Amazing Cape Town - The Best of the Best Sights!
Written: Jun 29, 2012 (Updated Sep 5, 2012)
a Very Helpful Review
by the Epinions community
Pros:The visitor has so many choices. The outdoors, nature, culture, history!
Cons:It's far away for most people... worth the journey, however.
The Bottom Line:
Located on the southern tip of the southern African Continent, Cape Town offers activities for all tastes and ages. Here you'll find history, culture, the great outdoors, and more.
Our first visit to Cape Town was in 2008. We are truly in love this city and its environs; we keep returning year after year. Often people will ask why do we travel to Cape Town so frequently, and the truth is that every visit offers something completely new, we revisit old haunts, friends, or simply because Cape Town feels like home.
South Africa is often described as the “Rainbow Nation" or "A world in one country” because the terrain is quite varied, and its people diverse.
In 2010, Cape Town was named as one of the top holiday destinations, and after the FIFA World Cup, South Africa was definitely placed on the tourism map. South Africa currently enjoys relative stability and economic growth. Safety is only a problem if the visitor strays into unknown areas that even the locals would not visit. With a relative favorable exchange rate, visitors are flocking into Cape Town to experience the charm of this magnificent city, and beyond.
When to Visit
Located in the Southern Hemisphere, South Africa’s summer months are November, December, January and February. The winter months are June, July and August. The average visitor who lives in the Northern Hemisphere, makes South Africa the destination for their northern winter months.
What to See and Do
The mountains and the ocean dominate the landscape and shape Cape Town's character and appeal, though the interior‘s lush valleys which are home to the richest vineyards in the world are impossible to ignore or resist.
Since there is so much to do and the typical tourist doesn’t have unlimited days, I will list my favorite places in Cape Town and surroundings. These are not listed in the order of “must see”, but #1 is de rigueur.
#1 ~ Table Mountain
In 2010,Table Mountain was officially named One of The Seven Natural Wonders of the World.
From every angle of the city, this unmistakable geological feature dominates the landscape. Everywhere you go in Cape Town, you will see this magnificent mountain whose appearance and character changes as the sun, the moon and the clouds move around it. Table Mountain is like a chameleon, forever changing its appearance, and I never tire of looking at it.
Table Mountain top is best visited on a clear day, and the visitor should know that the climate changes in a matter of minutes, and should not be surprised to hear a siren, alerting visitors on the mountain top to vacate via the Cableway, or head down the mountain. You will hear three separate warnings, and on the third one, the staff is loaded onto the gondolas to go to the bottom. Do not ignore these sirens; if you miss the last gondola, you are forced to hike down the mountain, which won’t be easy.
The Cableway is weather dependent and it is not possible to book in advance. Tickets can be purchased at the lower station ticket office, on the day of your visit. If the day is clear, best postpone other activities, and head out to the mountain before the weather changes!
Cableway Prices: R175 R/T (US$23+/-) or R90 one way per adult, R80 R/T R45 one way per child (under 18). Table Mountain Aerial Cableway Company. Phone 27 (0)21 424-0015 for general enquiries or 27 (0)21 424-8181 for weather information.
#2 ~ Victoria and Albert Waterfront
A waterfront mall, with what else, Table Mountain as the backdrop, is a place that buzzes with award winning restaurants, shops, entertainment, education and accommodations. Here one also sees a portion of Cape Town’s working docks, and the water is peppered with brightly-colored fishing boats, cruise ships, and of course, this is where the ferry going to Robben Island is found.
Also at the V&A you’ll find the Two Oceans Aquarium, a world-class aquarium offering the visitor a glimpse of the diverse marine life of the South African coast.
On a slow meander on the many docks, you could see the seals lounging in the sun, and birds galore, such as Egrets, Pelicans, Terns, Oyster Catchers, through to Flamingo's and birds of prey.
