In this post: A guide to visiting Cape Town with zero "must dos," "can't misses," or specific recommendations of any sort. Just the broad building blocks of what makes Cape Town unique. Pick and choose then explore to create your own extraordinary trip.
For six years and counting, my wife Kim and I have been migrating from our hometown of Vancouver, Canada to Cape Town to avoid the cold and rain.
Cape Town's quite nearly on the other side of the world from Vancouver, and we now have two young sons to drag along with us, so the fact that we keep coming back shows how much we love Cape Town.
I want you to love Cape Town, too. But I don’t think the best way to play matchmaker with you and the Mother City is to rattle off my favorite things to do, places to eat, and hotels to stay at.
Rather than push specific recommendations upon you—“You can’t leave without going to Robbin Island!,” “You absolutely must go to Babylonstoren”—I think it’s better to share with you the broad building blocks of what I believe makes Cape Town uniquely magical:
- Affordable Luxury
- Danger and Disorder
Pick the elements you most want to experience on your trip, given your length of stay, budget, adventurousness, and interests.
Then do your own research to figure out the specifics. Better yet, “rock up,” to use South African parlance, with your objectives in mind, and follow recommendations from Capetonians you meet here.
That way, you’re guaranteed to experience a one-of-a-kind travel story (or fairy tale?). And you’ll leave as infatuated with Cape Town as Kim and me, but with your own unique relationship.
Cape Town’s Uniquely Affordable Luxury
Cape Town is the best place I’ve ever traveled to for experiencing 5-star luxuries on a 3-star budget.
The epitome of this is the wine farms. South Africa’s wealthiest tend to own them and invite us common folk to visit so they can show off by way of their landscaping, architecture, settings, and art (and car and horse and more) collections. Most also offer gourmet menus for the price of a regular meal in Canada.
You don’t have to leave Cape Town to experience the luxury, though. Head to a high tea at one of the high-end hotels. Dine at one of the many restaurants serving fancy food at unpretentious prices. And head somewhere with a million-dollar view for sundowners.
In town, luxury accommodation’s cost is catching up with its quality, especially in peak season. But if you head out of town, you can rent cottages worthy of magazine features for less than a Holiday Inn in North America.
Cape Town’s Unique History
Cape Town’s history is especially interesting to learn about because of how acutely you can see and feel its influence on modern-day life here.
I can’t resist breaking my vow of no specific recommendations in this post to highly recommend The Covenant by James Michener. This fictionalized history of South Africa, most of which takes place in Cape Town, gave me a much deeper appreciation for the people and places I saw upon arriving.
But if your interest in Cape Town’s history doesn’t stretch long enough to read an 879-page brick, rest assured there are plenty of museums and guided tours to fill you in and give you a fuller appreciation for the city.
Cape Town’s Unique Events
Come to Cape Town in the summer season and your stay is guaranteed to coincide with some special events in or around Cape Town. Come in winter, and your odds are good, too!
Some types of events to look out for:
- Spectator events like rugby and cricket matches and horse races.
- Sporting events like bike, swimming, and running races.
- Musical events like concerts in the park and electro parties on the beach.
- Cultural events like street parades and celebrations.
- Food and drink events like wine festivals, foraging excursions, or dinner parties hosted on wine farms.
- Performances like comedy, burlesque, and circus, often with a South African flair at one of Cape Town’s theatres.
Pick the type of even that interests you, research online for what’s going on when you’re in town, and join the fun. Or embrace your sense of adventure by attending an event on something you’re not interested in!
Cape Town’s Unique Cultural Mix
Cape Town’s cultural landscape is far from black and white. It’s a mosaic of cultures that combine to give the Mother City its personality. The more you can perceive these nuances, the more colorful your experience will be.
Among the many cultures you can get to know in Cape Town are:
- Coloureds. The largest ethnic community in Cape Town. According to Wikipedia, their ancestral heritage is a mix of indigenous Khoisan (32–43%); indigenous Bantu peoples, chiefly from Southern Africa (20–36%); peoples from Europe: (21–28%); peoples from South and Southeast Asia: (9–11%).
- Xhosa. While there are many black South African ethnic groups, most black South Africans in Cape Town are Xhosa.
- Afrikaners. Predominantly descendants of Dutch settlers who first arrived in 1652.
- British South Africans.
- Foreign Africans. Many people from other African countries come to Cape Town for its economic opportunities. The most prevalent are Zimbabweans.
- Models. Over the summer, models from all over the world descend for photoshoots—and to frolic in their free time.
- Germans. Unlikely to interest you, but there are a lot of them!
Cape Town’s Unique Wines
There’s no place in the world like Cape Town for enjoying wine. It’s about more than fancy grape juice, too. It’s the whole experience: the estates, the scenery, the vibe.
