Top Five Cape Town Experiences

V&A Waterfront with Table Mountain in the background
Table Mountain behind the V&A Waterfront

Cape Town. Wow. What an incredible city offering everything from mountain hiking and biking to surfing (nearby) to history and culture and a multitude of restaurants, shops and museums. This lovely little city has it all with mild temps and fresh air to boot.

Most of our exploring was via foot, because it’s easy to get around here. But parking is also a breeze. Just be sure to look for the “Parking Marshall” who will ask you how long you intend to stay in your space. You pay in advance and receive a small ticket to place in your windshield. The Parking Marshalls are kind, like many others we’ve met in SA. If you’re not greeted with a sweet-eyed smile, then I’ll assume you’re having a bad day.

Our Top Five Cape Town Experiences

#1: Freedom Day

Definitely, one of the highlights of our three months here in South Africa was Freedom Day. Officially on April 27, it was celebrated on April 28 with an unveiling of Mandela’s bust at Parliament. We were in the National Assembly chambers with a few hundred South Africans honoring their leader. It was moving and elating and memorable, one of the most culturally memorable experiences I’ve ever had. See more on the post I wrote and be sure to check out the 3-minute video when everyone in that room broke out into harmony: Moved to Tears on Freedom Day. It was three of the best minutes of this 3-month journey.

While you may not be in South Africa on Freedom Day or during another national holiday, there are events and festivals that are worth participation, because a true experience in the culture of a country is what keeps it real.

The site What’s On in Cape Town lists the various events – from talks to music to comedy to family-stuff – a visitor can experience. The guide, 48 Hours, may also be of service to the visitor that wants to do more than the usual tourist activities.

#2: Robben Island
Tickets: 250 Rand/Person and can be purchased here (plan in advance as they book up!) You can buy and download the tickets on your iPad/device, and they will scan it for you at the boat dock. No need to print.

This was one of the experiences I was most excited about. It is absolutely worth the time and cost. To walk down the path of history and with a guide who had been imprisoned there, himself, to me is an invaluable learning opportunity.

Click on the slideshow to see more of Robben Island.

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Robben Island means Seal Island in Dutch. Our guide was Jama, a former prisoner at Robben Island. When pressed, this sweet, gentle man revealed that he was taken into custody and imprisoned there in 1977 for being an organizer of rebelling students at a University in Port Elizabeth during the student rebellion of 1976. The one where upwards of 1000 peacefully demonstrating students, some still children, were shot and killed by those in power. Demonstrating for their freedom, as simple as that — and then called terrorists by the State (and their political cronies in the US, including President Reagan).

Jama served 5 years hard labor and was released in 1982. This is, most famously, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 of the 27-years he served as a political prisoner fighting against apartheid. For 13 of the years at Robben Island, Mandela did hard labor in the limestone quarry on the island. We learned that the limestone was not used for anything but a means for creating hard labor. The prisoners were not allowed to wear protective gear over their eyes and mouths. Mandela’s tear ducts became so polluted with limestone dust that he was rendered unable to tear and had them removed decades later. Mandela went into prison at the age of 46 in 1964 and was released at age 72 in 1990. While at Robben Island, Mandela began writing the manuscript for his book, Long Walk to Freedom. Our guide told us that Mandela started a garden in the prison yard. It was there he hid the pages of his manuscript from the guards who may have otherwise taken and destroyed them. Nice lil write-up on Upworthy about Nelson Mandela, a truly incredible individual. May he rest in peace.

As part of the Apartheid rules, people of color had to carry special papers that the Dutch called a Dompass, dom meaning stupid. The cruelty and oppression thrust upon the people of color, most natives of South Africa, is incomprehensible.This is true for all cruelty and oppression, too much of it still happening present day.

Tip: New friends that we met suggested we sit on the right side of the bus that toured us around the island (this isn’t Alcatraz, there’s no casual meandering). Good suggestion. Most of the photo ops were on that side.

#3: Slave Lodge
49 Adderly Street
30 Rand/Adult

Click on the slideshow to see some of the important messages we saw at the Slave Lodge.

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I messed up. As much as I appreciated the District 6 Museum and guided tour by a former resident, we tried to do too much in too-little amount of time, leaving us with only 75 minutes for the Slave Lodge before they closed (Sunday only open until 5:00 PM). Don’t make the same mistake! The Slave Lodge deserves a solid 2+ hours especially if you want to watch the documentary. It’s an incredible walk through the history of apartheid, with an excellent exhibit of the entire life of the ANC leader Oliver Tambo.

#4: Table Mountain
Adult return ticket: 215 Rand

Save money by buying tickets online here or save an additional 20% with your Wild Card. OR save a lot of money and hike UP and DOWN the mountain.

