There’s something about Cape Town. Nestled against the mind-blowing Table Mountain that shoots straight up from the sea, Cape Town is unlike any other city in the world. Where else can you hang out with wild penguins, climb a 3,500 foot mountain, take a wine tasting tour, snorkel with seals, and experience fine cosmopolitan dining all in the same weekend?
If you’re here on safari, Cape Town has you covered. From whales and penguins to zebras and ostriches, you can find an incredible range of wildlife on day trips from Cape Town. In the evenings you can experience the eclectic mix of culture that Cape Town has to offer and learn about South Africa‘s rich history from the tragic to the triumphant.
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Having spent a total of seven weeks in Cape Town, we have put together a list of our 15 favorite things to do in Cape Town (and nearby). Some of these can be done right in the city while some are Cape Town day trips.
If you don’t have much time in Cape Town, we recommend you take the sightseeing bus Cape Town (find tickets here). It covers 4 routes and you can choose a 1-day pass or a 2-day pass, so you are covered!
Safety in Cape Town
Cape Town is a big city, and you need to take precautions, use your common sense and please read our article on Is South Africa Safe? Safety in South Africa for advice, which includes safety tips from locals. South Africa is not the safest country in the world but follow our advice, do your research, use your common sense, and you’ll have a fund and safe stay.
UPDATE AUGUST 2019: Please read our safety note on Cape Town safety: There has been an increase in crime activity in Table Mountain National Park targeting tourists, since early 2017. An Ukrainian tourist was stabbed to death in late July 2019. It is very important that you don’t hike alone, always stay in groups (book a group tour to stay safe), and avoid the early morning, late evenings hike. The Department of Tourism is going to deploy 120 extra ‘tourism monitors’ to increase security in the park. The Cape Town activities that we recommend in this post that might be affected are: hiking Table Mountain, Lion Head’s Hike, Chapman’s Peak Drive, and Cape Point Nature Reserve.
Our Favorite things to do in Cape Town South Africa
Over the years, we’ve visited Cape Town quite a few times and our fond memories keep pulling us back. During our first visit together we stayed in the city for a month while we shopped for a used 4×4.
Sure, nowadays we spend most of our time far out in the bush, but when we have to spend some time in a South African city, Cape Town is our top choice. It has everything you could need and it is not nearly as crazy as Johannesburg. There are so many fun things to do here, the setting is gorgeous, and there are endless Cape Town attractions within easy reach. These are our favorite things to do in Cape Town.
1) Hike up Table Mountain National Park
Table Mountain is the most recognizable landmark in Cape Town. Fun fact: it is also the most photographed landmark in South Africa, and it gets 800,000 visitors per year. It is an absolute must!
You can either hike up to the top or take the cable car. With over 350 trails, and its proximity to the city, Table Mountain is a very popular hiking spot. Don’t forget your hat and sunscreen, and keep hydrated! If you are not up for the hike to the top then just catch the cable car! It is one of the most famous Cape Town attractions, but it can be a little nerve-wracking if you’re afraid of heights. Just sit back, relax, and enjoy the Cape Town views. You can get tickets to the cable car here. Don’t miss the Platteklip Gorge hike!
Due to the increase in crime activity in Table Mountain we recommend that if you want to hike Table Mountain, do it with a tour, you can find these Table Mountain tours here.
The Cape Floral region of Table Mountain national park is one of the richest floral regions in the world. Out of 1470 flower species, over 70% of these are endemic to the Table Mountain. It is no wonder that the mountain was chosen as one of the new seven world wonders.
Wildlife like caracals, rock hyraxes, and Chacma baboons still live on and around Table Mountain. Remember to keep a distance from wildlife, and never feed wild animals. If you are lucky enough to see a caracal (alive or dead) please report your caracal sightings to the Urban Caracal Project.
2) Lion’s Head Hike, Sunset or Sunrise.
The Lion’s Head hike is an absolute must when you are in Cape Town.
