As a native of Cape Town and an avid world traveller, I’ve had the chance to compare the Mother City—as she is affectionately known for being the oldest city in South Africa—with many other cities. She is a hard act to follow! There is so much to do in Cape Town that we locals really are spoilt for choice. It’s not just Cape Town natives who appreciate the city, though; Cape Town was recently voted the world’s top travel destination on TripAdvisor!
One thing that visitors immediately notice about Cape Town is its laid-back attitude. Those who are used to the fast pace of other cities take a bit of time to adjust, but ultimately they settle in and love it. Still, it’s worth remembering in advance the best piece of advice you can get from a local: if you really want to get under the skin of Cape Town, you have to slow things down. If you speed through the city, you will miss out on the great subtleties that give Cape Town its character. It’ll melt together and become a blur, as if you are driving a car at 100 miles per hour and trying to look out the window.
There is, of course, a great list of must-do sights and activities in Cape Town. I too would like to offer some suggestions for visiting the city’s top destinations, but my angle is to do it the way we locals know and love—the slow way. Exploring Cape Town’s top attractions by slower means provides many more unique and exhilarating experiences.
Walk, Hike, and Bike in the Table Mountain Range
Table Mountain, a recently appointed seventh wonders of the world, is one of the best places for panoramic vistas of Cape Town and the mountains surrounding it. Instead of taking a gondola or cable car that will whiz you to the top in five minutes, though, why not ascend the mountain the slow way?
If you are relatively fit and enjoy walking, there is no better way to see Cape Town unfold before your eyes than by walking. The hike up Platteklip Gorge – a series of stone-stepped switchbacks – takes about two hours. You can make the hike on your own or with friends, but I suggest taking a Table Mountain hike tour. For serious walkers and climbers, there are more difficult trails, but travel along these is not recommended without experienced Cape Town guides.
Mountain biking in Cape Town is another great mode of slow travel. Try cycling the lower slopes of Table Mountain or Tokai, the latter of which is further south in the Table Range.
Cape Town is laced with trails, walking paths, and climbing routes; once you start looking, you see them everywhere! Running down the Cape and into the suburbs, these trails are some of the best ways to experience Cape Town slowly, taking the time to soak in local life. For a completely unique experience (and one of the city’s best-kept secrets), try walking to the top of Lions Head during a full moon. And if you are really looking for a local experience, try trail running, one of Cape Town’s fastest growing sports.
Drive Along the Cape of Good Hope in Style
The southwestern tip of the African continent was described by Sir Francis Drake in 1580 as “the most stately thing and the fairest Cape we saw in the whole circumference of the earth.” Cape Peninsula National Park is one of the most popular tourist spots in South Africa, with historical maritime significance and breathtaking surroundings.
The common way for Cape Town tourists to reach the Cape of Good Hope is via a bus or minivan tour. Instead, why no let a chauffeur drive you there in a classic WWII sidecar or vintage car? The views along the way are astonishing, and you get an added sense of history when travelling in this classic mode of transport. There are also plenty of opportunities for unscheduled photo stops, which are great for meeting locals; people stop in their tracks to admire these classic cars.
If you want to get some exercise on your trip to the Cape, then rent a bicycle and get a shot of fresh air straight from the Cape Doctor; the prevailing wind is locally renowned for clearing chest infections and other respiratory ailments common to colder and wetter climates.
Explore Cape Town by Foot
Most first-time visitors to Cape Town orient themselves to South Africa’s oldest and most beautiful city with a half-day minivan tour or by taking the hop-on/hop-off bus that winds its way through the city. But Cape Town is small and, in my opinion, the best way to really see it is on a Cape Town walking tour or cycling excursion.
Personalised walking or biking tours of Cape Town really wade into the city’s melting pot of cultures. Originally a Dutch settlement set up as a supply station for passing ships, the city’s essence and history are rooted in the competing interests of colonial powers and local indigenous groups. Walking around the city introduces visitors to this complex history. As the terrain is relatively flat, it’s a great option for families of all ages.
Bike the Winelands of Constantia
Fifteen kilometres from Cape Town lie the oldest and most beautiful wineries in South Africa. There are at least six world-class wineries in the Constantia Valley, most dating back to the 1600s. To drink it all in, take a South African wine tour (by bike), on which you can taste and purchase wine, as well as sample the outstanding cuisine at the local top-class restaurants.
A tour of the Constantia Valley is just as easy by car or on an organised Cape Town tour. However, for slow travellers, the best option really is by bicycle. This low-impact form of travel is great for people of all ages and fitness levels. Just go easy on the wine tastings or you run the risk of falling of your bike!
As you approach Cape Town from the airport, you will see firsthand the material inequities that are a constant reality of life in South Africa. Along the highway are what many describe as ‘shantytowns’ – informal settlements on the outskirts of more affluent neighbourhoods. It might be easy to pass judgment as you drive by, but that only makes the situation seem hopeless and untenable. In reality, South Africa has come a long way from the times of mandatory segregation, since the Apartheid was officially abolished under Nelson Mandela in 1994. The best way to find out the real story is to visit these areas and meet the people who live there.
To do that, take a slow, interactive Township tour, walking through the area with a local guide who grew up there. Hearing his stories will take you on an emotional roller-coaster ride, but the experience is guaranteed to leave you with a sense of hope for South Africa. The country is a living example of the positive outcomes people can achieve when they work together. There is still a long way to go, but the road has been mapped and its foundation has now been laid.
Another option is a responsible cycling tour of the townships. Several community-based bicycle tours provide visitors with more opportunities to interact with the community than from an air-conditioned bus. It’s also recommended to take a tour of Robben Island to round out your knowledge of South Africa’s political history and Nelson Mandela’s incredible impact.
Check out My Cape Town Stay for more information.
The original version of this post appeared on The Travel Word, a blog that showcases responsible, sustainable and local travel for whl.travel, one of the largest global online travel-booking networks catering to independent travelers headed off the beaten path, often in the developing world. whl.travel today taps into the strengths of local tourism experts who, alone, are local leaders, but together have become a forceful planet-wide presence for the right kind of tourism, bringing to major markets all the local opportunities that can have such a positive impact on hosts and visitors.