Travel South Africa. Cape Town Travel Guide for First Time Visitors

Updated May 2023.

This travel guide is full of up to date tourist and general travel information and travel inspiration for first-time visitors to Cape Town in South Africa.

Places so good you have to see them: Cable Car Ride, District Six and the District Six Museum, Camps Bay and Clifton Beaches, Kirstenbosch Gardens, Robben Island, Sunset Beach, Bloubergstrand, Zeitz MOCAA, Franschhoek, Constantia and Stellenbosch, Cape Point.

Cape Town, the metropolis at the foot of the grandiose Table Mountain is one of the sexiest towns on earth. The cultural mix and laid-back lifestyle make the town a hot spot for literally everybody who loves travelling. The Mother City, that is great coffee, fabulous local design and shopping, trendy bars, world-class restaurants, a gruesome recent history, traditional and modern wineries and finally, breathtakingly beautiful nature and scenery. This ideal combination is a recipe for success and attracts tourists from all over the world. You can visit Cape Town over and over, the excitement and wonder you feel will surely never cease.
Travel South Africa. Ten fantastic things to do - Cape Town for Beginners

I have lost my heart in so many places but there is one place where I lost it just a little bit more. Can I say that? I believe I can say that wholeheartedly. I fell in love the moment I arrived for the first time in Cape Town all these many moons ago. Cape Town today looks so very different to ten to fifteen years ago. If you look only a few years back, some places have changed completely. Whereas in days gone by there were areas where there weren’t many people around and it could happen that you were the only one. These days are long gone. Now there are grandparents playing with the kids in the park, sun saluting yogis, runners getting fit, loved-up couples enjoying the view of the ocean and people walking their dogs. There even is lots of public art. Cape Town really is moving fast forward. And what I love so much is they do this without losing the sense for their heritage.

When I get asked “what is the best thing about Cape Town?” or “what is it we really have to see” I can never decide since there are so many fantastic things to see and do in this city. I will start right at the very beginning, assuming you would have never been to South Africa or Cape Town in your whole life. Here is a list for Cape Town beginners. If you can’t fit it into one visit, there is always time for a second or third one.

Cape Town For Beginners - Ten fantastic things to do in Cape Town

Cableway - Cable Car Ride

Table Mountain is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, an important part of the Cape Floristic Region and the single richest floristic area in the world. In June 2019, Table Mountain was named Africa's Leading Tourist Attraction at the Africa & Indian Ocean World Travel Awards (competing against Mount Kilimanjaro and the Ngorogoro Crater in Tanzania and the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt).

Go on a cable car ride up Table Mountain. After a five-minute cable car trip to the top of Table Mountain, 1 089 metres above Cape Town, you can start to explore the plateau. Three hiking trails start directly at the Upper Cable Station. Walk in a group and leave only footprints. If the weather changes (that can happen very fast), the cable car service might be stopped, and you have to be prepared to hike back down.

While you wander around you have 360-degree views of Cape Town, Table Bay, the surrounding mountain ranges and Table Mountain National Park. There is a lot of fynbos vegetation on the mountain, with over 1 460 different species of plants. With a little bit of luck, you are going to meet Rock hyraxes or as they are locally referred to, dassies. These little furry fellas don’t belong to the big five though but are the elephant’s closest living relative. Free thirty-minute guided tours happen on the hour from 9am to 3pm daily, departing from the Twelve Apostles Terrace (below the café).

Alternatively, you can also walk to the top, there are several options (best to hike in a group).

For more information, inclusive ticket prices visit the Table Mountain Aerial Cableway website.

District Six and the District Six Museum

Visit District Six and the District Six Museum to learn about the forced removal of people from this inner-city area during Apartheid. Everybody should visit District Six museum (at least once) to learn what happened in Cape Town and South Africa during apartheid. History fans can also go on a boat tour to Robben Island.