We recommend doing either the Lion’s Head sunset hike or the Lion’s Head sunrise hike, as you’ll catch that glorious light that will make your photos glow! My favorite was hiking up at sunset, as you are able to see the city transforming from day to night, and you’ll catch the first stars appearing in the sky.
Take one of these tours with a local guide, for your own safety. You don’t want to be walking down Lion’s Head after dark by yourself. If you like helicopter rides, you can even take a helicopter tour and see Lion’s Head, Table Mountain, and the Twelve Apostles from the air!
When we hiked Lion’s Head there weren’t many people and it felt pretty quiet. From the summit we had 360 degree views of Cape Town, Table Mountain, Camps Baby, and the Twelve Apostles. Take 3 hours to do the whole hike, as you’ll want to spend some time at the summit. Don’t forget a hat and water!
3) Take a 3-hour Malay Cuisine Cooking Class & Lunch in Bo-Kaap
Taking a cooking class while traveling is not only great fun, but it also gives you a glimpse into the culture and history of the places you are visiting. In Cape Town, you can learn about Cape Malay culture when you join a Malay Cuisine Cooking Class & lunch
Head out to the picturesque neighborhood of Bo-Kaap, where Faldela Tolker will welcome you into her kitchen. You will learn how Cape Malay cuisine is a fusion of Malaysian, Dutch, Javanese, and Khoekhoe ingredients, and will also discover the blend of spices — ginger, fennel, tamarind, star anise, and, turmeric —used to produce these incredible dishes. Popular dishes in Malay cuisine are meat patties, roasts, stews, curries, and bread puddings.
4) Visit Cape Fur Seals at the V&A Waterfront
A population of Cape Fur Seals has made the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront in downtown Cape Town their home and resting place. To see them, head out to the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town and stroll around. The seals can be found resting and sun bathing along the docks. We have seen them on the docks next to Two Oceans Aquarium (photo below). There is also a resting space built just for the fur seals with glass observation walls near the clock tower on Fish Quay, next to the Robben Island Museum. Do not get too close to the fur seals, they need their space to rest and conserve energy.
5) Trip to Robben Island
A visit to Robben Island is a must for those interested in history and social justice, and to learn about apartheid. Nelson Mandela was incarcerated here for 18 of the 27 years he was held behind bars before the fall of apartheid. Robben Island became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999.
If you take a trip to Robben Island, don’t forget your binoculars, as there are wildlife spotting opportunities here too. Surprisingly, Robben Island is home to many animals. Around 13,000 African penguins live on the island. Add to that some introduced bontebok, springbok, eland, fallow deer (not native), ostriches, and steenbok, plus 74 native species of birds including cormorants, seagulls, and lapwings!
You can also take a helicopter tour of Robben Island.
6) Dolphin and Whale Watching in Cape Town
While our favorite place to go whale watching in South Africa is in the town of Hermanus, it is still possible to go whale watching in Cape Town. There are a few tour companies that will take you on a cruise to see whales and dolphins.
This tour here will take you on a short tour (1.5h) of the Cape Town’s bay ecosystem. You have a chance of seeing whales, dolphins, penguins, and sunfish.
If you have more time though, we recommend taking one of the full day tours that leave from Cape Town to Hermanus to go whale watching there. See our favorite things to do outside Cape Town number 14 below. (during whale season only).
Our Favorite Day Trips from Cape Town, South Africa
Whenever we return to the Cape Town area we now stay in the cute seaside town of Simonstown. We love it because it is quiet, close to the ocean and the penguins, and also close to Cape Point. On top of that it is also very convenient as the roads around here are a bit quieter than in Cape Town. From Simon’s Town we get to do our favorite things around Cape Town time and time again without having to drive through the city.
If you rent a car, it will be very easy to get to all of these locations. If you don’t want to rent a car (it can be a real hassle, especially if you stay in the city), we’ve included links whenever possible to Cape Town tours that will take you there, picking you up at your hotel. Touring around Cape Town without a car is actually pretty easy if you get on these tours! Cape Town is a great city, but don’t forget to explore the stunning sights just beyond its borders!
