Quintessential Cape Town

Planning a visit to Cape Town? Here are the must-visit places to include in your itinerary.

If you’re only coming for a short time, don’t miss my New York Times guide to spending 36 Hours in Cape Town.
And for a comprehensive guide to restaurants, shopping, hotels, coffeeshops, art galleries, and more, check out my Cape Town Black Book for Conde Nast Traveler. And if you just want to search through listings for places to stay, eat, drink, here’s my Cape Town Travel Guide for Travel + Leisure (also handy in app form).

Note: It’s definitely helpful to rent a car while you’re here, as public transportation is just about nonexistent. If you can’t drive manual, make sure you specifically request an automatic (and keep in mind that they are usually in limited supply and cost more).

Also: Even if you don’t need a visa to come to South Africa, you will need to make sure your passport has two blank pages. Read this for more on that not-widely-known rule.

I was Travel + Leisure magazine’s Cape Town Local Expert, so head over there for lists I’ve compiled on everything from Cape Town’s top breakfast spots to beaches to family-friendly hotels.

I blogged about a whirlwind five-day itinerary I planned for my friends that managed to capture a lot of the highlights below. If you’d like to re-create it yourself, read it here.

My Top 15(ish) Things to See in Cape Town:

Cape Point Peninsula drive Chapman’s Peak, Boulders Beach (penguins, anyone?), Cape Point, Cape of Good Hope. To give it justice (and to allot yourself plenty of picture-taking time — you’ll need it), dedicate at least half a day. I wrote about it here, here, and here.

Table Mountain Dominates the skyline (and my logo, above). You can hike it, take the cable car… or, if you’re truly adventurous, abseil your way down. Be flexible with your plans for this — local weather is temperamental, and if it’s deemed too cloudy (which it often is), the Cableway will be closed.

Lion’s Head hike The best views of Table Mountain itself are from neighboring Lion’s Head, which some say is an easier hike than Table Mountain. I wrote a little bit about it here. A nighttime hike is especially popular during a full moon.

Bo-Kaap The city’s Muslim quarter, known for its brightly painted houses in shades of lime, fuchsia, and turquoise — I wrote about the colors a bit here and a shopping guide here. It’s easily my favorite part of Cape Town. You can get guided neighborhood tours by the locals to get a sense of the district’s fascinating history. Great for a photo opp, and the best spot to try the region’s distinctive Cape Malay cuisine — I wrote about that here.

Long Street Heart of the city, with bustling boutiques during the day and bustling nightlife after dark. Grab a boerewor, a spicy, messy sausage (halal, if you’re curious), from a streetside vendor for the perfect late-night bite.

V&A Waterfront Home to great hotels, restaurants, an aquarium, a Ferris wheel, and a gargantuan shopping mall.

Robben Island Prison a boat ride away from the Waterfront, where Nelson Mandela spent much of his 27-year sentence. Make sure you book tickets in advance — boat departures are weather dependent, and bookings are selling out even more in advance in the wake of Mandela’s death.

District Six Museum For a nuanced and personalized look at the impact of apartheid, don’t miss this interactive museum depicting the lives of thousands of families displaced from a multicultural community in the heart of Cape Town. Painstakingly put together with oral histories, documents, and artifacts from the time, it’s truly heartbreaking and moving.

Greenmarket Square Every city has its own tourist-centric market, but this one is definitely worth a visit — especially if you’re on the hunt for a decorative ostrich egg (I bought one with beautiful Qur’anic verses inscribed on it for my parents). I blogged about it here.

Neighbourgoods Market at the Old Biscuit Mill A weekly market featuring a range of food stalls, fresh produce, and crafts and clothing for sale. If you’re in Cape Town on a Saturday morning, a visit is obligatory. I blogged about it here.

Woodstock This once-gritty neighborhood has been reinvented as Cape Town’s design precinct. It’s home to Neighbourgoods, and also to a long stretch filled with artists studios, boutiques, restaurants, and galleries. The one-off shops and co-ops here are your best bet for authentic, locally made souvenirs. The side streets off the main Albert Road drag have some of the most spectacular street art murals adorning the walls of homes. Read more about it here.