View from Table Mountain
Brave woman

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Exquisite views of the city, excellent hiking, birds and butterflies and Dassies? It’s all here at Table Mountain!

What a moment of divinity to experience the top of Table Mountain! From the thrill-ride cable car ride. Don’t worry about getting the best spot, because the floor ROTATES allowing all riders to get a 360 degree view. I was surprised that there’s actually a lot to see once you have arrived at the top. There are trails, a restaurant, and an uber cool shop of handmade curios.

Tip: When the mountain is socked in with clouds (they call this the tablecloth) the cable car does not operate. After three attempts to get up there, we fortunately made it our last day in Cape Town. If you plan better and try the first days you get to town, you can take more time on the mountain hiking up or down. It looked like a cool hike – relatively difficult in parts so wear good shoes.

#5: District Six Museum
25 A Buitenkant Street

30 Rand/Adult self-guided tour
45 Rand/Adult guided tour

District Six Museum

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On February 11, 1966 District Six was declared a white area under the Group Areas Act of 1950. By 1982 more than 60,000 residents had been forcibly removed from their homes in this once culturally rich community.

We received a tour from Abu, one of the residents that was kicked out of District Six during Apartheid when the “whites” in power wanted to “cleanse” the area. The District Six story is one of the many horrifying and painful tales of Apartheid. This particular story spanning the course of 15 years, tells a heartbreaking tale of ousting residents from their homes and relocating them to even less desirable places like Cape Flats. Our guide, Abu, nearly had tears telling us how this experience pained his mother. His father told him to “forgive but never forget”.  A lifelong painful memory for most who are trying to move on.

Four months ago, Abu moved back to District Six after 20 years of efforts. Despite what appears to be sluggish support, the government is trying to made amends. District Six residents, if they can prove ownership of property, are slowing coming back to their roots.

Neighborhoods and Other Spots We Enjoyed

While these spots didn’t make my Top Five, they are still worth a visit. Cape Town is a cosmopolitan city with a lot to see and explore.

Faith in Land and Liberty

Formerly an industrial district, The Fringe is a curious area now considered an innovative, artsy district of Cape Town. Assuming I have my geography correct, this building is considered to be in the Fringe – on the border of District Six.

I read on Lonely Planet about this 8-story painting of a mother with baby on her back, Land and Liberty, and had to see it. Painted by a self-taught artist Faith47 who was inspired by a photograph of “back-yarder” protestors – women, men, children who live in backyards as they struggle to find housing. Pointing toward Lion’s Head, some liken the woman in this painting to the Statue of Liberty, because she represents freedom.

Lonely Planet also considers Cape Town to be one of the top 3 cities to visit in 2014. One of the reasons for this accolade is because Cape Town was chosen the World’s Design Capital for 2014. And with that honor, there are plans for numerous lifestyle, sustainability, education, business and community projects to uplift the city and surrounding poverty-stricken townships.

Land and Liberty on Keizersgracht Street
Land and Liberty on Keizersgracht Street

V&A Waterfront

Reminiscent of Pier 39 in San Francisco, the V & A Waterfront is crisp with shopping boutiques, waterfront cafes and charming architecture. It’s there you will find the Robben Island museum (must-see) along with the clock tower. Table Mountain makes for a stunning backdrop against the blue skies of this welcoming area (see photo at top of post).

V&A Waterfront

V&A Waterfront
V&A Waterfront
Spraying V&A Waterfront
Sad to see this guy spraying. He told me the spray was paraquat

Bo-Kaap

The Bo-Kaap neighborhood, formerly known as the Malay Quarter, is essentially a township but one that is developed and seemingly prospering. A Township, in SA, from what I learned is a zone that was formerly considered an underdeveloped area reserved for nonwhites. I’d like to take a moment to point out that folks go on “township tours”. Essentially they pay money to see the poor people living in some of the outlying shanty towns of Cape Town. I met someone recently, Nikki, the head chef at Plant Cafe (more on all the vegan food choices coming up soon) who along with three friends started a nonprofit, Tin Can Town, to help the humans and domesticated animals of the Blikkiesdorp township (Blikkiesdorp – which literally translates to Tin Can Town). If you really want to experience a township, contact Tin Can Town and volunteer to help them out. This is the best way to experience what life is like for many folks who are living in poverty. And it’s helping, not exploiting.

We walked around Wale and Buitengracht among others (see map) with the sole intention of seeing the colorful houses. Bo-Kaap a picturesque neighborhood is in a great location close to the city center.

