South Africa is fast becoming a popular holiday destination for families all over the world. And with its majestic mountain scenery, white sand beaches and Mediterranean climate, Cape Town is the jewel in this country’s crown. I recently spent a long weekend in the city with my young toddler, Mary, and found the “fairest Cape” the perfect host for families of all ages and sizes.
If you’ve only got 72 hours in a city as beautiful as Cape Town, get your family out in the fresh air to see the Mother City in all her glory. A good place to start is a ride on a sightseeing bus. These red open-top, double-decker buses may be a bit of a tourist trap, but they’re a great way to see a lot quickly. We opted for the Blur Mini Peninsula Tour, and jumped on the first bus of the day at 9a. It took us through Cape Town’s vibrant city centre, around Table Mountain, past the beautiful botanical gardens of Kirstenbosch, up through the winelands of Constantia and back down past the stunning beaches of Camps Bay. Without stops, the route takes about 2 1/2 hours.
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There’s lively commentary on board that’s full of interesting facts, but nippers under the age of 5 may get bored quickly, as we found with Mary. So we hopped on and off frequently to stop her from causing mayhem. Kirstenbosch Gardens is definitely worth a look around; so too is World of Birds. But any stopping will mean a longer journey time.
TIP: Start the bus trip early in the day. Sitting on the top deck in the sunshine can be hot work!
After a morning of sitting down, you and your little ones will no doubt be ready to stretch your legs — we certainly were! Pack for the beach and, when the bus hits Camps Bay, jump off to start some afternoon fun. Camps Bay is home to one of Cape Town’s most beautiful beaches and is perfect for families. There are sun loungers and umbrellas for hire and beach hawkers selling ice-cold drinks and ice cream (make sure you try their grenadilla lollies). The sun is always strong here, so even if it doesn’t feel hot, take precautions. And the water may look inviting, but boy, is it cold! Dip your toes in if you dare.
Restaurants and cafes line the beachfront, so there’s plenty of choice for food. The great majority of eateries are child-friendly even though, frustratingly, some don’t provide high chairs. Try La Belle Bakery and Cafe for a fantastic brunch.
A hop, skip and jump away from Camps Bay Beach is The Bungalow restaurant. We love this place. It’s relaxed enough for children of all ages, but the food is great. And with a DJ spinning tunes, it makes us adults feel like we’re getting some grown-up time — especially if there’s a glass of cold South Africa Sauvignon Blanc in hand! Right on the coast, this is a great spot for sundowners. The kitchen is open all day, perfect for an early dinner if you fancy eating straight from the beach. Ask for a table in the outside pergola, weather permitting.
It’s almost sacrilegious to come to Cape Town and not take a trip to the top of Table Mountain. Fantastic for children of all ages — we took Mary in her Baby Bjorn — it’s safe, fun and guarantees incredible views. But Table Mountain gets busy, so plan ahead. We prebooked our tickets (children under 4 go free) and took a taxi to the cable car base for the first lift up at 8a. Yes, it’s another early start, but even then the queues will be building. The cable car whisks you up in a few minutes, and with a 360-degree revolving door, everyone is guaranteed a view. And the view at the top … wow, wow and wow! Breathtaking vistas of the entire cape peninsula await, and if you’re up early like we were, you’ll feel like you have the whole place to yourself.
Leave at least an hour to explore up here, as there are lots of different walking trails and a good restaurant for a well-deserved breakfast. Also, pack a jumper, as it’s surprisingly chilly at the top. And watch little ones; the terrain is quite rocky. Most importantly, check the website before you head off to the cable car, as they shut everything down as soon as there’s a hint of bad weather approaching. If you’re on the top and the klaxon sounds, head straight back to the cable car — otherwise you’ll be walking all the way down.
Feeling a bit more adventurous? For a family of hikers, a more challenging alternative is a walk up Table Mountain’s smaller neighbour, Lions Head. It’s a fun moderate hike, taking about 2 hours in total, with easy-to-see trails to the top. Lions Head is not for children under 8, though, as there’s quite a bit of scrambling and everyone needs a good head for heights. And sturdy footwear is essential. The payoff: Views at the top are fantastic!