Shopping I crafted the ultimate shopping guide for Conde Nast Traveller UK. There is, of course, the V&A Waterfront, the most visited tourist destination on the continent — more so than the Pyramids, even. While it has a lot in one place, at the end of the day, a mall is a mall, and you can get Zara at better prices back home anyway. Your best bets for independent labels are Woodstock and the downtown/CBD area, where you’ll find local boutiques with SA designers like Mungo & Jemima, MeMeMe, Alexandra Höjer, Charlie H, and Missibaba. For interiors, Haas Design Collective is a lovely little gallery and coffeeshop in Bo-Kaap; Ebony is a great concept design store; and Avoova has really interesting decor items made from ostrich shells.

Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden More than 7,000 species thrive here, on the slopes of Table Mountain. It’s also home to open-air concerts and movie screenings in the summer. Check out this stunning pic I took here and a blog post I did here.

Winelands Drive this scenic region about 45 minutes away from Cape Town — Franschhoek in particular has charming hotels and excellent food. (Of course SA is known for its wines, but I don’t drink, so I can’t help you much there!) I wrote about it a bit here and here, and did a guide to Franschhoek shopping here.

Camps Bay If you’re in Cape Town during the summer months (October – March), the beach is going to play a big part in your trip. This is one of the most popular, with locals and tourists alike, and it has a very trendy, bumping, South Beach vibe. Be warned: the the ocean here fairly cold year-round — warmer waters lie on the Indian Ocean.

Safari There are no real safari lodges close to Cape Town — any place that claims it is is really just a glorified zoo. If you can’t make it out to Kruger, there are a few decent places four to six hours away that you could make a road trip out of. I blogged about my visit to Gondwana Game Reserve here.

Where to Stay:

Depending on your preferences, I’d recommend looking for hotels or apartments in one of three general areas. The V&A Waterfront is home to some of the posh big-name hotels, and is a fairly touristy spot that you’ll likely spend a fair amount of time — there are lots of restaurants, a giant mall, museums, and it’s where the Robben Island tours depart from. In the Central Business District, you’ll be centrally located and close to more independent, characterful shops and restaurants and residential neighborhoods. And finally, if you want to stay on the beach, you’ll find some of your best bets along Camps Bay, a trendy, South Beach-like drag, or Bantry Bay, a scenic, exclusive enclave.

If you’re looking for apartment/house rentals or self-catering options, AirBnBs are always popular, but homegrown sites like Accommodation Direct are great for finding reasonably priced local options throughout the area.

For more info…
As you can imagine, I’ve written numerous articles about the region — here are a few in particular that you might find useful in planning your itinerary (see more of my work on the As Seen In… page, or over at my complete portfolio at By Sarah Khan):

Cape Town:

