Cape Town: A first-timer’s guide to the Mother City - United Hub

Cape Town: A first-timer’s guide to the Mother City

By Eric Rubens, December 07, 2019

Eric Rubens (@erubes1) is a MileagePlus® member based in Southern California. He is a photographer/videographer who loves meeting new people and traveling the world.

When planning a vacation, one of the first steps is picking a theme. If you're in search of mountains, many look to the Rockies, Swiss Alps, or Dolomites. If a tropical vacation is desired, Hawaii, Mexico, or the Caribbean may be calling your name. There are so many beautiful destinations in this world, but is it possible for one of them to be blessed with incredible mountains, picturesque beaches, and some of the best wildlife viewing in the world?

Cape Town is one of the few places I've found that seems to have it all. With the iconic Table Mountain and Lion's Head rising out of the city, there are hikes leading up to majestic views down the African coastline. The beaches of Clifton and Camps Bay are some of the most incredible beaches on this planet. If wildlife peaks your interest, there's Boulder's Beach, home to one of the only land-based penguin colonies in the world. Did I mention the safari is a short trip away? Add in an exchange rate that is very favorable and you have all the makings of a trip you'll never forget.

Camps Bay Beach in Cape Town Camps Bay Beach

Planning a trip to Africa for the first time can be both intimidating and a bit challenging. I found very few of my friends or family had been, which made my voyage to South Africa even more exciting. Cape Town is home to a hip urban scene, a vibrant melting pot of culture, and jaw dropping landscapes that'll make you wonder why you didn't visit sooner. There's no city quite like it, and this list of top things to do will make sure you maximize your time in the Mother City. Several theories exist regarding the origin of Cape Town's nickname as "The Mother City." Some say it can be traced back to the beginning of the city's history as a trading hub in the 17th century, or its status as South Africa's first metropolis. But many locals have their own theories – one running joke is that it takes nine months to get anything done in the very laid back city.

View from the top of Table Mountain in Cape Town View from the top of Table Mountain

#1: Take a hike or tram up to the top of Table Mountain

This iconic mountain rising from the city is arguably home to Cape Town's best views. The 2 to 3-hour hike to the top makes for a fun activity if you're up for it. Otherwise, take in the view from the aerial cableway, complete with 360-degree rotating floor and running every 5 minutes from the base. Once up top, there's plenty of walking trails, souvenir shopping, and food and drinks. Table Mountain is known for the blanket of fog that rolls over the peak, so weather at the top can change quickly. Make sure to check the weather before heading up and bring a jacket, since the wind can be intense!

Penguins at Boulder Beach in Cape Town Penguins at Boulder Beach

#2: Visit the penguin colony at Boulder's Beach

Even though it's an hour or so drive from the city, visiting Boulder's Beach and its nearly 2,000 penguins is an unforgettable experience. Watching the penguins lounge on the beach and come in and out of the waves makes for some incredible pictures and a unique encounter. You can also swim in the nearby waters and will often come face to face with members of the colony.

#3: Wake up for a sunrise hike up Lion's Head

One of the most bucket list-worthy activities on a visit to Cape Town is catching sunrise atop Lion's Head. It's a challenging hike and not for those with a fear of heights, but you won't soon forget the view from the summit. If you're willing to scramble and make your way up the final ladders, 360-degree views of the city await, and the sunrise over the city is one for the ages.

#4: Explore the Cape Winelands and the beauty of Constantia

South Africa has some of the best vineyards in the world. Even though the towns of Franschooek and Stellenbosch get the majority of the press, nearby Constantia is home to the oldest wine estate in the country, Groot Constantia. Its proximity (just 15 minutes from the city center) makes it perfect for a day trip. The city sightseeing "Hop-On Hop-Off" bus tour has a purple line that connects through this region, so getting here is easy! If wine tasting isn't your thing, the Alphen Trail is a beautiful trek through the countryside and sure to put you in a relaxing mood.

Chapman's Peak Drive in Cape Town Chapman's Peak Drive

#5: Take a road trip down Chapman's Peak Drive

One of the most beautiful drives awaits just south of Cape Town. Carved into the cliffs and winding along the ocean, this road between Hout Bay and Noordhoek offers majestic views of the coastline. Just make sure to keep your eyes on the road since the sheer beauty can be distracting!

#6: View the diversity of flora throughout Kirstenbosch Gardens

The flora and fauna of South Africa is some of the most diverse in the world, and no place showcases it better than Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. Tucked along the slopes of Table Mountain and widely recognized as one of the most impressive gardens in the world, Kirstenbosch is home to over 7,000 species of plants. The newly completed Centenary Tree Canopy Walkway allows you to walk above the tree line. If you visit in summer, try to make one of the Sunday concerts in the gardens, which are a hit with locals and visitors.

V & A waterfront in Cape Town V & A waterfront

#7: Shop your heart out along the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront

Known as one of the biggest tourism hubs of the city, the always bustling V&A Waterfront is home to many of Cape Town's finest restaurants, shopping, and the launching point of many tours. There are countless ways to spend your time here, but make sure to stop by the V&A food market, where over 40 vendors sell gourmet street food from around the world.

#8: Make your way to the Southern tip of Africa

If you're up for an adventure, take a trip to The Cape of Good Hope. You'll most likely encounter penguins, baboons, and who knows what else along the 1.5-hour drive. The weather can be very unpredictable, so make sure to check it before making the trip south. While there, visit the lighthouse and if you're hungry grab a bite at the appropriately named Two Oceans Restaurant.

#9 Take a tour of historical Robben Island

Even though the prison has been shut down since 1996, a visit to this UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of Cape Town's most popular tours. Tours take around 4 hours including a ferry ride to the island famous for housing Nelson Mandela for 18 of the 27 years he was imprisoned.

Insider tips:

  • Use the "hop on hop off" bus for an easy guided tour of the city. The route takes you to many of the best spots throughout Cape Town and allows you to explore at your own pace. Buy tickets ahead of time to save on fare!
  • Cape Town has some incredible boutique hotels and bed & breakfasts. My favorites are: Tintswalo Atlantic, 52 De Wet Luxury Boutique Hotel, and Derwent House Boutique Hotel.
  • Make sure you don't carry too many valuables on you if you're walking around at night. Although beautiful and mostly safe, there is still a good amount of opportunistic crime throughout the city. Always pay attention to your surroundings.

You can purchase tickets now at united.com or on the United app for three weekly nonstop flights from New York/Newark to Cape Town beginning December 15.

**Opinions expressed by the author are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of United.

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