I visited Cape Town for the first time this past February and like most other first time visitors, I fell pretty hard for its natural beauty. Cape Town occupies part of the South Atlantic coastline of Southern Africa, sprawling up and around scenic mountain ranges, playing home to countless bays with the perfect balance of white sand and climbable boulders. With this setting being at the city’s doorstep, outdoor life is regular life here. There are no shortages of outdoor activities to keep people pleasantly distracted from their day to day responsibilities. I knew I would love it, of course, given its location. And the time of year may have helped, too. Goodbye snow and gray skies, hello sunshine and sand!
Though my time in the Mother City was limited to 5 and a half days, I made sure to make the most of it, spending the majority of my time doing outdoor activities that put my fitness to the test. And from that experience, I bring you my guide to the outdoor activities you must put on your list for when you visit Cape Town, South Africa. Bring on the adventure!
Hiking Table Mountain with a guide
Table Mountain is probably the first thing most people associate with this South African city. And it’s no wonder as the uniquely flat mountain does indeed stand out from many viewpoints. To be on the safe side (more on safety in Cape Town here), I chose to hike Table Mountain with a guide and a group. Though I initially hesitated as this of course has a cost associated with it, it was one of the best decisions I made on this trip. Our group was small, our guide was hilarious, and the route would have been difficult to follow without some guidance. I hiked with Hike Table Mountain after sifting through reviews on TripAdvisor and I would happily recommend them. We tackled the India Venster track which offered up a bit of everything - quad-burning and butt-shaping natural steps, unstable footing, and edge-hugging chain-assisted ascents. The only thing we lacked that day, and this had nothing to do with the company I chose, were views courtesy of an overcast day (hence no photos from the top). ‘Twas a bummer, but that’s the way the ball rolls sometimes. If the same luck happens upon you, there’s always the possibility of taking the cable-car up on another day to admire the missed views. We took the cable-car down as hiking down Table Mountain is a whole other outdoor adventure.
expert travel tip:
Play the early-bird: As you’re likely to be visiting Cape Town in the warmer months, head out early as the combination of hot sun and physical exertion is not a pleasant one. Winds and cloud cover tend to increase as the day goes on, too. You never know, the peaceful atmosphere of the rising sun as you begin your hike might even dampen the quad burn.
Surf lessons on Muizenberg Beach
Surfing in SA (South Africa) might not have the same ring to it as a certain other combination of letters, but it’s still well worth the effort and the town of Muizenberg is the place to go to enjoy this outdoor activity. The quintessential surf town is located about a 45 minute drive south of Cape Town (I took an uber), far enough away from big city nuisances but close enough to make a half-day trip out of it. Not knowing anything about the surf scene in Muizenberg before I arrived, I played it safe and booked a surf lesson through airbnb’s new(ish) experiences option. (have you tried it yet?)
I chose to do a lesson despite having had many lessons over the years since I didn’t know how easy it was going to be to find a board to rent, and lacking familiarity with the ocean conditions in Cape Town, I reckoned this was the best option. What also drew me to this experience was that it was associated with Waves for Change (watch the TED talk), a local organization that uses surfing to enhance the mental well-being of some of the most at-risk youth in South Africa. All the proceeds from the experience go back to the organization and understanding the power of surfing in terms of mental health myself, I thought taking part in this outdoor activity was a valuable way to give back while traveling.
This experience was led by a surfer who worked for Waves for Change, a young guy who hailed from one of the local townships and who not too long along was transformed by the surf therapy program himself. As part of the half-day outdoor excursion, after the surf lesson he took the group to the township in which he was currently living. We were served a hearty, protein-filled lunch amongst locals enjoying their Sunday afternoon bevvies. Our guide then showed us the shack he was currently taking up residence in before taking us back to the beach. He lived in pretty humble quarters, let’s just say.
Since you’re probably wondering, let’s talk about sharks. After all, South Africa is well known for its shark population. I loved learning that Cape Town employs shark spotters who sit in booths perched on the hills above popular beaches, keeping on eye on the surf through binoculars. The colour of the flags flying high at these beaches inform beach-goers of the present risk (see the photo below). The flag was black that day, in case you’re still wondering. Needless to say, I didn’t come face to face with a great white- it rarely crossed my mind while I was out in the surf actually. I was more focused on how great it felt to catch a few waves after so many months of being far away from the ocean. There definitely wasn’t a shortage of waves to choose from, though there could have been less people in the water!
expert travel tip:
Pick a weekday to take a surf lesson in Muizenberg. I arrived before 9 am on Sunday morning and the beach was already packed with tourists and locals alike.
Jogging tour through the township of Khayelitsha
I still feel uneasy when I tell people I went on a township tour. I’ve always been completely against doing tours which place a city’s most impoverished on display. So why did I pick this tour? It actually had a different spin to it. This tour took me through Khayelitsha, one of South Africa’s biggest and fastest growing townships, and was guided by two young guys who grew up there and still called it home. What caught my attention was that they were working with the local schools to make sport a regular part of the curriculum. Sport participation played a hugely positive part in my school life so I know first-hand its benefits, especially in school-aged children. So it was another way to give back while traveling while also getting some exercise outdoors and learning about township life, past and present. I loved being part of an experience where I got to see firsthand how locals are trying to make a positive change in their own communities.
