To finish off the greatest year I’ve ever had, I’ve got one final massive adventure up my sleeve. For the last two months of the year, I’ll be exploring nine countries across southern Africa, my first time traversing this continent and one I expect to be vastly different than anything I’ve ever encountered before.
A friend of mine asked me in early September if I was up for a three-week trip, starting in Cape Town and ending in Johannesburg, both in South Africa, and for traveling for two of those weeks in a 4x4 with a roof tent, camping and road-tripping our way through five additional countries. Knowing my adventurous spirit and my inability to say no, I did the natural thing and agreed, booking two weeks off work and arranging this great final 2022 hurrah. I would end up spending much more than just those initial three weeks in Africa, extending my trip for a solo month to squeeze in a few more places and continue to chase my never-ending dream of seeing the world.
So, on a cold November evening in Salzburg, Austria, where we both live, we met up at our tiny city airport for a flight across to Istanbul before an eleven-hour flight directly down south to the tip of Africa, landing in Cape Town on a beautiful Saturday morning. I’ve been chasing the sun all year, having arrived in southern Spain in early February and then insisting on traveling to warm destinations since, and the week of cold rain in Austria in early November between travels reaffirmed my decision.
In Cape Town, we picked up our rental car, immediately got dinged by the rental company for speeding (44km/h in an unmarked 20km/h zone so we take no blame, thanks) and drove through the city for the afternoon before making our way eastward to Stellenbosch and our AirBnb for two nights.
First impressions of Africa floored me; granted, Cape Town does not represent the entire continent, let alone the entire country, but immediately the sense of safety and security we feel in Europe dissipated as we had to become innately aware of our surroundings, our belongings, whether anything was visible in the car, who was walking near us. Perhaps it was us being overcautious (it wouldn’t be, as we would learn later during our brief stint in Windhoek) but all the same, I fell head over heels for Cape Town.
From the moment we flew in, Table Mountain became a dominant icon on the skyline, its flat top juxtaposing the vibrant pink sunsets we would enjoy every evening. The equally famous pointed Lion’s Head stood just nearby constantly in our view and one we tackled on an early Tuesday morning for sunrise. The tide came in and out diligently along the city’s long coastline, from which serene beaches offered prime sunset-viewing spots. Vegan cafes and restaurants tucked along every corner, offered a likeminded haven where I felt like I belonged.
We did a quick drive-through the city on the first day we landed, visiting some of the city’s best-known spots. As the days went on, we explored more little corners, wandered more streets, became a local at one of the best coworking cafes and hiked challenging and rewarding trails across the city.
Just shy of a week after we landed, we flew out again, heading northward on a tiny little plane to Windhoek, Namibia’s capital city. It would be three weeks before I returned to Cape Town again, this time solo and based without a car in a hostel in the city centre. This blog post is an attempt to summarise every wonderful experience I was lucky to have in this coastal southern African gem of a city, so that when you one day make your way down here, you’ve got a sense of the flavour of what you might find.
Where to Stay in Cape Town
During our first week in Cape Town, we stayed in a wonderful AirBnb. Bright, clean, safe and at the end of a most delightful street, just a fifteen-minute walk into town, this AirBnb was a fantastic find, not only for the panoramic view of Table Mountain from our balcony…
When I came back in December for two more weeks of city explorations, I based myself right in the middle of town at the Long Street Backpackers Hostel.
Vegan Food in Cape Town
Cape Town is an absolute hub for vegan food, with both local and international gems popping up all over the city. Even the places that aren’t fully vegan tend to often mouth-watering vegan options – this city really knows how to cater, and it provides a sense of belonging and enjoyment.
How to Get Around Cape Town
The best way of getting around Cape Town by far is with a car, providing you with a sense of freedom and safety as you explore the nooks and crannies of this city stretched far along the coast. There’s so much to see and in order to get around quickly and safely, renting a car is your best bet.
For those of you who don’t drive, Uber is your best bet as public transport can be unsafe and unreliable. Never travel on the roads after dark; especially avoid traveling to and from the airport along the townships outside of daylight hours, so try to plan your flight times accordingly.
Best Things to Do in Cape Town
After we picked up our rental car, we packed our luggage as unassumingly as we could into our tiny trunk, apprehensive about our first time leaving it unattended in a parking lot, trying to navigate what felt “safe” and where didn’t. The small parking lot above Clifton’s 4th Beach is attended by guys in safety vests – whether or not they’re legitimate we couldn’t say, and we didn’t pay them anything – but at least we figured they’d notice if someone was trying to crack open our windows.
Clifton’s is made up of four distinct beaches along the southern Cape Town coast, flanked by the dominant Table Mountain. 4th beach offers a big stretch of white sand, grey rocks lining either side and, on a clear day, beautiful views both out to the southern Atlantic and back over the mountainous city.
I loved it here so much I came back when I returned to Cape Town later in December
We drove south out of central Cape Town and down along the coast, popping over the ridge to a mesmerizing view of Chapman’s Peak rising above Hout Bay. Hout Bay is a little fishing port, with a small beach and seafood shacks lining the marina.
Chapman's Peak Scenic Drive
Leaving Hout Bay behind and heading further down toward the Cape of Good Hope, a winding coastal scenic route takes you along the base of Chapman’s Peak. The entrance fee is payable only in cash (South African Rand) or with a local credit card, permitting you to drive along the twisting road which offers epic views stretching far into the distance, so much so you might even permit yourself to dream that if you strained hard enough you could spot the coast of Antarctica. Pretty beaches and rolling hills define this beautiful drive.
