48 Hours in Cape Town: The Ultimate Itinerary

Colorful houses in Bo Kaap Malay Quarter, Cape Town
Subodh Agnihotri / Getty Images

Cape Town is the legislative capital of South Africa and the country’s cultural epicenter. Historic landmarks tell the story of those that came before: from the first Portuguese and Dutch explorers, to French Huguenots, British colonists, and immigrants from Southeast Asia. You can learn about the apartheid-era fight for freedom at sites like Robben Island and District Six; while the very best of modern South Africa is represented by a slew of theaters, art galleries, and fine-dining restaurants.

Cape Town is also one of the world’s most beautiful cities, with twin shores washed by the deep blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean and the iconic flat-topped peak of Table Mountain as an ever-present backdrop. Suburbs like Camps Bay and Blouberg are home to some of the country’s best beaches, while the inland wine region is famous for its world-class vineyards. With so much to see and do, first-time visitors can find the Mother City a little overwhelming. This 48-hour itinerary gives you a good overview of the best the city has to offer, based on travel times that take into account the formidable Cape Town traffic. 

01 of 06

Day 1: Morning

Prison Barrack on Robben Island
JohanSjolander / Getty Images

7 a.m.: Wake up at the Victoria & Alfred Hotel after flying into Cape Town International Airport the night before. A luxury hotel with breathtaking views of Table Mountain and the bustling V&A Waterfront, it was built as a shipping warehouse in 1904 and has since become a historic landmark. It includes every modern comfort, including an outdoor pool, full-service spa, and fine-dining restaurant Ginja. Start your day with a full South African breakfast on the restaurant’s sunlit terrace, overlooking the yachts at anchor in the harbor. 

9 a.m.: Take a stroll across the Marina Swing Bridge to Nelson Mandela Gateway, in time for the 9 a.m. ferry departure to Robben Island. For centuries the island, which is located a few miles offshore, was used as a penal colony. In the 20th century, the prison was reserved mainly for political prisoners, most of them involved in the fight against the state-sanctioned era of racism known as apartheid. The most famous Robben Island prisoner of all time was Nelson Mandela, who spent 18 years as an inmate here before ultimately going on to become South Africa’s first democratically elected black president in 1994. 

The Robben Island tour lasts for approximately 3.5 hours, including the ferry ride across Table Bay. The first half of your visit is a bus tour, during which your guide will tell you about the island’s history as a military base, leper colony, and prison. You’ll stop at the leper graveyard, and at the quarries where prisoners were forced to labor day after day. The second half of the tour takes you to the maximum-security prison (now defunct), where apartheid freedom fighters were held. This part of the tour is guided by an ex-political prisoner, affording you an incredible insight into what life was like for the inmates. The tour ends with a visit to Mandela’s cell. 

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02 of 06

Day 1: Afternoon

Two people talking infront of very colorful houses

TripSavvy / Anna Haines

1 p.m.: After arriving back at the V&A Waterfront, take a 15-minute drive to Cape Town’s Bo-Kaap neighborhood. Nestled at the foot of Signal Hill, the cobbled streets of Bo-Kaap make up one of the oldest residential areas in central Cape Town. The area was developed in the 18th century to provide housing for Muslim laborers brought over from the Dutch East Indies. Tennants were not allowed to paint their houses, so when slavery was abolished in 1834 and they were able to purchase their homes, many chose to paint them in bright colors as an expression of their freedom. Today, tourists flock from all over to take photos of Bo-Kaap’s multicolored terraces and to soak up the district’s unique Cape Malay culture. 

Start at traditional restaurant Biesmiellah, where must-try local dishes include denningvleis (lamb loin chops in a sweet-and-sour brown sauce) and bobotie (mince topped with a baked crust of savory egg custard). Afterward, see how a 19th-century Cape Malay family might have lived at the beautifully preserved Bo-Kaap Museum before wandering past Auwal Mosque, the oldest place of Islamic worship in South Africa. 

4 p.m.: From Bo-Kaap, it’s another 15-minute ride to the Table Mountain Aerial Cableway. Soar to the top of Cape Town’s most famous landmark in a rotating capsule that affords 360-degree views of the city and the Atlantic Ocean spread out below. Then, step out onto the flattened plateau and spend the next hour exploring the mountain’s signposted hiking trails. The heady scent of the Western Cape’s endemic fynbos plants fills the air, while sugarbirds and sunbirds drink their fill from the protea flowers that line the walkways. Stop at the viewpoints to watch as the golden light of late afternoon falls across the city before catching the cable car back down the mountain. 

