We had booked our flights to and from Cape Town before we left the US. After traveling around South America, we were nervous that the 9 days that we had allocated in Cape Town would be too much. We decided that we would split up our stay, spending 5 days in Cape Town and 4 days in South African wine country.
I had read that there is a lot to see and do in Cape Town and was pleasantly surprised at just how many attractions there were. Even though we did quite a bit every day, we could have easily spent more time in the city exploring.
Apartheid was only abolished in 1994, an age that I remember seeing stories about it on the news. I knew that one of the places that we wanted to see when we were in Cape Town was Robben Island, the infamous prison that Nelson Mandela spent 18 years.
We were told to make sure that we booked early as ferries often sell out. Fortunately we were able to easily purchase tickets online and didn’t even have to worry about printing out tickets since we could pull up the receipt on our phone. There are several ferries a day, but we ended up on the 3pm ferry since the earlier boats were already sold out.
The ferry left from the V&A Waterfront which was very easy to get to and conveniently located near a lot of the tourist attractions. We waited in a very long line before boarding our boat but were excited that we were able to snag seats on the upper deck. This allowed us to get some good pictures from the water.
As we were leaving the harbor, the crew had a life jacket briefing which was more extensive than I have ever heard before. If the boat goes down, not only do you have to put on your jacket, but you also have to hook up your jacket to other passengers. This is because the waves are so strong that you could easily be carried away, making it very difficult for the rescuers to get to you. Once we hit the open ocean I could understand why the safety briefing was so important since the water was quite rough and it was very windy. Andy had a hard time even standing up to take pictures, needing to brace his body against a railing to have the stability to take a picture.
When we arrived, we headed towards the buses that were lined up. The seats were packed in tight with 3 seats on one side of the aisle and 2 seats on the other. We grabbed our seats and once the bus was filled up, headed off to do a tour of the island. Our driver drove us around the island, stopping at several different points. Once stopped, our guide, a former political prisoner, explained what things were and gave insight to his time on the island. He was a fantastic guide who we enjoyed very much. It was hard to get pictures since we didn’t get off the bus at many of the stops.
Our one of the stops, we got off the bus and were able to see the city. We were told that Robben Island has the best views of the city on a clear day. Unfortunately we didn’t have a clear day, but they were still decent. In addition, we were able to see a few African penguins who were hanging out on the shore. They were cute and looked surprisingly similar to the penguins that we saw in Punta Arenas, Chile.
When that part of our tour concluded, we arrived at the prison. There we had a different guide who was also a political prisoner. He took us around the prison, showing us the accommodations of the prisoners as well as giving us the chance to see Nelson Mandela’s cell. It was interesting to us just how orderly it was to see it, a line formed and everyone took their turn taking pictures. This was a nice change of pace, especially after all the chaos that we experienced at Evita’s grave in Buenos Aires.
A few things that we learned on the tour:
- The island was previously used to hold lepers as well as those sick with smallpox
- People live on the island full time and were also living on the island when it held prisoners
- The limestone quarry that the prisoners worked in caused respiratory diseases from the dust. It also caused blindness since the sun reflected off the white stone and the prisoners were not provided sunglasses. The worst part is that the limestone that was mined was not even used.
- There were no beds in the prisons until 1974 when the Red Cross provided beds to all prisoners
- When students arrived at the prison, a wall was built in the courtyard to separate the young scholars from Mandela and others associated with the ANC
- Black prisoners were given less food and drink than mixed race or Asian prisoners
- All political prisoners who were caucasian were housed at different prisons
Even though the V&A Waterfront is super touristy and reminded us of Navy Pier in Chicago, we decided to check it out. It is right on the waterfront and is where we picked up our boat to go to Robben Island. There was a pretty cool looking lighthouse, a swinging bridge, views of the water, as well as lots of shopping and restaurants.
We didn’t spend too much time at the waterfront, just having a quick lunch, walking around the shops, and picking up a souvenir before we left.
Diamond Museum Tour
Andy and I tried to go on the Diamond Museum Tour before we headed off to Robben Island. We figured since we were right on the V&A Waterfront, it would be a good stop. Unfortunately for us, there was not a tour until 3pm, the same time that our boat left. We decided that we would come back the next day to check it out.