Book Tip District Six: The author Nomvuyo Ngcelwane grew up in the Cape Town borough of District Six. In her book, "Sala Kahle, District Six," she tells her story about growing up in the dynamic and friendly atmosphere of a tight knit community. The book is an exciting read, and albeit republished after two decades, it is as fascinating as it is disturbing still, to see what life under apartheid looked like. Hard to imagine that a whole community was forcedly removed and is now lost forever.

Nomvuyo Ngcelwane. Book cover "Sala Kahle, District Six

Information District Six Museum. 25A Albertus St &, Buitenkant St, Zonnebloem, Cape Town, 8000, South Africa. Hours: Monday to Saturday 9am to 4pm. Closed Sunday. Tickets: adults ZAR 45, children ZAR 15. They need every visitor, so that they can keep telling the world about Cape Town's history.

Speaking of reading, you might want to check out 69 books to read before you visit South Africa.

Camps Bay and Clifton Beaches – Look. See. Watch

Sun lovers flock to Camps Bay and Clifton. For the ultimate wow feeling have sunset drinks in Camps Bay after a long and exhausting day on the beach (or I might better say after a day at one of the many beaches). Camps Bay and Clifton are ideal places to see the latest in bathing fashion. The water is a bit nippy. If it is a hot day, see how you can manage the cold sea temperature which is at around 18 to 19 degrees Celsius in summer. You will certainly be wide awake after a swim.

Parking is free of charge; in summer it is not easy to find a free spot. Tip the parking attendants with ZAR 10 or more, for a few hours.

Kirstenbosch Gardens - UNESCO World Heritage Site

Kirstenbosch is one of the most stunning botanic gardens of the world. There is flora galore all around the eastern slopes of Cape Town’s Table Mountain. Kirstenbosch and the Table Mountain National Park form part of the Cape Floristic Region Protected Area that was proclaimed a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004. The name Kirstenbosch (Kirstens forest) was first used in 1795 in a document, whereas its origin remains unclear. There were Kirstens living in town at the time, but they never owned parts of the land in the area.

People have been living in this area over the millennia, hand-axes and stone implements of the Stone Age were found. The Khoikhoi people were using this land for cattle grazing and had been here for thousands of years. Jan Van Riebeeck, and the Dutch East India Company arrived as recent as in 1652. Soon the settlers needed timber and farmland and the forest area needed to be managed to secure the ongoing supply of wood. That led to heated arguments between the locals and intruders obviously. What do you do to keep people out? Exactly right, you cordon the area off. In 1659 Jan Van Riebeeck built a wooden fence and watchtowers, from the mouth of the Salt River through Rondebosch to Kirstenbosch, making use of the Liesbeeck River, Wild Almond trees and thorny brambles as a natural barrier. Some of the tracks the woodcutters made through the forest are today still in use as footpaths or access roads.

During the second British Occupation in 1811, Kirstenbosch was divided into two halves and sold. Over the coming decades the occupants and their families, built houses and planted orchards, vines and oak trees. Towards the end of the nineteenth century Cecil Rhodes purchased Kirstenbosch, he planted more trees, but the land soon fell into ruin. When he died the government inherited the land in 1902, and Pines and Eucalypts were planted. By 1913 the decision was made for a Botanical Garden in Kirstenbosch and by 1913 a Botanical Society was formed. For the first decades, work was usually done manually. Trolleys, mules, and carts came in handy when the principal features of the garden were established.

The area covers 528 hectares, of which 36 ha is cultivated and the rest is a protected area supporting natural forest and fynbos. Kirstenbosch can be explored on a number of walks and trails. Check out the Cycad Amphitheatre, the Bath stream and the Dell, Colonel Bird’s Bath, the Main Pond, Mathews’ Rockery, the Koppie, the Protea Garden, the Erica Garden, Arboretum, and the living plant collections.

One of the stars of Kirstenbosch is the Centenary Tree Canopy Walkway. Called tree snake (Boomslang), the steel and timber bridge winds and dips its way through and over the trees of the Arboretum. Start on the forest floor and walk into and through the trees above the canopy, to enjoy the magnificent view of the surrounding mountains, Garden and Cape Flats.

