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Top 10 things to do in Cape Town
Historically, Cape Town became the first formal settlement in Africa when the Dutch sailor Jan van Riebeeck landed at the south-western tip of the continent in the 17th century. Today it’s one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, offering a startling range of sightseeing opportunities, thrill-seeking activities and historical and cultural insights from a very turbulent past.
Here are a selection of our top 10 recommendations to make the most of your visit to the Mother City of Cape Town.
The District Six Museum
The museum acts as a memorial to the former residential area known as District Six and its involvement in the apartheid regime. In 1966, at the height of apartheid, a government legislation was passed down to declare District Six a ‘whites only’ area, and to forcefully remove the 60,000 inhabitants and relocate them in municipal townships around the city. Today, District Six is a barren landscape. Tales of its existence are told in the District Six Museum. Established in 1994, the museum primarily aims to preserve the memories of those who were caught up in the brutal movement. Visit the museum and immerse yourself in this crucial stage of South African heritage.
Though the jazz scene in Cape Town began to stir shortly after the genre was making waves in New Orleans, it didn’t truly find its rhythm until South Africa was shrouded by the apartheid regime. Inspired musicians took to Cape Town’s many bars and nightclubs and soon the sound had taken over the entire city, forged in a climate of rebellion and resentment. The Cape Town International Jazz Festival is the largest showcase of Cape Jazz, though you will hear it almost everywhere you go. Festivals and events run throughout the year so don’t resist a musical experience flavoured with a little African spice; Cape Jazz will not disappoint.
Located in the heart of the City Bowl section of Cape Town, Long Street isn’t your typical high street. It’s the confluence of a diversity of cultures from the Victorian buildings playing host to youth hostels, to the Indian and North African restaurants serving their own delicacies. Combine that with the hottest nightlife in the Cape and you have Long Street in a nutshell. The street embraces bohemianism culture, reflected in the easy-going nature of the people living and working amongst the colourful structures that make Long Street such an attractive spectacle. A quick note for backpackers; Long Street is the essential location to base yourself during your stay. You’re in the hub for travellers and the rest of Cape Town is there on your doorstep, ready to be explored.
One of the most iconic sights of Cape Town is the small island that lies a few kilometres off its shores, known as Robben Island. The island served mainly to isolate political prisoners, the most famous of whom was Nelson Mandela, who was imprisoned on the island for 18 years. The current President of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, has also spent time imprisoned on the island. Today, tourists flock to the island on ferries to visit the Robben Island Museum, which was established in 1997. It became a World Heritage Site a couple of years later. A symbol of centuries of cruel oppression and the triumph of hope; Robben Island is a must-see for any tourist.
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden
Renowned as one of the most beautiful botanic gardens in the world, this picturesque spot is the perfect place to learn more about South Africa’s vibrant flora. Where better to wander and soak up the sun than a garden boasting a backdrop as awe-inspiring as Table Mountain? The first botanic garden to be devoted to a country’s indigenous flora, Kirstenbosch Garden was created in 1913 to conserve the rich flowers and greenery, as well as a myriad of colourful birds and wildlife that make this area their home. Take a stroll around the garden and drink in the glorious views of Liesbeek River and natural forest, stopping to sneak a taste of South African fare at the restaurants and tea rooms.
The Cape Peninsula
An increasingly popular activity among tourists is touring the Cape Peninsula, culminating in a spectacular view of the Cape of Good Hope, a rocky headland extending out towards the point where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans merge. Sightseeing is abundant on the tour. Ostriches, Cape Mountain Zebra and Chacma Baboons are regularly seen whilst you drive through the Table Mountain National Park. Be sure to watch out for Leopard Tortoises on the roads too. The Cape Floristic Kingdom is the richest in the world, including 1,100 species of indigenous plants, including dazzling proteas and heathers which make up part of the Fynbos vegetation system, unique to the Western Cape. Be sure to spend a day in the Peninsula.
South Africa is famous for its fine vineyards, the largest concentration of which can be found in the Western Cape and Winelands. The Cape Peninsula supports the three major wine regions of Constantia, Stellenbosch and Paarl. Constantia is the oldest region in the Cape and is located just 15km from the city itself. Wine tasting is available at several vineyards including the luxurious Steenberg Vineyards, which carry the distinction of being the oldest farm in the Constantia valley. Steenberg specialises in Sauvignon Blanc, though a wide variety of whites, reds and rosés are available to swill at leisure. The Steenberg Mountains form a stunning backdrop, while the rolling green hills in the foreground make the Constantia valley a truly idyllic setting for an afternoon of wine tasting.
For the adrenaline junkie in you, skydiving in Cape Town not only offers the thrill of a life time, it also offers one of the best aerial views in the world. From 10,000ft look down upon Table Mountain, the Cape Peninsula and numerous mountain ranges and valleys. On a clear day, you may be able to see up to 150km in all directions. As for free falling from a small plane high up in the sky, there’s a small part inside all of us that wants to experience that thrill. Tandem jumpers and experienced staff will ensure you have an absolutely unforgettable time.
Boulders Beach may just be the best place in the world to get up close and personal with Penguins. It is widely believed to be the site for the first mainland colony of African penguins. 30,000 penguins form the colony, a number that is rapidly increasing every year. Though not tame, they are by no means afraid of people and it is possible to approach to within one metre of the birds. The pristine, sandy white beaches that make up Boulders are shared by penguins and people alike, with only the breeding area fenced off to avoid trampling. Boardwalks weave their way through this area however, and for a small fee, the penguins can be watched at leisure exhibiting true, natural behaviour. Boulders Beach is located just 40km south of Cape Town and offers the ideal day out for tourists.
For Cape Town’s most unique experience you don’t have to go far. It doesn’t matter where in the city you find yourself, you will always have a spectacular view of the truly iconic Table Mountain. The view from the top is stunning. Getting to the top will involve either taking a cable car, or hiking up one of the many trails leading to the flat summit. The summit provides food, drink and some historical insight as well as the views, ensuring there is plenty to do. Watch out for Rock Dassies as they scamper about the outdoor seating areas of restaurants. A word of warning; on a cloudy day Table Mountain will be covered by the ‘table cloth’, and views will be severely restricted by a dense fog. Nevertheless the unique nature of the experience makes visiting the top of Table Mountain my recommendation for the number one thing to do in Cape Town.