Cape Town, South Africa
By Haley Steinhauser
- Airport – Cape Town International Airport (CPT)
- Currency – South African Rand (R)
- Main Languages – English, Afrikaans, Xhosa (But South Africa has 12 official languages!)
- Population – 987,007 (1996)
- GDP (South Africa) – $350.6 billion USD (2nd largest in Africa)
Cape Town, South Africa is a geographical haven and is rooted deep in a powerful history. The city has had racial tensions for centuries – from colonization to the Apartheid era. While the end of Apartheid in 1994 helped liberate South Africa, there is much more restoration to be done, as the city faces complex racial, economic, and political issues.
Cape Town has one main airport: Cape Town International Airport (CPT). Many international and domestic flights will stop in Johannesburg then go to Cape Town, which is about an hour and a half. Prices of flights often change, but the flights to Cape Town from the US have recently been surprisingly inexpensive, especially in the ‘off-season.’
Getting to Cape Town from the Airport:
- See if your accommodation offers a shuttle
- $10 to $15 and takes 20 to 25 minutes
- $20 to $20 and takes same time as Uber
- My Citi Bus
Although the beauty of the city will overwhelm you, the realities of safety need to be kept in mind. Cape Town does not have a great public transportation system and is not recommended to take. If you do decide to take a ‘minibus’ or the train, it would be highly advisable not to bring your valuables with you. I would also advise you to be cautious of regular taxis, especially as a solo woman. If you do take them, make sure to set a price before you are in the cab, since most are not fairly metered, or look up a reliable company online and call for a quote and pick-up. There are also cab companies specifically for women — women drivers for women passengers. This is a great way to feel secure getting around at night in the city. The most highly recommended mode of transportation would be Uber. The fares are less expensive than regular cabs and safer since you have a record of the driver’s information available.
The summer months in South Africa are from November to February, and the weather is more often beautiful than not. In the off-season, the weather varies. It can rain often and be mildly cold. Before you leave, make sure you are packing for the right season!
What to Bring
One of the best parts of traveling to Cape Town, especially recently, is the exchange rate. South Africa operates on the Rand and, over the past six months, the exchange rate has been about 15 Rand to a Dollar. While there are many ATMs in Cape Town, be very cautious of where you use one. Make sure you use an ATM where there is a guard protecting it; these are the most secure and can be found in most malls or banks in the city. Be hyper-aware of your surroundings and make sure your most valuable items stay close and are not vulnerable to theft. Another tip: watch your card in restaurants. While it is customary in most restaurants in the US for the waiter to take your card to the check and then return it, never let anyone take your card out of sight to complete a transaction in Cape Town. Always, always have the waiter bring the card machine to you!
While traveling, be sure to bring the right adapter, because finding these in the city can be harder than you think and more expensive than it should be. South Africa uses a few different types of adapters, with power socket types C/D/M/N with 230 Voltage. The most used socket is either type C or D.
As for clothing, make sure you bring a rain jacket and, depending on the season, warm clothes for the cooler weather in the mornings and evenings.
South Africa has 12 official languages: English, Afrikaans, Zulu, Xhosa, Southern Sotho, Tswana, Northern Sotho, Venda, Tsonga, Swati, Ndebele, and South African English! Almost everyone speaks English, so getting around is very easy. Take some time to learn about the languages in South Africa, as it has been controversial throughout history.
Cape Town has so many sights to see that there will never be a boring day while visiting. Like every place, there are classic must-see tourist locations and those that are only known to the locals. Exploring both makes for an unforgettable trip experience.
V & A Waterfront
The waterfront is one of the most popular spots in Cape Town, with great shopping and beautiful historical and colonial buildings. Aside from a go-to area to shop for gifts, it is home to some of the best restaurants in the city. Along with the shops in the mall, there is the Watershed, which is just a short walk away and offers primarily crafts, art, and jewelry made by local artists. There is a great market for to visit lunch, with endless options for a casual, authentic Cape Town feel. There are countless other restaurants to check out on the water.
It is a good idea to plan your trip to Robben’s Island the same day as the V&A Waterfront since the ferry leaves from this area. Tickets are about $25, and the trip will take at least 3 hours, so plan accordingly. Robben’s Island is a unique place, full of apartheid history, famously known as the site where Nelson Mandela was held in prison for 27 years. Aside from the history of the island, it has some of the best views of Cape Town you can get.
