We lived in South Africa for many years, and while in the Western Cape we spent many happy days finding out about all the fun things to do in Cape Town.
Deep within us I believe there’s an ancient tug, linking us to special places where the sights, sounds and smells come alive on a primal level. For me, South Africa ranks highly on my tug-ties, as if it’s an old virus running through my veins, although I am neither African nor Afrikaans by birth.
In 1994 Nelson Mandela called South Africa a ‘Rainbow Nation’ referring to his hope for national unity, but for many who visit this complex country, the myriad of sights and experiences are also rainbow-like and saturated with colours so vibrant they take your breath away.
The most southern tip of South Africa is no exception and its fair Cape is like a smorgasbord.
There are so many things to do in Cape Town, not just the city itself but if you are considering Cape Town as the jumping off point for the region I hope you’ll find this post full of helpful ideas and suggestions for places to see on a short trip to the Western Cape.
When it comes to intense colour splashed across dramatic landscapes the Western Cape is at once theatrical and imposing, and there are many places to see in and around Cape Town which will take your breath away.
Fun things to do in Cape Town
When you arrive in Cape Town, you’ll probably first be drawn to the city where you’ll find fun things to do both day and night.
If you choose to you can stay clear of Table Mountain and the obvious tourist traps and head out, either north, east or west.
For us one of the best routes is to take off on a road trip criss-crossing from Cape Town to Somerset West and Stellenbosch to Franschhoek, and then back to Gordon’s Bay and on around False Bay to Kleinmond. You’ll find history, landscape and architecture in technicolour.
In 1679 Willem Adriaan van der Stel became Governor of the Cape and was subsequently granted a verdant expanse of virgin land along the Lourens River, close to present day Somerset West which must, even then, have seemed like Shangri-La.
In this fertile valley about 45 minutes from Cape Town, he planted vines, orchards and corn fields, and established Vergelegen in 1709. Today Vergelegen with its 300 year old camphor trees is a renowned wine estate with an aged Cape Dutch homestead nestling beneath the hauntingly beautiful Helderberg Mountain.
Loursensford Estate, below was once part of neighbouring Vergelegen.
At the Helderberg Nature Reserve on the outskirts of Somerset West I sit below this mountain which looms above me brooding like a giant, its lower reaches covered with proteas, its fynbos (the major vegetation of the Cape Floral Kingdom) alive with sugar birds, while The Hottentots Holland mountains in the distance are ragged and topped by a tablecloth of white cloud.
After a morning’s walking around Somerset West you might choose to drive along the R44 to Stellenbosch (South Africa’s second oldest town) and wander down shady avenues lined by oak trees, or daydream and weave stories around the ornate Victorian cottages.
Who lived here, and what did they do you might wonder as you stroll along Dorp Street breathing in the history, stopping for a coffee at a bustling al fresco cafe before continuing along country roads perhaps once old wagon roads, towards golfer, Ernie Els’s more modern wine farm with its far reaching views, and impressive cellar door.
If it’s colour and drama you’re after, then the road trip from Stellenbosch to Franschhoek ensures that the wow factors just keep coming as you drive over the picturesque Helshoogte Pass (unworthy of its demonic appellation), under the serrated Groot Drakenstein Mountains and onto Franschhoek which is set within a tranquil valley surrounded by vineyards cradled in a natural basin of mountains.
If you have time stop in at Boschendal Wine Estate between Stellenbosch and Franschhoek.
Franschhoek actually means “French Corner” for in 1688 approximately 200 Huguenot families (French Protestents) fled persecution in France during the reign of King Louis XIV. They were given grants to farm the land along the Berg River and brought with them French traditions and wine making skills, which are still evident today.
So much so that the village has become known for its wine and its gastronomic cuisine and is sometimes called South Africa’s food and wine capital. You’ll enjoy browsing its art galleries, antique shops and curio shops and if you’re lucky you might arrive when the lilac Frangipani and purple Agapanthus are blooming. If you do you shouldfind some around the lily-white lines of the Dutch Reformed Church on the main street.
Food and wine in Franschhoek are cosmopolitan and sophisticated, and it will be hard to drag yourself away from the cordon bleu treats and the berry, banana and chocolate flavoured Pinotage you might choose to drink al fresco under the trees at the acclaimed Le Quartier Francais restaurant.
After lunch perhaps you might head for the beach and drive to Gordon’s Bay, once a small fishing harbour now a holiday town with Mediterranean overtones, where the aptly named Bikini Beach and the longer Main Beach provide two different swimming spots.
Gordon’s Bay was named after Colonel Robert Jacob Gordon, a Dutch military officer and commander of the Cape garrison during the late 1700’s.
By the late 19th Century the town had an obtuse reputation as the future Brighton of South Africa but today it’s a little more Monte Carlo with al fresco restaurants along Beach Road, small gabled houses in the old village, a classy yacht harbour where I enjoy fresh Kingklip, and a beachfront that includes a shady avenue of Milkwood trees.
