Cape Town. A city of unmatched beauty with its landmark Table Mountain and scenic Cape Point. A city that survived the apartheid and emerged more united in their national patriotism.
All this and so much more inspired my first trip to Africa. My husband, Ryan, was traveling to Cape Town and Johannesburg as part of his master’s studies at Montclair State University. South Africa was on my under 20 bucket list, so immediately I knew I was tagging along.
At first, I was hesitant about traveling in Africa alone, but I found the city to be safe and welcoming if I was smart and planned ahead.
This trip was everything I hoped for and more. Read on to explore this incredible destination…
DAY ONE // THE LONGEST FLIGHT EVER
The flight from JFK -> Cape Town is one of the longest passenger flights in the world. It’s a 14-hour direct flight to Johannesburg, then a two-hour flight from Johannesburg to Cape Town. I’m used to traveling for work, often on transcontinental flights, so it didn’t bother me, but it was a struggle for my 6’4” husband.
We flew on South African Airways which was enjoyable enough, except one half of the plane lost TV and internet connection. Guess which side of the plane we were on? You bet. 14 hours with no entertainment. So, that was a rough start to the trip, but I’ll tell you now, it was worth it.
DAY TWO // ARRIVAL IN CAPE TOWN & FIRST NIGHT OUT ON THE TOWN
We had heard ahead of time that we should use caution at the airports in Cape Town and Johannesburg. When we arrived in Cape Town, we did fall victim to a taxi scam. We went to a taxi booth and confirmed where we needed to be driven to. The man said he would walk us to the taxi. Instead, he walked us to another man who would take us and asked for a tip. That man did the same thing. Three men later we ended up at our taxi after tipping each person. Normally we would have made an issue out of such a blatant scam to get additional money from tourists but being in a foreign country with a reputation of police corruption, we just did what we had to do to be safe. I would recommend arranging car transport from a reputable company before arrival.
We stayed at the Southern Sun Waterfront Hotel which was conveniently located and beautifully decorated. The hotel included some nice amenities, including a delicious breakfast buffet, free shuttle to the city center, rooftop bar, reasonable salon, and friendly, helpful staff. The only negative is that they were in the midst of construction and there was noise from the renovation around the clock. Overall, I would recommend this hotel to anyone who travels to Cape Town.
After we unloaded our luggage, Ryan, his classmates and I hopped on the hotel shuttle to the city center for some dinner at Karibu Restaurant. We had our first taste of South African cuisine and enjoyed a musical performance from a local group. Dinner cost us $40 pp. for appetizers, meal, dessert, and lots of wine. It was a great way to start our trip.
Afterward we ventured out to experience the Cape Town nightlife. The first stop was Mitchell’s Scottish Ale House which has a casual atmosphere and great live music.
Several of us decided to move on and explore Long Street, an area known for its bohemian hangouts and selection of bars. I should note that while this area has the most thriving nightlife in the city, it has been reported to be an area where petty theft is common, so be sure to keep your wits about you. We had a great experience and found the locals to be very friendly and welcoming.
We did some bar hopping and enjoyed dancing to South African music and drinking local cocktails.
DAY THREE // CAPE POINT & STELLENBOSCH WINELANDS
Ryan’s school program started today so I was now on my own to explore the city. When traveling solo, I often like to arrange tours with Viator. Prior to arrival, I booked a morning half-day Viator tour, operated by Hylton Ross Tours, to visit Cape Point. Cape Point is the southernmost tip of the African continent and offers scenic views of the mountainous coastal landscape.
The tour guide, Andre, picked me up from my hotel, and I joined three Americans for our morning adventure. We enjoyed scenic views of the Atlantic coastline as we began our journey.
Our first stop was at Chapman’s Peak, followed by Cape Point. You have the option to take the Flying Dutchman Funicular ride up, but I decided to walk it. It was a cloudy morning but it cleared up just as we arrived at Cape Point and the view was spectacular.
On the return ride, we stopped to see African penguins at Boulders Beach. So cute!
There is also an option for a full-day Cape Town tour option if that interests you.
Andre brought us back to the City Center where I had lunch with my three new friends from the tour. They were going shark diving in the afternoon and invited me to join them. If I didn’t already have a tour planned I would have tagged along just to watch them as the waters surrounding Cape Town are supposed to be some of the most highly shark-infested waters in the world.
Andre picked me up at the City Center for a half-day tour of the Stellenbosch Winelands. South Africa is known for quality wine production, especially Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Riesling.
During the afternoon tour, I was joined by a mother and daughter from Nebraska who were so sweet. We had a lot of laughs that afternoon as no one from South Africa knew where Nebraska was. The daughter, Emma, is a real adventurer and told me about all of her escapades during their trip, including bungee jumping off of the highest point bridge in the world, swimming with alligators, riding an ostrich and rappelling down Table Mountain. It seems this is a great city for those looking for extreme thrills.
