Cape Town

Cape Town is South Africa’s beautiful playground. With its combination of stunning natural landscapes, the large, culturally diverse population, and bright African sunshine, Cape Town is a place where time slows and life is savored. Every now and then, you’ll catch a sobering glimpse of the extent of the city’s population living below the poverty line, and you’re reminded that transition doesn’t happen overnight. Visitors are bound to feel the all-encompassing warm spirit that transcends any historical hardship, and will gain a fond appreciation of South Africa’s Mother City.

original-capetown-banner-crop-2019.jpg

Photo by Marcreation/Unsplash

Overview

When’s the best time to go to Cape Town?

Cape Town has a Mediterranean climate and is an enjoyable place to visit year-round. In the summer (November–January), be prepared for dry, hot days. Late August through September sees the arrival of bountiful, colorful flowers in the Western Cape. February may be warm, but the strong wind known as the Cape Doctor picks up and can make for rough seas and unpredictable weather on Table Mountain. March is a pleasant time to visit, when a small amount of autumn foliage is visible and days are sunny and comfortable. If sightseeing in the winter, pack your umbrella and waterproof fleece, because it’s likely you’ll see rain showers during your visit.

How to get around Cape Town

Some major airlines (KLM, Emirates, Virgin Atlantic, and South African Airways) fly direct to Cape Town from Europe, while others will require you to transfer in Johannesburg. Give yourself at least two hours for this transfer, so you’ll have time to pass through immigration, collect your bags, recheck them after customs, and then proceed to board your domestic flight to Cape Town. Cape Town International Airport is located 12 miles (20 kilometers) east of the city center. Options for transport include the MyCiTi Bus, rental cars, or metered cabs. Some cabs will negotiate a flat rate, but will run around R300 to R400 (between $21 and $28) to get there.

Though most Capetonians drive everywhere, Cape Town is an extremely walkable city. If you’re short on time, you’ll likely spend most of it in the City Bowl, the part of central Cape Town encapsulated by Table Mountain. With more time to explore, branch out and visit the variety of suburbs surrounding the city and down the Cape Peninsula. Some, such as Hout Bay, are easier accessed by car, and others, like Kalk Bay, are a scenic train ride away. Most shops, hotels, and bars are located on or near Long Street and at the V&A Waterfront. Walking is generally safe, but the city center can be very quiet on the weekends, so stick to the main roads. A bicycle is a great way to get around, and dedicated bike paths are being created. Public transport is usually safe to use during the day, especially during commuting hours. Minibus taxis can be a cramped and hair-raising experience, but they’re a cheap way to travel from the Southern Suburbs into the City Bowl. The Golden Arrow buses run along the same route. MetroRail trains run regularly and offer a choice of fare—first or third class (with no major difference in comfort). When driving a rental car, remember to drive on the left. Stoplights operate the way American lights do but are called “robots.” Park your rental car in a secure, gated area overnight (if possible), and never leave belongings or valuables visible. Car guards work in most parking areas and streets, so don’t forget to carry some small change for a tip when you return (up to R10, around 70 cents).

Can’t miss things to do in Cape Town

It’s hard not to notice the large population living in poverty in Cape Town. As visitors, there is a natural curiosity about what life is like in a city township. While it’s not recommended to visit a township your own, you can book tours with responsible providers who employ local township residents to guide small groups on insightful, interactive visits. Simon’s Town, a small port directly outside of Cape Town, was long connected to the slave trade and a tour by AFAR’s partner, Context Tours, can illuminate through the charming town’s (and South Africa’s) dark past.

