Things to do in Cape Town

A blogger from Ireland, who is intending to visit South Africa, recently asked the question: “What are the ‘must do’ things in and around Cape Town?”

Although we have on occasion received visitors from overseas and given them some suggestions on what to do and see, I’ve never sat down and made a list before. So that’s what I did.

And because I was rather amazed at HOW MUCH there is (and how much we, as local residents, tend to take our multifaceted city for granted), I thought I’d share it with all of you – in case you are planning to visit South Africa sometime, like for the FIFA World Cup 2010, for instance… 😉

Oh, and if you’re a fellow Capetonian, I’d really welcome any feedback and suggestions on what else you recommend to your family and friends when they visit from overseas.

Central Cape Town

  1. One of many websites about Cape Town tourism is Cape Town Routes Unlimited. Their list of 101 Things to do in Cape Town and the Western Cape is bound to inspire both locals and visitors. Update: The link has changed: It is now http://www.cape-venues.co.za/site-seeing/cape-town-activities.htm.
  2. A useful place to visit is the Cape Town visitors’ information centre at the corner of Burg and Castle Streets (Tel: 021 426 4260), near the Green Market Square. There is a second Cape Town tourist information office at the Clock Tower in the V&A Waterfront (Tel: 021 405 4500) and at Cape Town International Airport (Tel: 021 934 4161).
  3. If you’re Irish and homesick, there is an Irish pub known as Catú in Burg Street, very close to the tourism office.
  4. The Topless Bus (you can also see here for more information). The Citysightseeing bus is fantastic for getting your bearings, and if you don’t feel like driving yourself. Your ticket is valid for the whole day, and you can hop on and off at your leisure. You can also get discounted access to several attractions. The red route goes pretty much around the city centre (i.e. from the Waterfront, zigzagging through town, stopping at various attractions, up to the Table Mountain Cableway, and then down the other side via Camps Bay and Sea Point back to the Waterfront). The blue route goes from the Waterfront out to Kirstenbosch, across Constantia Nek to Hout Bay, and back along the ocean road to Camps Bay, Sea Point and the Waterfront. You can start the tour anywhere, and you don’t have to book in advance.
  5. The Two Oceans Aquarium at the Waterfront is fantastic if you’re into marine life. You can also go scuba-diving with the sharks in one of the tanks or in the underwater kelp forest – although you need scuba diving qualifications for those activities.
  6. Alternatively, if you want to go shark cage diving in the ocean itself, contact one of the registered operators – try Great White Shark Surface Viewing and Cage Diving Trips or Shark Cage Diving Gansbaai – both do their tours from Kleinbaai/Gansbaai, which is on the other side of Hermanus. A video clip was posted here by the first operator.
  7. The Gold of Africa Museum is by all accounts a magnificent place (Tel: 021 405 1450). Not only do they have a normal museum tour, but they also have a night-time tour, which sounds magical, as well as a walking tour around the city centre from a different perspective.
  8. If you’re interested in culture and history, then do a walking tour of the Bo-Kaap (the Malay Quarter). You can visit the Bo-Kaap Museum (Tel: 021 481 3939) or try a walking tour with Shereen Habib of Tana Baru (Tel: 021 447 3199) a local who’s lived in the area for years, and who knows everything and everyone.
  9. The Noon Gun (top of Military Road, Signal Hill) is a Cape Town institution – it’s a cannon that is fired every day at noon. It has an interesting history (see SAAO gallery pic 1, SAAO gallery pic 2, and Bo-Kaap attractions), and is one of those odd and unusual things to do. You can also have lunch at the nearby Noon Gun Tea Room, although I think it’s a set lunch, not an à la carte menu.
  10. The District Six Museum (Tel: 021 461 8745) deals with the history of those who were forced to move out of the District Six area of Cape Town during apartheid – it is quite an emotional experience.
  11. If you are a bibliophile, then Clarke’s Books (Tel: 021 423 5739) is a good place to shop for books of all kinds (new, second-hand and rare and out-of-print books). They’re very knowledgeable, have an extensive catalogue, and specialise in Africana.
  12. From Long Street, you can then head down to the Planetarium, which is part of the Iziko Museums of Cape Town and is located at 25 Queen Victoria Street (Tel: 021 481 3900). They offer regular and excellent shows about the cosmos and the universe and our tiny little place in it.
  13. If you want to do something unusual, like African drumming, the Drum Café (Tel: 021 425 1486) is the place to go.
  14. The Green Point Stadium is currently running various tours and presenting lectures on topics related to the FIFA World Cup and the building of the stadium. Their Soccer Magic Tour, for instance, includes “The Greensman” theatre performance (everyone has raved about it), a virtual tour and a ‘tour’ from the viewing deck where you can ask all the questions you like.

Table Mountain National Park

Of course, if you’re in Cape Town, you *have to* climb The Mountain (see South African National Parks).