The guides were very knowledgeable and I definitely earned the lunch I hoofed down afterwards (we ran on and off for almost 3 hours!). Included in the tour was a lunch at a local eatery, started and run by a local sustainable entrepreneur. The cafe is based on spinach being the main ingredient, after the Spinach King himself reasoned that adding spinach to bread would be a way to increase the local community’s nutrient intake (since everyone here eats bread all the time anyway, he explained). It’s an interesting story, which you can learn more about here.
expert travel tip:
This was another tour I booked through airbnb. I recommend checking out the airbnb experiences that are available at the next destination you’re traveling to.
Hiking Lion's Head for sunset
Following a couple hours of rest at the beach after my morning run through Khayelitsha, I met a group to hike up Lion’s Head for sunset. Having had many positive experiences through meetup while traveling, I used the app to find a local hiking group and off we went. From the parking lot, it’s about an hour’s hike, depending on how long you have to wait at the single file sections (yup, ladders and chains). The last bit involves a bit of rock climbing so don’t expect to go hands-free the entire way up. Going around the head gives you 360 degree views of Cape Town and though the elevation is much lower than Table Mountain, it gives you a splendid view of the Mountain itself. If you do head out hoping to watch the sun go down from the top, bring a source of light to guide you back down afterwards.
Another popular time to climb Lion’s Head is for sunrise, popular amongst tourists and locals alike. Regardless which end of the day you choose, I’m certain you won’t be disappointed- the combination of golden light and endless views are sure to impress.
expert travel tip:
If you’re climbing both Table Mountain and Lion’s Head, try to schedule Lion’s Head first as it’s much shorter and is therefore a great warm-up to the more strenuous climb. The chains and ladders are also a good prep for certain hiking routes up Table Mountain. Always thinking like a physio!
Sea kayaking in central Cape Town
What a magical morning! I debated whether to book an activity the morning I was flying out- rushing to the airport is not how I like to make travel memorable- but boy am I glad I did. The sun was just coming up behind Table Mountain as we set off in our two-person sea kayaks. The sea is usually at its calmest at this time of day and that’s exactly how we found it that morning- perfect for sealife spotting.
The actual kayaking was easy (after I learned how to use the foot pedals to steer, that is) and there were plenty of moments to just sit back and take in the surroundings both on the water and beyond. What made this outdoor activity particularly magical was being within a couple metres of dolphins, seals, a sunfish (be sure to google this one if you have no idea what it is) and even a penguin at one point. You’ll have to believe me as I didn’t bring a camera on board for fear of dropping it in the water. There were plenty of OMGs and WOWs being thrown out all over the place, and goosebumps made an appearance on more than one occasion. There are two tour companies offering morning sea kayaking right in Cape Town itself - Atlantic Outlook and Kaskazi. I went with the first one but I think it all depends on the particular morning you go and how much the sealife chooses to come out and play.
expert travel tip:
Take the opportunity to leave your camera on shore- less fiddling with your phone or camera means you’ll come away with a way more mindful experience. Come on, I dare you!
Intimate Cape Peninsula tour with a marine biologist
Another gem of an airbnb experience. This wasn’t the most active thing I did during my 5 days but being exhausted from a long travel day meant I really appreciated the mix of time sitting in the car and time being active outdoors. Since I wasn’t interested in sitting on a tour bus with many other tourists or being stuck behind a line of other tour buses, I looked for a tour that filled my ‘intimate’ criteria. I also hoped to check off a few off the beaten path locations while exploring the Cape Peninsula region. Check and check!
Justin from Rockhopper Tours was our guide for the day. I absolutely love coming across people whose passion for something almost seems to ooze right out of them. Justin is a marine biologist and was wonderful with sharing his knowledge of the area, both land and sea, even pointing out locations of famous ocean documentaries. As it was just myself and one other traveler on this tour, we traveled in a standard sized vehicle making this feel much less tour-like and more like we were being shown around by someone we knew. We visited all the must-see spots (Chapman’s Peak drive, Cape Point, Simon’s Town) but also spent some time relaxing by a secluded rock pool, surrounded by towering rock cliffs, getting to know the local sealife while snacking on traditional South African biscuits and tea- pretty much a perfect first day in Cape Town.
expert travel tips:
Embrace an early start for touring the Cape Peninsula. Tour buses are on the road by 9 am so head out before then to avoid wasting time in traffic.
I often prefer to explore on my own but I would recommend considering a tour for this area - look for small tours and keep an eye out for the ones that include something more active, like a hike or a bike ride - it’s by far the best way to truly explore this area.
Additional outdoor activities not to miss in Cape Town:
Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens: even if you’re not a flora person, don’t miss this beautiful place. I took in a Sunday afternoon outdoor concert here and only wished I had more time to explore the grounds.
Trail running and mountain biking tours
What outdoor activities have you enjoyed in Cape Town? Let us know below.
For more outdoor activity inspiration, check out: