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Last Updated on October 24, 2020 by Amy
My memories of my first trip to Cape Town in 2010 are a bit fuzzy. I remember clearly our safari in Kruger – my first safari – and I remember the tastes of Stellenbosch – bobotie and JC Le Roux sparkling wine. The rest is just a vague sense that I loved Cape Town.
Now, nearly ten years later, we’d returned to Cape Town and it’s so obvious why we left with the sense of loving Cape Town; it’s an amazing city. It’s modern and clean, rich in food and culture. There are amazing hikes, unique wildlife, and a tragic but hopeful history.
This trip, we spent nearly six weeks in Cape Town. I loved that we pretty much lived in this city and got to know it so well. We made so many new friends and caught up with old friends. David’s brother Thomas flew in for the holidays (and we jetted off to the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park for another safari) and my uncle Jim flew in for almost two weeks in Cape Town before we set off for Saint Helena.
Now, a lot of our time was spent doing the necessities of boat life – projects galore – but we did get to see and do a lot!
The V&A Waterfront
The Victoria and Alfred Waterfront is predominately occupied by a mall and various other stores – 450 retail units to be exact. Shopping is not really something that attracts me to a place, but…
Arts and culture are everywhere. I walked almost daily from our place to the Victoria Wharf Shopping Center, and there were always buskers dotted along the route. It may be a dread-locked hippie with a guitar and sound system, a group of tribesmen in loincloths and animal skins, or a percussion group playing covers of modern African pop. The Watershed is full of locally made crafts, painted rhinos are scattered throughout the area, and MOCAA is just on the other side of the swing bridge.
Many of the activities we did were located in the V&A Waterfront District.
Hop On Hop Off Bus
David and I almost never do tours like this. Usually, we try to run amuck in a city on our own time and itinerary. However, the Hop On Hop Off was a great way to see Cape Town in one day. We learned a lot about the history of Cape Town and apartheid, saw scenic views of the city, and tasted amazing local food and wines. If you have one (or two) days in Cape Town, the Hop On Hop Off bus is a great way to see the city. Read our post about the Hop On Hop Off Bus in Cape Town.
While the city center of Cape Town is in the “bowl” between Table Mountain, Lion’s Head, and Signal Hill, Cape Town’s metro area extends out quite far. It cuts across the Cape Peninsula from CBD to Muizenberg, and it’s very much worth the trip to rent a car and drive around some of the peninsula’s best sights. We admired the beach shacks in Muizenberg, gawked at penguins in Simonstown, got nearly toppled by waves at the Cape of Good Hope, and took Chapman’s Peak Drive, one of the most beautiful short drives we’ve ever done. Read our post about driving the peninsula.
Another popular day trip in the Cape Town region is Stellenbosch, South Africa’s best-known wine region. We spent a day in Stellenbosch Valley visiting four wineries and once again having fantastic views and food. Read about our DIY Stellenbosch Wine Tour.
Hike Table Mountain
When we visited in 2010, the one thing David and I missed was hiking Table Mountain. This time, we got it in the schedule and hiked Platteklip Gorge to the top of the mountain and took the cable car back down. It’s a great hike that only took us about four hours round trip (with a generous stop at the top) and has stunning views of the city and coast. Read about hiking Table Mountain’s Platteklip Gorge.
Two Oceans Aquarium
With Thomas, we visited the Two Oceans Aquarium at the Waterfront. Aquariums aren’t something I usually do since we get to spend so much time underwater snorkeling and diving, but it was a great opportunity to see some of the local marine life. The aquarium does, of course, do a lot of research and rehabilitation programs, such as tagging and studying ragged-toothed sharks (just like I got to see diving at Aliwal Shoal). We didn’t get to visit Knysna, but at least I got to see some of the adorable sea horses at the aquarium!
Seal Viewing Platform
Just behind the aquarium is their free seal viewing platform. I walked past this platform almost every day of our visit, usually multiple times a day, and never tired of stopping to watch the seals. The platform is quieter mid-day, so the morning is the best time to get the full impact of the seals napping, honking, and wrestling with each other. In the early afternoon, some of the younger seals would float in lazy circles holding their tails in an adorable ballet. This was even better than seeing the seals in Santa Cruz, Galapagos. The only bad news: seals stink!
Catch a Jazz Show in a Crypt
I randomly got a recommendation to go to The Crypt, a jazz club in the basement of St George’s Cathedral. We got dressed up with our friends Kimi and Trevor and hit the club on a Monday night just before Christmas. It was such a unique venue, and the food was excellent. The show itself had a couple of regulars on the bass, drums, and vocals, but it was an open jam session too. There was quite a bit of talent there that night, at least to our unrefined ears.