A drive-less-travelled leading to Rooiels, which rivals the more famous Chapman’s Peak skirting Cape Town, is Clarence Drive; beautiful, at times precarious, and originally constructed by Italian prisoners of war.
Do stop at Kogel Bay where surfers will probably be bobbing in the waves like seals, and then take photos of the wild and rocky coastline before squealing with joy when you see a pod of Southern Right Whales ‘beaching’ and playing with their young not far from your viewing spot. From June to November Southern Right Whales are attracted to the warmer waters and food supplies of False Bay, where they give birth to their calves and nurse them until they’re capable of travelling.
Twisting and turning between massive mountains of buckled and contorted sandstone which are part of the ancient Cape Fold Belt, the most pronounced feature of the Cape, the ribbon of road winds on along the eastern shoreline until in front of you you’ll see Hangklip, the tip of False Bay, jutting out high above the small coastal hamlet of Rooiels where there’s an inky lagoon leeched with minerals that give the water a sepia tint.
Harold Porter National Botanical Garden
Then the road sweeps up over a short pass, away from the sea and inland to the Fynbos Coast towards Pringle Bay and the Harold Porter National Botanical Garden, a private estate bequeathed to the National Botanical Gardens in 1958. About two hundred hectares now stretch from the mountain top to the coast with tranquil gardens, and nature trails leading through fynbos, proteas, ericas and more, set like kaleidoscopes of glittering jewels against the mountainside.
And so you have travelled from one supposed Shangri-La to another more real, because Harold Porter originally named his private estate, Shangri-La.
Having seen and experienced it, well, it’s quite obvious why – paradise is certainly a word that comes to mind, and once again I’m feeling the primal pull of that ancient tug.
Colourful things to do in Cape Town
- For cocktails, crustaceans and antique shops, head to Kalk Bay (above)
- Visit Cape Town’s, Cape Malay Quarter, for pastel shades and historic houses.
- Dassiesfontein Farm Stall, this is an amazing emporium of farm produce and products.
- Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens are pretty at any time of year.
Adventurous Things to do around Cape Town
Shark Diving and the Big 5 of the ocean – try Gansbaai
Romantic Things to do around Cape Town
Accommodation – for absolute luxury and seclusion try Grootbos Private Nature Reserve.
- For summer concerts, Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens and also Paul Cluver Wines’ amphitheatre.
- Attend the vibrant ‘Kaapse klopse’ minstrel carnival in Cape Town.
Game Reserves and Safaris near Cape Town
Wine Estates around Cape Town
For wine estates and restaurants let the pin land randomly on the map around Franschoek, Stellenbosch or Somerset West. There are so many old and architecturally beautiful cellar doors to visit. Old Cape Dutch homesteads with beautiful gardens and fabulous world class wines and restaurants vie for attention with the breathtaking scenery.
Free things to do in Cape Town
If you’re on a budget, there are plenty of free things to do in Cape Town itself. Walking up Table Mountain or Lion’s Head are fabulous outside attractions offering breathtaking views – something which we loved to do often.
Other places to visit in Cape Town include The Victoria and Albert Waterfront which is gorgeous just to stroll around, have a cuppa or a bite to eat and watch the passing parade.
Walk around Cape Town’s vibrant streets, or head to the Company’s Garden. Company’s Garden was once the place for ocean-weary travellers who once arrived years ago, new to a strange and distant land. Today this green patch is bordered by the busy streets of the CBD, but winding avenues of oaks, lawns and the mosaic of indigenous herbs and succulents are ideal for a few hours spent lazing away a few free hours.
Days out in Cape Town
- Take a trip to Robben Island which has become synonymous with the former leader of the free and democratic South Africa, Nelson Mandela, who spent 18 years in its maximum security prison.
- Table Mountain (hike up or cable car and abseil down – if you’re brave). The quick ride in a cable car will give you a bird’s eye view of the sprawling City Bowl. The summit can also be reached on foot via a variety of beautiful trails. Take a picnic and make a day of it.
More things to do in Cape Town
- Shop the market at Greenmarket Square for souvenirs. I love this market, one of Cape Town’s oldest, set on a cobbled square. There are so many trinkets and fabrics and African wares for sale. This is where Capetonians have been buying their clothing, jewellery, sandals, crafts and nick-nacks for years although these days African curios predominate.
- Wine and Dine – gastronomy and world class wine are not to be treated lightly when in Cape Town. So seek out the best and latest top dining venues.
- Visit The Mount Nelson Hotel for high tea just because (it’s gracious and historical) and The Cape Grace Hotel and Spa located on the waterfront if you’re after somewhere super ritzy to stay.
Accommodation in Cape Town
Looking for somewhere to stay? For the best prices and last minute deals click here.
Looking for tours to book? Book tours, attractions, and activities online here
Leaving South Africa
When we left South Africa I had so many mixed emotions – read more about what I loved deeply about the country in this post : Life in South Africa
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Have you visited Cape Town? What tips do you have? And my friends who still live there – please let us know your suggestions in the comments section too 🙂