I just spent a fantastic week in Cape Town, South Africa visiting a friend and have much to tell about what I ate, drank and saw while I was there! Short version? If you’re on the fence about splurging on the airfare just book it! Stunningly beautiful, full of lush greenery & turquoise waters, there is no shortage of things to do in Cape Town. I definitely did not just sit on a beach all week, lemme tell you. I’ve put together a little guide summarizing my favorite moments so you can start planning your own Cape Town itinerary asap. Maybe take me with you?
Way back earlier this year I learned that an old friend had decided to move to Cape Town. I immediately jumped on the chance to visit such an exotic and faraway place and booked a ticket for the first week of December. With so many months to go, there was plenty of time to do research, plan excursions, and daydream about it. Ok, like 90% daydreaming, but isn’t that what vacation is all about? It gives you something to look forward to! Plus since it would be summer in Cape Town, I knew I had a week of sunshine to look forward to as opposed to dreary NY winter weather.
Getting to Cape Town
I was flying from New York so flights were much more reasonable than if I was on the west coast. Even so, it was hard to get a decent itinerary without a long layover and a lot of cash. Of course since I am always traveling on a budget, my flight was the absolute cheapest I could find, which means I had the pleasant itinerary of a red eye from Newark to London, followed by an 11 hour layover at Heathrow, followed by another red eye from London to Cape Town. But after redeeming a few Chase Ultimate Rewards points on the purchase, I only paid about $750 round trip which is a crazy good deal.
I left the Friday after Thanksgiving but didn’t even arrive until Sunday morning! It sounds god awful, yes, but I have to say, it really didn’t go that badly. JK it was kinda awful. But I flew British Airways, and both the service and comfort level were beyond my experiences on all other US based airlines. What made them so much better? In short- seatback TV’s with unlimited new release movies, very good complimentary meals (dinner and breakfast), and free flowing alcohol options. I still felt like a sardine, but when the flight attendant asked “Would you like another glass of wine to go with your meal?” I knew everything was going to be ok.
Surviving an 11 hour layover
If you were looking for a single recommendation for what to do on such a long layover it’s this: book a day pass to one of the airline lounges.
“Oh…” you say, “but traveling is already so expensive, I think I would rather save the money”… No. Book it and you’ll thank me later. I chose the United Lounge- which is only $50 and provides private showers, comfortable seating, and a complimentary food buffet- restocked at all mealtimes. You just need a same-day boarding pass to get in, and you might need to trek a little because it’s only in certain terminals. There are also tons of credit cards that include lounge benefits, so if you’re in the market for a new card and planning a trip, it might be worthwhile to take a look at one of those. I check The Points Guy website for anything related to credit cards and travel.
There is also the option to escape the airport and make the most of whatever city you happen to be stuck in. However, unless you have at least 15+ hours between flights, I wouldn’t bother. The logistics of getting yourself into said city and back again for your flight takes a whole lot longer than you might think initially. After clearing customs, getting into the city, and then coming back in time to re-check your bags and go back through security, you’re left with just a few hours of time to tour around. Plus, what are you going to do, schlep your luggage around all day? No thank you. I’ve been to London twice, so I wasn’t particularly motivated to deal with all that extra travel. I’m very glad I ended up choosing that plan because I didn’t realize that although my first flight landed in the morning, it was really only about 1am EST, so I got zero sleep. Why don’t airports have nap rooms?
Where to stay in Cape Town
I booked myself into a boutique hotel in the Bo-kaap district called the Rouge on Rose. It took me forever to make a decision- this was my first solo vacation and I wanted to pick somewhere good! After all my searching, I was very pleased with my hotel choice. The rooms were quiet and cool, a huge plus in the summer heat (reminder, December is summer in Cape Town), with concrete floors and antique décor. My room also came with a fully stocked kitchenette, which I never used, but it was nice to have the option. The location was pretty central, so very easy to get most anywhere walking. The staff were beyond friendly and I had a perfectly Instagrammable shot of the colorful Bo-kaap houses from my room window. There is a large muslim population in the neighborhood, so don’t be surprised if you wake up in the early AM to the call to prayer. I’ll admit, I woke up every night, but rolled over and went back to sleep no problem.