Food and drink to try in Cape Town

Cape Town is, without a doubt, the culinary capital of South Africa. With such a diverse mix of cultures colliding in this city, this is not the time to go on a diet. The standard international fares are available, but be sure to try local delicacies such as juicy karoo lamb, along with South Africa’s best local wines, perhaps a rich pinot noir or fruity chenin blanc. South African dishes include bobotie (an eggy, savory curried meat dish) or potjiekos (a beef or vegetable stew cooked in a cast-iron pot over a fire). If staying with friends or relatives, you’ll likely be invited to a braai (BBQ) and have a chance to try boerwors, which are long, round sausages. For dessert, try the malva pudding (rich, sticky, and sweet) or the melk tart (creamy custard pie). Biltong, when done right, is the most savory and tender beef jerky you’ll ever have. Craft beer is surging in popularity. You might want to take home a bottle of Amarula, a sweet liquor made from the marula fruit and the essential ingredient of the Springbok shooter (shot), a must-try for first-time visitors in South Africa.

Culture in Cape Town

A multicultural melting pot, Cape Town is rich in cultural highlights, with facets ranging from politics to design to sports. First, discover how apartheid laws changed the landscape of Cape Town by visiting the District Six museum, named after the area where more than 60,000 people were forcibly removed from the city. Next, take the ferry to Robben Island and tour the facility with a former prison inmate to see where Nelson Mandela and other famous political exiles spent their days at back-breaking work in the quarry. Walk through the Bo Kaap neighborhood, filled with colorful row houses and steeped in the culture of the Cape Malay (one of many ethnic groups you’ll encounter in the city). Cheer on the Ajax Cape Town football team at the Green Point Stadium, a landmark from South Africa’s 2010 World Cup games. Similarly, take in a cricket or rugby game at the sporting venues in Newlands in the Southern Suburbs.

There is always something going on in Cape Town, though the winter months (June–September) are quieter. Family events include the South African Navy Festival in April, which allows visitors to tour South African naval ships for free in Simonstown, and the Hermanus Whale Festival in September. Two large sporting events are the Two Oceans Marathon (Easter weekend) and the Cape Argus Cycle Tour (early March). While it’s fun to attend an event like the Good Food & Wine Show (May), the real fun begins when you go to food and wine festivals in the winelands. Harvest season runs from February on and is a great excuse to explore this region for several days. Music festivals include Oppikoppi (August), Rocking the Daisies (September-October), Flamjangled Tea Party (March), and Greenpop’s ReforestFest (May), typically three-day events with live music and overnight camping. For the more advanced festivalgoer, South Africa’s very own Burning Man festival, called Afrikaburn, is held in the Karoo desert annually.

Local travel tips for Cape Town

The pace of life slows more than usual a couple of weeks before and after the Christmas holiday season. Book the Robben Island ferry way in advance to avoid disappointment. Table Mountain is cheaper in the summer, with the promotional “half-price after sunset” discount. Three wineries is enough for a day of winetasting. Any more than that, and you’re bound to feel overwhelmed (and by overwhelmed, we mean drunk).

