With a mountain and seals in the city, as well as outdoor activities along the coast, it is hard to think of another city in Africa that has as much to delight children as Cape Town.

It is hard to think of another city in Africa that has quite as much to delight children as South Africa’s Cape Town.

Firstly, there is that strangely flat-topped mountain in the middle of the city that is never out of sight. It forms part of the remarkable Table Mountain National Park, with mountain walks and trails, forests, gardens and a revolving cable car that whisks you to the top for spectacular 360-degree views.

Secondly, there is the Cape Peninsula to explore, all within easy travelling distance by car, bicycle or tour bus. The peninsula extends 75km south from the city into the Atlantic Ocean, and you will find glorious beaches  some with wild, windswept sands like Noordhoek on the west coast, and some with great surfing, particularly in Muizenberg in False Bay in the south and Hout Bay on the west coast. There are also small, rocky coves like St James in the south, ideally protected for young swimmers.

Then there are animals – an enormous array of fascinating creatures from ostriches to bonteboks (a type of antelope) to rare tortoises. And Capetonians themselves create a kaleidoscope of culture and history; visit a township to explore Xhosa heritage, wander the Malay Bo-Kaap area of the city, find out about the San people at the !Khwa ttu cultural centre just north of Cape Town or take a short boat trip to Robben Island for a slice of Nelson Mandela’s life.

Creatures great and small
There are plenty of seals sunning themselves at Cape Town’s Victoria & Alfred Waterfront , but inside the waterfront’s Two Oceans Aquarium you can meet 88 other denizens of the deep, such as ragged-tooth sharks. Get up scarily close and personal at an 11m by 4m acrylic window and watch the sharks being fed each afternoon at 3 pm. There are also penguins, a frog exhibit, a kelp forest and a children’s centre featuring puppet shows and art activities with a fishy theme.

In the wild, southern right whales can be spotted around the Cape Peninsula, but it is well worth taking a day trip to the town of Hermanus in Walker Bay, just more than an hour’s drive southeast from Cape Town, to see them up close. The town has an annual whale festival in September and you will find whale logos on just about everything.

Local resident Eric Davalala has a unique job: he is the world’s only whale crier, and wanders around town blowing his kelp horn whenever he spots whales in the bay. There is an easy cliff-top path for viewing, and you are sure to see whales between August and November. They are a delight to watch, too. Davalala explained that they control their body temperature by sticking their tails out of the water, poke their heads up (also known as “spy-hopping”) to see what is going on. The whales also breach by launching their upper bodies and blow a V-shaped spray of water as they breathe.

Boulders Beach in the southern Cape Peninsula is home to around 3,000 jackass (African) penguins. You can view them from a wooden deck among the milkwood trees and on the small boulder-strewn beaches. In summer, it is fun to swim with them; they may not smell too good, but their curious antics make this a great stop on a peninsula tour.

At the southernmost point of the Cape Peninsula, the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve is home to Chacma baboons, ponderous, large antelopes called elands, ostriches, rare tortoises, bonteboks and zebras. While the zebras are usually elusive, bonteboks have a “target-practice” circle on their behinds, making them easier to spot. There are other smaller antelopes, too, such as bouncy springboks. Add to this the reasonable Two Oceans restaurant, superb springtime flora, a funicular railway to an old lighthouse and wild beaches complete with shipwrecks, and there is plenty to keep children entertained for a whole day.

Out and about
Do not miss a visit to the renowned Stellenbosch and Franschhoek winelands just an hour’s drive east of Cape Town. If you have kids in tow, choose an estate that has plenty of outdoor activities. Spier, near Stellenbosch, has a Cheetah Outreach Centre, horseriding, plenty of grass for letting off steam and several restaurants, including the spectacular Moyo, which has tables up in the trees, Xhosa face-painting and serves African cuisine such as potjie (a stew cooked in a three-legged pot over an open fire).

