Cape Town top 21 nature and wildlife attractions

Man on top of Table Mountain, probably feeling like he's on top of the world

Nature dominates Cape Town. Table Mountain stands majestic, penguins waddle on a nearby beach, and two oceans provide excitement.

At Africa Freak we celebrate wild Africa. While Cape Town is famous for its restaurants, bars, culture and history, this is the destination where you can experience the wild just steps from a city.

Here we celebrate the top nature and wildlife attractions in and around Cape Town, from mountain biking with zebra to diving with sharks and stunning wilderness trails.

Just make sure you give yourself enough time as there is so much to do in South Africa’s Mother City.

Cape Town – The Best 21 Nature and Wildlife Attractions

Spectacular panoramic view of Cape Town, South Africa's Mother City

Cape Town is located on Africa’s southwestern tip.

Table Mountain rises over 1000 metres above the city, between Lion’s Head and Devil’s Peak. These mountains bring wilderness to the city and there are hundreds of trails to explore.

Atlantic Ocean beaches run down one side of the city, including the world’s best kitesurfing beach and sand covered in penguins. Pacific Ocean waters bring surf waves to the south.

Travel inland and you will find an African savannah, where Africa’s elegant antelope species canter past zebra and warthogs.

Many people visit Cape Town for attractions like the V & A Waterfront. The city is world famous for its dining scene. You can find colourful markets and vibrant history, such as Nelson Mandela’s personal heritage.

But the essence of Cape Town is its setting for outdoor adventure. This is not just a city. It is a city wrapped in wilderness and the best attractions are those you find in nature.

These Cape Town attractions will also help you get off the beaten track, in a city that’s increasingly dominated by tourists.

1. Hiking on the Table Mountain summit

The easier way to reach Table Mountain's summit is with the cable way

The only places on Table Mountain you will find crowds are the two cable car stations. Most visitors queue for the cable car, ascend to the summit, then walk about five minutes from the top cable car station.

Hiking up Table Mountain is tough. This is a 1000 metre mountain after all. If you don’t want to hike up, the best Cape Town attraction is to walk on the summit. One option is a hike to Maclear’s Beacon, another is to hike to the reservoirs.

2. Hiking up Table Mountain

Platteklip Gorge is the shortest way up Table Mountain. 95% of tourists take this route and they think it is the easiest, because it is the quickest. But quickest is also steepest and this is a really tough slog.

Platteklip is also the busiest. You will not find wilderness because so many other people are on the trail. Instead, try India Venster or Skeleton Gorge, trails used by locals instead. This Table Mountain article will give you more hiking ideas.

3. The easy and popular Lion’s Head climb

Man and women sitting on top of Lion's Head, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean and Cape Town city below

Cape Town’s most iconic natural attraction is to hike up Lion’s Head. From the summit you get incredible 360-degree views of the city, views that include Table Mountain itself.

Climbing Lion’s Head takes around 60 minutes. Locals love to do this for full moon and the trail can get busy and somewhat dangerous. Visitors love to visit this Cape Town attraction for sunset. Again, the trail gets really busy, especially in summer.

Consider climbing Lion’s Head for sunrise. If you do hike up for sunset, leave two hours before sunset so you can enjoy the top before the crowds arrive.

4. The difficult and untouched Devil’s Peak climb

Devil’s Peak is higher than Table Mountain and offers the ultimate Cape Town view. Yes, we’re sticking our necks out here, the absolute best Cape Town view is from the top of Devil’s Peak.

Getting to the top takes at least two hours and the trail is really loose and rugged. Expect to see less than ten other hikers throughout the hike, even in the middle of peak tourist season (December and January).

From the summit you can see the entire city, the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, Table Mountain, Constantia vineyards, and the harbour.

5. Penguins at Boulders Beach

Five African penguins about to take a swim, Boulders Beach

African penguins waddle around the sand of Boulders Beach, just 45 minutes away from Cape Town. It’s one of Cape Town’s most famous attractions and a classic stop on a day trip to the Cape of Good Hope.

The penguins are brilliant. But they are also popular so here’s a tip. After passing through the entrance gate don’t walk straight on. Look for the entrance to a small boardwalk on the right. Walk on this boardwalk and you won’t have to share the penguins with everybody else.

Keep walking to a second entrance gate. Show your ticket and go onto the beach. Then you can sunbathe next to the penguins!

6. Cape Town wildlife attractions on the Cape of Good Hope

Some of Africa’s most elegant antelope canter around the Cape of Good Hope. Springbok impress and kudu inspire. Eland and bontebok can be found on lesser used trails. Red hartebeest peer at you from the bush. You can also see Cape mountain zebras and strange snakes.