The infamous Table Mountain will be one of the most breathtaking sights you’ve ever seen—yes, that is a guarantee. It is one of the oldest mountains on earth—six times older than the Himalayas and five times older than the Rockies! There are different ways to get to the top, either by hiking or taking the cable car. If you’re hiking, make sure you do your research as to which route is the best for you. Many tourists make the mistake of taking the ‘fastest’ route, which is by far the most difficult and can be dangerous for those who aren’t experienced hikers. When hiking, make sure your personal belonging are secure; if hiking the mountain at quiet times, there have been incidences of theft on the journey. If the cable car is more your pace, it costs about $20, and it is recommended to buy tickets online beforehand to skip the lines. Also, a great option is hiking up and riding the car down! Table Mountain is amazing whatever time of day you go, of course, but, if you can get up there for the golden hour and sunset, it is recommended. Many locals will also bring up wine or a picnic to enjoy the sunset at the top.
This is a great hike that is fast and easy, giving you panorama views of the city and Table Mountain. The full hike can be done in about 1-½ to 2 hours and is 100% recommended. Locals hike this mountain extremely often, as it is easy and a great workout. Having said that, it is almost never a desolate hike, making it a very safe trip.
This is one of the less hiked trails by tourists, but it has arguably an even better view than Table Mountain. Not only does it have views of the entire city, it has an interesting perspective of Table Mountain. Depending on what route is taken, the time of travel varies. Many say that, if you’re going to do one hike, Devil’s Peak should be it.
The Kirstenbosch Gardens are absolutely breathtaking. From beautiful strolls in the tree canopies to two great restaurants, from difficult hikes to some of the most remote and amazing sights in Cape Town, this place has something for everyone. The Kirstenbosch Tea Room Restaurant is a more casual spot, and Moyo has good food, but it is known mostly for the restaurant experience in the gardens. If you are up to the challenge, the recommended hike in Kirstenbosch is Skeleton Gorge. It is a long hike that ends at a pond, where the colors will make you not believe your eyes. Also, if traveling during the summer months (January to April), check the schedule for concerts. There are a number of amazing events that happen in this space that give a local experience of the city.
South Africa is known for its spectacular wines, so, if you are an enthusiast or connoisseur, a trip to Stellenbosch is a must. A town about 30 to 40 minutes outside of the city, the tastes and sights are worth the ride. The area is covered in miles of vineyards and surrounded by mountains. With great restaurants and hotels, if time permits, it is nice to stay a night or two in the area to get the full experience. Driving from one vineyard to another is an option, taking Uber is becoming more popular in the area, as well, but there are also wine tours that provide transportation and tastings, which can be very convenient. As there are countless different vineyards, it is impossible to get to all of them in one trip. These are our top picks, if you have to choose!
Our Top Picks:
- Rust en Vrede
- Delaire Graff
- Peter Falk Winery
Cape of Good Hope
The Atlantic coast of the Cape Peninsula was once believed to be where the Indian Ocean meets the Atlantic. If you have the time, it is truly breathtaking. It takes about an hour and twenty minutes by car down the M3, and the drive in itself is a sight to see.
Cape Town Day Tours
Being a tourist in Cape Town, it is extremely easy to stay in a pristine bubble of this city. To take in the history and current reality of the city, it is important to expand the experience. Langa is a township and suburb of Cape Town, established in 1927 for Black Africans before the apartheid era. With a population of about 52,400, it is one of the safest townships, filled with life and art. While many take ‘township tours,’ often done from a bus, it is very controversial and inauthentic. A local and family-run company in Langa that we highly recommend is Ubizo. They provide biking or walking tours, which is much less invasive and supports 28 local businesses. This type of tour is the best, as you can gain great perspective in an authentic way that also further supports the local community.
District Six Museum
Cape Town is filled with museums worth visiting, but, if you are interested in the history of apartheid, this is the one to see. The entrance fee is about $1 for students and $2-3 for regular admission. The museum offers an insight into the unbelievable history of district six—known for the 60,000 residents that were forcibly removed in the 1970s during apartheid.
A great rainy day activity, the aquarium offers an array of wildlife. The cost is about $8 for students and $10 for regular admission. It is located in the V&A waterfront area.