What sold me on the Rouge on Rose were its amazingly high ratings, and its delicious looking complimentary breakfast. I’m easy to please if there is good food involved. The savings isn’t much- you can eat a hearty breakfast for no more than $5 at many cafes or restaurants, but the hotel breakfast was so, so good, I regretted not being able to try everything on the menu. Think a baked omelet with bacon so fluffy it’s practically a souffle, filled with goat cheese and caramelized onions. Or pecan cream cheese stuffed french toast. Finish it all off with some delicious South African roobios tea for the perfect meal.
Cape Town Itinerary Day 1- Take it Slowwww
No matter how you get to Cape Town from the US, it’s going to be a long haul. You’re probably going to be exhausted by the time you arrive, so I would suggest spending your first day getting acquainted with the city, the neighborhood you’re staying in, or the comfortable bed in your hotel room (no shame in that!). You can shop for the items you forgot to pack (ahem sunscreen AND sunglasses on my part…), check out the restaurant scene or visit some local parks or galleries. Having a laid back first day is a perfect way to get acclimated and ready for the week’s activities.
Upon arrival in Cape Town Sunday morning, I went straight to breakfast with my friend after dropping off my bags. The location was Truth Coffee, which I immediately recognized from Pinterest due to their steampunk theme and awesome coffee bar décor. The breakfast was fantastic, and my first introduction to how affordable eating out was in this city. My eggs benedict came served over two slices of crusty bread instead of an English muffin, with roasted tomatoes, bacon and arugula… for a whopping R70, or about $5!
Walking off breakfast, we toured around the gorgeous Company Gardens, checked out the vendors selling kitschy African souvenirs in Greenmarket Square, and then headed off to a beer festival near the Cape Town stadium. The beers were great, and once again, so cheap, running at a little over $2 a pint. It was here that I got to try my first uniquely South African food: biltong. Biltong is everything that jerky should be. Gone is the disgusting fake spiced/ teriyaki flavor, and instead is natural, delicious, dried salted meat. It can come in different flavors or animals, like ostrich, beef, or kudu and is shaved into thin, chewy curls. We snacked on a bag as we enjoyed some pints of our favorite beers from the festival, for me, the Cape Town Blonde from Drifter brewing company.
Cape Town Itinerary Day 2- Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens & Table Mountain
These two are a must for anyone visiting Cape Town. The Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens are a short drive outside town, and easily accessible by bus. It was a grueling 90 degree humid day, so some time around plants seemed refreshing. It’s hard to describe the gardens, only to say that they’re gorgeous. I suddenly became obsessed with taking photos of trees. Nothing made me understand and appreciate that I was visiting another country more than by looking upon the fantastical plants and the massive hills looming over me. They were just so impressive and majestic! If it weren’t for the heat, I could have spent all day here. What better place for a picnic and a good book? They do concerts during the summer, which I’m sure are fantastic but I wasn’t staying around long enough to go to one.
Stopping for lunch and a cocktail at the garden restaurant, Moyo, a local chain specializing in African cuisine, I quickly noticed the more exotic looking dishes of ostrich, crocodile pile, and fried worms. I chose something called ostrich mince and vetkoek, which seemed very tame. What came out was not like what I expected, and upon first bite, tasted like a sloppy joe with an unsweetened donut as the bun. Since ostrich is a red meat, it didn’t taste that different than beef, and vetkoek is a traditional fried bread. It was pretty greasy and had that distinct taste of fried dough. Separate, they could have been great. Together, I had trouble loving it, especially in the heat, but the refreshing mojito in my hand definitely helped.
If you’re planning on taking the cablecar to the top of Table Mountain, you can either go during the day, or take advantage of the sunset special- half priced tickets after 6PM. I almost thought I could skip this excursion but am SO glad I didn’t. The wait to get up top took nearly an hour from parking to stepping off the cable car so plan to get there right around 6! It could not have been a more gorgeous evening, and looking out onto the hills and the ocean at sunset was breathtaking. It was so peaceful just sitting there looking down at the city. I would consider it a must do for anyone that visits.
Cape Town Itinerary Day 3- Stellenbosch Wine Tour & Tastings
Maybe it’s just my opinion, but you can’t visit Cape Town if you aren’t going to go wine tasting in Stellenbosch, one of the more famous wine producing areas in the world. I’ve been interested in wine since college and took the Introductory Sommelier Exam for fun, and passed! One of the things I was most excited to do when I was booking this trip was tour wine country. While my friend had a car, we decided to pre-arrange a tour with Wine Flies wine tours, taking the stress off having to drive ourselves around, providing even more opportunity to freely enjoy the wine!