I asked permission for a photo of this sweet and humble gentleman. He seemed appreciative that someone took an interest in him.
Bo-Kaap neighborhood
Yellow and orange and green houses. Cool hood.
Bo-Kaap neighborhood
Purples and green and yellow houses.

Mutual Building

The Mutual Building is an Art Deco Building at Parliament and Darling Streets – worth a quick walk by to see the intriguing features.

Art Deco Building
The Mutual Building
An elephant on the corner

Company’s Gardens

This park is also a heritage site. Company’s Gardens offers a peaceful moment away from your busy day being a tourist.

Company's Garden
Egyptian Goose and Fountain Boy

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Tooling Around Town

There is a lot to see and experience here in Cape Town. Usually when we’re in a new town, one of the first things we do on the first day, is hit the town on foot getting a feel for the layout of the land. Sometimes we take one of those funky double-decker bus tours, but Cape Town is so easily navigated by foot, why not?

These gals were dancing at the Greenmarket Square, a haven for curios shopping and cafes. There are several markets in Cape Town, check them out here.

Greenmarket Square,
These young dancers had what appeared to be limitless energy. They were entertaining a crowd of onlookers and making some Rand for their efforts.
City Hall Cape Town
Gorgeous City Hall

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Wineries

Klein Constantia

So many choices here in the wine region of Constantia. We’re not too keen on wine tasting and driving, yet we were also not interested in a guided tour. We compromised and instead visited one winery: Klein Constantia. Gorgeous grounds and because it’s Autumn there were many colorful trees, shrubs and flowers. We walked away with a smooth bottle of Marlbrook 2010 and a zippy Sauvignon Blanc 2013. About $30.00 US and no entrance fee. That may sound silly, but there are some places now in California that charge to taste.

Silvermine Nature Reserve

Silvermine Nature Reserve

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Along with the wineries and stunning beach towns of the Southern Suburbs is the Silvermine Nature Reserve. Certainly worth a look-see especially if you are into hiking. We ambled to the top to see the stunning views of False Bay stretching all the way around to Cape Point. Part of Table Mountain National Park, you can use your Wild Card for free entrance. Be sure to bring a picnic. There’s a lovely walk around the reservoir and plenty of welcoming spots to enjoy the afternoon.

Sorry We Missed

Next time?!

See the difficulty in choosing only five of our top experiences in Cape Town? Plan to spend some time in this vibrant yet chill town. Cape Town has small city charm with big city life.

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This is a pretty and singular town; it lies at the foot of an enormous wall, which reaches into the clouds, and makes a most imposing barrier. Cape Town is a great inn, on the great highway to the east.
~Charles Darwin in a letter to his sister, Catherine, 1836

During the many years of incarceration on Robben Island, we often looked across Table Mountain at its magnificent silhouette … To us on Robben Island, Table Mountain was a beacon of hope. It represented the mainland to which we knew we would one day return.
~Former President Nelson Mandela

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Photos, videos and stuff*** Please contact me for permission to use images and text for commercial or private use. And please do follow this blog and/or write comments. A million five-hundred thanks. Check out the other South Africa posts below:

South Africa Post #1: Our first Kruger National Park Safari
South Africa Post #2: Babysitting a Banded Mongoose Pup in Marloth Park
South Africa Post #3: When Zebras Visit
South Africa Post #4: Daily Living in Marloth Park, South Africa
South Africa Post #5: Kruger Restcamps: Skukuza, Satara and Olifants
South Africa Post #6: Kruger Safari: Full Moon over Letaba
South Africa Post #7: Kruger Safari: Treasure Hunting in Tamboti and Lower Sabie
South Africa Post #8: There’s a Mongoose in my Ear!
South Africa Post #9: Peering through God’s Window at Blyde River Canyon
South Africa Post #10: The Dam Boat Tour at Blyde River Canyon
South Africa Post #11: Rare Sexual Encounters of South Africa
South Africa Post #12: To the Wildlife of Marloth Park
South Africa Post #13: Nelspruit to Cape Town
South Africa Post #14: Moved to Tears on Freedom Day
South Africa Post #15: Penguins in South Africa?
South Africa Post #16: The Southernmost Tip of Africa
South Africa Post #17Birds of Eden at Plettenberg Bay
South Africa Post #18: Dear South Africa: I love you, but…
South Africa Post #19: Elephants at Addo National Park 
South Africa Post #20The Garden Route: Nature’s Valley and Wilderness
South Africa Post #21: Endangered Bontebok
This is South Africa Post #22: Top Five Cape Town Experiences
South Africa Post #23Chasing Rainbows in South Africa
South Africa Post #24Vegan Wanderlust in South Africa
South Africa Post #25Ubuntu

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