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Cape Town is rapidly becoming one of the top destinations for holidaymakers. It is a place with a unique history that has culminated in a culture of diversity and colour. The geographical landscape of the Mother City boasts panoramic beauty at every turn. It is common for your day to consist of a hike in the morning, a surf at a world-class break in the afternoon, sundowners at internationally acclaimed wineries and dinner at award-winning restaurants.
Thinking of a vacation to Cape Town? We’ll help you with where to go, what to see and essential activities to keep you entertained no matter what your poison is.
1. Essential guide to Cape Town: Summit Table Mountain
If you’re the adventurous type, you’ll find that there are many different hiking trails in and around Cape Town. From overnight hikes on the Cape of Good Hope and Hoerikwaggo Trails to a quick sunset stroll in Newlands Forest, there’s something for all fitness levels. But the two major hikes that draw attention from adventure junkies are scaling Table Mountain and Lion’s Head.
The most popular route to Table Mountain, which is basically like a continuous stairmaster, is Platteklip Gorge. This route starts from Table Mountain road and ends at the cable car station on top of the mountain. Take a taxi or Uber to the lower cableway station, less than 3km from the Cape Town city centre, and look out for the signs. If you are super fit, you can climb up in about 45 mins, but it will take the average hiker about 3 hours. To give you an idea of the steepness, the route gains around 700 meters (2300 feet) over a distance of only 3 km (just under 2 miles).
Thankfully, you can always take the cable car down for about R135 ($10) one-way. If you want to hike and your better half just wants to enjoy the view, there is also a round trip on the cable car for about R255 ($20) per person. Due to the long queues in peak season, you may even summit at the same time.
Just a stone’s throw away is the very popular Lion’s Head. This is a circular hike, where you will be trekking up and around the mountain until the very top. Once you reach the steep section near the end, you have the option to climb using the chains or you can keep walking around to reach the top. Warning: If you have even the smallest fear of heights, it’s preferable not to use the chains. Hint: A very cool practice is to summit Lion’s Head just before sunset and walk down at night when there is a full moon. Bring your headlamp.
The best place to start your hike is at the parking lot as you drive into Signal Hill Road. If you keep driving, you’ll end up at Signal Hill, a popular place for tourists to get a glimpse of Cape Town from above without hiking.
2. Essential guide to Cape Town: Pamper yourself with a day of luxury
If you’re coming to Cape Town with foreign currency, you’ll most likely laugh at the prices of luxury activities. While some extravagant acts are expensive no matter where you live, you’ll find that most luxurious experiences in South Africa are a bargain.
Heading to Cape Town for your wedding or honeymoon? Why not hire a yacht from the Waterfront to Clifton beach? If you don’t have sea legs, you could always take a helicopter ride to see Cape Town’s beauty from above. Take a spa day with the girls at the Twelve Apostles Hotel or one of the many 5-star hotels in the CBD.
Cape Town really is the perfect place to pamper yourself.
3. Essential guide to Cape Town: Enjoy fine-dining for less
If you’re peckish, try eat at some of the top restaurants in South Africa like Test Kitchen in Woodstock, Roundhouse in Camps Bay, Aubergine in Gardens, Il Leone in De Waterkant, and La Colombe or Greenhouse in Constantia. For sundowners, you’ll need to visit the Cape Grace Hotel’s Bascule Bar a sophisticated waterside whisky bar with a patio that offers upscale bar fare and a selection of over 500 whiskies.
Other notable restaurants around the CDB include are the super trendy and always packed the Black Sheep, newcomer the Shortmarket Club, smoke-house extraordinaire Hoghouse (in Spier wine farm and Ndebeni industrial complex), or head out to the winelands to experience a taste sensation at Tokara, or Delaire Graaf (with the main restaurant and Asian fusion, Indochine).
4. Essential guide to Cape Town: Visit all the wine routes
Cape Town is known throughout the world for it’s high quality wine at affordable prices. Wineries from the Cape are constantly winning international awards, beating some of the best wine producers in the world. The only difficult part about going wine tasting in Cape Town is where to begin. There are 19 wine routes alone, that stretch from the Klein Karoo all the way to the West Coast. And within those routes there are hundreds of wineries from the large scale conglomerates to the more boutique style vintners. And it’s very likely that you’ll find amazing wines for under $3 a bottle. Even the top, most expensive wines will be under $100 a bottle.