These are our favorite day trips from Cape Town:
7) African Penguin Colony at Simon’s Town, the Boulders Beach penguins
A visit to the penguins in Simon’s Town is one of our favorite Cape Town adventures. Just a 40 minute drive from Cape Town, Simon’s Town is a quaint seaside village nestled along False Bay.
The African penguin (also known as jackass penguin) colony is at the southern end of town on Boulder’s Beach. Here you can walk on boardwalks through penguin habitat where the birds raise their young. Sit on the rocks by the sea and watch groups of penguins heading out to feed on fish in the ocean.
Always remember to not touch, chase, interfere, or feed the penguins.
We’ve visited the Boulders Beach penguins a few times, and with the increase in tourism, it just seems wrong to me to even go to this beach during busy hours as too many people on the beach are just getting in the way of penguins heading back to their nests. We recommend sticking to the boardwalks.
For the reason above, we recommend visiting early in the morning before the crowds arrive. Also, you might see one of the less known Boulders Beach inhabitants, the Cape Clawless Otter. We saw one!
Learn more about the conservation of the African Penguin and how you can help at SANCCOB.
Accommodation in Simon’s Town
Simon’s Town is actually our favorite place to stay while visiting Cape Town. It is a bit of a drive to the city, but staying at a cute small seaside place beats any city in my book. From here you can get to all the Cape Town attractions easily, and you get to avoid the city crowds!
We highly recommend the Boulders Beach Lodge, just a few feet from the Boulders Beach. You can hear and see the penguins from the restaurant. By the way, even if you don’t stay here, you must have breakfast or lunch at the terrace. Great food, and fantastic service. We went here everyday for four days!
Whale View Manor Guesthouse is an oceanfront property with stunning views (check prices and availability here). It is only a 10-minute walk to Boulders Beach, making this guesthouse in Simon’s Town the perfect place to stay!
Moonglow Guesthouse is a Fair Trade Certified Property (check prices and availability here) and also offers great ocean views.
8) Driving the Chapman’s Peak Drive
Dubbed as one of the most beautiful drives in the world by almost everybody, the Chapman’s Peak Drive is one of the top 10 things to do in Cape Town. This 5.5 mile toll road has some of the most incredible views in South Africa, along Hout Bay. See it for yourself:
There are many areas along the route where you can stop the car, stretch your legs, and enjoy the panoramic view.
Click here for Chapmans’s Peak toll prices.
SUPER TIP!: You can join a bike tour where they’ll take you on a full day road bike tour, and you’ll be cycling over the Chapman’s Peak drive! Check out this cycling tour.
9) Stellenbosch Wine Tour from Cape Town
If you are into wine tasting, Stellenbosch is the place to go. Not far from Cape Town, these can be done on a half-day tour or a full-day tour. There are even electric bikes wine farm tours. I’d say take the whole day and enjoy the Cape winelands, taste some wine, and take in what the countryside has to offer.
Taking a Stellenbosch wine tour while you are in Cape Town is a fantastic way to unplug from the big city lights and recharge for more city adventures. Take a look at these three tours:
- Includes a visit to the historical towns of Stellenbosch, Paarl, and Franschoek.
- Duration: 8.5 hours
- Includes cheese tasting
- Includes a ride on the Franschoek tram through the vineyards
- Lunch at a beautiful estate
- Duration: 8.5 hours
- Visit Stellenbosch, the second oldest town in South Africa
- Visit some of the unique boutique-style wine estates in South Africa.
- Enjoy world class wine and canapé sized bites, paired perfectly.
- Duration: 7 hours
10) Snorkeling with Seals at Hout Bay
If you want to have a real wildlife encounter, then you can go snorkeling with seals in Cape Town. Animal Ocean will take you in their 26-foot vessel from their base in Hout Bay straight to the Duiker Island seal colony. Cape Fur seals are very curious and young ones are so inquisitive that they will swim very close to you. Swimming with these playful little seals will be an unforgettable wildlife encounter.
