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

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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: SUNSETS & VIEWS

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.

Other

  • 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.

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