By Guest Author: Marie Payne
The last two years were a whirlwind for us. Marriage, moves, continents, and TRAVEL! In October 2016 we found ourselves settled in the ancestral capital of South Africa – Pretoria. Pretoria was where we lived and worked, and for a couple wandering souls tied down by a 9-to-5 commitment, we needed weekend reprieves.
Fortunately for us, Cape Town was a short and cheap flight away. We also had several visitors while we lived in Pretoria, and we always recommended they visit Cape Town for at least a few days.
But we realized how your head can spin as you try to put together a trip where there’s so much to see and so much you don’t want to miss. That brings us to this article – our favorite sights, bites, and activities from multiple weekend getaways to Cape Town, based on the suggestions of plenty of locals and expats who had travelled there themselves.
We’ve broken them into different regions in and around Cape Town. If you’ve got a week to spend in Cape Town, you could fit in most of these spots, or pick just a few if your limited on time.
Cape Town Transportation Tips
Before you head out to Cape Town, one of the best ways to get around is by car. We use RentalCars.com to compare and book all our rental cars. You can find deals as low as $50 USD per day.
But if you are going to be doing some exploring around the rest of South Africa, we would recommend Happy Campers to rent a campervan. That way you have your own house on wheels and you don't have to pay for accommodation. Heck yes!
Cape Town Article Contents
Shop and snack at the Waterfront
Get inspired at the Zeitz Contemporary Art Museum
Wander through the vivid colors of the Bo Kaap
Sip a flat white at Origin Coffee
1. Table Mountain
When you arrive in Cape Town, you cannot miss the iconic Table Mountain towering above the rolling hills that surround it. It dominates the skyline and demands your attention.
There are several ways to tackle this peak. We preferred the convenience and speed of the cable car. Purchase the tickets online before you go, and you’ll avoid the immense lines that gather during the high season (late November - late January).
We can’t personally vouch for hiking (mostly because we found ourselves sleeping in instead of beating the heat to hike), though plenty of our friends certainly enjoyed the experience.
A word of caution that we were given by local friends: don’t hike alone. The terrain is tough, and unfortunately tourists do attract crime. Another note of caution, no cable car trip up is guaranteed a trip back down. On days where high winds whip the cape, cable car service is...suspended. You may have to hike back down, so keep it in mind as you plan your adventure.
Related reading: If you're visiting South Africa with your family, check out this list of things to do in Cape Town with kids.
2. El Burro Taquieria
Once you tackle Table Mountain, you can make your way just downhill to El Burro Taqueria. No question about it, El Burro will stack up against your “go to” tex-mex spot.
The owners spent about ten years living in Mexico before they returned to the majesty of Cape Town. They brought with them high-end tequila and some of the best taco recipes around. They use their established supply chain to bring everything from the corn flour to their cheese in FRESH and authentic.
Now that you’ve seen Cape Town’s iconic terrain, you can venture to find some of Cape Town’s history and art.
3. Downtown, aka “The Bowl”
Cape Town’s downtown, affectionately known as “the bowl,” is an awesome day-long experience. It’s home to the buzzing port that hasn’t stopped working since the first ships pulled in hundreds of years ago. It’s also the launching point to the moving Robben Island experience, where former inmates help visitors understand the struggle against apartheid.
The waterfront district has revived aging warehouses into spaces for fantastic local artisans. For what it’s worth - we’re not collectors of things. Purging stuff from our home might be the second best thing to travel. But even WE vouch that there’s cool stuff in the food hall and in the craft market.
It’s worth a stop through, even if just to get a free taste of South African biltong (pretty much the national snack) or to grab some small souvenirs (our personal soft spot is for cool Christmas tree ornaments).
Related Reading: If you’re headed to the east coast of South Africa, be sure to check out this huge list of cheap things to in Durban.
4. Zeitz Contemporary Art Museum
Want to see the coolest repurposed building EVER? The Zeitz MOCAA (Museum of Contemporary Art Africa) is an awe-inspiring transformation of a series of grain silos into a massive art museum. Even it’s windows and staircases are works of art.
