Nestled against the side of Table Mountain, Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden is a tranquil green oasis in Cape Town. In a city that can feel in your face at times, Kirstenbosch Garden in Cape Town is a welcome respite that feels like a world in itself.
What To Do at Kirstenbosch Garden
Kirstenbosch is very popular with tourists and locals alike. It’s an easy place to spend a relaxing summer afternoon. Our family really enjoyed spending some time in nature after a couple of days of city sightseeing.
Children playing in a stream at Kirstenbosch.
Image Credit: Slack12
There are well-marked trails leading through Kirstenbosch. Even though it was a busy weekend, there were times we felt there was no one around. We had this green forest idyll to ourselves.
If you are feeling active, you can take a trail from Kirstenbosch up to the top of Table Mountain. The route is well-signposted and takes a few hours. With more active children than mine, I would think it was pretty enjoyable. There are ladders to climb and rocks to scramble. When my kids heard that it was a five hour hike, however, they opted for a picnic on the grounds of the garden itself.
Table Mountain shrouded in fog (again).
The tree canopy walkway was very busy. Known as the Boomslang after the South African snake, the steel and wood walkway winds it way above the treetops. It was opened in 2014 to celebrate the 100 year anniversary of the Kirstenbosch Gardens. My children loved messing around on it because it swayed with movement.
The Boomslang walkway
The Kirstenbosch Garden
The garden itself has lawned areas and lots of native vegetation. In fact, it was one of the first botanical gardens in the world with a mission to preserve the native plant life. So, of course, there is lots of the native Fynbos, including the low-lying shrub stuff as well as protea plants.
In the summer months, there are regular concerts in the park which are very popular. Right before Christmas, there is even a series of Christmas carol concerts. Although we were at Kirstenbosch during an evening there was a concert, we decided we were too tired to attend (and it was a South African band we did not recognise).
Visiting Kirstenbosch Garden in Cape Town
Kirstenbosch lies about 8 miles from the centre of Cape Town. Parts of the garden wheelchair accessible. The gardens are open 7 days a week. There are cafes and tea rooms in the Garden which will allow you to take food away for a picnic on the grounds. There is also a fantastic (and extensive) gift shop.
Kirstenbosch is one of the many cool things to do in South Africa which is a great family destination. My kids loved all the animal-related activities like going on a mini-safari, swimming with penguins on Boulders Beach and hiking the Cape of Good Hope where they saw wild baboons. My husband’s favourite part was the eating and drinking his way through Stellenbosch and I loved our Garden Route road trip.
This post is linked up with Weekend Travel Inspiration and Photo Friday.
Whenever you travel you always find things different from what you expected, sometimes in a good way and sometimes not. For better or for worse, our expectations of what to expect when we travel is formed by what we read and hear in books, media and word of mouth. As a first time visitor, I found these twelve things an unexpected surprise in South Africa. These 12 travel tips for South Africa will help you make the most of your visit to this beautiful country.
12 Things you should know before you visit South Africa for the first time
Travel Tips for South Africa
We spent 2 weeks in South Africa of which we did what many first time visitors do. After a few days in Cape Town, we hired a car and travelled along the Garden Route. We went as far as Plettenberg Bay before looping back and visiting the vineyards near Cape Town.
In no particular order, here are some of my observations and tips to help you navigate South Africa.
Sometimes You Really Don’t Want To See The Doctor
That Cape Town wind is strong! The Southeastern wind nicknamed The Doctor whips through the area in the afternoon. At lower levels it’s refreshing on a hot day but at higher levels, you can hear the ringing in your ears!
We read at the museum for the Castle of Good Hope that Lloyds of London for a while refused to insure ships going to Cape Town because the wind was so unpredictable.
Where Your Home Can Be Your Fortress
The divide between the richer and the poorer areas are clearly visible. The wealthier houses have concrete fences with electric wires and on-call security services protecting them. Each house is effectively a little fortress. The wealthier areas and the townships sometimes exist right next to each other too.
Not All Township Homes Are Equal
Even in the townships, you can tell there are some nicer areas than others. Lots of the small houses in the townships seem to have satellite receivers.
