Even if you don’t read my site every day (Shame on you!) you should by now know that I’m a huge fan of South Africa in general, and Cape Town in particular. There are just some places that latch on to our souls and refuse to let go and Cape Town has done that to me. I’ve had a lot of people ask me about what to do in Cape Town, hopefully at least partially inspired by my posts. So I decided to compile a short and admittedly not complete list of a few things I think every visitor should do. Before I start please don’t flame me for not including something; there’s no way I can cover everything. Instead, leave a note in the comments and let me know what you would include on your own Cape Town bucket list.
1. Bo Kaap cooking class – Food is one of the most important aspects of the travel experience for many reasons, not the least of which is its power to connect us to new places and people. Cape Town is a mish mosh of peoples and cultures, but one of the most robust culinary traditions is Cape Malay cuisine. Cape Malaysian culture draws on a lot of influences and from a foodie perspective South Asian and Indian flavors come through strongly. One of the best ways to not just better understand Cape Malay culture, but to taste it is through a cooking class in the colorful Bo Kaap neighborhood. Cooking in the home of a local, I spent the afternoon learning the finer points of producing amazing Cape Malay food and even surprised myself at the results. By the end of the day we had made delicious fritters, breads and of course a flavorful curry. I learned a lot about food that day, but even more about the city.
2. Journey to Cape Point and back – A short distance from Cape Town, Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope was one of my favorite experiences while visiting the Mother City. Cape Peninsula is much larger than I originally thought; it stretches 52 kilometers and includes not only Cape Point and Cape of Good Hope, but the iconic Table Mountain as well. In addition to the scraggly fynbos, the area is also home to mischievous baboons (don’t feed them), Cape Mountain Zebras, wandering ostriches and more than 250 species of birds. For whatever reason, the stark beauty of standing on the edge of Africa spoke to me on an almost instinctual level and I fell madly and deeply in love with the Cape. Just imagining the sailors who voyaged around that very point and changed the world in the process sent geeky shivers up my spine. It may be a popular tourist spot, but that doesn’t detract from the simple joy I felt walking around the Cape area and even today those memories never fail to make me smile in remembrance. As a bonus, be sure to drive along Chapman’s Peak Drive on the way back to Cape Town. It’s one of the most scenic drives in the world and will give you a whole new level of appreciation for this beautiful region.
3. Pinotage tasting at Groot Constantia – South Africans love their wine, and with good reason. They’ve been producing wine since the 17th century and the Constantia winery in Cape Town has a long reputation as one of the best wineries in the world. Embargoes during the apartheid era though meant that South African wines couldn’t access the international marketplace, which set back the industry at a time when people around the world were discovering new and tasty wines. South Africa is making up for lost time though and now consumers in the United States and Europe are once again learning about the many delicious wines produced on the bottom of the world. One of the most popular in South Africa is the pinotage. Pinotage is South Africa’s signature red grape varietal and was originally a hybrid between two other grape types: Pinot noir and Cinsaut. Today it’s easily the most popular wine in South Africa and is known for a smooth, smoky flavor. As the go-to wine you’ll look like a travel pro when you ask for it at a restaurant or local wine bar. Groot Constantia is the oldest winery in South Africa and is conveniently located in Cape Town making it the perfect spot to taste your first pinotage.
4. Robben Island – Not unlike Alcatraz in San Francisco, the unique position of Robben Island just seven miles off the coast of Cape Town has lent itself naturally to being used as a prison, first by the Dutch in the 17th century and much later during the apartheid era. It was in the 1950s when the government converted the island into a maximum-security prison and between 1961 and 1991 more than three thousand men were incarcerated as political prisoners. Robben is also where the leaders of the anti-apartheid movement were held, including Nelson Mandela. Like so many other similar sites around the world, a visit to the island is a somber one. The prison, the isolation and the terrain are depressing, but there’s an underlying message of hope. This is amplified by the fact that former prisoners now serve as tour guides in a unique and ironic twist that transforms the experience from one of mere sightseeing to one of education.
5. Swim with great white sharks – The small town of Gansbaai, about an hour and a half from Cape Town, South Africa, is the Great White Shark capital of the world. Every winter season scores of these ocean giants descend on the small channel between Dyer Island and Geyser Rock known simply as Shark Alley for a massive feeding frenzy. Thousands of tourists follow the sharks every year for what has become one of the most popular tourist activities in South Africa, cage diving with the Great Whites. The experience of climbing into the chilly waters with nothing in between you and the apex predators of the sea except for some bars is daunting but exciting. Watching first hand these majestic animals swim and chase after bait is a privilege and it hopefully instills in each guest the need for shark conservation and protection.
6. Get out and meet people – What transforms any city into a great, world-class destination isn’t an attraction or famous sight, it’s the people. I’ve met a lot of great people around the world, but few have surprised me as much as South Africans. Here in the U.S. at least, South Africans are at times labeled as cold and aloof, but after only a few minutes in Cape Town I quickly learned nothing could be further from the truth. Thanks to a strange and absolutely unique history, people from around the world have immigrated to this city by the sea, from Malaysians to Eastern Cape people and of course the British and Dutch. Over time this influx of people has created one of the best examples of urban melting pots I’ve ever seen and it defines the city. Today that diversity is seen through the hearty welcome every visitor receives from a population eager to show off their little slice of heaven with the rest of the world.
7. Something, anything with Table Mountain – No visit to Cape Town can be considered complete with a visit to the city’s most iconic image, Table Mountain. Named one of the 7 New Natural Wonders of the World in 2011, Table Mountain is indeed a sight to behold. I spent my formative years living in a mountain town so having the looming presence of the flat-topped mountain in Cape Town was something I didn’t just enjoy, but which I came to crave. There are a lot of options for visitors to enjoy the mountain, whether just admiring it as a constant companion around town or journeying up to the top via cable car. For the truly adventurous you can abseil down the side or take wing in a paragliding experience you’ll never forget.
These are a few things I think every visitor to Cape Town should experience, what would you add?