3 Days in Cape Town: A first time visit to the Mother City

Despite my love for South Africa, it took until my 4th trip to visit the legislative capital and I am so happy to say it did not disappoint. Cape Town, also known as the Mother City, is offered yet another view to the wonderfully diverse country of South Africa, situated on the Southwest coast the port city makes for an excellent start destination when planning a trip to South Africa. I spent 3 days in Cape Town and found this just the right amount of time to get a feel for the city and to see the main attractions.

3 Days in Cape Town: Everything you need to know

Where to stay in Cape Town

The first thing you are going to need for your 3 day Cape Town itinerary is a place to stay. Accommodation in Cape Town varies massively in price, meaning you will find something to suit everyone, including backpackers. Like most cities, in different areas, you will find different types of accommodation. When booking we were looking for a budget hotel, I don’t do hostels unless they are private rooms and unfortunately luxury is not in my budget.

We opted to stay in the Rose Lodge Hotel in the Bo-Kaap area, I absolutely loved it here, it was well located by being around a 15-minute walk away from the V & A Waterfront, it had a rooftop view of Lion’s head and breakfast was included. However, in this area of Cape Town, it is advised (by the hotel staff) not walk around on your own at night (Uber is extremely cheap in South Africa and they also have street wardens who can escort you). Understandably, I know there will be many people who do not feel comfortable with this if this is you, then I would suggest staying in the V & A Waterfront area, however, be aware the prices are more elevated in this area.

If you are backpacking South Africa or just generally prefer hostels, then you will find most of these located along Long Street or Kloof Street. Long Street is the area where you will a lot of bars and nightlife, it is also very centrally located for accessing all the tourist spots. I have heard really great things about Once in Cape Town and this was actually our second choice accommodation.

If you are looking for somewhere slightly out of the city and located on the beach, then Camp’s Bay is beautiful. Located on the opposite side of Table Mountain and Lion’s Head, Camp’s Bay is known for its white sand beaches and views of the 12 Apostles mountains. In this area of Cape Town, you will find a lot of Villas and Air B’n’Bs, I would personally only choose to stay in this area if you are spending longer than 3 days in Cape Town, as it is quite far away from the main area of the city.

Getting around Cape Town

While Cape Town may not be one of the biggest cities, it is not one of the most walkable, many due to the many hills which lead up to the National Park which overlooks the city. While you can do some walking, I recommend, especially in the evenings, to make use of Uber. Uber is widely available across the whole city and it is safe as well as very affordable.

If you are not too keen on doing too much walking throughout the day or if you want to learn while you travel. Then I fully recommend making use of the tourist Hop-on-Hop off buses, combined of 4 different routes which run ever 10 -15 minutes, these buses will quickly transfer you to the most popular parts of the city while sharing a ton of information.

Things to do in Cape Town

There are SO many things to do in Cape Town, I found it a great mix of attractions plus time to relax and drink great wine. If it is your first time visiting the Cape Town then I would suggest purchasing a one or two day pass for the hop on hop off bus, a one day pass is roughly around £11.00 and includes four really great routes which go throughout the city as well as to some of the further places such as Mariner’s Wharf and a few of the Vineyards. Cape Town is a big city and not easily walkable, having a hop on bus pass allows you to easily get to the main tourist attractions, get your bearings in the city as well as learn Cape Town as well.

view from the top of table mountain, one of the best things to do when spending 3 days in cape town

Table Mountain National Park

One of Cape Town’s most famous icons is, of course, Table Mountain. At 1000m at its peak, Table Mountain offers stunning views of the city (if the weather cooperates!).  Many people opt to hike to the top, however, if you are only spending 3 days in Cape Town, then I would suggest making use of the cable car, book tickets in advance as the queues do get long and you will end up wasting a lot of valuable time. You can also purchase a cable car and hop on hop off bus combo ticket to save further money, which I would really recommend doing.

Be sure to check the cloud coverage for the time you are planning to visit, if the cloud is over when you reach the peak, you will not be able to see the view at all.

Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens

I am not really one for visiting botanical gardens but I really enjoyed Kirstenbosch. The garden displays are beautiful and they have the canopy walk tops which allow you to walk through the trees to the backdrop of the National Park.  There is also an onsite cafe which sells incredible fresh food.

