Many people say that South Africa is hardly Africa, and after visiting for a second time in the near-eight months I’ve lived in Africa, I couldn’t agree more.
In Cape Town I found beaches, I found mountains, I found great food, I found beautiful design- I found so many of my favorite things, in one little city way South of the equator. From the oceanside bodybuilders to the hipsters at bars, from the gazillion and one coffee shops that I saw to the one majestic table-like mountain, I fell in love with this remote town on the tip of a continent.
Cape Town, more than anything, reminded me of California- the north and the south, rolled into on. But I was also reminded of Brooklyn. And Chicago. And Nashville, and I guarantee if you like any of those places–if you think you like any of those places, you’ll love Cape Town.
I landed in Cape Town with a handful of places to eat, and a few activities to check off my list. A six-day itinerary was cobbled together the day I left, and ended up being an itinerary that more or less stood as planned, a true rarity.
Cape Town in Six Days
DAY ONE: EXPLORING THE CENTRAL BUSINESS DISTRICT (CBD) ON FOOT, SUNDOWNERS ALONG THE WATER.
Cape Town, like many other big cities, is divided into distinct neighborhoods that define the city, and it’s nice to get acquainted on foot when possible. The CBD is the downtown heart of Cape Town, its main arteries being Loop and Long Streets, two streets that run parallel to one another and where most of the stores and restaurants are located.
If you don’t like the CBD at first, like me, give it a chance, like I did. By Day 6 the place really grows on you, I swear!
As your arrival day heads into evening, find your way to nearby Cilfton Beach, where you can watch joggers run along the promenade from the rooftop of a chic sushi spot. After glass of wine and a satisfying sunset, dinner is in order– I would suggest gourmet boerewurst sliders, but that’s just me.
DAY TWO: ROBBEN ISLAND, V&A WATERFRONT, HOP ON HOP OFF TOURS
Clockwise from top left: the view from Robben Island, sitting on the top deck of the hop-on hop-off bus, buildings in Cape Town, bocce ball along the waterfront, trees on the wy up to Table Mountain, a view of the backside of Table Mountain with Clifton Beach in front.
One of the only things I planned weeks in advance was a trip out to Robben Island. Given Mandela’s fairly recent passing, and the fact that summer in Cape Town is its busiest time of year for tourists, I didn’t want to miss a spot on the ferry to tour this famous sight. It was easy to find and book tickets online, so I would advise anyone to do the same and benchmark your entire Cape Town itinerary on a Mandela tour. Go early (8am and 9am options are available) to get a jump start on the day.
The 3-hour tour of Robben Island included a thirty-minute ferry, a tour of the island led by one of the locals, and a walk-through of the prisons and cell where Mandela was jailed, this part led by an ex-policitical prisoner. An otherwise fairly mundane tour, if it weren’t for the incredible man that was once kept as prisoner on the island.
The tour takes you back to the V&A Waterfront, which is kind of like the grand daddy of outdoor promenade malls. Grab your lunch at any of the dozens of fine establishments (including one of the nicest McDonald’s I have ever seen). Then stop by the information kiosk to book the Hop On-Hop Off bus tours. Don’t argue with me, and don’t think you’re too cool for this, because you’ll end up seeing more of the city this way than any other way.
For me, the Hop On-Hop Off bus turned out to be more of a Hop On and Stay On bus, but do with it what you will.
Go here for dinner. Trust me.
DAY THREE: THE WINELANDS
Clockwise from top left: finding a new friend on Fraenschhoek’s main street, exploring the vines near our lunch spot, lunch stop at the wine tour, spit bucket and glasses at Winery, a tractor ride to our second to last stop on the wine tour.
About an hour drive outside of the city is South Africa’s wine country, affectionately and adorably called “the Winelands” by Capetonians. Stellenbosch is the most famous, but there are also neighboring towns with plenty to offer. Fraenschhoek, literally meaning “French Corner” is a more compact and equally beautiful area. If you’re eager to stroll around a small main street and are looking to stay just one or two nights, Fraenschhoek is your jam.
Getting out of the city needs nothing more than a rental car and an iphone, as Fraenschhoek lies an easy 45-minute drive outside of the city.
If you’re like me and don’t want to get into the nitty gritty of which wineries to go to; which ones to pick out of the hundreds available, then take the Fraenschhoek Wine Tram. Offering two different routes with six wineries each and starting in 30-minute intervals throughout the first half of the day, it’s the perfect way to effortlessly drink your way around town.
For the evening’s activity, I suggest making dinner reservations (which we failed to do). Since the town is so small and visitors number so many, the top restaurants you want to try (one and two) will likely be completely booked. Not to say the third choice is anything less than delicious, but still…
DAY FOUR: CAPE TOWN’S EASTERN COAST, CAPE POINT
Clockwise from top left: Penguins at Boulder Beach, Climbing up to a vantage point at the Cape of Good Hope, the famous Cape of Good Hope sign, the beach at False Bay, lighthouse at Cape Point.
The original plan might be to get a head start on the day and make your way to Cape Point early. But utter relaxation will inevitably kick in while in the winelands, so I wouldn’t blame you if you woke up at 10am and read a magazine before you left closer to noon.
