Cape Town is one of the world’s most beautiful cities. From almost any vantage point, there’s a mountain or an ocean in view, and often both.
The weather is notoriously fickle – it’s easy to experience four seasons in a day, and some residents keep a jacket, an umbrella and a bathing suit in their cars all the time, to prepare for any eventuality.
But that just reminds of the variety of things to do. If it’s too cloudy to hike on the mountain, then there’s art galleries, wineries and beaches. Swim with a penguin, burrow deep into the city’s history, or just walk along cobblestone streets and take it all in.
Recent water shortages may have tested the city’s resolve, but it’s still one of the planet’s most extraordinary destinations.
Here are 30 of the best things to do in Cape Town when you travel here:
Best things to do in Cape Town
Cape Town is defined by Table Mountain. Locals give directions based on whether to drive towards or away from it, and by which side of the mountain something is on.
The mountain affects weather, views, and in a particular way, moods. When the day is clear and the mountain’s edges are crisp, life just seems better.
The top is easily accessible by a cable car, with tickets available online in advance. When the clouds roll across, park officials close the top until visibility improves.
Hikers can walk all the way up (but never alone, for safety). Among the plants that cling to the rocks are species not found anywhere else in the world.
This is a unique ecosystem that feeds off the moisture in the clouds themselves.
Simon’s Town/Boulders Beach penguin colony
Officially part of Table Mountain National Park, the Simon’s Town penguin colony is down the coast from the city center, on the way to Cape Point.
Once, this was a regular neighborhood where a group of penguins had rather unexpectedly decided to take up residence on the beach, and in the gardens of the homes along the shore’s hillside.
Over the years, as more and more visitors arrived, the beach became more organized to accommodate visitors, with designated boardwalk paths to prevent the accidental trampling of penguin nests.
But at the far entrance, the beach’s original charms remain, where bathers can still get in the shallow water and wait for a penguin to swim by.
In the small community of Kalk Bay, art galleries and boutiques line the main road, with restaurants and bars overlooking the ocean.
Across the street and under a pass, families bring children to swim in tidal pools that protect against currents and keep the water (relatively) warmer.
Down by the marina, past the smarter dining options, is Kalkies’, which serves up Cape Town’s best fish and chips on picnic tables.
District Six Museum
Before apartheid, District Six was a mixed-race neighborhood where freed slaves, migrants, workers and merchants lived together.
In the early 20th century, blacks were forcibly removed, and in 1966 it was declared a whites-only area. Bulldozers razed homes, and tens of thousands of people were forced into the scorching Cape Flats on the outskirts of the city.
The District Six Museum recreates the vibrant life that existed before the removals, and the trauma caused by the displacement.
District Six Museum, 25A Albertus St & Buitenkant Street, Zonnebloem, Cape Town, 8000; +27 (0) 21 466 7200
Part butchery, part restaurant, part social hub, Mzoli’s is known by many names. including Mzoli’s Meat, Mzoli’s Place, KwaMzoli.
They’re all the same place – a butcher’s shop that people dress up to visit, buy fresh meat and cook it one of the open flames on a home-style braai, or BBQ.
Mzoli’s is in one of Cape Town’s biggest townships, Guguletu, where it attracts tourists, locals, celebs and an array of beautiful people.
Mzoli’s Place, Ny 115, Guguletu, Cape Town, 7751; +27 (0) 21 638 1355
The notorious Robben Island prison that held Nelson Mandela and other heroes of the liberation struggle is now a museum, unique in that the tours are given by former inmates.
While the prison itself is a sobering window on the conditions suffered by political prisoners, it’s the first-hand accounts that give life to the place.
The only access is on a ferry that leaves from the Waterfront. Tickets are best booked online well in advance, as tours fill up quickly.
When Europeans first settled at the Cape, this is where they planted their gardens to feed settlers and ships plying the trade routes between Europe and Asia.
The gardens were named after the Dutch East India Company.
Now they’re a gorgeously landscaped space that runs from St. George’s Cathedral, past the Parliament and the National Library, and up to the posh Mount Nelson Hotel.
Company’s Garden, 19 Queen Victoria Street, Cape Town; +27 (0) 21 444-1901
Near St. George’s Cathedral and the entrance to the Company’s Garden, Slave Lodge is a museum to an often-overlooked chapter of South Africa’s past.
The Dutch East India Company built the structure in 1679 to house its slaves. Up to 9,000 slaves were kept inside its walls.
Revealingly, the building was later used as government offices, parliament, and the Supreme Court. Now it houses displays that show the conditions slaves suffered through during their voyage to the Cape, examines the conditions of their lives, and traces the fates of their descendants.
Slave Lodge, Corner Adderley and Wales Streets, Cape Town; +27 (0) 21 467 7229
Cape Wheel at the Waterfront
The Waterfront attracts tourists from around the world, and during the peak summer season the piers can get crowded with shoppers and sightseers. But worth a ride is the Cape Wheel, a 40-meter high Ferris wheel with enclosed cabins that offer dramatic views of the mountains, the city and the sea.
