a breath-taking accommodation. We took full advantage of our room’s private plunge pool and outdoor shower. The Mandana also had the best breakfast we had the entire trip.

The Mandana was a gem
Where to Eat & Drink:
  • Warung Sunny – the best Indonesian food we had on the Island, and different from the Indonesian food we had in Bali (like the rest of Indonesia, the Gilis are Muslim, and so the food traditions are slightly different). The chef also does cooking classes here!
  • Mowie’s Bar for sunset drinks and live music
  • Pockets & Pints – if you need a break from Indonesian food, this new pita-pocket sandwicherie is a must. They also have dozens of fun games to borrow during your meal.
  • Musa Cookery – Baja-California-style vegan café, perfect for coffee, bowls, and light fare
Sunset drinks in Gili Air
What to do in Gili

The Gili part of our Bali itinerary was designated R&R for us. We mostly took this time to recharge but if you are into SCUBA diving or interested in getting your license, being in Gili is the perfect place and time to do it. We recommend 3WDive; the highly professional instructors were lovely, helpful, and just a lot of fun (I had no interest in doing scuba and ended up LOVING it!). The diving here is spectacular and this is a fairly inexpensive place to get your PADI. While we didn’t get certified we were able to go on a few dives to “discover SCUBA diving.” We spent an afternoon under the sea with a dozen giant turtles. Simply incredible.

Final stop: Seminyak

The final stop of our Bali itinerary. We spent a full day traveling from Gili to Seminyak (speedboat to a bus…a LOT of traffic near the coast), but we wanted to stay near the airport our final night to break-up the traveling. Seminyak, one of the more luxurious resort-towns, is filled with great restaurants, shopping, and nightlife. We had no shortage of recommendations from friends. As our luck would have it, I came down with a virus, and so we did none of the aforementioned. The silver lining is that we were staying at the majestic Oberoi Hotel & Resort. If ever there was a place to spend your final 24 hours doing nothing but unwinding and relaxing before a long international flight, that hotel would be a top contender. Not quite what we had planned, but no complaints from me (And if you’re looking for Seminyak recommendations, send me a note and I can pass them along!).

All in all, our 10-day itinerary had just a little bit of everything from relaxing to exploration- and we got to explore Bali & the Gilis beyond the standard resort-only trip.  While Bali wasn’t entirely what we expected, we fell in love with some of its more-hidden charms, and were so thankful for this last-minute escape.


Filed under Indonesia, Uncategorized