Ah, Cape Town. Is there any city on Earth more beautiful? Frequently listed as one of the world's most liveable urban areas, South Africa's Mother City is a beacon of culture perched on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean and framed by the breathtaking silhouette of Table Mountain. It is world-class restaurants and golden beaches, colorful historic districts and hipster farmer's markets. Outside the city center, the stunning coastal suburbs of Simonstown, Hout Bay and Fish Hoek await; while inland lies a patchwork of award-winning vineyards. If your visit to South Africa is centered exclusively around Cape Town, you can even find several rewarding safari destinations within a few hours' drive of the city.
Visit Robben Island
Surrounded by the frigid waters of Table Bay, Robben Island was once a penal colony for political prisoners. Legendary South African president Nelson Mandela spent 18 years here during his apartheid-era imprisonment; as did many other important political revolutionaries. Half-day Robben Island tours depart from Cape Town's V&A Waterfront, and offer you an insight into what life in the prison would have been like. Led by former prisoners, the tours include a return ferry ride to the island, a tour of the island itself and a visit to the old cells (including one inhabited by Mandela). It's a unique opportunity to better understand the most turbulent period in South Africa's recent past.
Meet the Penguins at Boulders Beach
The African penguin is endemic to Southern Africa, and especially adapted to life in a warmer climate. You can see these charismatic little birds up close at Boulders Beach, a penguin colony located approximately one hour's drive south of the city center. Here, a boardwalk allows visitors to wander through the penguins' nesting ground without causing too much disturbance. At the beach itself, an observation platform gives you ring-side seats to the penguins' antics as they squabble on the white sand, or play with one another in the crystal blue water. There is a small conservation fee, which goes towards ensuring the future of this sadly endangered species.
Reach the Top of Table Mountain
You can't miss Table Mountain - it's the archetypal Cape Town icon and its incredible flat-topped silhouette is visible from almost everywhere in the city. Standing 3,559 feet/ 1,085 meters tall, the top of the mountain offers incredible views of Table Bay and the city spread out below. You can opt to climb to the top (either independently or with a guide); or you can take a cable car instead. The cableway operates throughout the day, with the last car descending around sundown. Booking in advance is essential - this is Cape Town's top attraction and queues can get crazy. For the best views of the mountain from ground level, head to Bloubergstrand beach.
Go Diving With Sharks
With its cool waters and abundant fur seal population, Cape Town is a natural aggregation site for great white sharks. Several companies offer cage-diving trips into False Bay, allowing you to get up close and personal with the world's greatest marine predator. The boats use bait and seal decoys to attract the sharks, which often come within a few feet of the viewing cage. Despite their fearsome reputation, a close encounter with a great white is a thrilling (and ultimately humbling) experience. If you're a certified scuba diver, you can also dive with other local shark species, including the tiny pyjama catshark and the prehistoric seven-gill cow shark.
Explore the City's Culinary Scene
Cape Town is a city that takes its food seriously. Its culinary scene reflects the diverse heritage of its people, with different restaurants specializing in traditional African food, Cape Malay fusion, Indian cuisine or Portuguese specialties. You can choose to dine at world-class restaurants with a price-tag to match; or you can tour the city's farmer's markets, food halls and authentic hole-in-the-walls for unforgettable meals sold for just a few rand. Seafood is a specialty, of course, as are wines sourced from the famous vineyards of the Western Cape. The wineries themselves often house some of the region's best restaurants.
Take a Township Tour
During the apartheid era, the Group Areas Act of 1950 decreed that whites and non-whites could no longer live in the same residential areas. Non-whites were forcibly relocated to informal housing settlements on the edge of the city known as townships. Despite the fall of apartheid in the early 1990s, these townships still exist, and poverty is still a major problem in South Africa. Township tours give visitors the chance to experience the other side of life in Cape Town, while also giving money back to the township community. Choose a local operator like Siviwe Tours to make sure that the people you meet benefit directly from your visit.
Stroll Through Kirstenbosch Gardens
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens is an oasis in Cape Town's city center. Nestled beneath Table Mountain's eastern slopes, the garden celebrates South Africa's incredible botanical diversity; and in particular, its endemic indigenous plants. Paved walkways allow for endless hours spent strolling between the flowerbeds, while lush green lawns are perfect for summer picnics. Keen birders should also head to Kirstenbosch to look for specialty species like the orange-breasted sunbird and the Cape sugarbird, both of which feed on the garden's colorful proteas. Between November and April, the garden also hosts open-air concerts every Sunday.
Discover Cape Malay Culture in Bo-Kaap
Situated on the slopes of Signal Hill, Cape Town's Bo-Kaap neighborhood is known as one of the most Instagrammable places in South Africa. Its candy-colored houses and quaint cobbled streets are certainly a good reason to visit; but the main attraction is the area's rich Cape Malay history. Descended from immigrants from Malaysia, Sri Lanka, India and Indonesia, the Cape Malay people are proudly Islamic. Bo-Kaap is home to some of the country's oldest mosques, as well as kitchens and restaurants serving spicy Cape Malay cuisine. The architecture is also notable, offering a fascinating blend of Cape Dutch and Cape Georgian styles.
Tour the Cape Winelands
If you have a day or two to spare, make sure to venture outside the city proper and into the lush scenery of the Cape Winelands. Spread out like a blanket around the famous wine-making regions of Stellenbosch, Paarl and Franschhoek, the vineyards of the Western Cape yield some of the world's finest vintages. You can stop by for a tasting session, for a tour of the cellars or a gourmet meal in a farm-to-table restaurant with breathtaking rural views. One of the best ways to see several different wineries in a short space of time is to book a hop-on, hop-off tour on the Franschhoek Wine Tram. Alternatively, choose an iconic vineyard like Spier Wine Farm for a luxurious overnight stay.
Shop at the V&A Waterfront
The V&A Waterfront is Cape Town's shopping and entertainment showpiece. Located on the harbor's edge against a Table Mountain backdrop, this pedestrianized area is full of first-class seafood restaurants, brew pubs and upmarket shops. Make sure to visit the Water Shed (where different vendors sell artisan crafts and fashions); and the V&A Food Market (home to more than 40 stalls selling food and drink from all over the world). Nobel Square offers a photo opportunity with bronze statues of South Africa's Nobel Peace Prize laureates - including Nelson Mandela. Other nearby attractions include the Two Oceans Aquarium and the Cape Town Diamond Museum.