Maybe you can experience something similar in France or California if you’re a mega-millionaire with insider connections. But here in the Western Cape, even bozos like me can take part.
Hundreds of “wine farms,” as they’re called here, are within a couple of hours' drive. Almost all of them welcome visitors for generous tastings at paltry prices. The bigger farms are open for drop-in. The smaller ones are by appointment.
If you don’t have time to get out of town to do a tasting (which is hard to believe since the nearest in Constantia and Durbanville are twenty minutes away), check out some of the local wine shops. They often offer tastings and will acquaint you with South African wine's incredible variety, quality, and affordability.
Cape Town’s Unique Flora
While much of the fauna that would have made Cape Town a fantastic place for a safari hundreds of years ago has been killed off (aside from some penguins, ostriches, and dassies), the flora continues to flourish.
Cape Town is home to the smallest of the world’s six floral kingdoms. It’s also the richest, with more variety of endemic plant species per square kilometer than even the Amazon (Wikipedia).
Head to one of Cape Town’s famous gardens or go for a hike (perhaps with an expert guide) to immerse yourself in it. You can even taste it by way of a gin made from fynbos botanicals or a rooibus, honeybush, or buchu tea.
Cape Town’s Unique Outdoor Activities
Oceans, rivers, mountains, deserts, and forests are all within an easy day trip’s reach from Cape Town, making it a world-class hub for outdoor adventure.
- Hiking, climbing, or “kloofing” (canyoneering).
- Road or mountain biking.
- Snorkeling, open-water swimming, scuba diving, or free diving
- Surfing, kayaking, sailing, or kitesurfing.
- Rugby, golf, padel, or beach volleyball.
- Touring, dirt biking, ATV-ing.
- Paragliding and skydiving.
- Fishing and foraging.
Whatever your choice of activity, consider hiring a local guide or connecting with a local group to take you to lesser-known locations for a maximally memorable experience.
Cape Town’s Unique Scenery
Words, especially mine, can’t do justice to how beautiful Cape Town is—the mountains, the sunsets, the clouds, the flowers, the ocean.
Drive the scenic highways and passes. Relax by a boulder on one of the white sand beaches. Hike to earn yourself unparalleled views. And find yourself a perfect sunset spot up on a mountain or down by the sea.
Cape Town’s Unique Danger and Disorder
Suffice it to say Cape Town isn’t in Switzerland. Things sometimes don’t work (notably, the power grid), and people who cannot find work are sometimes desperate enough to steal your things.
But Cape Town’s danger and disorder are not nearly as bad as you may come to believe if you spend too much time gawking at the news or social media.
Wherever you go, ask the locals you meet:
- Where is it safe to walk around, and when.
- Where and when to drive to avoid traffic or mishaps, where to park to avoid window smashings, and what not to leave in your car (hint: don’t leave anything).
- Other suggestions for minimizing your chances of being adversely affected.
Listen to what they tell you, and you can enjoy a wild time in Cape Town while still having it go as smoothly and safely as if you’d visited Switzerland.
Cape Town’s Unique Outskirts
Stray from the slopes of Table Mountain to broaden and enhance your Cape Town experience.
Some of the townships welcome you to visit on a tour. Too many tourists (and locals) only drive by on the highways, imagining what it must be like to live there. It’s enlightening—refreshing and inspiring, even—to see the reality and get to know the people who call it home.
Further afield, consider spending some time in the quaint towns or scenic rural guesthouses within a short drive from Cape Town. I suggest perusing Airbnb for inspiration, though you may find even better bargains by booking through other sites or directly. Also check online for weekend markets, restaurants, wine tastings, hikes, and other attractions that mass tourism hasn’t yet inundated.
Cape Town’s Unique Style
I wouldn’t be surprised if Cape Town had the highest density of designers, architects, and artists in the world. Everything is extra stylish here, in a uniquely Europe-meets-Africa kind of way.
Maybe it’s the scenery that infuses the locals with an extra sense of aesthetics. Maybe it’s the mix of cultures that spices everything up with extra vibrance. Maybe it’s because labor is cheap enough here that more people can afford custom design. Or maybe it’s because regular jobs pay so poorly that many take it into their own hands to create their own businesses and products.
Whatever the case may be, Cape Town’s a uniquely wonderful place to visit for those who appreciate style and maybe want to bring a few pieces of it back home with them.
Time For Some Magic!
I hope I succeeded at giving you a general overview of what kinds of only-in-Cape Town experiences await your visit. It's a magical place. Use these as a starting point for your your trip and you'll have an unbelievable time.
For some more specific recommendations and tips, check out these and the rest of the extensive archive of Cape Town guides here on The Unconventional Route: