An In-Depth Travel Guide to Cape Town

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Welcome to a very special new column! I’m excited to announce that Natasha and Cameron from The World Pursuit will be writing a (semi-)monthly column on traveling around Africa. While I’ve been to the continent in the past, I’ve only seen a few countries and this website is really thin on Africa content. So I’m super duper excited to have these two travelers share their knowledge about traveling the continent. They will share budget tips, detailed guides, itineraries, and stories to get you excited and prepared for your own trip! I am excited to bring them onboard and share their experiences with you! Their first post is on Cape Town, a town they lived in for a few months, before setting off on this trip – and one of my favorite cities in the world!

Dominated by the iconic Table Mountain, which serves as a backdrop everywhere in the city, Cape Town is a mish-mash of cultures. Its appeal was apparent the day we arrived: we had a monthlong apartment rental and a plethora of “must see” sites, but the laid-back vibe of the city had us in no rush to do so. After just one hour of exploring, we said to each other, “We are going to love it here.”

After two months of soaking up the sun, enjoying the outdoors, and eating delicious food, we still hadn’t managed to pull away from the city. The magic of Cape Town extends well beyond its beauty; it lies in what it can offer visitors. Whether it was checking out a weekend market, hiking, attending a jazz concert, canyoneering, or spotting some wildlife, we never ran out of things to do. And you won’t either!

Top Things to Do in Cape Town

Table mountain South Africa
At over 3,500 feet above sea level, the views from Table Mountain are the best in the city. Taking the famous cableway up the mountain was one of the first things we did. However, at ZAR 285 (USD $21) for a return ticket, it is relatively expensive.

However, the hiking trails are free and offer some great exercise. There are a number of routes up the mountain, with the shortest trail taking about two hours to climb from the cableway station. At the top there is a café and restaurant, where we grabbed a drink and soaked up the views. Prices at the café are reasonable: R16 ($1.17) for a coffee, R40 ($3) for a slice of pizza, and R80 ($6) for a full hot meal.

Enjoy a drink on top of Lion’s Head

Lion's Head South Africa
While hiking up Table Mountain may take too long for an evening hike, the adjacent Lion’s Head is only a 45-minute climb to the top. It’s essentially the little sister to Table Mountain. Make sure to bring a camera on your hike, because it’s one of the most photogenic spots in Cape Town. Rising high above the city skyline, it still provides incredible views of the city, sea, and Table Mountain. The evening we hiked up, we witnessed a rare show as a low blanket of clouds made all trace of man disappear.

Sunrise and sunset can be crowded times, as locals and tourists alike clamber up the mountain to take in the impressive vista. Once on top of the peak be sure to reward yourself with a classic African “sundowner” (a drink while watching the sunset). Our personal drink of choice is the classic gin & tonic; it complements a sunset on Lion’s Head perfectly.

Drive Chapman’s Peak to Cape Point

Cape Point, South Africa
Past Chapman’s Peak southwest of Cape Town is Cape Point National Park, where you can witness the collision of the Atlantic and Indian oceans at the Cape of Good Hope. The national park offers long hikes, coastal birdlife, and a chance to take in the smallest and richest floral kingdom in the world, the fynbos.

You will have to pay a R42 ($3) toll to drive on the road; however, the scenic drive is well worth the cost! The famous drive snakes along the vertical cliff faces of Table Mountain, leaving you wondering whether your car will end up in the Atlantic. A day car rental runs R300-R500 ($22-37) depending on the season, with petrol costing around R14 ($1) per liter. The entry fee to the Cape Point National Park is R135 ($10).

Head to Robben Island

Visiting the former political prison on Robben Island was high on our list of things to do. A former inmate personally guides everyone around the prison. It is both sobering and inspiring to learn first-hand about South Africa’s first black president especially from other people who actually knew him. We were able to hear their stories and sit in the same exact cells where prisoners who fought for their rights were locked away. It’s hard to think about the victims of political oppression still in prison around the world and remember that, despite what the news may say, we’re a lot further along than just two decades ago.

Tours depart from the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, and visitors are shuttled across the bay to the island via ferry. The tour on Robben Island with the ferry ride costs R320 ($24). It is a small price to pay to see where Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk To Freedom, was authored. Keep in mind that ferries leave at set times and tickets should be bought in advance — we nearly missed ours!

