You won’t forget the first time you see Cape Town. It is simply the most beautiful city in the world. You already know you are in for something special when you arrive from the airport on Nelson Mandela Boulevard and you turn the corner that offers a view over the city, the Atlantic Ocean and Table Mountain! What a sight – the iconic mountain overlooking the city with the dark blue sea glittering in the distance. Even though a few high-rise buildings are scattered throughout, they don’t look too imposing with Table Mountain and Lions Head looking down on them. The locals call Cape Town lovingly The Mother City as it is South Africas first and oldest city. Some say the name is eluding to the way the city is nestled in the lap of Table Mountain – like a mother cradling her child. Personally I like this one the best!
Cape Town is home to about 4.6 million people, but the majority of Capetonians live in the flats around the mountain. The center area is squeezed in between Table Mountain, Lions Head, Signal Hill and the Atlantic Ocean. It’s a metropolis with a small-town feeling.
The mountains divide the city between the city bowl, Gardens and Greenpoint on the one side and the “Atlantic Sea-board” with Sea Point, Clifton and Camps Bay on the other side. Nature is always on your doorstep with plenty of things to do from sea kayaking to hiking to paragliding off Lions Head or Signal Hill. Right in the city!
There is a vibrancy in the air that is just infectious and whatever corner you turn you’ll just find another amazing view! Capetonians are fiercely proud of their city, yet they still always seem to be amazed and grateful that foreigners would come to visit their beautiful home.
If you plan a trip to South Africa, make sure you have enough time to spend in Cape Town. There is so much to do and to see you can easily spend at least a week without getting bored here.
Food & Wine
Capetonians are great hosts with countless fantastic restaurants and cafes. As it comes to local wine and dining experiences, Cape Town can easily keep up with any foodie mecca in the world. South Africans in general are great with fresh local produce and their favorite and most delicious past time is braaing (barbequing)! Boerewors (local sausage)is a must try when in Cape Town as well as an evening at one of the many outstanding steak restaurants in the city. Add a good bottle of red wine to the equation and you have yourself a winner. If you are fond of cheese boards and charcuterie platters paired with some outstanding wine, you have come to the right place. You also have to try some typical local dishes such as Bobotie – as sweet and savory rice casserole– and maybe even a bunny chow – half a loaf of white bread hollowed out and filled with a spicy curry! Yum!
Breakfast lovers will eat their heart out over all sorts of combinations of avocado, bacon, cheeses and eggs on your choice of bread paired with some freshly brewed coffee or local rooibos tea. If you are looking for healthier breakfast fare, no problem either. The options are endless and often comes with some epic views on the mountains or the sea.
Once you venture out of the city center you are never far away from wine country. Thinking about it, there is actually no direction you can take out of the city that doesn’t pass by some vineyards. Even places as remote as Cape Point, Cape Town’s most Southern tip, have a vineyard on its doorstep! The wine areas closest to the city are Constantia and Durbanville.
Constantia is Cape Town’s oldest and most prestigious wine area, set in the lush and green South of the city. Here you’ll find historical Cape Dutch Houses shaded by enormous oak trees – the perfect setting for a wine tasting or to simply sit and enjoy a bottle of good wine. Durbanville is located in the North of the city, about a 30-minute drive from the center. The vineyards here offer next to outstanding wines the best views of the city skyline with full frontal view of Table Mountain, Devils Peak, Lions Head and Table Bay in front! A truly awe-inspiring sight!
Now we haven’t even started to talk about the ‘real’ winelands around Stellenbosch, Franschhoek, Paarl, Wellington and Somerset West only about a 45 – 60-minute drive from the city! This is a topic on its own, which obviously deserves its own post. For now, let me just say you should plan at least a night or two in the winelands – wine lover or not – it is just one of the most beautiful areas you could ever find. Mountains, vineyards, historic little towns and outstanding food – if this is wrong, I don’t want to be right!
Cape Town is a long-long standing tourist destination and you will find any sort of accommodation you can think of. As an iconic start- or endpoint for overlanding trips you will find a great selection of backpacker accommodation in the city. South Africans do backpacker accommodation extremely well and even if you travel on a higher budget try a night or two at a backpacker once. You’ll always find the most interesting characters around and the proprietors always have the best stories they love to share. Here is where usually the best travel stories are born! The accommodation is not as rough and ready anymore as most backpackers offer private rooms, often with en-suite bathrooms that are worth staying at.
