Cape Town is also one of the top tourist destinations in the world, with scores of things to do, landmarks, attractions and places to visit.
One of Cape Town’s draws is the weather, with average highs of over 20 degrees Celsius for eight months of the year, and 3,000 hours of sunshine annually. Cape Town's beaches are another attraction, offering hundreds of kilometres of golden sand, great surfing on the Atlantic Ocean side and warm waters on the Indian Ocean side. Then there is the landmark Table Mountain (together with its satellite peaks Devil’s Point and Lion’s Head), one of the wonders of the natural world. Equally impressive are places to visit out of town, in particular the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, the Cape of Good Hope and the Boulders Penguin Colony.
There are loads of things to do in town or on a rainy day. The South African Museum, devoted to the natural world, with a superb planetarium, compares favourably with similar institutions in London and Washington. The Slave Lodge, Company’s Gardens and Castle of Good Hope tell Cape Town’s story, starting as a small settlement used by the Dutch East India Company to re-stock ships on the way to or from the far east. Visitors learn of the city’s uncomfortable modern history at Robben Island and the District Six Museum. And the tasteful V&A Waterfront offers shopping, restaurants and bars.
Further afield are hundreds of vineyards in the rugged Winelands, offering tours, wine-tasting and fine dining. Which leads on to Cape Town’s final attraction: the food and drink. There are restaurants here to rival the finest establishments in London, Paris or New York – except they are half the price and you can sit in the sun. And it seems that every street café has a master chef cooking up something wonderful with the province’s fresh ingredients. All to be washed down with the region’s impressive wines.
It is a small island, 3.3 kms long and 1.9 kms wide, best known for having been the site of a prison which held many of South Africa's most famous political prisoners during the apartheid era. Former inmates of the prison include Nobel Laureate and former President Nelson Mandela, former President Kgalema Motlanthe and South Africa's current President Jacob Zuma.
The Island's prisoners were either kept in communal cells, shared by up to 60 inmates, or in solitary confinement (where a prisoner, such as Mandela, was considered a particular risk). They were forced to do hard labour, in lime or stone quarries, constructing buildings or collecting seaweed. Mandela lost the use of his tear ducts as a result of his exposure to lime.
The former prison is the Island's main tourist attraction, with visitors given a talk on prison conditions and a tour of the facility by a former inmate. Other interesting places to visit include the Robben Island lighthouse, which emits a beam of light visible for 24 nautical miles, fortifications built on the Island during the Second World War, and its 13,000-strong colony of African Penguins.
Where? Robben Island is 7 kms off the coast of Cape Town. The ferry ride to the island offers stunning views over Cape Town and Table Mountain, Devil's Peak and Lion's Head. Keep an eye out for dolphins swimming ahead of your boat and seals basking in the water.
When? Ferries depart at 9am, 11am, 1pm and 3pm, weather permitting, from Nelson Mandela Gateway on the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town. The standard tour to Robben Island is about 4-5 hours long, including the two 45 minute ferry rides and a 45 minute coach tour of the Island.
£$€¥ Tickets cost R300 for adults and R160 for under-18s. It is essential to pre-book online.
Surrounded by steep cliffs, Table Mountain offers stunning views over Cape Town, the Winelands and Indian Ocean to the east and the Atlantic Ocean to the west. To the far east of the plateau is the mountain's highest point, Maclear's Beacon. Table Mountain has two satellite peaks: Devil's Peak (1000 metres) to the east, and the 669 metre Lion's Head peak to the west.
Also known as Umlindiwengizimu (the watcher of the south) and Hoerikwaggo (the mountain in the sea), the landmark Table Mountain is a UNESCO world heritage site. It was described by Sir Francis Drake as "... the most stately thing we saw in the whole circumference of the globe" and was declared one of the 7 Natural Wonders of the World in 2011.
The easiest way to the top is by using the Table Mountain Aerial Cableway, first opened in 1929 and recently upgraded. Cable cars leave from the lower station, near Kloof Nek at 302 metres. They carry up to 65 passengers and rotate through 360° during ascent and descent in order to give a panoramic view of the mountain and the city. The ascent takes an ear-popping 4 to 5 minutes.
For those who are more energetic, the climb to the top takes about 2 hours via the easiest Platteklip Gorge route. This route starts a kilometre beyond the lower cable car station, and is heavily used and so not generally dangerous (muggings are known to take place on other routes). Another favourite is the route up Skeleton Gorge, from Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. Aside from the views, look out for interesting flora (including furry daisies, and red disa orchids (also known as the Pride of Table Mountain)) and fauna (such as agama lizards and dassies, small rabbit-like animals).