Seal Island is about a 40-minute boat ride to Duiker Island, where you’ll see hundreds of seals. The boat ride is beautiful and an inexpensive way to get out on the water. If you do take the trip to Seal Island on a Friday or Saturday we suggest skipping the touristy restaurants that surround the dock and walk about 5 minutes to the Hout Bay Market that has amazing local food vendors.
The only penguins found on the continent are found here. In 1910, there were an estimated 1.5 million African penguins; now, there are only about 26,000 breeding pairs in the entire world. Though it may be a touristy spot, it is worth visiting. The entrance fee goes toward the conservation of these animals and is about $5. The conservation has set up a boardwalk where you can learn about the penguins and then see them from a structure slightly above the beach. This is great, since there are hundreds on the beach in this area, and it is very informative. If you want to actually be on a beach with the penguins, go to Boulder Beach itself, not the Boulder Beach Penguin Colony. There aren’t as many, but you can be right with them without a million tourists. As Boulder Beach is located right by Simon’s Town, it is a great place to visit with a rich history and can be easily added to your trip. Known as a naval town, it has a strong colonial feel, as it was established in 1680.
Located in a Cape Town suburb, Muizenberg beach is famous for its surfing. Known as the ‘birthplace’ for surfing in South Africa, the rolling waves are great for surfers at any level. There are a few great surf shops right next to the beach to either rent boards or take lessons. Aside from the scenic water, the beach is known for its colorful bungalows.
Camps Bay Beach
Although this beach can be very touristy, you cannot argue with the views—the beautiful ocean on one side of you and a perfect view of the 12 Apostles mountain range in the background. With many nice restaurants right off the beach, it is a definitely a spot to check out. One downside of this beach is that it is hard to relax, due to people constantly trying to sell you things.
Near Camps Bay, Clifton offers a more private and tranquil experience in an exclusive residential neighborhood. There are several parts to the beach, some of which are in coves, which is great for windy days.
Big Bay Beach
Big Bay is an extremely small beach and a surfer’s favorite. It also has one of the best views of Table Mountain.
Hands-down our favorite Cape Town beach, it is located in a beautiful suburb on the Atlantic seaboard of the Cape Peninsula. There are no people selling things or mass amounts of tourists. Llandudno is a local spot with great surf and a breathtaking jetty.
South African cuisine is best described as a blend of the original cooking practiced by the indigenous people of Africa with the European cuisines that came to Africa from the colonization period. Popular South African dishes include:
- Malva pudding
Check out whether any of the below events are happening while you’re in Cape Town:
The first Thursday of each month. Wine and Art! Art Galleries along the infamous Long Street stay open late and most serve drinks. It attracts people from all over the city to socialize and view contemporary art from local artists.
The Galileo Open Air Cinema does weekly viewings of films in the beautiful V&A Waterfront. Definitely worth checking out! It is suggested to buy a ticket online to reserve your spot and it’s slightly cheaper. Tickets go from around $8 to $10.
Full Moon Hike
Every night of the full moon. If you happen to be in Cape Town for a full moon, you should think about joining the crowd on a night hike to the top of Lion’s Head with about 2,000 other people. Make sure to bring a headlamp!
Check out if there are any Keg Hikes during the time you are in Cape Town! The best way to check is via Facebook. Often, a craft brewery in the area will sponsor a “keg hike,” where a group of people takes a keg to the top of Lion’s Head. While the trek may be hard and long, the rewards are great. It is an amazing way to meet locals and enjoy a brew while looking at one of the best views in the world.
Old Biscuit Mill
Saturdays from 9am to 4pm. It is one of the most beloved markets in Cape Town. Located in Woodstock, a very up-and-coming neighborhood, it is similar to Hout Bay, with food vendors, live music, and shopping. The market is great for finding clothes, bags, jewelry, and more made by local designers—items that you wouldn’t find at the V&A Waterfront.
Hout Bay Market:
Located within walking distance from Seal Island, the Hout Bay Market is open Friday 5 to 9pm and Saturdays and Sundays from 9:30am to 4pm. With amazing food, live music, and shopping, it provides all you could want in an afternoon. While it is a ride from the center of Cape Town, this also means there are fewer tourists than at other markets.
Rugby, cricket, and soccer (football) are beloved South African sports and attending any game is a fun local experience where the pride and energy of the country can be felt. Check the dates!
Cape Town is filled with amazing musical events. Check out whether there are any concerts happening! Check out events at Kirstenbosch Gardens or Shimmy Beach Club for a fun summer night.
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