How much stock do you put in all those “best” lists you see online from major travel publications? I tend to ignore a lot of them, but admit to voraciously reading the ones that come out at the end of every year about the best places to visit in the coming year. In the past few years, one city in particular has shown up on a lot of those lists: Cape Town, South Africa.
In 2015, Cape Town was even named one of the top 10 cities in the world by Travel + Leisure.
So when I finally visited in 2016, I was very excited to see for myself what all the fuss was about.
I will say this: Cape Town is just as awesome as people say. Breathtaking views, affordable prices, and diverse and interesting neighborhoods make this a very easy city to fall in love with.
If you're headed to Cape Town anytime soon, here are some suggestions for what you could do with three days in the city:
Start your first morning in Cape Town in a unique way: with a tour of Cape Town in the sidecar of a WWII-era motorcycle! I've been on some pretty cool city tours all around the world, and this one ranks up there with the best of them.
I only did a short ride from Signal Hill to Hout Bay, but Cape Sidecar Adventures' 2-hour tour sounds like a perfect (and totally unique) introduction to Cape Town.
No trip to Cape Town would be complete without a visit to Table Mountain, which is the large, flat mountain that overlooks all of Cape Town. This symbol of the city isn't always visible (a cloud layer referred to as “the table cloth” often covers the mountain), but if you hit on a clear day you should definitely take the cable car to the top.
The views out over Cape Town from Table Mountain are great – you'll see everything from Lion's Head to Devil's Peak to the Atlantic Ocean. On a clear day, you'll also be able to see Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned, out in Table Bay.
There's an extensive collection of hiking trails on top of Table Mountain, along with a cafe and gift shop, so you should plan to spend at least a couple of hours at the top.
Tip: Buy your cable car tickets in advance online so you can skip the (sometimes long) ticket line when you arrive.
After Table Mountain, head back into the city and visit Cape Town's most colorful neighborhood: Bo-Kaap. This small downtown neighborhood at the base of Signal Hill has a fascinating and colorful (pun intended) history.
Many of the residents in Bo-Kaap are descendants of slaves from places like Malaysia, Indonesia, and various African countries that were brought to Southern Africa by the Dutch a few centuries ago. Today, the neighborhood is known (slightly incorrectly) as the Cape Malay Quarter, and is known for its multicultural make-up and great ethnic food.
In fact, after the neon-colored houses, Bo-Kaap is best known for its food. You probably won't have time to fit in a cooking lesson while you're here, but you can perhaps grab dinner at a traditional Cape Malay restaurant like Bo Kaap Kombuis.
Sunset at Camps Bay
End you day by watching the sun set at Camps Bay, one of the more affluent areas of Cape Town. The beach at Camps Bay is nice, but at sunset the dying light paints the looming Twelve Apostles mountain range opposite the bay glow an otherworldly orange. It's absolutely beautiful and is a great way to end your first day in the city.
Start your day off epically with a helicopter tour above Cape Town. This certainly isn't a cheap outing (think at least $100-$150 per person), but it's one of the best ways to see Cape Town.
Even on a cloudy day (which are quite common, especially during the winter months), the views above the city are top-notch.
A must-do for many visitors for Cape Town is a tour of Robben Island. Robben Island is home to the prison where Nelson Mandela spent 18 years of his 27 years of political imprisonment. Tours of Robben Island are conducted by former political prisoners, and end with a visit to Mandela's former cell.
During high season, tours depart every 1-2 hours from Nelson Mandela Gateway at the V&A Waterfront. They recommend allowing 3.5 hours for the entire tour, which includes the ferry trip there and back.
Full disclosure: I sadly wasn't able to fit this into my own short visit to Cape Town, but will most definitely do it next time! You can read more about the tour experience here.
Since you'll return to the V&A Waterfront from Robben Island, it makes sense to pend your evening relaxing here. The V&A Waterfront is home to South Africa's oldest working harbor, a huge shopping mall, a Ferris wheel, and a large collection of shops and restaurants. The area is lively regardless of the time of day, and you won't have any trouble finding a great place to eat, whether you're looking for pub fare or fresh seafood.
One of my favorite parts of the waterfront is the Watershed, which is essentially a large converted warehouse that now houses more than 150 vendors selling everything from original art to vintage clothing. It's a great place to find a unique gift or souvenir. Nearby, the V&A Food Market is a great place to find delicious street-food-type fare.
If you'll have access to a car in Cape Town, then you should spend at least one day exploring the Cape Peninsula, too. Here are some of the must-visit spots not far outside of Cape Town:
Chapman's Peak drive
Hugging a steep cliff face overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, Chapman's Peak Drive connects Hout Bay to Noordhoek. There are a few viewpoints along the drive, including one that offers some amazing views back towards Hout Bay:
This is one seriously beautiful drive, and is on the way to some of the next stops.
Chances are you've already heard of Boulders Beach: it's the postcard-perfect beach that is also home to a colony of endangered African Penguins. Located in Simons Town, Boulders Beach has become a popular destination for tourists to Cape Town. Here you'll actually find three beaches, a penguin viewing area at Foxy Beach, and a series of boardwalks.
While most of the penguins can be found near the main penguin viewing area at Foxy Beach, you'll spy them in nests all along the boardwalks, too, and also on some of the other beaches.
