This is your ultimate Cape Town travel guide, with everything you need to know for your first visit. Among South African cities, Cape Town is the most well-known across the world.
It is located in the main province of Western Cape, situated at the lower most part of the African continent. Starting out as a tiny outpost to resupply ships passing ship by the Dutch in 1652, today Cape Town is a vibrant city and one of the most popular travel destinations in the world.
Why Visit Cape Town?
Separated from the rest of the continent with a ring of mountains, Cape Town is a mecca for travellers who want to experience the magic of Africa without forgoing modern comforts—and this in-depth Cape Town Travel guide has got all the tips you need to make your first visit unforgettable.
Boasting magnificent views of the domineering Table Mountain, glittering seas, pristine white beaches, wine lands, and carpeted floral mountain ranges, Cape Town has one of the world’s most breath taking, untouched landscapes. For most people, it’s love at first sight and for some a siren call that’s hard to ignore.
But the city offers more than khaki-coloured beaches, spectacular mountain ranges, and rolling vineyards. As the founding city of South Africa, it is steeped in history that permeates every aspect of the local culture, as a result, travellers can expect to have a rich cultural experience at every turn.
Cape Town is the second biggest city in South Africa, offering a cool urban edge that can cater for young travellers as well as scenic romantic landscapes for older visitors. It is home to many art galleries, world-class restaurants, design-savvy shops, bars, hotels, and attractions—in short, the city is a cacophony of experiences that will leave you hungry for more.
Due to its vast history, Cape Town has been nicknamed the “Mother City” of South Africa. With a cultural heritage that spans over 300 years, the city is home to people of all races, and the three major languages spoken are English, Xhosa and Afrikaans.
History of Cape Town
Long before the Europeans and Portuguese set eyes on the Cape, the region had been home to the Khoisan people, the first-known inhabitants of the Cape.
The first Europeans to land in the region were the Portuguese. Bartholomeu Dias arrived around 1488 after journeying south along the west coast of Africa. The next European sighting of the Cape was by Vasco da Gama in 1497 while he was searching for a route that would lead directly from Europe to Asia.
However, the Dutch colonist Jan van Riebeek was the first European to set foot on its soil in 1652. He worked for the Dutch East India Company and was tasked with establishing a refreshment station for its ships on the shores of Table Bay.
Cape Town Travel Guide: The Basics—What to Expect in Cape Town
South Africa uses the South African Rand (R or ZAR) as its legal tender. At the time of writing the exchange rate sits at R16 for $1. Visitors from countries with stronger currencies are likely to find the city very affordable compared to other international travel destinations.
We highly advise changing your money into Rands at the airport, so that you don’t have to go through the hassle of finding an exchange bureau at short notice. Of course, if you run out of money there are plenty of exchange bureaus at all the major malls, including Western Union, MoneyGram, Word Remit, Travelex, Bidvest Bank, Forex world, American Express, Absa Bank and Inter Africa Bureau De Change.
If the idea of walking around with cash isn’t sitting well with you, you can always use your VISA or MasterCard, both of which are widely accepted throughout the country. In fact, the less cash you have on your person the safer it is for you.
Typical Costs in Cape Town
Let’s break down the costs a little bit further. As stated before, Cape Town is relatively affordable compared to other big cities. If you’re a budget traveller, several hostels and apartments offer great rates.
Transportation is also cheap depending on your budget, and a good hearty meal should not cost you more than R200 ($12.50) unless you’re dining at an upscale restaurant. For excursions outside the city like bungee jumping, whale watching or canyoneering you can expect to pay between R 1200-1700 ($75-107 USD) per person.
Overall, a typical day in Cape Town should cost you R500- R1000 ($31-62 USD) per day if you’re a budget traveller. If you’re a mid-range traveller expect to spend between R1200-R1700 ($75- 106 USD) per day on food, travel, accommodation, and activities.
The dialling code for South Africa is 00 27, followed by 21 for Cape Town if you’re outside the country. If you’re within South Africa dial 021 for Cape Town.
When it comes to connectivity, most hotels, apartments, and lodges offer free Wi-Fi, as do several coffee shops and malls. So, if you’ve got some business to take care of or you want to stay in touch with family or friends, you have several options at your disposal.
Things become a little complicated when you want to connect to the local mobile network system. South Africa has a user registration process known as RICA. Essentially this means that you’re required by law to provide identification documents to purchase a sim card.
Generally, getting a sim card would be more suitable for someone staying in the country for a longer period. The network options you have are CellC, MTN, Telkom, Virgin Mobile and Vodacom, all of which provide similar rates.
