Exploring Cape Town: Travel Tips and 13 Must-Do Adventures
Cape Town, South Africa is my all-time favorite city - hands down. It is stunningly beautiful, the people are amazing, the food is great and there are so many things to do in nature and in the city, basically something for everyone.
South Africa encapsulates everything that is life: beauty, growth and the journey to overcome tragedy. The city and country are working hard to overcome the impacts of Apartheid. Like America, it’s accomplished a lot, but there is still a lot of work left to do. You’ll see that in the economic disparities throughout the country. However, you’ll likely walk away truly inspired. There’s something very special about this city.
I do think it’s important to learn a bit about South Africa’s history before going, it gives you context for everything and a greater appreciation for the country. If you’re looking for a really good book, check out Trevor Noah’s Born A Crime. He pairs his life story with history lessons on South Africa. It’s super informative, while still very entertaining.
Moving on, in terms of accommodations, I stayed at a house in Camps Bay; a stunningly gorgeous, affluent ocean front suburb of Cape Town hugged by the Twelve Apostles Mountain Range and Atlantic Ocean. It was nothing short of amazing. It was a five-minute walk to the beach from our house and allowed us to enjoy nightly sunsets. I would recommend Camps Bay if you’re looking for a beach experience, or if you’re a couple as it’s very romantic. However, if you’re looking for more adventure and diversity, I would suggest staying in the heart of downtown Cape Town. You can really feel the heartbeat of the city in the downtown area, and there are so many more great restaurants and bars to explore.
Here is a list of my favorite things to do in Cape Town:
Walking tour to trace the city’s history of Apartheid. This tour was really life changing and you should do it towards the beginning of your trip so you can fully understand the history of the country. The 3.5 history tour of Cape Town is hosted by Ricky, a South African who has been to prison 11 times, survived apartheid, is doing amazing things for the community, including helping the homeless with job training and teaching tourists, like myself about South Africa’s history. Side note, he’s also a pastor, and while walking the city, we came across a man who yelled out “Pastor, you’re the master,” we all laughed. He seems to be well-ingrained in the local community. He unknowingly, but perhaps intentionally, is inspiring people like me to figure out more ways to give back to my community. Ricky is truly an angel on earth. He was born as a “person of colour,” and has first-hand experience of the brutality of apartheid and how others determine your livelihood, thus undermining one's self-worth. He’s a registered tour guide, and will share the beauty of this city, it's background and the capacity of forgiveness. He also took us by a coffee shop where Moses, a gentleman who Ricky helped out of homelessness, brewed us a cup of coffee. Moses said he’s starting his own coffee shop called “Moses He Brews.” So if you do the tour, ask him about Moses, he’s a fantastic guy with an inspiring story.
Wineries in Franschhoek. Hands down this was my most favorite day of the trip. The views were amazing! It’s about an hour drive from Cape Town and so worth it.
We started our day at Solms Delta, which was beautiful and very moving, a must do! A little snippet from their website: Following the democratic elections in 1994, Professor Mark Solms returned home to South Africa in 2001 to breathe new life into the neglected Delta farm, establishing Solms-Delta Wine Estate. As a sixth-generation member of a farming family, he looked forward to returning. But upon his arrival, he realized that it wasn’t only his to call home. Seven households of people lived on the farm and had been there for generations. Mark was determined to restore their sense of belonging and their right to own a fair share of the land (and has).
We ended our day at La Petite Ferme, a beautiful luxury restaurant with amazing views of Franschhoek Valley. If there’s any suggestion you take, make this be the one! Go here. It was amazing. We had lunch here and ended the day watching the sunset. You can also walk around the town/village area which is a quick drive away and they have super cute shops to browse.
Chapman’s Peak Drive during sunset. This was definitely one of the most beautiful sites during my entire two-week trip. It has road to Hana vibes, but a little less scary. According to my bestie, Wikipedia, Chapman’s peak is the name of a mountain on the western side of the Cape Peninsula, between Hout Bay and Noordhoek in Cape Town, South Africa. The western flank of the mountain falls sharply for hundreds of metres into the Atlantic Ocean, and a spectacular road, known as Chapman's Peak Drive, hugs the near-vertical face of the mountain, linking Hout Bay to Noordhoek. There’s an overlook where you can park and watch the sunset. I promise you won’t regret it. Great place for reflection and meditation, and super romantic if you need a place to propose!
Penguins at Boulders Beach. Boulders Beach is in Simon’s Town. It’s a great day-long excursion. You can have lunch in Simon’s town, go to the beach, see the cute little smelly penguins, take some pictures to show your family, and walk around Simon’s Town afterwards and visit the shops. Keep in mind most of the shops close around 5pm, so if you want to shop, get there earlier rather than later.
Surfing lesson with Apish from Surf with a Purpose. Apish is a mild-mannered and friendly internationally accredited surf coach and lifeguard. He totes himself as the first ever surfer from Masiphumelele township, his home, where he leads surf therapy programs for local children. You meet him at Muizenberg Beach for a two-hour surf lesson. Muizenberg Beach is a perfect, relatively calm beach for learning how to surf. Keep in mind, the beaches on the Atlantic side aren’t warm, so a wetsuit is required - they provide it. Then you’ll jump into the Waves for Change transport and head over to Masiphumelele township for lunch, where you’ll learn more about Apish's life-changing work with kids from the vibrant and colorful community that is Masi'. It’s a surf and educational class all in one! I actually learned how to surf during my single lesson and got up several times!