By far the most popular routes, and therefore most touristy one, are Stellenbosch, Franschoek and Constantia. These areas not only produce great wines, but also high end cuisine and some amazing views. You’ll find internationally acclaimed chefs serving locally produced fare in a romantic setting of mountains and vineyards. Each of these routes has their own unique appeal. Stellenbosch for its range, Franschoek for its historical significance (see the French Huguenots), and Constantia for the more upper class crowd.
Lesser known wine routes that are close to Cape Town are Paarl, Wellington and Durbanville. If you have time to travel, get in a car and head to Hermanus (about a 2 hour drive) to the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley where you’ll find the more humble, yet still amazing Walker Bay wine route (famous for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay). For a more rough and organic, bush-vine kind of wine, head to the Swartland wine route where you’ll find some true gems (and olives).
Hint: Not sure where to start? Pick up a copy of the Platter’s Wine Guide and look at the 5 star wines and best wineries at the front. Alternatively, pop into a boutique wine shop like Wine Concepts and ask a local. There are just too many to mention.
5. Essential guide to Cape Town: Have a picnic at Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens
This is a definite must for all nature lovers, especially if you’re more into flora than fauna. Visiting Kirstenbosch is like stepping into the Garden of Eden – unspoilt nature, a myriad of flowers and plants and just a lovely way to soak up the sun with the family or on your own. As it was voted by National Geographic as one of the world’s top picnic spots, you’d be remiss if you didn’t sit on the lush grass and eat some cheese and baguette.
You can either bring your own picnic or you can head over to the Tea Room or Moyo restaurant and purchase one of their awesome baskets of goodness. You will not be allowed to bring in chairs or umbrellas, but there are benches to sit on and slopes to lounge over. When you’re done eating, walk off those added calories by taking a stroll along the Boomslang Bridge (“tree snake” in Afrikaans) or just get lost in the indigenous fynbos.
In summer they hold various outdoor music concerts in the amphitheater, which are usually very crowded, but there’s no better way to experience the Cape Town vibe. There are no bins, so it is advisable to bring your own plastic packet and take your trash with you. Please do not litter.
6. Essential guide to Cape Town: Shop till you drop at unique malls
If you’re all natured out and are in need of some retail therapy, Cape Town has some very unique shopping malls that hold all of the international staples and some local fare. The Victoria and Alfred Waterfront is a one of a kind mall that is located in the heart of Cape Town’s working harbour. You won’t want to go to the Waterfront just for the shopping, but rather to experience a uniquely Cape Tonian vibe. Tourists and locals mingle among shops and performances, restaurants and stalls, cinemas and amphitheaters.
Have a drink at the beach bar, the Grand, and then head over to the Watershed market to get some African-inspired local designs. Go for a yacht cruise with your loved one and then hit the Comedy Club after dark. You’ll also find some of the top hotels in South Africa, like the One&Only or the Table Bay Hotel. Going to the Waterfront is an experience, not just a place to shop.
If you want more of a local shopping experience away from the tourists, you’ll need to head over to Canal Walk, based in the ever expanding Century City metropolis. This “Cape Venetian” megamall stands at a total retail area of 141,000 square metres (1,520,000 sq ft) and hosts over 400 stores – so you will literally shop until you drop. If you’re there in summer, head next door to Cape Town’s very own theme park, Ratanga Junction, to get a bit of a thrill on the rollercoasters and other fun rides.
7. Essential guide to Cape Town: Visit the penguins en route to Cape Point
A trip to Cape Town would not be complete without a day adventure to Cape Point where the two oceans meet. The cold waters of the Atlantic Ocean on the west and the warmer Indian Ocean on the east. This UNESCO world heritage site is located at the tip of a 7,750 hectare nature reserve and is abundant in both flora and fauna, including over 250 bird species.
You can climb up yourself to the top of the hill or you can take the Flying Dutchman Funicular. And when you’re back down, dine on some wonderful Cape Tonian fare at the Two Oceans Restaurant with epic scenery. Hint: make a reservation as it gets busy.