Township in South Africa
As one of our guides explained to us, people remain in townships because they still can’t afford the non-township areas. Even if people do move out of the township, they always return to see their families in the townships. This community aspect of the townships reminded me of the favelas of Brasil.
A Country With Growing Pains
South Africa is an interesting amalgam of first world country and developing country. For example, the water is fine to use, and driving on the roads is very easy. Locals have an excellent command of English. We had no problems feeding the children with non-ethnic food which was widely available. Taxis were plentiful, efficient and cheap to use. We had no issues either with vendors trying to hassle us to buy things.
On the other hand though, the WiFi was very patchy. Ironically, the Cape Town service was called Always On but from what I can tell, it should be called Intermittently On.
Feets Don’t Fail Me Now
The transportation infrastructure outside of central Cape Town seemed poor. We barely saw any buses or trains. People were either walking, cycling or hitchhiking on the motor ways in order to get around. In fact, we saw people dodging cars on the motorway to get from one side to the other.
Image: Pieter van Marion
Time Really is Relative
The country does seem to run on Africa time (always a bit later than advertised!). For example, the New Year’s carnival in 2015 was several weeks after its originally advertised date of January 1st. There were transportation issues with getting the revellers to the parades (see point 5 above!).
A Lush Landscape
I don’t know about the rest of the country but Cape Town and its environs is very lush. We were told that the Europeans had imported trees to plant.
Green fields in the South African landscape
You Rediscover What The Word Massive Means
South Africa is a huge country! I mean huge!! If you look on the map, it occupies the tip of the African continent.
It isn’t until you start driving around though that I realised the country is massive and has a lot of different types of terrain. Driving along the Garden Route we came across forests, mountains, beaches and farmland all within hours of each other.
South Africa is a great place to do a road trip if you have the time to spare to cover the vast distances. The most popular South Africa road trip itinerary is from Cape Town to Johannesburg which you can do in 1 month. We did part of that road trip with the Garden Route over the course of a week.
A Celebration of Cultural Diversity
South African culture is very diverse. We found influences from the Dutch, the English, the Portuguese, other African countries, the Indians, and the Cape Malay everywhere. The most colorful part of Cape Town were the Cape Malay homes of Bo Kaap.
For example, I frankly didn’t even know that the Portuguese had made much of a cultural impact on South Africa because their explorers hadn’t really stuck around as settlers. Yet, we kept coming across Portuguese-influenced cuisine such as peri-peri and trinchado. The rainbow nation moniker really is very apt and not just a marketing tool.
Popularity Has Its Issues
I know South Africa is very popular but we were surprised by just how popular it was. We couldn’t visit Robben Island because the tickets to visit it were sold out for 4 months in advance. People book tickets very far in advance!
We thought we were organised booking hotels in September but we really had a tough time getting reservations for December.
Image: Mads Bodker
Don’t Expect American-style Service
Tourism in South Africa is clearly booming. Service, however, is not the greatest. For example, even Parisians who are notoriously snooty greet you with a polite “bonjour” when you enter a store.
South Africans don’t seem to greet you as a matter of course when you enter their establishment or pass them on the street.
Image: Danie van der Merwe
I wondered to myself if I’d been in England too long when people we let pass us on the roads didn’t acknowledge our courtesy. How rude!!
One Language to Rule Over Them All
I erroneously assumed that everyone spoke Afrikaans as well as English. I was told, however, that Afrikaans was only spoken by white South Africans. There are actually 11 official languages in South Africa – English, Afrikaans and 9 of the African languages. At school, everyone studies English and their local language.
We hired a rental car through Hertz from the airport at Cape Town for the duration of the trip. In Cape Town itself, we hired a car and driver to take us around or used local taxis.
In Cape Town, we stayed at the Twelve Apostles Hotel and Spa and the Hyde All Suites Hotel in Cape Town. We had to change hotels because we left booking so late that there was no availability for all of our days in one hotel.
On the Garden Route, we stayed at the Schoone Oordt Country House in Swellendam, the Tsala Treetop Lodge near Plettenberg Bay and The Garden Route Game Lodge near Albertinia, all of which were excellent. You can read a review of our stays at Schoone Oordt Country House and Tsala Treetop Lodge .
