“Must” in South African
These Cape Town Must-Dos are one part of our 5-Part Cape Town Upside Down Series, where we dump out all the city’s best things to do, eat, and see for you to discover.
Ask a South African about any of the following things to do in Cape Town and they’d say you “must” do them all.
But that doesn’t mean you have to. Not at all.
As we learned during our six months living in Cape Town, “must” has a different meaning here. It’s less of an order and more of a suggestion.
So if a Capetonian says, “You must join us for drinks,” they really mean, “Come for drinks if you feel like it.”
And when we say you “must” do the following things in Cape Town, we mean the same.
…Well, except for a few of them. For a few Cape Town must-dos we really mean it.
5 True Cape Town Must-Dos
For these things to do in Cape Town, we really mean it when we say you must do them.
0. Visit Cape Town
We wont’ count this as a top 5 Cape Town must-do because it’s too corny. But it’s still worth beating you over the head with.
We’ve been to many, many cities and, without exaggerating, we can’t think of another in the world that so easily caters to every possible type of visitor, budget, and need while consistently exceeding newcomers’ expectations.
So if you’re still wavering about whether Cape Town is worth a visit, let’s save you from wasting any more time:
1. Get a View from Above
Hike Table Mountain or Lions Head or take a scenic helicopter ride—or all of the above—as soon as you can upon arriving in Cape Town.
The views of the city and its astounding surroundings will not only have you wondering if your boss might be cool with you relocating here, but it also gives you a better grasp of what’s where in and around the city.
2. Go to the Beach
Like “must,” “stunning” is another word that Capetonians use too frequently and have a loose definition of.
But when they say “stunning” to describe their beaches you can take their word for it. Cape Town’s beaches are Hawaii-esque, with turquoise water, soft white sand, and a marvelous mountainous backdrop. The water’s just way colder.
Even if you’re too big of a wimp to jump in, go to Clifton, Camps Bay, Muizenberg, Bikini Beach, or whichever other beach you choose. Admire the scenery, experience South African beach culture, and very likely, observe a swimsuit model doing all sorts of absurdly unnatural and uncomfortable poses for a photo shoot.
3. Visit Wine Farms
Even Kim’s mom, who has never had an alcoholic drink in her life agrees that visiting wine farms is a Cape Town must-do.
With opulent architecture, fabulous wine farm to table food, glamorous gardens, and scenic settings, the wine is just an added bonus.
In our 10 Most Unique and Unforgettable Wine Tastings in South Africa, we share our favorite estates to visit.
4. “Pitch Up” at a Weekend Market
“Pitch up” is South African slang for “show up” or “arrive.”
And you’ll overhear a lot of South African slang like that if you go to the Oranjezicht (pronouncedoh-ran-yeh-zikt), Neighborgoods, Bay Harbour, or Blue Bird Garage weekend market.
Each market has a slightly different vibe and selection of items, but they’re all a big deal to Capetonians. They go in their most casually stylish outfits to see and be seen as they fill wicker baskets with produce, eat painstakingly plated food from the vendors, and drink rooibos espressos and gin and tonics.
5. Hit the Highway
To get a full appreciation for Cape Town as a whole—its beautiful setting, not-so-beautiful Cape Flats underbelly, an incomparable variety of everything—you must rent a car.
For a mega-scenic drive to remember, we recommend going along the Atlantic Seaboard towards Noordhoek, over to Kalk Bay, along False Bay to Bikini Beach, down the R44 to Betty’s Bay and back to Gordon’s Bay via Sir Lowry’s Pass to visit wine farms in Somerset West and Stellenbosch before returning to Cape Town.
Here it is on Google Maps.
If you can’t drive, hire an Uber driver for a day (they’ll be happy to take an all-day gig) or jump on the ubiquitous, and surprisingly worthwhile, hop-on, hop-off buses.
Things You Must Do in Cape Town if…
If you’re here between November and March…
Pack a picnic with a bottle of wine and go early to get a decent seat at a Sunday Kirstenbosch Summer Sunset Concert.