We visited two wineries in Stellenbosch which were both lovely. The first included a buck parade, which was hilarious to watch. The second included a full tour of their facilities and I purchased a bottle for $7 USD.
After a full day, I returned to the hotel to change for dinner. I joined Ryan’s class for dinner at GOLD Restaurant. This is a must-do if you want to fully experience the South African culinary and musical culture!
When we arrived, we were taught how to play local songs on drums. We were then treated to a 14-course menu with live drumming and Mali puppets. The show told archetypal African stories through live performances. The food and the entertainment were both terrific.
We ended with a nightcap at the hotel rooftop bar. Cape Town was already exceeding all expectations!
DAY FOUR // ROBBEN ISLAND, TABLE MOUNTAIN & CAMPS BAY
Robben Island is a 45-minute boat ride from the Nelson Mandela Gateway at the V&A Waterfront. Robben Island is now a South African National Heritage Site, as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but it once served as the prison that held Nelson Mendela during the apartheid.
I had an 11 a.m. scheduled tour and boarded the boat excited to start the day. Let me say – the boat ride was really rough. I’m one of those people that can read in a car and never succumb to motion sickness, but this ride was both terrifying and nauseating. I’m going to chalk it up to it being a windy day with strong seas, but if you are prone to seasickness, you might want to reconsider. I also heard that we were traveling on one of the original boats that was used to transport the convicts, so that might have played into it as well.
Upon arriving on the island, we were put on buses for a 45-minute tour of the island. I was placed on a bus with all French people, which was a little frustrating because everything needed to be translated for me.
I was also disappointed with the content of the tour. They seemed to focus more on the village people who live and work on the island than the history during the apartheid.
The tour improved once we left the buses and continued on a 45-minute walking tour of the jail. The tour was given by a prisoner who was detained there for seven years, so his personal account made for an interesting tour experience. He told us he was arrested for “terrorism” during the apartheid when he tried to help rally and fight for equal rights in education. He didn’t serve with Nelson Mendela but he did show us his cell and where they used to censor all letters that came in for the prisoners.
I thought it was a touching conclusion to the tour when the prisoner told us that he has forgiven the government and is happy to give these tours and know that he played an important role in the country’s history.
Ryan’s afternoon business trip ended early, so I met him and his classmates at Table Mountain. The ride up in the gondola is not for the faint of heart, but the view from the top is stunning. It’s probably the most beautiful place I’ve ever been to.
Afterward, we changed quick at the hotel and rushed over to Camps Bay to watch the sunset. With Table Mountain behind us and the ocean straight ahead, the sunset was breathtaking. Words really can’t describe the beauty of this corner of the world.
Note that there were a lot of locals on the beach trying to sell knickknacks, but overall it was a safe area. I wouldn’t recommend staying there past dark on your own.
We walked to dinner at the nearby Café Caprice for dinner. The food was just ok, but the cocktails and ocean view was worth it.
One of the bartenders recommended a local Cuban bar for after-dinner drinks. They offered hookah and a huge menu of mixed drinks.
DAY FIVE // CITY SIGHTSEEING TOUR
I spend the day on a city sightseeing bus tour that allowed me to hop-on and hop-off at my leisure. I loved having one unscheduled day to just explore and soak in the city.
I went shopping for souvenirs at St. George’s Mall, stopped to say a prayer in St. George’s Cathedral, and walked past the Parliament building. I visited the South Africa Museum which had some really cool cave painting artifacts and life-size animal replications.
My favorite part was enjoying the windy coastal ride. I even spotted a few dolphins. I decided to walk along the water around the Green Point stop and just soaked in the shoreline beauty.
Afterward, I was ready for some relaxation and enjoyed a one-hour massage back at the Southern Sun Waterfront Hotel. It was heavenly.
That evening, Ryan and I had our first and only date night. We did some souvenir shopping at the City Center mall, took a ride on the Ferris wheel in the wharf, and had dinner at Quay Four (would not recommend).
The next day we would be parting ways: Ryan heading to Johannesburg to continue his studies while I headed to Zimbabwe for three days of solo travel. Check out more details on my Zimbabwe adventures here.
The 16-hour flight from New York is a haul, but it was worth every minute for the beauty and wonder that awaits in Cape Town. If we had more time, I would have loved to have done a safari. The nearby Kruger National Park is supposed to be awesome. We did do a one-day safari in Pilanesburg before flying out of Johannesburg which I’ll write about soon.
Please share your Cape Town adventures and tips in the comments section below.