Rising above the city, iconic Table Mountain provides the perfect plateau for panoramic views that stretch to the glittering Atlantic, botanical gardens beckon from its slopes, and the city’s long blonde beaches backed by towering peaks are some of South Africa’s best.
As the oldest European settlement in Africa, Cape Town has a rich and, at times, turbulent past. At Robben Island, history buffs can see where Mandela was incarcerated for 18 years. In the hinterland, elegant Stellenbosch is a Nirvana for foodies. Along the rugged coast, scenic drives slice into mountains that plunge to the sea, penguins waddle on pristine beaches, and Cape Point is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site with one of the richest floral kingdoms in the world.
1. Table Mountain
Rising 1,087 meters south of the city center, flat-topped Table Mountain is the most photographed landmark in South Africa and a constant reminder that nature is queen in this stunning seaside city. Built from massive beds of sandstone and slate, the mountain forms the northern end of the Cape Peninsula and lies within Table Mountain National Park. The park protects an astounding diversity of plants and more than 1,470 flower species – the planet’s richest floral kingdom – as well as animals such as cute snub-nosed dassies (rock hyraxes), caracals, and baboons. Within the park, Devil’s Peak flanks the mountain on the east, and Lion’s Head on the west, while the crags known as the Twelve Apostles loom over the beach resorts on the Atlantic coast.
2. Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens
The site was bequeathed to the state by Cecil Rhodes in 1902 and the gardens were established in 1913 to preserve the country’s indigenous flora – one of the first botanical gardens in the world with this mission. More than 20,000 native South African plant species are collected, grown, and studied in the hilly 528-hectare nature reserve of indigenous forest and fynbos. Of particular historical interest are a hedge of wild almond-trees planted by Jan van Riebeeck in 1660 and an avenue of camphor and fig trees planted by Cecil Rhodes in 1898. The flowers, shrubs, and trees are arranged so that a show of blossoms and color brightens the gardens throughout the year. Don’t miss the proteas, the scented garden; the impressive collection of cycads; the Sculpture Garden, and the Botanical Society Conservatory, a custom-built greenhouse with plants from arid regions. Well-marked trails thread through the wooded slopes, and the Tree Canopy Walkway provides panoramic views across the mountain-backed gardens. One of the trails leads through a ravine to the summit of Table Mountain. In summer, the gardens make an evocative venue for outdoor concerts.
3. Signal Hill and the Noon Gun
The hill forms the body of the adjacent Lion’s Head peak and was named for its historical use when signal flags were flown from here to send messages to approaching ships. Many locals and visitors drive up to watch the sunset and stay to see the shimmering lights of Cape Town ignite after dark. At noon every day (except Sundays and public holidays), a cannon activated by an electronic impulse from the Observatory fires a single shot. In earlier days this “noon gun” served to give the exact time to ships anchored in the bay. Tourists are welcome to attend a free presentation on the history of the Noon Gun at the Lion Battery and then stay to watch the firing. Those headed to the top of the hill for sunset views should take a jacket as it can be chilly after the sun dips. On busy weekends and holidays go early to score a parking spot
4. Clifton and Camps Bay Beaches
At Clifton, Cape Town’s St. Tropez, some of the city’s priciest real estate overlooks four gleaming white-sand beaches flanked by smooth granite boulders and washed by sparkling, but crisp, blue seas. First Beach is a favorite volleyball venue and offers decent surf when the conditions are right. Just south of Clifton, trendy Camp’s Bay sports another stunning beach, backed by the magnificent Twelve Apostles and the distinctive peak of Lion’s Head. People-watching is an art along this pretty palm-lined stretch as well as at the chic cafes and boutiques fringing Victoria Street – especially during weekends and holidays when locals and tourists throng here to soak up the scene. Camp’s Bay and Clifton’s Fourth Beach boast coveted Blue Flag status awarded for clean water, safety, and environmental management making them a great choice for families as well
5. The Victoria & Alfred Waterfront
Once a scruffy fishing harbor, this reimagined waterfront district is now one of the city’s top tourist attractions, and many of the old buildings have been preserved and restored. Millions of visitors a year flock here to the shops, jazz venues, restaurants, hotels, theaters, drama school, cinemas, and museums. Sports fans will love the Springbok Experience Rugby Museum, which traces the story of South African Rugby through interactive exhibits. Two Oceans Aquarium features more than 300 species of fish from the Atlantic and Indian oceans, in particular from the area around the Cape of Good Hope. Highlights include a touch tank, penguin encounter, predator exhibit, and diving experiences, which allow visitors to view fascinating marine creatures up close. Trips to Robben Island leave from the Nelson Mandela Gateway on the waterfront, but anyone is welcome to explore the museum exhibits here. West of the waterfront, the trendy Green Point precinct is also home to the lovely Green Point Urban Park with its biodiversity garden as well as the Cape Town Stadium, which hosted many FIFA World Cup matches in 2010.