In Stellenbosh, we stayed at the Spier Hotel in what was ostensibly a family room. We loved the wine tasting and landscaped grounds. My children also loved the grounds and the pool. I was unimpressed with the mattress on the floor which was supposed to be the bed for our children. Needless to say, we crammed in all together on the one actual bed in the room.
Have you been to a country that surprised you in some way? Do tell.
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Cape Town is a fabulous city to visit with children. It has got great weather, cheap and easy transportation and lots of good dining options.
Here are my suggestions for 5 things to do in Cape Town that both children and their parents will enjoy. These ideas are in Cape Town itself which is a sprawling port city. If you leave Cape Town and head into the countryside or Cape Point, there are even more family-friendly activities.
See Cape Town from above
Both Table Mountain and Signal Hill offer magnificent views over Cape Town. Table Mountain has a cable car that runs regularly except when it is too windy (usually in the afternoons). It’s best to reserve tickets in advance because the lines are long. It is a very popular destination!
Table Mountain with cloud cover
Signal Hill, on the other hand, is a simple drive up the mountain. At noon every day, there is a cannon shot from Signal Hill which in the old days used to signify lunchtime for the farmers in the areas surrounding Cape Town. The best part of the viewing area of Signal Hill is the fabulous view you get of Table Mountain.
Visit the Gardens
The beautiful Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens lie on the Eastern slopes of Table Mountain. On Sunday evenings, there are concerts in the park. It’s also just a great place to walk around and enjoy a nice picnic. We also liked the Boomslang which is a treetop canopy walkway. The Boomslang moves as people walk on it (freaked me out a bit but the kids loved it).
The Central Garden is smaller and a historical garden. It was where the Dutch used to grow crops for their settlement in historic times. This crop garden is being recreated slowly as pictured below. Nowadays, it also has beautiful paths, a giant chess set, a little cafe with great cakes and a charming playground.
The V&A Waterfront comprises of two harbours and a giant shopping, entertainment and restaurant area. We enjoyed taking a ride on the Cape Wheel (similar to the London Eye). There are also some excellent restaurants.
The waterfront area has a couple of exhibit options as well. The Two Oceans Aquarium is great for kids. The Aquarium ticket allows you to go in and out during the same day so that it’s useful for getting children out of the noonday sun. While we were walking around we saw The Art of the Brick exhibit which we had seen in New York and London was going to be in the exhibition centre through the first part of 2015.
Go to the beach
All the Cape Town beaches are public. There are some fantastic white sand beaches, both for swimming and surfing. About 10 minutes from the centre of Cape Town, our favourite beaches were Clifton Beach and Camps Bay, both next door to each other. They are popular with both locals and tourists.
Visit the Castle of Good Hope
The Castle of Good Hope has got a torture room which should spark the imagination of gory youngsters. It’s also got a military museum which will be a gentle introduction to South African history. There are lots of nooks and crannies to explore in the Castle of Good Hope as well as great views of the city from the castle walls.
As you can see, there’s a good mix of sightseeing, relaxation, walks and educational activities in Cape Town to keep everyone in the family happy and occupied.
Cape Flats Stories is an exhibition currently on at the Castle of Good Hope in Cape Town. Separated into 3 parts, it tells of the ongoing struggle of at-risk youth living in the townships of Cape Flats, one of the poorest areas of Cape Town.
Cape Flats is an area on the outskirts of Cape Town where non-Whites were dumped during the apartheid era. It was notorious for poor housing conditions and a lack of infrastructure.
map of Cape Flats and the different townships
The first room contains a photo mural of daily life in Cape Flats. Youngsters were given cameras and told to document their daily life. The images are very powerful, and occasionally bleak.
The second room tells the individual stories of some of the teenagers involved in the project. There is a wide range of stories mostly identifying the hardships the teenagers face such as abject poverty, diseases, or abusive relationships.
The third room looks to the future with artwork on the walls encouraging a positive approach towards life. People are encouraged to write their own messages of encouragement for the youth of Cape Flats.
We encouraged our children to think about what they wanted to say and to write a message.
The Cape Flats Stories exhibit made us realise that the stories of the people memorialised in the District 6 Museum do not remain in the past. If the District 6 Museum represented the history of apartheid, this exhibit examines its impact on the current generation.