Another type of accommodation that Cape Town does extremely well are the Boutique Guest Houses and B&B’s. There are many to find especially around the Gardens and Sea Point areas, as well as in Constantia and Hout Bay further down the Peninsula. These are usually beautiful houses with only a few more or less luxury rooms, beautiful gardens and the owners attending to your every need. If you have the budget and you are not keen on big hotels, this is the best way to stay in the city. Nevertheless, if you love a good hotel with all amenities, there are plenty around the city and surroundings. You’ll find a few of the international brands, but South Africa has their own big brands such as Southern Sun and Protea Hotels! Cape Town is even home to South Africa’s only 6-star hotel, the One & Only at the V&A Waterfront!
If you prefer to be more independent there are obviously plenty of options with AirBnB and self-catering accommodation on offer!
As we are currently going into our second wave of COVID restrictions only time will tell which places will be able to make it through these tough times. Quite a few hotels and guest houses are temporarily or permanently closed, which is sad to see since December and January are peak season in Cape Town! I have no doubt though that many will make a comeback once travel and tourism picks up again. South Africans are resilient, they are not ones to stay down during adversity!
Where to stay
City Bowl: If you don’t have a lot of time in Cape Town and you want to be centrally located, it’s a good option to stay in one of the many hotels or backpacker accommodation in the city center. For example 40 On Burg is a lovely 4-star option for your stay in the city. The center is not big so everything is pretty close by so you can easily explore the area on foot and explore the restaurants and cafes around.
De Waterkant & Greenpoint: A great location adjacent to the city bowl. You have the V&A Waterfront on your doorstep, the Sea Point promenade not too far and you’ll have a good choice of restaurants and cafes on your doorstep. The Cape Town stadium and the Greenpoint park are in the area – plenty of things to discover right in front of you. You’ll find anything here from hotels, boutique guest houses and small B&Bs to backpacker accommodation.
Gardens: This area is further up towards the mountain, offering beautiful views over the city and Table Bay. Trendy Kloof Street is situated close by with plenty of great restaurants, bars and cafes. A beautiful area to stay – central, green and with many amenities around. If hiking is for you, it’s a great spot to start your day hiking up Lions Head or even Table Mountain.
Sea Point: Situated just around Signal Hill towards the back of Table Mountain, it’s a great area to be close to the sea. Sea Point Main Road offers many good restaurants and bars and the Sea Point promenade is the best place to exercise or to just enjoy a leisurely stroll by the sea. A great place to spend a good couple of hours is the Mojo Market in Sea Point, a trendy indoor market venue that offers different food stalls, bars and even live music! You’ll find some great boutique guest houses here, but also hotels and backpacker accommodation.
Camps Bay: This is Cape Towns “posh” area with a beautiful beach as central point and a sea facing strip with bars, restaurants and hotels. It’s a beautiful place to stay and a great starting point if you want to get explore the Peninsula. The city center is just on the other side of the mountain, Clifton beaches are close as well as the lesser known Llandudno Beach and Hout Bay. Maybe treat yourself to sundowner drinks at the famous Twelve Apostles Hotel which is situated close by. But with that many bars and restaurants on your doorstep and perfect sea views it’s hard to be bothered to leave the area.
Getting Around & Staying connected
Cape Town or South Africa in general, is the best place to have a rental car! The roads are good, traffic is not too hectic and it’s pretty easy to navigate. Having a rental car offers you so much more freedom to explore the city, the Peninsula and winelands – it is definitely worth it. You can find all big rental car companies such as Europcar, Hertz, Budget, Avis etc. in Cape Town. It’s easy to pick up a car at Cape Town airport and get started, but if you prefer to enjoy the city without a car and only pick one up later for a road trip, no problem either – all of the rental car companies have outlets in the CBD too.
Other than your own transport the Uber app is the best possible way to get around! Trips within the city center cost usually between 20 – 45 ZAR (1.40 – 3 USD), if you go pretty much anywhere in about a 10 – 15 km radius you usually spend between 100 to 160 ZAR (7 – 11 USD). It’s quick, it’s affordable, it’s easy and it’s safe! Download the app and off you go.
