Cape Town is one of those very few special places where you find a thriving urban area nestled into jaw-dropping natural beauty. These places, like Rio de Janeiro, are few and far between but they all are places that can only be fully appreciated when you’re able to admire the full scale of their beauty from above. Wether it be sky-diving, hang-gliding, a plane ride or helicopter ride, there’s just something about seeing destinations like these from the sky. If you’re headed to Cape Town, then I highly recommend to try to make a helicopter ride part of your itinerary so that you can discover how mind-blowing the natural beauty is of Cape Town, South Africa.
There are a number of (affiliate) helicopter tours available to choose from (all with solid reviews). Some tours will just quickly take you above the city and allow you to see Table Mountain, Lion’s Head, etc. from above. Those will do the trick if you just want to see the city and portions of the Atlantic Coast. However, if you really want to be blown away then I suggest that you book a tour like the Two Oceans tour (which I did) or go a step further and a book a tour that will take you all they way over to the Cape of Good Hope.
The helicopter tour starts off with a take-off from the V&A Waterfront, where you’ll quickly ascend to capture the iconic view of Cape Town from the south, where you’ll seeTable Mountain and Lion’s Head, jut up above the city in dramatic fashion.
Your pilot may initially ascend to about 1,000 to 1,500 feet for this view but I recommend asking them to go up another 1,000 feet, because I feel like the view of the city is a bit more captivating from about 2,500 feet. That’s exactly what I did and so our pilot swung back out to gain a little over 1,000 feet in elevation.
As we swung out, I caught a few closer shots of the city, including Cape Town Stadium (home of the 2010 World Cup) with both Lion’s Head and Table Mountain in the background.
I also got to see a nice shot of the downtown area. Downtown Cape Town, or more accurately, the “City Centre” is actually pretty small when compared to major downtown areas of the U.S. Although the City Centre isn’t as large, the metropolitan area of Cape Town has an estimated 3,740,026 people, so the entire sprawl of the Cape Town area isn’t exactly tiny.
As we continued to swing out over the ocean, we caught a glimpse of Robbeneiland (Robben Island), which is of course where Nelson Mandela was held for 18 of the 27 years he was forced to serve in prison.
Once we gained a bit in elevation, we came back over for another view of Cape Town, but this time close to about 2,800 feet. I preferred this view higher up because it gave more depth to the city and surrounding mountains and hills, so you could make out the formations a bit better and really appreciate the sprawl of the city that rests in the natural bowl formation. At that elevation, we were still about 700 feet lower than Table Mountain, although we would come close to matching it at some point on the tour.
As we moved toward the east, the view changed every second, so I captured a number of shots that all have very similar compositions. I couldn’t decide which view I preferred the most, although I think the image below is my favorite. I prefer the views that showcase the entire span from Signal Point to Lion’s Head with Table Mountain and Devil’s Peak looming behind.
After getting the shots of the iconic views of Cape Town, our pilot took us on eastwardly. This was the exciting part because I’d seen the one “iconic” view of Cape Town so many times in the past, but I hadn’t seen photos of the other side of the Cape Town and surrounding mountains. Thus, the views would all be fresh to me.
Below is what’s referred to as “Sea Point,” and it’s one of Cape Town’s most affluent and densely populated suburbs, with residential high rises lining the ocean front. The beach-front promenade, a paved walkway along the ocean front is a popular place to go for a walk or jog for both locals and tourists.
The hill to the left is “Signal Hill” (a great place to drive up and catch the sunset) and on the right is the famous “Lion’s Head,” a fun hike that offers superb views of the city and Table Mountain.
After getting out from the suburbs, we took off over the ocean. As you can tell from the photos, our tour took place on a completely clear day. The wind was nonexistent and the temperature was in the lower 70s, making for an absolutely perfect day. I would’ve preferred to have some cloud coverage (especially over Table Mountain) to make things interesting for the photos, but it’s hard to complain about weather so perfect.
One thing I found fascinating was that our pilot told us sometimes they can spot whales and even great whites from the sky, although we didn’t see any of those. Apparently, there are also professional spotters with binocular and telescopes who sit perched up in the mountains acting like guardian angels and watching for great whites in order to alert swimmers and surfers at nearby beaches.
Below, you can see the mountain ridges just east of Camps Bay. I believe these form part of the “12 Apostles” a notorious set of peaks that put on a magnificent showing at sunset, as the sun reflects off of their cliffs.
Next up was “Llandudno,” one of the most scenic areas in Cape Town. An interesting fact about the suburb is that “there are no street lights, shops or commercial activities, and the suburb has some of the most expensive residential property in South Africa.”
Llandudno Beach is a hot spot for surfers but not so much with swimmers due to its cold water and strong currents. The giant boulders surrounding the beach (which are common in this area) make it one of the most beautiful beaches in the area, too. Also, if you look to the far right on the image below, you’ll see “Sandy Beach,” a famous nude beach of Cape Town.
The hill above Llandudno in the photo below is called “Little Lion’s Head” as it looks a lot like the real Lion’s Head to the west.
After flying high over Llandudno the neighboring nudists, we made our way around a large peninsula of cliffs that surround Hout Bay, which I believe is part of Karbonkelberg/Kaptein’s Peak.
The area is an imposing formation that many rock climbers flock to. An area on its side has been subject to sand deposits from strong winds over the years and is a spot that others come to sand board on, apparently.
