Best Things To Do in Cape Town
The real question here is what can't you do in Cape Town. This is a city brimming with adventure, culture, and culinary arts. Start your day with a morning trip up Table Mountain; with clearer skies in the early hours, you'll be able to enjoy spectacular views of the city. From here, you can head to Boulders or Clifton Beach for some sun, sand, and surf, or you can experience the Mother City's rich history. Robben Island and The District Six Museum both do a fantastic job recounting the city's struggle to overcome apartheid. And Bo-Kaap and Greenmarket Square provide a fascinating glimpse into Cape Town's Afrikaan and Muslim traditions. Just make sure to dedicate some time to the city's wine culture: Touring the vineyards at Constantia or sipping a chilled white along the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront are musts.
Updated June 28, 2012
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Easily the city's most recognizable landmark, Table Mountain towers over Cape Town just south of the city center. Having earned its name from its unique, flat-topped shape, the mountain is the most popular attraction found within Table Mountain National Park (which encompasses other top attractions like Boulders Beach and the Cape of Good Hope).
There are numerous ways to experience Table Mountain. Adventurous travelers can hike to the summit along one of the mountains numerous trails, although the region's fickle weather can turn an on-foot excursion into an unpleasant, muddy walk. Recent travelers strongly recommend using the Table Mountain Aerial Cableway instead. These suspended cable cars rotate 360 degrees, offering passengers spectacular views of the city and the ocean. According to one TripAdvisor user, "We had to queue for over an hour to get our tickets so recommend booking on-line. The cable car floor rotates so everyone get a chance to see the views."
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Today, South Africa boasts a flourishing wine industry, churning out crisp whites and robust reds. And Constantia Valley—located about 10.5 miles south of central Cape Town—is where it all began in the late 17th century. The region is characterized oak-lined streets and stunning historical mansions, in addition to its wineries. The oldest vineyard, Groot Constantia, features sweet dessert wines and has welcomed the likes of Napolean Bonapart, King Louis Philippe of France, and Jane Austin. According to one TripAdvisor user, "The Groot Constantia is a beautiful property and the history of the vineyard was so interesting. Great wines, fun tasting room and beautiful views."
The Groot Constantia is included on the valley's wine route, which leads visitors to tours and tastings at nine of the region's wineries. You will need a car to tour the Constantia Valley, and each venue features its own prices and hours of operation. However, if you're simply interested in sightseeing, you can explore the valley for free. To learn more about the valley and the wine route, visit the Constantia Valley website.
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Skirting the western edge of Table Mountain is Camps Bay, a vast stretch of soft sand flanked by cute cafés and bustling bars. Like Clifton Beach, the Atlantic waves lapping this stretch of shoreline are too cold for swimming, but Camps Bay's non-windy climate and family-friendly atmosphere make this a great spot to soak up the sun and enjoy the outdoors. Also, the beach-side restaurants provide a great atmosphere for evening cocktails and people-watching. According to one TripAdvisor user, "The beach is truly beautiful and very close to many superb restaurants. Sipping cocktails while watching the sun set is amazing on this beach."
Camps Bay sits just south of Clifton Beach and is accessible by car from central Cape Town via Victoria Road (the M6 highway) or Camps Bay Drive (the M62 highway). You can visit the beach at any time, day or night, for no fee. For more information on Camps Bay, check out the Cape Town Tourism website.
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The Victoria & Alfred (V&A) Waterfront buzzes with activity at all hours of the day. This bustling harbor—built in the late 19th century by Queen Victoria's second son, Alfred—has acted as the stopover point for European ships for centuries. Today, the waterfront caters to tourists and residents alike, boasting beautiful views of Table Mountain and the Atlantic Ocean, a wide array of shopping venues, restaurants, and notable attractions, like the Two Oceans Aquarium. This is also the jumping off point for whale-watching tours and excursions to Robben Island. When the sun sets, the V&A Waterfront comes alive with music flowing out over the ships as steadily as cocktails are poured into glasses at the neighborhood's many bars.
Recent visitors love the V&A Waterfront's lively atmosphere, saying that the numerous roaming performers will keep you entertained for hours. According to one TripAdvisor user, "Here's a tourist shopping paradise, it's one of the largest shopping centres, with restaurants and a few side attractions in the Waterfront. Not to be missed."
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On False Bay, this stunning beach earned its name from the massive boulders that lay scattered across the sands and separate the shoreline into peaceful, private coves. Swimming here is more inviting than it is at Clifton or Camps Bay: The waters of False Bay are enviably warmer than the Atlantic's waves. But as great as the scenery and swimming may be, the main reason to visit Boulders Beach is to get to know the locals: This beach is home to an ever-expanding colony of African Penguins. You'll see these tuxedoed sunbathers teetering around the sand. Although they have grown accustomed to human company, please do your best not to disturb them.
Recent visitors love getting up-close and personal with the penguins. According to one TripAdvisor user, "The penguins were everywhere! They didn't seem to mind if you got pretty close to them to take a picture."
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Resting on the eastern slope of Table Mountain, the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens welcome thousands of visitors from around the world each year that come to explore the gardens' 89 acres. Kirstenbosch houses more than 7,000 species of indigenous species, many of them rare or threatened. As you peruse the gardens' colorful plant life, keep your eyes peeled for stunning sculptures scattered throughout the grounds.
Recent visitors recommend picking up a map from the Kirstenbosch office and devoting at least an hour or two to the gardens' walking paths. According to one TripAdvisor user, "The trails are stunning and beyond well maintained. You feel like you are in paradise!"
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Established in 1994, the District Six Museum commemorates and educates visitors about the people of District Six. During the first half of the 20th century, this part of town was home to one tenth of the city's population. But in 1966 when apartheid was in full swing, District Six was declared a "white" neighborhood, and more than 60,000 people were forced to move to the shanty towns established in Cape Flats, a barren area on the outskirts of the city. The museum memorializes these displaced citizens with exhibits that recount their stories and inform visitors about social justice. Visitors can also take a guided tour of the district, led by one of The District Six Museum Foundation's informative guides.
Tourists describe a trip to The District Six Museum as a somber visit. According to one TripAdvisor user, "You cannot understand Cape Town's history (and South Africa) without District 6 as a reference point, and this museum tells its history with passion and careful attention."
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Extending south from Cape Town is the Cape of Good Hope, the peninsula that divides the Atlantic Ocean and False Bay (featuring numerous beautiful beaches as a result). Formerly an independent nature reserve, the Cape now lays encompassed by Table Mountain National Park and features miles of tranquil walking trails lined with fynbos (a colorful shrub-like plant). While exploring the Cape of Good Hope, you're bound to run into some of the region's full-time residents, which include ostriches and baboons. But the highlight here is Cape Point, a jagged, narrow strip of land that juts out into the Atlantic and acts as the continent's southwestern-most point. Although the official "tip of Africa" is actually located about 100 miles southeast at Cape Agulhas, standing on the edge of Cape Point will feel like you've reached the edge of the world.
Recent visitors claim that the views from the Cape are unparalleled. According to one TripAdvisor user, this is "perhaps the most amazing sight on the planet (if you like seascapes). Wow is an understatement. It is a bit windswept so bring a jacket. And a good camera."
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Separating the Atlantic Ocean from the decadent mansions of Cape Town's "Millionaire's Row" are the sugary-white sands of Clifton Beach. Divided into four beaches by huge stone boulders, Clifton draws the seen-and-be-seen crowd, as well as adrenaline-hungry surfers. This is one of the city's most popular shores thanks to its location: Sitting on the western edge of Table Mountain, Clifton stays protected from Cape Town's notoriously chilly winds. The water, however, remains cold throughout the year, which deters many swimmers.