But this excursion is actually more about the journey than the destination. When you head to Cape Point you will be passing some amazing districts along the way. You can learn to surf in Muizenberg, have a bite to eat in hippie-chic Kalk Bay, chill with the penguins at Boulders Beach or learn some naval history in Simon’s Town. Make your day up to Cape Point an adventure, don’t just get there, take a selfie, and head back to your hotel like most tour groups.
8. Essential guide to Cape Town: Go on an extreme adventure
Wineries are not the only thing that exist in abundance in Cape Town, you’ll also have a wide selection of extreme activities to brave. Due to the wind and waves, Cape Town is host to a thriving community of surfers and kiteboarders. The novices will start their surfing adventure in mellow Muizenberg, while the more advanced wave riders will head out to the West Coast and hit Big Bay, Derde Steen and much further along, Eland’s Bay.
Staying in the sea, you can also choose to kayak, snorkel or dive with dolphins, seals and if you’re lucky, whales. And for the more adventurous extreme sports junkies, you can try cage shark diving with the Great Whites.
If the ocean isn’t really your thing, why not jump off a mountain or airplane? Take a slow paraglide, a quick base jump, a strenuous rock climb up or even a wingsuit fall around Table Mountain. Want to go extreme without risking your life? You could always head out to Sandy Bay, Cape Town’s nude beach.
9. Essential guide to Cape Town: Help your fellow man, woman and the environment by doing something charitable
People fly to the Mother City from all over the world to do some charitable work. Missionaries, college students and general good people looking to make a difference in the world all take a pilgrimage to the Southern tip of the world. There are so many NGOs and organisations that are trying to make a difference for those who are in need.
You can help refugees from war-torn or poverty stricken countries, make a charitable monetary donation to a homeless shelter, give your time by helping those less fortunate learn to read and write, or make a child laugh by visiting a hospital. There are also loads of non-profits trying to help the environment through conservation.
You can join in on the activities of any one of the hundreds of agencies making a positive impact on the community and the environment.
10. Essential guide to Cape Town: Feel trendy in the CBD and gentrified Woodstock
Cape Town is a very hip place, not just because the world comes here to play but also because it is a very artistic city. And if you want to experience the trendiest places this city has to offer, you can start in the CBD. Coffee shops, eateries, and hipster hangouts infest the city centre. You can start at Yours Truly or Molten Toffee in Kloof Street, then explore the dozen boutiques, and African trading stores in Long Street. After this head to Green Market Square to haggle for some African curios. Head up Wale Street for amazing cocoa treats at Honest Chocolate (with a Secret Gin Bar at the back) and then turn into Bree street for a range of hipster hangouts from Clarke’s to Jason.
If you’re here on the first Thursday of the month you will have to head to First Thursdays, where the shops open late and usually include indie exhibitions from upcoming artists and photographers.
For a grittier feel in an artist’s haven, head over to Woodstock. Once feared by the general public as a very unsafe area, artists from all walks of life started to move into the old, dilapidating buildings and warehouses. What has emerged is a collective like no other in Cape Town. Galleries, studios, offices, eateries, and serious coffee shops are all clumped together amid carpenters, corner cafes and bazaars.
You’ll want to visit the Woodstock Exchange if you’re a digital nomad or general graffiti lover. Then take a brisk walk to the Old Biscuit Mill where you’ll find one of South Africa’s most sought after restaurants, Test Kitchen, with other local favourites Burrata and the Potluck Club. And if you’re at the Old Biscuit Mill on the weekend, you can seek out artisanal treats at the Neighbourgoods Market.
Note: Please take extra care when walking around town and Woodstock. Although there are not many malicious attacks, they are areas known for pickpockets and where crime is still a threat. Travel in groups and rather stash than flash your more pricier items such as smartphones and SLRs.
11. Essential guide to Cape Town: Get cultured at monuments and museums
South Africa has quite a tumultuous past which has resulted in a very unique country we like to call the “Rainbow Nation”. People from all walks of life, with different colours and creeds, come together to share this thriving land. If you come to Cape Town without learning more about it’s history and culture, you will be missing out on the most important part of what makes this city and country so special.
You can explore the past and present of this city at any one of the Iziko museums. For classical and contemporary South African art, the Iziko South African Museum in the historic Company’s Gardens is best. Take a walk through the Planetarium to a tour of the colourful neighborhood above the CBD known as Bo Kaap. There are also loads of museums to gain knowledge within the CBD, such as the Iziko Slave Lodge, The Jewish Museum and Cape Town Holocaust Centre, and even sights like St George’s Cathedral, right next to The Crypt Jazz Restaurant.