The view looking back north from Hout Bay is one of my favorite views I think I’ve ever encountered. You can see Lion’s Head on the far left, Table Mountain to its right, the 12 Apostles just below Table Mountain, Little Lion’s Head, and then Karbonkelberg/Kaptein’s Peak, all in one view. Pretty spectacular.
The view that emerges as you pass further east continues to impress. A large pointy formation known as the Sentinel, towers over Hout Bay pointing up to the sky like Pride Rock.
In the view below, you can see all of the major peaks once again but with the Sentinel and Hout Bay now in the shot. Interestingly, the entire low-lying area often referred to as Hout Bay was where early Dutch settlers depended on to get their lumber (using slaves of course), since little rainfall fell on the other side of the mountains where they had settled.
Chapman’s Peak drive, built between 1915 and 1922 and one of the most scenic and famous highways to drive, came into view next. Its winding roads that meander up and down the rugged coastline form South Africa’s version of Highway One found on the Pacific coast of the US. While it’s a sight to behold on the road, it’s also a quite the view from above.
The turquoise waters on the right what wash up beneath Chapman’s Peak Drive are part of “Noordhoek Beach.” Near the southern end of Noordhoek Beach you’ll find the wreck of the steamship “Kakapo”, which wrecked close to 100 years ago when the captain mistook Chapmans’ Peak for the Cape of Good Hope.
Another one of my favorite shots, you can see Chapman’s Peak, with Chapman’s Peak Drive winding around its base, with Hout Bay and Table Mountain in the background.
Our route then went inland over “Fish Hoek,” a suburb of Cape Town with a history tied to whaling. It’s well known for Peers’ Cave, where human skeleton remains dating back as far as 15,000 years were found. Today, the area is popular for commuters into Cape Town and is a “semi-dry” town where alcohol can’t be sold in stores but only in restaurants and bars.
The waters extending out are part of “False Bay,” where the Indian Ocean meets the Atlantic Ocean, hence the name of the “Two Oceans Tour” (though some dispute exactly where that line is). False Bay earned its name from the fact that sailors going back as far as 300 years ago would mistake it for Table Bay. False Bay is known for its killer rogue waves and also for its great whites. If you look closely in the photo below, you can see a small granite island, which is the infamous “Seal Island” that the likes of Nat Geo and Discovery Channel often film at during Shark Week to get those amazing shots of great whites breaching
Dropping in elevation, we next swooped over “Kalk Bay Harbour.”
Kalk Bay is a well-known fishing village but also offers some amazing swells for surfers. An interesting fact about the mountains and hills above this village is that they are filled with large cave systems, which is a rarity considering that the rocks are formed of sandstone.
As we pushed north in False Bay we flew over Muizenberg Beach, considered to be the birthplace of surfing in South Africa with its mecca being “Surfer’s Corner” pictured below.
Surfer’s Corner was the end of our coastal excursion and we headed back inland to make our way back toward Table Mountain.
Our inland journey took us over some farmland and vineyards that were nestled in the foothills below the large mountain cliffs. It’s much harder to distinguish the land inland than on the coast, but I’m pretty sure that below (toward the right) you’re looking at Constantia, considered to be one of the most prestigious suburbs in South Africa.
Judging by what I was told and how the area looks, it seems like this area isn’t too far off from being the Napa Valley of Cape Town, with its vineyards and affluent demographic.
Looking back on my experience in Cape Town, it’s impossible to see all of this affluence and not think about the townships we visited and poverty that existed there. The contrast is so stark that you wouldn’t believe that these places are merely separated by 15-20 minutes of driving.
Towering above the affluent neighborhoods are the mountains that make up the rear of Table Mountain, some of them holding massive reservoirs.
We finally came closer to making our turn around Table Mountain and flew over to popular stadiums in Cape Town. The rectangular stadium below is “Newlands Stadium,” the second-oldest rugby stadium in the world and to its right is “Newlands Cricket Stadium,” home to the Cape Cobras.
Finally, we turned back toward the city. Here you can see a north ridge of Table Mountain National Park known as Devil’s Peak to the left, the City Centre in the middle, and Robben Island looming in the background.
Dropping altitude, we flew over the industrial side of Cape Town full of trains and the Port of Cape Town. The area pictured below is known as “Woodstock.” It looks like just another industrial area but it played a significant role in “laying the foundation for urban renewal” after apartheid since it remained very integrated during that time. Today, it’s experiencing a bit of a resurgence as young professionals and others head their for its trendy restaurants, shops, and renovated Victorian architecture.
One of the smaller sections of the Port of Cape Town is designated for yachts.
Just before landing we got one last great view of Table Mountain with the V&A Waterfront and the City Centre in the foreground.
And finally, it was time to touch back down on land after about 30 minutes of taking in breathtaking scenery from the sky.
This helicopter ride showcased the beauty of Cape Town that can only be appreciated by flight. There’s so much more than to the city and surrounding area than the iconic “City Bowl” shot that dominates post cards and magazines and I was very happy to be able to see it and photograph it. While helicopter rides can be a bit pricey at times, I think that anyone who really wants to experience the natural beauty of South Africa, should consider booking helicopter tour. It will be worth very penny (or ZAR).
Daniel Gillaspia is the Founder of UponArriving.com and the credit card app, WalletFlo. He is a former attorney turned travel expert covering destinations along with TSA, airline, and hotel policies. Since 2014, his content has been featured in publications such as National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, and CNBC.