Cape Town & surrounds

Cape Town, South Africa’s Mother City, is flanked by the Atlantic Ocean and the Twelve Apostles mountain range. It’s the place where things come together: mountains meet sea; the natural world weaves through the urban; cuisines, cultures, faiths and ethnicities co-exist, all presided over by iconic Table Mountain. It’s an easy city to love, for its colour, culture and climate, and a few days exploring is a highlight of many South Africa itineraries.

The city has a handful of stonkingly good tourist attractions, including the cable car to Table Mountain and the sensitively handled tours of Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated. Away from the crowded Victoria and Albert Waterfront, there is thriving culture, too. In the Bo Kaap district, see rainbow coloured Cape Malay houses, look out for the impressive street art brightening many buildings and savour the city’s artisanal and hipster ecosystem on Kloof Street and Bree Street. Then remember to set aside time for a day beyond the city limits, to discover seal and penguin colonies, white sand beaches, lonely lighthouses, wonderful wine and great walking trails.
That said, remember that Cape Town is like the rest of South Africa – a land of contrasts. It’s regularly touted as one of the most livable cities in the world, like Vancouver, but in reality it’s starkly polarised between rich and poor. There are fantastically wealthy suburbs like Camps Bay and Llandudno, and cool areas with lots of bars, restaurants and lovely Old Dutch architecture, all interspersed with enormous townships with exceedingly high crime rates. Behind Table Mountain you’ll also find the Cape Flats: miles and miles of shanty towns. This is where you land if you fly into Cape Town and if you want to go to the Winelands or Hermanus, you’ll pass through the Flats.

Come to enjoy Cape Town, but remember it has a poor and segregated side, too. Cape Town is a cultural melting pot, with a black population, a large mixed race population, including Coloured and Cape Malay, and white South Africans, both Afrikaans and English speaking. The Western Cape has the highest percentage of whites in the country, and Cape Town itself is not as integrated as Johannesburg, which has mixed schools and white people moving into Soweto in search of cheaper property. So, in Cape Town, be prepared to see the full picture – it’s still an incredibly, and visibly, unequal society.

Cape Town highlights

Table Mountain

Table Mountain has its own micro climate, so exploring it is always weather dependent, with cloud and wind sometimes standing in the way. With this in mind, if you plan to ride the cable car, buy tickets on the spot, rather than in advance. Most visitors who ride the car up hang around the Western Table area, near the restaurants, but head off with your hiking boots on and you can discover a different, unspoiled side to this iconic, flat-topped beast. Walk around the table itself to see the birdlife, and the fynbos, which is the natural shrubland and heathland unique to the Western Cape. If you’re a keen walker, hike all the way up to the top, too, which is a fairly tough three to four hour route, but worth it for the breath taking views over the Apostles, the Atlantic and the city below.

Robben Island

This island in Table Bay was used as a prison and leper colony since the 17th century, but from 1961, the South African government used it as a prison for political prisoners and convicted criminals. Nelson Mandela was here for 18 of the 27 years he served behind bars, and today you can take a boat out and tour the island, which is operated as a living museum and recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Some of the guides are former political prisoners incarcerated here, which is a really moving way to hear about life in the prison.

Parks & gardens

Cape Town is a green city, with parks and gardens peppering the urban landscape. The historic Company’s Garden and Green Point Urban Park are worth strolling through, while Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden is a real delight. It’s beautifully laid out, with some raised walkways, and as it stretches up Table Mountain, there’s an incredible vista looming up behind all the dense, tropical greenery.

Twelve Apostles mountain range

The Twelve Apostles Mountain Range forms the back of Table Mountain, running from Kloof Nek (the saddle between Table Mountain and Lion’s Head) to Hout Bay. Victoria Road follows the whole length of this range, running between the dramatic crags and ridges of the Apostles and the Atlantic Ocean.