The beach at the far end of the protected area (the *actual* Boulders Beach) is one you can swim in – meaning you could totally swim with the penguins if there are any around!
Simon's Town itself is also very cute, so this would be a great spot to plan to stop for lunch.
Cape of Good Hope
The Cape Peninsula ends at Cape Point at the Cape of Good Hope. Many people incorrectly assume that this is the most southerly point in Africa – that designation actually belongs to Cape Agulhas, another 150 kilometers to the southeast. But visiting Cape Point is still a must-do.
Cape Point is actually a nature reserve that's part of the larger Table Mountain National Park, so it's not uncommon to see wildlife here (beware the baboons!). The most popular thing to do is to take the Flying Dutchman Funicular (or just hike) to the lighthouse at the top of Cape Point. From here, you get an incredible view out over the peninsula and ocean.
And, bonus: Even when it's overcast in Cape Town, it's often sunny on the Cape Peninsula.
Have 4 or 5 days in Cape Town? If so, you'll want to be sure to get a taste of some of South Africa's delicious wines, too. There's a wine region near Cape Town – Constantia – that would make a great morning or afternoon trip. Or, you can head out to Stellenbosch, about an hour away. This wine region is arguably the prettiest in South Africa.
I visited Waterford Estate in Stellenbosch, which offers a unique “wine safari” that includes a ride out into the vineyards in a safari vehicle, followed by wine tastings on a raised wooden platform out in the middle of the vines.
What I didn't include: Township tours.
You CAN go on a township tour in Cape Town. Tours frequently visit Langa, the very first township in the suburbs of Cape Town, as well as other townships outside of the city. The problem I have with these tours is that many essentially commercialize poverty and turn a place where people live in very poor conditions into a place for tour buses to drive through. The money many people spend to visit an “authentic” township often doesn't actually help any of the people in that township.
I do think it's important to attempt to understand this side of Cape Town – because it's very real and still a huge part of the narrative of post-apartheid South Africa. But if you're going to do it, do it responsibly.
Start out with a walking tour through District Six and/or a visit to the District Six Museum. This used to be a very diverse part of Cape Town, but was emptied out during apartheid when it was designated a “white-only” part of town. Non-white people were removed from their homes and forced to move into townships like Langa.
If you want to visit a township, I recommend doing some research to find a company that leads responsible tours into these areas (i.e. small groups, guides who are actually FROM the township, etc.), and avoid bus/van tours. Exploring on foot or by bike is the least-invasive way to see these neighborhoods.
A tour I would recommend is the Faces of Cape Town tour offered by Urban Adventures. It focuses on various stories of people from diverse backgrounds in Cape Town, and includes a visit to a township. This is an in-depth, all-day tour, and would be perfect for your 5th day in Cape Town if you're staying that long.
Where to Stay in Cape Town
The good news about traveling to South Africa right now is that everything is super affordable (especially for Americans) thanks to the exchange rate. Even top luxury hotels in Cape Town are affordable now.
I stayed at three different hotels in Cape Town:
The Commodore Hotel – This upscale hotel is comfortable, has a great breakfast, and is just around the corner from the V&A Waterfront.
The Taj – The Taj is a 5-star hotel in the heart of downtown Cape Town. Normally I would never stay in a hotel this nice, but right now it's actually not exorbitantly priced. My dad and I were upgraded to a huge 2-room suite here, which was bigger (and way nicer) than my apartment at home.
The One 8 Hotel – If you're interested in a more affordable hotel in a different neighborhood, I can recommend the One 8 Hotel in Green Point. The staff was super nice, and it was just a short walk to a really nice waterfront path.
Or, you can compare Cape Town hotel prices here to find even more options.
Getting around Cape Town
I love walking around cities when possible. But Cape Town is a bit big to tackle entirely on foot. There is a public bus – the MyCiTi bus – that is affordable and pretty reliable, but it doesn't go everywhere. To get to some of the touristy spots, you'll need to take a taxi or Uber, or rent a car on your own.
City sightseeing bus
If it's your first time in Cape Town, I would recommend at least considering getting a ticket on the City Sightseeing buses that you'll see driving around town. Hopping on (and off) one of these is actually a great way to get a feel for Cape Town and to get around without having to pay for a taxi. Taxi rides in Cape Town aren't particularly pricey, but a 24-hour bus ticket (which covers four different tour routes) will only cost you $12. That's a ridiculously great price, and therefore I would suggest starting off your trip this way.
At the very least, you can use the bus to get to a few must-visit spots, and then make note of where you might want to return and spend more time later. (The bus stops at a bunch of places mentioned in this post, including Table Mountain, Bo-Kaap, Camps Bay, and the V&A Waterfront.)
So there you have it – 2,100 words on Cape Town! Is there anything else you would add to this list?
*Note: There are a few affiliate links in this post, meaning that if you book/buy something through one of my links, I may earn a small commission at no extra cost to you.
I’m not much of a beach person (I mean, I like them, but if I can’t swim it doesn’t bother me), so the cold water wasn’t a big deal. I also visited in winter, though, so it wasn’t warm enough to swim anyway! But I also loved Cape Town and hope that my first visit wasn’t my only one!