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. It’s easy to imagine those early sailors and colonists looking in awe at the sweeping slopes of Table Mountain. Soaring a thousand metres high, today it provides a spectacular backdrop for South Africa’s second largest city. We just have to assume the 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.
Top cultural experiences in Cape Town
Start your visit in the central business district (the City Bowl, as it’s known locally).
Once you’ve taken the obligatory cable car ride up to the top of Table Mountain for the awe-inspiring views, spend some time exploring the compact city centre with its mix of gabled Cape Dutch colonial buildings, Georgian mansions and civic squares (avert your gaze from the less inspiring office towers).
There are three key cultural highlights close to the centre that you shouldn’t miss. The first is Bo-Kaap — the colourful Malay Quarter where Muslim 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 must-see is the District Six Museum, which is a short walk from Bo-Kaap. Part museum/part gallery, this facility chronicles the forced relocation of black South Africans from the vibrant community of District Six in Cape Town to the sprawling and overcrowded Cape Flats townships outside the city in the 1960s. The remotion made way for a new whites-only district. The museum is thought-provoking and provides vital context for understanding the apartheid period and just how far South Africa has come in the past few decades.
Our third recommendation is one of the city’s newest cultural attractions — Zeitz MOCAA (Museum of Contemporary Art Africa). The museum occupies a cavernous former grain silo complex near the V&A Waterfront, and with the imposing form of Table Mountain rising in the background, it’s a fitting home for the stunning collection of contemporary African art. Set over nine floors and encompassing more than 100 exhibition spaces, you’ll need plenty of time to do it justice.
Cape Town for history lovers
The most infamous of Cape Town’s historic attractions is Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for eighteen years.
Now a UNESCO World Heritage-listed site, for anyone interested in learning more about South African history, or the man himself, a tour of Robben Island is a must-do. Departing from the V&A Waterfront, you’ll take a 30-minute boat ride out to the island, before touring the eerie maximum-security prison and the quarry where the prisoners endured back-breaking labour. Many of the guides are ex-prisoners, so hearing their emotive stories of life on the island under apartheid is an extremely powerful experience.
Once you’re back in town, complete the story by taking in the grand exterior of Cape Town City Hall. Built in 1905 in Italian Renaissance style, it was here that Mandela appeared on the balcony on the 11th of February 1990 in front of 100,000 cheering Capetonians at the end of close to three decades spent behind bars. His release effectively signalled 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. Now a museum, 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. There are tours and temporary exhibitions on offer.
Great places to eat in Cape Town
There’s no shortage of superb places to eat in Cape Town.
Many restaurants are concentrated in and around the V&A Waterfront precinct, but it’s very touristy. Don’t be afraid to venture further afield.
Located in the City Bowl, the popular Africa Café serves up a set menu of dishes from across the African continent. 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.
For authentic Cape Malay cuisine, Biesmeillah in Bo-Kaap is a standout. Their very reasonably priced menu includes a good selection of curries and other spicy specialities. It’s certainly not posh nosh, but it’s hearty and delicious.
At the other end of the scale, the Pot Luck Club (on top of The Old Biscuit Mill) delivers fabulous 180-degree views and a stylish but laidback ambience. You won’t have to take pot luck on the food; it’s a flavourful fusion of Mediterranean, South American and Asian flavours.
For a dining experience with a difference, book a seat at the Reverie Social Table. This charming eatery has just one long table and serves a five-course meal with wine, styled as a friendly dinner party. It’s a fantastic way to interact with a local crowd and sample some very innovative cuisine as part of the deal.
The original sea journey from Europe to the Cape took many months, and scurvy was 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 Cape Winelands region north of Cape Town makes a wonderful day trip destination. With its Mediterranean-style climate of warm dry summers and crisp winters, the area produces bold reds like merlot and shiraz, along with zesty chardonnays and sav blancs. The gorgeous university town of Stellenbosch is a must-visit.
Ways to relax in Cape Town
Book a hire car or day tour and head down the stunning Cape Peninsula.
Before too long you’ll be immersed in the beauty of 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.
Most tours will include a visit to Cape Point, commonly but mistakenly thought to be the southern-most point 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 funicular up to the peak for sweeping views across the South Atlantic Ocean. Pick a tour itinerary that also includes a visit to the colony of plucky African penguins at Boulders Beach.
OK, it’s not for everyone, and it may not be strictly relaxing, but a great white shark cage dive experience has become the done thing for many visitors to Cape Town. Numerous operators offer the chance to descend into the ocean at ‘Shark Alley’ in a very solid iron cage to eyeball these deadly predators and other marine dwellers.
Where to shop in Cape Town
The regenerated V&A Waterfront overlooking Table Bay is Cape Town’s retail hotspot.
It’s home to a plethora of fashion chain stores, designer boutiques and general purveyors of tourist tat. The precinct is named after Queen Victoria and her son Alfred, rather than husband Albert (Alfred initiated the construction of the first breakwater in Table Bay in 1860). Even if you’re not interested in the shopping, the Waterfront is a great spot for a stroll and to watch the working harbour in action.
The city also has a thriving artisanal retail scene. Check out The Old Biscuit Mill, which hosts fashion and decor designers, artists, photographers, and many other creative types.
Situated on the edge of the City Bowl, Greenmarket Square is a charming historical civic space that dates back to the 1600s. Its regular flea market attracts a swag of local artists, craftspeople and street food vendors.
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 travel TV presenter, writer, blogger and photographer. He has travelled extensively through Europe, Asia, North America, Africa and the Middle East. Adam 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 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.
About the writer
Julietta Henderson is a Melbourne-based travel and feature writer. Originally planning to visit London for six months, she ended up staying for ten years and now divides her time between her home in Australia and several months of the year in the UK, Italy and France. Julietta has travelled extensively through Europe, North America, Indonesia, New Zealand, Australia and Russia, and believes the keys to a great travel experience are an open heart, an open mind and an open-ended ticket.