This post is part of a series about my 5 weeks of solo travel. Read the introduction here, and the “to do” guide for Johannesburg here. You can also read about all my expenses, how I kept costs low and how I managed to bring only a hiking backpack.
There are so many amazing things to do in Cape Town. When I started researching it didn’t take long to get overwhelmed by all the options. Even when I restricted myself to a particular category, like outdoor excursions, I could choose from the beach or a mountain, the ocean or the sky. How could I possibly decide?
I wanted to stay flexible to allow room for spontaneity, so I decided to narrow my To Do list down to just two things. I definitely wanted to hike Table Mountain, and I absolutely had to find a dress to wear to the wedding. Everything else that sounded good I tucked in my back pocket to figure out once I got there. This post will tell you how my days shaped up, and what my favourite activities were. I hope you find it useful as your own Cape Town travel guide!
Stroll Long Street
In Cape Town, I stayed at a cozy hostel called Zebra Crossing. Although Curiocity in Johannesburg had chill vibes, I much preferred the community I was instantly folded into at Zebra. I hadn’t even put my bags down when a guest named Ian invited me to join a group of them for dinner. Our walk to the restaurant was my introduction to the bustling Long Street. It has a lot going on, but the blocks aren’t very wide and the buildings – at least in the upper part – aren’t more than a few storeys high, so it’s sunny and walkable.
Zebra is just around the corner from Long Street, and every day I found myself up and down looking for food, souvenirs and shopping for my wedding outfit. There are tons of restaurants, kitschy souvenir shops and places it looks like the locals might actually frequent. Some of the buildings are nondescript, but others stand out for their anachronistic architectural style, making walks even more interesting. Many of the side streets off of Long had places I wished I had time to browse as well.
Long Street is a great place to orient yourself to downtown Cape Town. It might not be the most exciting part of your stay, but it’s a useful place to go when you’re looking for anything from groceries to Dutch wax print .
I purposely left my first full day wide open, aside from maybe beginning the hunt for my dress. This meant that when Ian invited me to join him on a drive I said yes! Lea had signed up to ride horses on the beach and Ian, who’d rented a car, agreed to drive her out to the location.
The drive alone was worth it – Cape Town and its surroundings are gorgeous. We went along wide winding roads, through posh cliff-side neighbourhoods and caught multiple jaw-dropping views of the ocean. Even if all we did was drive that afternoon I would have been thrilled.
While Lea was riding Ian and I went to Boulders Beach to check out the African penguins. The two of them had been there before, but Ian didn’t mind going again. How could you, when you can get within petting distance! (Although interacting with them is not allowed.)
Boulders is part of South Africa’s national park system and there’s a fee to enter at a couple strategic points. It’s well worth it though, because the penguins come so close. One entrance leads you down to the beach on a long boardwalk that stretches out over the sand. On that side you’ll be surrounded by hundreds of penguins, swimming and waddling and basking in the sun.
If you walk further down the road you’ll end up at another entrance where you can walk directly onto the sand and go for a swim. I waded in and was almost immediately greeted by a few penguins who swam nearby. There were three of them, and they were so nonchalant I almost felt lame for my excitement.
The water was pretty chilly, so I didn’t stay in very long. Lots more penguins were sunning themselves on the cluster of boulders at the shore, so I walked over for a closer look. There was netting restricting access, but you could walk straight up to it, which is what I did. In the process, I nearly stepped on a penguin at my feet! S/he was in the shade of the boulder beside me, and I’m not even sure how I noticed them in the first place. I knelt to take their picture, and they didn’t scurry away or make any aggressive movements; it was so cool!
With the penguins coming so close to us I was happy to see that everyone respected the fact that they are still wild animals. No one attempted to pet, hold or feed them. There were signs around warning us that they bite, and that there is a fine for disturbing them, but they are so small and cute it was still tempting.
Boulders Beach wasn’t even on my radar for things to do because it’s a ways away from Cape Town, on the Cape Peninsula. I’m so happy I got to go! Hanging with the penguins was one of the highlights of my days in the Cape.
Ian and I walked along the coast a little more and then left to pick up Lea. On our way back to Cape Town we stopped at Noordhoek Beach; an entirely alien experience for this island girl. The beaches in The Bahamas are calm and warm; the water definitely seems threatening on rough days, but in a warning, rather than frightening sense. I’m not sure if it was a particularly rough day at Noordhoek, but the air was freezing, the wind whipped fiercely and the waves looked like they would swallow me whole. Remember this was in the summer! I can’t imagine what it feels like in the winter.
Another distinctive feature of Noordhoek is its wide beach. We walked for several minutes before we got close to the shoreline; even then it was another long walk to actually touch the water (which I didn’t do). You know how on an ordinary day the water crashes just once, at the point it hits the sand? The ocean at Noordhoek was crashing in rows all over itself, before it got close to the sand. It seemed like you’d run an obstacle course just to get to any water that would be swimmable. This alone was enough to deter me, but the sign about the shark flag system made me wonder if I’d swim even on a calm day.
Thus far Noordhoek might sound kind of scary, but I promise I actually enjoyed being there. Standing in the middle of the huge expanse of sand, cliffs at my back and marvelling at the fierce ocean in front of me, was one of those perspective-inducing moments.
Tour Robben Island
On my second day in Cape Town I booked a tour of Robben Island. It turned out E, another guest at Zebra, had tickets for the same experience. We travelled to the waterfront together and took a comfortable ferry ride over. Robben Island is best known as the place where Nelson Mandela spent the longest stint of his imprisonment. However the tour is clear that this is just one of a long list of interesting features of the island.
