The (not so) Beginner’s Guide To Cape Town and the Western Cape

Cape Town Lion's HeadMy girlfriend and I have spent one year and a half in Cape Town. We enjoyed it all so much, the people, the landscape, the culture. Now I want to share the knowledge that we gathered with you.

What I (will) write down here offers insider tips which might even be useful for locals as well as my personal view on the obvious attractions. It ranges from high-high-high recommendations to some places that might only be interesting for some of you.

I write this in English so even Capetonians and other non-Germans may benefit from our experiences. Originally I wanted to get this proofread, of course. But that would have been another time-killing step – and I haven’t got this text online for many months now, so I decided to put it online as it is. (I crave your indulgence and you’re most welcome to suggest corrections.)

Also, when I started to write this, I had in mind to name my very top-10 things to do. Quickly I realised there are a top-10 in at least ten categories. So I’ll do this step by step and begin with rounding up the usual sightseeing suspects. (So don’t let you get irritated by the critic tone of this first post.)

(For those who don’t know: This blog is mostly about all the hobbies I start (i.e. I only start and do not gain mastery), which is why I named the blog „Der Angänger“ – ‚the beginner’ in German.)


X-raying the highlights

The Beginner’s view on the guide book musts

When you pick a random guide book about Cape Town, the always same things will be offered as highlights or musts. To me, only Table Mountain is such a must, at least one in its own right. The V&A Waterfront and others I would rather recommend because of their sidekicks.

The V&A Waterfront

The touristy Waterfront... But there's a hint of wilderness as you'll find seals close to the Clock tower.

The touristy Waterfront… But there’s a hint of wildness as you’ll find seals at the Clock tower.

We were living close to the V&A Waterfront and it grew closer to us the more we (gradually) became locals. As long as we felt like tourists it seemed to be not much of an attraction. The Waterfront is a shopping and dining area built on the grounds of the Cape Town harbour. As far as I know, it was an exemplary project that was followed by many many similar projects worldwide (e.g. Melbourne, Oslo, Vancouver).

The Waterfront is still a harbour

The Waterfront is still a harbour

As I said, when you’re a tourist, go there, see it, go ahead. The restaurants and cafés are – obviously – more expensive than elsewhere.
For us it merely offered the closest super market, book store and cinema. The waterfront is also good for a save stroll in the night.

Robben Island

Wächst Gras über die Geschichte?

Wächst Gras über die Geschichte?

Another reason to go to the Waterfront is the ferry to Robben Island, another not-so-must „must“. Of course, the place where the late Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for so many years is a memorable site of national significance. But as a tourist activity it might not be worth the time and money. You will be pushed through the island like no other tourist place. Personally I felt disappointed. I feel, as a German who has visited several Nazi concentration camps, Robben Island didn’t make an impact on me. I know this is a dumb point if any point at all. But the prison is only a prison and didn’t give me a feeling of what happened to the majority of the South African population. It felt more like a been-here-done-it place to do some Madiba worship. (I’m sure there are better places to worship his heritage and I tell you where these are when I find out myself.)

Waterfront seen from the water.

Waterfront seen from the water.

Another thing that the trip to Robben Island is famous for is the great view on Cape Town with the mountains. But if you just want to see Cape Town from the water you can also book a more satisfying harbour boat tour (e.g. with the Aquarium’s Ocean Adventurer) or just drive to the beaches of Table View, Milnerton or Blouberg at the other end of the Table Bay.

Long Street and the city centre

Enjoy Long Street by night - with knife and fork

Enjoy Long Street – with knife and fork

While the Waterfront may be the only single „top attraction“ in Cape Town itself, you’ll definitely find the odd place in the city centre marked as a highlight. Long Street for example, the street with the beautiful colonial style („Cape dutch“) houses that room shops and bars now. Long Street is Cape Town’s night life hub. (Rumor has it all these houses were to be replaced by new buildings if two young businessmen hadn’t bought all of them and put bars into them.)

The Iziko National Gallery in the Company's Garden

The Iziko National Gallery in the Company’s Garden

Bo-Kaap, the so-called ‚Malay quarter‘ with its colourful houses, is another city centre highlight as well as the Company’s Garden, a delightful little park. Green Market Square is beautiful but touristy and crowded. Your fault if you buy anthing there that you get cheaper other places.
All of these places can be seen on an afternoon, unless you opt for visiting one of the places I recommend later on. The Red Bus, a hop-on-hop-off sightseing bus is also a good option to tick off all these locations early on.

Castle of Good Hope

Not much to say. For South Africans it’s the oldest building in the country, something that any schoolchild was bored of. For Europeans it’s probably less interesting than the castle near your hometown.

Cape of Good Hope

German tourist at the Cape. (Say "Cheese", mum.)

German tourist at the Cape.
(Say „Cheese“, mum.)

You’ll notice that many highlights are out of town, most notably the Cape of Good Hope. I agree that it is a must to see the tip of the peninsula, but rather for a) the „been there“ factor and b) the surroundings.
There are two „capes“: the actual cape and Cape Point with the lighthouse. While you wouldn’t notice the cape if it wasn’t for the sign with the many German tourists posing in front of it, Cape Point is the more stunning rock in the sea. You can take a boardwalk from Cape Point to the cape to make it a nicer experience.

Reward yourself and go further than most.

Reward yourself and go further.

At Cape Point you should also go further than most tourists who only make it to the lighthouse. On the stairway just before you take the last steps to the lighthouse, there’s a quite hidden path leading further to the end of land which I like a lot. It makes you feel like leaving tourism behind you.

Ostrich at the Cape of Good Hope.

The cape is situated in a national park with beautiful fynbos vegetation. If you’re lucky you can spot ostriches and antilopes. The hikes you can do there will probably enhance your visit to the cape. If you have the time. I never reached to walk there as the trip from Cape Town to the cape and back is a full day trip – if you visit other destinations on the way such as Chapman’s Peak Drive or the lovely towns of Fishhoek or Simon’s Town.


The mountains around Franschhoek

The mountains around Franschhoek

The other big must in the surroundings of Cape Town are the winelands. They don’t always appear as oppulent and mellow as European winelands. Don’t get me wrong, the winelands offer great sceneries, but the African sparingness takes a toll if you expect lush green hills. But if your eyes are open for it, that sparingness will offer breathtaking views and free your mind. The wineries themselves are often very beauti- and delightful. I’ll review some of them later on. The stunning Four-Passes-Tour is an ideal route to explore the winelands in one day.

Kirstenbosch and Table Mountain

Now, there we go.

Kirstenbosch Gardens

Kirstenbosch Gardens

Visiting South Africa is about it’s history and its nature. Walks and hikes are the way to explore the beauty of the country. Here’s now where the usual musts cover my personal ones – especially the two that my next post will start with: the wonderful Table Mountain and the inimitable botanical gardens of Kirstenbosch.