Watch a Rugby Game
Early in our visit, David and I found out there was a Rugby 7s tournament at the Cape Town Stadium, just walking distance from the waterfront. Rugby’s always been a bit of a curiosity for us since it’s so popular in much of the world we’ve visited (and definitely not popular in the States). We learned so much about it at the Rugby Museum in Palmerston North, New Zealand and saw a Rugby 7s tournament in Wellington.
Rugby 7s is a fast-paced game, done in less than a half-hour, which is why it’s done as a tournament. Tournaments are often loud, drunk, fun costume parties. We spent a few hours at the stadium watching the men’s and women’s teams, and even got to cheer for team USA!
Explore the Canals (by Paddleboard)
Winding from the V&A Waterfront Marina (where there’s a lock to control water levels) to the CTICC runs a small canal. Close to the marina, it’s residential with large apartment buildings on either side. Then it passes through Battery Park before concluding downtown at a small marina by the CTICC.
There is a canal cruise tour (by the Hop On Hop Off company) which takes you from one end to the other, or you can do what I did – paddleboard it!
Cape Town SUP rents paddleboards by the hour near Battery Park. I paddled up and down twice, which took about an hour each time.
David and I also walked or ran through the canals a lot. They are so beautiful at night!
Dive False Bay
Our new friends Margot and Luke offered to take us diving. David passed, but I accepted, and after collecting some gear at Pisces Divers in Simon’s Town, we drove down to There Beach, where we entered the water and did two dives, circling the large rock just off the beach.
The Water Shed
The Water Shed is right next door to the aquarium and hosts a huge collection of artisan crafts. These are not kitschy cheap plastic, but real hand-made items, everything from clothes to wood carvings. We walked through often and even did some shopping for Christmas presents here.
Oranjezicht City Farm Market
I went to this farmer’s market A LOT! It’s open during the day on Saturday and Sunday and also on Wednesday nights. As often as I went, I still don’t know how to pronounce the name!
However it’s said, the market is amazing. There are several tents; one for produce, one for artisan goods, and one for takeaway food.
The amount of produce that grows in South Africa is amazing. It’s very fertile soil, and it shows at the farmer’s market (and grocery stores). A special treat for me was the fruit at the market such as figs, cherries, and blueberries.
The artisan goods tent had a fishmonger and a butcher, several cheesemakers, and lots of delicious baked goods. I gave up dairy last year, so for the first time I got to try dairy-free cheese and there were tons of vegan baked goods that were so delicious.
I didn’t have any takeaway food there, but the options were very plentiful: from local oysters to spring rolls to paninis.
The Wednesday night market is a bit different. There are fewer vendors, but booths are open selling adult beverages. There are always lots of picnic tables and chairs out. Next time I’m in Cape Town, I would love to do brunch at the market.
What We’ll Do Next Time
District Six Museum: On the Hop On Hop Off Tour, we learned a brief history of District Six. In the 1970s, the government forced over 60,000 people in District Six out of their homes and relocated them to townships outside of the city. Much of the area was bulldozed. All of this was part of apartheid and an effort to move non-whites out of the city. Today, many of the lots are still empty. Downtown Cape Town has a museum with more information.
Bo-Kaap: Bo-Kaap is a part of Cape Town where the slaves lived during the slave trade. Many of the slaves were from Asia or other parts of Africa but were commonly called Malays. There is a museum here on the slave trade, and notable architecture; when the white-painted houses were finally sold to former slaves, they were repainted in bursts of colors.
Robben Island: Robben Island is the site where Nelson Mandela was held as a political prisoner. There’s a ferry that runs from the waterfront to Robben Island, and tours on the island. This is a pretty popular activity and when we looked at doing it last minute, it was sold out.
More Hiking: Cape Town has great hiking and it’s a shame we only got one day in. I would love to explore more of the trails in Table Mountain National Park, around the Peninsula, Lion’s Head, or even the nearby and relatively small Signal Hill.
The Old Biscuit Mill: The Mill is similar to the Water Shed or Oranjezicht, with artisan crafts and foods.
Cape Town Itineraries
Not everyone has the luxury of spending nearly six weeks in this fabulous city, so I’ve put together two itineraries to get to see the highlights.
Two Days in Cape Town
If you only have two days in Cape Town, I would buy the two-day pass on the Hop On Hop Off Bus.
Day 1: Do as we did and take the yellow downtown line circuit, and then the blue line out to the Constantia wine region. End your day by hopping off in Camps Bay or Sea Point for dinner (you’ll have to take an Uber back to your hotel).
Day 2: Take the red line to Table Mountain to ride the cableway, and then head down to the waterfront to take the canal tour and then the harbor tour. End your day walking around the V&A Waterfront and dining out.