It hosts collections from artists from all over the continent and provided an easy half-day worth of sights and sounds. We think this one is a must see. Oh and if you’re Beyoncé and you’re reading this - check out the Silo Hotel that sits atop the museum. At well over $500 a night, the rest of us will just have to read about it’s giant windows that look out over one of the greatest scenes in creation.
5. Bo Kaap
After checking out the waterfront, it’s totally worth the short Uber ride to catch a glimpse of the Bo Kaap with it’s brightly colored houses and rolling streets.
Walking up and down the streets of the small neighborhood made us feel like we had stepped into a movie set, and the vivid colors can’t help but make you smile and dream. Every home in this neighborhood is considered a historical monument and their care is a serious matter for the local Cape Malay residents that still call it home.
The neighborhood is also home to the Bo Kaap Museum if you want to learn more about the birthplace of the Afrikaans language and the fascinating cultural crossroads that still resides among the cobblestone streets.
6. Best Coffee in Cape Town
‘The Bowl’ is an awesome place, but some places can also have a definite tourist trap feel too. Go in with a plan and avoid the waterfront when it comes time to eat and drink to find the tastier and cheaper options.
If you’re starting your day downtown, stop and say hello to South Africa’s barista champion at Origin Coffee. These guys make breakfast almost as well as they make their award winning coffee.
Finishing off the day? We vouch for Fork for tapas and South China Dim Sum Bar for, well, dim sum. Both are located on Long Street, which is an often-recommended place to travelers because of its abundant backpacker hostels and bars. If that doesn't work out, have a go at finding the best street foods to try in South Africa.
We didn't prefer spending a lot of time around Long Street, but these restaurant do offer excellent, thoughtfully prepared dishes and have solid wine lists - and they ought to - given what’s just a 45-minute drive away.
7. Stellenbosch Wine Country
Stellenbosch, or ‘Stellie’, beckons anyone that enjoys small town charm, a slow pace of life, or fantastic food. The weekend we dedicated solely to exploring this quiet getaway was among our favorites in the two years we spent in South Africa.
Stellenbosch boasts a dizzying number of B&B’s that make it hard to choose just one. We stayed at De Hoek Manor B&B in the city center and recommend them for the comfort and excellent customer service that came without that intrusive feeling.
Let’s be real though - you didn’t come to Stellenbosch JUST to wander through art shops and sit on your balcony.
You came to see what happens when exceptional weather patterns meet great grapes and fantastic terroir. So did we. An added bonus: South African wine is totally approachable. Tastings are inexpensive, vineyards are excited you’re there, and the pours are generous.
But just like the B&Bs, Stellenbosch has a dizzying number of wineries and we didn’t know where to start. If you want to try several wineries in one outing, we recommend Elle, who gladly hand curates a tasting experience based on your interests.
Not only is she a knowledgeable guide, she’s also a responsible designated driver as you vineyard-hop through beautiful country. If you only have an afternoon, however, we really enjoyed Spier Winery's airy and charming tasting room. You can do the chocolate and wine tasting (yum!) and follow that with lunch at their restaurant or a picnic on their grounds.
If you're looking for more wine tours to choose from, check out Get Your Guide in Stellenbosch for some personalized tours.
Related reading: Planning to explore more countries in Africa? Check out this list of Best Places to Visit in Africa.
8. Rust en Vrede Restaurant
Did you think this article would also include a conversation about the best meal I’ve ever eaten? South Africa falls outside of the territory covered by the famed Michelin guide, but Rust en Vrede tops out just about every other list out there.
If you have something to celebrate or some money to splurge, make sure to add this to your itinerary. Get reservations well in advance; they seat each table only once every night.
Before you head to dinner, make sure you’ve gotten a good nap, that you’re well hydrated, and prepared for all six courses of their tasting menu. They offer smaller options, but you’re not at Rust en Vrede for that! The ambiance, the well considered wine pairings, and the exceptional cuisine made for a dinner experience that’s as-of-yet unparalleled.
