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 Mountain cut by coastlines – but we also knew there was more behind that exterior.
Cape Town. You may come for beauty, but you’ll leave with a story.
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 what to do in Cape Town in just a few days.
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.
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.
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.
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 Ocean. Cost: 600 RS Disclosure: We received a 50% media discount.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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 to Groot Constantia Winery, 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.
- 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.
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.
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.Update 2018: Sadly, the Mohogany Room in Cape Town has closed down.
- 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 District 6 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.
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!
Essential Travel Information for Your Trip to Cape Town
Finding hotels in Cape Town: We stayed with friends for the first part of our visit and then Hotel Fire & Ice in central Cape Town for a few days. We've also heard good things about renting an apartment in Cape Town via Airbnb (use this Airbnb discount link to get $25 off your first rental).
How to get to Cape Town, South Africa: We traveled from Berlin, Germany to Cape Town (via London) on British Airways. South African Airlines also has a good network of flights from North American and Europe. We often use Skyscanner or Expedia to compare flight prices.
Recommended travel insurance: Don’t travel through Cape Town (or the rest of South Africa) without travel insurance. You never know if you'll end up with some illness or injury that means you need to cancel all or portions of your trip. With all of these scenarios, travel insurance will be there to help you and ensure that you don't end up with a huge bill at the end. We recommend and used for years World Nomads as travel insurance for trips to South Africa and other areas in Southern Africa.
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Photo credits: Underwater photos courtesy of Steve Benjamin of Animal Ocean.