The future may be uncertain but there are glimmers of hope.
You can’t visit South Africa without delving into its recent past. Well, I guess you could but that would be missing a fairly integral part of what makes the country what it is today. We had explained apartheid to our children but it didn’t really hit home until our guide from Green Apple Tours told us his story. We learned that South Africa did not even have the pretense of a separate but equal policy that the USA tried before the Civil Rights Era. The District 6 Museum and a chance encounter with a tourist guide brought these truths home to us.
One Family’s Story
Our guide, Mohammed, was of Cape Malay ancestry with an Indian father and a light-skinned mother who was considered Cape Coloured. Mohammed was 6 years old when the government decided to make the neighbourhood where they lived (District 6) an area for whites only.
Although the family was relocated to the Cape Flats area, they were divided according to their skin colour. His father was put in an Indian township and the mother and children were put into a separate township for Coloureds, both in Cape Flats.
For Mohammed’s father to come see his family, the father had to apply for special permission to visit the coloured township. The family lived divided for years until the early 1980’s when the Apartheid regime fell apart. You can only imagine how hard maintaining any semblance of a family life must have been during that period.
The District 6 Museum commemorates the lives of the people who were forcibly removed from District 6 to townships like this.
Until we visited South Africa we did not fully comprehend how apartheid tore families apart. I had erroneously assumed that there were two classes (whites and everyone else) similar to the American “one drop rule” where everyone who had any African ancestry whatsoever were considered African-American. I had not made allowance for the differences among the non-whites. Everyone was separated into categories – Malay, Indians, Coloreds, Africans and Whites. How did you even separate between shades at that point?
Mohammed’s story hit home with my children especially because I am Indian and my husband is Caucasian. My daughter is light-skinned and would probably have gone with her father if we were living during Apartheid in South Africa. My son and I would go into the Indian camp. Our family wouldn’t be our family any more.
My children also connected to this man’s story because of his personal recounting of it. This sort of racism and attitude prevailed during existing people’s memories. Mohammed’s story became more real to them because he told it to us. They did not learned through a dusty history book about some remote family in ages past.
The District 6 Museum
We also took our children to see the District 6 Museum which explains the stories of many people similarly caught up in events beyond their control. Although District 6 started off as a mixed area, in 1966 it was declared a whites-only area. More than 60,000 people were forcibly evacuated to the Cape Flats townships. The houses in District 6 were razed by bulldozers to prepare the area for white middle class homes.
exhibit of street signs from former district 6
The District 6 Area
This map shows the streets of District 6 and the names and addresses of the inhabitants prior to forced relocation.
I am struck by the effort it takes to separate people by colour. A lot of time and energy went into planning and maintaining division.
There were separate facilities for everything similar to the American Deep South during the times of segregation. Unlike the Deep South though, there wasn’t even the pretense of having things be separate but equal.
A Township Home
This little house is a reconstruction of a South African author’s township house from memory. Her family of five (parents, 2 siblings) lived in this shack. They had only primitive cooking facilities such as this little burner.
The house had only 2 beds which threw my daughter for a loop. My daughter wanted to know how 5 people could sleep on 2 beds. This shack is smaller than her bedroom at home. Of course, there was no indoor plumbing.
The inequity was so blatant that even my child of 8 could grasp this concept. I am glad that she opened her eyes to how the world is different in so many ways than what is her experience.
What I found chilling though is that this reconstructed shack in a museum is the reality for many people who live in the townships still. Even though we were advised from visiting any townships with young children, you can see the townships chock full of bleak little shacks from the road.
Cape Town Langa Township home
Remembering the Past
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
– George Santayana
The District 6 Museum captures the pain and chaos of lives disrupted and memories lost very effectively. It is definitely a worthwhile stop in Cape Town if you would like to understand some of what happened during the Apartheid years. And, yes, bring your children. There is nothing graphic in the museum but it will open up things that are worth discussing with the next generation.
There is a commemorative sheet on which former residents have written messages (seen below). The wounds clearly run deep.
Visiting The District 6 Museum
The District 6 Museum is open Monday through Saturday. It is located near the City Hall on Buitenkant Street. You can buy tickets online through the website.