Cape Town is a great city to visit. The people are friendly, the weather is great most of the year, and the food is delicious. This is why adding Cape Town to your travel plans is a no-brainer. However, once you are in Cape Town, what do you actually do? Depending on your personality, there are several great ideas. However, here is a list of the best Cape Town attractions.
1. V & A Waterfront
The V & A Waterfront is arguably the most popular Cape Town attraction for international tourists (and locals!) It is easily accessible from the city of Cape Town, and it’s just off the highway!
The Victoria and Alfred Waterfront’s focal point is the Victoria Wharf Mall, which is known for its exquisite design, superb cuisine, and world-class retail experience. There’s also a variety of family-friendly activities like boat excursions, train rides, and the Two Oceans Aquarium. If you are lucky, you might be able to catch a live performance or an exhibit.
From personal experience, I recommend that you really take in everything they have to offer—not just the mall, but the whole area. Particularly on weekends or public holidays, you may be able to catch a live show. These are not “official” shows, but rather locals who set up wherever they can find a spot to dance or play music. It is quite entertaining to watch, particular the traditional dancing and music. However, if you are just in the mall, you won’t see it so you really have to get out and walk around the V&A Waterfront.
2. Robben Island
Robben Island in Table Bay was a harsh jail for almost 400 years. However, it is now a very popular Cape Town attraction because this is where Nelson Mandela spent 18 years of his life (while incarcerated during the apartheid era.)
The island is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a must-see for anybody interested in South African history.
Tours of the island begin with multimedia displays at the Nelson Mandela Gateway Museum at the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, followed by a boat ride to the island. (Expect the boat ride to take 30 minutes to an hour, depending on the weather).
Visitors will see the island’s maximum-security prison, Nelson Mandela‘s old cell, and the lime quarry where inmates were made to undergo backbreaking work.
The trip is unique in that the guides are former Robben Island detainees who relate their stories and provide insight into apartheid’s horrors and the power of forgiveness.
This is what Nelson Mandela said after being released:
As I went out the door toward the gate that would lead to my release, I realized that unless I left my anger and hate behind, I would remain in jail.
These insightful remarks become more poignant after your visit to Robben Island.
3. Table Mountain
The flat-topped Table Mountain, formed by massive sandstone and slate layers, rises 1,087 meters in the air. It is South Africa’s most photographed landmark.
Located within the Table Mountain National Park, the park preserves an amazing variety of plants. There are over 1,470 flower species. It’s the world’s most diverse floral kingdom. There are also several interesting creatures like caracals and baboons.
Devil’s Peak and Lion’s Head flank the mountains to the east and west, respectively, while the Twelve Apostles tower above the Atlantic coast’s beach homes.
When there are clouds on the mountain, locals call it the “tablecloth.” If you were planning to hike Table Mountain, definitely avoid the days when you see the tablecloth—visibility will be poor. You’ll spend all that time hiking up the mountain but when you reach the summit, you won’t be able to see the magnificent views it has to offer!
If you’re not really a hiker, you can also take the famous Table Mountain cable car! To prevent lengthy lineups, consider buying your tickets online.
The cableway operates daily—except during strong winds. It’s a good idea to check the website or call ahead for current conditions. If you go up the cable car and there is a change in weather, you will not be able to come down with the cable car. In that case, you’ll need to hike down. If you’re not a hiker, this is not the end of the world because there are different hiking routes, some easier than others. In fact, there are over 350 distinct paths to choose from, each with a varying degree of difficulty. Either way, be prepared for that by dressing accordingly.
If you do plan to go up the mountain (whether it be via the cable car or hiking), be sure to bring a light jacket or a sweater—it can get quite cold and windy up the mountain.
To get the finest views of Table Mountain and the best vantage point from which to shoot this famous landmark, walk or drive to Signal Hill or Lion’s Head—both summits provide breathtaking views.
The Cape Malay (often referred to as Bo-Kaap) district, is situated in the center of the city at the foot of Signal Hill. The Bo Kaap welcomes tourists with gently sloping streets lined with vividly colored homes.
This thriving neighborhood is home to Cape Town’s Muslim population, which is descended from the Cape Malay slaves. (The slaves were brought from Indonesia and Malaysia to the Cape by Dutch colonizers). Once you are in Bo Kaap (which is accessible on foot from Cape Town’s central business district (CBD), you can:
- Discover the neighborhood’s history at the Bo-Kaap Museum;
- Try some traditional Cape Malay curries at the neighborhood eateries;
- Take Instagram-worthy photos in front of the colorful homes.
5. Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens
The Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, located on the eastern slopes of Table Mountain, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The gardens were created in 1913 with the goal of preserving the country’s indigenous flora.
Over 20,000 indigenous South African plant species are gathered, cultivated, and researched in this mountainous, 528-hectare forest and fynbos nature reserve. The flowers, bushes, and trees are placed in such a way that the gardens are illuminated with blooms and color throughout the year.
Amongst many others, you will find proteas (South Africa’s national flower), an outstanding collection of cycads, the Sculpture Garden, the Botanical Society Conservatory, a custom-built greenhouse filled with plants native to dry areas.
The forested hills are crisscrossed by well-marked paths, and the Tree Canopy Walkway offers panoramic views of the mountain-backed gardens. One of the routes ascends Table Mountain through a ravine.
In the summer, the gardens transform into an attractive setting for outdoor performances.
6. Winelands of Constantia
First and foremost, the Winelands of Constantia is world-renowned for its excellent wines and restaurants. There are several wine tastings available to visitors. But you don’t have to be a wine connoisseur to appreciate the area.
