City Guide to Cape Town

Cape Town And Her Iconic Table Mountain

9. Aug 2022
by Dawn Jorgensen

Table Mountain looms above the city and Capetonians speak of its protective powers. Edged by impressive cliffs and flanked by Devil’s Peak to the east and Lion’s Head and Signal Hill to the west, together forming a natural amphitheatre for the City Bowl and Table Bay harbour. A significant tourist attraction, the mountain’s main feature is its instantly recognisable three-kilometre-wide level plateau.

Arrival by ocean offers the best vantage point, with the flat-topped Hoerikwaggo – in Khoikhoi or Tafelberg – in Afrikaans, visible for miles on approach. The highest point on the mountain is found towards the eastern end of the plateau and marked by Maclear’s Beacon. This stone cairn was erected in 1865 by Sir Thomas Maclear for trigonometrical survey. It is 1,086 meters above sea level (3,560 feet), about 19 meters higher than the cable station at the western end of the plateau. 

Views towards Table Mountain from Bloubergstrand beach

The cliffs of the main plateau are split by Platteklip Gorge, which provides the most direct ascent and was the route taken by António de Saldanha on the first recorded climb of Table Mountain in 1503. Today summitting is made easy by the state-of-the-art revolving cable car which operates from sunrise to sunset daily – weather dependant. On arrival, follow the 45-minute circular route around the top looking out for the markers that indicate the best viewing points. 

The mountain top is often covered by clouds, formed when a south-easterly wind is directed up the mountain’s slopes into colder air, where the moisture condenses to form the so-called ‘tablecloth’ of cloud. Legend attributes this to a smoking contest between the Devil and a local pirate called Van Hunks, who spar over their pipes on the mountain side. 

Hiking on Table Mountain with a view of the city below

There are countless rewarding hiking trails carved into the mountain by avid enthusiasts, although do not be misled, it is a challenging climb, and a professional guide is recommended to light the way. You always have the option of climbing one way and taking the cable car the other if an up-and-down hike is too challenging.

For a touch of adventure, step off the edge at 1000 metres above sea level into pure vertical space with Abseil Africa, lowering yourself down one of the world’s highest commercial abseil locations. If you are brave enough to look, the views towards Camps Bay and the Atlantic Seaboard are breath-taking. It is a short hike back to the upper cable car station afterwards.

Dassie or Rock Hyrax on Table Mountain

Whether opting to hike or take the cable car, a summit rewards with a bird's eye view of the concentrated city below. Enjoy a coffee or bite to eat at the trendy Table Mountain Café – and be sure to keep an eye out for the adorable dassies, or rock hyrax, who call Table Mountain home.

The City Primary Landmarks

Found at the southwestern tip of Africa where the warm Indian Ocean meets its chillier Atlantic counterpart, Cape Town, fondly known as the ‘Mother City’, is where a 17th-century pentagonal fort, a cluster of City Bowl skyscrapers, trendy restaurants, organic markets, a 350-year-old garden, and endlessly beautiful beaches are equally appreciated by the laid-back locals. 

The Twelve Apostles stand tall above Camps Bay, Cape Town

With international flair and world-class service, the city has retained its undeniably African character and charm, as much through its people and merging of cultures, as its diverse attractions. The V&A Waterfront and its glitzy Silo District anchor the Table Bay shoreline, while the beaches of Camps Bay, Hout Bay and Bloubergstrand draw avid sunseekers and surfers. 

The V&A Waterfront at Sunset

The city bowl’s landmark attractions, heritage sites and architectural wonders can be explored on foot. Visit the historic Grand Parade, Castle of Good Hope, and magnificent City Hall, carved from limestone sourced on Robben Island. Seek out the vintage edifices, domineering statues and once ominous Church Square, the original Slave Lodge, and the esteemed Parliamentary Buildings. Spend time in the Company Gardens where the first European settlers to the Cape planted food to trade with passing ships in 1652. 

Colourfully painted houses in Bo-Kaap

Possibly the most photogenic of all is Bo-Kaap, the original Muslim settlement of Cape Town and an area famed for its quaint, colourful houses and cobbled streets. The Atlas Trading spice store has been in business here since 1946 and a museum offers an essential background to this amazing part of the city. 

A Cape Malay woman in Boo-Kaap

At the most south-westerly tip of Africa is the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve, covered in endemic Cape Flora, also known as fynbos, and home to uninhabited bays, rolling green hills and valleys.