Guide Editor

Read Before You Go
Memorable gardens thrive on nearly every continent, in cities, deserts, and even in the Arctic Circle. Here’s a global tour, with stops at 13 of the most striking.
Hotels
These hotel pools around the globe are worth building a trip around.
Omer Acar, the CEO Raffles and Fairmont, shares his vision behind the recent growth of both luxury hotel brands and talks about what great hospitality truly means. (Spoiler alert: It’s all about people.)
On the heels of a stunning renovation under Fairmont Hotels & Resorts, Cape Grace is back—and it’s better than ever.
At these rental properties around the world, you can commune with wildlife and farm animals.
These five concierges in Paris, Hong Kong, Cape Town, London, and Marrakech reveal their favorite city itineraries that they usually only share with guests.
Hotels can introduce their guests to the creativity that surrounds them—and reveal canvases visitors may not otherwise see.
The next trend in lodging? The B&B&B (bed and breakfast and bicycle). Here are our picks for where to try it first.
There’s one for every travel need, whether you’re searching for the best beer in a new city or want to propose to your significant other far from home.
Resources to help plan your trip
Local flavors, stunning views, and fine wines: Cape Town has far more than these great experiences, but start here. Active travelers will delight in the number of outdoor experiences by land and sea. Travelers focused on culture will enjoy the variety of local markets and dining options. These are the activities you can’t miss before departing Cape Town.
Make the most of your visit in outdoorsy Sea Point, buzzing City Bowl, the picturesque V&A Waterfront, and hip Woodstock.
Fitting the best of the city’s cosmopolitan shopping and dining, natural landmarks, creative vibes, and historical heritage into one day is ambitious but not impossible. The day should include a way to experience South Africa’s unique beauty with trip to Table Mountain and to Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden, a chance to taste its multicultural cuisine (along with a glass of Cape wine, of course), a scenic drive to a sunny beach, a stop by some shops and galleries in Woodstock, Bo Kaap, or on Bree Street, and a chance to honor the city’s history and culture.
There are so many cafes in Cape Town, it’s not hard to find a place for brunch on the weekends or during the work week. A classic breakfast in Cape Town features eggs, slices of broiled tomato, Canadian-style bacon, and toast or pastries. Fresh fruit, granola and yogurt is also a common choice. For a local delicacy, try buttermilk rusks, which are best eaten after dipping for a few seconds in your morning coffee. These brunch spots will start your full day of sightseeing in Cape Town off right.
Cape Town is located in the Cape Floral Kingdom, and is a biodiversity hotspot. The peninsula is dotted with public parks and nature reserves for everyone to enjoy. The best time of year to visit is during the springtime, when the fynbos and flowers are in bloom. In the peak of summer, hot and dry conditions can lead to wildfires on the mountains, so be sure to check with the SANParks website for the latest conditions.
These Cape Town markets peddle everything from native crafts and flea market goodies to artisanal food, local designs, and fresh flowers. Some pop up weekly in neighborhood squares, others operate full-time in airy refurbished warehouses, others are in luxury malls, but what they have in common is that they all sell authentic local flavor.
Namibia offers the opportunity to disconnect, which makes it an alluring destination. In the developed south, you’ll pass farmlands and fields. In the north, you’ll discover the special people and species who have adapted to life in this harsh desert environment. The best way to experience Namibia is to rent a 4x4 and zigzag your way across this vast country. With only three people per square kilometer, you may well have the whole place to yourself.
Botswana is a stable and prosperous African country. Thirty-eight percent of the country’s land has been set aside for conservation. Ride in a mokoro in Chobe National Park to view hippos, crocodiles, and elephants up close. Spend a night sleeping under the stars in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. Learn basket weaving from the Wayeyi people in the Okavango Delta. These are the unique ways travelers can connect with Botswana’s people and wildlife.
Climate change, human encroachment, and poaching threaten the survival of Southern Africa’s wildlife. Government officials, non-profit organizations, and private partners are working together to ensure large swaths of land are set aside in order to reduce human-wildlife conflict and provide wildlife with room to roam. Here are the projects and lodges which are working to make a positive difference in the ecosystems they operate within.
Rent a 4x4 and spend a month off the beaten tourist path. Eat curry in Durban, walk with elephants on the Garden Route, and surf in Cape Town. Camp at the Fish River Canyon and climb dunes in the Namib Desert. Safari in Etosha and swim with crocs in the Okavango River. Fly over Victoria Falls, look for lions in Hwange, and go tiger fishing at Lake Kariba. Ride a quad through the Makgadikgadi Pans. Sleep under the stars in the Kalahari and then visit Soweto in Johannesburg before flying home.
Our favorite shopping day in Cape Town centers around two great artisanal markets in the neighborhood of Woodstock, The Old Biscuit Mill and the Woodstock Exchange. By a great stroke of luck, they are only a stroll apart. Here are some of our favorites stops within them.
For a different stay in Cape Town, seek out boutique hotels and bed and breakfasts with exceptional hospitality. Along the coastline, you’ll find boutique lodges that feature uninterrupted views of the Atlantic Ocean. You can be sure that by the end of your stay at these hotels, the staff will know you on a first name basis.
Sign up for our newsletter
Join more than a million of the world’s best travelers. Subscribe to the Daily Wander newsletter.