Cape Town: City of Adventure
How to explore by land, air, and sea in this epic South African city
Felicity—a 20-something travel lover—has teamed up with friends from around the world to provide readers with local, insider knowledge on today’s most awe-inspiring destinations. Through writing, photography, and video they’ll share the best tricks and tips for experiencing a place authentically and getting off-the-beaten-path.
Flying into Cape Town is a singular experience. It’s perched at what appears to be the end of the earth, a turquoise ocean lapping at its shores while Table Mountain rises dramatically up behind it. The moment it came into view from my window on the plane, its landscape immediately begged to be explored.
“Swim in these waters! Climb up these rocks! Spend time in these skies!” it shouted, and I answered with a definitive “HECK YES” to it all. Just to sweeten the deal, my flight arrived at dawn on a clear morning, making for a sky painted vibrantly with streaks of pink and purple. Everyone loves a good sunrise, but if you’re also enamoured with an adventure-filled vacation, Cape Town is your place.
Here are my recommendations if you’re planning a trip to South Africa’s historic and diverse capital. They're a mix of adventures I’ve gone on myself, and a few I’ve found out about since and have added to my list for next time! As always, stay safe out there and have fun…..
With mountains so prominently on display, hiking in Cape Town is the obvious first choice. An absolute must is a trek up Table Mountain, which is thought to be one of the oldest mountains in the world. Some of its rocks date back 600 million years, and the views from the top are unreal.
There are multiple options for getting to the top, but on my first trip I chose the most classic: Platteklip Gorge. While it’s one of the quickest ways to put the 3560 feet of elevation below you, it’s also one of the steepest, so get ready to sweat! The well-kept trail is about 1.9 miles in length, consisting of switchbacks up through a ravine on the mountain’s iconic front face. It takes (about) two hours at a decent pace, and you’ll have plenty of other hikers for company, not to mention the adorable, guinea pig-like dassies who call the mountain home.
Here’s my advice for this trek:
1. Treat a hike up Table Mountain as you would any other, meaning it should not be underestimated! Pack plenty of water and snacks; wear proper hiking shoes if you have them (good runners at the very least); dress/pack for any possible weather; and be sure to bring sunscreen, a hat, and a small first aid kit.
2. Leave early. Once the day heats up, the sun beats down on the Platteklip Gorge, and you don’t want to find yourself on the trail at the hottest time of day. Aim to be there around sunrise; that way you’ll be hiking at a cooler time of day, can avoid the crowds, and will have plenty of time to explore at the top.
3. Hike with a friend! There’s safety in numbers.
4. Take an Uber to the start of the trail, which is located a little over a mile from the Lower Cable Station (where the cable cars pick people up/drop them off). If you start there, you’ll have to traverse across the mountain before getting to the trailhead; that wouldn't be the end of the world, of course, but it's not ideal if you’re a bit impatient like me!
If you’re up for a longer hike and want to try an alternate (and less busy) route, Skeleton Gorge takes about four hours and offers exceptional views. Away from Table Mountain, the climb to the peak of Lion’s Head (2195 feet) is hugely iconic; the trail spirals like a corkscrew around the mountain until you reach its top. FYI: there's a bit of scrambling involved.
Once you’ve reached the top of Table Mountain, the question to be answered is “how the heck to get off of it?” Yes, you could take the cable car, but why do that when you can dangle off the side of a mountain and rappel down instead?! This is the world’s highest commercial abseil, and during the 45 minutes to an hour it takes to descend, you’ll be treated to a whole new set of views, including Camps Bay and the Twelve Apostles.
Paragliding & Skydiving
While we’re still on the topic of heights, may I suggest spending some time in the air? I’d never paraglided before traveling in South Africa, and was astounded by the tranquility of it all. This wasn’t an adrenalin-filled, I-can’t-stop-screaming kind of adventure; rather, it was one of the most quiet and peaceful experiences of my life, and the closest I’ll ever come to being a bird.
If you are looking for something that will make you scream, then skydiving it is! Jumping from a plane at 10,000 feet over the Cape Peninsula will absolutely have the adrenaline coursing through your body.
I’ve always found that surf lessons are a great way to feel more connected to a new place, and Cape Town was no exception. If you’re a relative beginner like me, the place to go is the beachside suburb of Muizenberg. Once a wildly popular vacation spot in the early 20th century, it fell into disrepair over the decades and lost its shine. However, with the recent hard work of loyal locals and some investment in the area, Muizenberg is once again an eclectic and colorful place to be. The break here is ideal for beginners, and there are plenty of great surf schools to choose from, including places that offer options for SUPS, windsurfing, and kitesurfing.
After you’ve spent hours in the water perfecting your form, dry off and have a wander around the neighborhood. It’s full of long-haired surfers, cool graffiti-style murals, and great places to eat (though technically my fave spot is The Brass Bell in nearby Kalk Bay!).
Getting out on the water allows for an entirely different perspective of this area and the potential to see some amazing wildlife. In Simon’s Town, there’s a good chance you’ll see African penguins, which were so small and endearing that I nearly screamed the first time I saw them (though I managed to contain myself).
There might be dolphins jumping alongside your boat, and if you’re really lucky, some Southern Right Whales—which travel to Cape waters to calve—could make an appearance. You may also be introduced to mola mola (a.k.a, sunfish), which are the largest bony fish in the world. They come to the surface looking for warmth from the sun, parasites to clean them, and jellyfish to snack on. If you’re looking to avoid the heat of the day, kayaking at sunrise or sunset is cooler, not to mention ab-so-lute-ly beautiful.
Swimming with Seals
If sitting atop the water doesn’t seem like quite enough for you, how about diving right in to join the seals? You may be a touch apprehensive about jumping into waters frequented by great white sharks (understandably), but don't worry! You’ll be swimming with Cape fur seals, who hang out on Duniker Island in Houts Bay. That’s for good reason: not only is there plenty of food and they enjoy the cool temperatures of the water, but sharks don’t hang out here! Tours include wetsuits, so you’ll be comfortable (enough) while frolicking below the waves with these playful and inquisitive creatures.