125 species of birds have been recorded in Kirstenbosch. Look out for Sugarbirds, Sunbirds Steppe Buzzards, Spotted Eagle Owls, Guinea Fowls, Egyptian Geese and Cape Francolins. During your visit chances are you might see Water mongoose, Cape clawless otter, striped mouse, grey squirrels and Small grey mongoose. Then there are also all the ones who live in the park, but you probably won’t ever meet them. The Grysbok, the Caracal/Rooikat, the Small spotted genet and Cape fox, and the Cape porcupine are all active at dusk, or during the night.

During the year there are lots of events taking place, like art exhibitions, fairs, art workshops, Garden talks, guided bird walks. In summer there is the Kirstenbosch Summer Concert Series, where I already have seen local stars like The Parlotones, Freshlyground, and The Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra, as well as international acts like Bryan Adams and Ronan Keating. A true highlight of the concert series is the Carols by Candlelight Christmas event. Bring a blanket, a picnic and drinks; be nice and take all the rubbish home. Check the Webtickets website for all info and buy tickets online. 

Audience at an open-air concert.

Information Kirstenbosch. Rhodes Drive – Kirstenbosch, Newlands. Visit the Kirstenbosch SANBI website for opening hours and ticket prices.

Robben Island from Nelson Mandela Gateway at Victoria and Alfred Waterfront

Visit the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront to go to the Nelson Mandela Gateway to hop on a ferry to Robben Island and for a little bit of retail therapy, music or a ride on the Cape wheel.

Until 12,000 years ago Robben Island was part of the mainland. As the sea level rose, a channel was created between the Island and the mainland. What we see today as Robben Island is the pinnacle of a submerged mountain. Fast forward to 1498, when the first recorded landing on Robben Island by Europeans was made. A group of Portuguese sailors took refuge and spent the night in a cave.

Ever since the 16th century the island was used as a convict colony - first under the Dutch, and later under the English. The Khoikhoi lived in this area when the Dutch arrived. The ones who spoke out against the settlers and resisted colonisation where imprisoned on Robben Island as punishment.

Nelson Mandela, President of South Africa from 1994 to 1999, was imprisoned by the apartheid regime on Robben Island for 18 of 27 years of his imprisonment. Mandela endured brutal conditions, beatings, humiliation and hunger, he was kept solitary in an isolation unit, he had to do hard labour for years in the quarry on the island, visits were only allowed every few months, personal letters had to be kept short.

Robben Island is UNESCO Wold Heritage site. The island's buildings, particularly those of the late 20th century such as the maximum-security prison for political prisoners, witness the triumph of democracy and freedom over oppression and racism.

Some of the tour guides are former prisoners. It is a win win situation in the new democratic South Africa. They can bring recent history closer to local and international visitors and share their stories and create an income at the same time.

As Nelson Mandela said, "Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world." Go and visit Robben Island, learn from history and understand why it is important to support democracy, and to vote in general elections.

When you get back to the mainland, the urge for shopping can perfectly be cured here at the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, as well as in Cavendish Square or on everybody's darlings Bree and Kloof Street in the CBD. 

Walk from Sunset Beach to Bloubergstrand

Beach walk from Sunset Beach to Bloubergstrand, you surely won't believe your eyes. Most of the time, the tablecloth (cloud) formation over the mountain will change within moments. Kite surfers find amazing conditions at Sunset Beach or Big Bay. You can walk for hours; it is a magnificent stretch of land.

Eat Koeksisters – South African Doughnuts

Try Koeksisters at one of the many Cafes. Imagine this as a traditional South African doughnut that comes in two versions. This little pan-fried treat is sweet and dripping wet from syrup, covered in cinnamon, lemon and ginger.

In Cape Town one often gets the Cape Malay koeksister which is made from a spiced flour- and sweet potato dough (cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, aniseed and cardamom). After the dough is formed into pieces and pan-fried, individual pieces get soaked in cinnamon syrup and covered in coconut. The Afrikaans version is made from plain flour, plaited and pan-fried in oil and soaked in a ginger syrup.

