South Africa’s capital, Cape Town has so many wonders to offer up and is an obvious starting point for a trip around Southern Africa. And this is exactly what we did when we spent six weeks exploring South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe. Based on my personal experience this is my city guide to Cape Town.
Let’s get the obvious boring bits out of the way first.
The climate for South Africa is sub-tropical Mediterranean weather. We went in Spring so it wasn’t unbearably hot but it was very windy in Cape Town. Really I think it is the type of city that you need to have a flexible wardrobe so that you can quickly adapt to the ever changing weather. Essentially I advise that you expect the unexpected.
The currency is the Rand, to which 1 Australian Dollar is about 10 Rand which makes it very easy to do quick calculations while you are out and about. Overall, it is a very affordable travel destination with prices being about 50-75% cheaper than those in Australia.
There is more than a handful of official languages spoken in South Africa, try and learn some phrase in Afrikaans if you want but we stuck with English and this is commonly understood by most, especially in the tourist districts, though you may have some trouble deciphering through the thick South African accent.
The food is all of good quality and the wines are exceptional too – don’t be afraid to give it all a go.
And lastly in the boring bit I should mention safety. Cape Town is Africa’s most popular international tourist destination. This alone should give you some comfort. People the world over would not flock to somewhere that isn’t safe. But it is a big city and as with any big city there are dangers and Cape Town does have a high crime rate. But, using a good dose of common sense you should be ok. I would probably not wander off alone and I would exercise higher caution after dark. Make sure your vaccinations are all up to date. Malaria isn’t really a risk in Cape Town but if you want to travel further afield to say Kruger National Park to go on Safari you will need Malaria medication.
Now to the good part and the whole reason for travelling to Cape Town – what you can do and see in this city.
If you are lucky enough to have a clear day while visiting Cape Town take advantage of it and go up Table Mountain. You can hike (a steep 2 hour climb) or take the cableway (about 195R return). We decided that hiking up was time consuming, risky for weather changes, hot and hard work so we lined up for an hour and took the cableway.
In the cablecar, you are squished in with about 65 other people, try and get near the sides so you can take your time to look at the view on the way up and down. It revolves so it doesn’t matter which window. At the top there is a boarded pathway that you can stick to but there are also other marked areas where you can hike. I recommend heading to Maclears Beacon which is the summit of the mountain. It’s about a 3km walk to reach this point, which took us about 45 minutes. If you take the circular route be aware that some of the pathways are not for the feint-hearted and can take you pretty close to the edge. Take a jumper with you, as weather changes fast up there. If you go hiking on your own, keep an eye on the clouds and get moving back to the main section if they start to close in. There is a restaurant, with inflated prices as expected, so my advice is to pack some snacks and a drink. And don’t forget to look for the rock dassie – a little rabbit like animal that is apparently related to the elephant. Depending on what you do up here to how long it will take. Our adventure took the better part of a day but you could shorten it to a couple of hours, or extend this to a full day.
For the awesome view of Table Mountain looming over the city take a 20 minute drive around to Table View where you can sit on the beach and take a hundred photos as the sun sets on the city and the lights come on.
Robben Island is where political prisoners such as Nelson Mandela were held during the apartheid days. Tours leave from the V&A Waterfront, near the clock tower and cost 250R. You catch a ferry 12kms out to the island and then have a bus tour around the island, chat with a former prisoner and have a look around the prison. This tour reminds you of the importance of equality, justice and freedom.
Make sure you book ahead as there are only 3 tours a day and they are usually booked out. Allow about 3.5 hours for this activity. When we went the ferry ride was terrifying! It was a particularly windy day and the waves were massive. The Ferry was tossed about and the passengers were screaming with every drop down the other side. If we were to sink I’m not sure if the cold water or the sharks would get me first!