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Cape Town to Victoria Falls holiday in Southern Africa

Cape Town to Victoria Falls holiday in Southern Africa

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Cape Peninsula highlights

The Cape Peninsula, which drops south from Cape Town itself, with the Atlantic to its west and the Indian Ocean to its east, is well worth exploring, and you can drive a looping route that, on the west, follows Chapman’s Peak Drive. This spectacular route, known locally as Chappies, follows the Atlantic Seaboard past Camps Bay, Llandudno and Hout Bay to the Cape Point, with sheer drops to the sea below and towering mountains rising above. Using it is weather dependent and the road is sometimes closed; the 114 curves along its 9km are just a bit too dangerous in very windy, wet or foggy conditions. Chapman’s Peak itself is beautiful and there are great walks all around the Peninsula. There’s a real sense of being at the end of the earth here, and staring out to sea, where two oceans meet and swirl, is wonderfully humbling.

Cape of Good Hope

The Nature Reserve here covers 7,680 hectares and is home to eland, bontebok, grysbok, springbok, wildebeest, baboon and ostrich. It’s a brilliant place to hike through, made up of rugged cliffs, unspoiled beaches, shipwrecks and beautiful flora. Walk to the old lighthouse for panoramic views, and follow the downhill path to the Cape of Good Hope itself.

Eastern Cape Peninsula

Fish Hoek, on the eastern side of the Cape peninsula, has lovely white sand beaches while further south, Simon’s Town is a small but important naval base. You can also visit the resident penguin colony at Boulders Beach here.

Hout Bay

Hout Bay is a busy fishing harbour, about a 20-minute drive from Cape Town city centre, in an incredibly picturesque setting, surrounded completely by mountains and the Atlantic Ocean. It feels a bit like a microcosm of Africa, with a population of mixed race, black and white people all living here. It has a pretty waterfront and is home to around 40 restaurants, and prides itself on being home to the best fish and chips in the world. Don’t miss the Bay Harbour Market in a converted cannery. There’s fresh food here, but also gifts, arts and crafts that are a cut above the usual ubiquitous African souvenirs. From Hout Bay you can take a boat out to Seal Island, home to 1,000 Cape fur seals.

Beyond Cape Town

Winelands

To the northeast of Cape Town lie the fertile valleys of the Winelands, where vines cling to the sweeping hillsides and some temptingly lovely towns, complete with superb restaurants and galleries, await. You can tour the wine estates, take a guided tasting and even stay overnight at some – a really worthwhile excursion from Cape Town.

The beautiful Franschhoek Valley was settled by French Huguenots some 300 years ago, and they brought vines with them. Franschhoek itself is incredibly pretty. Here, you can hop on and off the wine tram, to explore the valley’s history and vineyards, and taste a few wines, too. In Stellenbosch, one of South Africa’s oldest colonial settlements, discover tree lined streets and white washed, Cape Dutch architecture. If you prefer to stay closer to Cape Town, head instead to the Constantia valley, which is home to some of the region’s oldest and best wineries. You can enjoy a wine tasting and a good meal here, without travelling all the way to the Winelands.

Practicalities

Cape Town features on a lot of organised South Africa holidays, both small group trips and tailor made. There’s just so much to enjoy here, so two or three days are often earmarked for the city and peninsula, plus it serves as a gateway to the Winelands, Garden Route and even the start or end point to exploration further afield – overland to Windhoek in Namibia or even on to Victoria Falls. Themed tours that go deep are also an option – architecture, food and wine, cultural, walking, arts and crafts and photography holidays are all on the menu, exploring Cape Town and beyond in specialist detail.

Be aware that swimming here is not always safe – it’s the meeting point of two oceans and the Atlantic is cold. A lot of the beaches have warnings about rip tides, so take advice on where to swim and surf and be careful. There are also sharks – big ones – but the beaches are lovely for relaxing on.

A word on water

Cape Town has experienced water shortages in recent years, largely due to a huge increase in the city’s resident population. The Cape Town water crisis began in 2015, when there were severe water shortages in the city. By 2018 the city planned for Day Zero, when the municipal supply would be largely shut off, making Cape Town the first major city to run out of water. Through clever water saving measures – the city managed to reduce its consumption by two thirds – Day Zero didn’t come, but anyone visiting this city should still use water wisely and responsibly. Take short showers, don’t insist on having bedding or towels laundered every day and listen to advice from your tour leader or accommodation owner on other water saving measures.
Written by Joanna Simmons
Photo credits: [Page banner: SkyPixels] [Intro: michaeljung] [Table Mountain : jeanvdmeulen] [Parks & gardens: Didier B] [Cape of Good Hope : MichiBieri] [Winelands: pxhere]
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