It has been said that “in Africa, Cape Town is the closest place to the rest of the world”. While it is geographically at the furthest point of Africa it is a vibrant cosmopolitan city. Though it does not hide its African influences, it is a world city with elements to make any traveller feel that they are in a home from home.
Cape Town is definitely a destination and not just a ‘stop-over’. It has something for every taste.
People from many different African nations mix side by side with South Africans as well as having a fair amount of European expats living in the CBD and suburbs.
If you have a day in Cape Town, what attractions should you aim to see?
Long Street is popular for nightlife and is a good place to go to if you are a night owl. It is lined with pubs and restaurants that are frequented by locals and foreigners alike. From the chic to the dowdy, and the downright seedy.
By day Long Street is an amazing street for shopping, by night it is “party central”. Either way, if you can’t get in Long Street what you are looking for then it is probably not available anywhere else either.
Below are a few suggestions of the top major attractions that can be seen in one day.
Table Mountain Aerial Cableway
Taking the cableway up Table Mountain is a must-see. It is weather dependant, and closes when there are high winds. You get a panoramic 360 view from the car as it rotates slowly during the short journey up or down the mountain.
There are lots of great photo opportunities from anywhere on the mountain. A return ticket costs approximately $25 per person. This goes up and down based on the rate of exchange.
Tickets can be booked online at the Table Mountain Cableway website. Online tickets are date- and time- specific. You will save yourself 10% by booking online rather than at the ticket office.
Further outdoors activities that you can fit into a day in Cape Town could include a visit to the world-famous Kirstenbosch Botanic Gardens on the lower slopes of the back of Table Mountain. Hundreds of acres are left wild in the upper reaches to conserve local flora and are beautifully manicured lower down. It has first-class facilities, two restaurants and ample parking and in the lower, landscaped section, the names of all the plants are indicated. You will find surprisingly familiar plants here: marigolds and geraniums (pelagoniums) hail from the Cape.
A final outdoor treat is a drive around the Peninsula, which should include a visit to Cape Point, the most south-westerly point of Africa and the meeting point of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, despite what hydrologists may say. The Cape Point nature reserve comprises approximately the lower half of the peninsula and has abundant local wildlife. You may spot kudu and ostriches, baboons (which can be pesky because of ill-advised feeding, which is prohibited by law) and the seemingly ubiquitous “dassies” (hyraxes) who brazenly sun themselves on any warm rock.
Castle of Good Hope
This fort is the oldest building in continuous use in Southern Africa, built between 1666 and 1679. (There are ruins from a lost civilisation at Mapungubwe near the Limpopo and further north at Great Zimbabwe.) It is simply called ‘The Castle’ by locals and has a wealth of history. It was built on the site of an earlier, rudimentary fort constructed in 1652.
It is perhaps the finest example of Dutch military architecture remaining from their Golden Age, and was built as a VOC (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie – the Dutch East India Company) outpost to victual ships travelling between the Netherlands and Indonesia via the Cape.
Entrance fees are nominal at R25 (under $5) and one can wander around at leisure, walk the battlements or look at the artefacts displayed in the military museum. There is also an unrivalled collection of VOC tableware. You may also witness the firing of a 4 pound field gun in the courtyard.
There is a restaurant on site serving teas and lunches. For more information on this attraction, see Castle of Good Hope.
If you wish to keep to the theme of antiquities you can walk up to the Slave Lodge by way of the Golden Acre where, remarkably, the first dam built at the Cape is preserved within a modern shopping centre. From the Slave lodge (a cultural history museum, which includes an unexpected collection of Masonic memorabilia) you can walk through the original Company’s Gardens (then used to grow vegetables but now dominated by lawns and exotic trees brought by sea captains from faraway places). To the right of the entrance to the gardens, past St George’s Cathedral, is the National Library, the main repository for copies of any book published in the country.
At the top of the Gardens there is the National Gallery on the left, the South African Museum in the centre, and one of just two planetariums in Africa on the right. Very close to the National Gallery is the Cape Town Jewish museum in the Old Synagogue, and the more modern Holocaust Centre in the same complex.
Robben Island has become famous for having served as a prison home for a number of leaders of the ANC movement, most notably the venerated Nelson Mandela, who were imprisoned there following their convictions for politically-motivated crimes. The tour takes 3.5 hours, which includes transport there and back on the modern Robben Island Ferry that leaves from Cape Town harbour.
If you like your tours strongly didactic then you will enjoy the rigid program with a strong educational slant. You will not have an opportunity to wander about independently and there are no opportunities to view the extensive wildlife on the island. It is very much a guided tour with a fixed programme.
Tours cost R220 (approximately $30 subject to the rate of exchange). Tickets can be booked online, but are date- and time- specific. Note that boat trips can be cancelled when the Cape of Storms lives up to its name in winter and spring months (June to November).
The Robben Island Ferry sets out from the Waterfront. If your visit is cancelled due to wind you could hardly wish to find a better place to console yourself. Otherwise, on your return you can shop at a wide range of places from African curios to haute couture, and there are any number of restaurants and drinking-holes. Capetonians hang out at the Waterfront too, so it is not merely for tourists. You may be surprised to see rich and famous persons here, who have slipped in unannounced and whom the locals tend by nature to give the space and relative anonymity they desire.
The Cape Town weather is generally moderate. In winter (the sometimes wet, “green season”) there can be rain storms, but the temperature seldom gets below freezing overnight. If you dress for the season the chances are that a visit at any time of the year will prove to be a pleasant one.
Robbery on the mountain has been reported in isolated areas. You can still enjoy the experience, though, by being cautious. No robberies have occurred in the general area around the restaurant and curio.
The British Foreign Office has this general safety advice about South Africa:
Most cases of violent crime occur in the townships. Consult a reliable tour guide if you visit a township. The risk of violent crime to visitors travelling to the main tourist destinations is generally low. The South African authorities give high priority to protecting tourists. Tourism police are deployed in several large towns.
Incidents of vehicle hi-jacking and robbery are common. You should be vigilant of the risks, particularly if driving after dark. Keep to main roads; park in well – lit areas.
There are frequent incidents of car windows being broken and valuables (e.g. handbags) taken whilst cars are waiting at junctions (smash and grab). Keep valuables out of sight.