Cape Town is a marvelous city, and cruise ships sailing the African coast often include Cape Town as a port of call or use the city as an embarkation/disembarkation point. South Africa is a long way from almost everywhere, so visitors need to spend a few days on a pre- or post-cruise visit to Cape Town and the surrounding countryside. The things to do and see are varied, the history is riveting, the people are friendly, and the dollar is strong. Below are ten fun things to do and see in and around Cape Town.
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One way to get your bearings in any new city is to explore the downtown area. Downtown Cape Town is fairly compact and includes some interesting historical sites, diverse architecture, and terrific views of the surrounding mountains and the sea. It's also a good place to find a hotel, since it is not too far from Table Mountain, the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront area, Robben Island, and the beaches.
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Table Mountain is the icon of Cape Town and is even included on the city's flag. Many visitors and residents hike to the top of either Table Mountain or nearby Signal Hill. If the weather is clear, this should be your top priority. Don't wait until the next day or even until the afternoon. The clouds can roll in very quickly, making it impossible to see anything. Alternatively, Cape Town is often buffered by strong winds, which closes down the cable car to the top. Whether you hike to the top or wait in line for the cable car, the view at the top is definitely worth the effort.
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Victoria & Alfred (V&A) Waterfront
The Victoria & Alfred Waterfront complex, usually called the V&A, was named for Queen Victoria and her son Alfred, who once visited Cape Town. The dock area used to be run-down, dirty, and unsafe. Today it is filled with locals and tourists who are browsing in the shops, dining or drinking in the outdoor restaurants and bars that line the harbor or enjoying entertainment at the amphitheater or in the carnival.
The V&A is only a few minutes cab ride from downtown, and many hotels include a free shuttle to and from the V&A. It's definitely a good place to admire the changing weather over Table Mountain. It's also the starting point for ferry tours to Robben Island.
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Ferry tours to Robben Island start at the V&A Waterfront. Since the tours fill up quickly, this excursion should be booked in advance at the Robben Island Website. Travelers don't need a separate tour or guide since the ferry ticket price includes a tour of the island with a former prisoner.
The ferry ride is about 30 minutes each way, and the 2.5 hours on Robben Island pass quickly. The guide takes his group on a bus around the island, describing the history of this small, arid chunk of land that was once a leper colony, military base, and prison. Next, the group tours the maximum security facility where the political prisoners such as Nelson Mandela were held. To learn how the prisoners were treated is a sobering experience.Continue to 5 of 10 below.
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In addition to the mountains that dominate Cape Town, the city also has numerous white sandy beaches. The water is cold, so many of the beachgoers sit in the sun or wear wetsuits to swim. Surfing and other water sports are popular activities. For those who like to stay in the shade, it's fun to just watch the show on the beach and browse the trendy shops on the beach road.
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South Africa has been in the wine business for hundreds of years, and over 200 vineyards are within a day's drive of Cape Town. Pinotage is the only indigenous grape, but the South African vineyards also grow many of the familiar varieties. For those who enjoy wine tastings and seeing beautiful vineyards, a half-day or full-day tour of the wine country of Cape Town can be an enjoyable trip.
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The Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens were once part of the estate of Cecil Rhodes. These gardens feature many of the indigenous plants of Africa and the gardens are well-laid out, with fascinating touches. Sitting at the foot of the Table Mountain range, Kirstenbosch's setting is magnificent. The best time to visit the gardens is mid-August to mid-October when many of the spring flowering varieties and proteas bloom, but the gardens are interesting to visit any time of year.
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Cape Point is the end of the Cape Peninsula, which is part of Table Mountain National Park of South Africa. In 2004, Cape Point became part of the 553,000-hectare Cape Floral UNESCO World Heritage Site. Whatever it's called, this day trip from Cape Town is well worth the effort. Tour companies sell half- or full-day tours to Cape Point. Everyone in our van loved seeing the baboons and the desert scenery of the point. A hike up to the lighthouse overlooking the Cape is exhausting but exhilarating.Continue to 9 of 10 below.
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A drive around Cape Point should include a stopover at Hout Bay. Tour boats go out into the bay, providing impressive views of the Sentinel and an opportunity to see Duiker Island, the home of thousands of African fur seals and bank commorants. If you are lucky like we were, you might even see hundreds of dolphins leaping as they zip across the bay.
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A day trip to Cape Point should also include a stopover at Simon's Town and a visit to Boulders Beach, the home of a colony of African penguins. For those who haven't seen penguins in large numbers in the wild, this is a great way to watch them interact with each other and to see how graceful they are in the water (and how fumbling they are on the land).