Watch out though. Some younger ones do occasionally bite, as they seem to like to play rough. While we were waiting at Animal Ocean’s office we looked through the sightings book and we saw a couple of seal biting reports. Then, unexpectedly one actually bit me on the hip during our outing. I was wearing a wetsuit and it was an open mouth bite, so it was more like an invitation to play than an aggressive gesture. I’d advise to still respect them and not to try and touch them. Those teeth are sharp!
If Animal Ocean has no spaces available you can book a seal snorkeling tour with Captain Jack’s.
11) Full Day Cape Agulhas Tour, Where Two Oceans Meet
Cape Agulhas is the Southernmost tip of Africa, and it is possible to visit it from Cape Town. You can either rent a car in Cape Town, or book a tour that’ll take you there.
Cape Agulhas is special for various reasons. One, it is the Southernmost tip of Africa. Two, this is where you can see where two oceans meet, the cold and rough Atlantic ocean, and the warm Indian Ocean. And three, this is where the second oldest lighthouse in Africa is. The lighthouse also has a cute little coffee place, so don’t forget to save some time to visit it. From the lighthouse it is just a short walk to the Cape Agulhas point.
If you decide to book a Cape Agulhas tour, this will include a visit to Stony Point, an African penguin colony. Save a whole day for this incredible day trip from Cape Town.
12) Cape Point Nature Reserve
Just past the penguin colony in Simon’s Town and approximately a one-hour drive from Cape Town, you’ll find the entrance to the Cape Point Nature Reserve section of Table Mountain National Park. This is your gateway to the famous Cape of Good Hope! Be careful on the road between Simon’s Town and Cape Point as you might find groups of baboons lingering by the road. Drive slowly and do not feed them! Fed baboons get habituated to humans and may become aggressive, which usually leads to them being killed for being “problem animals”. For their protection and yours, don’t be a problem human, please do not feed baboons or any wildlife.
Driving around the Cape Point Nature Reserve you may see Eland, the rare Cape Mountain Zebra, Red Hartebeest, Bontebok, Ostrich, and the scarce grey Rhebok amongst other wildlife. Once you get to the end of the peninsula there is a trail up to the rocky cliffs of the Cape. Here you will find a highly visible colony of rock hyrax (locally known as dassies). You might see the tracks of a Cape Clawless Otter along the beaches and if you’re very lucky, catch a glimpse of this elusive mammal.
The Cape is also an excellent area to watch whales and dolphins. Southern Right Whales, Orcas, Humpback Whales, seals, and Dusky Dolphins are all seen in the area.
Tip: If visiting from Cape Town, take the Chapman’s Peak Drive, it is one of the most beautiful roads in South Africa. Read # 8 above for more info about this beautiful drive!
13) Cape Gannet Colony at Lambert’s Bay
During the months of October to December about 5,000 pairs of Cape Gannets come to Lambert’s Bay to breed. This is one of the only six Cape Gannet colonies in the world and is the most accessible. Bird Island Nature Reserve can be reached by the breakwater that connects the mainland with the reserve.
Other wildlife that can be seen in the reserve include Hartlaubs’ gulls, four different species of cormorants, African penguins, and a small colony of Cape Fur seals.
Even though it is three hours north from Cape Town, the spectacle at Lambert’s Bay is well worth a visit. It’s not often you get to see so many animals crowded together in a single place.
14) Whale Watching in Hermanus, South Africa
This is possibly the best place to see whales in Africa. Southern Right Whales (Eubalaena australis) make an appearance between June and November along the coast of South Africa where they come to mate and give birth.
The town of Hermanus is 75 miles from Cape Town and it is one of the best places for land-based whale watching in the world. Whale watching in Hermanus is easy. You can arrange a whale watching trip on a boat around Walker Bay or you can watch them from the cliffs right in town. The whales often get extremely close to the shore and close encounters are quite common. If you ever wanted to feel the spray from a whale’s spout upon your skin, you might just get your chance. You can also witness a wide range of interesting behaviors from lobtailing (photo above), to spy-hopping and full breaching. It shouldn’t be too hard to find a whale as there’s a man known as the Whale Crier who blows a kelp horn whenever a whale is sighted.
