Which cosmopolitan city ticks all the boxes for affordable modern comforts, cultural experiences, culinary excellence, and breathtaking beauty? Why, Cape Town, of course. South Africa’s Mother City is considered one of the world’s most beautiful cities. It is the perfect gateway to beginning your exploration of South Africa, going on safari, or travelling to more distant Southern African countries.
If time is short, you could see the main tourist sights in three days. But if you have a few more days to spare, then go off the beaten path in Cape Town and explore its hidden local gems.
Cape Town’s World Heritage Sites
There are 890 World Heritage Sites, and South Africa is home to eight of them, making up nearly 20% of the country’s vegetation. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) has declared two in Cape Town.
The Cape Floral Region (2004)
Situated at the tip of the Western Cape Province, the city of Cape Town is characterised by its distinctive fynbos flora and endemic biodiversity. Cape Town is home to the Table Mountain National Park, the site of one of the six Floral Kingdoms in the world, which includes honey-scented protea flowers, heather-like ericas, and rushy restio reeds.
Robben Island (1999)
Once the site of Mandela’s incarceration and now a powerful symbol of the oppression of human rights, the Apartheid struggle, and political freedom, Robben Island is probably one of Cape Town’s most famous tourist must-see destinations. This little ‘seal’ island is a short ferry ride from the V&A Waterfront and was once a Portuguese refreshment point in the 1400s, a leper colony in 1845, and a site for unwanted political prisoners since the 17th century. Visitors can now tour the island, explore its history, hear the prisoners’ stories, and experience close encounters with African penguins.
Image source:Grant Durr / unsplash
The Best Hikes in Cape Town
Skeleton Gorge, Table Mountain
Skeleton Gorge is my favourite mountain hike. It’s considered quite challenging and begins in Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. It ascends the east side of Table Mountain through indigenous forests and summits at Maclear’s Beacon, 1086m above sea level and the highest point of Table Mountain.
It gets its name from the discovery of a human skeleton in a cave in the 19th century. It’s a well-shaded trail, has a bit of a fun scramble in the middle, and a reservoir to sit alongside to catch your breath and eat a snack. Once you summit Maclear’s Beacon, you have a clear 360-degree view of Cape Town. When descending, I suggest taking Nursery Revine back down to the Kirstenbosch Gardens, where you can buy cold drinks, food, and ice cream.
Lion’s Head Sunset Hike
Hiking up to Lion’s Head is a popular local sunset hike and is off the more beaten paths in Cape Town. Locals usually begin the 2-3 hour hike at around 4.30pm and make their way to the picnic rocks at the top to sit and enjoy their packed sunset dinners. The trail is not overly challenging; the most strenuous part is possibly the last 15-20 minutes. You will need to bring torches or headlamps for your walk back and plenty of water, as much of the trail is exposed to the late afternoon sun.
Image source:Jonas Humbel / unsplash
Best Adventures in Cape Town
Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens
Situated along the eastern slopes of Table Mountain, Kirstenbosch is considered one of the most striking botanical gardens in the world. Initially used by the Dutch in the 17th century and later part of Cecil John Rhode’s estate, the land was handed over to the Trustees of Kirstenbosch by parliament in 1913.
Today, the South African National Biodiversity Institute runs Kirstenbosch and focuses on cultivating indigenous plants, such as ancient Cycads (called Broodboom, or ‘bread tree’), cape holly, and yellowwood trees. Visitors can enjoy restaurants, picnics, scenic strolls, hikes, and walks along the famous Boomslang treetop canopy walkway.
Table Mountain Cable Way
Table Mountain’s now famous cableway officially opened its doors for visitors on the 4th of October 1929. The construction included simple wooden cable cars, buildings at either end of the cableway, and a tea room at the top. The city later modernised the cablecar design to include rotating bases in 1997.
On the 21st of April 1947, Princess Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain) was supposed to celebrate her crown (21st) birthday on the cableway and Table Mountain. Unfortunately, the weather was too unsettled for her to visit.
