Nestled between dramatic mountains and the Atlantic Ocean, Cape Town has transformed itself from somewhere only the adventurous would explore to a mainstream tourist destination. With incredible road trips, whale watching, penguins, vineyards, surfing, great restaurants and a challenging but fascinating history all packed together, it’s not hard to see why.
Cape Town was never originally on my list as a place that I desperately wanted to see. But then my partner decided to disappear off there for three months to do a hospital placement, so before I knew it I was spending £700 I didn’t have to leave the summer of the UK for a couple of weeks in the South African winter. It’s now become one of my favourite places.
Cost wise it’s pretty affordable – Rand tends to exchange well against most western currencies so you’ll probably find yourself looking at options you might not usually consider. For example, we did an afternoon’s whale watching (something I have passed on elsewhere due to the cost) for about £40 each.
NB – I don’t have any recommendations to make for places to stay, as I presume the staff quarters at the hospital are neither desirable nor available to normal travellers.
Things to do in Cape Town
At the summit there’s a cafe, amenities, and free 30 minute guided tours. They depart from the Twelve Apostles Terrace on the hour from 9am until 3pm.
Cape Point– the 60km drive here is a great experience in its own right. Situated in the area of Table Mountain National Park known as the Cape of Good Hope (145 Rand entry fee), Cape Point is not quite the Southern most tip of Africa but it can certainly feel that way when you’re looking out at the ocean.
Once you’re parked walk up or catch the funicular (55 Rand for a single trip), and enjoy some seriously impressive views. Look out for the baboons and don’t leave your car door open!
On the drive back to Cape Town stop at Boulders Beach to see the penguins and then have dinner at the beautiful Kalk Bay (more info on both below).
Penguins at Boulders Beach – go later in the day. There’s no one else there and you don’t have to pay. It’s amazing how close they come up to you!
Helicopter ride – he got so many brownie points for this birthday present! I’m sure it was ridiculously expensive (for South Africa), but it was incredible. We did the Atlantico Scenic Flight with Cape Town Helicopters – good service and lovely pilot.
Be warned that if you don’t book an exclusive option, you may share the helicopter with one or two other people you don’t know. Unsurprisingly the best views are from the front seat next to the pilot as opposed to the two behind there, so try and nab it if you can.
Robben Island – almost goes without saying that this is worth a trip. Very moving and interesting – I thought I knew a lot about Mandela but found out much more. The views on the way back towards the mainland are pretty amazing too.
Book your trip for one of your first few days in Cape Town. The boat over is weather dependent and they can move you to another day at short notice.
Sunset from Signal Hill – don’t have any expectations for a secluded romantic experience here, but the good news is it’s popular for a reason: this was one of the most beautiful sunsets I have ever seen. Drive up in good time to get a parking spot, and make sure you don’t miss out on the city lighting up through the trees behind you.
Whale watching in Hermanus – if you are in Cape Town between June and November this really is a must do. We went towards the end of July and had a whole group of whales come and play right next to our boat, which was absolutely incredible. My partner also did a shark cage dive here which he assures me was great…
Trips cost between 700-900 Rand, and some operators even offer you a second tour for free if you don’t see any whales on your first trip. It is not a smooth ride – make sure you have your sea sickness pills handy.
The drive from Cape Town takes around 1 hour 40 minutes, and parts of it are really quite deserted – I was pleased we weren’t going back in the dark.
If you happen to be there in September make sure you check out the Whale Festival.
South African Parliament – free one hour tours are available in the mornings from Monday to Friday, but it’s advisable to book at least a week in advance. Email firstname.lastname@example.org and be prepared to provide ID details, such as a passport, which you will then need to bring along with you.
Vineyards – so many, so beautiful, so cheap (for the quality of the wine). Make sure you get someone else to drive so you can enjoy the wonderful wine on offer, or book yourself onto a tour. It is considerably cheaper to organise it yourself directly though, as entry fees are just a few pounds.
District Six Museum– this is a really well curated and small museum, which tells the story of forced removals in the apartheid era through one particular area, District Six. A vibrant and mixed community which had been in existence for a hundred years was declared as a ‘white only’ area in 1966. Over 60,000 people were forcibly removed, and their homes destroyed.
Open 9am until 4pm Monday to Saturday, you can look around yourself for 40 Rand or get a guide for 55.
Where to eat and drink in Cape Town
The Harbour House, Kalk Bay– this place is directly on the seafront, and when we were there the waves were crashing against the windows. By all accounts the food is amazing, but we were on a budget so had a drink there and then went to Lucky Fish & Chips next door.
The Sidewalk Cafe – slightly off the tourist track, you’re equally likely to find a local or a visitor enjoying the food here.
V&A Waterfront– cafes, restaurants, shops and more.
Timbuktu Cafe – on the corner of Lower Main Road & Norfolk Observatory, this hidden gem serves good (mainly Ethiopian) food and drinks in an unusual setting. The staff are super friendly and the veggie options are great. Get a seat out on the balcony if you can.
Bombay Bicycle Club – bohemian, quirky, hippyish: whatever you want to call it it’s definitely a bit different and definitely worth a trip.
Getting to and getting around Cape Town
Cabs from the airport are affordable. We spent the rest of our time in a – very old – rental car. The roads are fine (they drive on the left) and public transport isn’t great, so this seems to be a popular option. Learning to drive with a choke (I had to google it) and no power steering was fun, but we were on a budget. Modern good cars are widely available.
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