The foothills of the Constantia Hills are lush and densely forested. The area is also popular for hiking, cycling, and horseback riding.
7. Clifton Beach & Camps Bay Beach
A little drive from Cape Town, you’ll find the Camps Bay and Clifton beaches. These beaches are surrounded by some of the most expensive real estates in Cape Town, but they are free, public beaches that are open to all.
What makes these beaches amazing are the dazzling white-sands, polished granite rocks, and gorgeous blue waters. This is precisely why the beaches are some of the most popular Cape Town attractions!
But as wonderful as it looks, I always feel it my duty to mention that the water is ice cold! Even if you visit at the peak of summer, the water is always freezing cold. Yes, this is bothersome. However, after the initial shock, your body quickly gets used to it and you will be able to enjoy the water.
Clifton Beach is divided into 4 beaches, (named Clifton 1,2,3, and 4). Here you can lounge on the beach and work on your tan, play volleyball, or if the circumstances are perfect, you can go surfing.
Just south of Clifton, take a beautiful drive to Camp’s Bay. This beach is framed by the majestic Twelve Apostles and the imposing Lion’s Head. You could enjoy the beach or relax at any of the stylish cafés. Do yourself a favor and stay long enough to have a cocktail at sundown while overlooking the ocean!
Camp’s Bay and Clifton’s Fourth Beach have been granted the coveted Blue Flag for their clean water, safety, and environmental management.
8. Chapman’s Peak
Chapman’s Peak Drive, fondly dubbed “Chappies” by locals, is about 15 miles / 25 kilometers from the city center. This is a toll road but it is well worth it because it is one of the most breathtaking driving routes in the world.
Around sunset, vehicles swarm around the panoramic views as people are trying to get into position to see the sunset. Many locals will drive up with the plan of having a sundowner (cocktail you drink while watching the sunset).
From there, you’ll be able to see the glittering Atlantic Ocean below. If you’re lucky, you may even see southern right whales and dolphins.
This is a mountain road so it can feel a little uncomfortable as you go around the many bends. Drive slowly and cautiously and you should be fine!
Chapman’s Peak Drive is also where the Cape Argus Cycle Race and the Two Oceans Marathon take place.
9. Cape Point
Cape Point is the most Southwestern point of Africa. It is around 37 miles / 60 kilometers south of Cape Town, but it is definitely worth the trip.
Cape Point is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is also part of the Cape Floral Region. In fact, it is one of the world’s richest regions for flora. But there is wildlife too! There are around 250 bird species, elks, Cape zebras, reptiles, and armies of brazen baboons here.
The beautiful journey from Cape Town takes you down the Cape Peninsula via Constantia, Muizenberg, the picturesque coastal town of Kalk Bay, and Simon’s Town (where you can see the penguins at Boulders Beach).
Once you are there, you can access the Cape Point lighthouse via the Flying Dutchman funicular (which is like a tram), or you can hike it. (There are several hiking trails.)
Other than physically being in the most southwestern point of Africa, the magnificent views, the flora, fauna, ample hiking opportunities, and tons of Instagramable moments, there are also shipwrecks you can check out. If you are traveling during whale season, you can even go whale watching from Cape Point.
10. Signal Hill
This is a great spot to see Cape Town’s lights or the beautiful sunset.
Signal Hill is five minutes west of the city center. It offers panoramic views of Cape Town, Table Bay, and the glistening Atlantic Ocean from its 1148 feet / 350-meter top.
Signal Hill is named after its historical usage as a location for signal flags to incoming ships. Every day at noon (excluding Sundays and public holidays), a single shot is fired from a cannon triggered by an electrical impulse from the Observatory. Historically, this “noon cannon” was used to inform ships moored in the harbor of the precise hour.
If you are going up the hill for sunset views, be sure to bring a jacket or a sweater—it can get cold after sunset. If you are going on weekends or public holidays, try to get there early so that you can get a parking spot. (Parking is limited!)
11. Boulders Beach
Boulders Beach is home to a huge colony of African penguins. The beach is part of the Table Mountain National Park, so expect to pay a small entry fee.
Boulders Beach is named for the huge boulders that dot the dunes and divide the coastline into quiet, secluded nooks. Do go to see the penguins, but once you’re done, go take a dip. Swimming is more pleasant here than in Clifton or Camps Bay since the waters of False Bay (where Boulders Beach is) are warmer than those of the Atlantic ocean.
Boulders Beach is in Simons Town, which is around 26 miles south of downtown Cape Town. The beach is accessible via the M3, M5, or M6 motorways, or through Metrorail at Simon’s Town Station.
12. Whale Watching
Watching the acrobatics of the whales is a thrilling experience. Every year (between May and November), thousands of people travel to Cape Town to go whale watching.
There are several whale-watching spots across the Western Cape. There are several whale watching tours that you can take via boat, but you can often see the whales from the roads and/or outlook points too.
This is a new but very popular Cape Town attraction. People travel from far and wide to go whale watching because, in Cape Town, whale watching opportunities are plenty!
13. Greenmarket Square Flea Market
Greenmarket Square is one of South Africa’s oldest public squares, located only a short walk from the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront. Originally a slave market, this cobblestone square is now a place where independent merchants sell anything from hand-printed textiles to hand-crafted souvenirs.
It’s a fun place to be, especially on Saturdays or public holidays. You may find live music, dancing or other entertainment.
Be warned that some of the vendors can be a little pushy as they try to get you to buy their goods. If you are not interested, avoid their stalls or politely but firmly say “No, thank you.”
Browsing is fine but if you plan on shopping, be sure to take cash.