Kayak with Penguins
Of course, you could choose to amble through an African penguin colony at Boulders Beach. Or, you could opt for a kayaking experience with the Shark Warrior Adventure Centre, partners of Contiki’s MAKE TRAVEL MATTER ® sustainable travel initiative.
On this adventure, you spend time on the beach and are taken on a guided kayaking tour of the Cape Coast, where they spend time with penguins in their natural habitat. Money raised through these unique experiences helps to raise awareness and combat the steady plummeting of these incredible creatures’ population numbers.
Best Dishes in Cape Town
There is a South African saying: ‘Local is Lekker.’ It means that there is nothing that beats what you can find locally. Cape Town’s unique multicultural heritage has had a formative impact on its local and traditional cuisine. In particular, Cape Town’s flavours have been heavily infused with its history of enslaved Malays, creating the unique flavours of Cape Malay cuisine.
Boerewors (farmer’s sausage) is a popular South African sausage and is especially good cooked on a braai (BBQ). It is made up of around 70% minced meat and 30% spices and herbs and goes down especially well with a cold Castle lager.
Originally a Durban dish, this filling and iconic meal can be found at most street food vendor establishments. Bunny Chow is a hollowed-out bread loaf filled with a fragrant Cape Malay curry. Unlike the heat of a Durban curry, Cape curries are gentler and fruitier in flavour.
This iconic South African donut treat is characterised by its distinctive plaited shape. It is first fried, then drenched in honey or syrup infused with cinnamon. It is sweet, crunchy, and delicious.
Cape Town Cooking Class
Why not become a MasterChef in the South African culinary arts with Contiki? On this experience, travellers break into groups and learn how to assemble many South African specialties while enjoying cocktails, good food, and excellent company.
Best Cultural Experiences in Cape Town
Although Knysna is a 5-hour drive from Cape Town, it lies on the Garden Route and is definitely worth the trip. This Township Tour is part of Contiki’s MAKE TRAVEL MATTER® program. Here, local guides show you another aspect of South Africa’s diverse communities, and income generated from these tours goes right back into the community.
On this Township Tour, you walk, meet locals, and talk to local guides about the effects of Apartheid on their community.
Cape Town Company’s Gardens
The company gardens are the oldest gardens in South Africa. Created in the 1650s by Dutch settlers to provide fresh vegetables for passing ships, it is now a tranquil park where visitors can take a lunchtime stroll and feed the friendly squirrels before visiting St George’s Cathedral, the Cape Town Holocaust Museum, or the Slave Lodge.
Hidden Local Gems
Many of Cape Town’s gems sparkle just a little off the well-trodden Cape Town tourist paths. Talk to any local, and you’ll soon uncover many more hidden local troves.
South Africa has more than 500 wine estates and some of the best vintages in the world. Of course, there are the usual tourist hot-spots, such as Spier and Groot Constantia. But, the Cape Winelands have plenty of options for just cruising the side roads and popping into random estates.
Why not head to Stellenbosch, Paarl, or Franschhoek and explore their hidden viticultural delights? But, before going, do yourself a favour and grab a John Platter Wine Guide – South Africa’s annually updated wine bible.
Oranjezicht City Farm Market
The Oranjezicht city farm market was once an abandoned bowling green and is now a thriving urban organic farm and market open to the public on Saturdays and Sundays. It aims to create links between Cape Town’s urban farmers, history, and heritage by keeping stallholders’ costs low and encouraging a welcoming and varied food venue for visitors of all dietary interests and needs.
Stay on the Path or Get Off?
Of course, time is of the essence. For those of you with only a few days to spare and looking to quickly capture the essence of Cape Town, check out our Contiki trips! Cape Town is the perfect launching pad for exploring the rest of South Africa and Southern Africa.
For those returning to the Mother City or with a few extra days, try some off-the-beaten-path Cape Town local sights and experiences. And if you run out of options… ask a local because they all know where the ‘local is lekker.’