Where do I begin? As some of you may know, our long-anticipated trip to South Africa got off to a rocky start. We excitedly arrived at Heathrow Airport Friday evening, only to be turned away due to a passport mishap. Long story short: South Africa requires all visitors to have at least 2 completely blank pages remaining in their passports. Why? I have no idea. The stamp they give you upon arrival is tiny. Due to a string of recent work trips throughout Europe, my passport had quickly filled up. There was plenty of blank space but no blank pages remaining. After a brief trip to Madrid (more on that at another time) and an anxious morning at the US Embassy in London, we managed to fly back out to South Africa the following Tuesday. At that point, we had already missed 4 days in South Africa.
However, as soon as we landed in Cape Town, all the pent up frustration and anxiety quickly dissipated. The city is absolutely stunning. We had extremely high expectations going in, and Cape Town did not let us down. I don't know of any other city in the world that blends into its natural environment so dramatically and beautifully. Cape Town is a perfect destination for urbanites and outdoor enthusiasts alike. You can hike up Table Mountain, go wine tasting in Stellenbosch, dine at the world class Test Kitchen and rub shoulders with hipsters on Bree Street all in one (very busy) day.
We spent 5 days in Cape Town, including some short trips around the surrounding region. We could have easily spent 5 more without running out of things to do. We didn't even get a chance to visit popular destinations like Robben Island and Cape Point. Below, I've shared our top 10 highlights from Cape Town. This doesn't include our trip to the neighboring wine region (Franschoek and Stellenbosch). We've saved that for another time. Enjoy!
10. Cape Town Helicopters
It's sad how many times I've Googled "Cape Town" and stared at the iconic image of the city that inevitably appears in every image search result. I desperately wanted to get a glimpse of the city from above, with Table Mountain towering in the background. Thankfully, I managed to convince everyone to go on a helicopter ride around the coast of the city. Cape Town Helicopters offers a variety of options ranging from full peninsula trips to custom wineland charters. We selected the short 20 minute ride that takes passengers out past Robbin Island and around Camps Bay. At R990 (~$75 USD), it's not cheap. However, the beautiful panoramic views you get of the city are priceless.
9. Camps Bay
This picturesque, beachside neighborhood was our official home for 5 days. If you're considering a trip to Cape Town, I highly recommend finding a place on Airbnb. You'll discover some stunning properties at unfathomably cheap rates (boosted by the favorable exchange rates at the moment). As one of the city's most affluent neighborhoods, Camps Bay is home to some of Cape Town's best accommodations. You're not only a stones throw from a white sand beach, you're also a quick 10 minute drive away from downtown.
Admittedly, we didn't spend nearly enough time in this (literally) colorful quarter situated in the heart of Cape Town. Bo-Kaap's quirky homes and cobblestone streets give the neighborhood a whimsical, strangely Caribbean, vibe. As the historic center of Cape Malay culture, it perfectly represents the various cultures and ethnicities that give South Africa its well-deserved name: The Rainbow Nation.
7. Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden
This sprawling botanical garden on the eastern foot of Table Mountain is a great place stop for a picnic and relax with friends. You can easily spend hours exploring the grounds, which are filled with tiny foot paths and lush vegetation. Unfortunately, our trip to Kirstenbosch fell on the only afternoon of less than ideal weather we experienced in Cape Town. The chilly winds passing over Table Mountain made it harder to enjoy the beautiful surroundings
6. Boulder's Beach
Penguins! Visitors flock (get it?) to Boulder's Beach in Simon's Town to get a glimpse of these tiny feathered creatures. Dozens (if not hundreds) of adorable penguins call this beach home. They are literally everywhere you look. The beach is about an hours drive south of Cape Town. The best time to go is early in the morning before throngs of tourists descend upon this popular attraction. Stop at Olympia Bakery in Kalk Bay for a morning coffee and pastry before visiting the penguins.
5. Chapman's Peak Drive
We took an alternative route back from Boulder's Beach through Hout Bay and up the western coast. Chapman's Peak Drive is frequently regarded as one of the most scenic drives in the world. While the drive is a bit terrifying, the route is undeniably breathtaking. The road zigzags along steep cliffs. Peer out the window, and you'll see powerful waves crashing against the rocks down below.
4. Bree Street
Bree Street has quickly become the center of Cape Town's "hippest" new hood. There are tons of great restaurants, bars, boutiques and art galleries lining Bree Street and the neighboring Loop Street and Long Street. Our 2nd evening in Cape Town luckily fell on the city's monthly First Thursday event. For one evening every month, the city comes alive as dozens of galleries and restaurants keep their doors open late for patrons. A few of our favorite spots along Bree Street to stop for a dinner and drinks are Clarke's and Weinhaus + Biergarten
3. Lion's Head
For the outdoor enthusiasts, there are a multitude of great hiking paths around the city. The most obvious lead you up to the top of Table Mountain. For an alternative option, I'd recommend hiking up Lion's Head. The route takes 1 - 2 hours each way depending on how fast you move. Of course, I'd recommend making multiple stops along the way to fully appreciate the sights. Many argue that the peak offers the best views of Cape Town. From the top, you get panoramic views of the city, including Table Mountain on one side and Camps Bay on the other.
As my friend, Anabelle, would say, "Woodstock is the Brooklyn of Cape Town." This once rundown suburb is now home to the city's most innovate restaurants, retailers and coffee roasters. Abandoned warehouses and factories are now creative mixed-use spaces like the Old Biscuit Mill, Woodstock Foundry and Woodstock Exchange. Foodies shouldn't miss The Test Kitchen, recently named one of the world's top 50 restaurants. For something a bit more laid back, head to its sister restaurant, Pot Luck Club. Both require reservations very far in advance. If you just need a coffee fix, make sure to stop by Rosetta Roastery and Flatmountain Coffee Roasters.
1. Table Mountain
No trip to Cape Town is complete without ascending Table Mountain. Undoubtably South Africa's most iconic landmark, Table Mountain towers over the city in dramatic fashion. There are quite a few routes of varying difficulty hikers can take to reach the top. Otherwise, visitors can ride the fun, rotating aerial cableway. The cable cars will only run when the weather is optimal. If it's too windy, service is suspended. Weather can be fickle in Cape Town. Therefore, rather than planning your visit too far in advance, I'd recommend ascending Table Mountain as soon as you get a window of clear weather. Make sure to save plenty of time to explore the summit.