The fact that Cape Town is one of the world’s premier holiday destinations has created somewhat of a problem for tourists, albeit one of the most pleasant problems any tourist can encounter, namely what should you do and see when visiting Cape Town?
In this article we are listing the top 12 best things to do in Cape Town. In fact, the visitor to Cape Town is spoilt for choice with almost an embarrassment of riches in the form of nature reserves, museums, world-class beaches, theatres, art galleries, coffee shops, an internationally famous bakery, the oldest building in South Africa in the form of the Castle of Good Hope, stunningly beautiful scenery on one of the world’s most scenic drives along Chapman’s Peak, the iconic Robben island, and for the wine connoisseur, easy access to the world’s longest and oldest wine route that passes a mere twenty minutes from the city center.
Activity 1) Full day Wine Tasting Tour.
To lovers of the vine- and its fruits, a proper, full day wine tasting tour is the quintessential Cape Town experience. However, the manner in which the wine lands are explored is as much fun as the wine tasting itself, and one way to experience the wine lands is to go on a cycling tour through some of the most beautiful wine country in the world.
Guided cycling tours through the wine lands is fast becoming the most popular way to experience the wine culture of the Cape. Cycling tours vary between a half day, during which 3-4 estates are visited, to extended, two-day tours during which up to eight estates are visited. Extended tours include equipment hire, overnight accommodation, entrance fees, and meals. Tour operators offer a wide variety of tour options that will appeal to all levels of fitness, area, and wine type preferences.
Another way to explore the wine lands around Franschhoek, which is less than an hour’s drive from Cape Town, is by tram. This guided tour that takes in iconic estates such as Dieu Donnè, Haute Cabrière, Chamonix, and Grande Provence as well as the beautiful Huguenot Museum, uses a replica of an 1890 Brill Tram to clickety-clack around the circular route. Join or leave the tour at any stop, but chances are you will want to do the route over and over again.
Activity 2) Full Day Whale Watching and Seaside Tour.
One of the great pleasures of travelling around Cape Town is to experience the frolicking of the pods of Southern Right whales off the coast at Hermanus during the months of June to December. This is when the whales congregate in the area in large numbers, and several tour operators offer full day whale watching and coastline tour packages. Some tour operators are licensed to approach to within a few hundred meters of the whales in boats, which gives the word “exhilarating”, a new meaning altogether.
Since the time whales can be viewed from boats is limited by law, most tour operators also provide full day tours along the coast, through picture-pretty towns like Gordon’s Bay, Pringle Bay, and Betty’s Bay. During the whale season, spectacular sightings of whale pods can be had from dedicated look-out spots along the route, so bring plenty of spare batteries for cameras and video equipment.
Some tours also include visits to the famous Harold Porter Botanical Garden, as well as the to the Fernkloof Nature Reserve and Sir Lowry’s Pass.
Enjoy this ultimate excursion of Whale Watching In Hermanus & Wine and get-up close with the great whales!
Activity 3) Half Day Guided Township Tour.
Even though the vast majority of South Africans live in townships, and thus not in the main centers proper, up until 1994 these areas were closed books to tourists and locals alike. While there are many tour operators who offer tours to these disadvantaged areas across the country today, it is in Cape Town where the visitor has the best opportunity to experience the daily lives of the majority of South Africans because of the rich cultural diversity of the area.
While tours are offered to many different areas, the best tours are guided, interactive tours that let visitors into the homes and lives of residents. Visitors are encouraged to engage with locals in their taverns, homes, businesses, restaurants and bars, and it is only after such an experience that the visitor can even begin to understand the extent to which apartheid had fragmented South Africa on both physical and emotional levels. An interactive township tour is a definite must-do activity on any Cape Town tour.
Activity 4) Cape of Good Hope Private Tours.
For the first-time visitor, there is no better way to see the Mother City than with the help and guidance of a private tour guide. To be sure, prices vary, as do tour itineraries, but licensed and certified tour guides take all the hassle out of getting around in a strange city and culture. Most private tours include the usual attractions like the Castle, the Company Gardens, favorite markets and the like, but some allow for some leeway in the itinerary- depending of course on the provider, and the number of participants.
Nonetheless, a private tour with a certified guide and a luxurious, air–conditioned vehicle is without doubt one of the most pleasant ways to get an introduction to one of the world’s most iconic cities.
Activity 5) Camps Bay
Many of Cape Town’s best attractions are free, and the beach at Camps Bay is one such attraction, and one that offers unsurpassed opportunities for people watching. However, the Atlantic Ocean along this stretch of coastline is too cold for bathing- so instead, investigate the several dozen cozy restaurants, coffee shops, market stalls, and buzzing bars along the beachfront. Moreover, the area is sheltered from the incessant winds that occur during some parts of the year, which makes it the ideal spot to enjoy classic cocktails at sunset before indulging in some of the finest dining to be had in South Africa in one of the many gourmet restaurants in the immediate area.
Camps Bay is located just south of the world-famous Clifton Beach, and can be accessed via the M6 freeway, or Camps Bat Drive, also known locally as the M62 freeway.
Activity 6) The District Six Museum.
Before 1966, District Six was a perfect blend of races, cultures, cuisines, and religions. However, during 1966, the area was declared a “white area” under the infamous Group Areas Act, and considerably more than 60 000 people were forcibly removed to the sandy wastelands of the Cape Flats. This action also wiped out 300 years of history, which the District Six Museum is now trying to revive by exhibiting photographs, documents, publications, books, music, and recorded interviews of erstwhile residents.
