You Won't Want to Leave, Either
There's more to Cape Town than Table Mountain, Robben Island, and penguins.
A lot more.
We didn't fully understand it until we visited Cape Town for the first time. So we ended up sticking around for six months. And we returned for another six months as soon as we could. Then again, and again. We're on our fifth straight Capetonian summer now.
Use our Cape Town blog to guide your trip and you won't want to leave either.
In This Cape Town Travel Blog
Answers to the 11 questions everyone asks before visiting:
1. How Dangerous Is Cape Town, Really?
That depends on how dumb you are.
Cape Town's dangerous to dumb people. You're dumb if you:
- Wander around any dark empty streets at night rather than Uber.
- Walk off the main streets in Woodstock or Observatory at any point of the day.
- Get blackout drunk partying on Long Street in the CBD.
- Drive through sketchy areas with your windows open and your phone visible.
But if you're smart, Cape Town's safe. All it takes to be smart is not do any of the aforementioned dumb things.
2. Why Cape Town?
- Variety. You can't get bored with such variety in plant life, cultures, cuisine, activities, and geography.
- Beauty. The scenery, sunsets, and even the clouds are so mind-bogglingly beautiful that even lifelong residents never tire of admiring them.
- Accessibility. Cape Town's compact and Uber's cheap, making getting around town quick and easy.
- The accents. All three of the main South African accents put smiles on our faces when we hear them.
- Affordability. You can enjoy a 5-star holiday on a 3-star budget.
- Explorability. As we'll explain in more detail further down, there's so much to see outside of Cape Town, and it's all easy to get to.
- Reality. Cape Town's a microcosm of the world, with bubbles of first world comforts surrounded by masses of third-world struggle. This makes us feel more human and appreciative of what we have.
3. Why NOT Cape Town?
- Safety. As already mentioned, as long as you're not dumb, it's safe. But we'd rather not have to think about safety at all.
- Unpredictable weather. You can never know if the Table Mountain cablecar will be closed because of wind and you can never leave home without a jacket either.
- Cursed by cars. Public transit sucks, the streets are pedestrian-free and thus dangerous at night, and most of the city isn't very walkable and definitely not bikeable because everyone drives.
- It's so freaking far away. But when you get here, that's a good thing. Isolation keeps the riff-raff away.
4. What to Know Before Coming?
Highlights from our Cape Town blog's extended post on the 25 Do's and Don'ts to Know Before Visiting:
- DO read some South African literature before coming to better understand and appreciate the country's history and culture(s).
- DON'T make and plans before checking opening hours. (They're weird here).
- DO plan to get a local SIM and DON'T ever count on WiFi to work.
- DON'T expect too much from South African cuisine but DO try some South African dishes.
- DON'T withdraw too much cash but DO keep a few coins on hand for tips.
- DO drink as much tap water as you want (it's delicious) but DON'T waste it otherwise (shorter showers, minimize laundry, etc.).
- DON'T just hang out among white people and tourists or you'll miss out.
- DO wear whatever you want (the dress code's lax) but DON'T go anywhere without a warm layer. Ladies be careful with dresses, the wind is powerful.
- DON'T just do wine tastings. DO chocolate, cheese, oil, biltong, and ice cream tastings, too.
- DON'T stay too long in Cape Town. There's too much else to see outside of town.
See our Cape Town travel tips post for full explanations and more dos and don'ts.
5. What’s Where?
All it takes to get a grasp of what's where in Cape Town is an understanding that everything revolves around Table Mountain.
North of Table Mountain is called the City Bowl. The Gardens neighborhoods centered on Kloof Street flow down to the busy Central Business District's busy Bree and Long Streets then spill out into Table Bay at the V&A Waterfront.
East of Table Mountain, and its leg that sticks out in the form of Lion's Head and Signal Hill, is the Atlantic Seaboard. This narrow slope-to-sea stretch, from Green Point down to Camps Bay, is wealthy.
South of Table Mountain you cross the "lentil curtain" to exit urbanity and enter free-spirited, granola villages like Muizenberg, Kalk Bay, Hout Bay, and Scarborough.
West of Table Mountain (actually southwest) are the leafy "Southern Suburbs" which get drier and more desolate as you continue west onto the desert townships of the Cape Flats.
6. Where to Stay in Cape Town?
For most travelers, we recommend staying in De Waterkant. It's conveniently close to all the Cape Town attractions but relaxed and secure with plenty of good restaurants, bars, and cafés.
