Greetings, Internet Stranger, and welcome to a one day in Cape Town itinerary. Cape Town is one of the most beautiful cities you’ll ever visit in your life, with amazing food, gorgeous scenery, and elegant and friendly service.
But on the other side of that is Cape Town’s cruel and oppressive history of racism. It’s not possible to have a real trip to Cape Town without seeing both sides of this amazing city. Come along with me, and I’ll try to show you why.
One Day in Cape Town Itinerary
Where to Stay?
I keep harping on about how gobsmackingly beautiful Cape Town is, so I’m sure you’ll love wherever you stay.
But my recommendation for the best hotel in Cape Town is the Cape Heritage Hotel. It has the nicest staff, an insanely convenient location, and gorgeous rooms with luxurious bath products.
Also, just look at that amazing breakfast! The hotel will make you a hot breakfast to order every morning, but I was so happy with the yogurt, fruit, and coffee that I never needed it. Next time, I’ll have to try one of their breakfasts.
Click here for a great deal on this hotel for your one day in Cape Town itinerary. Or if you’d rather find something in another location or price range, click here! I always find something I like on Booking.com
One Day in Cape Town Itinerary
What to Pack
- Stylish and comfy sandals that will keep you looking trendy as we go shopping on our one day in Cape Town itinerary
- Cute boots in case it rains, which it does in South Africa
- An umbrella that won’t break under the pressure of Cape Town winds
- A cell charger so you can keep snapping pics of the water all day
- The best travel adapter so you can use your electronics (if you are not South African)
- A rain jacket with a hood to keep you dry on Robben Island
- My favorite guide book to Cape Town
- Playing the Enemy, which is about Nelson Mandela’s attempt to rally the newly democratic South Africa behind the country’s rugby team, which was long associated with white South Africans and apartheid
- Before you visit Robben Island, you must read Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela’s autobiography that includes his reflections about his time in prison
One Day in Cape Town Itinerary
Morning: Visit Robben Island
Robben Island is the notorious island prison where political prisoners were kept during the apartheid years. The most famous political prisoner here was, of course, future South African president Nelson Mandela. But there were other important political prisoners kept here as well. You can’t really spend a one day in Cape Town itinerary without stopping on Robben Island.
My suggestion is to take the earliest possible ticket that you can and plan to spend the entire morning on the island. The tickets are very popular, so book as far in advance as you can on the website here. You’ll be well taken care of on the tour, which is mandatory. Exploring on your own is not allowed. But I’ll give you an idea of what to expect with…
Approximately Top 5: Robben Island
1) Take the Ferry to Robben Island
You’ll have to pick up the ferry at the Nelson Mandela Gateway, located at the V&A Waterfront. Show up early, so you can explore the little museum located in the Gateway.
One warning: it’s possible that the ferry will be canceled due to bad weather. It didn’t happen to me, but it has been known to happen. So I suggest doing this trip to Robben Island as early in your trip to Cape Town as you can, so you’ll have a chance to reschedule. But hopefully you won’t have any trouble!
2) Bus Tour
Once you arrive on the island, you’ll be taken to your bus tour, which in my case was led by a gregarious young man who looked all of twenty years old. He told us that the prisoners on Robben Island were released in 1991, thanks in large part to Mandela’s activism.
While on Robben Island, the prisoners were not allowed to speak any language except for Afrikaans or English, even though many of them would have spoken other languages like Xhosa, Nelson Mandela’s first language. It was then we learned that one of the tourists on the bus had been a political prisoner on Robben Island himself. Someone asked him why he wanted to take the tour, and he said he wanted to see what they’d done to the place just like everyone else did.
3) A Photo Op?
Remember how I said you’ll keep going back and forth between unimaginable beauty and unimaginable hideousness during your time in Cape Town? The tour on Robben Island was no different. Our bus driver let us have a stop for the restroom and photo opportunities.
How strange to get a photo op in a former prison. I didn’t feel right about it, and then I felt guilty for not feeling right about it since the South Africans who work at Robben Island, some of whom are former prisoners themselves, set this all up. So I decided to join in the photo op. It’s true that you won’t find more beautiful scenery than this anywhere in the world.
4) The Prison
Once the bus tour is over, you’ll be taken to the prison, where you’ll be led around by a guard who was a political prisoner himself. Our guard was from the South African city Port Elizabeth. You’ll be able to see Nelson Mandela’s cell, but not the actual things that he used personally. The cell was used as a prison for non-political offenders after Mandela’s release, so the items inside were changed.
Our guide explained that there were three classes of prisoners kept on Robben Island: Asian, Coloured (multi-racial), and Bantu (Black). The Bantu were treated by far the worst. You can see the large replica above of a chart showing how poorly the Bantu prisoners were fed even compared to the other prisoners.
Our guard also reminded us that not all political prisoners were kept on Robben Island. Some, like Steve Biko, were killed by law enforcement. You can see more about Steve Biko in the movie Cry Freedom starring Denzel Washington. (He earned his first Oscar nomination for that film.)
Our guides all told us that the South African apartheid government tried to cover up the crimes that were being committed on Robben Island. If international visitors came, they moved the prisoners from doing hard labor to making bags. But once the journalists and such left, they’d go back to brutal treatment. Prisoners had to complete 40 hours of hard labor a week, and if they couldn’t, they were shot. Their toilet was two buckets in a cave.