If you are short on time, it’s possible to visit Hermanus as a day trip from Cape Town. But if you want to stay a little longer and make sure you get some good sightings, there are numerous lodging options, from backpackers hostels to boutique hotels. If you’re not seeing whales you can always watch the entertaining hyraxes which scamper among the rocky cliffs.
Visiting Hermanus from Cape Town
It is a pretty easy and beautiful drive from Cape Town if you decide to rent a car. If you’d rather not, then you can take a Hermanus whale watching tour from Cape Town. (See #6 above.)
If you decide to stay in Hermanus, there are plenty of cute places to stay.
Abalone Lodge is located in a beautiful setting, right on the cliff paths. This means…whale watching from your room! (check prices and availability for Abalone Lodge here)
Whalesong Lodge in De Kelders (on the other side of the bay from Hermanus) is also set in a spectacular location. You can see the whales from your room and De Kelders is not as touristy as Hermanus. (check prices and availability for Whalesong Lodge here)
15) De Hoop Nature Reserve
De Hoop Nature Reserve, managed by Cape Nature, is a favorite for outdoor enthusiasts and nature lovers. Just three hours from Cape Town, the reserve has opportunities to go birdwatching, hiking, biking, and whale watching along the Whale Trail. Visit the reserve to see the largest antelope in the world, the eland. The rare Cape Mountain Zebra, the endangered Bontebok, baboon, and caracal are also found here as well as the only remaining breeding colony of Cape Vultures in the Western Cape. A large variety of birds have been recorded in the reserve (up to 260 species). From the Whale Trail, Southern Right Whales can be seen as they mate and calve in the De Hoop bays between June and November.
De Hoop is also home to the world’s smallest and most threatened plant kingdom, the Cape Floral Kingdom. Of all the 9,000 species that flower in the Cape floral region, the reserve is home to an estimated 1,500 species.
The little sea village of Arniston (1 hour from De Hoop) is a great place to stay while you visit De Hoop. There are numerous fisherman’s cottages that can be rented for a reasonable rate, especially during low season. From here you can also visit Cape Agulhas (45 min away), the true southernmost point of Africa.
Cool Places To Stay in Cape Town
As we mentioned above, when we visit Cape Town we like to stay in Simonstown. But if you’d rather stay in the city, there’s an array of unique accommodation in Cape Town. Where to start? These are definitely my top two!
Grand Daddy Hotel: This boutique hotel in downtown offers something that no one else does. You can stay in an Airstream on their rooftop! Each Airstream has been decorated with a different theme. (click here for prices and availability) This is definitely the place to stay if you want to be in downtown Cape Town.
Tintswalo Atlantic: If you want to stay somewhere you’ll remember forever then Tintswalo Atlantic is your place. With exclusive panoramic views of the Hout Bay harbor and the Atlantic Ocean beyond, Tintswalo Atlantic sits at the foot of Chapman’s Peak, on a pebbled beach. Enjoy sundowners and dining from their wooden deck by the ocean. (click here for prices and availability).
Wait, no shark cage diving in Cape Town?
Nope, we haven’t forgotten about shark cage diving. We just don’t personally agree with the practice of baiting wild animals with food so that tourists can look at them. Though it hasn’t been proven scientifically, common sense tells us that this causes sharks to associate boats (and humans in cages) with food. This in turn will lead to more unpleasant encounters between sharks and humans which inevitably means more sharks are killed. Great White Sharks are magnificent creatures but we don’t believe this is an appropriate way to view a wild animal if you care about the species.
Do you have a favorite thing to do while in Cape Town? Tell us about it! We might just have to do it next time we visit Cape Town.
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Zoologist and wildlife photographer. She has worked in the field with jackals, wolves, cheetahs, & leopards. She serves on the Board of Directors of SEE Turtles, a non-profit sea turtle conservation organization.