12 things to experience in Cape Town

The colourful streets of Bo'Kaap, as featured in Lonely Planet.
The colourful streets of Bo’Kaap, as featured in Lonely Planet.

During my trip to South Africa in June/July, I visited Cape Town twice because it really is a jewel city.  With the likes of Table Mountain and Lion’s Head towering over you, and various beaches tucked away in Cape Town suburbia, you’ll be stumped to find anyone who cannot pursue their passions or interests in the Mother City.

Admittedly, I have not experienced everything on my list below.  Sometimes, Mother Nature takes over and a climb to Table Mountain when it is foggy is not the greatest of idea.  However, it is a compilation of knowledge, stories, and tips that I have taken from people I met in hostels, tours and car rides.

1.Climb Table Mountain*. Check the visibility for the day you plan to trek up; take a guide with you or a Cape Town local who knows a thing or two about climbing Table Mountain.  Incidents of petty crime are prevalent during the day, where tourists sans le guide have been targeted.

Table Mountain from the V&A Waterfront Harbour
Table Mountain from the V&A Waterfront Harbour

TIP: I have been recommended Hike Table Mountain by a friend from Cape Town; they have topped TripAdvisor lists for years.  The prices are definitely catered towards Western audiences but if safety is a major concern, these guys seem to be the biz.  There are many routes to choose from to suit your needs.  The Skeleton Gorge route involves a snoop around the Kirstenbosch Gardens if you want to tick off two things in one day.

2. Catch the sunset over Lion’s Head*. A slightly smaller summit than Table Mountain – only two-thirds of its height – but friends from far and near have told me about the panoramic delights the climb had to offer and more.  Hike Table Mountain also offers a guided tour.

TIP: Worth noting is the Full Moon Hike which many have suggested to me.  Unfortunately, I was not present in the Mother City when the moon is at its fullest; I can only imagine the atmosphere and breath-taking scenes expected

3. Experience the delights Kirstenbosch Gardens has to offer*. Set against the foreground of Table Mountain lies a grand botanical garden.  It showcases diverse plant life unique to South Africa and is consistently been named as one of the world’s best botanical gardens.  Worth checking out is their Centenary Canopy Tree Walkway where one is invited to walk above the trees that surround the area.

4. Do the Robben Island tour. Nelson Mandela, amongst many other protesters of the apartheid regime, were held captive here.  Tours are either guided by a former inmate or prison guard, so the harrowing tales of hardships and stories of secret meetings tend to come from personal perspectives, rather than a mere audio guide.  It was insightful, capturing and educating.

Inside a prison cell in Robben Island.
Inside a prison cell in Robben Island.

It is worth reading a thing or two about Robben Island’s inmates beforehand.  I found that the tour guides dropped names like a hot rod – which can seem like an information overload if you are not familiar with some of South Africa’s apartheid heroes.

TIP: the boat ride into Robben Island was nearing the 50-minute mark each way; it is not the greatest excursion to do when hungover.  There are no cafes around so be sure to bring along any snacks or drinks you wish to consume.  Book ahead – either online or through their ticket office by the V&A Waterfront – to avoid disappointment; it’s a popular destination for many locals and tourists.

5. There are free Cape Town walking tours daily. Do both tours. In Greenmarket Square, nestled by the stalls of souvenirs and vendors, a guy with a big yellow umbrella offers two walking tours daily: one at 11 am about Cape Town’s history, and the other at 2 pm around the colourful streets of the Cape-Malay scene at Bo’Kaap.

One of many mosques in Bo'Kaap
One of many mosques in Bo’Kaap

Both guides were thoroughly comprehensive and informative.  Personally, I preferred the Bo’Kaap tour as it showed a side of Cape Town I was not quite familiar with.  Both presented the chance to familiarise myself with the city on foot.

TIP: Whilst the tours are free, you are encouraged by other tourists to tip at your own discretion.

6. Do the Baz Bus Cape Peninsula Tour. The day tour offered by the popular backpacker bus Baz Bus – FYI there are far cheaper ways to travel around South Africa but Baz Bus is the only backpacker-dedicated service – covers places such as Hout Bay (there is a seal colony), Boulders Beach (where African penguins can be seen), Cape Point and Cape of Good Hope.  For R 650 with everything included from hostel pick-up and drop-off to a delicious lunch, this is highly recommended!