The Kirstenbosch Gardens is one the hop on bus route and will take you straight to the garden’s entrance.

kirstenbosch botanical gardens in cape town

V & A Waterfront

This is the main tourist dining area of the city and where you will find many places to just sit and drink wine by the water. There is also a large shopping mall here if you are looking for traditional souvenirs be sure to head to ‘Out of Africa’ as well as a Ferris wheel which gives views of the city. In this area, there is also a food market which is a great place to grab a light street food lunch if you do not fancy a whole sit down meal.

Throughout the afternoon and evenings, there are many street performers in this area as well as singing groups performing traditional South Africa music.

Bo-Kaap Walking Tour

The Bo-Kaap is an area of Cape Town, formerly known as the Malay Quarter. It is a former township, situated on the slopes of Signal Hill above the city centre and is a historical centre of Cape Malay culture in Cape Town. These people were known as Cape Malays and were brought from Malaysia, Indonesia and the rest of Africa to work in the Cape as slaves.

To this day, the houses are a mix of Cape Dutch and Georgian architecture, in distinctive multi-coloured rows on steeply cobbled roads. The choice of colour is said to be attributed to the fact that while on lease, all the houses had to be white. When this rule was eventually lifted, and the slaves were allowed to buy the properties, all the houses were painted bright colours by their owners as an expression of their freedom.

Many tourists now use this part of the city to grab a colourful Instagram photo, but I believe it is important to learn about the significance of this area as well and why it is so colourful, the best way to do this is to book onto one of the many walking tours available.

the coloured houses of bo kaap with a vintage blue car

Robben Island

Robben Island is located 6.9km off the west of Cape Town and it is best known for being the Island where South Africa’s first democratically elected president – Nelson Mandela – spent 18 years of his 27 years in prison. Today, Robben Island is a UNESCO world heritage site and one of Cape Town’s most visited attractions.

Tickets include a ferry transfer, a tour of the island and entry into the prison where Nelson Mandela was held. Advanced booking is strongly advised, as tickets are limited and do sell out quickly.

Camp’s Bay

I already mentioned Camp’s Bay in the accommodation section of this post, however, if you choose not to stay here, then you have to visit and spend some time at the beach. The beaches are pure white sand and absolutely incredible, they were by far the favourite that I have found in South Africa so far.

the beach at camps bay a popular place to visit when spending 3 days in cape town

Lion’s Head

Lion’s Head is another mountain in Cape Town, located between Table Mountain and Signal Hill. Lion’s Head peaks at 669 m above sea level and is another popular hiking route in the city.

Snorkel with seals at Hout Bay

I am gutted we did not find enough time to do this, but it is 100% a reason for me to go back one day. Your boat will transfer you to Duiker Island where you enter the water with an experienced guide to snorkel with Cape Town’s friendliest creature – the Cape Fur Seal.  You will spend approximately one hour in the shallow and clear water, observing and interacting with these amazing animals on their own terms.

Where to eat in Cape Town

I was so impressed with the food scene in Cape Town, you will be spoilt for choice when it comes to places to eat. I also found there were many great vegetarian and vegan options in Cape Town and if even if a restaurant was a not solely meat-free, they would still have a large number of options.  The restaurants listed below were actually all recommendations from a Cape Town local and all ones which we tried during our visit.

Thali

Thali is expensive by South Africa standards, but if you are from the UK, it is on comparison to London prices. Thali services beautiful Indian food tapas, beautiful in taste and presentation. They serve a set menu for 2, dishes change each night, across 3 courses, substitutes can be made to make the dinner both vegetarian and vegan-friendly.

I did notice this restaurant gets very busy and annoyingly you cannot make a reservation but if you can, definitely put Thali on your 3 day Cape Town itinerary.

Royale Eatery

Located on Long Street, Royale is a great burger restaurant, however, the main reason I have included it in the list is because of the extensive vegan menu. Alongside soya patty burgers, they also serve vegan cheeses, shakes and desserts – I was really impressed. Like Thali, Royale was also filled with Cape Town locals, which for me, is always a sign of a good restaurant.

