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What To See in South Africa – Highlights of Cape Town

What To See in South Africa – Highlights of Cape Town

While we only had a few days in Cape Town, we jam-packed as many activities in as we could. This beautiful city is a dream for anyone who wants to explore a modern city with all the magical experiences of wildlife right outside its doors. Not only did every meal turn into a divine culinary experience, the sight-seeing did not disappoint, and we immersed ourselves in the cultural and historic stories Cape Town had to share with us.

Aerial view of Cape Town, South Africa

Zeitz Museum aka MOCAA

Since we arrived in Cape Town early in the day and had no itinerary planned out, we went out on a limb and decided to check out a museum. This turned out to be one of the best decisions we made on the trip! The Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, or MOCAA, is located at the V&A Waterfront in an enormous renovated building that feels as if you’re either in an abandoned factory or a gigantic cave. MOCAA is the largest museum of contemporary African art; its mission is to preserve and exhibit present-day art from Africa and the Diaspora. We started our exploration on the top floor (as recommended) and made our way down, taking in exhibits on each level before eventually reaching the bottom. We saw art done by a multitude of accomplished African artists, some of which we were familiar with, such as the dynamic and colorful paintings of Kehinde Wiley, to the provocative use of cow hides fashioned into the forms of women by Swaziland artist, Nandipha Mntambo. Many of the exhibits we saw had strong political messages regarding apartheid and its lasting effects on South Africans, a subject that was a common theme throughout our time in Cape Town. I highly recommend adding MOCAA to the top of your list if you’re planning a trip to Cape Town, it is well worth your time!

Zeitz Museum Exhibitions - Cape Town
Zeitz Museum Artwork Exhibits – Cape Town
Zeitz Museum Exhibits - Cape Town
Zeitz Museum Art Exhibits – Cape Town

 Table Mountain Aerial Cableway

Before sunset, we took a cable car up to Table Mountain, one of the seven Natural Wonders of the world and an essential part of the Cape Town experience. A long ridge of mountain that appears to have a flattened top gives it its name, and the views at its strangely-shaped peak offers a unique look at the city and the majestic bay. Going to Table Mountain right before the sunset might be the ideal date spot: quaint paths, rolling clouds, and a chance to enjoy a glass of wine or beer as you watch the sun set. However, not only are the sights insta-worthy, but one of my favorite parts of this experience was encountering the unique wildlife that makes its home at the top of Table Mountain. In addition to the splash of yellow flowers and pink flora that decorate the mountain, a small creature known as Elephant Dassie, or Rock Hyrax Elephant, lives near the entrance of the cable car. While these animals resemble large, brown Guinea Pigs, they are actually the closest living relative of the African Elephant! As they are completely unafraid of people, you might be tempted to take these cuties back down with you, but be careful, they bite!

Table Mountain Cablecar - Cape Town
Table Mountain Cable Car – Cape Town
Aerial View from the top of Table Moutain Cable Car - Cape Town
Aerial View from the top of Table Moutain Cable Car – Cape Town
Table Mountain Scenery, Foliage and the Elephant Dassie
Table Mountain Scenery, Foliage and the Elephant Dassie

Bo Kaap- the Malay Quarter

The next morning, we began our tour of the city. We met with our guide from Jarat Tours, Steve Martin, who also acted as our driver. He drove us thought Bo Kaap, formerly known as the Malay Quarter. As we passed brightly colored houses of pink, blue, green, and red, he talked to us about the former township and the multicultural aspects of this historical area. Post-apartheid, the area had become gentrified, with large Black, White, mixed race, and Muslim populations. We saw beautiful mosques, visited the bustling Greenmarket Square Market where you can buy crafts and arts made by local residents and vendors, and witnessed a Cape Town tradition: the Noon Day Gun. Every day, since the early 1800s, an English cannon is loaded and fired. This takes places on a great hill above the city and usually attracts a large audience. They do make you stand several yards away with your hands over your ears when it fires as it is very loud but very fun to witness! We drove down Government Avenue and saw the Houses of Parliament, as well as the balcony at City Hall where Nelson Mandela made his famous speech upon his release from prison.