And though compact, it's got accommodation options for everyone: plenty of funky Airbnbs, one of the city's top-rated hostels, MOY Guesthouse and Backpackers, some exceptional B&Bs like Purple House, and a highly-rated luxury hotel, the Capital Mirage.
…But You Should Pick Yourself
If you want to stay around to cool kids, stay in Gardens. Or if you rather a luxurious getaway, Camps Bay's your best bet.
Use our Where to Stay in Cape Town blog post's grades of the seven best neighborhoods across the most important criteria for travelers to decide for yourself.
7. What Are Cape Town's Top Attractions?
No Cape Town travel blog would be complete without mentioning these top tourist attractions. But that doesn’t mean your trip won’t be complete if you don't do them all.
Here's our quick take on each to help you decide which top attractions are worth visiting
1. Table Mountain Aerial Cableway
It's often faster to walk up than wait in line to ride the cable car up. And cheaper and more rewarding. Then ride back down.
Don't just take photos of the views and dassies (rodent-like wildlife) and go down. Venture further afield to explore and appreciate the fauna atop Table Mountain.
2. Robben Island
Read the reviews—good and bad—and consider the opportunity cost of your time (3.5 hours) and money (R360) before assuming it's a "must." Some love it, some regret going, and some (like us) don't regret not ever going.
3. V&A Waterfront
A pleasant place to go for a stroll and people-watch day or night, but there's nothing uniquely South African about it (…except for the jokes at the highly-enjoyable Cape Town Comedy Club).
4. Boulders Beach Penguin Colony
Beautiful beach. Hilarious little birds. Too expensive for poor bloggers like us. But you can walk around it, see penguins, and lay on adjacent beautiful beaches for free, which is what we did in maybe our favorite day trip from Cape Town around the Cape Peninsula.
You could also consider Betty's Bay as a less-hectic (equally smelly) alternative.
5. Lion's Head
Probably the most scenic urban hike in the world.
It's short—fit people can hike up in less than an hour—but physically demanding, with a couple of ladders and rocks to scramble up.
6. Kirstenbosch Gardens
A botanist's dream and a dreamy spot for the famous Sunday summer sunset concerts. But if you're not around on a Sunday and not interested in plants, it's not a mandatory visit.
7. Cape Point Nature Reserve
No doubt it's stunning. We just doubt it's worth it for us to pay the R400 park entrance fee when there are so many other parks to explore around Cape Town.
8. Bo Kaap
When the Bo Kaap's residents proudly painted their houses with vivid colors to celebrate their independence, they couldn't have imagined it would attract so much selfie-centric attention that it'd risk taking their neighborhood away from them.
That's not to say you shouldn't visit. Just be conscious of this when you do.
9. Camps Bay
Even though the bars and restaurants are overrated and overpriced, we can't overstate how scenic the beach is.
Tip: While Café Caprice gets most of the publicity for sundowners (sunset drinks), Chinchilla's rooftop and Tiger's Milk's second-floor balcony have better views (…if you can snag a table).
10. Groot Constantia
South Africa's oldest wine estate is worth hopping off for if you ride the hop-on, hop-off bus. And it's worth considering otherwise. But it's not one of our 10 favorite South African wine tasting experiences.
8. What Are the True Must-Dos?
5 True Must-Dos
No ifs, ands, or buts: If you visit you must do the following, which we explain in further detail in our Cape Town Must-Dos blog post.
- Get a View from Above. Whether from Table Mountain, Lion's Head, or a helicopter, get up high to get your bearings and get blown away by the aerial view of the Mother City.
- Go to the Beach. See the beautiful people (Cape Town's a modeling mecca from December through March) and even more beautiful scenery.
- Visit Wine Farms. Even non-drinkers will feel buzzed from the over-the-top opulence of estates like Vergelegen and Babylonstoren.
- “Pitch Up” at a Weekend Market. The scene to see and be seen in Cape Town. Enjoy some food while you're at it.
- Hit the Highway. Rent a car or recruit an Uber driver to get a full appreciation for Cape Town as a whole—its beautiful setting, not-so-beautiful Cape Flats underbelly, seaside, mountains, and wineries.
A Perfect Day in Cape Town
For some inspiration on what to do, here's how the "perfect day in Cape Town I planned for Kim's birthday went down:
Depending on what you're into…
- Go to the Labia Theatre… if you're a movie nerd.