One Week in Cape Town
Day 1: Buy a one-day pass to the Hop On Hop Off bus to get an overview of the city. Ride the entire yellow lines and red lines.
Day 2: Go hike Table Mountain, either Platteklip Gorge elsewhere. If hiking Table Mountain is too intimidating, take the cableway up, but they go walk up Signal Hill.
Day 3: Robben Island, the site of Nelson Mandela’s exile, is a great day trip stocked full of history.
Day 4-5: Pick up a rental car and drive out to Stellenbosch and the Cape Peninsula.
Day 6: Get out into the water. It’s cold, but there are tons of cool things to see. You can dive either the Indian Ocean side or the Atlantic Ocean side, swimming through kelp forests. There are also cage dives for the very adventurous, or seal snorkeling for the less adventurous.
Day 7: Spent the day downtown at the museums. Learn more about District Six and Bo-Kaap.
Dining Out in Cape Town
As I said, Cape Town is full of really, really good food. Here are some of our highlights:
V&A Food Market: This was our absolute favorite place to eat. The Old Power Station is full of food stalls selling so many options and varieties of food. We ate street tacos, bunny chow, poke, sushi, and so much more. Plus, we could easily eat for less than $10 USD a person.
Il Leone: Great Italian food, very romantic. There are several other fantastic restaurants nearby too such as Beluga (fusion) and GOLD (African). While the area is more industrial, we walked from the marina.
Willoughby’s: Located in the Victoria Wharf Shopping Center, this was our special last night out in Cape Town. Willowby’s serves primarily seafood, and this is where I finally got to eat some South African oysters, in addition to awesome sushi.
Bascule Bar: We walked past Bascule Bar almost every day. The small patio has a few tables and the menu is small; a handful of tapas selections, a burger, and some desserts. But this is where you get a great view of the sunset behind Signal Hill.
Balducci’s: Friends took us to this restaurant located in the Victoria Wharf Shopping Center. They actually have two menus – the regular one and a plant-based menu, so I got to order a great falafel salad and chocolate brownie dessert, both vegan so no dairy in them. Everything we had was great, and I would have loved to go back more to explore the huge menu.
Where to Stay in the V&A Waterfront
One of the best things about our visit was that we stayed in the V&A Waterfront district.
- It’s safe. South Africa, in general, has a tarnished reputation for safety, but being at the V&A Waterfront cured our concerns. The V&A Waterfront employs a lot of security guards who were a constant presence. I was able to do things by myself without feeling unsafe, including going for sunrise runs.
- The views are spectacular. Most of the waterfront can see Table Mountain, the most iconic part of Cape Town. The sun sets over Signal Hill, and Lion’s Head stands guard behind it all. Out to sea, on a clear day, we could see Robben Island and the other side of Table Bay. Or, in poor weather, we witnessed the drama of the fog or winds.
- The food options are, frankly, overwhelming. We dined out a lot, and as much as I wanted to try out new places every time, the food was SO GOOD that part of me wanted to eat the same foods again and again.
- It’s walkable. From our place, we could walk up to the coast to the stadium or along the canals to the CTICC (Cape Town International Convention Centre).
Staying in the V&A Waterfront area was absolutely amazing, but the hotels are really pricey. We were so incredibly lucky to be able to stay in the marina, which is very, very cheap compared to the hotels.
The V&A Waterfront District is divided into seven precincts. While I didn’t stay in any of these hotels, they are all rated 4+ on TripAdvisor and I picked them based on location and reputation.
Budget (<$100): There are very few options in the Waterfront District for under $100 that are well-rated. The Oxford House is Waterfont-adjacent, located just across the M6. While the M6 is a busy highway, there is a pedestrian pathway that leads to Portswood Road that will take you down to the waterfront. Up north, adjacent to the Granger Bay precinct, is Mouille Point Village, which is closer to the Stadium and Oranjezicht City Farm Market. Down south, on the canals, is aha Harbour Bridge Hotel & Suites.
Moderate ($100-250): In this price point, you start to get into hotels that are in the Marina District, where we stayed. Waterfront Village overlooks the marina and canal and has full apartments for rent. The Protea Hotel is closer to the Victoria Wharf Shopping Center and in an older historic building, which the inside has been modernized in this Marriott-owned hotel. The Victoria & Alfred Hotel is above the upscale Victoria & Alfred Mall in the Quays district.
Luxury ($250+ USD): There is a huge spectrum of upscale hotels in the V&A Waterfront District. In the Marina Precinct, One&Only and Cape Grace both start at over $700 a night. The Silo Hotel bills itself as a 6-star hotel above the MOCAA at $1,500 a night. You can even stay on the Jackie O, a motor yacht moored next to the Victoria & Alfred Mall. If you want to stay in the Victoria Wharf Shopping Center, Table Bay Hotel is the best option.