#3 – Table Mountain Hike
If you have seven or more days in Cape Town, you may want to schedule this somewhat strenuous three hours hike up the front of Table Mountain, above the city center. The most popular of all routes is the Platteklip Gorge trail; the start of the trail is just meters away from the Cableway ticket center. Some people will hike it up (as we did) and take the Cableway on the way down. If you go up and down the mountain, it’s an “all” day event.
#4 – Robben Island (Dutch for Seal Island)
This famous place was declared a World Heritage Site. This is the place where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned. The tour begins at the V&A Waterfront harbor where you take the ferry to the island located less than 10 miles away from the city. The tour of Robben Island takes roughly three-and a half hours. The ferry ride across Table Bay, on the way back to the V&A Waterfront, will give you spectacular views of the city, Table Mountain and its coastline.
The island itself teems with a wide variety of wildlife. Most of the guides at the prison are themselves ex-political prisoners and their personal accounts will serve as commentary on the 45 minute bus ride tour of the island. The tour of the actual prison will take you to Nelson Mandela’s former prison cell, though you cannot go inside the cell.
Tickets are sold at the pier, and are sold online. It’s best to pre-purchase your tickets, as they sell out fast. The price is R230 (approx. $30) per person. ( http://robben-island.org.za).
#5 – Cape of Good Hope & Cape Point ( 1 hour drive from downtown)
This is a full day activity, and requires a car rental or a regularly scheduled tour which can be booked with most hotels. The Cape of Good Hope was originally named the Cape of Storms in 1488 by Portuguese explorers, Dias and Da Gama, as the waters are treacherous and the climate stormy in winter. It was in 1580 that Sir Francis Drake, a more optimistic fellow that called it "The Fairest Cape in all the World."
This is the only section of the Table Mountain National Park that is fenced in because of the variety of wildlife found here. Look out for Eland, Red Hartebeest, Bontebok, Chacma baboon, Ostrich, and Zebra.
The Buffelsfontein Visitor Centre is an excellent place to learn about the plants and animals found in the area. Several trails begin here, and there is a large map depicting all the trails. In addition, the visitor can also beach surf, angle (fishing), picnic at the beach, and bicycle in marked areas. The mountains scenery is spectacular, and the coastline is the most south-western point in Africa (but not the most southern... that's Cape Agulhas). Several of the activities are regulated and require permits.
Continue the drive towards the Cape Point peninsula were you'll see two light houses. One is the original built a couple of hundred years ago, and one is the more modern version (1911), and it is the most powerful lighthouse on the South African coast line. Throughout the park there are informative and interpretive signs that traces the cultural and natural history of the Point. The original lighthouse is accessible by foot or you can catch the Flying Dutchman funicular to the top, though the walk is short and easy, and saves you about $5 per person.
The views of the rugged coastline are grand. Many birds nest in this area, and the smell of guano is strong. There is one restaurant and a curio shop open during regular park hours.
My photos: http://travel.webshots.com/album/574679101sgyuhP
#6 -The Boulders Penguin Colony (45 minutes drive)
After visiting the quaint village of Simon's Town, and I hope you decide to have lunch there, perhaps at the famous Bertha’s Restaurant on the Simon’s Town Quay, drive towards the world-renown African Penguin colony. These little fellows were previously called Jackass Penguins because they make sounds like a jackass.
Recent articles warn us that their numbers are decreasing. We first visited this colony in 2009, and most recently May 2012, and I can say with great sadness that there is a visible decrease in their numbers; call it paranoia, and I hope I’m wrong.
One main reason for the decline in numbers is that sardines and anchovies are being overfished in Namibia. A penguin's main diet is sardine, and if a penguin can't eat enough, he won't breed, so it's a vicious cycle. The visitor's center is quite informative and park rangers are on hand to answer your questions.
A small fee of R42 ($6.50 /-) allows access to the Penguin Colony as well as the Boulders beach, which as the name suggests, has massive granite boulders around the pretty and secluded little beach. While the water is crystal clear, with azure undertones, the water is freezing in winter or summer, suitable for penguins, of course!