Don’t be too picky about the music. The setting and atmosphere are what you must not to miss.
If you can’t drive yourself…
Take advantage of the City Sightseeing hop-on, hop-off bus.
It’s an inexpensive (R200 for the day) and informative way to get around the city, to Constantia’s wine farms, and along the scenic coastal roads to Hout Bay.
If you’re here more than a couple of weeks…
That’s long enough for you to definitely be able to earn your money back and then some with the Entertainer App.
The Entertainer gives you hundreds of 2-for-1 deals to restaurants and attractions around Cape Town—check out our Cape Town restaurants post for some of our favorites.
It costs between R300 and R500, depending on what promotion they’re running, minus another 10% off if you use coupon code UNCONVENTIONAL2019, so it only takes a few meals for the investment to pay off.
If you’re tired of wine and want a microbrew…
Go to Drifter Brewing, our favorite of Cape Town’s microbreweries.
Drifter’s little tasting room, which you have to walk past their brewing equipment and up into the mezzanine to get to, is microbrewing at its finest.
It’s intimate—the guys who work there will happily tell you all about their beers and gladly give you tastes of what’s on tap.
And it’s innovative—they always have some new, unusual creation available for you to try, such as their Anything Gose Oyster Beer or their Ocean Aged Beer, whose barnacled bottles prove it was aged on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean for a year.
Cape Town’s Woodstock neighborhood, where Drifter is located, is microbrewery central. Try the Brewers Co-op, a co-working space of brewers where you can try small-batch beer from one of 14 brewers who work out of the space.
If you enjoy going to the movies…
Go to the Labia Theatre, an old-school movie theatre with old-school prices (R55 each) that shows mostly artistic films.
Bring your own wine (or buy it there for as little as R100 a bottle), buy some popcorn for R20 a bag, and enjoy the type of atmosphere that is well-worth leaving Netflix at home for.
If the weather’s nice…
Have a sunset picnic atop Signal Hill.
Signal Hill is a 350m-high ridge that separates the Sea Point “suburb” (South African for neighborhood) on the Atlantic Coast from downtown Cape Town.
Pack a bottle of wine, a blanket, and some snacks and join a hundred or so others, and handful of helmeted guinea fowl, on the paragliding take-off platform to watch the sky explode with color as the sun drops beyond the horizon.
If you want to go shopping…
Go to Lower Main Road in Cape Town’s Observatory neighborhood for vintage clothing, the Watershed at the V&A Waterfront for more artisanal creations, and Kloof and Bree Streets in the City Bowl for fancier things.
If you want to see all of Cape Town…
To get a true appreciation of all of Cape Town, you must get away from the wealthy, mostly-white slopes of Table Mountain and explore the less-wealthy Cape Flats.
We highly recommend Khayelitsha, South Africa’s second largest township.
Do a walking or biking tour with the guys from 18 Gangster Museum, who will answer every possible question you will have and share info you wouldn’t think to ask; eat, drink, and dance at Rands, perhaps our favorite place to go out to in all of Cape Town; and get a smoothie from the Spinach King, a coffee from Siki’s, and a gourmet meal from 4roomed eKasi Culture.
As you’ll see when you go, this isn’t “slum tourism.” Most of the aforementioned businesses are in a comfortable middle-class part of Khayelitsha and run by Cape Town University graduates.
You’ll be as happy to have gone as they will be to see you.
If you aren’t easily offended…
Go to the V&A Waterfront’s Cape Town Comedy Club.
In addition to being hilarious, the jokes you’ll laugh at along with a hundred or so other audience members will give you an honest insight into race, culture, and politics in South Africa.
The only challenge is fully understanding all of the accents, slang, and references. Chalk that up to being part of the travel experience.
And if you’re brave…
Ask to sit at the very front of the club. You’ll have a good chance of interacting with and being teased by the comics during the show.
If you enjoy walking tours…
Take part in one of the Cape Town free walking tours.