Heading towards Cape Point, drive along the eastern, Indian Ocean shore of Cape Town, where you will hit up a few popular beach towns along the way. Though any are great to make a lunch stop, False Bay is highly recommended for its uncanny and endearing resemblance to Venice Beach. If you’ve spent any time in LA, you must visit False Bay.
Boulders Beach is a bit further along the way, where you can get out of the car say hello to penguins, despite it being a mad tourist trap and will be more cramped than pictures make it seem. Oh, and far more underwhelming. But why should you still go? Ah, well, you can’t NOT see penguins on a beach!
From there it’s just another short drive into Table Mountain National Park to explore the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Point. Signs for baboons are everywhere, and they’ve got a reputation for being mean, so it’s best to stay in the car. At the Cape of Good Hope you should, however cheesy, take an obligatory picture behind the sign that states you’re at the South-Westernmost tip of Africa. So cool. What beats a picture with the sign, though, is truly killer scenery. The scenery the whole day will have been incredible, but the vista from the Cape of Good Hope takes the cake.
Cape Point offers a nice lighthouse and a good view, too, but by that point I won’t blame you if you’re all view’d out.
After you return back into town to the good ol’ CBD (the one that’s starting to grow on you), shower up and head out for craft beers and excellent sandwiches at a biergarten-like joint. Again, just friendly hints here.
DAY FIVE: THE OLD BISCUIT MILL, TABLE MOUNTAIN
The various food and sights (and smells) at the Old Biscuit Mill’s Neighbourgoods Market
Make sure Day Five falls on a Saturday. Otherwise, make sure a Saturday falls somewhere in your vacation, because you will most definitely want to make a trip out to Woodstock to the Old Biscuit Mill. Literally, an old biscuit mill that has now been repurposed into the once-a-week Neighbourgoods Market; a place where you can eat, drink, purchase locally made goods, and in general be the happiest person ever. This is a market that puts ALL other markets, past present and future, to shame. And you guys know it must take a lot for me to say something like that. I advise an early start, heading out as the market opens (at 9am) Take a cab; parking is horrendous because I think everyone in Cape Town goes there on Saturdays.
After a quick stop in the CBD’s Mungo and Jemima boutique (buy three dresses, any three, mull over accessories, and buy one more shirt), it’s time for a wardrobe change so you can tackle Table Mountain.
It’s about 1 or 2pm by now, so make sure you grab a really quick lunch and haul your butt quickly over to the Botanical Gardens, which is the backside of Table Mountain and a much better route to take (and one that fewer people know about). I will not lie to you, it is a pretty arduous trek, completely un-table like, and in some parts requiring full-body ambling over rocks (which to me is totally fun, to some people like the woman in jeans and a nice shirt that I passed probably less fun). The information guides at the Botanical Gardens will tell you it will take 3-4 hours to summit Table Mountain, but because of the impending cloud cover, the same one that spilled over the top of the mountain like a gushing waterfall the day before, your husband will for once in his life be anxious and harried about the situation. So you’ll be forced to make the climb in only 2.5 hours, and almost not get this picture:
Something about being at the top of the mountain is truly magical–maybe the fact that you never thought you would make it but eventually did? Anyway, you just hiked for almost three straight hours, so for goodness sake, take the cable car back down along with all the Chinese tourists.
DAY SIX: SHARK DIVING (GANS BAY)
Because everything in city centre is closed on Sundays, go Shark Diving (and also, because your irrational fear of getting eaten by a shark needs to be debunked).
But really, in the effort to maintain transparency here, I had no interest in going shark diving up until I left on Sunday morning. I had originally planned to explore more markets in town instead of jumping in a cage near sharks, but in the end the brag-factor of shark diving far outweighed any Sunday activity in Cape Town.
Plus, I was told you can just sit on the boat and don’t have to get in the cage. Lots of people on our boat did that. But I figure if you’re paying a hundred something dollars to go shark diving you should at least get wet.
So put on that wet suit. Jump in the cage. Trust me, it will be one of the coolest things you can say you’ve ever done. Anyway, when they say “diving with the sharks”, it really means getting into a cage that is attached to the boat, putting on a wetsuit and a pair of goggles, and when the guides on the boat yell “Shark, shark! To the left, left LEFT!, you take a deep breath and pull yourself underwater by a bar in the cage, hoping to get a glimpse of a shadow that resembles a shark.
Even if you get only two good looks at a shark underwater, those two looks will be awesomely thrilling. Have you ever tried to scream with excitement underwater? It just makes you more excited. Also, your brain does amazing things, and for those thirty times that you went underwater and saw nothing, you will start thinking you saw a faint shadow of a shark somewhere, and it will still be cool.
Ginormous sting ray sightings are also cool, by the way.
After you’ve returned from the two-hour drive (having slept the entire way), because you’ve packed a week-full of activities, you deserve a movie, so go eat some fast food and indulge in a good-ol blockbuster hit. End your 6-day adventure with a high note, watching Leonardo DiCaprio do drugs and wondering how Jonah Hill got so skinny.
PS: Where to stay:
In the CBD: Daddy Long Legs Art Hotel or its sister restaurant, the Grand Daddy
In Fraenschhoek: the Corner House Guest House