A trip to the Cape of Good Hope is popular with visitors to Cape Town

At the tip of Cape Peninsula and 60 kilometres (37 miles) south-west of Cape Town, the reserve falls within the Table Mountain National Park, a declared Natural World Heritage Site. Encompassing 7,750 hectares (19,150 acres) of varied flora and fauna – unique to the Cape, it abounds with antelope, baboons and Cape Mountain Zebra as well as over 250 species of birds. Climb to the original lighthouse and pause at the point for a superb photo opportunity.

Penguins at Boulders Beach

The African penguin colony at Boulders Beach in Simonstown started in 1983 when the first pair was spotted on Foxy Beach. At the time, False Bay was closed to commercial fishing and the newcomers enjoyed abundant food and unlimited breeding sites, with their population soaring. Today the species faces many threats and is listed as endangered but at Boulders they are protected and continue to delight visitors.

A lone penguin, blissfully unaware of its endangered status 

Located a 45-minute ferry ride from Cape Town is Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela spent 18 years of his life imprisoned in a 4 square metre (43 square feet) jail cell. A unique symbol of ‘the triumph of the human spirit over adversity, suffering and injustice’, the island has a multi-layered history and is visited every year by thousands of people eager to understand South Africa’s political and social evolution. A tour includes a visit to the graveyard from when the island was a leprosy colony, the Lime Quarry where Mandela toiled, Robert Sobukwe’s (another black political prisoner) house and the warden’s village. The visit culminates at the now defunct Maximum-Security Prison where thousands of South Africa’s freedom fighters were imprisoned.

Robben Island seen from Table Mountain

Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden lives up to its reputation as the most beautiful garden in Africa. Enhanced by the sheer grandeur of the setting against the eastern slopes of Table Mountain, the garden displays a wide variety of fynbos, including sugarbushes, pincushions and heaths. Plants from all the diverse regions and biomes of southern Africa are grown at Kirstenbosch, including a near-complete collection of cycads. With over 7,000 species in cultivation at Kirstenbosch, it is a plantsman’s paradise. 

Seal at Kalk Bay Harbour

Each year the Cape waters fill with Southern Right Whales which arrive from Antarctica to breed and calf in the warmer waters. Dolphins and sunfish are regularly spotted while sailing or kayaking offshore, and playful seals make their presence known, especially at the V&A Waterfront and at the quaint Kalk Bay Harbour.

To feel like a real local, walk or run the Sea Point Promenade. Bicycles can be rented next to the Sea Point Pools and dropped off at the V&A Waterfront.

Art and Culture in The City

Cape Town is dotted with private art galleries, niche museums and intimate theatres. The Iziko National Gallery in the Company Gardens, Theatre on the Bay in Camps Bay, Artscape Theatre, and the Baxter Theatre are all noteworthy. In regenerated Woodstock, the Goodman Gallery, Stevenson Contemporary Art Gallery and Blank Gallery represent artists from across the country. The District Six Museum, Jewish Museum, and the Iziko South African Museum warrant visits too.

The Cape Town Stadium, seen from Green Point Park, was built for the 2010 FIFA World Cup

In the Silo District of the V&A Waterfront, is the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, a mecca for the art enthusiast. The largest art museum in Africa, Zeitz showcases, researches, and collects the works of Africa and its diaspora. The public not-for-profit museum was commissioned through a public/private partnership between the V&A Waterfront and German businessman, Jochen Zeitz, who has loaned his extensive art collection for his lifetime. 

Sitting proudly over the V&A Waterfront atop the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, The Silo is the city’s hottest property

The collection includes works by eminent artists such as Chris Ofili, Kudzanai Chiurai, Kehinde Wiley, Marlene Dumas, Wangechi Mutu and Julie Mehretu. The building was constructed from the conversion of the 57-metre-tall historic Grain Silo, originally built in 1921 and decommissioned in 2001. The architects aimed to conserve and celebrate the original structure’s industrial heritage, while excavating large open spaces from the 42 densely packed concrete cylinders to form a cathedral-like entrance with acoustics to match, and over a 100 halls to fill with artwork.