Where? The lower cable car station is on Tafelberg Road near Kloof Nek. It is well signposted.
When? All year round, weather permitting.
£$€¥ Return prices for the cable car: Adults R240, Children (under 18 years) R115, Senior Citizens (Fridays only) R100, Students (Fridays only) R130, Children under 4 years travel free.
The Gardens, initially owned by the Dutch East India Company and then used as a vineyard, were donated to the nation in 1902 by Cape Colony’s first prime minister Cecil Rhodes. They opened in 1913, thanks to the industry of Professor Harold Pearson, who became the first director, and are now regarded as one of the world’s best botanical gardens.
Kirstenbosch’s fertile land descends from the eastern slopes of Table Mountain. 36 hectares are carefully cultivated, with the remainder forming a nature reserve predominantly covered by scrub and evergreen forest and fynbos. With a few notable exceptions (for instance the Australian Moreton Bay fig) the plants on display are indigenous to South African, and most are endemic (ie they grow nowhere else on earth).
The flora in the cultivated sections is arranged by theme. Highlights include the Fragrance Garden (where you can smell mint, sage, lilies, petunias, pelargoniums and much more), the Useful Plants Garden (growing millet, aloe vera and sour figs, and plants used to cure impotence and treat snake bites), the Water-wise garden (demonstrating how to have a lush and colourful garden whilst conserving water), Matthews’ Rockery (named after Kirstenbosch’s first curator, and full of euphorbia, crassula, succulents and bulbs), and the Garden of Extinction (conserving some of the nearly 1500 endangered South African plants, such as the wild bush petunia and golden vygie). There is even the Garden of Weeds, growing South African plants that have become weeds in other parts of the world! Unsurprisingly, the Gardens attract varied fauna, such as guinea fowl, Ibis and the pictured Orange Breasted Sunbird.
Those looking to explore the nature reserve can take one of three forest trails, ranging from the 45 minute (1.5 km) Stinkwood trail to the 3 hour (7.75 km) Silver Tree trail. Kirstenbosch offers walking and shuttle car guided tours, audio guides, concerts on Sunday evenings during the summer, and an excellent café and restaurant. It is one of Cape Town's best places to visit.
Where? Wynberg NU (2) Cape Town 7800, South Africa. T. +27 21 799 8783
When? 8am to 6pm (Apr to Aug); 8am to 7pm (Sept to Mar)
£$€¥ Adults: R55; Concessions: R30; Children: R15.
The Cape of Good Hope, formerly known as the 'Cape of Storms' and now often referred to as simply 'the Cape', is on the south-west coast of South Africa and represents the point at which mariners on their way to the far east start to travel more westwards than southwards.
The land around the Capes forms parts of the Cape Peninsula National Park. It is a great spot for whale-watching (the Southern Right Whale is the most common species, but humpback whales, Bryde's whales, seals, dusky dolphins, orca and killer whales may also be seen). Visitors are also likely to see some of the 375 Chacma baboons living around the Capes, or other interesting wildlife including wild ostriches and Cape Mountain zebras.
Cape Point's old lighthouse, at an altitude of 238 metres and accessed by a 20 minute uphill walk or the Flying Dutchman funicular, is another place to visit. Continue for another 30 minutes to the most southerly point accessible to tourists, and views of the precipitous cliffs leading down to the Cape and its surrounding beaches and the new lighthouse (found at 87 metres above sea-level, and emitting a 10 megacandelas flash that can be seen for 39 miles).
Where? About 60 kilometres south of Cape Town. The drive will take between 60 and 90 minutes.
When? The park is open daily from 7 am to 5 pm.
£$€¥ Adults: R125; Concessions: R65. The Flying Dutchman costs R58 for adults and R24 for children.
The 43-acre gardens are now the lungs of Cape Town, expertly planted with lawns, formal gardens, palms, roses and other flowers and offering uninterrupted views to Table Mountain.
Particular highlights are the aviary, the ubiquitous squirrels, and people-watching (the range is tremendous—from children playing, to brides having their wedding photographs taken, to drunks sleeping off last night’s excesses). Keep an eye out for the numerous fountains and statues (of, in particular, Sir George Grey, the former governor of South Africa, Cecil John Rhodes, whose life is described below, and Jan Christian Smuts, twice Prime Minister of South Africa).