Cape Point
Cape Point

7. Immerse yourself in the city’s yoga/mediation/well-being scene. Like many cities filled with young professionals and creatives, Cape Town is booming in terms of its health and well-being offerings.  There, I visited my first all-vegan restaurant, Plant.  At hostels I stayed at near Kloof Street, I was surrounded by many yoga studios and day spas.

Braw Bars from Wellness Warehouse kept me going on foot.
Braw Bars from Wellness Warehouse kept me going on foot.

Though prices seem to match Western wallets, a chance to join a Kundalini Yoga class or frequent trips to the Wellness Warehouse are experiences like no other.  Where else will you be able to find vegan biltong?

8. Watch the latest indie film at the Labia Theatre. When I visited at the height of winter, cold and drizzly days were expected.  Thus, plans on trekking Table Mountain or exploring Kirstenbosch were postponed in favour of a day with James Franco’s latest endeavour.

Situated near the pink buildings of Mount Nelson hotel – famous for its clientele and afternoon tea – lies Labia Theatre.  Its namesake is the Princess of Labia, before you ask.

Ticket booth
Ticket booth

A film theatre keeping to its rustic aesthetics and operation, a lady in a booth sells tickets whilst freshly popped corn is sold in brown bags, with varying sprinkles of powder to top including cheese and sour cream and onion.  Indie film posters previously shown surround you as you enter the small reception/relief area.

An independent movie house with four screens and stub tickets, it is one of my more memorable film experiences to date.

9. Shop for food and dine like Capetonians. As with many cities, Cape Town boasts a lively dining scene.  Whether you’re looking for some authentic Cape Malay cuisine, or a laundromat which offers great sushi while you wait, there is something for everyone in Cape Town.

The House of Machines, just off Greenmarket Square.
The House of Machines, just off Greenmarket Square.

10. Township tours with a difference*. I have been fortunate enough to be driven around a local township when I was a volunteer at Knysna.  My host employs a couple of helpers from a township nearby; they were also involved in a music project with a talented young man.  I had always been curious to see what homes in a township looked like: the conditions many had to live with and the people that keeps the streets alive and vibrant.

Many people I met were hesitant about township tours on offer.  To many, it seemed like a surveillance into awful living conditions, an experience which would otherwise be uncomfortable if you did not have personal relations to anyone you visited – like my host did.

TIP: A friend suggested Coffeebeans Route, a township tour with a difference.  The tour guide knows the individuals personally, and profits from the tour helps artists, musicians and artisans flourish in their own businesses and ventures.

11. Shop locally and sustainably. There are many independent retailers and artisan shops in Cape Town that a stroll along its streets for a day is a worthwhile activity.  Pan-African Market is a bright, four-storey building boasting some of the finest and authentic African souvenirs on offer.  If that is your thing, it is worth checking out in the early hours of the morning as some corridors are very narrow and tens of rooms are left to be explored.

Bree Street offers many artisan goods, from baked goods to chocolate.  The V&A Waterfront shopping outlet houses many Western brands and designers, but is also home to more upscale South African retailers; it may not seem like the destination for souvenirs and such, but you may be surprised to see what is on offer.

12. Throw yourself in Long Street for a night on the tiles. Or for 99 beers. Long Street is truly alive and happening in the evenings.  Some bars may ask for over 21s only – and will undoubtedly ask for proof of ID too.  There are many places to go, but a favourite is Beerhouse, a yellow building which houses 99 beers.

A Friday night at Beerhouse
A Friday night at Beerhouse

There is an array of craft beer brands on offer – from local favourites to international superstars.  Grab yourself a seat on a quiet night to sample a couple of their draught goods on offer – and swap craft beer notes with new friends – or opt for a busy weekend night when it is heaving and the DJ sends you into a ball of nostalgia as he plays The Cardigans’ Lovefool.

* – asterisks mark the experiences I did not do.  This is not a sponsored post, but a mere collection of companies which have been recommended by a good friend – thanks Jess – who is a Cape Town native, and knows a thing or two about the tourist industry and its influencers.  I thought I’d share it to make someone’s trip to CT stress-free and easy-going.

The group photo during the Cape Peninsula Tour. Photo from the Baz Bus Facebook page.
The group photo during the Cape Peninsula Tour. Photo from the Baz Bus Facebook page.

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