Many people miss these wildlife attractions because they only visit the famous lighthouses. The Cape of Good Hope is the best place to see wildlife close to Cape Town. However, you need to spend the full day and explore the park’s different hiking trails, rather than just the lighthouse and car park.

7. Kitesurfing at Blouberg Beach

View of Table Mountain from Blouberg Beach, with kitesurfers

Blouberg Beach is the best place on the planet to go kitesurfing between February and April. The kiting season is December to May but those three months are when the world’s best arrive to show off their skills.

Note that Blouberg is a very difficult place to learn kitesurfing. The swell is big, the wind is huge, and it takes three full days which doesn’t leave much time for Cape Town’s other attractions.

But it’s worth making a visit just to watch kitesurfers soaring across and above the waves.

8. Cape Town surfing

Cape Town is famous for surfing. The iconic surfer image fits seamlessly with the city’s vibe. However, Cape Town is not the best place in South Africa for surfing. Durban is much better, Jeffreys Bay hosts the World Surf League, and there are dozens of better spots along the coast.

Muizenberg has the most consistent Cape Town waves and is a good place for all levels, but mostly for beginners. Big Bay is decent and there are some big waves further up the coast, north of the city.

9. Mountain biking with zebra and antelope

Eland at !Khwa ttu's San bushman cultural centre located on the West Coast

!Khwa ttu is a San bushman cultural centre located on the West Coast, about one hour north of Cape Town. San people provide an introduction to their culture and history here. These were the Cape’s original inhabitants and they always provide an eye-opening experience.

Their land is pure wilderness. Zebra gallop around, along with springbok, kudu, eland and more of Africa’s largest antelope species. Although you won’t see thousands of these animals, you can get very close.

One of Cape Town’s best wildlife attractions is to mountain bike around !Khwa ttu’s well marked trails. Mountain biking can be guided or unguided. Do the full loop and you can even stop at a Darling vineyard, in between the springbok and zebra.

10. Big-game African safari near Cape Town

Most first-time visitors to Africa want to go on safari. They land in Cape Town expecting to see lions and rhinos. But Cape Town is nowhere near Africa’s main safari destinations.

For the best South African safari visit Kruger National Park. The wildlife attractions near Cape Town can only offer a glimpse at an African safari.

Aquila and Inverdoorn are the two game reserves closest to Cape Town. Both feature the big five, along with hippos, giraffe, and a variety of antelopes.

Note that the predators are kept in separate areas so the lions are not truly wild, but hand-fed by gamekeepers instead. You won’t see leopards or cheetahs either, and certainly not any spotted hyena.

That’s because these animals hunt antelope and antelope are expensive for the game reserves to buy. So these reserves don’t have many predators.

Aquila has recently bought out Inverdoorn so both reserves offer a very similar experience. Both are okay destinations if you have never been on an African safari and want to come face to face with the incredible animals. However, if you want a genuine safari experience extend your trip beyond Cape Town.

11. Two Oceans Aquarium

Sorry, we’re not including this one. The only thing worse than keeping birds in a cage is keeping giant ocean animals in an aquarium. It doesn’t matter how much fun the dolphins appear to be having, they are being held captive purely for human enjoyment.

Let’s leave wildlife to its natural habitat and let’s keep animals wild.

11. Shark cage diving in Gansbaai

Great white shark getting up close to the cage in Gansbaai

Gansbaai is a two-hour drive from Cape Town and is the home of great white shark cage diving. You don’t actually go diving, but stand in a cage and watch the ocean’s greatest predator swim past.

This Gansbaai travel guide will help you understand the shark experience, including what you do and how to book. You might also want to read about the morals behind shark cage diving and whether it’s a good idea.

It is one of South Africa’s most thrilling wildlife experiences and can be easily done on a day trip from Cape Town.

12. Whale watching in Hermanus near Cape Town

Hermanus whale watching is one of Cape Town’s most popular day trips but is only good between June and December. That’s when southern right whales migrate to Walker Bay and are visible from the shore.

This guide to Hermanus whale watching will give you all the information you need. The main attraction is to watch whales from the shore. Boat tours can get you a little bit closer. Also consider kayaking with whales.

13. Hiking Chapman’s Peak

Chapman’s Peak summit, shrouded by a veil of clouds

Chapman’s Peak Drive is one of Africa’s most famous road journeys. Twisting above the ocean the road will take you through mountain tunnels to the Cape of Good Hope.

