The best things in life may well be free in nature-immersed Cape Town.

Here, hiking trails crisscross Table Mountain and locals hit the beach before work. The weak rand helps foreign visitors enjoy South Africa’s legendary food and wine at low cost, but the 370-year-old city’s diverse neighborhoods can keep you enthralled without costing a cent. Here are the best free experiences in Cape Town.

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1. Climb Table Mountain

Hiking the trails of varying difficulty on Table Mountain is not only free but a Capetonian rite of passage with sweeping views at the top. The most popular route is Platteklip Gorge, which plows straight up the mountain’s front face, with the option of catching the revolving cable car back down.

From Kloof Nek, the Pipe Track contour path leads towards the buttresses of the Twelve Apostles, with Lion’s Head and Camps Bay Beach on your right. In the same area, Kloof Corner offers a relatively gentle climb, linking with the contour trail along the front face to the lower cable car station of Platteklip Gorge. Alternatively, climb from the mountain’s Camps Bay side via Kasteelpoort, from Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden via Skeleton Gorge or Nursery Ravine, or combine the two sides by crossing the tabletop plateau in the middle. You can also walk (or drive) along the adjoining flat-topped Signal Hill (aka Lion’s Rump), passing a kramat en route to a viewpoint overlooking the Atlantic suburbs.

Planning tip: Time your visit with a full moon to strap on a headlamp and follow nocturnal locals up Lion’s Head, when a chain of torchlight snakes up the leonine outcrop.

Crowds of people look on at an entertaining juggling balls
The V&A Waterfront is a hub of free entertainment © Ruben Ramos / Getty Images

2. Wander the V&A Waterfront

This historic working harbor has a spectacular setting and many tourist-oriented attractions, including shops, restaurants, bars, cinemas and cruises. A pedestrian swing bridge opens for tugs, fishing boats and various other vessels to pass between the 19th-century Victoria and Alfred Basins – named after Queen Victoria and her son Alfred. Discover the pedestrianized area’s maritime and military history on a walking tour, or just wander to the beat of buskers, checking out The Watershed craft market and Nobel Square’s statues of Nelson Mandela and other South African Nobel Prize winners.

3. Soak up culture and history on a city center stroll

A wander through Cape Town’s venerable city center is a totally free way to get to know it better. Start on the commercial and nightlife thoroughfare of Long Street. Partly lined with Victorian-era buildings featuring lovely wrought-iron balconies, the street’s fortunes rose from disrepute to backpacker hangout and gentrification before the pandemic dealt another hand of fate.

The pedestrianized portion of Church Street, between Long and Burg Streets, hosts a flea market and several interesting private art galleries. Burg Street leads straight to cobbled Greenmarket Square, the city’s second-oldest public space, with a colorful craft market and some choice examples of art deco architecture.

Continuing towards the Castle of Good Hope, you’ll come across the Grand Parade, its history more impressive than the flea market and car park you see today: the Dutch built their first fort here in 1652; enslaved people were sold and punished here, and jubilant crowds gathered in 1990 to watch Nelson Mandela’s first address to the nation as a free man after 27 years in jail – delivered from the balcony of the Edwardian-era Cape Town City Hall

A row of brightly colored houses painted pink, yellow and orange in Bo-Kaap neighborhood, Cape Town.
Have your camera ready to snap some shots of colorful Bo-Kaap, one of Cape Town's iconic neighborhoods © Subodh Agnihotri / Getty Images

4. Photograph the colorful Bo-Kaap

The "Upper Cape," with its vividly painted low-roofed houses on narrow cobbled streets climbing Signal Hill, features in most visitors’ Instagram feeds. The area is the traditional home of the Cape Muslim (anachronistically known as the Cape Malay) community, with minarets among the cottages and stalls selling traditional snacks such as samoosas and coconut-sprinkled koe’sisters

5. Power-walk along Sea Point Promenade

Strolling along Sea Point’s wide, paved, grassy promenade is a pleasure shared by Capetonians from all walks of life. Once a white-only area, it’s now a great place to observe the city's multiculturalism.