Bo Kaap Houses - Cape Town
Bo Kaap Colorful Houses – Cape Town
Bo Kaap Houses - Cape Town
Bo Kaap Houses – Cape Town

Robben Island 

The next morning, we made our way to the lovely V&A Waterfront. While this area offers a great atmosphere for taking a stroll with friends and family, eating out at different restaurants, and getting your shopping on at the mall, we went early in the day to catch the ferry to Robben Island, home of the Maximum-Security Prison that held Nelson Mandela along with other political prisoners during the era of Apartheid. It takes about 30-40 minutes to get to the island, allowing tourists to see Table Mountain from a distance as well as the small peaks that neighbor it on either side. Robben Island became a prison for political prisoners in the mid-1600s during the original Dutch occupation of the Cape, while also holding criminals and slaves. In the 1900s, specifically the 60s and 70s, black men by the hundreds were sent to Robben Island for opposing Apartheid, including Mandela as part of his 27 years of imprisonment. One of the most well-known events, the Soweto uprisings in 1976, brought radical opposing individuals into the prison. They were separated by race, underfed, and sometimes physically punished. Today, it is a National Monument, a National Museum, and a World Heritage Site; the last prisoner was released in 1991. Our dynamic guide, one of the many hired by the island, debriefed us on the history and relevance of the different buildings on the island as we toured by bus. When we reached the jail cells, we left the bus and were greeted by a different guide, an ex-con who had been a prisoner of Robben Island when it was still a Maximum-Security Prison. He personally led us through the cells, told us about the meals, racial segregation, and showed us the cell where Nelson Mandela had been kept. I have visited many prisons, including Alcatraz, but this was the first time I had been guided by someone who had been a prisoner there himself! It was a very memorable experience.

Robben Island Maximum Security Prison Entrance
Robben Island Maximum Security Prison Entrance
Robbin Island Prison - Nelson Mandela's Cell, Ferry Boat to Island, Formal Prisoner Guide
Robben Island Prison – Nelson Mandela’s Cell, Ferry Boat to Island, Formal Prisoner Heading Tour
Robbin Island Prison Where Nelson Mandela was held prisoner for 18 years
Grounds of Robben Island Maximum Security Prison, where Nelson Mandela was held prisoner

Constantia Valley 

After the tour of Robben Island, we journeyed to a completely different destination: the Constantia Valley, also known as Cape Town’s Vineyard. The Valley has a history that dates back to the 1600s and is made up of eight beautiful estates. As we drove through, we forgot for a moment that we were in South Africa; the vibrancy of the greenbelts bore striking similarities to Italian and even Californian landscapes. While we would have loved to have visited all eight estates, time was short, so we were only able to stop at Constantia Glen for a quick tasting of four of their exquisite wines. We enjoyed outside seating overlooking their beautiful vineyards on the side of the mountain while tasting their most popular wines, two reds and two whites. It was an incredibly relaxing and enjoyable afternoon!

Constantia Glen Wine Estate inside Constantia Valley - Cape Town
Constantia Glen Wine Estate inside Constantia Valley – Cape Town
Wine Tasting in Constantia Glen

Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve

The next day was packed with incredible sights along the Cape Coast. As we drove to the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve, we delighted in the spectacular views along the Atlantic and Indian Ocean coastline. Chapman’s Peak Drive, also affectionately called “Chappies” is considered one of the most majestic drives in the world. Not only did we see stunning hills, breathtaking views of the ocean, and colorful flowers, but we could observe where areas of land had been purposefully burned to maintain the natural flora. Not long afterwards, we entered the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve, where we were surprised by a group, or congress, of roaming baboons. Our driver slowed down so that we could take a closer look (from the safety of the van with closed windows). Some jumped right onto the hood of the van! After our encounter, we approached Cape Point, the most southwest point in South Africa where ostriches roam freely and sometimes come up to cars to look at themselves in the reflection of their windows. There are plenty of great photo ops to take with the whole family and a chance to do a little climbing in the hills. We also went up in a cable car, which they called the Flying Dutchman Funicular, to get a good look at the Cape Point Lighthouse and took more incredible pictures of the cliffs and surrounding waters from the viewing platform.

