Cape Town: Our Beginner’s Guide

Guide to Cape Town
Cape Town. You may come for beauty, but you’ll leave with a story.

Cape Town, a city we had heard so much about over the years, but for so many reasons never took the opportunity to visit – until recently.  Like most, we were originally attracted to Cape Town for its natural beauty – think Table Rock cut by coastlines – but we also knew there was more behind that exterior.

Once we arrived, landing on what was to us a surprisingly foggy morning, our curiosity set loose to its people and to its context — the collision of past and present merged with hopes and dreams of where it may go in the future.  Cape Town’s complexity sits right on the surface, drawn from history, geography and a diverse group of residents whose families have called Cape Town home for centuries.

Just as we struggled to a put a finger on what we were experiencing, Mariette, a Cape Town native captured it apropos to our experience, “Cape Town’s beauty is in its imperfection. In its chaos comes creativity.”

The density of experiences in Cape Town span the spectrum, from township walks to wine tastings, from outdoor adventure to food market hip. Particularly when you’re faced with limited time, making decisions regarding what to do across the sprawling Cape Town area can overwhelm.

This is our basic grok of Cape Town in just a few days.

If you want to skip ahead:

Dan & Audrey at the Cape of Good Hope - Cape Town, South Africa
Dan & Audrey at the Cape of Good Hope

Note: When people say “Cape Town” they mean the entire area of Cape Town, not only the downtown area (CBD), but also the surrounding suburbs and Cape Point.

Swimming with Seal Pups: Hout Bay

We arrived at Cape Town airport at 9 AM. By 1 PM, we were squeezing into wet suits and jumping into frigid waters to snorkel with seal pups. That’s what happens when you have a local friend waiting for you to arrive and excited to show you her adopted home (thanks, Kerry!!).

In full disclosure, when we heard that the water was a frosty 13 degrees, we had our doubts. We really do not like cold water. But once you’re suited up and you’re in the water, you easily forget about the cold since you’re surrounded by playful seal pups swimming under, over and all around you.

The seal pups really get this close. And even closer!

If you want to fall in love and be overwhelmed by a little wildlife in a stunning setting, it really doesn’t get any easier than this.

These curious little guys came right up to us, looked right at us with their big, black eyes, did a twist and then were off again to play some more. The whole thing was addictive.  Even though it was essential for our bodies to rest and to recover from the chill, we were resistant to being called out of the water more than 45 minutes later.

Cape Town Snorkeling
Goofing in the surf.

The seal pups are out swimming near Hout Bay between mid-March and the end of May. You can still swim with seals at other times of year, but you won’t experience the fun of the pups.  What makes the young ones so great is that they haven’t developed the inhibitions of their parents, so they are simply more fun, innocent and trusting.

Sound familiar?

And don’t worry about sharks – we’re told this particular area does not attract sharks because it’s too shallow and cold.

And if you happen to be in Hout Bay on the weekend, be sure to check out the market. It’s chock full of freshly prepared foods, local crafts, great coffee and a particularly friendly atmosphere.

Practical Details: We highly recommend this seal pup experience with Steve Benjamin from Animal OceanCost: 600 RS Disclosure: We received a 50% media discount.

Table Mountain

Table Mountain. No matter where you are in the city, you can see it. This is how locals orient themselves. Everyone talks about Table Mountain being a “must see” in Cape Town. Honestly, we didn’t really believe it until we were on top of it all, drawn up by an absolutely astounding cable-driven gondola ride on a perfectly clear morning.

Table Mountain Views & Cable Car - Cape Town, South Africa
Table Mountain Views & Cable Car

The views are stunning. But don’t make the same mistake we did and spend too much time at the first few overlooks. Pull yourself away from each one and make certain to walk all the way around to every spot just to see how the landscape and perspective changes around you.  Remarkable.

Table Mountain Views over Cape Town, South Africa
Table Mountain Views over Cape Town

On the western overlook you’ll see Robben Island, the place where Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners were held during apartheid. Gazing out at the island, we imagined with impossibility what prisoners must have thought peering out to Table Mountain every day.

During the many years of incarceration on Robben Island, we often looked across Table Mountain at its magnificent silhouette. To us on Robben Island, Table Mountain was a beacon of hope. It represented the mainland to which we knew we would one day return,” Mandela wrote.

Practical Details: Book your tickets online to avoid the lines (and it’s cheaper, $19 round-trip). Go as early in the morning as possible to avoid haze and heat. The cable car stops running during bad weather, so if the weather looks sketchy, call ahead to be certain the park is open.

Cape Malay Cooking Course

The beauty of Cape Town lies in its people. We use the universal theme of food to encourage people to interact, to help visitors find this beauty,” Monique Le Roux, founder of Andulela, explained. This is the reason why the cooking class is held in regular Cape Malay family homes. The goal: go beyond the kitchen, beyond the recipes.