Shopping and coffee shops on Kloof Street. I spent several hours walking down Kloof Street. I started near the top at Liquorice and Lime and made my way down, popping in various shops on the way. It’s a great day to explore the city while doing some fun shopping.
Hiking Lion’s Head. It’s a couple hour hike depending on how fast you are. The views are spectacular. We took the hard way up and ended up scaling some rocks – which scared the sh*t out of me. Apparently there are a few different routes, one of which doesn’t require scaling the side of the mountain. If you’re scared of heights like me, I suggest taking the less scary route. The 360-degree views are absolutely amazing right after sunrise, and really any time the weather is clear. Great picture taking opportunity of the Twelve Apostles Mountains and all of Cape Town.
Cable Car to Table Mountain (or hiking Table Mountain). The views are splendid from the cable car and when you reach the top. It’s also a great hike if you don’t want to do the cable car.
Paragliding. I sprained my ankle, so I wasn’t able to go. However, several of my friends went and said the roughly 5-10 minute ride was quite amazing. I’m still in my feelings that I wasn’t able to do it.
Kayaking. So, truth be told, I got really bad seasickness and puked three times overboard. Just gotta be honest now, folks! However, for the 15 minutes I was out there, the views were amazing. Apparently, dolphin (and sometimes whale) sightings are common. The guides were awesome, they take pictures of you and take you on a great guided tour around the bay. If I wouldn’t have gotten sea sick, I would have absolutely done this again. Please note, that no one else got sick, I was the lucky one.
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden. This place is amazing and touted as one of the great botanical gardens of the world. When you go here, you’ll see why and likely agree. We went to a concert here on the lawn during their summer concert series. Check out their website for more information.
Clifton Beach. Clifton Beach is absolutely beautiful with soft white sand beaches and breathtakingly blue water. The beach has four coves, which can help shield you from some of the Cape Town winds that can be relentless. The beach is nestled in between a residential area, so parking is a bit of a disaster, so definitely Uber should you decide to visit. The sunsets are amazing and definitely worth it!
Markets at V&A Waterfront. This place has tons of food vendors, live music and local craftsmen. This is an absolute must if you want to do some shopping while supporting local business. Check their website for hours and days of operation.
Other travel tips:
Clothes to Pack
Cape Town is windy. Pack your wardrobe accordingly. In one day, you can get all four seasons. Often times it would start out cloudy, turn to warm and sunny, and then rainy and extremely windy and chilly at night. There are so many outdoor activities, so be sure to bring your workout gear, a bathing suit, a winter coat, sun dresses, shorts and flip flops – basically clothes for every season. Seriously!
Cape Town seasons are opposite of the United States
Autumn/Fall: March 1 – May 31
Winter: June 1 – August 31
Spring: September 1 – November 30
Summer: December 1 February 28/29
Transportation and Driving
In South Africa, they drive on the opposite side than in the U.S. So unless you’re super brave or grew up in England, I would take Uber or hire a driver for longer day trips. Uber is SUPER cheap and an easy way of getting around.
Everyone has inquired about safety. Here’s the thing, I only had one experience where I felt unsafe. The majority of the time, I felt very comfortable moving about the city, etc. However, that doesn’t mean we didn’t take precautions. As instructed by my local experience guide, we didn’t roll the window down when driving, we kept our cross body purses close, we generally walked around in groups (I did a lot of solo wandering though, don’t tell my mom!), and we didn’t venture alone at night. However, these are normal everyday city precautions. Nothing out of the ordinary. That’s not to say that Cape Town doesn’t have crime, I know it does. You’ll notice most of the houses are gated or protected by tall walls. However, I felt safe while there. Just stay alert like you would in any other city.
A passport is required for entry into Cape Town. U.S. Citizens aren’t required to get a visa. However, some other countries are, so check to see if your country is on that list. One of the guys in my group ended up coming late because his country was on that list and he didn’t know it.
Food and Water consumption
I’m the queen of food poisoning. I’ve gotten sick in various countries around the world, so much so that it’s almost become a joke between me and my friends. However, I didn’t get sick in Cape Town. I drank the water and food and didn’t have an issue. There were two people in my ground who had short bouts of stomach issues, but nothing major or remarkable. So all in all, not too much to worry about in terms of food and water consumption in Cape Town. However, keep in mind, they have had a major water shortage, so they strongly encourage you to limit your water use - short showers, don’t run the water while brushing your teeth, etc.
South Africa’s currency is the Rand. Luckily for Americans, the U.S. dollar is very strong compared to the Rand, making it a very affordable place to visit.
Flights to Cape Town
The only bad part about Cape Town is that it’s REALLY far from the U.S. I flew from Dulles to Amsterdam to Cape Town and the entire journey was roughly 21 hours, with a 3 hour layover in Amsterdam. You can get direct flights from Dulles that are roughly 16 hours.
Happy to answer any questions for you! I hope you’re able to visit Cape Town soon. It really is amazing!