Cape Town’s Waterfront is a mecca for tourists, and with boats to goggle at and traffic-free squares to play in, those visiting with children will enjoy spending time here. One of the most popular attractions is The Watershed. This hangar-like building houses an indoor market where local artists and designers sell their wares. It’s by far and away my favourite place to pick up interesting gifts and souvenirs, particularly because many of the stalls are aimed at children. They will love spending their holiday money here.
Next door you’ll find the V&A Food Market, a perfect lunch spot after all that shopping. Fantastic artisanal stalls cook freshly made food from all over the world, which you can enjoy alfresco on picnic tables outside. Try Vagabond Kitchen for pork belly wraps, and the Truth Coffee stand serves some of the best coffee in Cape Town.
After refueling, even if you’ve only got an hour to spare, check out the Two Oceans Aquarium. It’s a must-see if your children are fans of marine life. It’s also cool inside so a great escape from the heat! Mary loved watching the penguins at feeding time and was mesmerised by the giant tanks that are home to turtles, stingrays and Nemos. Whilst the adult predator sharks were once a big draw for visitors, the aquarium no longer has any, as they’ve been released back into the wild. But there are still so many fascinating species to look at and facts to learn, like how some jellyfish are thought to live forever. With an informative exhibition on water and ocean conservation, older children will love it too.
Seeing as you’re already at the V&A Waterfront, how about a sunset cruise to round off a perfect day? There are lots to choose from and plenty of kiosks to buy tickets. They’re a great way to see Cape Town from the ocean, and many include food and drink in the ticket price. A firm favourite with children is the Jolly Roger Pirate Boat. Yes, corny as you like, but lots of fun for younger kids, who will love pretending to be Jack Sparrow whilst you watch the sunset. And if you’re lucky, you’ll spot dolphins and whales too.
Robben Island is Cape Town’s most infamous landmark. This prison island is where South Africa’s beloved late president, Nelson Mandela, was incarcerated for 18 years of his 26-year sentence for his struggle against apartheid. It’s just a few miles off the coast of the mainland and there are daily tours departing from the V&A Waterfront, but book tickets in advance to avoid disappointment. The entire tour will take a good few hours, and it’s very well done. It includes a chance to see the stark, tiny cell in which this incredible statesman resided for so many years. I’ve been many times, but never with children. Older ones may well appreciate it though, and I’ve seen many youthful faces on the tours, so it’s worth considering a visit with tweens and teens. Plan for this excursion to take the whole morning, including a sometimes choppy boat ride.
If a trip to Robben Island won’t work for your family, you can experience one of the world’s most stunning coastal roads: Chapman’s Peak Drive. Hire a car or, even better, ask your hotel to organise a driver for the morning so you can sit back and enjoy the ride. Chapman’s Peak Drive is a majestic 5 1/2-mile road that hugs the coast one on side and a soaring, sheer cliff face on the other. With hairpin turns and stunning views at each bend, it’ll delight passengers, especially in parts where the cliff overhangs the road! There’s a small toll to pay, but well worth it. There are plenty of beauty spots to stop for a family picture and do some great white shark spotting at the same time.
The drive finishes in the pretty beach village of Noordhoek. Don’t leave without having lunch at Noordhoek Village Farm. This is a popular spot for families with a great selection of shops and restaurants such as The Food Barn. Our little one loves the jungle gym here and there are always activities like face painting on offer.
How about burning off lunch with an afternoon bike ride? Up Cycles is a drop-and-go bike rental company in Cape Town that has bikes for all the family along with helmets and a safety briefing. Little ones like Mary can be strapped into a front child seat so they don’t miss out on the fun. The bikes can be picked up and dropped off at numerous sites across the city, and there are plenty of suggested cycle routes, including Sea Point Promenade. Here you’ll find cyclists, joggers and dog walkers as well as lovely grassy spots dotted with art installations and playgrounds.
If you have the energy, cycle over to Camps Bay, drop the bikes off and head for dinner here. Camps Bay has some great restaurants, and the sunset is included for free. Try La Paranga or, just off the strip, the Codfather. Despite the corny name, this is a Cape Town institution famous for great sushi and seafood.
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Editor’s Note: Photos by Jeremy Peters except where noted.
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