My favourite things to do in Cape Town
Do you remember when you were still in school, one of the first things you’d have to do upon your return after either the summer or winter breaks was to write a composition on “My vacation”. Mine were pretty much standard for most of my primary schooling, mostly because summer and winter holidays were almost always spent at my grandfather’s house. Or as we liked to call it, the farm. And we mostly did the same things, no single activity stands out now but collectively the best years of my childhood. So I wrote the same thing with increasing complexity for pretty much all of my primary schooling career.
Then at the end of standard 5 or standard 6 (can’t quite put my finger on it now) we went on our very first summer holiday, an epic road trip to Cape Town and back with my uncles (3 of my mother’s 4 brother’s or my mama’s). It took us almost 2 full days to drive the 1600km odd from Durban, via the N3 and then N1 because we stopped a few times and well my uncles drive (and it’s still true) rather slow. We stayed at the university dorms, which were empty for the summer and could therefore be rented out and visited most of the tourists spots before returning to Durban along the N2 and N1, visiting Oudsthoorn and the Cango caves on the way back. And I finally had something to write about. But I think entering standard 7 (or 6, I still can’t remember) meant that we had outgrown the “My summer vacation” essay and I don’t think I ever got to write about it. Unless it was in Afrikaans, which was probably 3 years later as i had to wait for my writing proficiency to catch up.
Until early in 2015, I had visited the Mother City only three times after that first summer vacation, first with my family after my return to South Africa from the UK and the second during the 2010 World Cup for the England-Algeria match (that was later voted the most boring match in World Cup history I think) for a one day trip that was epic in its own right and with my friend Maja in 2013. Then, in January last year, my sister relocated to Cape Town I have been finding myself down in the fairest Cape a bit more often. Since the beginning of the year I’ve been down three times already and am already trying to pick out a good weekend for the next one so I have had a chance to explore more and see more of the city than a short holiday would allow. The city still holds a holiday feel to me. Durban will always be home, Joburg represents work and the big city life so Cape Town feels getting away, almost like its on another continent, detached from the rest of the country. And whenever I visit I still love being a tourist in one of the countries most beautiful cities, so the following are my favourite things to do while I am there:
1. Fish and chips (or Vis n tjips)
I thought about it long and hard and there were a few contenders to be at the top of the list, but getting fish and chips came out the winner in the end. My favourite is probably Fish on the Rocks in Hout Bay. I’ve had the hake and chips, calamari and chips and hake and calamari on different occasions and I think they can’t be beat (from the places I have tried at least). Get there on a busy day and you will see almost all the family, or the ladies of the family actually, behind the counter working together to get the orders out quickly. And they have to all be there because on a busy day the line to order can run out of the door and the pick-up point can be a crowd 4 people deep. The large numbers of people probably speaks volumes to the freshness of the seafood on offer and the good value for money combinations.
On the other side of the peninsula if my bearings are correct, in Kalk Bay there are a couple options in Kalkies at the harbour and the Brass Bell, a little way off from the harbour. Kalkies is very similar to Fish on the Rocks but I found the parking small and disconcerting. The Brass Bell is a bit more expensive but offered seating in the ocean (for lack of a better description) with the restaurant built out into the breaking surf. Again parking is an issue with the nearest parking on offer small and usually congested. As a sit down restaurant there are no queues to contend with and you can sit back and watch the waves roll past or even the game on the TV if you so wish.
Cost of hake and chips at Fish on the Rocks was R58 on my last trip. Expect to pay about the same at Kalkies and roughly R120 at the Brass Bell.
2. Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens
Ah Kirstenbosch. Poets of old have written more words of prose about places only half as beautiful. The gardens are a well known tourist destination in the city, on the red bus tour route (not sure which one) and busy most days of the week. And for good reason too. The beauty of the garden is hard to put words to. From the avenue of camphor trees, to the main lawn and up to The Dell, up to the fynbos sections where the Proteas flower in winter and the ericas more in the late summer and autumn and on to the newest addition, the Boomslang canopy walk that lifts you out of the garden and up into the tree tops.
My initial trips to the gardens meant putting on the macro lens and shooting all the different flowers to my heart’s content. More recently you are more than likely to find me with a longer lens on the camera, chasing after the many bird species in the garden. Along with a number of sunbird species there are smaller flycatchers, white eyes and thrushes as well as two resident pairs of spotted eagle owls and some more elusive forest species like lemon doves and apalis. A few months ago I had to explain a couple times to other tourists in the park that no, I was not standing and taking a picture of the same flower over and over again but was actually following a few orange breasted sunbirds around.
