The best things in life may well be free in nature-immersed Cape Town, where hiking trails crisscross Table Mountain and locals hit the beach before work. The reliably weak rand helps foreign visitors enjoy South Africa’s legendary food and wine at low cost, but the 370-year-old city’s diverse neighborhoods can keep you enthralled without costing a cent.
There’s always something fun to look at along the V&A Waterfront © Ruben Ramos / Getty Images
1. Wander the V&A Waterfront
This historic working harbor has a spectacular setting and many tourist-oriented attractions, including shops, restaurants, bars, cinemas and cruises. A pedestrian swing bridge opens for tugs, fishing boats and various other vessels to pass between the 19th-century Victoria and Alfred Basins – named after Queen Victoria and her son Alfred. Discover the pedestrianized area’s maritime and military history on a walking tour, or just wander to the beat of buskers, checking out The Watershed craft market, the V&A Food Market and Nobel Square’s statues of Nelson Mandela and other South African Nobel Prize winners.
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2. Stroll the city for a tour of culture and history
A wander through Cape Town’s venerable city center is recommended, starting on the commercial and nightlife thoroughfare of Long Street. Partly lined with Victorian-era buildings featuring lovely wrought-iron balconies, the street’s fortunes rose from disrepute to backpacker hangout and gentrification before the pandemic dealt another hand of fate.
The pedestrianized portion of Church Street, between Long and Burg Streets, hosts a flea market and several interesting private art galleries. Burg Street leads straight to cobbled Greenmarket Square, the city’s second-oldest public space, with a colorful craft market and some choice examples of art deco architecture.
Continuing towards the Castle of Good Hope, you’ll come across the Grand Parade, its history more impressive than today’s flea market and car park. The Dutch built their first fort here in 1652; enslaved people were sold and punished here, and jubilant crowds gathered in 1990 to watch Nelson Mandela’s first address to the nation as a free man after 27 years in jail – delivered from the balcony of the Edwardian-era Cape Town City Hall.
The view from atop Table Mountain is one of the best of Cape Town © nattrass / Getty Images
3. Climb Table Mountain
Hiking the trails of varying difficulty on Table Mountain is not only free but a Capetonian rite of passage with sweeping views at the top. The most popular route is Platteklip Gorge, which plows straight up the mountain’s front face, with the option of catching the revolving cable car back down.
From Kloof Nek, the Pipe Track contour path leads towards the buttresses of the Twelve Apostles, with Lion’s Head and Camps Bay Beach on your right. In the same area, Kloof Corner offers a relatively gentle climb, linking with the contour trail along the front face to the lower cable car station of Platteklip Gorge.
Alternatively, climb from the mountain’s Camps Bay side via Kasteelpoort, from Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden via Skeleton Gorge or Nursery Ravine, or combine the two sides by crossing the tabletop plateau in the middle. And if it’s a full moon, strap on a headlamp and follow nocturnal locals up Lion’s Head, where a chain of torchlight snakes up the leonine outcrop. You can also walk (or drive) along the adjoining flat-topped Signal Hill (aka Lion’s Rump), passing a kramat en route to a viewpoint overlooking the Atlantic suburbs.
4. Power-walk along Sea Point Promenade
Strolling along Sea Point’s wide, paved, grassy promenade is a pleasure shared by Capetonians from all walks of life. Once a white-only area, it’s now a great place to observe the city’s multiculturalism. There are kids’ playgrounds, an outdoor gym and several public artworks.
Bo-Kaap is one of the most photographed areas of Cape Town © Subodh Agnihotri / Getty Images
5. Photograph the colorful Bo-Kaap
The ‘Upper Cape,’ with its vividly painted low-roofed houses on narrow cobbled streets climbing Signal Hill, features in most visitors’ Instagram feeds. The area is the traditional home of the Cape Muslim (anachronistically known as the Cape Malay) community, with minarets among the cottages and stalls selling traditional snacks such as samoosas and coconut-sprinkled koe’sisters.
6. Enjoy park life, Cape Town-style
If you’re traveling with children, there’s no substitute for blowing off steam in the park, and the city has some wonderful public gardens. The Dutch East India Company, which founded Cape Town as a refreshment station for its India-bound vessels, established Company’s Garden to grow fruit and vegetables for scurvy-ridden sailors. There are trees dating to that 17th-century epoch and a statue of 19th-century British colonialist Cecil Rhodes, pointing to Cairo with the legend ‘your hinterland is there.’
An eco-legacy of World Cup 2010 is the Green Point Urban Park, which showcases the Cape’s biodiversity and provides a front-row view of Cape Town Stadium. Equally important, there’s a smashing play park and lawns for picnicking, while Deer Park (technically Rocklands Avenue Park) offers monkey-bar fun and an adjoining cafe in mountainside Vredehoek.
Join local families in southern suburbs favorites such as Keurboom Park, where little ones enjoy the tractor climbing frame, bike paths and bluegum fairy village. Slightly wilder, Tokai Park has walking trails through fynbos and pines, overlooked by the mountainous spine of the Cape Peninsula.
Muizenberg Beach is an excellent waterside spot for families © shaun / Getty Images/iStockphoto
7. Bask on beautiful beaches
Looking down from the Pipe Track, you’ll spy some of Cape Town’s most beautiful Atlantic beaches. Separated from a chichi promenade of sundowner spots by palm trees and a grassy bank, Camps Bay is a gorgeous sweep of soft sand. Less appealing aspects include wind exposure and freezing water, so many locals prefer Clifton’s sheltered beaches, which are demarcated by giant granite boulders. With a backdrop of hillside beach houses and Lion’s Head, you can’t go wrong with the scenic quartet, whether for lazy days or candlelit evening picnics.
Further south, Llandudno Beach is another mountain-cocooned gem, while Noordhoek and Kommetjie share the last word in vistas with their views of Chapman’s Peak and Hout Bay. Families enjoy Muizenberg and St James beaches, both lined with colorfully painted Victorian chalets. Located on the peninsula’s False Bay side, both have much warmer water than on the Atlantic coast. On the northern side of town, the beaches of Bloubergstrand have a show-stopping view of Table Mountain across Table Bay, its waters flecked with kite-surfers and windsurfers.
8. Head south to Hout Bay Harbour
Partly given over to tourism with complexes such as Mariner’s Wharf, Hout Bay’s harbor still functions, and you can see vessels under repair on the eastern side beneath the Sentinel peak. This area is also home to the vibrant Bay Harbour Market, where you can catch live music at weekends. While in the Republic of Hout Bay, as the independently minded suburb is nicknamed, head up to Constantia Nek to hike the rear of the Table Mountain plateau or follow the contour trail to Kirstenbosch gardens.
9. Explore Cape Town’s deep south
From Hout Bay, you can continue south along the Atlantic coast via the spectacular Chapman’s Peak Drive toll road – the gateway to the Lentil Curtain, as the hippyish suburbs of Noordhoek and Kommetjie are known. Experience the Cape Peninsula’s laidback southern reaches without paying to enter the reserve at its tip, which is a day out in itself. From the beach town of Scarborough, cross the rocky hinterland to quaint Simon’s Town (the headquarters of the South African Navy) and the African penguin colony at Boulders Beach. You can now head back to town alongside False Bay, stopping for a seafront drink in Kalk Bay or Muizenberg.