We were picked up by our van and became part of a small group where, very surprisingly, I was the only foreigner. Everyone else was local or from another part of South Africa, which even our guide said was unusual. The wine itinerary had us starting at the largest wineries and drinking our way to the smaller boutique ones. We visited Villeria, Fairview, Middlevlei, Lovane, and Annandale. The tour was well planned, we were able to do something different at each stop.
At Villeria, we toured the facility before sitting down at a table on their patio to taste the wines.
Fairview provided a cheese and wine pairing, and they had a fantastic gift shop full of cheeses, olives, and gadgets.
Lunch, a traditional braai, was served at Middlevlei, which is sort of like a casual barbeque/picnic. On the menu were toasted cheese and tomato sandwiches, kebabs, sausages, potato salad and green salad.
Lovane brought us to a cool downstairs tasting room where we sampled local chocolates with wine (they had a very cute cafe area as well), and Anandale was full of character.
I thought it was a great day overall, but as it can happen with arranged tours, I did feel a little rushed the whole time. If I were to do it again I’d choose to visit 2 or 3 wineries and relax at them longer. Plus with 5 wineries and 4-5 wine tastings at each… it’s a lot of wine and a very long day.
It was refreshing by the end of the day to stop at our last winery, Annandale, owned by ex-professional rugby player Gerhard “Hempies” du Toit. The garden was overgrown, the tasting room full of dark cobwebs, taxidermy, and walls lined in old rugby photos. None of the chairs matched, and a great wood burning fireplace was on display at the end of the table, filling the air with the smell of stale woodsmoke. It was fantastically unexpected, the most unusual winery I’ve ever been to. Forget all the beautiful scenery and manicured lawns at the previous wineries, this was the one I wanted to stay and drink at.
Sealing the deal, I loved every single wine we tasted. All day I had been hesitating at buying the wines we tasted. I was unsure if I wanted to deal with bringing them back in my luggage, and hadn’t fallen in love with anything. By the end of this tasting, I couldn’t decide on a favorite, and knew that I wanted to buy one of each. As I was signing my name in the guestbook, preparing to cart my four bottles onto the bus, I noticed another man had joined us in the room. It took me a second to realize that it was Hempies himself. In a thick accent he asked how I enjoyed the wine. Upon presenting him with my bounty, he whipped out a gold marker and offered to sign my bottles for me. I was taken aback and thrilled. Not only do I get to enjoy these wines at home, remembering the fantastic time I had, I have two signed souvenir bottles to keep!
Cape Town Itinerary Day 4- Day Trip Down the Cape Peninsula & Dinner at the Test Kitchen
If you’re brave enough to rent a car, I’d highly suggest a day trip to explore the rest of beautiful South Africa. I (thankfully) had my friend who was comfortable with driving in Cape Town whereas I hate driving even at home. We spent the day driving down the Cape Peninsula towards Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope, the southwestern most point of Africa. The drive was gorgeous, it’s hard not to be awestruck by the rocks and the cliffs dropping down to the ocean. We lucked out and the overcast sky eventually cleared up to provide some great views, and stopped often to photograph the scenery.
On the way back, just on the side of the road was a small group of baboons, eating from the bushes. We immediately pulled over and very, very carefully took photos. Baboons are known to be a sort of menace, they’ll steal your things and wreak havoc if you aren’t paying attention. We had to quickly roll up the windows and lock the doors when they decided they were done eating and jumped on top of the car! There was nothing to do but wait until they got off, luckily finding the car behind us to be much more fun.
Visiting the two Capes was one of my favorite things from my trip. It’s crazy to think I was closer to Antarctica than home! I was eager to get back though because we had something even more fun to look forward to: dinner at the Test Kitchen, rated the #28 best restaurant in the world. How on earth did I manage to swing that you ask? Well, back when I booked my flight I also had been watching the Netflix series, The Chef’s Table. Intrigued, I decided to look up the best restaurant list and lo-and-behold, one of them was in Cape Town. In fact, it was the only ranked restaurant Cape Town had. I knew had to go; who knew if I’d ever visit again? My timing lucked out, when I inquired via email (it was May I remind you), they were already booked through October for dinner! Note to future diners… book ahead of time!! I jumped on a reservation for the week I visited in December, and had been waiting ever since to finally eat there.
The wait was entirely worth it, and upon leaving the restaurant, decided it was the best meal I’d ever had. Everything from the service, presentation, tastes, wine and décor was fantastic. They offer a wine pairing menu but we settled on cocktails and a bottle of 2014 Carl Everson Opstal Chenin Blanc for dinner. My cocktail was a ginger and ginseng martini, which was absolutely excellent.