  1. If you are fit, you can hike up Table Mountain and take the cable car down (at R145.00 for a return trip and R74.00 for a one-way trip, it ain’t cheap, so most locals go up and down on foot). The most popular route is called Platteklip Gorge (Route description and Safety information, and it’s right up the central front of the mountain. It’s steep and strenuous, but do-able, and it doesn’t cost you anything. Another popular route leaves from Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens and goes up Skeleton Gorge and down Nursery Ravine. It’s also quite steep and, if it’s wet, it’s be slippery because you’re criss-crossing a mountain stream. The other downside is that you’d have to pay the entrance fee at Kirstenbosch. An easier route is up the back of the mountain from Constantia Nek, but it’s a fairly long and steady tramp all the way across the back of the mountain and to the cable station. You’d need a car at each end, but it’s doable. Probably budget a day, particularly if you have to queue for the cable car down.
  2. Lion’s Head can be done in a morning. The last bit is fairly steep, but the views from up there all around the City Bowl and the Atlantic Seaboard are fantastic and rewarding.
  3. You may want to visit Cape Point, which is the southernmost point of the Cape Peninsula. Currently, the cost of entry at the main gate is R60 per adult. Please note that Cape Point is not the southernmost point of Africa – that is at Cape L’Agulhas, further along the south-east coast, with the nearest towns Bredasdorp and Struisbaai.
  4. South African National Parks are busy creating a 6-day, 5-night, 100 km hiking trail from Cape Town to Cape Town, which will be complete by June 2010. It’s called the Hoerikwaggo Trail. You will be able to book sections of the trail too, if you can’t do the whole thing (3 days, 2 days). “Hoerikwaggo” is the original Khoisan word for “mountain in the sea”, i.e. Table Mountain. There appear to be three sections open at the moment, i.e. Redhill – Kommetjie – Silvermine, Kommetije – Silvermine – Constantia Nek, and Silvermine – Orange Kloof – Cable Way, though almost all of them are designated “tough”. Oh dear…
  5. You can also abseil from the mountain, if you like an adrenaline rush – Abseil Africa and Downhill Adventures offer these.
  6. Tandem paragliding is offered by Parapax, who leap off near Lion’s Head and on Signal Hill. Not for the faint of heart.
  7. There are tons of hikes, some easy and short, some strenuous and long, and some requiring climbing gear, all across the mountain range from Table Mountain all the way south to Cape Point. Mike Lundy’s books on these hikes are really good: Easy Walks in the Cape Peninsula and Best Walks in the Cape Peninsula.
  8. If you don’t know your way around, it may be best to join one of the guided walks up the mountain, e.g. Table Mountain Walks; although they aren’t cheap (by local standards), there’s safety in numbers, and the guides are likely to be very informative and keen to share their knowledge with curious visitors.
  9. Some words of caution on hiking around Table Mountain: It may look benign, but it ain’t. Bear in mind that it is still a wilderness, even though it’s in the middle of a first world/third world city. The trails are generally not well signposted, and even if you have a map, it may not be entirely accurate. On the whole, though, you can’t get all that badly lost, unless the mist or the clouds close in and you can’t see the city below. Also, the weather on the mountain is extremely changeable. Don’t even attempt it when it’s been bucketing with rain for days, or if strong winds are predicted. The cable way only runs when the weather is okay. And, yes, we do have a criminal element up there too. It’s infuriating, that one can’t get away from the blighters, not even in Mother Nature. Don’t attempt to hike on your own, and don’t carry any valuables. If you can find a creative way of disguising and hiding an emergency cellphone, do that!