The gardens are well serviced with a tea room and the Moyo restaurant and my personal favourite the Vida e Cafe at the entrance gate 1. I am sure picnics are allowed as well if you wish to take one along. There are hiking trails that can be done out of the garden and onto Table mountain behind it, including Skeleton gorge and the contour path. I haven’t ventured up those yet mostly because time is never enough on any visit to the garden. I can spend not just hours in the garden, but days and still not see all that I want to see. You may ask why is this not number 1 on the list and the answer is simple – hierarchy of needs, first you feed your stomach and then you feed your soul.
Entry into the garden is R55 per person. I usually use Gate 1 which usually has sufficient parking. Opening time is 08h00 and closing time is 19h00 in the summer and 18h00 in the winter. There are also Sunday concerts that are often held at the park, I haven’t been to one of those so not sure how that works.
3. Intaka Island
I did not discover this little hidden gem until late last year. Intaka Island is a series of dams (3 I think) set in the heart of Century City. The wetland itself performs essential roles of purifying water and also acting like a sponge during times of heavy rains, sucking up the water and then slowly releasing it over time. But more than that the wetland is a haven for small animals but more importantly for birds. With three different hides set up its a birder’s dream. One hide in particular is set up for the kingfishers in the areas, with strategically places branches for them to do their hunting from. And that one is my favourite. I have spent hours waiting quietly only for the kingfishers to arrive and then disappear again within seconds on a number of occasions. It can get busy with the avid birders in the area all getting there early to stake out a spot. But that also means some interesting conversations with equally geeky birding folk!
Entry to Intaka island is R15 per person and I think opening time is 07h30 in the morning and closing closer to 18h00. Double check the website for details (Intaka Island)
4. The V&A Waterfront
Another very popular tourist spot, the Victoria and Albert (V&A) Waterfront is the marina and habour that the boat to Robben Island leaves from. There is also a shopping precinct, the aquarium and a few galleries (one of my favourites is in the Clocktower building) in the area that are all worth visiting. Again, more than just tourism, I have my own reasons for visiting. There used to be a very nice fish and chip restaurant near Quay Four, but that closed down a few years back. On that epic one day trip down to Cape Town to watch England we had lunch at that place and it was awesome with the whole waterfront abuzz with English supporters. So its not food per say, although there are some good restaurants. And it’s not birds or photography, because mostly its too busy.
I mostly visit for tea and coffee. The mall has a Nespresso store that I almost always make a stop by. Truth be told, I have developed an addiction for Nespresso. I think that they must lace the pods with some dependence forming substance, could just well be the coffee but I’m sure there’s a secret ingredient. So after a few days in Cape Town I usually develop withdrawal symptoms and have to visit the store to get a free sample coffee. Cheaper way to get a good coffee as well. I then also make my way across to the tea merchant store and get a few flavours of their specialty brews. Falling in love again which is a fruit tea blend with passion fruit and flowers is one of my favourites. And then I make one last stop at the Pick n Pay to get a few boxes of the Toni glass flavoured tea bags which I seemingly cant find anywhere else.
Paid parking is available throughout the area, with no other entrance charges. A tip if you are planning to use the ferry to Robben Island is to get there early to book or book in advance.
5. Signal Hill
I visit signal hill because of the excellent panoramic views one can get while up on the hill, looking down on the city, up to Table Mountain and out west to Robben Island and towards the setting sun. The sun sets in the summer can get quite spectacular and the road up to the parking for Signal Hill itself can get very busy. There have been a couple occasions when the parking was completely full, backing up traffic all the way around the road. So the tip would to get there early and if possible be prepared to stay a little bit longer.
There are a number of activities in the area. My sister promised that she was going to try the tandem paragliding from the western side of the hill down to the Seapoint promenade I think with a number companies that offering that. The start point for the hike up to Lion’s Head is also on the road to Signal Hill. The hike is quite popular and I think there are quite a few locals who get together and do it every month on the night of the full moon.
There is no entrance charge but beware that facilities are minimal. Also note that it can get windy and chilly even in the summer months so carry along some warm clothes. i have had the unfortunate experience of standing and waiting for the sun to set and giving up because it got dull and grey and cold unexpectedly.
There are almost countless other options of things to do in Cape Town that I haven’t listed here because I would take forever to write about them all. Long Street, Blouberg, Table Mountain, Cape Point, Noordhooek, Oudekraal, driving up the west coast to towns like Langebaan and Paternoster. Birding hotspots like the Rietvlei, Woodbridge Island and Strandfontein sewage works. I’m sure there are also places I haven’t visited, eaten at or taken photos also waiting to be discovered that could surpass the 5 I have listed here. But for now, these are some of the reasons I love Cape Town.