This delicacy is just as sweet as a balmy summer day in Cape Town.

Visit Zeitz MOCAA – Museum of Contemporary Art Africa

The Grain Silo Complex at the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, built in 1924 and once the tallest building in Cape Town, is forty-two 33-metre-high concrete tubes, each with a diameter of 5.5 metres. The space has been completely redesigned, and it pays tribute to its original industrial design and purpose wonderfully. After you enter the museum, there is a film on display where the designer Thomas Heatherwick explains how he cut through the structure as if it was butter. Fascinating. They put a luxury hotel on top of the Zeitz MOCAA, and if you can't afford to sleep there, simply book a table at the restaurant to experience it.

Zeitz MOCAA is a public not-for-profit contemporary art museum which collects, preserves, researches, and exhibits twenty-first-century art from African artists and of all the African artists living elsewhere in this world. There is art on nine floors in over one hundred galleries: international, temporary exhibitions, centres for art education, curatorial training, photography, the moving image, and the costume institute.

In their first year ZEITZ MOCAA welcomed over 350,000 visitors, and that made them the most highly attended art museum on the African continent. As part of the “Access for All” initiative, 100,000 of these visitors were welcomed for free. African citizens can enter the museum for free on every Wednesday between 10am and 1pm when they bring a valid ID.

Info ZEITZ MOCAA. V&A Waterfront, Silo District, S Arm Rd, Waterfront, Cape Town, 8001, South Africa. Visit the website for ticket prices and opening hours.

Winelands - Franschhoek, Constantia and Stellenbosch

Go on a wine tasting tour and have a picnic at a winery if weather permits. Make your way to the Franschhoek, Constantia or Stellenbosch wine regions. The Stellenbosch wine route was established in the early 1970s and ever since then, it developed into what it is today. Many winemakers constantly receive international awarded wine awards. Visitors can tour the cellars, and the South African winemakers are usually happy to chat with guests and answer all (wine-related) questions. Overall there are hundreds of wine farms to visit, and it is also always a great idea to check local papers for food and wine tasting events at the farms.

Cape Point - The almost southernmost point of South Africa

Cape Point is not the southernmost point of South Africa, that one is in Cape Agulhas. Visit the lighthouse, enjoy the view over a large variety of fynbos and the ocean, smell the salty air, look at Chacma baboons (do not feed or try to pet them, ever). You probably even will see zebras and tortoises. It is busy in summer, remember everyone would love to see this place, they are just visiting for the same reasons as you. Cape Point is the most magnificent place.

Visit Cape Point over the following route: From Cape Town drive along Chapman’s Peak Drive for a magnificent experience. Stop in Hout Bay for a true community feel. Stop in Noordhoek for a dream beach and country lifestyle. Stop in Kommetjie for the lighthouse. Stop in Scarborough for the mist over the ocean. Visit Cape Point National Park for the views of the ocean and to meet baboons and most probably turtles. Make your way back: Stop in Simon’s Town for the penguins. Stop in Kalk Bay for Antique stores. Stop in Constantia for dinner at a winery. Go back to Cape Town to go to sleep totally overwhelmed but most certainly in love with South Africa.

Information Cape Point. Visit the SANParks website for all you need to know for a visit.

As with every popular vacation spot, Cape Town is obviously busy during the summer from November till February and especially so around Christmas (hey, everybody loves this town as much as you do), but you can still find places where you will be blissfully alone. What are you waiting for? Go and visit Cape Town now. The ‘Cape Town For Beginners - Ten fantastic things to do in Cape Town’ article is just the start. There is so much to see and experience in Cape Town.

How to get to Cape Town

You can catch a direct flight from most capital cities in Europe, with some connections you would have to stop in Johannesburg on your way. From Australia it is great to fly via Singapore, and from the US you can, for example, fly via Doha.

Best time to travel to Cape Town

The climate is moderate all year round. The summer season runs from November to February, and it is busy. You could visit in the depth of winter and catch mild and sunny days, whereas the evenings are chilly.

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