Spend a weekend day at the Bay Harbor Market

On weekends in Hout Bay, artisans and vendors from around the city come to the Bay Harbour Market to sell their goods: everything from fish stew, souvenirs, crêpes, jewelry, art, and even mojitos are available, as are live bands. You can get just about anything you can crave. We discovered the market by happenstance: we had come to go swimming with the seals in Hout Bay, and just followed the sounds of the buzzing market. We enjoyed it so much we returned multiple times.

The market (31 Harbour Road) is open on Friday evenings, as well as Saturday and Sunday from 9:30am to 4pm. To find it, travel to the eastern edge of Hout Bay Harbor, where you’ll find a crowd of locals and live music.

Kirstenbosch Gardens

On a nice spring day, we headed to the southern suburbs to check out Kirstenbosch Gardens. Set against the slopes of Table Mountain, the beautiful botanical gardens are appropriately dubbed “the most beautiful garden in Africa.” Kirstenbosch offers visitors a chance to explore the fynbos and various floral kingdoms found across the African continent. It was one of our best outings and provided a welcome escape from the city.
A ticket to the gardens costs R60 ($4.40) and includes entrance to the famous tree canopy walkway. There are a few restaurants and a café there, but we saved money by having a picnic on the pristine lawns.

Surfing at Muizenberg Beach

Muizenberg Beach, South Africa
Muizenberg is a southern suburb of Cape Town famous for its boardwalk and surf. It’s a 30 min. car ride from the city center and the ideal spot to learn how to surf. The laid-back neighborhood is a beach bum’s haven and has a strong multicultural vibe that is refreshing. A 90 min. rental with wetsuit costs just R100 ($7.30) and makes for a great way to get active on vacation.

If surfing isn’t your thing, the neighborhood is also home to a number of cultural events and yoga studios. We took a stab at a free yoga class, followed by a healthy wrap and smoothie along the beach. Afterwards, we took photos of the famous beach stands that are painted in a rainbow of colors.

See the Boulders Beach penguins

Penguins in South Africa
This was at the top of our to-do list in Cape Town. So, we saved it for a special occasion and made our way to see the home of thousands of African penguins. Visitors can properly view them from a raised boardwalk, while still giving the massive colony their personal space. You’ll know where the African penguin’s second name, “jackass penguin,” comes from when you hear them call.

Boulders Beach Park costs R70 ($5) to enter, with the fee going to the upkeep of the park and conservation of the penguins. Don’t try to take a photo too close to a penguin — they bite, and I’m speaking from experience.

Wine and dine in Stellenbosch

One of the most world-renowned wine regions is only a 45-minute ride outside of Cape Town. There are hundreds of privately owned vineyards in and around Stellenbosch, which is famous for the mountains and valley that are often blanketed in fog. The world-class wine can be sampled for just R60-75 ($4.40-5.50) a tasting. We managed to have a full day of wine and food pairings (ranging from salt and cupcakes to cheese and chocolate) for a fraction of what it would cost in Napa Valley. Our personal favorite was the biltong (South African dried meat) and wine pairing at L’Avenir.

To get to the various vineyards, check out the Vine Hopper, a hop-on, hop-off van with various vineyard routes. If you can only visit one vineyard, we would recommend Lanzerac to taste the origin of the region’s very own pinotage variety.

Pose for a pic in colorful Bo-Kaap

Bo-Kaap, South Africa
Walking distance from the city center is the colorful Cape Malay (Muslim) neighborhood of Bo-Kaap, the former quarters of the city’s slave population. However, as time passed, the neighborhood grew, and various communities have called it home. Nowadays, the Cape Malay population reside in the vibrant neighborhood. Don’t feel shy walking through and taking photos; the residents are friendly and used to having their homes photographed and posted on Instagram. We went to the neighborhood in the morning to catch good light for photos and watch the neighborhood come alive. We ended up staying for a couple of hours, checking out South Africa’s first mosque, Auwal Mosque, and eating at one of the best Cape Malay restaurants in the neighborhood, Bo-Kaap Kombuis. Afterwards we had plenty of fun posing for photos in front of the bright orange, green, pink, blue, and yellow houses.

Typical Costs in Cape Town

View of Capetown
Overall, I would say that you should budget R450-R750 ($33-55) a day in Cape Town. Compared to other big cities around the world, Cape Town is definitely affordable. Hostels and apartments will offer the best rates on accommodation, buses (albeit slow and inconsistent) are incredibly cheap, and no good meal should cost you more than R100 ($7.30) unless it’s at an upscale restaurant. We were never on an ultra-tight budget, and we lived quite comfortably, with great food and entertainment a quarter of what it cost in NYC. Our only splurge days involved excursions outside of the city, like canyoneering, whale watching, or bungee jumping.