Plug Sockets & Electricity Supply
South Africa uses four plug types: types C, D, M and N. The type C plug has two round pins, plug type D has three round pins in a triangular pattern and types M and N both have three round pins.
The country also operates on a 230V supply voltage and 50Hz, so make sure that your gadgets can handle the voltage. In terms of electricity supply, South Africa experiences occasional power cuts, especially during the winter and wet months, but most hotels, luxury apartments and guest lodges have sufficient backup power.
The e-hailing ecosystem is alive and kicking in Cape Town. Apps like Bolt and Uber are popular, and they work pretty much the same way in South Africa, you can request a ride at any time of the day and you can make your payment using your card or cash.
However, if you’re GPS savvy, hiring a car is the most convenient and safest way to get around. There are car rental agencies all around the city and at the airport. Better yet, if you’re travelling in a group or you’re a family you can hire a door-to-door shuttle service that ferries you to and from multiple places around the city or region.
You can also use metered taxis which charge based on the distance of your ride, although they tend to be pricey. You can find metered taxis around public areas like malls, restaurants, the airport, casinos and so on.
Public transportation is also a great way to get around, especially if you want to mix with locals and experience a bit of the culture. It’s also easy on the pocket. So, you can pay for passage on the MyCiti Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) which runs along the Cape Metropole.
The great thing about the BRT system is that it’s integrated with Google Maps so you can conveniently find the best routes and map out your journey.
Lastly, you’ll find quite a number of white minibus taxis that are used by locals. While they offer some convenience, travellers are discouraged from using them as they require some local knowledge to use them safely.
Safety, Local Laws, and Etiquette
Cape Town is a large metropolitan city which means like any other big city around the world, crime is an ongoing concern. However, most crimes occur away from tourist areas, business districts, malls, and suburbs, all of which have a high-security presence.
That said, you’ll need to take the usual precautions, i.e., don’t display expensive jewellery, phones etc., avoid quiet rough-looking areas, try not to explore by yourself or walk in the dark and always keep an eye on your belongings.
Additionally, there are several areas you should stay away from, and these include the Cape Flats, an area that spans the north of the N2 highway all the way to the west of the M5 highway. There is a lot of gang activity and violent crimes that occur around this area. The townships are also a no-go area if you’re exploring by yourself. We recommend sticking to the guided tours.
Lastly, regardless of whether you find yourself in any kind of trouble, having all the toll-free emergency numbers on hand is essential.
- The number for the police is 10111
- The number for an ambulance line is 10177
- The emergency number if you are on a cellphone is 112
South Africa has a well-developed medical system and in Cape Town, you’ll have access to some of the country’s best facilities and professionals, should you need medical attention. We recommend having some travel insurance in place, this will make it easier for you to access treatment.
Interestingly, South Africa has seen a boost in medical tourism over the last few years due to several ground-breaking surgeries and medical research such as the world’s first heart and penile transplants as well as the world’s first transplant of middle-ear bones using 3D printed components.
In terms of vaccinations, if Cape Town is your final destination, then you don’t have to worry about getting vaccinated for certain diseases like Malaria. However, if you’re planning to travel to other areas in the country like Kruger National Park, then taking preventative medication is necessary.
Generally, the CDC and WHO recommend the following vaccinations for travel to South Africa: hepatitis A, hepatitis B, typhoid, yellow fever, rabies, meningitis, polio, measles, mumps and rubella (MMR), Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis), chickenpox, shingles, pneumonia and influenza.
The tap water is perfectly safe to drink but if you want to play it safe, you can always purchase bottled water. We should mention though that Cape Town is water-strapped and experiences occasional water shortages so we implore you to use water sparingly during your visit.
When to visit
Cape Town is a city for all seasons, so you can expect a different feel of the city depending on the season.
Summer: December to February
Summertime tends to be hot in the Cape, so this is the perfect time to visit if you enjoy outdoor activities. You can chill out on the beach, enjoy a breezy evening dining out or check out some of the city’s night spots.
The only drawback is the crowds since most local travellers also flock to the city during this peak season. So it’s best to book and plan your visit well in advance.
Autumn: March to May
Autumn is a great time to experience the wide expanse of the Cape Town sky as it spreads across the city. Moreover, you’ll likely catch a glimpse of some spectacular sunsets as the first autumn leaves fall and the South-Easter wind dissipates.
The weather is still quite warm so you can soak up some sun while avoiding the peak season crowds. Just keep in mind that Easter is a national holiday in South Africa, so crowds tend to pick up around this time as well.
Another bonus of visiting Cape Town in autumn is that most restaurants run specials in May, where you have a plethora of discounts on two and three-course meal options. Great news for gourmands!
Winter: June to August
Who said winter isn’t for travelling? Cape Town is still quite lovely during the colder months. While you’ll likely encounter some rain, there are plenty of beautiful crisp days that you can take advantage of.
Enjoy the warm winter sun while you experience the whales that come close to the shore to mate and give birth during the winter months. You can also explore the slopes of Table Mountain or sit down for some relaxing wine and game meat tasting next to a roaring fire as you get acquainted with some of South Africa’s unique wines.
Spring: September to November
If you love flowery things, spring in Cape Town is sure to bloom your socks off. Not only do the natural 2200 species of fynbos come to life during this season, but veld flowers also make their presence known.
Additionally, most wildlife gives birth during this season so you stand a good chance of seeing some cute baby animals during this time. Arguably, spring is also the best time of the year for adventure enthusiasts to visit. You’ll find plenty of activities to do, from hiking, range drives, whale watching, you name it!
Cape Town Travel Guide: Where to Stay
Undeniably, your choice of accommodation depends on your budget and the kind of holiday experience you want. There are plenty of luxury, mid-range and budget hotels, self-catering apartments and villas in prime holiday spots such as the V&A Waterfront, Sea Point, Clifton, and Camps Bay.
Let’s check them out below.
There are plenty of five-star holiday apartments that adorn the Cape Town coastline. And getting an apartment is very similar to staying at a hotel, with the added advantage that it’s easier on the pocket and you get tons more privacy and flexibility. So, if you like cooking for yourself or you’ve got certain dietary restrictions this might be the best option for you.
Moreover, most luxury apartments come with extras such as concierge services, gyms, swimming pools, and so on.
Villas in Cape Town
Vacation villas are a home away from home. Offers the same comforts you would get with a few luxuries. Most villas in Cape Town come with multiple bedrooms, spacious kitchens, lounges, dining and television areas and gorgeous beach-front views.
Private chefs are available as well, so you can skimp out on preparing your meals and luxuriate in some of South Africa’s best cuisine, prepared for you by professionals.
Cape Town offers some of the best places to stay, catering for all budgets and lifestyles. Most hotels are well-positioned, with great views, beach and downtown access, so you’ll be a stone’s throw away from the beach or from the myriad of restaurants, coffee shops, shopping malls and eateries.
If you really want a personal touch throughout your stay, booking a guesthouse should be your go-to. Most guesthouses offer a more intimate experience compared to hotels, even the most luxurious of guesthouses. Thankfully, Cape Town has a wide range of guesthouses to suit every budget and taste.
Cape Town Travel Guide: Things To Do In Cape Town
The real question here is what can’t you do in Cape Town? This is a city overflowing with adventure, culture, and culinary arts. With a wealth of historical sites, eateries, beachies, nightlife spots, activities and natural wonders, plan to pack your itinerary!
Visit The Winelands: South Africa’s Best-Kept Secret
An hour away from the hustle and bustle of Cape Town is one of South Africa’s best-kept secrets—the Cape Winelands. The region is made up of three towns; Stellenbosch, Paarl and Franschhoek, all of which offer magnificent vineyards, radiant mountain ranges, exquisite wines and food and picturesque views.
Highly influenced by the French Huguenot refugees that settled in the 1680s, the region produces some of the best wines in the world. The peak season is usually during the summertime where you can enjoy some delicious wine in the summer heat.
So, what can you expect to get up to in the Winelands? Firstly, there are the Franschhoek wine tours, and you can hop on the very convenient Franschhoek Wine Tram and tour some of the best vineyards and farms in the region. Or you can explore the Paarl Wine Route which hosts several festivals and concerts throughout the year.
While summer is the most popular season, the winter months are also magical. You can bundle up in ponchos, scarves and coats and stay cosy near a crackling fire as you wind down. Visit some of the region’s famous farms like the Babylonstoren, with its beautiful produce gardens, and Leeu Estates where you can enjoy a glass of Pinot Gris.
Take a Free Walking Tour
If walking is your thing, you can start your visit off with a free guided walking tour. This is one of the best ways to get to know the city and explore some of the key areas of Cape Town such as the City Bowl, which is surrounded by clubs, bars, and restaurants. Or you can take a walk across the Atlantic Seaboard, which runs from the V&A Waterfront on the north shore of Table Mountain across to Hout Bay.
Cable Car Up to Table Mountain
This is one of Cape Town’s most popular activities. The ride operates seven days a week and trips occur within 10 to 15 minutes of each other. The cable car offers some great views, where you can watch the sunset and atop the mountain, there is a self-service buffet cafe.