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03 of 06

Day 1: Evening

View of the mountains beyond the waterfront

TripSavvy / Jess Macdonald

6:30 p.m.: With darkness falling, it’s time to head back to the V&A Waterfront. Freshen up at the hotel, then decide where you want to go for dinner. For a casual foray into Cape Town’s trendy global culinary scene, head to the V&A Food Market. Housed in a 19th-century power station, the market hosts more than 40 upmarket food stalls offering everything from Vietnamese rice rolls to Italian charcuterie platters to fresh Knysna oysters. Vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free diets are well catered for as well, and when you’ve chosen your meal, you can eat al fresco at tables in adjacent Nobel Square. For a more refined dining experience, reserve a table at waterfront African restaurant Karibu instead. 

8 p.m.: After dinner, explore the Waterfront’s lively nightlife scene. Stop in at Ferryman’s Tavern for a pint of Western Cape craft beer and live music from local musicians. Or, discover South Africa’s hottest comedic talent at the legendary Cape Town Comedy Club, which offers a rotating line-up of four different comedians five nights a week. You can reserve tickets in advance online, or buy on the night at the door. 

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04 of 06

Day 2: Morning

African penguin colony at Boulders Beach, Cape Town

Jessica Macdonald 

9 a.m.: Pack up your belongings, check out of the Victoria & Alfred Hotel, and have your rental car ready for a 9 a.m. start. Today’s adventure takes you out of the city center and into Cape Town’s beautiful southern suburbs, leaving just in time to miss the worst of the morning traffic. Your first stop is Simon’s Town, a historic naval base with a picturesque waterfront promenade. The colonial-era houses that line the main thoroughfare have mostly been converted into boutique shops, independent art galleries, and gourmet restaurants. Stop at The Lighthouse Café for brunch (we recommend the homemade banana loaf or the vanilla French toast). 

11 a.m.: After walking off your meal with a wander along the high street and around the scenic harbor, get back in your car for the five-minute drive to neighboring Boulders Beach. Part of Table Mountain National Park, Boulders Beach is famous for its colony of endangered African penguins. Pay a small conservation fee to enter the reserve, then stroll along the boardwalk past groups of penguins nesting in sandy burrows just a few feet away. The boardwalk ends at an observation deck overlooking the beach, which gives you the opportunity to watch the penguins swimming, fishing, and socializing below. 

The neighboring cove is also part of the reserve. It’s a beautiful spot for soaking up the sunshine, with pure white sand stretching in between sleek grey boulders and beautiful views across the sapphire waters of False Bay. Come for a swim (if you’re brave enough, Cape Town’s waters are notoriously chilly!) and to meet the inquisitive penguins that often visit from the next-door colony. 

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05 of 06

Day 2: Afternoon

Chapman's Peak coastal toll road, Cape Town

Siegfried Layda / Getty Images

1 p.m.: From Boulders Beach, drive towards Hout Bay via the scenic Chapman’s Peak toll road. Arguably one of the most astonishingly beautiful routes in all of South Africa, Chappies (as it’s known locally) winds its way along the mountain’s flank, affording dizzying ocean views from a number of strategically placed viewpoints. Your destination, Hout Bay, is a popular seaside resort and fishing village, known for its excellent seafood restaurants and stunning scenery. Make your way to Mariner’s Wharf for lunch at the Wharfside Grill Restaurant. Hout Bay chowder, mussels marinière, deep-fried calamari, or the restaurant’s legendary fish and chips…The choice is yours. 

If your visit happens to fall on the weekend, make sure to check out the lively Bay Harbour Market, home to everything from African crafts to gourmet foodstuffs.

3 p.m.: Take the coastal M6 road back through the center of town and on towards the northern suburb of Bloubergstrand. On the way, you’ll pass some of the city’s most beautiful beaches (Llandudno, Oudekraal, and Camps Bay to name a few). Choose to stop for photos and a paddle in the sea, or press on to beat the worst of the afternoon traffic. Just before reaching Bloubergstrand, stop at BLISS Boutique Hotel. Your home for the evening is a four-star sanctuary situated on a private beach, with eight luxurious rooms, a heated outdoor pool, and an excellent fusion restaurant. The highlight is the view of Table Mountain, set against a foreground of white sand and blue ocean.

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06 of 06

Day 2: Evening

Sunset view of Table Mountain from Bloubergstrand

subman / Getty Images

7 p.m.: After settling in, ask the mixologist at the cocktail bar to fix you one of the hotel’s signature BLISS Martinis. Carry your glass out onto the viewing deck in time to watch the moon rise spectacularly over the sea. Across the bay, the lights of the city center glitter brightly at the foot of a silhouetted Table Mountain, making this one of the most memorable views of your entire Cape Town stay. Bloubergstrand has a wide choice of restaurants for dinner overlooking the ocean, but after a full day in the car, you’ll likely want to eat in. The hotel’s own gourmet kitchen serves up first-class steak and seafood, paired with vintages from the nearby Cape Winelands. 

9 p.m.: With a full two days of Mother City adventures behind you, get an early night ahead of the next leg of your itinerary. Your location in the north of the city puts you in the ideal position for a trip inland to the wineries of Franschhoek or Stellenbosch; or north to the magnificent Cape West Coast

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