Everybody wants to drive this road, especially on a Sunday, when the traffic backs up all the way to Cape Town. But not many people know about the Chapman’s Peak hike.

The mountain’s summit can be reached via a 90-minute trail from Chapman’s Peak Drive. This hike is easier and lower than Table Mountain but the views are just as good, plus you get a real sense of wilderness as people can’t cheat by taking a cable car.

14. The five-day Hoerikwaggo Trail to Cape Town

Flying into Cape Town is pretty special, with the mountain and ocean unfolding beneath the plane’s wingtips. How about hiking to Cape Town?

The five-day Hoerikwaggo trail will take you from the Cape of Good Hope to the summit of Table Mountain, where you can descend into the city by cable car.

Accommodation is in excellent national park huts along the way. You can hike without a guide but note that the accommodation is limited and must be booked long in advance.

During the hike you can see springbok and kudu, cross a wonderful white beach, tackle some mountain passes, and feel the wilderness that dominates South Africa’s Cape.

15. Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens

Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden's elevated walkway

Nestled on the back slopes of Table Mountain, Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden is packed with indigenous flora from all across South Africa. In one place you can walk amid the Karoo, explore the savannah and get to know Cape fynbos.

Enter the gardens and you can easily spend an hour or two wandering through all the trees and rare plants, all of which have an information board so you can learn as you go.

Getting into Kirstenbosch is expensive but there is a way to get around the ticket office. Take the hiking trail from Constantia Nek and after a 45-minute walk you can enter Kirstenbosch from the top rather than the bottom.

There are no gates and you can enter for free. This is permitted so you will not be breaking any laws. It’s a good reward for hiking rather than driving to the gardens.

16. SANCCOB Seabird Rehabilitation Centre

Recently upgraded with new facilities, this rehabilitation centre provides one to one interactions with penguins, cormorants, terns, albatrosses, gannets and petrels.

The centre has been active for many decades and they rehabilitate an average of 24 different seabird species every year.

Note that the facility is all about rehabilitation, rather than a visitor experience. It’s not a typical tourist attraction and you can’t simply wander around different pens filled with seabirds.

If you want to get closer then consider volunteering for the day, or adopting a penguin. The centre needs more hands and more money to continue their work.

17. Wildlife on wine estates near Cape Town

Spier wine estate with the old bell

Saxenburg is where wine meets wildlife and it’s only 45 minutes from Cape Town. They have a small reserve with bontebok and zebra, plus a few other curious antelope. And the wine isn’t bad either!

Another meeting of animals and aromatic wines can be found at Spier, a wine estate that also has a cheetah rescue centre on site.

18. Robben Island also has wildlife attractions

Nelson Mandela was incarcerated on Robben Island for 18 years. Visiting the prison is an inspiring experience, as you explore the cell where he wrote memoirs and discover his friendship with prison guards.

This island also has wildlife, such as bontebok, steenbok, eland and springbok. You can also see dolphins and whales on the boat journey to the island.

19. Squirrels in The Company’s Garden

Squirrel at ground level, on The Company’s Garden lawns

So it’s not really the most exciting of African animals but squirrels are cute and cheerful in the middle of Cape Town. You can see dozens of them all over The Company’s Garden, many of them eager to approach people who give out a few breadcrumbs from their hand.

20. Hiking all the way around Table Mountain on the Contour Path

Most visitors want to hike up Table Mountain. Most Cape Town city guides focus on trails up the mountain.

One of the best Cape Town experiences is to walk around Table Mountain. A stunning hiking trail is located halfway up the mountain. It runs the entire length of the mountain and hardly anybody knows about it.

At 500-600 metres above sea level, this Contour Path still offers stunning views over the city. But it doesn’t have the tourist crowds of the summit. The complete hike from Constantia Nek to Kloof Nek Corner will take about five hours.

Or you can glimpse this trail by hiking the first part of Platteklip Gorge. When you reach a four-way signpost stop going up and hike sideways instead.

21. Seals of Hout Bay and the V & A Waterfront

Cape fur seal colony on Duiker Island, near Hout Bay

Cape fur seals lounge about all around the Cape Town coast. You can often see them in V & A Waterfront and can get closer with a boat trip around Hout Bay Harbour.

The seals attract sharks, another of the wildlife attractions near Cape Town. You may get lucky and see dolphin pods as well.

Planning a Cape Town Vacation

These 21 nature and wildlife attractions can be at the heart of your Cape Town holiday.

So don’t just look at all the great restaurants and cultural things to do, make sure you connect with your wild side as well.

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