There are three to choose from; the Historic City, Bo Kaap, and Apartheid to Freedom. Based on our experience, we recommend the latter two over the Historic City tour.
All depart multiple times every day from the front of Motherland Coffee downtown and last about an hour and a half.
Or if you prefer to walk at your own pace…
Try a VoiceMap walking tour.
The VoiceMap app offers high-quality, immersive, GPS audio tours. The selection and quality of the Cape Town tours are especially excellent because the company’s based here.
If you don’t want to hike alone…
Join a MeetUp group on one of their regular group hikes.
The Meridian Hiking Club is the biggest group. They organize hikes for all levels every weekend.
For more adventurous hikers, our friend Chris recommends the Interesting Hikes, Outings, and Events group.
Or, for a private guided hike with Cape Town’s most knowledgable mountain guide, we highly recommend Justin Hawthorne. (And if you’re new to Airbnb Experiences, you can save on your first one with our discount code here.)
If you need some caffeine…
Go to one of Cape Town’s world-class cafés.
For freshly roasted beans that don’t cost a fortune, visit Deluxe Coffee. For incredibly fast wifi and no judgement if you stay a couple of hours, visit any of the Bootlegger locations. And for more coffee, a couple of our other favorite Cape Town cafés include The Strangers Club in Green Point, Ground Art Caffe in De Waterkant, and Haas Coffee in the CBD.
If you want to eat something local…
Try some Cape Malay cuisine.
When slaves were shipped into Cape Town from India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and East Africa they brought with them their traditional recipes, but not all the ingredients they needed to cook them. They adapted with whatever they could find and out their ovens, pots, and pans popped Cape Malay cuisine.
Staples include curries, bredies (stews), samoosas, and bobotie (minced meat pie).
To be honest, we aren’t the biggest fans of any of these dishes. They’re generally too sweet instead of spicy. And they tend to be overpriced at the most renowned (i.e. touristy) Cape Malay restaurants in the Bo Kaap. But give them a taste and judge for yourself.
If you like gardening, botany, or herbs…
Learn about fynbos.
Fynbos (pronounced fayn-boss) is a type of vegetation found only in the southern tip of Africa. Composed of over 9,000 different species of plant, more than 6,000 of which can’t be found anywhere else on the planet, its biodiversity actually exceeds that of the jungle.
To see and learn about these unique, often beautifully colored, and sometimes tasty plants, visit Kirstenbosch Gardens, do an educational hike with our friend and fynbos fanatic Justin of Table Mountain Treks and Tours, or participate in a foraging class with ever-energetic Roushanna of Veld & Sea.
If you like gin and tonics…
Eat a lot of bread to absorb the alcohol because you’re going to have a field day in Cape Town.
G&Ts are the drink here.
Fynbos (see previous Cape Town must do) is a particularly popular botanical and the variety of gins they make from it is about as diverse as the vegetation itself.
If you’re a runner…
Starting from the Green Point Lighthouse, run along the Sea Point Promenade and continue on the road past Clifton until you get to Camps Bay. It’s about 9 kilometers.
And, if you’re in Cape Town on a Saturday, join hundreds of other exercise enthusiasts on the weekly 5-kilometer parkrun, a free weekly timed running event. [Shoutout to our friend runnin’ Rebecca for this recommendation!]
If you play volleyball…
Check out Beach Bums to join Coach Jerome for a training session or play in a tournament, which happen almost every weekend from January through March.
If you’re here on the first Thursday of the month…
Head downtown for First Thursdays, where many art exhibits and shops open up to the public and the streets overflow with pre-weekend partiers.
Our experience is it’s not as exciting as it’s caught up to be, but we went to four of the six First Thursdays that took place while we were here, so maybe our actions speak louder than our words.
If you’re hungry…
Grab a bite at one of our 25 Favorite Cape Town Restaurants for 25 Different Occasions.
If you’re on a budget and not pressed for time…
Take the Cape Metrorail train to Simon’s Town.