Long Street Mural

The Norval Foundation is a centre for art and cultural expression dedicated to the research and exhibition of 20th- and 21st-century visual art from South Africa and beyond. Located in the Steenberg area, it combines the experience of art with an appreciation for nature. The innovative Sculpture Garden, outdoor amphitheatre, exhibition spaces and research library offer a multisensory experience. These are matched by the Skotnes Restaurant and bespoke museum shop.

Cape Town’s Culinary Scene

The Cape’s impressive culinary scene’s strong international influence sees delicate Cape Malay infusions, traditional African fare and rich delights sourced from the surrounding farmlands merge. Add to that the rise of artisanal producers who carefully craft their passion into the finest charcuterie, handmade chocolates, and freshly baked bread, as well as the philosophy of most chefs to have a real relationship with their suppliers, and you will understand why Cape Town has become a mecca for gourmands.

Luke Dale-Roberts at The Test Kitchen, Cape Town

Among the restaurants to receive local and international accolades is The Test Kitchen by Luke Dale-Roberts at the Biscuit Mill, one of South Africa’s top restaurants and listed as one of the 50 Best Restaurants in the World. Other favourites include the Pot Luck Club, Foxcroft, La Colombe, Salsify, Beau Constantia, and The Greenhouse.  

Culinary art abounds in Cape Town

In the City Bowl, Bree Street has established a reputation as the most happening street in Cape Town with many trendy bars and restaurants along this stretch. Among them, Chef’s Warehouse and Grub & Vine. Similarly, Kloof Street is lined with bars and cafés, here Jansen’s, Black Sheep, Kloof Street House, and La Paradiso are ever popular, and for good reason.

A visit to The Old Biscuit Mill is highly reccommended if you are in Cape Town on a Saturday

Capetonians are known for their healthy lifestyle and environmental awareness, it is therefore no surprise that vibrant organic markets dominate the weekends. The Old Biscuit Mill roars to life each Saturday morning as locals and tourists jostle for a seat among the oyster shuckers, purveyors of fine foods and craft brewers – all showcasing their wares. 

Traditional Cape Malay Samosas

Held every weekend in historic Granger Bay is the Oranjezicht City Farm Market, a community-style market for independent farmers and artisanal food. As much about community building and celebrating the culture of Cape Town as it is about the fresh produce, you will find shared tables with views towards the ocean, and an array of delicious food on offer. Maker’s Landing at the Cape Town Cruise Terminal complements these offerings.

The coffee culture is central to Cape Town’s persona with the downtown steampunk Truth Coffee Roasting café one of the finest in the world. Similarly, Tribe Coffee, Deluxe Coffee House and Bootleggers have garnered a reputation as the places to go for your aromatic barista-styled caffeine fix. 

No visity to Cape Town is complete without a visit to the nearby Cape Winelands

The nearby Cape Winelands serve as a natural choice for anybody who appreciates the finer things in life. Take a helicopter ride for lunch, or better still, be chauffeur-driven in a classic 1950s Jaguar to the wine estates in Stellenbosch, Babylonstoren and Boschendal. 

Historic Hotels, Architectural Marvels, Coast-Hugging Villas

Cape Town’s location at the tip of Africa has allowed the city to draw inspiration from the continent, as well as further abroad, and it offers a refined, well-established set of accommodation options. Sophistication and service are key, with natural vistas almost a given. They range from historic five-star hotels to stunning architectural marvels, with exclusive private villas increasingly popular.

Read the guide to the best hotels in Cape Town.

Opened in 1899, the Mount Nelson is the city’s most enduring luxury hotel, and also a favourite for lovers of Afternoon Tea

Navigating the Mother City

Cape Town is an easy city to navigate given the anchoring presence of Table Mountain and the shoreline that skirts it. Self-drive enables exploration, especially into the immediate surrounds, while Uber and metered taxis are available for city hops. All hotels provide a car service for its guests, which is an easy, safe, convenient, reliable, and recommended way to navigate around the Mother City. Helicopter transfers, chauffeur driven classic cars and yacht rentals are wonderful alternatives. Do bear in mind that there is no public transport system to be relied on.

Colourful wash houses on Muienberg beach, Cape Town

Getting there

Cape Town International Airport is well serviced by numerous international airlines, as well as seamlessly connected to countless domestic and regional routes. The city serves well as a stand-alone destination, yet perfectly complements a safari, countrywide road trip or visit to Victoria Falls. searches hundreds of travel sites at once to help you find the best premium travel offers for both flights to and from the city and accommodation in Cape Town.

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