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Cape Town is one of the most visually spectacular and culturally unique cities I have ever visited. It’s the cornerstone of a South Africa trip and a city you’ll be raving about afterwards to everyone you meet.
Even so, it can take a bit of a learning curve to really get into Cape Town. Its charms beyond its natural beauty aren’t as obvious, and it isn’t as easy to navigate as a typical European city. It actually took three visits (!) before I truly fell in love with Cape Town.
I want it to happen faster for you. I want you to fall in love on your first trip! So I decided to create an extensive guide that will help you have the best trip possible and show you some off-the-beaten-path activities as well.
When putting together this guide, I included the popular activities that most visitors do — like Table Mountain, Boulders Beach, and the V&A Waterfront — along with quirky additions like the District Six Museum and some of my favorite Capetonian designers.
Go to the Top of Table Mountain
This should be your top priority in Cape Town. Why? Table Mountain is often covered in thick clouds — locals call it The Tablecloth — and it’s pointless to go then as you won’t see anything. As soon as you see that it’s going to be a clear day, go to the mountain immediately! You might not have another chance.
The cable car will take you to the top, a well-traversed area where you can explore and take lots of photos. And as soon as you’ll arrive, you’ll be spellbound at being surrounded by 360 degrees of natural beauty.
Keep an eye out for the dassie, a critter that looks like a roly-poly guinea pig. His closest relative is the African elephant! (Don’t actually cuddle or touch the dassie, though. Respect the wildlife up here — both animals and plants.)
You’ll get some of the best pictures of your trip on Table Mountain. You might want to wear something that looks good on you.
Photography-wise, keep in mind that the best views of Lion’s Head and Cape Town are in the morning and the best views of the mountains are in the afternoon.
Table Mountain is free to visit, but tickets on the cableway cost 240/125 rand ($16.50/$8.50) round-trip/one-way. Book your tickets online before you arrive and you’ll get to skip the long line.
You can also hike up Table Mountain. Several trails are available ranging from easy to hard.
Get Caffeinated with a Steampunk Twist at Truth Coffee Roasting
In downtown Cape Town, you step into what looks like a typical (if enormous) coffee shop and quickly realize that something’s up. Props within the restaurant are pulled from the Victorian era. The staff are decked out in top hats, vests, and peasant blouses with metallic accoutrements. And there’s a giant blimp in the back of the room.
Ladies and gentlemen, may I introduce Truth Coffee Roasting. It’s a coffeeshop serving up some of the city’s best java — with a steampunk twist. I’m not even a steampunk person, but I loved every minute I spent there.
Beth and I are coffee people, and we liked it so much here, we came two days in a row. (And during the first time, I got a text from a friend saying, “Go to Truth Coffee!” “I’M LITERALLY HERE RIGHT NOW!” I replied with glee.)
A lot of places have great coffee but a mediocre atmosphere, or vice versa. Truth is the rare place that does both extremely well.
Truth Coffee has coffee, pastries, and a light menu for lunch as well. Don’t miss the bathrooms!
Join a Trivia Night
I have to give a shout-out to my reader Joshua for giving me this idea. Trivia or pub quizzes are a great way to delve into the local culture, and Cape Town is no exception. I’ve done trivia/pub quizzes in lots of places, but always as the guest of local friends — this was my first time solely as a traveler!
Beth and I joined the Monday night trivia at Oblivion. After getting a perfect score in the first category of Famous Roads (the only team to get a perfect score, and it had two questions targeted at South Africans, and we had chosen that category for double points!), we got a little full of ourselves. “We’re going to win. They’re going to hate us. They’re SO going to hate us,” we whispered to each other, giggling.
Well, then came the categories of South African Craft Beers and Famous Golfers (Beth answered “Tiger Woods, Lion Forest, Panther Jungle, Leopard Sylvain” for those categories), and we did surprisingly bad on World War II history (Me: “I hope there’s a question about Midway.” Beth: “Why?” Me: “You and Alexa did that big project on Midway in high school.” Beth: “Oh, I forgot about that!” Me: “Uh-oh.”).
We ended up finishing in the top two thirds. Not too shabby for a pair of foreigners.
Some of Cape Town’s trivia nights are:
Wednesday: JC Brasserie and Pub
Thursday: Firemans Arms
Wherever you choose, make sure to call ahead. Many of these trivia nights are popular and will be fully booked. Some cost money, but rarely more than what you’d pay for a drink.