Planning tip: There are kids' playgrounds and several public artworks to capture your attention, but if you want to get that heart rate up a little more, head for the outdoor gym.

6. Relax in Cape Town's public gardens and parks

If you’re traveling with children, there’s no substitute for blowing off steam in the park, and the city has some wonderful public gardens. The Dutch East India Company, which founded Cape Town as a refreshment station for its India-bound vessels, established Company’s Garden to grow fruit and vegetables for scurvy-ridden sailors. There are trees dating to that 17th-century epoch and a statue of 19th-century British colonialist Cecil Rhodes, pointing to Cairo with the legend "your hinterland is there."

An eco-legacy of World Cup 2010 is the Green Point Urban Park, which showcases the Cape’s biodiversity and provides a front-row view of Cape Town Stadium. Equally important, there’s a smashing play park and lawns for picnicking, while Deer Park (technically Rocklands Avenue Park) offers monkey-bar fun and an adjoining cafe in mountainside Vredehoek.

Join local families in southern suburbs favorites such as Keurboom Park, where little ones enjoy the tractor climbing frame, bike paths and bluegum fairy village. Slightly wilder, Tokai Park has walking trails through fynbos and pines, overlooked by the mountainous spine of the Cape Peninsula.

A senior couple enjoy lunch at Muizenberg Beach in Cape Town
The waters at Muizenberg Beach are slightly warmer than those on the Atlantic coast © shaun / Getty Images/iStockphoto

7. Bask on beautiful beaches

Looking down from the Pipe Track, you’ll spy some of Cape Town’s most beautiful Atlantic beaches. Separated from a chichi promenade of sundowner spots by palm trees and a grassy bank, Camps Bay is a gorgeous sweep of soft sand. Less appealing aspects include wind exposure and freezing water, so many locals prefer Clifton’s sheltered beaches, which are demarcated by giant granite boulders. With a backdrop of hillside beach houses and Lion’s Head, you can’t go wrong with the scenic quartet, whether for lazy days or candlelit evening picnics. 

Further south, Llandudno Beach is another mountain-cocooned gem, while Noordhoek and Kommetjie share the last word in vistas with their views of Chapman’s Peak and Hout Bay.

Located on the peninsula’s False Bay side, both Muizenberg and St James beaches have much warmer water than on the Atlantic coast. Families tend to head here to spend a day in the shadow of the colorfully painted Victorian chalets that line both beaches. On the northern side of town, the beaches of Bloubergstrand have a show-stopping view of Table Mountain across Table Bay, its waters flecked with kite-surfers and windsurfers.  

8. Head to Hout Bay Harbour

Partly given over to tourism with complexes such as Mariner’s Wharf, Hout Bay’s harbor still functions, and you can see vessels under repair on the eastern side beneath the Sentinel peak. This area is also home to the vibrant Bay Harbour Market, where you can catch live music at weekends.

Planning tip: While in the Republic of Hout Bay, as the independently-minded suburb is nicknamed, head up to Constantia Nek to hike the rear of the Table Mountain plateau or follow the contour trail to Kirstenbosch Gardens.

9. Take a road trip to Cape Town’s deep south

There is a small charge to drive along the Atlantic coast south from Hout Bay via the spectacular Chapman’s Peak Drive toll road (R57, approx $3). This is the gateway to the Lentil Curtain, as the hippyish suburbs of Noordhoek and Kommetjie are known. Experience the Cape Peninsula’s laid-back southern reaches without paying to enter the reserve at its tip, which is a day out in itself. From the beach town of Scarborough, cross the rocky hinterland to quaint Simon’s Town (the headquarters of the South African Navy) and the African penguin colony at Boulders Beach.

Planning tip: For the return journey, save the cost of the toll by heading back alongside False Bay, stopping in picturesque Kalk Bay or family-favorite Muizenberg.

This article was first published June 2015 and updated April 2023

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