Last updated: 5th February 2021
After meeting the penguins at Boulders Beach and visiting Cape Point it was time for us to visit and stay at Cape Town, the final destination on our small group tour of South Africa. In this Cape Town travel guide we’ll show you all the best attractions.
About Cape Town – South Africa’s ‘Mother City’
Visiting Cape Town reminded us a lot of Los Angeles – it’s cosmopolitan, it has a relaxed vibe, it’s hot, it’s layered with smog and has a never ending urban sprawl. Cape Town is a BIG city made up of lots of small neighbourhoods over a vast area so you need to plan ahead and decide what you want to see, that’s where our essential guide will help you.
Cape Town is also called South Africa’s ‘Mother City’ thought to be because it gave birth to civilisation in the country. We really liked Cape Town and thought it must be one of the world’s most dramatic looking cities because of the spectacular setting on the Atlantic Ocean and incredible backdrop of Table Mountain.
A Brief History of Cape Town
The Portuguese were first to discover the Cape in 1488. However it was the Dutch that established Cape Town in 1652 as a provisioning station for the Dutch East India Company’s ships heading to Asia. In 1795 Britain captured and took over the colony and later in 1910 established the Union of South Africa. In 1948 The National Party was voted in and enforced a policy of racial segregation. In 1994 Apartheid was abolished by the newly voted in ANC Party, led by Nelson Mandela.
Getting Around Cape Town
Other than Uber (which is really cheap) the best, safest and most convenient way to get around is to use the City Sightseeing tourist bus. FYI the red route from the V&A takes exactly 1.5 hours to complete from start to finish.
Best Attractions Of Cape Town
No visit to Cape Town would be complete without going to the top of the city’s landmark attraction Table Mountain. The mountain has a huge flat top plateau and can be seen pretty much anywhere you are in Cape Town. Table Mountain is often covered in cloud which locals call ‘the table cloth’, so if you have a clear day it’s best to head on up straight away. If you go at sunset you can enjoy a cocktail at the bar on the top.
You can either hike to the top or take the cable car. We opted for the cable car which took us an hour to queue for (in a huge line) however the queue moves fairly fast. The cable car is open everyday from 8am – 7pm and closes for 2 weeks every July for maintenance.
The cable car takes 5 minutes to reach the top and revolves which is really neat idea so everyone onboard gets to take in the view from all directions. Once at the top you soon realise it’s high! and really does give a bird’s eye view of the city. The panoramic views are just incredible. We followed one of the various walking trails which takes you to the various lookout points.
The small neighbourhood of Bo-Kaap is a riot of colour. This is the Muslim neighbourhood of Cape Town and is fascinating place to walk around. The colourful buildings make you feel really happy! The bright yellow, pink, green and turquoise exteriors look incredible against the blue sky. It really is a photographers dream with all the colour! The vibrant colours reminded us of Havana in Cuba.
Bo-Kaap is a former township where the Cape-Malay muslim slaves lived. The Cape-Malay people were brought from South East Asia to work. The slave houses used to be painted white until slavery ended and people were allowed to buy their homes. As an expression of freedom the houses were all painted in bright colours. Today the area has a museum dedicated to the Cape-Malay settlers and the original mosque. The Cape-Malay people first introduced Islam to South Africa.
‘Cooking With Love’ Our Cape Malay Cooking Lesson with Faldela
Our favourite part of Bo-Kaap was taking a cooking class with Faldela at her home. She greeted us by saying she was tired from partying the night before with her showbiz pals (she’s appeared on tv with many tv chefs)
She said she hates Mondays, then burst into action and the Faldela magic began. She had a wonderful turn of phrase, Faldela said we would be ‘cooking with love’ and we sure did. Garth’s ‘baby’ was the chicken curry and Phil’s was the vegetable samosas and roti breads. We needed to add some salt which Faldela referred to as ‘love’ because love is like salt – you can always give more, but you can never take it away.
Once it was all cooked and dished up, Faldela said a Muslim prayer at the table and we dived in. We ate by using our right hand, she said the left hand is used for ‘other things!’ The food was all absolutely delicious.
The Victoria & Alfred Waterfront
Cape Town’s must do attraction is the V&A Waterfront. Yes it’s touristy but there’s a great atmosphere and buzz about the place and lots of security, so it’s safe to wander around on your own.
Attractions include an aquarium, a shopping mall with brand name shops, The Watershed for independent shops, plus a ‘London Eye’ type ferris wheel. The V&A Waterfront easily rivals those of Sydney or San Francisco.
We loved wandering away a few hours here, walking around the shops and restaurants and watching the street performers and listening to musicians play steel drums. Because of the favourable exchange rate to the pound we ate really well here and had some amazing cocktails at the waterfront bar Life Grand Cafe.
V&A Ferry and Boat Trips
There are daily ferries from the V&A Waterfront to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 of his 27 years. If you don’t have time to make it to the prison, you can visit the Nelson Mandela Museum located at the ferry terminal. We instead took one of short pleasure cruises around the harbour where we saw dozens of seals playing and sunbathing.
V&A Food Market
The V&A Food Market is a fabulous eclectic food market serving up artisan and international street food. It has an informal setting with loads of choice, the burger bar and sushi counter looked great and there’s loads of fresh healthy produce all at reasonable prices. We had some mouth watering smoothies here. If you’re unsure what to eat in Cape Town then start here as you’ll be spoilt for choice.
Next to the Food Market is another cool industrial building called The Watershed. It houses over 150 independent shops selling gorgeous and quirky things including clothing, jewellery, works of art all reasonably priced. It’s the perfect place if you’re looking for some unique South African souvenirs to take home. We had no more room in our suitcase otherwise we would have bought loads!