It’s amazing to eat a meal with so many courses and tastes where you literally sink into your seat and moan yummmm after every single one. Everything was great. The only one I had trouble with was the fois gras and smoked guinea fowl. The two together were so heavy, creamy and rich it was hard to get the texture out of your mouth between bites. It would have been perfect if there was a bigger crostini to provide some crunch factor. We lingered over coffee and tea, chatting with our waiter, and left after spending four hours at the restaurant.
Cape Town Itinerary Day 5- Panthera Africa & the V&A Waterfront
I had originally really wanted to visit Kruger National Park during my trip to Cape Town and experience a safari. Eventually I gave up trying to fit it in the week’s schedule because of the distance from Cape Town. Instead, I got up close with some lions at the big cat sanctuary, Panthera Africa, a few hours outside town. The sanctuary is home to several lions, a tiger, and other cats that have been saved from captive breeding. It was sooo hot this morning, and there was very little shade to take cover in while viewing the animals. The sanctuary is pretty remote if you aren’t in the area or know about it (my friend volunteered there which is why we went). They have a small hut off a gravel road, and literally lock you in once everyone has showed up for the tour in case an animal escapes. Yikes! The cats are in large cages with electric fences and walkways in between, so in reality, you’re very safe.
It’s crazy to be that close to a lion, I couldn’t believe how HUGE they were! One of those paws could have taken my head off easy peasy. These two in the photo were right up against the fence snoozing.
After getting back in town I was exhausted, but I really wanted to see a bit more of the city so I ended up walking to the V&A Waterfront. Whatever anyone says, the V&A waterfront is really just a glorified mall. Walking around the shops, you can find the sort of knick knack souvenirs you’d expect to see in any touristy location, or just pop into H&M like any other city. I laughed when I saw a Christmas tree up in the walkway. It sure doesn’t feel like December at all when it’s 80 degrees and sunny out. I grabbed myself some more biltong and looked at the fun touristy shops, contemplating buying a wooden giraffe, then treated myself to a spin on the great Ferris wheel.
Day 6- How on Earth am I going to fit 4 bottles of wine in my carry on?
Those four bottles of wine from Annandale proved quite a challenge when I started packing my bags. I pushed it to the last minute trying to rearrange everything so the bottles were cushioned enough. A tip for anyone trying this in the future: get these packing cubes, they were an absolute life saver! You can fit two bottles of wine wrapped in thick clothing in one of the larger ones. The bottles were so snug, I was thinking positive thoughts about their safe arrival. Ok my way is pretty DIY, you can also buy these which are probably much more safe to use. The things I do for wine….
Upon recommendation from a staff member at my hotel, I went to a restaurant called Chefs Warehouse for my final lunch in Cape Town. It could not have been a better suggestion, and was the second best meal I had all week (nothing will ever beat the Test Kitchen). I had walked by it several times but always thought it was a kitchen supply store. They do in fact have a small store, but next door is the restaurant, featuring a tapas style prix fixe menu meant to be enjoyed by two people.
Several long, skinny tables sit in the center of the room, groups of guests propping next to each other on metal stools. There are also two larger bar tables on the patio outside. On the walls of the restaurant are hundreds of different imported food products- including the hard to find real maple syrup. I was in heaven, there is nothing I love more than looking at food products and discovering new interesting ones to try.
Our meal came out on three different wooden boards, with beautiful presentation. They were themed, so the first board was seafood, the second was Italian, and the third was meats.
I couldn’t think of a better meal to end my week, sitting on the outside patio in the sun and enjoying the moment. I was fascinated to learn from our waiter that they change the menu every day! Had I known, I would have eaten here several times. I wish I was staying longer to do just that! The chef also had a beautifully photographed cookbook which I was tempted to buy, only the recipes were a little too finicky for home cooking. I was so happy this was my final meal in Cape Town! Everything was fantastic, and very thankful to my hotel staff for suggesting it.
It was time to leave, but as the best vacations go, I was ready to be home again. Two more easy flights on British Airways (more free wine and good meals), and I was home. I went to bed at 8PM that night and slept for 12 hours straight. Maybe it’s time to plan another vacation to relax from my vacation?
Note: the wine survived.
If you need any more suggestions on what to include on your Cape Town itinerary don’t hesitate to reach out to me!