A visit to this museum, which is located just a short distance from the vibrant Green Market Square, is a must for all who wish to understand the history of Cape Town, and by extension, South Africa as a whole. However, the experience can be sombre and disturbing, so be prepared to be moved. Tours of the remains of the original District Six are offered by knowledgeable and informed guides as well.
Activity 7) Castle of Good Hope.
To many in South Africa, the Castle of Good Hope is still the symbol of a hated political regime, but for all that, it is still the oldest building in South Africa. Constructed by the Dutch East India Company in the late 1600’s, the castle served as the military and administrative centre of the Cape Colony. Still partly occupied by the military establishment, the Castle also accommodates several museums, and tours of these are offered by horse-drawn carriages, as well as walking tours by informed guides- among which the tour of the Castle’s dungeons is extremely popular.
Visitors are also welcome to witness the Key Ceremony, which although it is not as spectacular as the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, is the South African version of a changing of the guard. The ceremony takes place at around noon, with the noon signal being produced by the firing of a vintage cannon from atop Signal Hill.
Tours of the Castle of Good Hope is available every day from 9 am to 4 pm, while the Key Ceremony takes place Monday to Friday at 10 am and noon.
Activity 8) Robben Island.
Robben Island, which is located a few miles off the Southern Cape coast, is without doubt one of the most iconic prisons in the world. It was never a happy place- the island, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, started out as a military base, than it became a leper colony, then it housed a mental hospital, and most famously in recent times, it was the prison in which Nelson Mandela and other Struggle leaders spent many years.
Robben Island is only accessible by ferry, for which advance booking are recommended, and the experience of walking through the cell-blocks in which Mandela was incarcerated has been described as “a sobering, and humbling experience.” Tours include a look at the equipment used by the security police to spy on inmates, as well as a visit to the limestone quarry where inmates sat breaking rocks for hours each day.
Activity 9) Bo-Kaap. (Malay Quarter)
Like Camps Bay and Clifton beaches, a visit to the colorful houses of the Malay Quarter is also free. Located at the bottom of Signal Hill, the brightly colored houses of the Muslim community offers unparalleled photo opportunities. The descendants of the original Malay slaves brought to the Cape from Indonesia, several African countries, and Malaysia, the current residents still practice their age-old cuisines, and many stalls along the streets offer authentic Malay street food for sale. Some tour operators also include a cooking tour through the area, and knowledgeable guides will give tourists the best possible induction into the culture of Cape cooking and food.
Here is the only place in South Africa where tourists can learn how to properly fold a samosa, or how to construct a curry without using curry from a box.
However, this is a residential neighbourhood, so do not expect many shopping opportunities. The area is easily accessible from all of the major beaches, as well as from the Victoria and Albert Waterfront. Be sure to visit the small museum there, and although the area is accessible at night, take suitable security measures to prevent getting mugged.
Activity 10 ) Dive With Great White Sharks.
On a scale of one to ten, the adrenalin rush one gets from diving with great man-eating sharks is off the charts. However, even though all responsible tour operators operate in a safe, and responsible environment, the experience is not for the timid or faint-of-heart. Dive operations take place in sturdy steel cages, and due regard is taken of the fact that many, if not most participants have no diving experience. Cages are thus only lowered to just below the surface, and the sharks lose no time in coming over to investigate the intrusion.
Touching sharks is strictly forbidden, but the rush of looking a man eating predator in the eye is something that any participant will remember for the rest of his/her life. Guaranteed.
Activity 11) Charly’s Bakery.
This is the only bakery in South Africa that has ever been the subject of a TV show. Part documentary, and part reality show, the series dubbed Charly’s Cake Angels, recounts the lives, successes, and failures of the staff of this iconic confectionary paradise. However, don’t be fooled by the hype- this bakery has been concocting sweets, cakes, and controversy since 1989, and is well worth a visit since its extensive range of sweet treats rivals anything any other major world city has to offer.
While most of their recipes are virtual state secrets, Charly’s Bakery specializes in genuine South African cakes and sweets. However, do not visit when you are hungry; the temptation to sample everything on their shelves might just result in unwanted pounds around the waist!
Activity 12) First Thursdays.
Another of Cape Town’s free attractions is First Thursdays. On the first Thursday of each month, all of the city’s several dozen art galleries and arts supply stores remain open until 9 pm, hence the name “First Thursday”. Moreover, all cultural events on this day are also free to attend, and while there is no official tour, fixed schedules or guides, the area around Bree and Church Streets is transformed into a huge, and unforgettable cultural experience.
Since the event covers much of the city centre, and there are too many events and galleries to visit in one day, it is recommended that visitors do some advance planning to take advantage of special interests or the weather, which can vary from pleasant to downright uncomfortable. However, except for the month of January, First Thursday happens every first Thursday of every month, regardless of the weather, so indulge in the rich cultural environment of the Mother City at no charge!
Once Is Not Enough!
There you have it- although the few activities and attractions listed here are but a small sampling of what Cape Town has to offer the imaginative and enterprising tourist. Cape Town is known the world over as a world in one city, and for very good reason- it caters for all interests, budgets, itineraries, but most of all, Cape Town is family friendly. Accommodations range from luxurious 5 star hotels, to budget B+B establishments, and while it is possible to explore the city on one’s own, the best way to see and experience the cultural diversity of this iconic city is to take it slowly- one day at a time, and if one day is not enough, Cape Town and its people will be glad to have you back- as many times as you can find the time for!
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