See Cape Town from a Helicopter
Cape Town is one of the best cities to see by helicopter, if not the best. (My other picks: Sydney, New York, London, Hong Kong, and while I haven’t been to the final two, Rio de Janeiro and Vancouver.)
Cape Town is a spectacularly set city, and a helicopter ride will show you new views of Table Mountain, Lion’s Head, the 12 Apostles, lots of beach towns, and that unmistakable stadium.
Just take a look:
For this trip, I perused operators and chose to go with NAC Helicopters, then emailed them and they offered Beth and me a complimentary Hopper Tour flight.
The Hopper Tour covers the immediate area surrounding Cape Town, toward the 12 Apostles and back. While there are lots of tour options from NAC, from Cape Point to Robben Island, I don’t think you can’t beat the beauty of a Hopper Tour.
Our captain was excellent, professional and friendly, pointing out sights and telling stories along the way. And when we touched down, we celebrated with a champagne toast.
I highly recommend looking at the forecast and booking your flight for the best weather day possible. For the best light, go in the late afternoon. Our appointment was in July (winter) at 4:30 PM. Ask the staff if you’re not sure which time is best.
You’ll be shooting through glass, so wear dark colors and shoot slightly downward rather than straight ahead to avoid glare.
NAC Helicopters offers a variety of scenic flights. We took the Hopper Tour, which covers the city and prices per helicopter: from 2810 rand ($196) for up to 3 people to 5610 rand ($391) for up to six people.
Spend a Fabulous Afternoon in Camps Bay
I can’t believe it took me three trips to get to Camps Bay — it’s now my favorite neighborhood in Cape Town!
Camps Bay is home to white buildings, super-tall palm trees, and sunshine. Does it sound like Southern California to you, too? Beth thought it looked like Malibu. I got major Santa Monica vibes.
Camps Bay isn’t a place you come for sightseeing — it’s a place to hang out. For the two of us, that meant ordering some wine and a cheese plate in lieu of a meal.
This was a great place to spend an afternoon, and on my next visit to Cape Town, I hope to stay in Camps Bay. It would be a different kind of trip, that’s for sure!
We stopped at Blues Restaurant for wine and cheese on a balcony overlooking the beach.
Explore the V&A Waterfront
Cape Town isn’t the kind of city where you fight your way through tourist crowds — but the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront is easily the most touristy place in the city.
The V&A Waterfront is what you’d get if you combined Boston’s Faneuil Hall Marketplace, San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, and Chicago’s Navy Pier.
You can shop for anything, enjoy a variety of restaurants, ride the Ferris Wheel, visit the aquarium, take pictures of Table Mountain if the weather is cooperating, visit museums, jump on a harbor cruise, and get some gorgeous sunset views.
Take the CitySightseeing Bus
As I wrote in my Johannesburg post, taking the hop-on-hop-off bus can be hit or miss — but I think it’s so worth it in Cape Town because you travel along the gorgeous coastline! Sit on top of the open bus and admire the mountains and crashing waves.
I especially recommend going straight from Table Mountain to Camps Bay, taking a break in the sun, then riding it to the V&A Waterfront, taking in all the beachy neighborhoods along the way.
Citysightseeing Cape Town offers one-day tickets from 170 rand ($12) and two-day tickets from 270 rand ($18). Tickets come with perks like a free harbor cruise, free Bo-Kaap walking tour, and discounts on other tours.
Stroll Through Colorful Bo-Kaap
Bo-Kaap is that brightly colored neighborhood that you see all over Instagram! Home to a Cape Malay population, Bo-Kaap is home to mosques, spice shops, and the most colorful houses in all of Cape Town. (Though be warned — they’re a lot harder to photograph than I thought they would be.)
While I’ve explored Bo-Kaap independently, it can get a bit dicey, especially in the late afternoon. Be careful with your valuables and keep your camera in your bag unless you’re actively taking photos. Locals keep an eye out for visitors. Even so, I highly recommend going with a tour so you have that added layer of security.
Alternatively, take a Cape Malay cooking class from The Bo-Kaap Cooking Tour for 700 rand ($49), or a neighborhood tour and Cape Malay lunch for 400 rand ($28).