The nesting areas by the Visitors Centre are fenced off, and are off-limits to humans. One can see the females nesting, and the little penguin fathers are standing guard, right outside the burrow. Penguins are excellent parents.
My photos: http://travel.webshots.com/album/574679101sgyuhP
#7 – The Wine Route (s) - (One hour drive from downtown)
Away from the coast, wonderful inland towns such as Stellenbosch, Paarl and Fraschhoek, to name a few, are in the Cape Winelands. The Cape Winelands are a collection of striking valleys that are a vision of beauty, complete with Cape Dutch architecture, and the aroma of lavender. To complete this vision of beauty, the jagged mountain peaks of the Groot Drankenstein and Simonsberg Mountains, frame the picture.
The Cape Dutch houses at most wine estates give the visitor a glimpse of a life no longer with us. While these old mansions are now museums, the estates continue to produce award-winning wines, which the visitor can taste in their tasting rooms.
One particular winery that I recommend is the Boschendal Estate, located about 100 miles east of Cape Town. Considered one of the oldest wine producers in South Africa, Boschendal has been in operation since the Dutch East India Company established the Cape Colony, and granted land to the French Huguenots who arrived in the Cape escaping religious persecution in their native France. The Huguenots brought with them seedlings of various types of grapes, and their ancient knowledge of wine-making.
Boschendal, founded in 1685, produces some of the finest wines in the Southern Hemisphere, and offers to the public, viewing of the Manor Home, Wine tasting, dining and a nature conservation area.
# 8 - Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens (30 minutes from downtown)
This garden is a gorgeous example of the botanical diversity of the Cape flora. Plants from all of the regions of South Africa are represented here, including rare succulents and various medicinal plants. There are numerous paths allowing visitors to meander at leisure. The Kirstenbosch gardens are situated on the back side of Table Mountain. The gardens are also home to the National Biodiversity Institute.
The gardens are special no matter the time of year one visits. There is always something new to see every season. During the summer months, many concerts are featured on the grass amphitheater. Be sure to arrive early with a picnic basket, and grab a good spot on the lawn. A modest fee of R40 at the door.
The garden also features several restaurants, a gift shop and an indigenous nursery. The gardens are open daily.
# 9 – Whale Watching (late June – early November only) (45 minutes drive from downtown)
As most of my friends can attest, I’m crazy about cetaceans. Between the months of late June through early November, you are almost guaranteed to see Southern Right whales, but on occasion you might also spot Humpback and Orcas. We were in Simon’s Town in early June 2012, and there were Orcas seen in False Bay. It was too early for Southern Right Whales, but nevertheless, we took a boat tour with the Simon’s Town Boat Company and headed out to Seal Island. We were rewarded with a rare sighting of a Bryde’s Whale, many seals, and a Great White chasing a seal.
Other mammals seen are Bottlenose dolphins which frequent False Bay. The Southern Right whales make their journey from Antarctica to mate and calve.
There are many excellent land-based viewpoints next to the coastal road between Fishhoek Sunny Cove railway station through Glen Cairn to Simon’s Town. One can often spot whales less than 100 meters from the shore, and it’s free. The Simon's Town Boat Company is the sole permit holder for boat-based whale watching in False Bay. We recently paid R350 per adult ( 2012 prices), but prices go up in the high season. Catch the boat from the town pier. Phone: 27- (0) 83 257 7760. It’s a good idea to check the weather in Simon’s Town, as sometimes it may be raining in Cape Town proper, and be sunny in False Bay, or vice versa.
As we are returning to Cape Town in late July, we have booked a Shark Cage Diving adventure, also in False Bay.
The town of Hermanus, further east, in the Overberg region (2 hours from CT) is considered the "Whale Capital" of the world, and we will be checking it out, once again, to see if we get lucky with the whales, from land-based viewing points.
