The Ultimate Day Trip Itinerary from Cape Town

The Western Cape of South Africa has no shortage of things to do. Like most major cities, one could spend weeks in Cape Town and still have museums left unseen, dishes left uneaten, but the surrounding area is day-trip heaven. There’s penguins and beaches and endless vineyards to visit, so whittling down your must-sees can be difficult. 

I had visions of a perfect itinerary in my mind, but had no clue how to make all of them happen in a single day. I was sure I wanted to see the Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden and the penguins of Boulders beach, while the Muizenberg coast was a must for my husband. 

Public transit was out and no day tours included all three stops. For help planning I stopped off at the desk of Welgelegen Guest House (highly recommended) in Cape Town’s Gardens neighborhood, figuring they’d point me in the direction of a car agency. Instead, the manager Prince let us know all we had to do was show up at his desk at 8:30 the following morning and he’d have a driver ready to accommodate it all.   

For anyone contemplating renting a car or working with a driver, I assure you that 1) it’s absolutely worth it and 2) the following itinerary is completely doable without feeling rushed. And if timed right, can allow for a sunset drive along Chapman’s Peak. 

8:30am — Departure:

After a breakfast of fresh bread and jam we met up with Buja, a lovely human who spent the day offering up information on the city and himself. Buja was more of a conversationalist than a tour guide. He was relaxed and fun and it felt like having a friend show you around a city they’re damned proud of.  He told us of the eight languages and dialects he’s learned to speak throughout his life, including English, Afrikaans and Xhosa. He tells us as we drive through swank suburbia with sparkling white exteriors. 

9:00am — Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden

Kirstenbosch sits at the foot of Table Mountain National Park, above the smog of Cape Town but still within the Mountain’s shadow. It’s lush and green and humid and filled with proteas, my absolute most favorite flower in the world, which are native to South Africa. 

Kirstenbosch feels Jurassic, fitting given that it’s one of the few hosts to the Wood’s Cycad, a stumpy palm-tree-lookin’ plant from the era of dinosaurs that’s now extinct in the wild. 

One of the most rare plants on Earth, the Wood’s Cycad requires both a male and female for reproduction, and because there are no more naturally surviving females, most remaining Cycads are clones of the lone male in existence. Kirstenbosch is also home to the Silver Tree, which only lives on Table Mountain. I was amazed at what an incredibly unique ecosystem the mountain held. 

I could spend hours more learning what other wonders lie within Kirstenbosch. I came for the tree canopy walk that overlooks the garden. I wanted to stay for the wonders hidden along the way. 

11:30am: Muizenberg: 

There are many beaches in the Western Cape, but Muizenberg is the main surfing destination. In the late morning its turquoise waters are dotted with surfers and paddle boarders. Crayola colored changing houses line its white sand beaches and the Muizenberg Mountains frame the city. 

Tourists are drawn to the area for surfing lessons and Instagrammable beach shots, but Carl was itching to visit to take a look at the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences, located just blocks from the shoreline. A decade prior he’d contemplated attending college here, a lifestyle filled with catching waves at dawn, stewing over calculations at noon and drinking beers on the beach come sunset. In the end he chose Penn State and studied abroad in Germany, but for a few moments he stood in front of the mustard colored building that overlooks the ocean and dreamed about what could have been. 

12:30pm — Kalky’s Fish & Chips:

Come lunchtime Buja asked what we were in the mood for — Something more upscale with a view or something easy and local? When we opted for local he gave a thumbs up and took us to Kalky’s, a seafood shack on the pier. Cobalt blue picnic tables sit outside while the interior is lined with long wooden tables, similar to a Bavarian beer hall. 

All three of us ordered fish and chips, which when delivered was lightly fried to a beautiful gold. We ate beneath a sign stating the house rules, which included no swearing and no feet on the table. Fishing boats bobbed nearby and every so often a seal could be heard in the distance. 

2:00pm — Boulders Beach: 

This destination can be summed up in one word: Penguins. Prior to researching South Africa I never imagined that a warm, coastal city like Cape Town would have a massive penguin colony happily frolicing just 90 minutes outside of it’s bustling streets, but so it does. 

Here we were able to witness hundreds of African penguins going about their day. They guarded eggs, watched over their young, dove for fish, and dug homes into the sand. It was like watching my childhood VHS of Scamper the Penguin come to life and I was there for it

Some opt to go into the water to swim with the penguins, but while on the beach I witnessed one penguin pose for photos in a way that led me to believe we’ve already messed with their daily habits enough. In the parking lot Buja warned us to check under the car for stray penguins, because it’s not uncommon for one to get lost and take shelter beneath a vehicle.  

3:30pm — Cape of Good Hope: 

This stop came as a suggestion from Buja and I could not be more grateful. To me it was the highlight of our outing that day. It’s the most South-Western point on the African continent and was far more beautiful than I could imagine. 

A short boardwalk trail cuts over a rocky palisade tinged in shades of tumeric and crimson gives way to an isolated beach with white sand and turquoise waters. Only a handful of people lounged on this beach located at the end of the world, making this one of the most secluded and magical places I’ve ever been. 

The path ends at an oceanside sign proudly stating the Cape’s coordinates. Carl and I high-fived behind it while Buja took our photo, and I love that his shadow is in the corner of the image, where I can just make out the shape of his fedora. 

5:30pm — Chapman’s Peak Drive: 

The day concluded with Chapman’s Peak drive, the African equivalent to California’s Highway 1. The road winds along the ocean, producing gorgeous views of the Pacific. Our timing happened to coincide with sunset, further adding to its beauty. 

The Western Cape has an ephemeral glow. Its plants are located nowhere else on earth and its cities border the ocean, making it feel like all of it is liable to be washed away at any moment. 

We spent the evening back in Cape Town eating bunny chow and drinking beers on a Long Street balcony overlooking the Friday street traffic, where the city continued to reveal itself to us. 

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