Outside the Town Centre

  1. If you want to do a trip to Robben Island, you need to pre-book your tickets at the Nelson Mandela Gateway at the Waterfront (Tel: 021 413 4200 / 4202). They only go if the sea isn’t too rough. By all accounts, it’s an emotional experience, even more so if you are really interested in the apartheid years and the history of South Africa.
  2. If you want to visit the townships, I can recommend a township tour of Langa, which is the oldest township in Cape Town, or Gugulethu, which is another huge sprawling township a bit further out from town. In Langa you will find the  Guga s’Thebe Arts and Cultural Centre, which is a very unusual place to visit. If you want to book a walking tour from there, you can call 021 695 5098, or ask at the tourist information office which operators they recommend. There are several and they all offer different packages. It just depends what you like. I took some friends of mine on two township tours with Faizel Gangat of Cape Capers – he showed us around Langa.
  3. Just by the way, although it’s generally not dangerous to drive into the townships (unless there’s a strike or some sort of protest action going on), I really wouldn’t recommend you do so on your own, because you’ll stick out like a sore thumb as a tourist. And although not everyone will pounce on you or hijack your car or steal your camera, cellphone and wallet, it still isn’t a good idea to go for a stroll or a leisurely drive there on your own. 🙂
  4. Rhodes Memorial near the University of Cape Town is worth a visit just for the view. There’s a really nice restaurant up there, where you can have great breakfasts and lunches (and where your scones may well be nicked by the cheeky starlings).
  5. The Montebello Design Centre at 31 Newlands Avenue, Newlands is an unusual place. The Gardener’s Cottage is a gorgeous little restaurant that serves breakfasts and lunches. It is a community of artists, who work in different media (painting, sculpture, pottery, woodwork), and there is also a forge, where someone makes beautiful sculptures from metal. (And if your car is particularly dirty, you can have it washed near the parking area, while you amble around.)
  6. Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens – if you’re into plants and flowers, it’s hard to beat this. You can easily spend half a day or longer strolling around these magnificent gardens.
  7. Tokai Arboretum – the oldest tree park in South Africa; if you’re into trees, there is a wonderful, restful hike through the forest. Or you can do the mountain bike trail, if you prefer.
  8. There is an African penguin colony at Boulders beach just on the southern edge of Simon’s Town. The penguins are very entertaining to watch. And Simon’s Town with its naval history and old buildings is very picturesque. If you have any women travelling with you, they’ll love the navy men in their white uniforms.
  9. On the Atlantic seaboard side, Chapman’s Peak Drive is a narrow and very winding mountain pass that links Noordhoek to Hout Bay. It’s been intermittently open and closed for repairs and structural strengthening, because the mountain is literally falling down there, but it’s still glorious! That’s if we’ll ever get a chance to drive it again!
  10. Noordhoek beach is a loooong, pristine, white beach, just perfect for horse riding. Imhoff Equestrian Centre offers horse riding for people of all ages and abilities. Yep, your butt will hurt for a few days, and you’ll have all kinds of aches and pains in unmentionable places, but it’s awesome!
  11. And if you want to do something really strange, then perhaps you want to do a tour of Cape Town’s storm water canals? I’m serious. There’s actually someone who does these. His name is Xavier Scheepers (Tel: 021 462 0992) and info@180.co.za.

Wine Routes

  1. We have a LOT of Wine Routes.
  2. If you have limited time, or the weather isn’t that pleasant, then you don’t even need to drive as far as the wine routes of Stellenbosch, Franschhoek and Paarl, or even the Overberg and Robertson.
  3. There are also wine farms in the Constantia valley (wine route) and in Durbanville .
  4. Vergelegen on Lourensford Road near Somerset West may be one of the nicest wine estates to visit, and it’s really not far from Cape Town.
  5. And near Vergelegen is the Helderberg Nature Reserve, which covers a vast area with numerous hiking trails of varying lengths.
  6. The most famous (and perhaps the most touristy) wine estate is Spier near Stellenbosch. It’s a huge complex, and they offer many different activities, including a cheetah sanctuary, horse riding and picnics, as well as theatrical performance. The African-style restaurant (Moyo’s) at Spier is particularly popular among tourists, because you get a HUGE buffet, and a riveting performance of African dance. It’s fabulous, but very touristy, so if that’s not your thing, then don’t go.

Further away from Cape Town

  1. Stellenbosch is soooo pretty with its tree-lined streets and vast variety of restaurants.
  2. If you’re going as far as Paarl, then you have to climb up Paarl Rock to the Taal Monument (i.e. the Afrikaans Language Monument) (see Wikipedia. The panoramic view from there is spectacular.
  3. The Huguenot Pass Road from Paarl to Worcester is awe-inspiring (see Wikipedia articles on the Huguenot toll tunnel and on Du Toit’s Peak).
  4. And the village of Darling, north of Cape Town, houses Evita se Perron. Evita Bezuidenhout is the alter ego of Pieter-Dirk Uys, one of the most famous South African comedians and satirists. A few years ago, he moved out to Darling and took over what I think was an abandoned railway station, and he’s transformed it into a theatre venue. In his different shows, Pieter-Dirk Uys imitates (perfectly, I must say) South African politicians from across the entire spectrum – he started during the years of apartheid and he’s just kept going. And the highlight of the show is when he changes into ‘Tannie Evita’. Brilliant. You do need to know a little about South African history and politics to get ALL the jokes, but some of the shows are more for locals while others are more geared towards tourists who don’t speak Afrikaans. You can ask the receptionist when you book, which show would be most suited for you.

A word of caution if you’re heading down south

Given the high levels of unemployment, poverty and destitution, innocent people do sometimes get beaten up, shot or killed for a couple of rands in a wallet or for a cellphone. Crime is part of the everyday reality of living in South Africa, and although it is highly unlikely to happen to you, please just be sensibly cautious.

To end on a positive note:

South Africans are on the whole a very hospitable bunch. There are LOTS and LOTS of nice and helpful and friendly people, who will welcome you into their homes and be keen to show you around and tell you about their lives and give you advice on where to go and what to see and how to get there and what to avoid. You’ll probably be invited to a braai (barbecue), or to go to a pub, or to watch the rugby or the cricket, or just to laze around on a beach. 🙂

So come visit South Africa!

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