Don’t visit Bo-Kaap in the late afternoon; this is a popular time for crime in the neighborhood.
Check Out the District Six Museum
I love visiting small museums that focus on a specific theme, and the District Six Museum focuses on one Cape Town neighborhood that was destroyed in the name of apartheid.
District Six was a vibrant, multicultural, artistic neighborhood. While the first black South Africans were removed in the early 1900s, it was inhabited by whites, Asians, and coloreds (a non-derogatory term meaning mixed race) until it was declared a white-only area in 1966. More than 70,000 people were forcibly removed and in 1982, the neighborhood was bulldozed.
This museum is a collection of artifacts and stories of the neighborhood, suspended in time. The most recent photos are from the 1970s, with incredible fashion and hair. I think you’d have to be made of stone if the stories of District Six didn’t climb into your heart.
I found the District Six Museum to be a perfect counterpoint to the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg. While the Apartheid Museum focused on the complete, unabridged history of apartheid — the macro study of apartheid — the District Six Museum was the micro study, focusing on how apartheid affected one specific neighborhood in Cape Town.
Admission to the District Six Museum is 30 rand ($2) for an independent visit, 45 rand ($3) for a guided tour with a former resident.
It’s across the street from Truth Coffee Roasting, so I recommend visiting both in succession.
Dive into Quirky Cuisine at the Pot Luck Club
If you’re researching restaurants in Cape Town, you’ll likely come across The Test Kitchen — then realize that you have no chance in hell of getting a table. However, a fabulous alternative is The Pot Luck Club, specializing in small plate divided by taste profile (sweet, salty, sour, bitter, umami).
Located in an industrial loft in the Old Biscuit Mill in Woodstock, this place epitomizes cool.
Every dish was outstanding. My favorite dish was the Chalmer beef filet with black pepper and truffle café au lait; Beth’s favorite was the Korean fried cauliflower with amansi and miso dip with pickles. The cheese plate was the best we had in South Africa (and, um, we had a lot of cheese plates in South Africa). Other standouts were the ceviche, springbok carpaccio, and chickpea fries…
Our waitress recommended the Pineapple Cosmo and while I rarely go for sweet drinks, it was one of the best cocktails I have ever had. Dangerously smooth.
The kitchen is open here, and having worked in restaurants, I was flabbergasted at how quiet, polite, and civilized it was (kitchens are known for being…let’s say loud). Grab a bar seat in front of the kitchen for great views as they create meals. You’ll soon learn how much of a perfectionist Chef is.
Book reservations online here. Dinner seatings are at 6:00 PM and 8:30 PM only; some days have lunch seatings.
See the Penguins at Boulders Beach
Yes, you can see penguins in South Africa! Boulders Beach, just outside Cape Town in nearby Simonstown, is a protected area home to dozens if not hundreds of penguins year-round. Tourists are allowed to walk along a deck that traverses the penguin areas.
Penguins are some of the funniest animals to watch. They’re social, they’re goofy, they’re endlessly photogenic — and on this trip, I learned that they can SURF!
Like the dassie, please don’t touch the penguins or invade their space. Capture them with your heart — and camera.
Visiting Boulders Beach costs 65 rand ($4.50) for adults and 35 rand ($2.50) for children.
I recommend renting a car and spending a day exploring the Cape Peninsula. If you’d rather not drive, there are tons of half- and full-day group tours that include Boulders Beach. Do this in tandem with Cape Point.
Visit Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope
We all had that unit in school when we learned about the Cape of Good Hope, that temperamental piece of land that brought bad weather to Vasco de Gama and so many other explorers. Well, Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope are just outside Cape Town and Cape Point happens to be the southwesternmost point on the African continent!
Aside from the bragging rights, this is a beautiful place to photograph. You need to be careful, though. As you can see, the light isn’t great in this photo — that’s because I took it in the late afternoon, not long before sunset. For the best light on the Cape of Good Hope, you’re best off visiting in the morning.
Cape Point is free to visit if you walk up the stairs, but there’s also a funicular that costs 48/58 rand ($3/4) for one-way/return trips. Admission to the Cape of Good Hope is 125 rand ($9).
I recommend renting a car and spending a day exploring the Cape Peninsula. If you’d rather not drive, there are tons of half- and full-day group tours that include Cape Point. Do this in tandem with Boulders Beach.
