From the moment we saw the flattened tabletop of Cape Town’s iconic skyline, a silhouette of mountains rather than skyscrapers, we had stupidly big grins on our faces.

Down below, the grid-like city streets were a thriving hum of energy, alive with the constant buzz of traffic and the rhythmic beat of a distant African drum.

10 Things You Absolutely Must Do In Cape Town On Your First Visit | Cape Town Travel Guide | South Africa
10 Things You Absolutely Must Do In Cape Town On Your First Visit | Cape Town Travel Guide | South Africa

It’s a city of chaos and grit, which we’ll admit sometimes made us feel uneasy, but when it all became too much, the mountains were literally right there to soothe our souls and allow us to take a step back.

Over the hill, the chiselled cliffs of the Twelve Apostles roll toward the glistening waves and a winding coastal road awaits to take you far from the frenetic life in the city bowl.

10 Things You Absolutely Must Do In Cape Town On Your First Visit | Cape Town Travel Guide | South Africa
10 Things You Absolutely Must Do In Cape Town On Your First Visit | Cape Town Travel Guide | South Africa
10 Things You Absolutely Must Do In Cape Town On Your First Visit | Cape Town Travel Guide | South Africa

Our time in Cape Town was slightly frantic involving a family wedding and a family-filled travel party of more than a dozen. But we left having seen so much, and yet still, our list of possibilities seemed a mile long.

That’s the thing about the Mother City, it’ll keep you coming back for more.

On your first visit to Cape Town these are the things you absolutely must do which will fit comfortably into a week. But don’t worry, there’ll be more than enough left for next time.

1. Hike Lion's Head for Sunrise

For us, the mountains were always going to be front and centre of our time in Cape Town.

It doesn’t get much better than sitting atop Lion’s Head watching the city wake to a golden glow. The twinkling lights replaced by morning sunshine that hastens the tablecloth across the Twelve Apostles.

10 Things You Absolutely Must Do In Cape Town On Your First Visit | Cape Town Travel Guide | South Africa

Willy’s Cave, a rocky enclave accessible on a small, well-concealed side trail from the main path is also worth a visit.

The 40 minute walk is a popular one for active morning people, but even if like us, you’re not one of those people, it’s definitely an experience worth rolling out of bed in the dark for, however messy haired and un-caffeinated you may be.

There is ample parking at the base of the trail or an Uber from the city centre will cost around 30R (US$2.50).

10 Things You Absolutely Must Do In Cape Town On Your First Visit | Cape Town Travel Guide | South Africa
10 Things You Absolutely Must Do In Cape Town On Your First Visit | Cape Town Travel Guide | South Africa
2. Indulge in the Cape Winelands

On a day that involved walking barefoot through fields of soft camomile, sampling figs beneath shady trees and strolling between a sea of rose bushes, we discovered there’s plenty more to love along the wine route than just wine.

With numerous wineries spread out between Stellenbosch and Franschhoek, our only regret was that we couldn’t spend more time here. It’s also incredibly reasonably priced making it the perfect place to indulge, at least a little.

To find out why we think you simply can’t miss a trip to the Cape Winelands, read this post.

Cape Winelands: A Visit To Cape Town's Wineries
Cape Winelands: A Visit To Cape Town's Wineries
Cape Winelands: A Visit To Cape Town's Wineries
Cape Winelands: A Visit To Cape Town's Wineries
3. Soak up the colours and quirkiness of the coastal suburbs: Simonstown, Muizenberg, Kalk Bay

Cute cafes and arty bookstores with an airy bohemian vibe, vibrant pops of colour, a bar to walk barefoot through the sand, minty mojito in hand, and finally, finally a Capetonian beach that won’t nip at your ankles with cold.

We’d even go so far as to describe it as ‘warm’.

10 Things You Absolutely Must Do In Cape Town On Your First Visit | Cape Town Travel Guide | Things To Do In Cape Town | South Africa
10 Things You Absolutely Must Do In Cape Town On Your First Visit | Cape Town Travel Guide | South Africa
10 Things You Absolutely Must Do In Cape Town On Your First Visit | Cape Town Travel Guide | South Africa

Browse the quirky shops, sample the bakeries piled high with pastries – Olympia Cafe in Kalk Bay was our favourite – watch the ongoing battle for the fish go down between sea lion and man in Kalk Bay’s marina or simply relax in the sunshine on the wide swathe of sand at Muizenberg Beach.

The southern train line runs from Cape Town along this beautiful stretch of coastline to Simonstown, with stops at Muizenberg and Kalk Bay. Tickets can be purchased at the station.

