Planning Your Trip to Cape Town
South Africa is more than a city at the southern end of the African continent. It's a culture unto itself and the nation's oldest city. It's been inhabited by indigenous groups, first with the Kingdom of Mapungubwe, since 900 CE. And it was in the year 1652 that Dutch navigator Jan van Riebeeck arrived and founded Cape Town as a stopover point for ships traveling the east-west trading routes. This paved the way for this once fledgling outpost to become the major metropolis it is today.
Beyond being a crucial port city, Cape Town is known for its stunning natural beauty and incredible landmarks. To whit, overlooking the city from the north is Table Mountain, which stands at 3,461 feet (1,055 meters). Then there's the surrounding Cape Peninsula, which has outstanding flora and fauna and is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Cape Floral Region.
As for the weather, Cape Town enjoys a pleasant Mediterannean-style climate: warm in the summer and spring, drizzly and chilly in winter. North Americans and Europeans should know that because of Cape Town's position south of the equator, summer occurs in Dec-Feb and winter in June-Aug. But any time of year is great to visit, and below you'll find great itinerary ideas to make the most of your time in the "Mother City," whether you're here for one day or four.
24 hours in Cape Town
Perhaps you're on a layover or maybe your African holiday itinerary includes just one day in Cape Town. Whatever the case may be, don't fear—even in a large city of 500,000 people like Cape Town, it's possible to enjoy some highlights in 24 hours.
Begin by traveling beyond the city with a full-day Cape Peninsula adventure in a sidecar motorbike. The Cape Peninsula is a rocky promontory that juts out into the Atlantic Ocean at the south-west extremity of the African continent. It's home to some gorgeous coastal scenery and beaches, and you'll see much of it on this driving tour. For an itinerary that combines the sidecar tour with an unforgettable Cape safari, check out this article.
Head out from Cape Town early in the morning, passing Cape Town University and the suburb of Constantia, which is known as the "wine route" of Cape Town due to its many vineyards and wineries. During a half-hour of driving, you'll ascend in elevation and cross the Ou Kaapse Weg mountain pass, which separates the suburbs from Fish Hook Valley and the coastal town of the same name. Stop here for a coffee break and to snap photos of the gorgeous panoramic vistas.
You'll then drive another hour to the Cape of Good Hope. This rocky promontory is the southernmost end of the Cape Peninsula, and its Cape Point Lighthouse dates to 1859. Afterward, head a half-hour north to the bayside village of Simons Town and the nearby penguin colony at Boulders Beach, home to over 2,500 African penguins. Then break for lunch at a seafood restaurant overlooking the water. If all that sounds good then consider this weeklong Cape Peninsula tour.
In the afternoon, head back toward the city along the scenic Boyes Drive. This beautiful coastal route passes above the beach suburb of Muizenberg, whose long white-sand beach and great breaks is a famous surfing spot. After admiring the scenery and spending time on the beach, cap the day with an authentic South African wine tasting in Constantia. Cape Town is famous for producing a wide array of great reds, including varietals like Malbec, Petit Verdot, Pinot Noir, and Cinsault.
2-3 Days in Cape Town
After a day bumming around the beautiful Cape Peninsula, get ready for more adventure on day two. The morning starts with a sunrise kayak outing on the Cape Town coast. You'll meet your guide in the trendy waterfront neighborhood of Mouille Point and then hop on the kayaks. As you cruise along the coast, keep an eye out for dolphins, sunfish, and whales.
In the afternoon, give your arms a rest with a city tour aboard the distinctive hop-on-hop-off bus. It begins on the waterfront and passes by Cape Town's sights on the way to the base of Table Mountain. From the bus stop, continue to the summit on a cable car ride that affords spectacular aerial views of the city. Once at the top, take in the scenery and panoramic vistas of Cape Town and the ocean beyond. For a longer excursion that combines a bus tour with scuba diving and a safari, see this 10-day itinerary.
Take the cable car down the mountain, then return to Cape Town in time for dinner at the upscale harbor area Victoria & Alfred Waterfront. Here you'll find a variety of fine dining restaurants and pubs overlooking the ocean.
Kick-off day three by embarking on a full-day bike tour. The route covers 12 miles (20 km), but you can rest easy knowing it isn't all exertion as you'll break up the ride with stops for wine tastings in the beautiful Franschhoek Valley. The outing ends fittingly with a picnic lunch in the shade of centuries-old oak trees at a venerable wine estate.
4-5 Days in Cape Town
Spend the first few days on active tours in and around Cape Town. Then, on day four, prepare for a bit of culture and history. There's no more important and iconic figure in South Africa's history than Nelson Mandela. The former president of South Africa and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize served 18 years of a 27-year jail sentence in the prison at Robben Island, in Cape Town.
In the morning, you'll transfer to the V&A Waterfront to catch the ferry to Robben Island, located 4.3 miles (6.9 km) west off the coast. This island has a long history, as Dutch settlers were using it as a prison as far back as the 17th century. After a stint as a leper colony, by the mid-19th century, Robben Island was a prison for criminals and anti-Apartheid dissidents.
It was here that Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years due to his anti-Apartheid activism. Two other Robben Island political prisoners—Kgalema Motlanthe and Jacob Zuma—have also gone on to become President of South Africa.
On a tour the prison you'll learn about the island's long history. You'll also see Nelson Mandela's former prison cell and visit other notable landmarks on the premises like the outbuildings and the limestone quarry where many prisoners, including Mandela, toiled. After the 3.5 hour tour, you'll return to the mainland. With more time you could also add on a trip to Johannesburg, like in this two-week South Africa adventure.
Then, spend the remainder of the afternoon browsing the various exhibits of contemporary African art at the Zeitz Museum, which showcases 21st-century art from the African continent and its diaspora. It's the largest museum in Africa, with over 100 gallery spaces spread out over nine floors.
On day five get back into the adventurous swing of things with a cage-diving excursion to see great white sharks. You'll get an early start on this group tour, transferring two hours to the oceanside settlement of Kleinbaai, where you'll meet the other participants at the Great White House. After a quick breakfast, you'll get fitted for a wetsuit, gear up, and listen to a pre-trip safety lesson, then a marine biologist will deliver a presentation on the history and characteristics of great white sharks.
From here, you'll take a 20-25 minute boat ride to Dyer Island, which is part of a narrow channel known as Shark Alley. After finding a suitable place to anchor, you'll suit up and dive down to witness these incredible animals close-up, in their natural environment, from the safety of a shark-proof cage. Depending on the season, you'll likely spot other members of the Marine Big Five: dolphins, whales, penguins, seals, and sharks. Plus you'll see plenty of different bird species like gulls and terns.
After the dive, you'll return to the Great White House and transfer back to Cape Town. Head to the waterfront for one last special dinner and a great glass of local wine to celebrate your action-packed sojourn in South Africa. For even more fun Cape Town ideas, check out this 10-day itinerary that combines shark diving with a road trip along the gorgeous Garden Route.