View from Cape of Good Hope – South Africa
Cape Point National Park Bamboos, Ostrichs, and the Cape of Good Hope sign
Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve, Bamboos, Ostriches, and the Cape of Good Hope sign
Cape Point Light House South Africa
Cape Point Light House – Cape Town
Cape of Good Hope Beach - Cape Town
Cape of Good Hope Beach – Cape Town

 Boulders Beach Penguins

After leaving the Cape of Good Hope, we grabbed a quick lunch before heading to Boulders Beach. Boulders is known for one special attraction: penguins! The beach is home to a colony of African Penguins, an endangered species that landed on South African shores in the 80s. These little guys mate and nest amongst the boulders and soft, white sand. It’s an amazing experience for many reasons, but one of the things that blew us away was just how close you could get to them. Many penguins choose to sit right underneath the viewing dock, just a few feet away.

African Penguins at Boulder Beach Cape Town
African Penguins at Boulder Beach – Cape Town
African Penguins at Boulder Beach - Cape Town
African Penguins at Boulder Beach – Cape Town
Boulder Beach Viewing Deck - Cape Town
Boulder Beach Viewing Deck – Cape Town
Boulder Beach - African Penguins Cape Town
Boulder Beach – African Penguins Cape Town

 Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens

Our last activity of the day was a quick visit to the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens. Located at the foot of Table Mountain, it was founded in the early 1900s with the aim to preserve South Africa’s amazing indigenous plant life. Unfortunately, we did not have enough time to properly explore its contents, but it was encouraging to see the amount of people who were also there to appreciate the gardens. There is a space for concerts, a café, boutique, and 1,300 acres of vibrant greenery. We will have to do a more extensive tour next time!

Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens - Cape Town
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens Entrance and Grounds – Cape Town

We had the pleasure of staying at More Quarters during our time in Cape Town. It was a perfect home away from home. I’d recommend this luxury, boutique property to anyone who enjoys the privacy and space of renting an apartment, with the services and amenities of a five-star hotel. Read more about our fabulous stay here! Exploring Cape Town over the holidays was a dream! The weather in December is fabulous and we enjoyed every minute of this naturally beautiful, vibrant and historic city.

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About the author

Carmen Edelson is the Founder of Carmen's Luxury Travel. Carmen has been traveling the world for over a decade. Our travels allows her the opportunity to pursuit her itch to travel to the best luxury destinations, and experience those first class tastes from around the world.

14 Comments

  1. What a great tour of Cape Town. You opened my eyes to the vibrancy and impressive culture the city has to offer. There is a tendency to think of safari when you hear South Africa. But this post shows that cities like Cape Town have so much more to offer in the way of Art, Culture and history. But that said, those penguins are pretty damn cute too!

    • Carmen Edelson

      Ha, so damn cute! Thanks for reading and for your lovely comment.

  2. Aah you’ve taken me back to my own trip to Cape Town, we really fell for the city, it’s such a stunner. With the exception of the modern art museum, which I’d definitely visit next time, we did everything on your list and loved it all. I’d also add in a visit to one of the art and craft markets for a little souvenir shopping if people fancy it!
    Kavita Favelle recently posted…3 Week Thailand Itinerary | Food, Culture, History, Cities & NatureMy Profile

    • Carmen Edelson

      I fell in love with the city too!

  3. Thank you so much for this post! Makes me want to book a flight to Cape Town asap!
    Wanderlust by Jona recently posted…Travel Diary: Amsterdam Day 3My Profile

    • Carmen Edelson

      I’m so glad to hear that, Jona!

  4. I am very fond of South Africa after an amazing trip there for the World Cup. Sipping wine on the terrace looking out at the ocean while Table Mountain is looming behind me. Amazing memories. Thanks for bringing me back. Can’t wait to go back.

    • Carmen Edelson

      Sounds like a dream! And you’re very welcome 🙂

  5. Carol Colborn
    Reply

    Now I know why Cape Town is called the most beautiful city in the world…the lovely scenes are all with quality, not just quantity. And it’s not just the fauna but also the flora. It’s not just nature but also the colorful houses. And not just Table Mountain but the Cape of Good Hope!

    • Carmen Edelson

      You said it perfectly, Carol!

  6. Beautiful!! Seems so similar to New South Wales. Even the penguins remind me of little penguins at Manly Beach. I can go on listing:) Thank you for lovely post. Definitely pinning it.

    • Carmen Edelson

      Thank you so much for sharing! And I’d love to visit Wales one day 🙂

  7. I’m heading to Cape Town in April and this has got me even more excited! I’m going with someone who grew up there but I’m determined to find a niche little wine bar or restaurant that she doesn’t know about!

    • Carmen Edelson

      How lovely, Holly! Have a great time.

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