The experience begins with a bus ride around the island and a stop at a beautiful viewing point, with Table Mountain framed in the distance. Then you go into the prison building for a guided walk through.
The whole tour is about two hours, and truthfully I found it rushed and underwhelming. There were tons of people in my group and it felt a little like we were being herded around. At the prison I hung back to try and take pictures and read more of the signs once the spaces were cleared. The guide kept coming to find me and urge me along. He was very kind, and obviously didn’t want me to get left, but I didn’t feel as though I had enough time in the rooms or to look at any of the exhibits that were mounted. E agreed, and we talked about the frustrating experience on the ferry ride back to the mainland.
I’m really glad that I read Mandela’s autobiography, otherwise I would have missed even more of the meaning behind each place and the harshness of the prison. The day was beautiful, as was the view of Table Mountain, but if you’re in a time crunch I would pass on this tour and do something else.
Hike Table Mountain
The something else might be hiking Table Mountain, which I did a couple days later. I went with a company called Hike Table Mountain, and they were fantastic. From the first inquiry email to the moment I was returned to my hostel, the owner Riann and my guide Liesl were professional, courteous, and informative. After reading about the different route options I had my heart set on the India Venster route, but Riann suggested otherwise when he learned I have a weak shoulder. He recommended the 12 Apostles instead, and I agreed, albeit with some disappointment.
I barely slept the night before the hike, a combination of being itchy because of all my flea bites, and being super hot because when I left the windows open mosquitos flew in, biting and buzzing all around me. Thankfully I didn’t have long to wait – I set a 4.30am alarm for my 5am pick-up. When my guide Liesl arrived there was already a couple in her car, and we met up with a second couple at the base of the mountain. There were six of us total.
Over the next four hours we walked, scrambled and climbed our way up two of the 12 Apostles. Our group was well matched fitness wise, we got along swimmingly and Liesl was a superb guide. Our route had stunning views and plenty of interesting paths. Liesl knows a ton about mountaineering and local flora; it was a joy being on the trail with her. All this made for an amazing experience and one I would love to have again!
One of the highlights of my time in Cape Town was skydiving. This came up as a possibility in my earlier research, but I wasn’t sure it could fit into my budget. For some reason waiting at my gate in Johannesburg I found myself reading about different skydiving companies, and decided right then that I would go on a dive. A few emails later I had a date booked with Mother City Skydiving.
I didn’t tell any family or friends I was diving because I didn’t want to make anyone nervous. But afterward I couldn’t contain my happiness and sent ecstatic texts and videos to let everyone know what I’d just done. My dive was exhilarating!
When I was a girl I’d jump off walls with my arms spread, pretending I was flying. In planes I always want the window seat, and have the best time in the tiny 4 and 6 seaters, because I’m so much closer to the sky. I knew the only frightening part was going to be actually getting out of the plane, but I don’t think I even made that decision. I went on a tandem dive – the only option if you don’t have a license – and one moment we were at the edge of the plane, the next we were free falling.
The free fall lasted about 30 seconds, with me laugh-yelling in joyful amazement the whole time. Just as I was getting used to it my guide pulled the parachute and the roaring in my ears stopped. It was absolutely silent. We floated leisurely to the ground, and I revelled in the quiet as much as I revelled in being in the sky. Just my body. Air all around me. The way I’d always wanted to be. You can see me marvelling in the video of my dive, the way I couldn’t stop smiling and saying “this is amazing.” I had a phenomenal dive, and when we landed I wanted to go right back up.
Months later I still feel joyful thinking about my dive. I’ve been telling everyone – and now I’m telling you! – go skydiving! It was fantastic and I definitely want to do it again.
Santé Spa Day
If I was unsure about skydiving, a spa day was nowhere on my radar. I knew there was a place next door to my hotel for the wedding, but I figured it was going to be prohibitively expensive. Aside from a cursory glance at the website I didn’t pay it much attention. But what do you know! A failed attempt at eyebrow threading in Cape Town had me take a second look, because I really wanted nice eyebrows for the wedding. So technically, as with the beaches, this place isn’t in Cape Town proper; it’s kind of next door in the Cape Winelands.
The (incredible) place I booked for wedding accommodation was next door to Santé Wellness Retreat and Spa. There was a menu in my room, so I could browse ahead of time the services they offered. It turned out the eyebrow waxing was very affordable, and in fact, so was everything on the menu. Compared to the price of treatments in Nassau – which I was looking at the month before for gifts – it seemed almost criminal to only get my brows done.
I walked over the morning after my arrival and asked if they could accommodate me, appointment-less as I was. Lucky for me, I was able to get everything I wanted: brows waxed, facial and body wrap. As an unexpected bonus, I got to use all the spa facilities as well. I went for a swim in their non-chlorinated pool, hung out in the herb-filled jacuzzi and read in the sauna. The whole experience was comfortable and luxurious, and I totally get why people have spa days now. There’s no way I could afford an equivalent experience in Nassau, so it was a real treat.* I only wished I could bring all the women in my life with me!
I had the best time in Cape Town, and I really have to go back. There are so many things to do again – another hike up Table Mountain! skydiving from another drop zone! – and others that I’d like to try, like touring the vineyards.
For those of you planning a trip to South Africa, the Mother City better be on your itinerary! And I hope this travel guide comes in handy. If you’ve already visited Cape Town, what were your favourite things to do? I’d love to hear about them in the comments!
*It cost me about $135 USD, including a light lunch. 🙂