When you wake after a meal like that - you’ll need something to keep you dreaming. Remind yourself just how far south you are by heading towards the cape. Hop in a rental car and take the incredible and beautiful Chapman’s Peak drive that will take you through Simons Town.
9. Simon's Town
Simon's Town is a great base for several breathtaking sights along the cape, but it’s best known for a set of residents that seem just a bit out of place on the African continent. Penguins!
To see Simon's Town’s African penguin colony up close, skip the overcrowded boardwalk area and head down to the free parking lot at Boulder’s Beach Restaurant. You can purchase tickets at the park entrance adjacent to the parking area, and literally swim with the penguins while you avoid the selfie stick sword fight at the main entrance location.
10. Cape Point National Park
Simon's Town is also the closest accommodation to the must see Cape Point National Park. This place is HUGE. If you’ve got the time and adventure, hike their trails and take advantage of their trail hut network for a unique, and breathtakingly beautiful experience. We only had the time and gear to brave a day’s adventure each time we visited.
We consider Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope as the two critical elements of the park. At Cape Point you can stand on the edge of the African continent with your face in the wind as you survey the vast ocean and craggy cliffs.
Then venture a bit further to the Cape of Good Hope. You’ll probably have to stand in line to get your instagram-worthy picture in front of the park sign. If you want a reprieve from the crowds, take a short hike up the cliff where you can lounge at cliff’s edge overlooking the continent’s most southwestern point.
Finally, have we talked about how much we loved South Africa’s Boutique Hotels? South Africa favors small and locally owned hotels to global chains. You won’t rack up chain rewards points, but the reviews on places like Booking.com, TripAdvisor, and Airbnb tend to be honest and fair.
Local proprietors work for good reviews, and the hospitality in nearly every place we stayed was fantastic.
In Simons Town, Aqua Terra was charming, quirky (our room was previously a raquetball court in a private house!), and offered unbeatable views. They let us bring our own drinks to cocktail hour and the room was affordable.
Now that you’re equipped to prepare for your journey, we’re off to pour ourselves a glass of pinotage and reminisce about the beauty and adventure in South Africa’s Mother City.
More Travel Tips on Cape Town
BONUS: South Africa Travel Tips
Still reading? Good on you! Your reward is a few other hints we picked up on travel in South Africa:
Uber totally works throughout the country, but be careful of sensitivities between Uber and paid taxis. Check with your hotel staff to see if they recommend using the app.
Rental cars in Cape Town are inexpensive compared to prices in the US or Europe. Each time we visited we rented a car for the freedom it offered our schedule. Just remember the driving is on the left side of the road, and the cheapest rental options require use of a manual transmission. It’s often safest to plan where to park before you get to a destination, and don’t leave ANY belongings in the car.
If you're planning on traveling around South Africa, renting a campervan is a great way to see the country. You can pretty much go anywhere and you don't have to pay for hotels. We recommend Happy Campers because they are a family-run company with great service and awesome vans
Your credit card (including AMEX) doesn’t only work, it’s usually preferred, just make sure you have a chip-enabled card. Most vendors prefer doing their business electronically because it leaves them with less cash to carry around at the end of the day.
If you make it up to Johannesburg/Pretoria remember that you’re nearly a mile above sea level. That might just impact your beverage consumption and your sunscreen application!
There aren’t safaris near Cape Town - any place that offers them probably offers them at the expense of the animals. Save your game drive dreams (which we totally recommend!) for Kruger or elsewhere.
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Guest Post Authors
Bill & Marie met and fell in love in India. There they set out on scavenger hunts to explore the city with cameras around their necks, spent hours in conversation on Marie’s ugly yellow couch, and overcame the many ailments that Delhi throws at you. They got married in Minneapolis, lived in South Africa for their first year of marriage, and now oscillate between travel adventures and life at home in the USA while blogging about stories and photos at sojourn.blog and @mhpaynephoto Instagram.
We would love to hear from you!
Have you been to Cape Town? Have you tried anything of these tips? What else would you add. We want to hear it all in the comments below. We try our best to respond to everyone, comment away!