Beautiful, sophisticated, socially progressive, democratic, engaging, hopeful — these words capture Cape Town’s very essence. Table Mountain holds court over the city, found between Table Bay and the Cape Flats. This South African jewel serves as the ideal base for intrepid travelers wishing to explore all of the Rainbow Nation from the Cape of Good Hope and the rolling Cape Winelands to the adrenaline-charged safari game reserves, near the country’s northeastern border.
This fishhook-shaped peninsula, lashed by fierce waters of the Atlantic Ocean, is an enigma. Cape Town often feels more like an old European bastion than an African outpost. Since banning apartheid in 1990, the city has become more cosmopolitan, while still struggling with the effects of years of social inequality. Yet there’s an infectious sense of hope, and the residents are some of the friendliest you’ll find anywhere in the world.
Cape Town offers a range of mesmerizing opportunities to learn about South Africa, including its tribal past and more recent Dutch, British and Cape Malay influences. You can also indulge in the nearby wine region and explore unique flora and fauna (penguins, anyone?).
Cape Town Attractions
Iconic Table Mountain is the image most closely associated with Cape Town. Almost always blanketed by a “tablecloth” of clouds, the mountain bisects the city and offers views of Table Bay, Robben Island, the Cape Flats and Cape Peninsula. If you wish to snap the quintessential photo of Cape Town, take the five-minute cable car ride to the summit of Table Mountain. Go whenever the weather is good because clouds can roll in at any time. This entire area is part of Table Mountain National Park, and you’ll find hiking trails to suit all ability levels, several viewing platforms, a souvenir shop and a cafe.
To learn more about South Africa’s apartheid-tainted past, visit Robben Island. This outpost in the Atlantic Ocean served as a prison from the late 17th century through the apartheid years (1948 – 1990), when racial segregation was enforced by law. Nelson Mandela was sent to the prison and treated brutally, and you can see the cell where he spent 18 years. Today, former prisoners lead guided tours of the island, explaining what it was like and discussing the strides South Africa has made since banishing apartheid in 1990.
Animal lovers might consider checking out the Cheetah Outreach project at the Paardevlei development in Somerset West, 30 minutes east of Cape Town, where you will be introduced to an adult cheetah. If the animal is in the mood, you will be able to get up close. In addition to the world’s fastest mammals, the center is home to caracals, servals, bat-eared foxes, jackals and meerkats.
See African penguins in the wild. In 1983, a pair of penguins showed up at Foxy Beach/Boulders Beach. Within a few years, the population had grown immensely. Today, there are around 2,000 penguins in the Boulders colony, near Simon’s Town (40 minutes south of Cape Town). The best viewing spots are Boulders Beach, where you can mingle with the birds, or Foxy Beach, where you’ll view the colony from a raised boardwalk.
Head to False Bay in Simonstown, and meet up with African Shark Eco-Charters for the ultimate shark cage diving tour. Not that adventurous? No problem. You don’t have to get in the cage; you can simply watch the drama unfold from on deck. You’ll hold your breath in awe as great white sharks approach the vessel (within inches of the divers in the cage) and even breach the water. A once-in-a-lifetime experience! This is a popular pastime, and you’ll find many operators offering similar trips. See Viator for a variety of options.
Kirstenbosch bills itself as “the most beautiful garden in Africa.” Located on the eastern side of Table Mountain, the garden displays more than 7,000 species of local flowers, plants and trees. Don’t miss the canopy walk for a bird’s-eye view.
Learn about a dark chapter in Cape Town’s history at the District Six Museum, which educates visitors about the forced removal of the non-white citizens of this neighborhood throughout the 20th century.
Another interesting museum is the South African Jewish Museum, offering a look at the history of the local Jewish population.
Did you know that the world’s first human heart transplant was performed in Cape Town? Learn all about it at the Heart of Cape Town Museum, which tells the story of this medical breakthrough in interactive fashion.
Learn about the history of slavery in South Africa at the Slave Lodge, housed in a building where some 9,000 slaves, convicts and people with mental illnesses lived between 1679 and 1811.
Cape Town Restaurants
You’ll find a huge variety of options when dining in Cape Town, including locally inspired Cape Malay, Indian and Continental cuisine. Seafood is very popular, so don’t miss your chance to enjoy fresh fish and shellfish. The langoustines (a type of lobster) are a real treat.
Eat like a local and head to any of the docks for fish and chips. Kalky’s at Kalk Bay is a popular option. This place is as unassuming as it gets, with indoor and outdoor seating (tables and benches). But the fresh hake, snoek (the local speciality) and chips are delectable.
Panama Jacks, located in a working harbor area, is a tourist favorite. The seafood-heavy menu features tuna, prawns, lobster, calamari, mussels and more. The menu also includes dishes such as Peking duck and fettuccine with chicken.
The Western Cape is home to the Cape Malay style of cooking, brought to South Africa by Indonesians and Malaysians. Sample curry dishes and bobotie (minced meat, sweetened with raisins and apricots) at Bo Kaap Kombuis. You’ll also be dazzled by the sweeping views of Table Mountain.
Looking for a splurge? Treat yourself to the seven-course tasting menu at Myoga, located about 15 minutes outside central Cape Town at the Vineyards Hotel and Spa. You might start with a “mouth tickler” of panko fried oyster or gorgonzola creme brulee, followed by a parade of more substantial dishes such as Korean pork belly, ceviche of scallops, mushroom lasagna and more.
Locals and tourists alike crowd into The Kitchen to pick up a “love sandwich” — made with various fillings on artisanal rolls with homemade pesto and mayo — or to order from a lengthy list of refreshing salads. Save room for a “world peace brownie” or a ginger fudge square for dessert.
Shopping in Cape Town
One of the pleasures of traveling so far from home is the opportunity to shop for truly unique items. In Cape Town, there’s a variety of shopping experiences to appeal to even the most jaded browser. Steer clear of the mass-produced wooden giraffes and elephants; they are not often a product of Cape Town. Some are made in China. Instead, look out for street sellers who make fantastic wire and bead sculptures and baskets; they are made by the roadside, so each one is unique.
Your shopping quest begins at the wildly popular Greenmarket Square. You’ll negotiate with craftspeople, hailing from all corners of Africa, at this open-air market on the cobblestone streets in the central business district (on Burg Street between Longmarket and Shortmarket Streets).
On Long Street, just around the corner from Greenmarket Square, is the indoor Pan African Market. Here you’ll find wood carvings, jewelry, masks and more. While you’re on Long Street, take some time to explore the many unique shops and restaurants in the area.
Consider a pit stop at the Red Shed Craft Workshop. Local artisans sell a variety of wares there, and some even offer custom creations while you wait.
South Africa is known the world over for its diamonds and gold jewelry. You’ll find many boutiques across Cape Town that will custom design perfect piece for you. Victoria Wharf is home to several reputable jewelers.
One of Cape Town’s most popular malls is Canal Walk, with more than 400 stores including The North Face, Lacoste, Diesel and many others.
–written by Emily Payne