Accommodation
Accommodation will be the biggest budget breaker, with dorm beds costing as much as R250 ($18) in the high season. If you are traveling with friends, it’s possible to find a decent apartment rental for R700-R1000 ($51-73) per night. As a couple we found great value in hopping around various Airbnbs in the city. Hotels can vary wildly; expect to pay R1,400-R14,000 ($102-1,024) a night.

Food
Eating out in Cape Town is a fantastic experience, as you can have almost any cuisine at a fair price. We were able to gorge on delicious sushi for less than R150 ($11) at Willoughby’s Fish Market and get health juices at the Sidewalk Café for R30 ($2.20). We found the best bang for the buck at 96 Long Market Street, where the Eastern Food Bazaar serves up great food and huge portions every day for less than R50 ($3.70). Tipping 10% of the bill for table service is a common practice in South Africa.

Transport
Cape Town is a spread-out city — to get around you’ll have to choose the bus or a taxi. While it may be a big, modern city, it lacks efficient public transport. The only system in place is a bus network called MyCiTi, which was implemented for the 2010 World Cup. It is the cheapest but least efficient way to get around the city. Ticket prices begin at R2 ($0.15) and are calculated by distance traveled. However, bus times are infrequent and the coverage is incomplete.

Our solution was to take Ubers around the city. They offer better prices than the local cabs, and they are nicer, more reliable, and safer. And you are guaranteed a fair price without hassle. The only time we used a local cab resulted in price gouging and having to sit through the cabbie’s pitch for more personal rides and tours around the city. An Uber from Woodstock to the V & A Waterfront will cost about R60 ($4.40), while you can expect to pay all of R20 ($1.50) to get anywhere around the city center.

How to Save Money in Cape Town

Table mountain South Africa
Go in the off-season to save on accommodation – Traveling during South Africa’s winter season will help your wallet. During the summer, locals leave the city to the tourists and South Africans from around the country take over. In the winter, you have the ability to work out deals with hostels and Airbnbs, as owners work to fill up their rooms. We visited in September and were able to negotiate with a number of apartment owners to find the best deal. It pays to shop around!

Stay active – If you’re looking for free things to do, then getting active is a great solution. Climbing Lion’s Head, swimming at the beach, and running along the Sea Point promenade are all free activities that provide a good workout. Almost any outdoor activity in Cape Town is sure to offer stunning views of the ocean as well!

Stay away from the touristy areas
Shops at the Watershed, in Camps Bay, and downtown offer handmade local products, but expect to pay more, as they are some of the most visited areas in the city. If you are looking for souvenirs from Cape Town, try the Old Biscuit Mill in Woodstock on Saturdays for better prices. If you are in need of any standard products or clothes, we found Mr. Price to be the best bargain shop around South Africa.

Stay in the less fancy neighborhoods –Camps Bay, Sea Point, and the Waterfront areas are all real estate hotspots: they are some of the most beautiful areas of Cape Town, so therefore are the most expensive areas to stay in. For more affordable options try Muizenberg, Vredehoek, or Woodstock. We stayed in apartments in each of those neighborhoods, which offered their own sightseeing but we were still only an Uber ride away from the main sights.

Shoprite for food – “Shoprite” is Southern Africa’s affordable supermarket. Other grocery stores in Cape Town are Checkers, Pick n Pay, Spar, and Woolworths (in order of increasing cost). Checkers is comparable to Shoprite; however, some “hyperstores” are as big as a Super Walmart in the United States. Pick n Pay and Spar are mid-range grocery stores, while Woolworths is the up-market, “fancy” brand. We preferred shopping at Pick n Pay, as the prices were reasonable and the produce was great.

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There is little reason to wonder why so many people are drawn to Cape Town. The city has almost everything to offer: beaches, food, mountains, wildlife, history, culture, wine, and adventure sports. Exploring Cape Town takes time; life seems to move a little slower in the Cape. The locals enjoy their city’s very laid-back attitude, and you’ll want to do the same. We stayed for two months and still hear about things that we missed. We’re already plotting our eventual return!

Natasha and Cameron run the blog The World Pursuit. They’ve been traveling around the world for a couple of years and, after spending extended time in Cape Town, are taking a 4×4 and through Africa for a year. You can follow their adventures on their blog as well as Twitter and Instagram. 

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