The Gardens are bordered by many of South Africa’s most important landmarks. If you circumvent the park in a clockwise direction from the bottom of Wale Street, you will encounter: St George’s Cathedral (whose foundation stone was laid in 1901 by the future King George V, and more recently was a focal point of anti-apartheid marches and Archbishop Desmond Tutu's parish church); South Africa’s Parliament (housed in a Corinthian building, which can be visited by pre-arranged private tour); the South African National Gallery and Cape Town’s planetarium; the Iziko’s South African Museum and Planetarium; the Supreme Court; and the South African National Library.
The waterfront is now the city's tourist hub, and claims to be the most frequently visited tourist site in South Africa. It is situated between Robben Island and Table Mountain and therefore offers great mountain and ocean views. It also boasts over 400 shops, good restaurants and accommodation options, and a pleasant if somewhat touristy vibe.
Other interesting features include the Victorian industrial architecture surrounding the waterfront, the nearby commercial harbour, the Two Oceans Aquarium, the Maritime Museum, the Clock Tower and the prospect of watching seals playing in the water.
Where? Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, Cape Town, South Africa. Tel: +27 (0)21 408 7600.
When? All year round. Shops generally stay open until 9 pm.
The South African Museum is the largest, and comprises two principal collections. The first is the national history collection, with exhibits and dioramas devoted to snakes, many varieties of extinct, exotic and everyday birds, animals you might encounter on safari, dinosaurs, sharks and whales. Look out for the 20.5 metre blue whale skeleton and a cast of the Caracharodontosaurus dinosaur, the largest carnivore to ever live. The second is the social history collections, which aim to increase awareness of South Africa's history and social heritage; this collection includes, in the silver department, the Cape of Good Hope Vice-Admiralty Oar (a symbol of the jurisdiction of the South African maritime court). Housed within the South African Museum is the Planetarium, one of only two in the country.
The South Africa National Gallery is also well worth a short visit. Its permanent collection extends to over 10,000 works, predominantly of South African origin with some British, French, Dutch and Flemish art. The Gallery’s highlights include Jane Alexander’s well-known sculpture, The Butcher Boys, and works by John Walker, Michael Porter, Gary Wragg, Alan Davie, William Kentridge, Irma Stern, Gerard Sekoto and Ronald Kitaj.
The Slave Lodge, built by the Dutch East India Company in 1679, charts a dark chapter in South African history. The building was initially used to incarcerate up to 1,200 male and female slaves before they were sold at public slave auctions underneath the nearby Old Slave Tree. The though-provoking and expertly curated exhibitions describe the passage of slaves to South Africa from Madagascar, Indonesia, India and Sri Lanka, their everyday lives and their eventual emancipation.
Where? All four institutions described in the text border The Company’s Gardens. The South African Museum and Planetarium are found at 25 Queen Victoria Street; the National Gallery at Government Avenue Gardens, and the Slave Lodge on the corner of Adderley and Wale Streets.
When? The Museum of South Africa, Planetarium and National Gallery are open seven days a week, 10 am to 5 pm. The Slave Lodge is also open six days a week (not Sun), 10am to 5pm.
£$€¥ The Museum of South Africa: R30; Planetarium: R40; National Gallery: 30; Slave Lodge: R30.
It is famous for its 2,200-strong colony of African penguins living on sheltered, sandy beaches. This endangered bird grows to about 40cms in height and lives predominantly on squid and shoal fish like pilchards and anchovies; it swims at 7kms per hour and can remain underwater for 2 minutes; and has a distinctive donkey-like braying, which accounts for its nickname, the Jackass penguin.
The penguins found at Boulders are extremely tolerant of humans, happy to people-watch between fishing sessions. The colony is particularly attracted to Foxy Beach, which visitors can access by two boardwalks from the visitors centre—taking them to within metres of the birds. But penguins also venture out to the Seaforth beach to the north and Boulders beach to the south, which are also great sunbathing and swimming spots. You may be lucky enough to see penguins diving underneath you as you swim!
We suggest driving to Boulders by taking the M6 past Cape Town’s picturesque Atlantic Ocean beaches at Clifton Bay, Camps Bay, Sandy Bay and Chapman’s Bay. This route will take you to Chapman’s Peak, with the terrific sweeping bends and views out to sea making the small toll great value for money. Cut inland via Noordhoek and Glencairn and through Simon’s Town to reach the well-marked Boulders Cove.
Where? Boulders, PO Box 62, Simon’s Town, Cape Town. T. +27 21 786 2329.
When? Dec to Jan: 7am to 7.30pm; Feb to Mar: 8am to 6.30pm; Apr to Sept: 8am to 5pm; Oct to Nov: 8am to 6.30pm
£$€¥ Boulders, PO Box 62, Simon’s Town, Cape Town. T. +27 21 786 2329.