September heralds spring in Cape Town, and if you are visiting at this time of year, the spring flowers north of the city are legendary. Call the flower hotline (083-910-1028) to get information on the best viewing spots, or head for the Postberg Flower Reserve  on the northern tip of the West Coast National Park. Here you will find colourful carpets of flowers, various species of antelope, wild beaches on the seaward side with rock pools for exploring, and a peaceful lagoon on the other with soft sand, warm water for paddling and flamingos and other wading birds.

Show children another side of life in Cape Town with a township tour to Gugulethu or Khayelitsha, a short drive from the city centre. During Apartheid, black people were required to live in these townships. Many still do, and there is still informal housing or shacks. Do not feel uncomfortable at the thought of going on a tour of a township; such tours are far removed from voyeurism and can offer great insights into local life. On a half-day tour you will meet a sangoma (traditional healer), visit a shebeen (an unlicensed bar) and even try a restaurant like the do-it-yourself Mzoli’s in Gugulethu. Here you choose and purchase your meat from the local butcher, ask for his special sauce and have it freshly barbecued right at the restaurant. Bring your own drinks and plenty of serviettes as there will not be any cutlery. These trips are perfectly safe and suitable for all ages. Best of all, local tour operators  Coffee Bean Routes and Yiphile iKhayelitsha Ultimate Township Tours support local residents by employing local guides.

A stroll around the Malay Quarter, or Bo-Kaap, in central Cape Town will be of interest to older children.  It is home to many Muslims, mosques, minarets and brightly-painted houses. Visit the small Bo-Kaap Museum to explore the history of slavery at the Cape, and then have lunch at one of the trendy restaurants on Long Street, such as vegetarian fare at Lola’s or very special burgers at the Royale Eatery, including the Big Bird, an ostrich patty with a home-made beetroot relish.

There is more history to be found on Robben Island, a short ferry ride from the Nelson Mandela Gateway at the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront. More suitable for older children, the two hours spent on the island include a bus tour and a visit to the prison where you can see Mandela’s cell and hear stories from former inmates. The ferries run hourly from 9 am to 3 pm, and tickets can be booked online at the Robben Island Museum at least a week in advance.

If your children are keen sports fans, they will have a lot in common with South Africans. Football is the national game, and the surprisingly beautiful football stadium in the Green Point neighbourhood -- a venue for the 2010 World Cup -- is worth a visit. For keen rugby players, Newlands Stadium is home to the Western Province rugby team and has weekend matches throughout the winter.

Rainy days
In the Cape Peninsula you can experience all types of weather in one day, so it helps to have a few tricks up your sleeve to entertain children. At the Cape Town Science Centre in the suburb of Observatory, they can defy gravity in the human gyroscope, walk across Africa on a giant map and take part in all sorts of activities like learning about DNA or the human skeleton, making bath salts and writing secrets with invisible ink.

If dinosaurs are of interest, there are plenty of dinosaur skeletons at the Iziko Museum in central Cape Town, as well as a large exhibition hall especially designed to house a whale skeleton. Just around the corner, the Planetarium has daily “Davy the Dragon” shows, a playful introduction to astronomy aimed at children aged five to 12, and “The Sky Tonight”, shows explaining the current night sky, for teenagers and adults at 1 pm on Saturday and Sunday.  

Table Mountain: Six top facts to impress the kids

  • At 250 million years old, it is the granddaddy of mountains -- the Himalayas are 40 million years old and the Alps just 32 million
  • The original inhabitants, the San, called the mountain Hoerikwaggo, meaning “mountain in the sea”
  • At 1,086m high, it is the same size as 248 double-decker buses piled on top of each other
  • The guinea-pig-like animals on the mountain are dassies (rock hyraxes) and are closely related to elephants
  • The clouds that often mass on the mountain top and tumble down the sides are known, of course, as the Tablecloth
  • It takes only five minutes to reach the top of the mountain by cable car, where you will find that it is not flat at all