The most popular beach in Cape Town is Camps Bay. The long stretches of golden sand has one of the best sunset spots in the world. It’s upmarket with classy restaurants that are set against the amazing backdrop of the Twelve Apostles and views of the Lion’s Head.
Afternoon Tea at The Mount Nelson Hotel
Our friend Karen told us we must visit The Mount Nelson Hotel for an afternoon tea, so we did just that. The Mount Nelson is Cape Town’s glamorous and historic hotel. Winston Churchill used to stay here and described the hotel “as a most excellent and well appointed establishment which may be thoroughly appreciated after a sea voyage”.
On the menu there are forty teas to choose from and you can order as many as you want. Phil had the White Monkey Tea followed by the Nelson Blend Tea, which they also sell in the shop. Garth isn’t a fan of tea so had pink champagne (obs!) The afternoon tea is easily the best we’ve ever had, with so many savoury options and sweet treats to follow, it really is to die for! We also loved the service at The Mount Nelson, it was not pretentious just good old fashioned friendly service.
Long Street is Cape Town’s hippest hangout. You’ll find bars, bookstores, coffee shops, vintage clothes and quirky collectable shops. Long Street also has some nice Victorian architecture with fancy wrought iron balconies. There are also many restaurants which come to life at night with live music. However we were advised to be very careful at night, as it’s not safe and a notorious area for getting mugged.
Eat at Mama Africa on Long Street
We loved the food at Mama Africa and the ambience with the live traditional African music, playing every evening from 8pm. Phil tried the traditional Bobotie which is Springbok minced meat served with egg and rices and salsa. Garth had the Kudu steak.
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden
For green-finger lovers like Garth, you’re in for a treat at The Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden which showcases flora indigenous to South Africa. The grounds hug the eastern slopes of Table Mountain and give the gardens a spectacular backdrop. You can even hike from Kirstenbosch to the summit of Table Mountain. We visited in September which is Spring in Cape Town, so it’s the start of the flower season. The climate is a bit confusing because Cape Town is in the Southern hemisphere so the weather is back to front to ours in the UK. The warmest time is October to April.
We enjoyed wandering around looking at the various types of Cape Daisies and getting inspiration for our garden at home. The Centenary Tree Canopy Walkway here is a nice piece of design inspired by a snake’s skeleton. It’s nickname is ‘boomslang’ which means tree snake. It offers lovely vistas of the garden and mountains as it weaves above and through the trees.
These wild almond trees were planted in 1660 to make a hedge and mark the border of the Dutch East India Company settlement (what is now Cape Town) it was called the Van Riebeeck’s Hedge. The hedge is said to mark the first step to Apartheid – symbolising how white South Africa cut itself off from the indigenous people of Africa.
We also saw the oldest plant in South Africa which dates back millions of years to prehistoric times, called the Wood’s Cycad. Dinosaurs would have seen them! But just like the rhinos they were poached to extinction in the wild, so this surviving tree has been chained down in a cage for its protection.
Other Cape Town Attractions & Things to do
- Robben Island – It housed inmate Nelson Mandela who was imprisoned from 1964 to 1990.
- Cape Peninsula – Spend a day visiting the Cape of Good Hope and see the penguins at Boulders Beach.
- Silo Museum – Contemporary African art museum housed in an amazing building.
- District 6 – Learn about Cape Town’s turbulent apartheid past.
- Hike the Lion’s Head – Cape Town’s classic and popular mountain hike.
Cape Town Practical Information & Useful Advice
Phil and Garth’s Top 5 Cape Town Tips
- Tip #1: For your safety stick to City Sightseeing bus for getting around as trains and local buses have crime and can be dangerous.
- Tip #2: Cape Town is reasonably safe during the day, but don’t be flash with your camera or iPhone in your hands.
- Tip #3: Never walk alone at night.
- Tip #4: Thick cloud often covers Table Mountain so check if the cable car is open before you visit,
- Tip #5: It’s safe to drink the tap water in Cape Town.
Cape Town Fast Facts
- Airport Code: CPT – Cape Town International Airport.
- Time: GMT +2 hours. South Africa Standard Time.
- Currency: South African Rand (symbol: R)
- Language: English, Afrikaans and Xhosa.
- Population: 4,618,000.
- In An Emergency – Call 112.
- Electricity: Plug type C, D, M and N. Voltage is 230V / 50Hz.
- Best Time To Visit Cape Town: March to May and September to November.
- Worst Time To Visit Cape Town: Summer is the rainy season November to March.
- Famous For: Table Mountain, Beaches and African penguins.
- History: The Dutch established a colony in 1652. The British captured the city in 1795.
- 5 Must See: Table Mountain, Long Street, Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, Bo-Kaap and Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden
- Local Food: An aromatic Cape Malay fish stew or curry.
- Getting Around: The safest way to get around is by the tourist bus or taxis.
- Trivia: The world’s first heart transplantation took place in Cape Town.
- TV & Film: Lord of War (2005), Invictus (2009) and Tomb Raider (2018) were filmed in Cape Town.
- Best Photo Spot: Bo-Kaap neighbourhood.
- Hidden Gem: Woodstock for street art.
- Souvenir: Rooibos Tea, it comes from shrubs grown in the nearby Cederberg mountains.
How we did it
- We stayed at La Splendida for 2 nights. Their bar Sotano is full of beautiful people.
- We then stayed at The Glen – a luxurious boutique hotel for another 3 days. All we can say is WOW! LGBT friendly too.
- We paid for a tour of South Africa (South Africa Highlights) with Explore.
- We booked our Cape-Malay cooking lesson on Faldela’s Cooking With Love website.
- We visited Cape Town at the beginning of October.