What to see and what to skip in Cape Town

Here's the best way to see this South African city.

May 13, 2017, 3:30 PM
PHOTO: The view across False Bay is pictured from the Cape Point Lighthouse in Table Mountain National Park on the Cape of Good Hope, South Africa in this undated stock photo.
The view across False Bay is pictured from the Cape Point Lighthouse in Table Mountain National Park on the Cape of Good Hope, South Africa in this undated stock photo.
Getty Images

— -- If Cape Town is on your to-do list, you’re not alone: South Africa forges forward to attract visitors all over the world, and the word is out -- its second most populous city is diverse, eclectic and notoriously laid-back.

For many, it’s the threshold to bucket list-style and world-class safari vacations. But as a destination all its own, it offers an attractive mix of culture, cuisine and nature-inspired adventure. And, with the U.S. dollar still strong against the rand, it’s especially accessible now.

If you’re planning your first visit to what’s known as South Africa’s “Mother City,” check out these enthusiastic suggestions from locals and experts.

Skip Summer, Go Shoulder

American travelers should keep in mind that the seasons in South Africa are reversed. Summer, then, which is Americans’ winter, is the most popular time to visit, and the priciest. Winter is most affordable, though that’s when Cape Town’s average temps bottom out in the low 60s and precipitation averages peak. So, go during the shoulder season – spring and fall – to experience smaller crowds, bigger values and really nice weather.

Skip the Bar, Hit the Winelands

Ask locals about their favorite Cape Town wine bar, which can be as much a fun night out as a great introduction to South African wine varieties; order steen and pinotage by name. But for a glimpse into the thriving viticulture industry around Cape Town, head to the winelands.“The closest wine region to the city is Constantia, with wineries like Groot Constantia that goes back to the 1600s,” says winemaker Ernst Storm. One of the most buzzed-about winemakers in California’s Santa Barbara County region (look for his two labels, Storm Wines and Notary Public), Storm is a native of Hermanus, about an hour from Cape Town. Known by the locals as the Riviera of the South, this area’s Hemel en Aarde Valley (which means Heaven and Earth) is thriving. Storm’s own brother, Hannes, makes wine in this part of South Africa’s Western Cape, also under a label called Storm Wines, and Hamilton Russell and Newton Johnson are wineries worth seeking out, too.“And then, a 45-minute drive from Cape Town is the Stellenbosch and Franschhoek wine regions, with their majestic mountains and scenery,” adds Storm. Franschhoek features a hop-on/hop-off wine tram tour.

After You Sip, Pedal

The rural suburb of Durbanville is popular with oenophiles, thanks to bucolic wine farms and wine-driven restaurants. It’s also become a mecca for mountain bikers, with several trails that’ll cater to all ages and even novices. Versed riders will get a thrill out of Hoogekraal, six miles of challenging climbs and complex switchbacks. And Bloemendal Trail attracts all skill levels: Upper Bloemendal will appeal to experienced bikers while Lower Bloemendal can be a great ride for newbies and younger mountain bikers. Many of these sweeping trails require a nominal fee (a few dollars), which are strictly enforced, so check in with the Tygerberg Mountain Bike Club (which is largest in the country). For more mountain biking options along the rolling hills in and around Cape Town, check out Stellenbosch, Tokai Forest and Table Mountain.

Skip Table Mountain Early, Visit at Night

Cape Town is enveloped by towering Table Mountain, and the visuals are postcard-worthy. Climbing to the top is a must for visitors; a five-minute cable car ride from Cape Town sweeps you to 3500 feet above sea level, and the views from up here are jaw-dropping, too. “The mountain can often be shrouded in cloud cover (called a “tablecloth” by some,” says my colleague Andrew Young, a travel expert in Travelzoo’s New York office. So he suggests “taking advantage of the first clear day to reach the summit and fill up your Instagram.” In fact, most people make the trek earl, and during daylight hours.

What many people don’t realize, though, is that Table Mountain offers prime viewing at night. Lucille Sive is a Cape Town native who heads Lion World Tours and African Travel Inc., travel industry leaders in luxury safaris and conservation initiatives. She says, “one secret is climbing Table Mountain and watching the sunset from up there. It’s absolutely spectacular. See a bit of Cape Town by day, have a drink up there, and then see from above how beautiful the city can be at night.”

Ernst Storm adds a tip: “Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens on the foot of Table Mountain is one of the best in all of Africa.” You’ll find 7000-plus native plants here.

Skip the Museum, Visit Robben Island

Cape Town is teeming with fascinating museums – cultural snapshots often housed inside beautiful historic buildings. The Castle of Good Hope, located in a 17th century colonial building, offers guided tours on horseback and the Iziko South African Museum, dating back to the 1800s, houses a plethora of ancient fossils and scientific specimens. And when the Zeitz Museum opens up along the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront this September – a $50 million endeavor housed inside dozens of repurposed colonial era grain silos – it’ll claim the title of largest contemporary arts museum on the African continent.

For a very personal and humbling look at this country’s freedom struggle from an apartheid regime, many visitors head to Robben Island, a short boat ride from Cape Town. Several of South African presidents spent time as prisoners here, including Nelson Mandela and current leader Jacob Zuma. “It’s a visit that’s moving and memorable, and it really frames the remarkable nature of the nation’s resurgence since these dark days,” says Andrew Young.“Tickets sell out weeks in advance, so this is one thing you want to make sure you plan ahead.”

Skip Boulders Island, Penguin-Watch at Sony Point

Boulders Beach is part of Table Mountain National Park and a favorite spot to watch colonies of African penguins who love to frolic in the sands of this pretty sheltered spot. The fact you can watch these birds at close range makes Boulders popular with tourist. Lucille Sive, though, prefers Stony Point Beach. “It’s more rustic and the penguin colony is much bigger,” she says, “and there are far fewer people there.” You’ll pass Stony Point when you head to Hermanus to watch the whales.

After the Safari, Dive with Sharks

Adventurers often pass through Cape Town on their way to observe the Big Five -- lion, elephant, rhinoceros, leopard and cape buffalo – on safari. But the coastal waters here offer their own adrenaline-pumping opportunities, thanks to the great white sharks thrive here. Hermanus and Gansbaai, both easy drives from Cape Town, offer charters (they’re known as sea safaris) and, for the truly brave, cage diving. “It’s almost an out of body experience as you come face to face (behind thick steel bars) with the steely-eyed stare of a great white,” says Young. “Boat trips can be canceled for even the slightest swell (safety first!), so it’s good to have a few trips booked if this is high on your list.”

Skip the Restaurant, Nosh at the Market

Cape Town’s exciting food culture is driven by restaurants and chefs that garner international acclaim often. “Places like La Tete, Aubergine and La Colombe are pushing the limits,” says Ernst Storm. Then there are the many food markets here, where purveyors wow with locally-inspired produce, jams, breads, cheeses beer and more. These are also great spots to catch live music and so some artisanal shopping. Neighbourgoods Market Bay Harbour Market and Bluebird Garage Food and Goods Market always get high marks. Young likes Bo-Kaap, with its colorful row houses. “Don’t leave this neighborhood without trying a koesister – doughnuts dipped in a sweet syrup and dusted with coconut.”Gabe Saglie is Senior Editor for Travelzoo, which features exclusive deals on Ireland vacation packages, places to stay and things to do at www.travelzoo.com.

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