The waters of the beaches of the Atlantic side are generally 3-4 degrees cooler than those of the Indian Ocean side, though they are still more than bearable. Sharks are more of a problem: they are particularly predatory in the False Bay area, so opt for beaches with a shark spotter, pay attention to warning signs (eg nobody else in the water, recent sightings of sharks), and don’t swim at night, near fishing activities, or near dolphins or seals.
There are two great beaches around the Boulders penguin colony: the sheltered Seaforth beach and Boulders beach itself. You are likely to find penguins on both, though the latter is so good it can justify a R45 entrance fee.
The Clifton beaches, on the Atlantic side with soft golden sand, are used as much for posing as for swimming (you can usually get a beach massage on the Clifton 3rd beach). The Clifton 4th is the best for swimming, with gentle waves and a gradual increase in depth. It has blue flag status.
The 1.5 kilometre long Fish Hoek Bay beach, on the Indian Ocean side, has bigger waves and is popular with surfers and runners. Water temperatures peak at 24 degrees Celsius in summer months. There were fatal shark attacks at this beach in 2004 and 2010.
Camps Bay, on the Atlantic Seaboard, is the closest beach to the city and so one of the busiest. But if you can stand the crowds, the palm-lined curve of sand offers sheltered swimming and is catered for by a number of good bars and restaurants.
So watching sport is one of Cape Town’s best things to do. Top of the list must be Newlands Cricket Ground (or Sahara Park Newlands), voted the world's second best cricket ground by Cricketer magazine in 2012 (after Lord’s, the home of cricket). The ground has a capacity of 25,000 (seated in impressive stands at the Wynberg and Kelvin Grove Ends, and on grass banks to the sides of the wicket), and is overlooked by Table Mountain (pictured). It first hosted a test match in 1889, when England thrashed South Africa by an innings and 202 runs, and is home to the Cape Cobras.
If cricket isn’t your thing, or if there are no matches on, look out for a rugby or football match at the nearby 52,000-seater Newlands Stadium (which hosted a number of matches during the 1995 Rugby World Cup) or at the 64,000 capacity Cape Town Stadium, on the waterfront, specially constructed for the 2010 FIFA World Cup (hosting, in particular, the Uruguay-Netherlands semi-final).
Where? Newlands Cricket Ground, 146 Campground Road, Newlands, Southern Suburbs. T. 021 657 3300.
When? Match times are advertised on the West Province Cricket Association website.
£$€¥ This depends on the type of match you go to see. International matches cost up to R800. At the other end of the spectrum, domestic 20/20 action can be viewed for as little as R80.
Assisted by locally grown produce, the freshest of seafood and superb beef and other more exotic red meat (such as zebra, wilderbeest and kudu), the city has scores of fantastic and great value eateries.
We suggest the Taj Hotel’s Bombay Brasserie for Indian food (failing which you could eat at their excellent European Mint restaurant), the Dias Tavern for Portuguese (in a relaxed pub-atmosphere, with succulent espetadas and chicken trinchado), Carne for exquisite beef and other red meats (served in a fashionable, modern restaurant), Maria’s Restaurant and Café (serving tasty Greek fare close to the National Gallery), Aubergine (for high-end dining, using predominantly local produce, accompanied by an excellent wine list—their aubergine soufle is a must), and Savoy Cabbage (for inventive European cuisine, in a relaxed setting).
Further afield, Kalk Bay’s Atlantic Café serves great fish-based dishes, curries and stews, the Constantiaustig wine reserve boasts a top-end restaurant and excellent café, and the Saturday Neighbourhoods Market at the Old Biscuit Mill (an organic food market, with hundreds of stalls selling beers from micro-breweries, organic coffees and ice-creams, hot and cold lunches and much more besides.).
£$€¥ Eating is surprisingly good value. Expect to pay between R150 and R300 per person, without alcohol.
Many of the Cape's top wine estates are found in and around Stellenbosch, half an hour's drive from Cape Town on good roads. There are over 100 vineyards in this region set against stunning vistas of hilly, rugged terrain (the vineyards back onto the Stellenbosch and Jonkershoek mountains). Most offer wine tastings, vinyard tours, wine lessons (some estates even have their own wine museums), and excellent restaurants.
We recommend the Morgenhof Estate, ten minutes outside Stellenboch. Not as busy as the largest estates, it offers wine tastings (five wines for R25, refundable if you buy a bottle), excellent value lunches, and a postcard-perfect wine estate to mosey around (complete with friendly peacocks). Of the larger estates, we recommend Tokara, Delaire, J C le Roux, Middelvlei, Waterford, Rustenberg and Spier.