When we returned the next day, we were told that we would have to wait until 3pm for the tour. We thought it would be really cool to see the process of how diamonds are cut and polished, especially seeing the jewelers cut them.
When we arrived, we were excited that the museum waived the 50R or $3 fee for each of us. In the end, we agreed that we would have been annoyed had we paid anything for the “tour” that we were given.
We were escorted into the “museum” by a staff member who no joke, told us to read the plaque about how diamonds are created and let her know when we had completed it. When we finished reading she walked us along a timeline of diamonds and when diamonds were discovered in South Africa. I asked a few questions which I thought were simple and she was not able to answer them. She also had no clue what I was talking about when I referred to the movie Blood Diamond.
We saw some pieces of the stone that diamonds are found next to. From there we saw how a raw diamond is shaped into the traditional diamonds. There were a few replicas of large diamonds and a short video about diamonds. The last part of our “tour” we got to see the jewelers cutting and polishing diamonds which was pretty interesting but hard to see what anyone was doing since the scale of a diamond is so small. From there we were dumped out into the diamond showroom. We walked around looking at the different jewelry that was available with absolutely no intention to purchase anything.
I have no clue how TripAdvisor has rated this attraction so high. I’m not sure if we got a guide on an off day or if people find looking at fake diamonds, then getting let out into a store more interesting than we do. It was a bust but at least we didn’t have to pay anything to do it.
Lion’s Head Mountain Hike
Andy loves going to a high point of a city to check out views. We thought that watching the sunset from a high view would be really cool so we looked at options. The most obvious choice, Table Mountain, was not an option for us since public transportation did not run late which would require us to take a taxi home.
Andy found Lion’s Head Mountain and we decided that would be a good option. It was a short walk off the public bus and had free entry. We hopped on the bus and about 15 minutes later we were there. We had to walk along the road for about 5 minutes before the trailhead began.
When we started hiking we thought it wasn’t too bad, as we got further in on our hike, we started to question the website that we had read before we left. It had said that the hike was easy, but there were ladders, chains and hooks along the way. It was not an extremely difficult hike, but absolutely not classified in my mind as easy.
An hour after we started on the trail, we were very near the top of the mountain. We decided not to climb the last little bit as it looked quite challenging. It was nice to sit and watch the sunset without worrying about hiking back down a difficult trail when the sun was starting to set.
The view was great but unfortunately we were not able to stay for the entire sunset. There were no lights along the trail so we needed to leave before it got fully dark. We made good time on the way down, passing all the more challenging parts of the hike before it got dark and we had to rely on our flashlight.
After the hike, we waited for our bus and arrived back at our apartment about 10 minutes later.
Drive Down M6
When we decided that we wanted to visit South African wine country, we looked at the cost of rental cars and was shocked that the rental car price was extremely affordable. Fortunately for me, Andy was tasked with driving the car since the steering wheel is on our passenger side and he had to drive on the left side of the road. He did extremely well and by the end of our time driving, we were both fully used to the “wrong side of the road”.
Since we had a car and no rush getting to wine country, we decided to take the M6, the highway that runs along the coastline. During our drive, we had a hard time getting from point A to point B quickly as the scenery was so beautiful that we kept stopping to take pictures.
After a while of driving, the road turned into a toll road. The cost wasn’t that high at 40R or $2.50 so we paid it. After the toll was paid, there was even less traffic which was really nice and made driving a little bit less stressful.
When I read that there were penguins who hang out on the beach in South Africa, I was sold. The location was on the M4, which is just off of the M6 where we were driving which made it easy to pop over.
We parked the car and headed to the entrance. There was a 65R or $4 per person entry free which we paid. I was happy that all of the money that the park makes goes towards preserving the penguins. These penguins are special since there is an extremely small area in which they will breed and lay their eggs.
Before we headed to the penguins, we made a quick bathroom stop and read some literature that we were given. We read that in 1982 there were only 2 breeding pairs of penguins, now with all of the conservation work that has been done, that number is up to 2200 penguins.
We then headed down the platforms to the viewing area for the penguins. At first I was a little bit sad that I would have railings in my pictures, then I thought about all of the stupid tourists who would get too close to the penguins and realized that they were there for a reason – so people don’t disturb the penguins. The walkway was not very long so we were able to walk it quite quickly. After taking a few pictures we were ready to get out of the sun and continue on our way.