Buy Souvenirs From South African Designers
Forget a t-shirt or shot glass with Table Mountain on it — Cape Town is brimming with excellent designers. Bright colors and vibrant patterns are staples of African design, so this is the place to buy a standout piece of art, fashion, or housewares.
If you’re looking for a gorgeous African souvenir to bring home (or to stock up on Christmas gifts for your family), stop by Carole Nevin‘s shop at the V&A Waterfront. Here you’ll find gorgeous tablecloths, table runners, placemats, napkins (they call them serviettes), aprons, and more.
I picked up some placemats for my home, pictured above. They look like a sunset.
If you’re looking for something for a man (and we all know how hard men are to shop for), check out Nic Harry. He has a collection of bright patterned bamboo socks, plus some other accessories for men.
And finally, check out the Watershed at the V&A Waterfront. It’s full of booths from independent artists. I found the perfect gift for my friends’ new baby — an adorable pink-and-yellow-patterned stuffed elephant.
Carole Nevin is located in the shopping center at the V&A Waterfront; there’s a factory shop in the Eastlake neighborhood of Cape Town as well. The Watershed is one of the outer buildings at the waterfront. Nic Harry has a kiosk in the shopping center at the V&A Waterfront as well as a full store on Wale Street downtown.
Visit Robben Island
This last one is a wistful addition to the list. I couldn’t fit Robben Island into my first two trips, and on the third, our ferry was canceled due to weather. So I haven’t been yet — but you should make the effort to go as well.
Robben Island was home to a political prison, and Nelson Mandela was imprisoned here for 23 years. Today you can visit the prison — including Mandela’s cell — and hear the stories of your guides, who were once Robben Island prisoners themselves. This is yet another piece of South Africa’s history, and it doubles as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Robben Island tours include the ferry and must be booked in advance. They tend to book up quickly, so be sure to make your reservation ASAP. Tours cost 320 rand ($22), include transportation from the V&A Waterfront, and last three hours.
Other Activities in Cape Town
But wait, there’s more! Here are more activities that I haven’t personally tried myself (with the exception of blokarting) that deserve to be included in a full Cape Town guide.
Go wine tasting in Constantia. I actually recommend spending a few days in the Stellenbosch wine region, about an hour from Cape Town, but if that’s not an option, CitySightseeing offers a wine route where you can taste at a few cellars in nearby Constantia. 1-day tours from 170 rand ($12) for adults; tastings cost extra but are rarely above 150 rand ($10). More info here.
Learn how to Blokart. It’s a hybrid of go-carting and sailing! Vault yourself across the beach in a wheeled cart with a sail you control. (This will always be the place I gashed my knee open in 2012, but follow the instructors’ advice and you should have better luck than me!) 200 rand ($14) for 30 minutes, 300 rand ($28) for 60 minutes. More info here.
Visit a township — but do your research first. While visiting townships can be interesting, most of the tours are designed to showcase the reality of South Africa’s poorest (almost always black) for the enjoyment of the naive, privileged tourists (almost always white). Some companies work in a responsible way, however, and I’ve heard consistently good things about AWOL Tours. Tours from 950 rand ($66) per person.
Go surfing at Muizenberg Beach. Muizenberg is the surf zone of Cape Town — just don’t forget a wetsuit for the chilly waters! Rental shops are available throughout Muizenberg Beach. Lessons available from Gary’s Surf School from 400 rand ($28) per person, and from Surf Shack and Surf Emporium from 360 rand ($25) per person. Get dinner at Tiger’s Milk afterward. Their bacon-avo-feta pizza sounds weird, but it works.
Go paragliding off Lion’s Head. If you’re looking for an adrenaline rush, this is the ultimate Cape Town adventure — plus selfies to make your friends jealous! Tandem flights from 1150 rand ($80), photos 250 rand ($17). More info here.
Cage dive with great white sharks. It’s a bit of a ways outside Cape Town, but can be done as a day trip! Jump into a cage in chilly waters and get face to face with these beautiful and terrifying creatures. Packages available from White Shark Diving Company, Apex Shark Expeditions, and White Shark Ventures from 1750 rand ($122), including Cape Town transfer.
Safety in Cape Town
Cape Town is a city where you should have your guard up — more so than in popular American and European cities. That said, you shouldn’t let it scare you away from visiting, even if you’re a solo female traveler.