Explore the Districts
I like to get my bearings in each city I visit in the first day or two and while cringe-worthy I find that the hop-on hop-off red tour buses are the best way to do this. It is easy to get a quick overview, figure out where everything is and decide what you want to go back and explore more. Besides this, here are a couple of districts worth noting.
Bo-Kaap is a neighbourhood at the foot of Signal Hill and is famous for its colourful buildings and it is a nice stroll down the street to snap a few photos of this district. This is the Malay quarter or Muslim community of Cape Town and I believe that the reason behind the colourful houses is that at the end of their Holy month, Ramadan, they have a festival and paint their houses as part of the celebrations.
In contrast to this colourful part of town you can also visit the townships. This is where people were forced to live during the apartheid era. A lot of these areas still maintain the same racial make up and is a strong reminder of the effect of racial segregation. You can see the poverty that some people are forced to live in first hand and it is very sobering. It can be unsafe visiting the townships so my advice is to stay with popular tour groups if you want to check it out.
I also advise a drive around Camps Bay and Clifton where you can glimpse the multi million dollar properties perched on the cliffs, catch a cold wind off the Atlantic and if you are lucky like we were you might spot a whale frolicking in the waves with the surfers. At 6degrees, better him then me.
The Victoria and Alfred (V&A) Waterfront
The V&A is hard to miss as it is right on the harbour and is the shopping and entertainment hub of Cape Town. Wander around the wharf and visit the restaurants, shops and markets here. Speaking of markets – head over to The Green Market Square. While it used to be the location of the slave market it is now a big open flea market where you can bargain for your souvenirs.
Sedate or Crazy
Cape Town has something for everyone from the more sedate Museums, Galleries & all that Jazz – there is plenty of this if you are interested. To the more extreme adventure options for those who can’t sit still – shark diving, abseiling, bungy jumping, big game fishing and more. All through out your visit you will need to choose from these two flip sides of the coin – ride your bike through the winelands or be driven; hike the mountain or take the cablecar, cruise on top of the water or in it. It is your choice.
Cape of Good Hope (& more) Day Trip
This is a jam packed day trip that I highly recommend to anyone visiting Cape Town. Hout Bay is a small fishing village where the cruises to the Cape Fur Seal Colonies on Duiker Island depart. Watching the seals play in the water and slip around on the rocks is great.
Chapmans Peak Drive is apparently one of the most spectacular marine drives in the world however due to wet weather and landslides it was closed when we were there so we meandered across the countryside through winding roads beside stony hills covered in brightly coloured flowers instead.
Table Mountain National Park at the Cape Point Peninsula stretches on forever. Stop for a picnic lunch then huff and puff your way up the stairs to the Cape Point lighthouse where you can let the wind whip your face as you stare down at the two major sea currents of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans colliding below. Then hike down to the Cape of Good Hope the (not really but close enough) most south-westerly point of Africa and sit and dream of the day you reach the most Northerly point.
From here, if you take a tour, you can grab a bike and ride back through the National park but watch out for the baboons, just keep riding these things are vicious (our guide carried a slingshot in his back pocket!). If you are skipping the African Safari you can get a good hit of animal watching in here with zebra, antelope, baboons, penguins, ostriches and more.
On your way back into the city stop at Boulders Beach and visit the famous Jackass Penguin colony. The story goes that in the 1970’s when the super tankers were breaking up, two penguins escaped the oil slicks and moved onto the mainland for the first time and settled at Boulders Beach, now there colony has grown to 3000 or so.
This day out gets you back to the city for a nice dinner out before collapsing in bed.
Spend a day absorbing the rich beauty and history of the Greater Cape Winelands. We choose to mellow out and have a leisurely tour with a driver. Visit Paarl, Franschhoek and Stellenbosch. You don’t have to have a guide but they are good at showing you where the wineries are, cheese shops, chocolate shops and a few historical sights as well as explanations of the local folk lore.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of everything there is to do in Cape Town but it is a good start and you only need a few days to squeeze all of this in and leave something for your next visit.Love it. Follow me. . .