#10 Shopping for Arts and Crafts
Local Capetonians are incredibly creative and make the most diverse arts and craft from plastic beads and wire, in the shapes of animals, especially, the endemic wildlife. Also noteworthy is the pottery, wood carvings, African masks, baskets, and paintings. If shopping on the streets or haggling is not your thing (though it’s great fun), try the several shops in the V&A Waterfront, or visit the Green Market Square, on 54 Short Market Street. This was originally a Farmers' Market dating back to 1710. This one is considered one the city's best flea markets. There's a range of local arts, craft and curios on offer and the vendors expect to bargain for their wares. I’ll be disappointed if you don’t bargain!
South African Airways offers a direct flight from New York (or Dulles) to Cape Town. Other than that, you fly into Johannesburg and then transfer to Cape Town. There are plenty of flights coming from Europe.
All the major car rental companies, such as Hertz, Thrifty, Avis and Dollar are found in the Cape Town International Airport. There are some terrific South African car hire companies, such as Tempest, Vineyard, and First Car Rental. International companies can be booked through Expedia, but the SA companies, must booked directly through their websites (no prepayment is required).
Driving is on the left side of the road, which is not complicated (it's a mind over matter thing)... easy. Do rent a GPS. Gasoline is expensive, priced around $1.50 per liter (approximately $6.00 per gallon), but most car rentals are compact cars, and are very economical.
If you are not renting a car, the Red Bus is an ideal way for first time visitors to become acquainted with the city and its environs.
Taxis are cheap and plentiful, and are generally trustworthy. Check prices with your hotel concierge or negotiate the fare before you hop in.
North Americans and members of the EU will receive a 90-day, free visa on arrival.
Yellow Fever Vaccination Card
This card will be presented along with your passport to the Immigrations official. It is mandatory when coming into South Africa.
The Western Cape remains malaria free. Take care if you do venture into the more tropical areas of South Africa, however.
ATM machines, Money Exchange houses, and banks are everywhere. The South African Rand (ZAR) is the official currency, and other currencies may not be used as payment, except in hotels, where they'll take your Dollars or Euros, and give you a pitiful exchange rate.
Credit Cards, Debit Cards, POS cards are accepted practically everywhere.
The Tourism Police is present in the busiest tourist areas, and they are friendly. Recently, I went to an ATM on Long Street, where many bars are found. I saw a policeman in the vicinity, so I thought it was a good thing. I noticed he kept a discreet eye on me, to make sure I was safe (since I was alone). Afterwards, I thanked him, and he replied, “Pleasure”, as most South Africans respond when you say thank you.
Like in any large city, there are weirdos lurking about. Practice common sense, do as you'd do back home, if you live in a big city, and you'll be fine!
The choice is yours, from the most budget accommodations, such as the Road Lodge ($40 a night), to the plushest 5-stars hotel ($450++ a night). We have stayed at the Road Lodge on a late flight arrival, several guest houses, the Westin, and recently, the Mount Nelson Hotel (an Orient-Express hotel). Certainly there is no shortage of lodging. Safety is always a key concern for the property owners, and they take their guests’ safety seriously, so even a budget hotel, is relatively safe.
What an amazing place Cape Town is. My list covers many of the most “popular” attractions in the city and nearby, but my list is not all-inclusive, but are my favorites places. In Cape Town and nearby towns, there is certainly something for everyone, from the adrenaline junkie (extreme hiking, abseiling, kite surfing, and shark-cage diving to name a few), to the most sedate of activities, such as sitting in a bar on Long Street and watching the world go by.
Many attractions are free, such as walking around the beautiful Company Gardens, walking the many trails along Table Mountain, visiting the ethnic and colorful neighborhood of Bo Kaap, walking on one of the beautiful beaches, etc. There are also many museums that are worth a visit, and are reasonably priced.
There is so much to do. Your only problem will be running out of time, and gaining a lot of weight. The food is superb in most restaurants; the South African wines are equally superb!
PS... by clicking on "my travel photos" on my profile page, you can see some photos of Cape Town.
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