Also worth a visit is Stellenbosch itself, the oldest town in the country after Cape Town. It has an oak-lined central street, pretty white-washed buildings (including the stunning Dutch Reformed Church), and plenty of good food and accommodation options.
The Cape Winelands have five other wine-producing regions, Constantia, Franschhoek, Paarl, Robertson and Wellington.
When? Monday to Saturday, though a significant number of estates are also open on Sundays.
£$€¥ Day trips to the winelands start from about Rs 600 per person.
Replacing the older clay and timber Fort de Goede Hoop, the stone pentagonal Castle was built to provide protection against British invasion for the small Dutch settlement that grew into Cape Town.
Complete with five bastions (angular structures protruding from its 10 metre-high walls), moat, church, bakery, workshop, arsenal, prison and torture chamber, the Castle was used as a jail during the Second Boer War (1899-1902) and was declared a national monument in 1936. It was originally constructed on the edge of the Atlantic ocean, but 20th century reclamation works mean that it is now 200 metres inland. In addition to being a popular tourist destination, the Castle remains the local recruiting headquarters for the South African Army.
Visitors should look out for the 8 metre deep well at the centre of the Castle, the Dolphin Pool installed by Governor W A van der Stel in 1705 (the man also responsible for the Castle’s wine cellar), the windowless torture chamber (complete with manacles, and an iron ring in the ceiling through which rope was threaded so that prisoners could be hoisted and dropped), and the keys ceremony, conducted each day before the Castle's doors were unlocked (held daily at 10 am and noon).
The Castle has a number of small museums, of which we recommend the William Fehr Collection (displaying South African antiques and paintings dating from the 17th and 18th centuries) and the Castle Military Museum (with an impressive sword collection). The regular guided tours are a great way to explore this interesting attraction.
Where? Daily 10am to 4pm. Closed 25 Dec and 1 Jan. Guided tours start at 10am, noon and 2pm. No guided tours on Sun.
When? Castle of Good Hope, Darling and Buitenkant Streets, Cape Town, 8001. +27 21 787 1260.
£$€¥ Adults: R30; Concessions: R15.
Declared a national monument in 1961, the market was originally used to sell fruit and veg but these days offers clothing, jewellery, art and other curios to take home as a souveneir. It is certainly colourful (some would say tacky), and buskers, street entertainers and dancers give the area a real buzz.
Beautiful buildings border the market square. They include the Old Town House (in which the first public declaration of the abolition of slavery was made in 1834), and the Michaelis Collection (housed in a wood-paneled, Cape Rocco style building dating from 1755, and displaying the collection of Sir Max Michaelis donated to the city in 1914—highlights are works by Anthony van Dyck, Frans Hals, Jan Steen and Jacob van Ruisdael).
The surrounding streets are chock full of excellent restaurants and cafes: the Café Mozart, with its excellent vibe and good value tasty light meals, is highly recommended, as is the Thursday Earthfair market on St George’s Mall. Also worth a look are the scores of boutique shops, such as African Image, Antiques Forever and Cape Town Coins and Collectables.
Where? Greenmarket Square is found between Short and Longmarket Streets, Cape Town.
When? Monday to Saturday 9 am to 4 pm, though the market is busiest on Saturday mornings.
He then turned to politics, becoming a member and then the Prime Minister of the British-ruled Cape Colony. An ardent imperialist, Rhodes’ politics were both pro-business and extremely right wing (one policy, the Glen Grey Act, sought to push black people from their lands to make way for industrial development). But not many individuals amass such vast wealth from humble beginnings, lend their names to a country (Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe) or to scholarships which are internationally acclaimed to this day (the Rhodes scholarships).
The Rhodes Memorial, on the foothills of Devil’s peak, is the Sir Herbert Baker designed memorial to Rhodes. Built on one of Rhodes’ favourite spots, the monument is modelled on the Greek temple at Segesta. It contains 49 steps (representing the years of Rhodes’ life) and is built of Cape granite, displaying a George Frederic Watts statue of a horseman, eight John Macallan Swan bronze lions (don’t miss this picture opportunity) and a bronze bust of Rhodes (also by Swan). The Rhodes Memorial offers a highly-rated tea room, is a great picnic spot, and offers great hiking in the surrounding area. Look out for the small forest of Silvertrees, endemic to the area, above the Memorial.
Where? Groote Schuur Estate, above the University of Cape Town on the slopes of Devil's Peak, Rondesbosch.
When? 9am to 5pm, 7 days a week.