Although you can always pack a picnic and enjoy the national park where you will see rock hyrax, lizards, butterflies, porcupines, and other small rock creatures. You can also catch a glimpse of some of South Africa’s magnificent birdlife from eagles to sunbirds flying above the carpets of fynbos, the Cape’s indigenous flora.
Sanbi–Kirstenbosch Gardens (A UNESCO World Heritage Site)
Is there anything better than a stroll down a meandering path of meticulously crafted and maintained flora?
These botanical gardens boast a large collection of African plants with trails carved out for trekkers and stone sculptures set in the gardens for artists. If you get tired along the way you can relax on the lawns and indulge in a picnic or grab a bite at the two available restaurants.
If you go in the summertime, you’ll often find live concerts held in the green areas on Sundays. You can also take a stroll along the Bloomslang, an amazing canopy walkway that provides amazing views.
Visit the Blue Flag Beaches
South Africa has more than 30 Blue Flag beaches and Cape Town is home to several beautiful of them, with the most famous being the Clifton 2nd on the western coast. Other beaches to take notice of are Long Beach in Noordhoek, Bakhoven Beach and Boulders Beach.
Budget-Friendly Activities in Cape Town
Who said you can’t have a great holiday on a budget? Cape Town has a myriad of budget-friendly activities that you and your family can enjoy. So, in the Cape Town travel guide, we’re going to give you a few tips to keep a few extra coins in your pocket.
Let’s check them out below:
Visit during the off-season
Visiting Cape Town during the winter season will help your wallet. You’ll have more options for cheaper accommodation due to less demand, you can even score some special deals and might get some luxury accommodation at a discount!
Stock up on the free activities
There are so many free outdoor activities that you can enjoy in Cape Town. For example, you can take a hike up Lion’s Head, or you can stroll the Woodstock Street art, which boasts more than 40 pieces of artwork from local and international artists.
If you love all things vintage, you can also see antiques for free in Paarl. You’ll find everything from old road signs and petrol pumps to clothing and sewing machines from the 1900s. If you’re in the mood for some exercise or fresh sea air, you can stroll along the promenade.
Lastly, you can immerse yourself in the art scene on the first Thursday of every month where you can walk from one art gallery to the next and enjoy some of the city’s finest bars and restaurants.
Avoid shopping in touristy areas
Shops along the V&A Waterfront, the Watershed, Camps Bay, and downtown offer unique handmade local products—but they come at a steep price. As the most popular areas in Cape Town the goods and products are quite pricey so if you’re looking to save money, don’t shop in the tourist areas!
Stay in budget-friendly neighbourhoods
Avoiding real estate hotspots like Camps Bay, Sea Point, and the Waterfront is key as they tend to be expensive areas to stay in. Sure, they offer great views, but they will burn a hole in your wallet. So, we recommend going for more affordable areas like Muizenberg, Vredehoek, or Woodstock and the great news is that you’ll still be an Uber ride away from all the main attractions.
Find cheaper groceries
If you’re staying in self-service accommodation, you’ll have more control over your budget. Like any other country, South Africa has a wide variety of grocery stores. Shops like Woolworths are considered high-end by locals so if you’re trying to manage your finances you can opt for cheaper options like Checkers and Pick n Pay.
Cape Town Travel Guide: Cultural Activities
If you are looking for a truly unique cultural experience that diverts from the traditional holiday “feeling” there are many cultural attractions, you can visit to gain an in-depth understanding of the origins/history of the city of Cape Town.
Visit District 6 Museum
The iconic District 6 Museum is a cultural treasure trove, especially if want to get raw insight into the history of Cape Town. The Museum displays the experience of black and indigenous people in the country during the 1970s. It details the forceful removal and reconstruction of the District Six community.
Check Out the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art in Africa
The Zeitz MOCAA is a recent new addition to the Cape Town art scene. It’s the first-ever major institution exclusively dedicated to artists from across the African continent and diaspora.
The building is a must-see for architecture enthusiasts; designed by UK starchitect Thomas Heatherwick. This modern industrial property is a reimagined abandoned silo building, that is a soaring, sculptural marvel, a work of art.
Take a Township Art Tour
You can also take an intimate stroll through the heart of Woodstock, a lovely neighbourhood filled with glorious Victorian architecture, indie boutiques, and artists’ studios. But that’s not all, the walking tour takes you around several residential by lanes, which are filled with larger-than-life murals depicting several stories from wildlife conservation, politics, religion and more. The tour is quite popular, so you’d need to reserve your spot in advance.
Spend Time at the Labia Theatre
The Labia Theatre is one of the oldest independent Art-Repertory Cine