Below is my list of best things to do in Cape Town, South Africa. You’ll want to spend at least 3 days in Cape Town to get the most out of your visit. Choose any (or all) of the activities listed below and you won’t be disappointed. If you are on a budget, check out our list of “Top free things to do in Cape Town”. And if you don’t have enough time to make it up to Kruger for a safari, there are also some good safari options just outside of Cape Town, which means you have more time to enjoy the city!
1. Visit Robben Island
A Robben Island tour is a must when you’re visiting Cape Town. It’s a fascinating half-day trip to the former penal colony where Nelson Mandela spent 18 years of his life. Many leading members of South African political parties like the PAC and ANC were incarcerated alongside him. One of your guides on the tour will likely be an ex-political prisoner. This gives you the opportunity to hear a first-hand account of prison life on Robben Island that makes it a truly priceless experience. The tour includes the island as well as the prison, I found both parts fascinating. Tickets for the tour can be bought at the Museum on the V&A Waterfront, where you catch the ferry over to the island.
2. Swim With Penguins at Boulder Beach
Swimming with penguins at Boulders Beach on the Cape Peninsula near Cape Town is a real thrill, especially for those traveling with children. A small public beach is set apart from the main penguin colony that resides here (on Foxy Beach), but that doesn’t stop the penguins from sitting on your beach towel or darting around your legs while you take a refreshing dip in the Ocean. Get there early during the summer, because it can get quite crowded. Penguins like to walk about and generally ignore fences. A boardwalk has been built around the dunes so you can get a great close up look at the entire colony eating, breeding, preening, swimming and chattering away.
3. Head Up Table Mountain
When you visit Cape Town you’ll see a huge slab of sandstone, 1086m high and 3km long, smack in the middle of town – that is Table Mountain. Table Mountain’s top is often shrouded in clouds commonly known as the mountain’s “tablecloth”. The mountain is home to more than 1400 unique species of plants as well several mammals and over 100 invertebrates. The views of Cape Town and its coastline from the top are spectacular (if the mountain doesn’t have it’s tablecloth). You can even see Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years. There are cable cars to get you to the top but if you’re fit it’s worth attempting the 3 hour climb up one of the many trails. If you are interested in paragliding down you can do that too. There’s a restaurant and a souvenir shop at the top of Table Mountain for your convenience
4. Dive, Surf, Fish, Sail, Kayak or Swim with Sharks!
With no less than two oceans to play in, Cape Town is a fabulous city for watersports. The complicated currents, the cliffs, bays and beaches along the Cape Peninsula and along the west coast north of Cape Town mean there is something for everyone from small children looking for a gently shelving sandy beach to adrenalin junkies looking for an extreme playground. On the whole, the False Bay side (the east coast) which is the Indian Ocean is several degrees warmer than the west coast Atlantic Ocean which also has wilder water. Water can be surprisingly cold in summer thanks to currents flowing north from the Antarctic. You can learn to surf, take a plunge with Great Whites, or simply enjoy sunbathing on one of the many fine beaches in the city.
5. Eat Your Heart Out
Cape Town is one of those fantastic culinary destinations where you can get a real gourmet meal for under $10 and wash it down with a delicious crisp white wine. You can opt for Indian, Cape Malay, Japanese or traditional African food, and not go wrong. The Winelands are famous for their world class fine dining restaurants, housed in romantic Dutch farmhouses. A picnic lunch on the beautiful lawns at any winery is a real treat. Given its location, it’s not surprising that Cape Town is also home to some of the best seafood restaurants in the world. You can enjoy beautiful views of the ocean, Table Mountain and spectacular sunsets at many restaurants including a local favorite called The Strandloper.
6. Take a Township Tour
A Township tour in Cape town is highly recommended for all visitors. Townships were created as living areas for non-whites under the old political system of Apartheid. Most of Cape Town’s townships are concentrated in the area known as the Cape Flats which lie to the East of Table Mountain. Siviwe Tours specializes in township tours to Langa, Cape Town’s oldest black township. Andulela Tours offer excellent township tours where you can also choose a theme, like “soccer”, “cooking” or “jazz”, if that’s where your interest lies. Some Township Tours also include Bo-Kaap and a visit to the District 6 Museum. Most Township tours are walking tours, they usually last half a day or so and include a visit to a shebeen (pub), school, orphanage, community center and a traditional healer. Having a bunch of wealthy tourists stare at orphans may seem a little odd but it may be the only opportunity you get to see how most of Cape Town’s population live. Spending the night in a Township will offer a little more depth to your visit.
7. Stroll Through the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens
One of the greatest botanic gardens in the world, Kirstenbosch is a magical mix of the wild and the cultivated and a must-see for anyone with a love of flowers. Allow at least half a day, wear comfy shoes, take a hat and water and be prepared for plenty of walking. There’s a huge amount of see and a lot of it is very steep. First founded in 1913, the formal gardens cover 36 hectares (90 acres) of a 528 hectare (1,304 acre) estate that climbs up the eastern flank of Table Mountain. The first botanic garden in the world to be devoted to a country’s indigenous flora, it has an astonishing 7,000 species, many of them rare. Between November and April, there are open-air concerts in the gardens every Sunday evening. The music starts at 17.30, but the gates open at 16.00 and most people take a picnic to enjoy the sunset on the grass.
8. Discover Cape Malay Culture in Colorful Bo-Kaap
Bo-Kaap is a neighborhood in central Cape Town that was originally settled by freed slaves brought over by the Dutch in the 17th and 18th Century. Bo-Kaap is situated on the slopes of Signal Hill, west of the City Bowl. Steep streets are lined with colorful traditional houses, painted in vibrant colors. The Cape Malay community is proudly Islamic. There are several mosques dotted around the cobbled streets and you’ll see many of the locals wearing traditional dress. Today the Bo-Kaap area is an attractive place to stroll around. The cobbled streets are lined with colorful houses providing the perfect opportunity for some wonderful snap shots. Walking tours as well as culinary tours are readily available.
9. Drink in the Gorgeous Scenery of the Cape Winelands
Whether you enjoy drinking wine or not, the Cape Winelands are a must for anyone traveling to Cape Town. The Winelands are situated east of Cape Town among beautiful mountains creating some stunning vistas. The region is steeped in culture and history with some excellent examples of typical Dutch architecture dating back to the 17th century. The Winelands encompass several regions each with their own wine tasting tours. The most popular towns include Stellenbosch (which is closest to Cape Town), Franschhoek, Wellington, and Paarl. Scheduled tours will likely visit the larger wineries like Spier near Stellenbosch and Groot Constantia, close to Cape Town. But if you rent a car you can enjoy these gems: Fairview (also has excellent cheeses), Meerlust near Stellenbosch, and Seidelberg near Paarl. Stop for picnic lunch at Boschendal in Franschhoek and you have yourself a perfect day. You should also nip in at some of the organic markets that are cropping up in the area for some home-made jams, sandwiches, salads, chutneys, biltong and more.
10. Shop at the V&A Waterfront
Called the “waterfront” by locals, the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront is a working harbour and entertainment hub rolled into one. You’ll find some of Cape Town’s best restaurants here along with a hopping nightlife, brew pubs and plenty of shops to spend your money in. While checking out malls may not be the main reason you’re visiting South Africa – the waterfront is a nice area to stroll around in and feel safe, day or night. There are lots of places to sit and watch the seals frolic in the harbor and the fisherman bring in their daily catch. Other attractions include a Maritime museum, an Aquarium (with plenty of sharks) and the Robben Island Exhibition and Information Centre. Several popular tourist and business hotels are in this area.