The name Cape Town seems a little understated for such a stunning city.
However, the name is a perfect reminder of the ‘Mother City’s’ humble beginnings as a remote refreshment stop for seafarers of the mid 1600s on their way from Europe to the East Indies.
One can only imagine what those early sailors and colonists must have thought at the first sight of the sweeping slopes of Table Mountain. Soaring a thousand metres high, it provides such a spectacular natural setting for the city. We just have to assume those founding fathers had no inkling of what an amazing place this would become. Otherwise, they’d have opted for a much grander moniker!
Enjoy this Cape Town travel guide.
Cape Town offers visitors plenty of opportunities to connect with its diverse mix of cultural influences.
Start in the central business district – or ‘City Bowl’ as it’s known. Once you’ve taken the obligatory cable car ride up to the top of Table Mountain for the awe-inspiring views, it’s time to explore this compact mix of gabled Cape Dutch colonial buildings, Georgian mansions, civic squares, ubiquitous high-rises and sixties office towers. Cape Town is a very walkable city, with two key cultural highlights (among many) that you shouldn’t miss.
The first is Bo-Kaap, the colourful Malay Quarter where Moslem slaves brought from the East Indies later settled as free men after the abolition of slavery in the cape in the early 1830s. The free men painted their homes all the colours of the rainbow as a reminder of their heritage and many of those original houses still stand today.
The second cultural highlight we recommend is the excellent District Six Museum, which is a short walk from Bo-Kaap. The museum is open Monday to Saturday and chronicles the forced removal of black South Africans from the vibrant coloured community of District Six in Cape Town in the 1960s to the infamous Cape Flats townships outside the city, in order to make way for a new whites-only district.
It’s thought-provoking and provides vital context for understanding just how far South Africa has come in the last few decades.
From there make your way to Town Parade in front of the imposing Cape Town City Hall, built in 1905 in Italian Renaissance style.
It was here that Nelson Mandela appeared on the balcony on 11 February, 1990 in front of 100,000 cheering Capetonians at the end of his three decades of incarceration, effectively signalling the end of Apartheid.
It’s a short stroll from City Hall over to the Castle of Good Hope, officially recognised as South Africa’s oldest building. The star-shaped fort was constructed in the late 17th century by the Dutch East India company to protect the Dutch settlement at the Cape. It was originally located on the coastline but much of the land on which the City Bowl now stands is reclaimed. Hence the fort is now inland.
It will take you a couple of hours to work your way through the castle, which is fascinating. There are tours and temporary exhibitions on offer.
There’s no shortage of superb places to eat in Cape Town.
Many of the restaurants are concentrated in and around the V&A Waterfront precinct, but don’t miss the opportunity to visit the Africa Café in the City Bowl for a fabulous feast of dishes from across the African continent. The restaurant offers a set menu and we tried spicy Egyptian chick peas and lentil dip, Ghanaian chicken and ground nut stew, and rich South African deep-fried bread balls amongst many others.
The original sea journey from Europe to the Cape took many months, with scurvy a major health issue for seafarers. Vineyards were planted on the slopes of Table Mountain to provide wine, which was commonly believed to alleviate the condition. If you have the time, the Winelands to the north of the city offer a wonderful day trip option, with most options including a visit to the gorgeous university town of Stellenbosch. The Mediterranean-style climate of this region, with its warm dry summers and cold, crisp winters, means bold reds like Merlot and Shiraz, along with crisp whites including Chardonnays and Sav Blancs.
For top things to do in Cape Town that will leave you feeling refreshed and revitalised, book a hire car or day tour and head down the stunning Cape Peninsula.
You will soon reach Table Mountain National Park, which exists largely to protect flora rather than fauna. The park is included in the World Heritage-listed Cape Floral Region – home to over 9,000 species of plants, including many types of proteas.
All tours will include a visit to Cape Point, commonly but mistakenly renowned as the southern-most tip of Africa (Cape Agulhas has that honour). The southern tip of the Cape Peninsula was originally known by sailors as the Cape of Storms, but was given a more positive spin by the then King of Portugal to become the Cape of Good Hope we know today.
Once you get to Cape Point, take the Flying Dutchman up to the peak for sweeping views across the South Atlantic Ocean. It’s an amazing stretch of coastline which must have awed those early explorers.
The regenerated Cape Town waterfront precinct is a must-visit for shopaholics.
The Victoria and Alfred Waterfront is home to a plethora of designer boutiques, arts and crafts stores, restaurants and cafes. The precinct is named after Queen Victoria’s son Alfred, rather than her husband Albert. Alfred initiated the construction of the first breakwater in Table Bay in 1860.
While the V&A Waterfront is pretty touristy it is still a great spot for a stroll and to watch the working harbour in action. Tours out to Robben Island (where Nelson Mandela spent 18 years in prison) depart from here.
Five tours we love
Hit the streets of Cape Town on foot with a local foodie guide to immerse yourself in the city’s fabulous culinary scene. You’ll visit the French Quarter to chat with local food producers and sample their delicious wares. Every dish has a story!
Explore Cape Town’s artistic side on this four-hour bike tour. Your guide will introduce you to the city’s vibrant street art scene. You’ll visit the colourful and controversial neighbourhoods of District Six and Bo-Kaap.
This is a beer lover’s tour with a difference! Hop on board a super cool Kombi for a half-day tour to four of the best craft brew houses in and around Cape Town. The tour kicks off with lunch at the first venue.
A visit to the Cape Peninsula is a must-do during your time in Cape Town, and this full-day tour will give you the opportunity to sit back, relax and enjoy the unparalleled natural beauty of this extraordinary region.
South Africa produces some of the best wines in the world, and you’ll visit four top cellar doors on this eight-hour guided tour from Cape Town to Paarl, Franschoek and Stellenbosch. Wine tastings at each venue and a delicious lunch are included.
Do you have any tips to add to our Cape Town travel guide? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Adam Ford is editor of The Big Bus tour and travel guide and a Melbourne-based travel TV presenter, writer, blogger and photographer. Adam has travelled extensively through Europe, Asia, North America, Africa and the Middle East. He worked as a travel consultant for a number of years with Flight Centre before taking up the opportunity to travel the world himself as host of the TV series Tour the World on Network Ten. He also appears regularly as a travel commentator on Sky News Business Class. Adam loves to experience everything a new destination has to offer and is equally at home in a five-star Palazzo in Pisa or a home-stay in Hanoi.