Emerging from the end of the scenic drive and cutting east across the peninsula to the other coast brings you to Simonstown, home to the famous South African penguin colony of Boulder’s Beach. Calling this beach home, hundreds and hundreds of the little, tiny penguins nest along the sand, curiosity outweighing any sense of fear they may have of humans who can wander along the boardwalks to view them or even head down straight onto the beach to hang out with them.
Cape Town offers an impressive gallery of sunsets – this continent does them like nowhere else I’ve experienced. There are many places across the city from which to take in the brightly hued performance every evening, each one vastly different than the night before. One of the best we saw was from Blouberg Beach, about a forty-minute drive out of the city, enabling you to stand on the wide stretch of sand and look back at Table Mountain and Lion’s Head above the lit-up city from afar as the sun sinks into a deep pink below the horizon.
It wouldn’t be a Cape Town guide without including a hike up to the summit of the Lion’s Head. In my opinion, it looks much more like a shark’s fin than a lion’s head but that’s not for me to debate upon. The short hike is a popular one for sunrise and you can join the others on the trail heading up early for views across the city, if the weather is on your side and the morning mist hasn’t rolled in over the summit. The first half of the trail is an easy dirt track; the second half involves some rock scrambling and ladder climbing, not for the faint of heart.
But of course, the defining feature of Cape Town (though as you can glean from this blog post, there are many), Table Mountain straddles the city, protecting the downtown core from the ocean winds and providing an aesthetically beautiful and rugged backdrop to the city’s coastline. Seemingly flat-topped, resembling in every way a table, a whole host of trails work their way up its sides. At the peak, on the westernmost side, a cable car provides hikers with a safe return down and, for the bulk of Table Mountain’s visitors, to do a return trip sans effort but with all of the views.
We hiked up Kasteelsport, a challenging trek known as one of the trickiest on the mountain, with a steep 1000m elevation gain across 7.6km.
The final spot we visited in our first week in Cape Town was a beautiful drive up to the sloping Signal Hill, a long extension of the same road from which you start the hike up to Lion’s Head. Instead of Signal Hill, you could consider it the lion’s neck, meandering out from the steep summit. Signal Hill is one of the best sunset spots in the city, looking out over the Atlantic on one side, and surrounded by Table Mountain on the other, with Lion’s Head rising out sharply ahead. Time it with one of those exquisite sunsets Cape Town is so known for – but be warned, this is a popular spot, and the parking lot is always full.
In fact, I loved it so much, I came back again when I was here later in December for another perfect Cape Town sunset.
Lion's Head Loop
After our big cross-African roadtrip, I was thrilled to return to Cape Town for two more weeks of adventures in one of my favourite cities in the world. I started out with a hike on the Lion's Head Loop which wraps all the way around the perimeter of the base of the Lion's Head. The best part of the Lion's Head Loop hike is the extra detour out to The Rock, offering exceptional views all the way down the coast over the many pretty beaches of Cape Town.
Kirstenbosch National Botanic Garden
This beautiful world famous garden is nestled against the foot of Table Mountain on the southeastern side. The beautiful backdrop of Table Mountain (on a clear day) makes this a peaceful and lovely place to spend an afternoon wandering through. Bring a picnic and a book and make yourself comfortable on one of the many lawns or benches and breathe in the fresh air and smells of nature. The forest canopy walk is also highly recommended here.
You can very easily Uber out here from the centre of Cape Town and you can buy tickets on arrival at Kirstenbosch.
A fun hike up part of Table Mountain without needing to make it all the way up to the mountain's summit is to take on the trail to Oppelskop, a small dome-shaped bump on the front of Table Mountain just under Devil's Peak. The trail for Oppelskop starts on the same one as Devil's Peak and then about half-way, turns left flat across the mountain to this outcrop with wonderful views over the city of Cape Town and especially of Lion's Head.
Saunders' Rock Beach
I spent a day walking more than 6km all the way along the delightful Cape Town coast, finding little beaches to stop at along the way. I started out in the northern side of the city at Saunders' Rock Beach, a small and busy little beach full of rocks for sunbathing and apparently also popular for jumping off of! It's in the Bantry Bay side and protected against the wind and really just lovely.
One of Cape Town’s most well-known beaches is Camps Bay, backing onto a row of touristy oceanfront restaurants and boasting one of the best views in town. A deep stretch of sand runs into the Atlantic, with a tidal pool to one side and a series of rocks tumbling out into the ocean on the other. A popular swimming spot, Camps is a real gem.
This little spot might be overlooked by many but its on the way from Camps Bay down towards Bakoven and it's just tiny, sweet and idyllic.
Oh my goodness. This beach was HANDS down my favourite in all of Cape Town. It's quiet, peaceful, with no crowds like at Camps or Cliftons. Sure, there's no white sand, but instead you have these beautiful rock formations stretching out into the sea where you can sunbathe and read a book in the sunshine all while getting to look back towards the coast line in absolute awe. This is by far Cape Town's prettiest beach.
Skeleton Gorge Hike up Table Mountain
For a final hurrah in Cape Town, my colleague and her husband took me up the Skeleton Gorge track to the summit of Table Mountain. Along with the likes of Kasteelspoort which I'd hiked back in November, Skeleton Gorge is one of the hardest trails up the mountain, at points climbing ladders and scrambling straight up a waterfall. It was a total blast.
Skeleton Gorge is accessed through Kirstenbosch National Botanic Garden but if you want to hike to the summit and over 1230 metres of elevation gate, I highly recommend coming early in the morning. This means that you won't be able to go through Kirstenbosch as it doesn't open early enough, but you can park in Newlands Forest and add an extra 4km along the Contour Path to reach the start of Skeleton Gorge, hike all the way up, and then walk across Table Mountain past McLears Beacon, the highest point on the entire mountain, before returning to the base via the cable car.