Bo-Kaap, Cape Town -- the multicolor epicenter of Cape Malay
Colorful Bo Kaap, the epicenter of Cape Malay in Cape Town

Who are the Cape Malay? We wondered. We had no idea, so when we met Sabz, our guide, at the Bo Kaap Museum, we buried him with questions. Here’s what we learned.

For the most part, the Cape Malay are descendants of slaves that the Dutch brought to the Western Cape from places like Indonesia and Dutch Malacca (present-day Malaysia) in the 17th century.  In addition to working the fields, those slaves also built much of Cape Town. Today, the city features a large Cape Malay community, descendants of those early slaves, many of whom still live in colorful Bo Kaap neighborhood.

After picking up a few key spices at Atlas Spices (a truly phenomenal spice shop where you can stock up – we highly recommend the 12-leaf masala), we arrived at Anima’s door. She welcomed and ushered us in, spices in hand, with a friendly chuckle.

We began our course with snacks – samosas and daachi (fried chili bites made from chickpea flour, spinach leaves and spices).

Samosas and Chili Bites - Bo Kaap, Cape Town
Samosas and Chili Bites

Amina explained: “Daachi are a popular snack during Ramadan. Every house in the neighborhood prepares something special to break the fast, and we prepare A LOT of them. We take plates of food to all of our neighbors. In return, our neighbors bring plates of food to us. This system is in place not only so we have lots of different dishes to break the fast, but more importantly so that none of our neighbors will go hungry during Ramadan. It’s how we take care of each other.

Over the next few hours we learned how to fold samosas, roll and knot roti dough (“beat it like Michael Jackson,” Anima said), and cook a rich Cape Malay chicken curry. She offered instructions, but allowed us to make our mistakes so we could learn for ourselves firsthand what works and what doesn’t.

Anima also reminded us, bringing it all back to what the essence of cuisine, cooking, creating: “It’s about having fun. We all need to remember to have fun.

A life lesson by way of the Cape Malay kitchen.

Cooking Fun in Bo Kaap, Cape Town
Cooking Fun in Bo Kaap, Cape Town

Practical Details: Cape Malay Cooking Safari is organized by Anduela Tours. When we met Monique, the owner, she expressed the following goal: To bring people together to interact and connect over a shared human theme – food. Cost: 660 Rand per person.

Disclosure: Cape Town Tourism arranged our tour and provided it to us for free.

Masiphumelele Township by Bicycle

We make one request of you if you are interested in taking a Township tour in Cape Town (or anywhere else, for that matter): book a tour that is either done on foot or bicycle. Please do not book a tour that has you going through the township in a car or tour van. First, this prevents you from interacting and engaging with the township and its people, which is the real reason to do a tour.  Furthermore, it looks like you are going on safari, faces and camera pressed against windows.

While walking is our preferred method of getting around urban areas, bicycles give the opportunity to cover more ground while still staying close to the street action. That’s why, when considering how to see Masiphumelele Township, we opted to take it in by bicycle.

South African Boys Having Fun - Masiphumelele
South African Boys Having Fun – Masiphumelele, Cape Town

In the course of a few hours, we rode with our guide (a resident of the township for eight years) through the streets – big and small – to visit a preschool, a sangoma (medicine woman), a local restaurant, and other random stops and chats along the way. The goal: understand a township and what it means in the context of South Africa today.

South African Man - Masiphumelele, Cape Town
South African Man – Masiphumelele, Cape Town

For more description and detail on who we met and what we learned during the tour, read the full article on the Masiphumelele Township tour.

Practical Details: We booked our tour with AWOL Tours who partners with BEN (Bicycle Empowerment Network) as a local township partner and provider. About 80% of the money stays in the community of Masiphumelele going to the guide, preschool, sangoma, and restaurant.

Cost: Prices start at 550-650R ($55-65)/person. We paid 760R ($80)/person including lunch and everything above (but excluding transport there – we had a rental car).

Disclosure: We received an educational/media discount of 50%.

Wine tasting in Constantia

Coincidence of our schedule, but it felt a bit odd to go from walking a township to wine tasting within an hour, but that’s the diversity and spectrum possibility of a Cape Town experience.  Our late afternoon arrival in Constantia, one of the wine regions closest to downtown Cape Town, allowed us a brief chance to visit Groot Constantia Winery, Cape Town’s oldest winery dating back to 1685.

But for as short as that visit was, we’re grateful we did it because it gave us a completely different perspective on South African wines than we’d otherwise have just tasting what’s available for export on wine store shelves in the U.S. and Europe.