Many people who had family members kept on Robben Island never saw their family again. Probably their relatives died in prison and they were never informed, but it’s hard to be sure. At the end of the tour, our guide asked us to go back to our homes and tell other people what happened on Robben Island and persuade them to come visit. I hope that’s what I’ve managed to do with you here today.
One Day in Cape Town Itinerary
Afternoon: V&A Waterfront
When you make your return trip from Robben Island, you’ll be dropped back off at the V&A Waterfront, so why not explore? The V&A stands for Victoria and Albert, as in the former queen of the UK and her beloved consort. After all, South Africa used to be a British colony.
But enough history! We’re in the mood for some sunshine and smiles. And we’re definitely in the mood for food. So let’s get started with…
Three Fun Facts: V&A Waterfront
1) What is there to eat?
We’re having an early and massive meal this evening of our one day in Cape Town itinerary, so keep the lunch light. Stop off at Cooked for some Mediterranean fare. Try a salad with khoubiz…warm Lebanese flatbread that is so light it basically dissolves in your mouth like a tiny, starchy cloud.
2) Where Can I Shop?
Cooked is located inside the Watershed, which just might be the best place to shop in South Africa. You can find someone for anyone on your Nice List or even someone on your Naughty List. All the shops here feature local makers, so it’s a great way to support South African creativity while you shop ’til you drop.
Some of the stores I recommend include:
- African Fynbosgems, which sells jewelry made out of the precious South African plant family known as the fynbos. I pretended like I was going to buy something for a friend and then just bought a pair of earrings for myself because I collect earrings in every substance including things like lava and beetle wings.
- Flick Inc, which sells fabulous ceramics and prints. I again pretended I was buying a gift and instead bought a ceramic wine stopper shaped like a fynbos and a print of a luggage tag going to Cape Town. I am the worst at buying gifts.
- T-Bag Designs, which sells upcycled good made from used teabags. I finally bought a Christmas present for my oldest friend here, so I guess my reign of shopping terror finally ended. Thanks, teabags!
3) WAAA! Where Can I Get Outside?
Had enough shopping, Internet Stranger? Let’s head out to explore the Waterfront. My favorite thing to do is run around and see as many of the brightly colored rhinoceroses as we possibly can. These rhinos were put up by a conservationist group to raise awareness of Crimes Against Rhinos, but they’ve since become popular selfie spots.
Here’s another famous statue at the V&A Waterfront: the four South African Nobel Peace Prize winners. Their names are Nelson Mandela, FW de Klerk, Desmond Tutu, and Albert Lutuli. De Klerk was by far the least popular; many South Africans feel it was unfair that he received the Nobel Prize jointly with Mandela. After all, De Klerk was the president before Mandela, and he was still responsible for upholding many racist laws and policies, even if he did eventually agree to change them.
I know I said I’d steer clear of history, but in South Africa that’s very difficult to do! I’ll let you wander off by the water to enjoy your one day in Cape Town itinerary while I burble historical facts to myself over here.
Fine, one more fact! This stone above was created to mark the visit of King George VI of the United Kingdom, whom you might know from his big hits The King’s Speech and The Crown. Apparently the King was not a fan of his racist bodyguards and referred to them as the Gestapo.
But nevertheless, the South Africans honored him with this engraving, which remains at the Waterfront to this day. I was surprised to find how many reminders there are in Cape Town of the fact that South Africa used to be part of the British Empire.
One Day in Cape Town Itinerary
Early Evening: High Tea at Mount Nelson
Nothing is more luxurious than High Tea at the fabulous Mount Nelson Hotel. This is just one more example of things being Terribly British in Cape Town sometimes because Nelson comes from the famous British admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, not Nelson Mandela.
When I went, they offered an afternoon tea seating at 5 PM, which was perfect for this itinerary, but check ahead because times may change. If you get there early, you can walk around the glam pink grounds and pretend you are a wealthy guest.
Then it’s time for the savory course!
Here’s the entire list of everything you will consume for the first half of the legendary Mount Nelson tea:
A smoked salmon sandwich, a cucumber and cream cheese sandwich, an egg salad sandwich, cured meats, a cheese puff, pate, and roast beef.
Are we done? Hell to the no. We’ve got a mushroom pastry, spicy meat pastry, a spinach bite, a chickpea bite, two sausages, one of which is spicy, assorted cheeses of different textures and milks, including goat, a fruit spread, hummus, peppers, cheese, crackers, bread, and grapes.
All right, still hungry after the first course? On to the sweets!
Here we have a scone (pronounced scon) served with cream, cheddar, strawberry jam, and butter. Truly there is something for any Brit who wants to dress their scon like they do at home.
Think we’ve got dessert coming? Hahaha, foolish mortal. There will be six desserts:
A cheesecake bite, a caramel square, a coconut square, a vanilla eclair (that rhymes!), a carrot cake, and a raspberry dobos cake with lashings of cream. No, I was not able to finish all this food, though I did eat at least a bite of everything. If you can finish it all, please email me for your reward at [email protected]
That’s a Perfect One Day in Cape Town Itinerary!
What would you do with a one day in Cape Town itinerary? Is there any way to avoid learning about history when you’re in Cape Town (and why would you want to)? And do you think one of those rhino statues could finish the Mount Nelson tea? Please leave your thoughts below!
Note: If you want to know how I put my travel itineraries together, just click here. Keep in mind that while each article is about how to spend 24 hours in a place, that doesn’t mean you should ONLY have a one day in Cape Town itinerary.This post contains affiliate links. That means if you purchase something using one of the links on this post, I may earn a small commission. But I would never recommend anything unless I loved it, dahlink!