Now to be able to use your google maps or to call an Uber you will need some data. Make your life easy and get yourself a South African sim card on arrival. Vodacom and MTN are the two biggest players in South Africa, so you can go with either of them. They offer similar pre-paid options depending on how long your stay and your data needs. If you want to top-up you can usually get pre-paid airtime (as call credit is called here) and data vouchers at petrol stations and supermarkets. Generally speaking, most cafés and restaurants do offer free WIFI as well.
Weather & Seasons
Well, well, well – Cape Town’s weather is fickle to say the least and you can easily have four seasons in one day, so always be prepared for any eventuality!
Cape Town’s summer months are December to February and are also the peak season for travellers flogging to its beautiful shores. The weather is mostly sunny and hot with temperatures as high as mid-thirties. During this time there is only a small chance for the occasional shower. A beautiful time to visit the city is the shoulder season from March to May, it’s less busy and the weather is still beautiful and warm. From June to September winter is coming and temperatures go as low on average as 10 – 15 degrees. It also rains a lot during winter. Every now and then it even snows on Table Mountain, but it never reaches the city. Springtime between September and November can be beautiful but is pretty unpredictable. It is slowly warming up, yet it’s still pretty chilly. It can still rain a lot, it can be very windy, but it can also be beautiful and warm. The closer you get to summer, the better the chance to have sunny days.
Let’s talk about wind. You might laugh, but if you come to Cape Town it is a force to be reckoned with. It’s better known as the South Easter, thanks to the direction it’s blowing from or Cape Doctor, because the it cleans the city from dirty air. One of the more beautiful wind related phenomena, that occurs regularly, is the Devils Tablecloth. It’s when the wind drives clouds over the flat top of Table Mountain which then cascade down the front and disappear before reaching the city. Locals love to talk about the wind as it has to be taken into account when planning anything! It prevents or destroys many plans like having a picknick, a braai (a barbeque) or going to the beach. Usually the wind starts blowing from around September/October until around January, from there it usually gives a bit of a rest until deepest darkest winter when it returns in form of occasional gale force winds battering the city.
Let’s talk about the sea! Cape Town and the Cape Peninsula have some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. White sand and crystal-clear blue water which seems to whisper: ‘come closer, come for a swim’. BUT don’t be fooled – the water is ice cold, it’s heart attack material! If you therefore plan a day at the beach just be prepared that this might be a quick dip unless you are practicing the Wim-Hof-method. #justsaying!
People & Safety
Cape Town has a big mix of different cultures and ethnicities and is different from other big cities in South Africa. When you land in Johannesburg, you know you’ve landed in Africa. When you land in Cape Town, you can sometimes forget that you are in Africa. The first thing you will see leaving the airport are the townships, where a big portion of the black population lives. Poverty is very clearly visible. Closer to the city and along the “Cape Flats”, the area in the flat land around the mountains are a lot of the Coloured communities are settled. The majority of the white population lives in the city and more affluent areas. This is obviously a generalisation, but there are still some divisions tangible.
Wealth is still not distributed equally, however it is visible with the current COVID crisis especially that the scales seem to tip. You will find more and more white homeless beggars on the streets, a sight unseen up to a few years ago. Race, colour and ethnicity is still a topic and will probably always will be. Untangling the works of apartheid politics is hard work and a long and complicated process. But I don’t want to talk politics.
Capetonians – or South Africans in general – are such welcoming, hospitable people, always ready to help. They love to look after their guests and friends, are generous and just great fun to be around. It’s so easy to have the best time and make good friends here!
Talking about Cape Town or South Africa often one of the first questions are about safety. And yes, crime is unfortunately a reality in South Africa. However it doesn’t need to consume your stay in this beautiful city if you avoid a few simple things. Most crime tourists might be confronted with is petty crime such as stealing cellphones and wallets and breaking into cars. So if you act smart and responsible the chances of having a bad experience are relatively low.
Here are some DON’T’s to simply avoid having a bad experience:
– Don’t walk around at night, take an Uber even if it’s a short distance
– Watch your stuff – don’t leave your phone, your wallet, your handbag unattended
– If you have a rental car don’t leave valuables in it overnight, don’t leave anything of value uncovered
– Be observant when you walk the streets, don’t be scared, just know what’s going on around you
– Don’t get into discussions with beggars
Don’t let this take anything from the amazing experiences you’ll be able to have here! I promise you, once you have been here, you’ll always return. There must be something in the water, but it’s impossible not to love this beautiful city!
Thanks so much for your time and join us again for the next post on the 10 Best Things to do in Cape Town!