- Go to the Mount Nelson for high tea… if you have a sweet tooth and want to relax in the lap of luxury.
- Visit a township in the Cape Flats… if you want to see all of Cape Town.
- Go to a show at the Cape Town Comedy Club… if you're not easily offended.
- Join a hiking group or hire a guide… if you're worried about hiking alone.
- Learn about fynbos… if you like gardening, botany, herbs, or cocktails.
See our Cape Town Must-Dos blog post for all the details and more of our favorite things to do that may (or may not) be your favorites, too.
9. What to Eat and Drink?
Here's a sampler of our Cape Town blog post on the Best Restaurants for 25 Unique Occasions:
- Prison food. Enter the walls of one of South Africa's most infamous prisons for a meal prepared and served by the prisoners.
- African gourmet. In the heart of Cape Town's biggest township, Khayelitsha, 4Roomed eKasi Culture, serves high-end set-meal dinners.
- Fancy seafood experience. Pick as many grams of whatever you want from Codfather's fresh fish display, and they'll grill it to perfection for you.
- Informal seafood experience. Keep an eye out for open tables while waiting in line for locals' favorite fish and chips at Kalky's.
- Famous South African steak. Go to Hussar Grill to see if you agree with those who say South Africa has the best steak in the world.
- Infallible food. Even if you can't read Black Sheep's barely-legible menu, you can't go wrong because all of their dishes inevitably exceed expectations.
Unforgettable Wine Tastings
There are more than 500 different wine farms to choose from within a couple of hours' drive from Cape Town. Some, like the ones in Constantia, are 15 minutes away.
Of our top 10 South Africa wine tastings, the ones closest to Cape Town are De Grendel, Reyneke, Haut Espoir, and Babylonstoren. But, as demonstrated by the fact that we still have a few brain cells left, we haven't been to all of them.
10. How to Get Around Town?
During daylight hours, anywhere within the City Bowl and the Atlantic Seaboard is safe to walk.
Uber's your best friend for getting around Cape Town because it's cheap and abundant.
Unfortunately, the drivers aren't your best friend. They're friendly and professional, but for reasons nobody can explain, they give poor ratings. Everyone who comes through Cape Town sees their average drop precipitously.
The MyCiti bus that goes from the CBD along the Atlantic Seaboard to Hout Bay is handy and cheap… if it ever shows up. Some days it doesn't.
It's a bit of a hassle to sign up for too, so only consider the bus if you're spending extended time in Cape Town.
The train to Simon's Town is a fun experience if you're on a budget and not pressed for time.
We enjoyed it but not everyone will, which is why it's a "maybe-do" in our Cape Town Must-Dos blog post, where you can find a bit more information and tips on it.
Hop-on, Hop-off Bus
Even for fellow off-the-beaten-path-preferring travelers, the Cape Town hop-on, hop-off bus is worth considering.
As we share in our hop-on, hop-off guide, it's an affordable and efficient way to get familiar with the city and get to many attractions outside of the city center.
11. Where to Explore Outside of Cape Town?
As awesome as Cape Town is, it'd be a waste to spend all your time there and not explore further afield. The rest of South Africa is equally worthy.
The Garden Route
The Garden Route, or "The Coastal Forested Area" as we call in in non-marketing-speak, is South Africa's most popular holiday destination.
Anyone familiar with this blog should know by now that "popular" doesn't mean "best." Check out our blog post, Is the Garden Route Worth Visiting? for some possibly unpopular opinions.
Do a Road Trip
Don't be scared, even if you're not used to driving on the other side of the road. South Africa is a wonderland for road trips, which is why we've done more than 10,000km worth of them during our first six months living there.
We already mentioned this, but it bears repeating: Venture far and wide in South Africa to go wine tasting.
Start with our 10 Favorite South African Wine Tastings and go from there.
Just about everyone who comes to South Africa fits Kruger into their plans to see the animals. But not everyone knows these Kruger Safari Tips that we learned (mostly from our awesome guide, Bjorn) on our own trip.
Namibia declared independence from South Africa in 1990, but some may want to constitute it into their trip.
One way to do so, which we did, is a one-way road trip from Cape Town. Read our Cape Town to Namibia Road Trip Tips if that sounds interesting. Alternatively, it's a short flight to Windhoek, the capital.
Either way, see our blog post, Is Namibia Worth Visiting? to help guide your decision.