I personally have had zero incidents happen on my three trips to Cape Town, including when traveling solo, and I attribute that to heeding locals’ advice and being more conscientious than usual. Will you find these tips excessively cautious? You might — but I don’t think you should take chances when you’re new to this city.
While you should practice travel safety wherever you go (see my top 10 travel safety tips), here are my top recommendations for staying safe in Cape Town:
The V&A Waterfront is the only place where you should be walking around at night. This area is heavily policed and has a ton of cameras. Otherwise, take taxis or Ubers. If you’re in a bar or restaurant a few blocks or less from your accommodation, ask a staff member whether you should walk alone.
Know that late afternoon can be a popular time for petty crime. Not everywhere — but some Cape Town neighborhoods, including Bo-Kaap, tend to have more crimes take place during the late afternoon hours. If you’re in one of these neighborhoods, the locals will tell you that you should get going.
Know that panhandlers will often follow you if you don’t give them money. This happens throughout South Africa. Don’t be scared. Just continue walking and ignoring them and they will eventually leave.
Don’t visit a township independently. If you choose to visit a township, only go with a guide.
Get around with UberBLACK. Uber was a game-changer for South Africans — it made it possible to get reliable taxis. While UberX is dirt cheap, UberBLACK is staffed by professional drivers. Rides on UberBLACK cost twice as much as UberX, but they’re still cheap enough to be worth it.
Get a SIM card with data. This will allow you to summon Ubers and find your way around the city. Vodacom stores are everywhere and they provide great coverage within Cape Town. I paid about $20 for 5 GB of data. (I’m a heavy data user, due in part to Snapchat videos, and I tend to go through about 1.5 GB per week.) You’ll need your passport when you get the card.
Lock up your valuables in a portable safe in your hotel room. Fill it with your passport and any valuables you don’t take out with you each day — computer, external hard drive, jewelry, etc. — and lock it to the sturdiest thing in your room, ideally a pipe. This is the one I use. Don’t forget a padlock, too.
Get travel insurance. If you get robbed or injured, travel insurance can cover you in your time of need. I use and recommend World Nomads.
Where to Stay in Cape Town
I’ve stayed in accommodation all over the city, at different price points, from backpackery to quirky to posh. This time, I stayed in a place that’s perfect for mid-range travelers: the Doubletree Cape Town (full name: Doubletree by Hilton Cape Town Upper Eastside). We were guests of the hotel.
A sleek, mid-range hotel with lots of cool design, from a giant chandelier in the lobby to pink footsteps outlined on the rugs the Doubletree is so comfortable, which is exactly what Beth and I needed after coming straight from safari. (It wasn’t without a few layout quirks, though — we could never figure out which light switch was which, and it was odd that the outlets took every kind of plug except North American.)
In fact, the first night we just stayed in the hotel and ordered Nando’s delivery! Nando’s, along with other restaurants, will deliver to the hotel through OrderIn.co.za. We got spicy chicken and watched terrible movies. It was awesome.
The Woodstock neighborhood may look a bit out of the way on the map, but look at that view from our window! Plus, it’s close to the Old Biscuit Mill (for the restaurants) and we rarely paid more than $6 for an Uber ride. They also have a free shuttle a few times per day to the V&A Waterfront. A hot breakfast was included, including custom omelets that we got every day.
And on our last night, we met some excellent wine guys downstairs in the hotel bar. They’re regulars there. If you run into a crazy guy named Dean who reminds you a bit of Rob Corddry and is sipping a Very Sexy Shiraz (it’s an actual wine), tell him Kate and Beth say hi!
Rates at the Doubletree Cape Town from 1500 rand ($104). I recommend signing up as a Hilton HHonors member; it costs nothing, earns you points, and you’ll be on a private floor for HH members.
Some of my other favorite Cape Town accommodation:
If you’re looking for a hostel or low-budget option, I highly recommend Atlantic Point Backpackers. It’s comfortable, friendly, and a great place to meet fellow travelers.
If you’re looking for a high luxury option close to the waterfront, the Queen Victoria Hotel ticks all the boxes. Everything is white and cool and I pretend I’m fancy enough to be there.
And if you’re visiting in the warmer months, the rooftop trailer park at the Grand Daddy Hotel is the ultimate quirky Cape Town accommodation. I loved staying overnight in my own themed Airstream trailer!