4. Climb up Table Mountain

After 30 hours of flying and a sleepless night in a dorm of snorers and mosquitoes (the joys of hostel life right?!), we stepped into the blinding sunlight with a maddening urge to climb Cape Town’s most famous landmark.

An hour of incredibly steep hiking later in unrelenting midday sun and barely a spot of shade to be found, we sat down beneath a few scattered branches, our water bottles emptied and it occurred to us that perhaps we mistook that maddening urge for just plain old sleep-deprived madness.

10 Things You Absolutely Must Do In Cape Town On Your First Visit | Cape Town Travel Guide | South Africa

The cool breeze at the top, the scurry of dassies and the views across the Atlantic made us glad we had tackled it though.

There are several trails leading to the upper escarpment, the most popular being Platteklip Gorge – a steep climb that is largely in direct sunshine – though there are many other ways up the mountain. For safety reasons it is recommended to walk in groups, particularly on the less populated tracks.

For those looking for a more leisurely way up, the cable car runs throughout the day, generally between 8AM and 8PM though times vary each month. Return tickets cost R255 (US$17) and it’s best to book online to avoid waiting in the queue. For timetables, rates and bookings, check here.

5. Swim with the Penguins at Boulders Beach

Boulder’s Beach, home to infinitely blue waters, white sand, granite boulders and its most famous inhabitant, the African or jackass penguin.

Confused by the name? Just listen out for their distinctive call.

This perfect stretch of secluded beach is an amazing place to get up close to these penguins in their natural habitat as they move freely between fishing off the rocks and waddling across the sand.

10 Things You Absolutely Must Do In Cape Town On Your First Visit | Cape Town Travel Guide | South Africa

Entering the reserve costs R70 (US$5) and only a limited number of visitors are allowed in at any one time to ensure the penguins are not over crowded. It’s best to go early or late in the day.

Don’t forget that the penguins are wild animals and you are in their environment. Do not attempt to touch them or impose on their space. Certain areas are cordoned off specifically for the penguins – respect these boundaries.

10 Things You Absolutely Must Do In Cape Town On Your First Visit | Cape Town Travel Guide | South Africa
Simonstown

Should you choose not to enter the reserve, you’ll still be able to find these little fellows nesting in the bushes along the boardwalks, some warming their eggs, some dozing in the afternoon sun and if you’re lucky, they may even swim over to the neighbouring beaches to say hi.

6. Eat your way around the city

We didn’t eat out as often as we would have liked during our time in Cape Town, but when we did we were always left with full bellies and a serious temptation to lick every delicious morsel off our plates.

From the simple and wholesome touch of oven-fresh bread, whipped butter and freshly picked fruit in the Cape Winelands, to a menu serving all things bacon at Bacon on Bree, we found some seriously delicious eats around the Cape Town.

10 Things You Absolutely Must Do In Cape Town On Your First Visit | Cape Town Travel Guide | Things To Do In Cape Town | South Africa
10 Things You Absolutely Must Do In Cape Town On Your First Visit | Cape Town Travel Guide | South Africa

With the melting pot of cultures that call this great city home, there’s also enough international fare to keep even the most adventurous foodie satisfied.

7. Learn the History of the city and the nation

Cape Town is a city with an undeniably tumultuous past.

From European colonisation to the days of apartheid, we’ve mentioned some noteworthy places to visit below, however a more extensive guide to the city’s historical sites and museums can be found here.

Since its first sighting in the 1400s, Cape Point and its notoriously rugged seas claimed the lives of many European explorers searching for a passage east to open up a sea-trading route.

Aside from the tales of storms and shipwrecks, the windswept beaches and fynbos-covered plains of Cape Point also make this a stark and beautiful place for a day trip and a picnic.

10 Things You Absolutely Must Do In Cape Town On Your First Visit | Cape Town Travel Guide | South Africa

No history lesson of Cape Town would be complete without touching on South Africa’s apartheid era.

District Six, once a vivacious and lively community centre, was razed to the ground in order to purge the area of people of colour when it was declared a ‘white only’ zone. The District Six Museum now stands to remember the years of apartheid and the forced removals that happened throughout the city.

Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years, sits just offshore of the city. Tours are guided by ex-political prisoners who talk of theirs and Mandela’s experience in the prison. Tours last around 4 hours including the ferry trip each way. 

10 Things You Absolutely Must Do In Cape Town On Your First Visit | Cape Town Travel Guide | South Africa
10 Things You Absolutely Must Do In Cape Town On Your First Visit | Cape Town Travel Guide | South Africa
10 Things You Absolutely Must Do In Cape Town On Your First Visit | Cape Town Travel Guide | South Africa
8. Go Colour Crazy in the Bo Kaap

Few neighbourhoods in the world are as colourful as Cape Town’s Bo Kaap area.