Tasting Notes:

  • Groot Constantia Chardonnay 2012 – Crisp, citrusy and surprisingly full-bodied without knocking you over the head with the new French oak it’s aged in.
  • Groot Constantia Pintotage 2011 – Pinotage is the signature South Africa red varietal.  Though our impressions of Pinotage before this visit bordered on “thin”, that’s no more. And while this wine was decent on its own – juicy, surprisingly dark fruit and plummy with a bit of an idiosyncratic finish like some Spanish wines we’ve known, it seemed to taste even better when paired with food, especially a grilled meat braai (South African barbeque) on the Orange River in South Africa’s Northern Cape.
  • Groot Constantia Merlot 2010 – Like Miles in Sideways, we are tough to Merlot, but South Africa again surprises.  This one was surprisingly good – there go the expectations again.  Nice tannins combined with dark fruit and plums, with a little softness.  We found other Merlots elsewhere in South Africa that were even better still.
  • Groot Constantia Shiraz 2011 – For us, this was a winner.  Bold, round with hints of pepper. We were glad to drink it on its own, but happier still to take a bottle back to pair with grilled meat like lightly-spiced slow-cooked brisket or peppy beef stew.
  • Groot Constantia 2010 – The almost 2x the price blend was tasty and balanced, but not enough to sway us from the varietals above.

We found out even more about South African wine throughout our visit to the country, and we grew surprised further still.  From white varietals to red, South African wines struck us as of remarkably high quality and value given the price.  Why were we so surprised?  Not sure about you, but the South African wines that make it to export and neighborhood shelves don’t often feature high quality price ratios (QPR).

Cape Town Road Trip: Chapman’s Peak Drive to Cape Point

If you’re into coastal road trips, then Cape Town certainly delivers. We began ours in Cape Town with stops at Hout Bay, Camps Bay, Chapmans Peak Drive and Noordhoek before reaching Cape Point, where the famous lighthouse stands and where the Indian and Atlantic Oceans do not actually meet, contrary to the prevailing myth.

It’s all beautiful nonetheless.

Crystal skies, clear sea: today's conditions at Cape Point #MeetSouthAfrica
Cape Point, South Africa

On the return to Cape Town we stopped by Boulders Beach to see the African penguins. Warning: you could spend hours watching these guys.  We were tempted, but they needed to go to bed.

African Penguins at Boulders Beach - Cape Town, South Africa
African Penguins at Boulders Beach – Cape Town

Practical details: You can rent a car (see below for details) and easily make this drive yourself or you can take a tour. Our tour was with Escape to the Cape and lasted a full day with a lunch stop at Cape Point.

Other Experiences to Check Out in Cape Town:

  • Mohogany Room: If you like jazz and want to meet local musicians, this is the place to go in downtown Cape Town (CBD). There are two sets each night – 8:30 and 10:30 PM. It’s 60R for one set or 100R for the two. Reservations are recommended as it’s a small venue.  
  • Theatre in the Backyard, Nyanga East: Mhlanguli George, a playwright and dramatist, has developed a theatre production that takes place in a yard of a local home. The audience follows the play through to different parts of the house as the story progresses. The experience is powerful, disturbing and grounded in local context. Highly recommended. Get in touch with Coffeebean Routes for more information.

On our wish list for our next Cape Town visit:

  • Robben Island: We regret not having time to go to the museum at this former prison site. Next time we’re in Cape Town, this will be first on the list.
  • District 6 Museum: District 6 was an area that was declared a white area in 1966, meant for new development. The neighborhood was bulldozed in 1982, forcing out 60,000 inhabitants. The museum reportedly does an excellent job of telling the story of District 6, as well as what life was like under Apartheid when forced removals were common for many people.

Renting a Car in Cape Town

We were surprised at how easy and inexpensive it was to rent a car in Cape Town. And we did everything at the last minute – about 12 hours between the time we reserved it and picked it up. The price from major rental car companies was pretty similar – $25-$30/day. We ended up going with Budget because of convenience of location and cost. Most cars are manual transmission, so it may cost more if you require an automatic.

The fun comes after you pick up the car and you realize you have to drive on the left side of the road!

Photo credits: Underwater photos courtesy of Steve Benjamin of Animal Ocean.

Disclosure:  Most of experiences above took place when we visited Cape Town independently just prior to the #MeetSouthAfrica campaign. Our visit to Table Mountain and Cape Point were provided as part of that campaign, which was brought to you by the South Africa Tourism Board and supported and managed by iambassador.  The seal pup trip, township tour, wine touring in Constantia and rental car were paid for by us.  As always, the opinions expressed here are entirely our own.

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  1. says

    Looks like you saw all of the Cape Town essentials! It is such a wonderful and diverse city :) We haven’t snorkelled with the seal pups yet, we’ll have to add it to our next visit.