You can also take a ferry to the place where South Africa’s ex-president, Nelson Mandela, was incarcerated for 27 years of his life, Robben Island. Seeing the tiny little cell he had to spend most of his life in and experiencing how blinding the limestone in the quarry is, will surely change your perspective on those who were wrongfully imprisoned on this island.
There are popular walking tours all over the city for the history buffs. There’s even a fantastic app that allows you to download historical and personal audio recordings if you’re walking around on your own. There are companies that can take you on a township tour where you will see the real side of this city.
12. Essential guide to Cape Town: Get beached
Get your tan on at world class beaches. The most popular being Clifton and Camps Bay based in the affluent neighbourhoods of multi-million dollar properties. There are four beaches that make up Clifton. Fourth beach is the busiest as the surf is calmer and there are umbrellas and chairs available for hire. As you move closer down to First beach the crowds start disappearing. Third and Fourth beaches may be less crowded, but they are overlooked by giant apartment blocks where Peeping Toms could be peering at you.
Hint: You will have to walk down and up quite a bit of stairs to get to Clifton, but it’s well worth the journey. There are also no shops are restaurants, so bring your own food. There are usually ice cream/water sellers walking up and down the beach on crowded days. They’ll be the ones screaming “Ice cream lolly to make you jolly!” or “Ice cream, cold drinks, mineral water!” and so on.
Camps Bay is a trendy hangout for models and hipsters from around the world. The boulevard encompassing the beach is lined with very trendy restaurants, eateries and bars. It has a very European vibe, with everyone enjoying the view and a drink in their bathing suits. Be warned, Clifton and Camps Bay are both topless beaches, so if you are conservative, it’s better to go to Big Bay on the West Coast or Muizenberg. Hint: All the picture perfect shots of Table Mountain are taken from the West Coast at beaches like Big Bay, Milnerton and Bloubergstrand.
Essential guide to Cape Town: Where to stay in luxury
The Cape Grace for an African inspired stay
If you want to be chauffeured around in a BMW while enjoying pristine service and a marble bathroom to boot, the Cape Grace is for you. This luxury boutique hotel is situated smack bang in the center of the V&A Waterfront harbour with a view to match. Other reasons to stay include the purely African Spa with panoramic views of Table Mountain, the award-winning Signal Restaurant that boasts African and international fare and the elegant Bascule Bar that serves over 500 whiskies and a selection of fine wine.
Check here for rates and availability.
The One&Only for a unique pampering
Also situated in shopping and tourist mecca, the V&A Waterfront, the One&Only carries its name credit as being a truly unique experience for its visitors. Luxuriate on your private balcony and then slip into the marble bathroom for a rain shower that will pamper your senses. If it’s sunny outside, you can relax on the sun-lounger terrace with infinity pool. And after finishing you spa-day with sauna you can wine and dine at one of Cape Town’s best Japanese-inspired restaurants, Nobu.
Check here for rates and availability.
Twelve Apostles for isolated luxury
This is the place to stay if you’re looking to get out from the hustle and bustle of the city and throngs of tourists. The Twelve Apostles Hotel & Spa is nestled in the foot of the Twelve Apostles mountain range and is the only property that was allowed construction en route from Camps Bay to Llandudno. You will therefore be surrounded by green nature and magnificent views of the Atlantic Ocean and Oudekraal Beach, part of the Table Mountain National Park area. And don’t worry if it’s a little far as they provide free transfers to Camps Bay and V&A Waterfront. Pamper yourself in the award winning Spa with rock pools, eat at the organic Azure Restaurant or just take in the spectacular African sunsets.
Check here for rates and availability.
Mount Nelson for colonial style brilliance
For those not interested in staying by the V&A and want to be in thick of it all, your go-to pick would be the Belmont Mount Nelson located in the central Gardens district. This garden estate situated in the heart of the thriving city is your best pick if you’re a fan of exploring the best restaurants and cafes. After a day of wanderlust around Long Street and the Company’s Gardens, come back to an oasis of 5-star service and exclusive elegance. Each wing of the hotel is unique while all tying in with the colonial style feel. Bring your racket to the tennis court, experience one of the best high teas or take a dive in one of the pools. Dine at the interactive Chef’s Table for lunch and night falls, feel like a celebrity in the contemporary Planet Restaurant and Bar.