The train is slow (it takes about 90 minutes to cover the 40 kilometers to Simon’s Town) and unreliable (there will be delays), but you can’t beat the price (R16.50 each way) and the ride in itself—the fellow riders and the sights—is an experience.
To make a day of it, explore Simon’s Town, walk by the penguins at Boulders Beach, take a R10 bus to Kalk Bay for lunch at Kalky’s or Olympia Café, then meander along the St. James Walkway to Muizenberg.
Tip: We found the second class cabins to be more comfortable than first class.
If you want to impress your partner with an amazing day in Cape Tow…
Watch this video of the “perfect” day in Cape Town I planned for Kim’s birthday and plan something like it:
Things You Must Consider (But Not Necessarily Do)
Some of our friends who did the Robben Island tour said they treasured the opportunity to set foot in such an important part of Cape Town’s history and learn more about it.
Others found it to be over-touristy with under-enthused guides who rehashed facts they already knew.
Based on these mixed reviews, we decided it wasn’t worth 3.5 hours and R360. Read the reviews, both good and bad, talk to others who’ve done it, consider your alternatives with that time and money, and decide for yourself.
Cape Point is another of the top things to do in Cape Town that we never did.
While all our friends who’ve been tell us it’s beautiful, there’s no shortage of beautiful areas to explore elsewhere for a much lower fee than the R303 that foreigners have to pay to get into the park.
Boulders Beach Penguins
Boulders Beach is undeniably scenic and you can’t help but smile when watching penguins waddle around, but you don’t necessarily have to pay the R152 to go into the park.
You’ll see plenty of penguins by walking along the boardwalk outside of the park too and enjoy similar scenery at the adjacent, free beaches. That’s what we did as part of our day trip by train (see above) and we have zero regrets.
You can also see just as many penguins and way fewer people at a completely different location, Betty’s Bay’s Stony Point penguin colony. It’s right on the scenic drive we recommend above in #5 of our true Cape Town must-do.
Or, if you really love penguins, go to both!
Cape Town Museums
Kim and I aren’t the best people to talk to about museums, so feel free to ignore everything we write here.
But, for what very little it’s worth and for those who are similarly meh about museums, here are our takes on the ones we visited in Cape Town:
- District Six Museum: Too much to read and not enough to move us to spend more than half an hour there.
- Iziko Slave Lodge: Much more easily digestible than the District Six Museum. We found the displays about the history of slavery in South Africa to be moving and informative.
- Zeitz MOCAA (Museum of Contemporary Art Africa): Full of what-the-f*ck art like all modern art museums and the building itself is architecturally impressive, but it wasn’t our preferred way to spend R190 and a couple of hours. (Though, as Rebecca points out in the comments, it’s half-price after 4 p.m. every first Friday of the month, which makes it a better deal.)
- Cape Town Diamond Museum: A decent way to kill some time at the V&A Waterfront and learn about the history of diamonds in South Africa. It’s free, but you have to stop by or contact them in advance to book a tour.
Starting in the 1990s, some smart businessmen polished up Cape Town’s neglected harbor, added a Ferris wheel, a huge mall, some restaurants, and a few fancy hotels and renamed it the V&A Waterfront. It’s since become a top destination for weekending locals, vacationing South Africans, and international visitors.
There’s nothing uniquely Capetonian or South African about the V&A Waterfront—you could swap it with Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco or Dubai’s Marina and nobody would tell the difference—but it’s a pleasant, safe, and pedestrian-friendly place to walk around, shop, and grab a bite.
I thought the Reinventing the Tavern of the Seas GPS audio tour by VoiceMap (mentioned above) gave a quick and interesting history of the area.
Shark Cage Diving
Some of our friends who went shark cage diving say it was an unforgettable thrill. Others were underwhelmed. A few didn’t see any sharks at all.
It’s expensive (about R2,000 each) and inauthentic (your boat will likely be amongst a handful of others baiting sharks to come over), but a chunk of the proceeds go to conservation, so go ahead and join a tour if that’s how you want to spend one of your precious days in Cape Town.