Cape Wheel, Dock Rd, V & A Waterfront, Cape Town, 8000; +27 (0) 21 418 2502
The Old Biscuit Mill
So named because the site was once in fact a cookie factory, it’s now the trendiest weekend market in the city, the sort of place that sells more than one variety of homemade kombucha, but also healthy portions of fancy French fries and gourmet burgers.
There’s also permanent businesses here, including The Test Kitchen, one of the country’s top-rated restaurants, art galleries, a coffee roastery and designer ceramics.
The Old Biscuit Mill, 375 Albert Rd, Woodstock, Cape Town, 7915; +27 (0) 21 447 8194
Cape Town’s Atlantic coast is fronted by park space that runs from Mouille Point to Sea Point, past lighthouses, public swimming pools, and sculptures for visitors to engage with — whether by taking selfies or letting children clamber over them.
The Promenade is prime jogging space, but also a perfect spot to watch the sun set.
Bo-Kaap’s brightly painted homes along cobblestone streets make the neighborhood a postcard image of Cape Town.
But it’s also one of the city’s most culturally distinct areas.
After emancipation, many freed slaves settled there. Their culture became known as Cape Malay, a fusion of the cultures from across Asia that comprised the slaves’ heritage.
Biesmiellah’s restaurant serves up a fine menu of traditional Cape Malay cuisine, now claimed by the city at large.
Kirstenbosch National Botanic Garden
At the foot of Table Mountain, Kirstenbosch preserves the plants of the Cape which aren’t found anywhere else in the world.
Trails from the garden lead to the mountain top, but it’s easy to spend the day wandering among the plants and marveling at the many varieties of proteas growing throughout.
During summer months, the gardens host a popular series of outdoor concerts for picnickers.
Kirstenboch National Botanic Garden, Rhodes Dr, Newlands, Cape Town, 7735; +27 (0) 21 799 8783
The drive past Chapman’s Peak is the sort of route favored for car commercials: a winding road that clings to the edge of the mountain, with a sheer drop to the ocean below.
The cliffs are prone to rock slides, which means the road is sometimes closed.
Driving conditions are routinely posted to the Chapman’s Peak Drive website and to the Chapman’s Peak Facebook page.
The Cape of Good Hope offers spectacular scenery along winding roads that end at Cape Point.
Even by car, exploring the park takes the better part of a day, but cycling or hiking through the park makes for more adventure.
The road ends at a visitor center, with a restaurant and a trail to the lighthouse atop the hill.
The Flying Dutchman Funicular ferries visitors to the top, but the walk includes many stops for a rest and photographs of the ocean crashing into the cliffs.
The Labia Theatre
This art-house cinema is the oldest in Cape Town, and retains many of the theater’s original features, including the seats, ticket booth, and the concession stand.
Originally a space for performing arts, it now shows art films, cult classics and foreign films.
The Labia Theatre, 68 Orange Street, Gardens, Cape Town; +27 (0) 214245927
The Fugard Theatre
Located in District Six on a site that housed textile suppliers and a gothic church, the Fugard Theatre is an anchor of Cape Town’s cultural life.
There’s a cinema and two performance stages, as well as a rooftop bar.
The Fugard Theatre, Corner Caledon & Lower Buitenkant Street, District Six, Cape Town, 8001; +27 (0) 21 461 4554
The oldest buildings at Babylonstoren, an historic Cape Dutch farm turned hotel and restaurant, are among the oldest in the Cape, dating to 1690.
But the food embraces modern notions of farm-to-table dining, with many ingredients produced in the farm’s gardens.
The wine is award-winning, and the guest rooms are simple but stylish takes on country living.
Babylonstoren, Klapmuts Simondium Road, Simondium, 7670; +27 (0) 21 863 3852
Spier Wine Farm
Spier is one of the best-known wine farms in the Cape, with the excellent food and wine that the region is known for, but also a vast collection of contemporary South African art, sprawling and child-friendly grounds for picnics, and quirky tours that can be done by Segway and occasionally by steam train.
Spier Wine Farm, R310 Stellenbosch, Stellenbosch; +27 (0) 21 809 1100
This small town is just an hour from the city, settled by French Huguenots who left a culinary tradition that turned it into one of the world’s great gastronomic destinations.
With only 20,000 people, Franschhoek’s restaurants and wines routinely feature on lists of global greats.
High tea at the Mount Nelson Hotel
This luxurious hotel across from the Company’s Garden puts on a high tea that’s the stuff of storybooks.
Either indoors or on the terrace, the treats are delectable and the teas come in glass pots, to show off the floating leaves and petals as they infuse.
Mount Nelson Hotel, 76 Orange St, Gardens, Cape Town, 8001; +27 (0) 21 483 1000
Dancing at Marco’s
Marco’s is one of the best choices in Cape Town for sampling African food.