Check here for rates and availability.
The Silo for the trendy traveler
New-comer in the Cape Town hotel scene, the Silo Hotel is as distinctive as they come. The hotel was originally a grain elevator portion of the historic grain silo complex in the , but has been completed reimagined by designer-extraordinaire Heatherwick Studio. The contemporary design is merged with ornate interior to really get those royalty juices flowing. It boasts an outdoor pool, restaurant, spa and bar and views that are unparalleled in the entire Cape Town. Looking out through the pillowed glass windows is like being in a helicopter without the motion sickness.
Check here for latest rates and availability.
Essential guide to Cape Town: Tips for traveling Cape Town from a local
If you’re hiring a car you’ll notice car guards after hours in almost every major suburb. They are not legitimate guards hired by the government, but rather people from lower income areas. They are there to watch your car from break-ins and in return you can give them some small change.
Drinking and driving
South Africa has a zero tolerance against drinking and driving. The alcohol limit is currently a breath alcohol content of 0.24mg per 1,000ml, or a blood alcohol limit of 0.05g per 100ml. This is equal to:
- Two thirds of a beer or spirit cooler with 5% alcohol content.
- 75ml of red or white wine per hour with an alcohol content of 12% to 14%.
- A 25ml tot of alcohol per hour of whisky or brandy.
If you plan on drinking, please call an Uber or taxi and pick up your car the following day. Alternatively you can arrange for you and your car to be picked up from a service such as Night Owls.
There was a recent statistic that 60 new families move to Cape Town every month. This fact mixed with the influx of tourists equals hoards of traffic. Try to stay away from the roads during peak season (about November to March) during hours where there is most congestion, usually in the morning and afternoon. Especially in the more tourist-heavy areas like Kloof road from Tamboerskloof to Camps Bay.
Cape Town is known for it’s moody weather changes. It’s not unusual to have four seasons in a single day. The weather may jump from very hot and calm to very cold and rainy in a matter of minutes. So if you plan on going to the beach for sundowners, it’s advisable to bring along a jacket and a pair of shoes and socks.
The Cape Doctor
Watch out for the South-Easter or “Cape Doctor” – a viscously strong wind that blows sporadically between September and March. It was so strong in 2017 that the Cape Town government had to cancel one of the major events, the Cape Argus Cycle Tour. It is a necessary evil though, as the Cape Doctor actually blows away the smog and impurities in the air, making way for some fresh ocean air. Be warned that if it is too strong, the cable car going up Table Mountain will be put on hold for safety concerns. So it’s best to check the weather report before planning your day.
While Cape Town is a tourist haven and fairly safe in the day, crime is a part of life. Petty crime like pickpocketing and theft is quite high. For this reason it is best to carry your handbag in front of you. Be on the lookout for suspicious characters, especially in crowded areas. Try not to hold your smartphone up in public spaces where it can be snatched. And don’t put your bag down in public spaces. Cape Town’s motto is, “Stash it, don’t flash it” when it comes to valuables.
One quick word on crime. Some areas are notorious for crime, but you will most likely not stumble upon these areas accidentally. Most touristy areas are perfectly safe, especially in the day, you just need to be vigilant with your valuables. Rather ask people or store clerks for directions that whipping out a large map, while your Canon 7D hangs around your neck.
Red Bus, My Citi bus and mini-bus taxis
One of the best ways to get around Cape Town if you don’t have a car is the Red Bus (which is the same in many countries). The idea is that you hop on and hop off in whatever location you choose. There are many different routes to choose from and the price is very reasonable. More information here.
The My Citi bus is a great way to get around, albeit a little slow. You will need to purchase a ticket from one of their stands and load it with money. Check the routes for details and don’t expect the buses to run on time.
You can also choose to take a mini-bus taxi to truly experience how locals travel. These boisterous taxis travel like they own the road, stopping in the middle of the road, screaming destinations while hanging out the window and blaring kwaito music. They may seem fierce, but it’s the cheapest way to get around the city. Shout to the driver where you want to go, and then quickly embark when you reach the destination. This is a cash only transaction, so carry coins with you. Alternatively, you can catch a metre taxi or an Uber.
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