Bethalzar

Firstly, I will say, Bethalzar is not very vegetarian-friendly but if you are a meat-eater, you will not want to miss this restaurant and wine bar in Cape Town’s V & A Waterfront. Bethalzar are predominately famous for their steak and wine, however, I recommend the Onion Blossom as a starter and the cheesecake dessert cannot be missed.

Jerry’s Bar

What can I say, my partner and I love a great burger bar and Jerry’s does not disappoint. The theming of Jerry’s is all based around Sailor Jerry’s Rum, however, I am still unsure if they are officially associated, regardless this place has a great atmosphere and even better food.

Lucky Bao

Lucky Bao is located slightly further out of the city in Hout Bay, but if you enjoy bao buns then it is worth the travelling. The menu is compact but they serve the freshest, softest bao buns I have ever tried in my life.

Excursions from cape town

You may be thinking I have missed out a lot of things to do in Cape Town in the section above, but, this is because many of the main attractions are actually located out of the city and need to be accessed by renting a or booking onto a day excursion.

Boulder’s Beach

This was top of my list when planning things to do in Cape Town, I knew I had to go visit the Penguin’s which live there. There are various ways to visit Boulder’s Beach, many people opt to book as part of an excursion (usually combined with the Cape of Good Hope), however, most excursions will only give you access to the viewing platform where you look at the penguins below – this can also be extremely crowded.

We opted to visit on our own and not part of a tour. We actually took the train there, trust me when I say this is not for the faint-hearted, I actually found it quite terrifying to start with, however, the train is very cheap (35 Rand return). If you do opt to take the train, sit in first class (you can tell the difference as the seats will be padded as opposed to plastic), sit in a busy carriage and keep valuables away. I will put here that we were advised by a South African local to not take the local train but we did anyway. We did not have any issues personally, however, it was quite intimidating at times. Alternatively, you can take an Uber there, which costs around 380 Rand each way.

Anyway, the reason I advise travelling on your own is so you can pay to go onto the private beach further down, here you can actually sunbathe on the beach and swim with the penguins in the water. They limit the number of people allowed on the beach at one time (arrive early, once it is full they work on a one out, one in basis) and the entrance fee (39 Rand) goes back into the conservation of the penguins. Please be respectful while you are there, do not feed, chase, run after, or touch the penguins, they are wild! They are used to people being around them but they still keep their distance, please do not shove cameras in their faces and remember it is their home you are visiting. 

The Cape of Good Hope

The Cape of Good Hope is known as the most southern tip of Africa (however, it is argued that is, in fact, Cape Agulhas) and it is also said to be the point where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet. As previously mentioned, many people opt to book a combined excursion with Boulder’s Beach, you will also get to enjoy all of the beautiful coastal landscapes along the way.

A Big 5 Safari

If you are only visiting Cape Town as part of your trip and do not have the opportunity to travel down to some of the amazing game reserves on the Eastern Cape then do not worry, you can still see go on a game drive safari.  The nearest and most people game reserve to Cape Town in Aquila Big 5 Reserve. Aquila Private Game Reserve, offers big 5 safaris two hours from Cape Town, making safari possible no matter what your time constraints are, they offer half day, full day and overnight safari package options.

Stellenbosch Wine Tour 

Cape Town is known for its fine wine which is why a Stellenbosch Wine Tour is one of the most popular things to do in Cape Town. The tour linked above is a scenic guided tour will take you through magnificent mountain landscapes and rolling vineyards to the heart of the Cape Winelands. Visit wine estates in Franschhoek & Stellenbosch with a cellar tour and a cheese and wine tasting at 2 regional estates – not one to be missed.

I hope this guide has helped you start planning your 3 day trip to Cape Town and you are beginning to get excited about your trip, it truly is an incredible city.  Please note, that some of the links used in this post may be affiliate links, this simply means that if you choose to buy one of the tours through my links then I get a small amount of commission at no extra charge to you. This additional money keeps this site running and I only ever recommend things I have done myself (or someone I know closely has) and enjoyed.


Looking for more South Africa information:

Planning a trip to South Africa: The Logistics 
The perfect 10 day South Africa itinerary 
The Best Lodges in the Amakhala Game Reserve 
Top things to do in Port Elizabeth for Wildlife Lovers

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