  2. says

    @Jenna: We certainly saw and did a lot in 4 days, but if we return there will be plenty more to experience. Cape Town is more diverse than we had expected. Definitely add swimming with seal pups for your next visit!

  3. James @ Ghana Tours says

    Regardless of the topic, your writing is always a pleasure read and your perspective always proves insightful.

  4. says

    Guys, you nailed it. As an expat living over the mountains from CT, near Gansbaai, for a few years now, you provide the perfect guide for our stateside friends visiting in a few months. Next time, stop by, hang out, and enjoy the natural beauty of the Overberg. Plenty of space here at the house.

  5. says

    @Andi: Thanks! Whenever we create a round up post like this we’re always thinking about what sorts of information we were looking for when researching a place and putting it all together in one place. Can see why Cape Town is one of your favorite cities in the world :)

    @Bradley: We’ve been using the spices we picked up at Atlas Spices and the recipes from the Cape Malay cooking course and made some incredible curries at home. And yes, the seal pups were awesome!

    Glad this Cape Town piqued your curiosity and made you want to visit even more.

    @Ces: Bo Kaap is full of color. And the story behind the colors (or so we were told) was that when people were moved out of District 6 and moved into this area it was still apartheid times and the houses were all painted white. The inhabitants decided to paint the houses in bright colors as a bit of a rebellion against the ruling whites. Really a fascinating place. Hope you are able to visit and see for yourself.

    @Bo: Always great when a local or expat gives us the thumbs up on a piece about their home. And glad that the timing of this Cape Town guide works so well with your friends visiting soon. Thanks also for the invitation to visit during our next trip to Cape Town. We do actually take people up on their kind offers :)

    So, what else would you suggest that we see/do next visit to Cape Town?

  6. says

    This was a great experience in such a lovely town. There is so much to explore and discover. The local food looks so luscious. I’ve never known that the Dutch brought the Malays in Cape Town to work as slaves and later forefathers of a community.

  7. says

    @Noel: We also had no idea about the Cape Malay population and the history behind it before this visit to Cape Town. The city is much more diverse than we had expected. Quite interesting.

  8. says

    I stayed 10 days in CT. Managed to do things only outside the town. There are so many things to be done; at least 3 weeks are needed for this fabulous city!

  9. says

    @Bianca: Cape Town Hout Bay seal pups were great. A real highlight of our experience.

    @Sorin: We can completely understand spending 10 days, 3 weeks, even months in Cape Town. Terrific indeed. Knowing that many readers might find themselves on a bigger South Africa trip with limited time, we thought we’d share what we did there in 4 days.

  10. says

    @Anita: Glad this article spurred the desire for a return visit to Cape Town. There’s just so much to do there that this is really just the beginning.

    @Lana: Highly recommend it! Lots of fun, especially with baby seals.

  11. says

    I like that you went with the less obvious option and chose swimming with the seal pups instead of shark diving:) Only recently I read somewhere that Cape Town had been chosen as the World Design Capital for 2014..Must be a really intense change going on here when it comes to design, architecture, even technology maybe..

  12. says

    @Jay: Our visit with the Capetown seal pups were a result of a friend’s suggestion. Am glad we did it, too. Regarding Capetown as design capital, there’s either an intense change or perhaps just a branding / shining a light on some of the features that already exist — including the city’s lean towards a new creative culture.

  13. Dayana says

    Hello :) I just found an article about you on BBC Travel and checked quickly your blog and realized you have been recently to Cape Town – where I am living and working for the last 9 years. My hubby (from Kinshasa) and I (originally from Berlin) are planning to travel Africa for a year with our little baby girl from next year on and we would love to meet you if you are still around?
    Would be great to connect to get some travel advice! :)
    Thanks forward,

    • says

      Hi Dayana,
      Thanks for coming over to our site from the BBC Travel article! We would love to meet you, but we are currently in Berlin at the moment. Funny that you are originally from here :)

      Sounds like you have quite an adventure planned for next year to travel in Africa with your baby girl. Let us know if there is anything we can help with for your trip. Congratulations and happy travels!

  14. says

    How beautiful. Would love to go and visit someplace so exotic. The surfing and snorkeling looks amazing and what a luxury to see so many beautiful creatures up close. Thanks for the post.

    • says

      Glad you enjoyed it, Rachel. Prior to visiting Cape Town and South Africa, I hadn’t associated the destination with penguins and seals. But there you go! We were grateful for the experience and the opportunity to visit..

  15. Jesslyn says

    When I visited Cape Town few years back, I missed out on the seal pups! I stayed with a local host in an apartment, so he showed us around and introduced us to delicious wines. However, I’m definitely going again to catch up on what I’ve missed. Thank you for your interesting post!


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