Morning – Discover the City Bowl
The center of Cape Town, known as City Bowl for its roundish shape, is surrounded by iconic mountains (Signal Hill, Lion’s Head, Table Mountain and Devil’s Peak) on one side and Table Bay on the other. Start in Greenmarket Square, the heart of old Cape Town, built at the end of the 1600s. This is where you will see the city’s oldest buildings, from the Old Town House (formerly a watch house) to the Central Methodist Mission. Greenmarket Square was a slave market at one point; luckily, today all you can buy here is African souvenirs. Use this place as a base to explore this lively area, but be aware of your surroundings.
A few blocks away, don’t miss Grand Parade. The most important building here is elegant City Hall, built in the Edwardian style and best known for its balcony, from which on February 11, 1990, Nelson Mandela delivered his first public speech after his release from prison.
A few blocks up the hill, you will find quaint Bo-Kaap. This is where the Cape Malay and Muslim population of Cape Town (people originally from former Dutch colonies in South-East Asia and from India) traditionally live, but is in general a diverse area currently undergoing a major gentrification phase. You will enjoy the neighborhood’s colored houses and quiet streets, and views it offers of the city’s skyline and of Table Mountain.
Have lunch at the V&A Waterfront. It’s a tourist trap, but it has good shopping (particularly at the Watershed) and nice views of the marina and the mountain. And it’s 100% safe.
Afternoon – Marvel at the local flora
Get lost in extraordinary Kirstenbosch, a vast botanical garden (rightly considered one of the best in the world) located at the eastern foot of Table Mountain. The Cape has a unique Mediterranean-like climate and is known for its biodiversity, which is reflected in the wide variety of native plants and flowers you can admire at Kirstenbosch (in particular gorgeous strelitzia and fynbos species like the well-known proteas). Make sure to check out the imposing Camphor Avenue (these trees were plants by Cecile Rhodes himself) and the fun Boomslang, a walkway above the tree canopy.
Morning – Mountain High
Cape Town is one of the most scenic cities on the globe. Nowhere is this clearer than from the top of the city’s star attraction, the omnipresent yet elusive Table Mountain. As soon as you see it clear of clouds (Capetonians affectionately refer to them as the “tablecloth”), don’t hesitate and head to the Aerial Cableway. The ride up is in itself an experience, as the revolving cable car quickly ascends up the nearly vertical mountainside. From the top, Cape Town appears in all its glory – the best views are of course on the city side, the high-rises of the business district and the stadium by Lion’s Head (build for the 2010 World Cup) being the most easily recognizable sights. Explore one of many trails snaking around the flat summit of the mountain, and take in the commanding views of the Cape Peninsula. If you have more time, you can also climb Table Mountain (Lion’s Head is an alternative in case of tablecloth).
Afternoon – Learn about South Africa’s dark history
No visit to Cape Town would be complete without a trip to infamous Robben Island. The 20-minute crossing (book the ferry ticket well in advance) is stomach-turning at best, but not as much as learning about the former island-prison is. Escorted by a former inmate, you will learn about Apartheid and the very dark history of the island. It’s hard to imagine that just over 20 years ago South Africa was a regime that completely segregated and discriminated against racial minorities, even though the results of this are still way too visible everywhere in the country. On Robben Island, you will have a chance to learn about the prison and you will catch a glimpse of Nelson Mandela’s cell. You’ll also get the most iconic view of Table Mountain from here.
All day – Explore the Cape
This might just be the highlight of your trip (if a bit of a long day). The Cape Peninsula is, without a doubt, one of the most beautiful areas in the world. Start by driving south along False Bay and stop at the popular penguin colony at Boulders Beach in Simon’s Town. This is hardly the best part of your day: as the barren landscape of the highest peaks of the peninsula leaves the way to wind-battered beaches and rugged cliffs, you will feel like Bartolomeu Dias, the first explorer to reach the legendary Cape of Good Hope (he had actually named it the “Cape of Storms” – quite aptly). This romantic feeling will disappear as soon as the first bus-load of Japanese tourists arrives to take selfies by the famous sign. (Many believe this is the southernmost tip of Africa, but that’s in fact Cape Agulhas – some 150 km away.) With some luck, you will spot ostriches hanging out near the beach! A few minutes from here is Cape Point, which is actually more southern and more impressive: walk or take the electric lift up to the lighthouse and take it all in, as you overlook the treacherous waters of the Atlantic.
Afterlunch, get ready for a few more hours of amazing views. The best ones are enjoyed along super-scenic Chapman’s Peak Drive (or Chappies, as locals call it). This coastal road is full of curves and stretches from Noordhoek and Hout Bay. As one imposing cliff shines in the afternoon glow after the other, you won’t be able to put your camera away! You will want to snap pictures of Hout Bay’s Sentinel Peak and of the so-called Twelve Apostles (part of Table Mountain) as seen from Camps Bay (an upscale Malibu-like neighborhood that contrasts starkly with most of Cape Town).
All day – Tipsy does it
It will be good to have a driver today, because the Cape offers incredible and incredibly affordable wines. Head east of Cape Town to Paarl, Stellenbosch or Franschhoek, and you will see one vineyard after another. Cute and picturesque Franschhoek is an excellent choice. It looks like a Dutch village, even though it was the French Huguenots who brought wine-making here (there is even a Huguenot Monument). Visit the Grande Provence Estate: tasting five wines in their glorious and shady garden dotted with sculptures will only cost you ZAR125 (€7.50). Unless you are a connoisseur, the spittoon won’t be of much use! Spend your day estate-hopping, indulge in a boozy lunch and don’t forget to hunt for souvenirs up and down the main street.
Safe and tourist-friendly Franschhoek couldn’t be more different from most areas you will visit in and around Cape Town, where, sadly, racial tension and violent crime are still rife. On your way back into town, if your driver knows what he is doing, ask him to take you to the sprawling township of Khayelitsha for a fleeting glance at how the other half lives.
It’s important to see all sides to a destination, and this side – a sea of huts and sub-par housing that has one of the highest murder rates in South Africa – is something you won’t forget very soon. Don’t leave the car.
MAKE IT HAPPEN
Sevruga has delicious and very affordable sushi (try the seared tuna), and impeccable service.
As touristy as it might be, Marco’s African Place is a simple restaurant with great service and loud, yet fun entertainment. Come here to try delicious and different food… impala steak, anyone?
While at Cape Point, have lunch at Two Oceans for great fish and breathtaking views of the ocean. Ask for a place on the terrace, but beware the brazen birds who won’t shy away from trying to steal your food.
4 on Varneys is a lovely and conveniently located B&B. Thierry and Philip are wonderful hosts, always ready to offer tips and recommendations. Rooms are spotless and breakfast is good.
Café Manhattan has a lovely terrace, nice drinks and fun décor, making this gay bar a good place to start your night out.
Others might feel differently, but I found that Cape Town can be sketchy AF. You should be ok walking around in the city center during the day (many visitors do), but I can’t promise you will feel 100% safe. Dress down and don’t flash money or valuables. Do NOT walk around on your own at night. Remember – everybody uses Uber here, even for a two-minute journey.