Conde Nast Traveler, Cape Town Black Book
New York Times, 36 Hours in Cape Town
Conde Nast Traveller UK, Shopping in Cape Town
Conde Nast Traveller India, Retail Therapy in Cape Town
Eater.com, The 18 Essential Cape Town Restaurants
Travel + Leisure, Cape Town Travel Guide
Travel + Leisure, Downtown Cape Town Is Loosening Its Tie
Travel + Leisure, Cape Town’s Best Walking Tours
Travel + Leisure, A Cape Town Weekend on $25 a Day
Travel + Leisure, Cape Town’s Bree Street is a Gastronomic Hot Spot
Conde Nast Traveler, Made Here, Buy Here: What You Can’t Leave Cape Town Without
Amuse, Block Parties, Beaches, and Braai in Cape Town
Vogue India, People Are Talking About [fashion]
Elite Traveler, A Place to Stay A While (Cape Town, Winelands, Hermanus, Paternoster)
WSJ Magazine, Bree Street: Cape Town’s Hippest Block
Conde Nast Traveller India, Where to Shop in Cape Town
Conde Nast Traveller UK, Where to Stay in Cape Town
Architectural Digest, Museum Quality
Iberia Excelente, Surf City [Muizenberg]
New York Times, Restaurant Report: La Parada
Travel + Leisure, Local Expert lists
Travel + Leisure, Our Favorite Local Bakeries Around the World
J.Crew, Travel Notes: Cape Town
Elsewhere by ninemsn, First Time in Cape Town? A Guide to the Quick Changing CBD
Elsewhere by ninemsn, Cape Town, Rivaling Australia for Best Brunches?
Indagare, Cape Town Update: What to Know Now
British Airways The Club magazine, Cape Town: Six Reasons to Stay On
Brides, Bucket-List Beaches (Boulders Beach)
Food & Wine, Cape Town’s Best Date Spots
Food & Wine, Cape Town’s Best Restaurants for Groups
Food & Wine, Cape Town’s Best Birthday Bars
Food & Wine, Cape Town’s Best Hangover Cures
Food & Wine, Go List: Cape Town
New York Times, In Cape Town, Local Color Comes in Bright Shades (Bo-Kaap)
Virtuoso Life, Insider’s Cape Town
Virtuoso Life, In the Neighborhood: Get Down to Business (CBD)
New York Magazine, Escape Your Vacation: Cape Town and Paternoster (and Bartholomeus Klip, Grootbos, and Gondwana Game Reserve)
National Geographic Traveler, A Pot of Design Gold in the Rainbow Nation (Woodstock)
New York Post, Be a Cape crusader in Africa’s new design capital (Cape Town design-centric hotels, restaurants, shops, markets)
Conde Nast Traveller India, Cape Town City Guide
Elle Decor, Elle Decor Goes to Cape Town
New York Times, 52 Places to Go in 2014 [Cape Town no. 1]
New York Times, Have Some Dim Sum with your Shirts?
India Today Travel Plus, Cape Town Cool
Endless Vacation, Cape of Great Food
Washington Post, In Cape Town, the Colorful Cuisine of the Cape Malay Quarter
Vogue India, Southern Comfort
National Geographic Traveler, I Heart My City
Fodor’s, Insider’s Guide to Cape Town
Open Skies, Los Muertos Motorbikes
Travel + Leisure, Best Desserts to Try Around the World (Charly’s Bakery)
New York Times, Art Is the Theme at a Cape Town Hotel (One&Only Cape Town)

Road trips from Cape Town:
Conde Nast Traveler, Get Out of (Cape) Town
Architectural Digest, Discover South Africa’s Under-the-Radar Wine Destination: Franschhoek
Bon Appetit, Eat, Drink, and Garden Your Heart Out at Babylonstoren
Conde Nast Traveller India, Perfect Pairings [Cape Winelands]
Robb Report, The Top 21 Destinations for 2016 [Cape Winelands]
Conde Nast Traveller India, Which Vineyard in South Africa Is for You?
Endless Vacation, The Winelands of South Africa [Stellenbosch and Franschhoek]
New York Times, Fine-Art Landscapes at Postcard Prices [Route 62]
New York Times, Chasing Elusive Flowers in South Africa
Departures, Eat, Sleep Shop the Cape [Franschhoek shopping]
Conrad Hotels, Conrad Pezula 1/3/5 [itineraries in and around Knysna and the Garden Route]
WSJ Magazine, African Gourmet [dining in Paternoster]
Fodor’s, Best Day Trips from Cape Town
Ensemble Vacations, Best of Cape Town Cruising

South Africa
New York Times, 13 Curry Stops, 5 Days, in Durban
Food & Wine, Where to Eat in South Africa
Saveur, Eating Bunny Chow in Durban
New York Times, 52 Places to Go in 2015 [Durban, no. 7]
New York Post, Africa on Sale
Guardian, South Africa’s Coolest Cafes
Guardian, South Africa’s Best Bars
Travel + Leisure, Why Durban Is South Africa’s Next Destination
Sunday Times Travel Magazine, Total Guide: Johannesburg
Robb Report, Pink Palace [Four Seasons Westcliff, Johannesburg]
Travel + Leisure, View Restaurant Heats Up Johannesburg Dining Scene
Travel + Leisure, Affordable Safaris
Conde Nast Traveller UK, Off the Wall [Durban]
Conde Nast Traveller UK, Digs of the Week: Royal Malewane [Kruger]
Delta Sky, The New South Africa
New York Times, Asian with an African Twist
The Independent, Satyagraha House, Johannesburg: B&B and Beyond
Conde Nast Traveller UK, Where to Stay: Johannesburg
Four Seasons Magazine, Insider’s Guide to Johannesburg
British Airways High Life, City Hot Spot: Maboneng Precinct [Johannesburg]
New York Magazine, Durban Instead of Cape Town