Although this isn't the ideal place to doggy-paddle, recent visitors recommend spending some time at Clifton to stroll along the sand or people-watch from one of the nearby restaurants. As one TripAdvisor user puts it, "The water is cold but everything else is hot."
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Located just a short walk from the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, Greenmarket Square is one of South Africa's oldest public squares. Originally a slave market, this cobblestone plaza now fills with local vendors selling everything from painted fabrics to hand-crafted trinkets. While you're perusing the merchandise, various "buskers" will keep you entertained with music, dance, and even mime. Just be prepared: Greenmarket's merchants are extremely friendly, but they can also be aggressive when it comes to selling their wares. If you're not interested, do not approach the stall or say a polite but firm "No, thank you."
According to one TripAdvisor user, "Venture a block in each direction around the square if you have a bit of time—it is much the same sort of fare and also very interesting."
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Sitting near the heart of the city at the foot of Signal Hill (one of Cape Town's most easily recognizable mountains), this vibrant neighborhood houses Cape Town's Muslim community. Bo-Kaap is truly a treat for the eyes, characterized by its brightly colored houses and fascinating community. The residents of Bo-Kaap are the descendants of "Cape Malays," slaves brought by Dutch settlers from Malaysia, Indonesia, and numerous African countries. To learn more about the origins of this neighborhood's residents, visit the Bo-Kaap Museum, which occupies the area's oldest building. For 10 ZAR (a little over $1 USD), visitors can explore this small yet fascinating museum between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
Recent visitors say that a visit to Bo-Kaap is worth it for the photo ops. But according to one TripAdvisor user, "Bo-Kaap is good to see because of the colorful houses and the diverse feeling of the place. However, there isn't much to do here."
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Sitting several miles off the coast of Cape Town's V&A Waterfront, Robben Island stands as a reminder of South Africa's troubled history. Since the city was founded back in the 17th century, this UNESCO World Heritage Site has acted as a military base, a home for a leper colony, a mental institution, and, most famously, a prison. It was on this fairly desolate land mass that Nelson Mandela, militant anti-apartheid activist and former president of South Africa, was held captive. Today, Robben Island houses a fascinating museum detailing the history of the island and offering tours led by former inmates of the former prison, including Mandela's cell. The guides convey first-hand accounts of what the island used to be like.
Some visitors describe a trip to Robben Island as a sobering experience and praise the museum for its efforts to transform the site from a place of banishment to a symbol of the triumph over apartheid. Others, however, say that the site could use some work. According to one TripAdvisor user, "Buses were crowded and the guide difficult to […] understand. The walk through the prison was hurried and unless you kept pace alongside the guide you could not hear."
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This star-shaped fortress at the heart of Cape Town is the oldest surviving building in South Africa. Constructed in the late 17th century by the Dutch East India Company, the Castle of Good Hope acted as the center of colonial Cape Town's administration and armed forces. While it's still the region's military stronghold, the Castle of Good Hope also houses a several museums. Guided tours are offered both on foot and by horse-drawn carriage. If you can, try to plan your visit around the Key Ceremony, which is marked by the firing of the Signal Cannon.
One TripAdvisor user says that the Castle of Good Hope is a great activity if you're traveling as a family. "Bring the kids to see the changing of the guards. Not Buckingham Palace […] but it has a charm of its own."
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If you're visiting Cape Town with children, a trip to the Two Oceans Aquarium is a must. Located on the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront—near the meeting point of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans—this aquarium houses more than 3,000 creatures, including penguins, sharks, and turtles. Your kids will love learning about the different types of wildlife found in these two oceans and in bodies of water around the world. You can also watch animal feedings and even take a swim in the shark tank (don't worry, it's perfectly safe).
While some visitors rave about the diversity of wildlife found here, others have mixed feelings about the aquarium. As one TripAdvisor user puts it, "[The aquarium] offers a number of hands-on activities with helpful staff. [I] would only recommend if you had extra time in Cape Town as there is so much more to do."
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