6. Chapman’s Peak Drive
Cut into the sheer face of Chapman’s Peak, which plunges to the sea, this spectacular toll road snakes its way for about nine kilometers between Noordhoek and Hout Bay passing panoramic Chapman’s Peak point along the way. With 114 curves carved into the rock face, some perched more than 500 meters above the sea, this is not a route for those prone to motion sickness. Around sunset, cars cram along the panoramic viewpoints as sightseers stake a spot to watch the sun sink while sipping a cool drink in the time-honored South African tradition known as “sundowners.” Look for southern right whales and dolphins in the sparkling Atlantic Ocean below, and drive slowly and carefully. The road was closed on and off for several years due to rockfall dangers, but it has now been stabilized and is open every day – except during severe weather events. As well as being used as a location for TV commercials, Chapman’s Peak Drive is the setting for the popular Cape Argus Cycle Race and Two Oceans Marathon. After admiring the magnificent sea views, hungry travelers can feast on fresh fish at one of the excellent seafood restaurants in Hout Bay
7. Robben Island
Today, the island is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a must-see attraction for anyone interested in South African history. Tours to the island begin with multimedia exhibits in the museum at the Nelson Mandela Gateway on the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront before travelers board vessels to the island. The boat trip takes about 30 minutes to an hour depending on weather conditions and can be rough during big swells. While on the island, visitors tour the maximum security prison, Mandela’s former cell, and the lime quarry where prisoners were forced to endure back-breaking labor. Perhaps the best part about the tour is that the guides are former prisoners of Robben Island who share their experiences and offer insight into the atrocities of apartheid and the power of forgiveness. After leaving this hellish six-square-kilometer island, Mandela said, “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.” These wise words are even more potent after a tour here. Book well in advance.
8. Great White Shark Cage Dives
Protected by the thick bars of an iron cage, divers score a hefty dose of adrenaline as these magnificent creatures swim within inches of the bars. Tour operators in Cape Town offer shark cage dives in areas such as Simon’s Town, Dyer Island, Mossel Bay, Seal Island, and Gansbaai, the “Great White Shark Capital of the World.” The best time to see these magnificent creatures is between April and October. No diving certification is needed since divers are enclosed in the custom-built cages, and part of the funds go towards shark research and conservation. Those who prefer to appreciate these awe-inspiring creatures from a distance can watch all the excitement from the boat. Seal, dolphin, penguin, and whale-watching tours are also available for more timid animal lovers
9. City Hall & the Castle of Good Hope
The 60-meter-high bell-tower, with a carillon installed in 1923, was modeled on Big Ben in London. Highlights of the interior include the beautiful mosaic floors, marble staircase, and impressive stained glass. Notice the balcony overlooking Grand Parade where Nelson Mandela, the country’s future president, addressed a jubilant crowd in 1990 after 27 years in prison. Music lovers should also try to attend a performance by the Cape Philharmonic Orchestra based here.
Across the road from the Grand Parade, The Castle of Good Hope is the oldest surviving stone building in South Africa. It was built in 1666-79 as the residence of the Governor and for the protection of the early settlers, but the castle, which is in the form of a five-pointed star, was never exposed to attack.
10. Iziko Museums of South Africa
A top museum in this group is the Bo-Kaap Museum in the Bo-Kaap District, an old Malay quarter with brightly-painted two-story houses that are still occupied by the descendants of slaves who were brought to the Cape from the East Indies in the second half of the 17th century. This excellent museum illustrates aspects of 19th-century Muslim life in a rare early Cape-Dutch house circa 1763. A room on the premises houses a collection of carts and carriages.
The Old Town House is another popular attraction in the museum group. It was originally built in 1755 in a Dutch-Rococo style and lies in Cape Town’s hub on the west side of Green Market Square. Formerly Cape Town’s City Hall, the Old Town House now displays a collection of pictures presented to the country by Sir Max Michaelis in 1914, consisting mainly of works by 17th-century Dutch and Flemish masters, including Frans Hals, Jan Steen, Jacob van Ruysdael, and Jan van Goyen.
12. The District Six Museum
In 1966, 70,000 residents of multi-ethnic District Six were displaced when the South African government decided the community was to be a white one. This poignant museum honors the people of this now-vanished district. On the museum’s floor is a large-scale map where former residents are encouraged to label their old homes and features of their neighborhood.