We didn’t originally plan to drive all the way to Cape Point, but since we were relatively close we decided to make the journey. Similar to our drive along M6, we had a hard time driving quickly where we needed to go since everything was so beautiful and we kept stopping to take pictures.
When we arrived we were shocked that the fee was 125R or $7.75 per person to enter the park. There were no fees by car which was a little surprising to me. We paid our fee and continued in the park.
There were so many things to see that we could have easily spent the entire day at the park. We were bummed out that we couldn’t stay longer than 1.5 hours as we had to meet our Airbnb host as we rented a loft in Paarl and had to make it up there by the early evening.
Since we had limited time, we stopped a few times at pretty stops along the road, but mostly worked our way over to the lighthouse. From there we could see Cape Point, the point where the Atlantic Ocean and Indian Ocean meet. While you couldn’t see anything overly interesting from the surface, I know that there is a lot of activity that happens in the water which made it interesting.
The lighthouse was really crowded which was pretty surprising since there are so many other places in the park that nobody was at that were more beautiful than the lighthouse.
We were sad when we left, but made note that when we return to South Africa we’ll need to bookmark more time to spend here.
Cape Town Stadium
I think one of the most visually interesting buildings in all of Cape Town is the Cape Town Stadium. It was built for the 2010 World Cup and is located right near the coastline.
We went to take pictures of the stadium and saw that there were 1 hour tours offered Tues-Sat at 10am, noon and 2pm. The price was only 45 rand or $2.75 each so we decided to check it out. This ended up being one of the more fun things that we did in Cape Town.
Our tour was quite small with only 6 people (including us) on the tour. Our guide walked us through just about all parts of the stadium – the Presidential box, locker rooms, press room, field level and my favorite the on-site jail. We took quite a few fun pictures during our tour and learned quite a bit about not only the architecture of the building but also what it is used for now.
Interesting facts and things we learned:
- In order to make room for the stadium, the golf course, which was on the land had to be relocated to what was previously a public park
- The seats in the upper level, mid-field were temporary. They needed additional seats for the World Cup, but were removed to allow more space for additional box seats
- There are 3 jail cells at the stadium should the crowd get too rowdy
- The soccer team in Cape Town is not very good, the better team being in Johannesburg, so home games are never sold out
- When the stadium was built, the city assumed that the rugby team would move to Cape Town and make the stadium their home field, this did not happen
- The lights were designed to not cast shadows on the field which is a benefit to the players
Rode the MyCiTi Bus
After 4 months of traveling in different cities and taking public transportation in Chicago where we lived, we feel like we are pretty good at navigating a rail/bus system. We were shocked by just how confusing and difficult it was to ride the MyCiTi bus.
- The buses were all very clean
- Buses arrived very close to the scheduled times
- The routes and stops were very clearly marked
- The buses were never very full, we always had a seat
- There was no air conditioning on the bus which made the buses quite warm
- Cash was not accepted on the bus
- You had to buy a transit card for 30R or $1.85 and could not share cards with another person – this meant that Andy and I had to each purchase our own card
- Buses did not run very frequently – typically every 20-40 minutes
- It took 10 minutes to buy a pass and load money on it
- The fare chart was super confusing – there were different prices depending on the type of card you had, what time of day it was and how far you were going
- The fare by distance was by kilometers traveled, not by zone – we had no clue how to calculate this
- If you didn’t tap into and out of the bus correctly or ran out of funds, you were charged a fee
We are glad that we took the bus because even with the money we had to pay to get the card, we still ended up way ahead of taking even one taxi across town. In order to make it easier for tourists to ride the bus, we would recommend making a day pass available at stores around town.
When we left Cape Town we had no need for the pass so we left it with the owners of our second apartment. Hopefully they are able to provide them to future guests or ride the bus with the residual money that was left on our cards.
We had an absolutely amazing time in Cape Town, a city which has jumped to my top 3 all time cities – along with Siem Reap, Cambodia and Krakow, Poland.
There is so much to see and do, the people are friendly, it is easy to get around and the prices are extremely reasonable. In fact, our time in Cape Town helped our overall trip budget because even though we did everything that we wanted to do, we still spent only a portion of what we had budgeted.
We will absolutely return to Cape Town in the future. We’re looking forward to doing a few things that we didn’t have time to do when we were there.