Centred around Wale Street, this neighbourhood is home to a large portion of the city’s Cape Malay population and the scents of simmering curries and exotic spice can be smelt wafting through the brightly coloured streets.

Trust us, you won’t want to put your camera away.

10 Things You Absolutely Must Do In Cape Town On Your First Visit | Cape Town Travel Guide | South Africa
10 Things You Absolutely Must Do In Cape Town On Your First Visit | Cape Town Travel Guide | South Africa

Don’t miss a stop at the Atlas Trading Company, a spice bazaar piled high with fragrant spices and traditionally prepared snacks.

To delve a little deeper into the Cape Malay culture and learn how to make those spices sing, you can join a Cape Malay cooking class. We spent a wonderful afternoon cooking up a perfectly spiced storm and sampling some delicious comfort food with Gamidah Jacobs of Lekka Kombuis. You can read about our full experience here.

9. Drive Chapman's Peak

The most scenic of Cape Town’s coastal roads, Chapman’s Peak Drive hugs the rugged cliffs between Noordhoek and Hout Bay.

Come in the hours before sunset when the cliffs are aglow and conditions are best for the many, many photo opportunities that will pass you by. We found driving northbound, when you’re in the outer lane, easiest for stopping and a road toll of around R40 is charged per car.

Cape Town Area

If you visit between July and November you may also be lucky enough to spot whales in the bay. Southern right and humpback whales pass by Cape Town on their yearly migration from Antarctica seeking warmer waters to calve.

10. Sundowners at Camps Bay Beach

On our very first day as we stood atop Table Mountain, hot and sweaty after the swelteringly steep hike, we gazed down on Camps Bay Beach. The impossibly white sand was dotted with a dozen colourful beach umbrellas, the glittering blue water looking oh so inviting, and yet, not a soul was actually in the water.

We soon found out why… it’s bloody freezing!

It may not be a great spot for swimming (unless ankle-bitingly cold water is your thing), but luckily Camps Bay is good for something else – sundowners. This word used so much in South Africa pretty much sums up everything a good sunset should have – good vibes, a perfect beach setting and an ice cold drink in hand.

Cape Town

To top it off, the backdrop of Table Mountain and the Twelve Apostles doused in gold and pink as the sun fades away, time and time again creates a perfect end to another day in Cape Town.

The boulders at the northern end of the beach are a great place to watch the sun melt away, otherwise the strip along the waterfront is scattered with cafes and bars with water and sunset views.

Pick one. Take a seat. You won’t regret it!

Getting Around

Uber is widely used across Cape Town, is wildly inexpensive and is a safe option, especially when travelling at night. Walking around after dark, especially alone or in areas you are not familiar with is generally not recommended.

From the airport, a My CiTi shuttle (up to R70/US$5 depending on time of day) will drop you at the Civic Centre bus station, otherwise most hostels and hotels can organise a private transfer for around US$20 per car.

The train line running south to Simonstown leaves from the central Cape Town station. Choose a carriage with other passengers and aim to travel largely during the day.

10 Things You Absolutely Must Do In Cape Town On Your First Visit | Cape Town Travel Guide | South Africa
10 Things You Absolutely Must Do In Cape Town On Your First Visit | Cape Town Travel Guide | Things To Do In Cape Town | South Africa
10 Things You Absolutely Must Do In Cape Town On Your First Visit | Cape Town Travel Guide | South Africa
Where to Stay

Most city hostels are centralised around the party-centric Longstreet, though there are also a number near the Waterfront area. A couple of more laidback options can be found around Muizenberg and Simonstown.

Check out available Cape Town hostels here.

Airbnb is also prolific throughout the city and there are some beautiful apartments on offer if you are looking for a little extra privacy. Search Airbnb listings here.

New to Airbnb? Use this link to get $30 off your first booking!

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10 Things You Absolutely Must Do In Cape Town On Your First Visit | Cape Town Travel Guide | Things To Do In Cape Town | South Africa
10 Things You Absolutely Must Do In Cape Town On Your First Visit | Cape Town Travel Guide | Things To Do In Cape Town | South Africa
10 Things You Absolutely Must Do In Cape Town On Your First Visit | Cape Town Travel Guide | Things To Do In Cape Town | South Africa

2 Comments

  1. This article truly captures the essence of what Cape Town has to offer. It is a stunning place full of adventure and a soulful energy. So many things to do and so many wonderful places to stay as well.

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