Cape Town Travel Guide
Cape Town is South Africa's crown jewel and the most European city you'll find on the continent. Founded by the Dutch East India Company in 1652, it was South Africa's first attempt at a modern metropolis, earning it the nickname "The Mother City." Because of its strategic location at the southwestern tip of Africa, for centuries it played an important role in global trade. Today it's one of South Africa's three capital cities. The metro area covers 950 square miles and is home to 3.5 million people. The city's setting, a dramatic coastline in the shadow of Table Mountain National Park, is as picturesque as its history is problematic. Like the rest of South Africa, Cape Town is still trying to recover from the apartheid era which ended in 1994. While crime and corruption are still issues, in 2010 the city helped host the FIFA World Cup and tourism has only grown since then.
Best Time to Go
Cape Town is worth visiting year-round. That said, it looks different each season. Late December through March is South Africa's summer. It's when Cape Town is alive with tourists escaping their own winters back home and locals enjoying the gorgeous weather. It's sunny, dry, and warm enough to warrant a dip in the ocean. The city's social calendar is packed with events, and while prices might be higher during this peak season, at least everything is open. If you're looking for lower prices and fewer people, visit during the winter, late June through late September. Pack a raincoat because winter means wet. If your goal is to see whales, check out the Hermanus Whale Festival usually held in late September. However, July and August are also considered great months for whale watching. Finally, the shoulder seasons can be just as unforgettable. Spring, September through early December, is when the wildflowers are in full bloom. Autumn, late March through early June, is thought to be the best time to go cage diving with great white sharks.
Things to Know
Currency: Rand (ZAR)
($1 USD = 14.27 ZAR; Check the current exchange rate)
Tipping: Tipping is greatly appreciated in Cape Town. If the service is good, 10% is customary. Sometimes gratuity is added at restaurants, especially for groups, so check your bill before accidentally tipping twice.
Language: Most sources say there are 11 official languages in South Africa (some say 12). Xhosa, English, and Afrikaans are among the most spoken. That said, most people speak English, and all signs in Cape Town are in English. There's no need for Google Translate. However, it can be helpful to know a few common terms.
Lekker: great or nice; "That was a lekker surf session."
Braai: outdoor barbecue; "If you're lucky, locals will invite you to their weekend braai."
Bru: friend/pal; "My bru works at a winery in Stellenbosch."
Calling Code: +27 21
Outlets: South Africa uses type C,D,M, and N plugs. Pack an adapter or be prepared to buy one in Cape Town. The voltage is 230V and standard frequency is 50Hz. So, you may also need to buy a converter if you're using an appliance requiring more voltage.
How to Get Around
Trains: Cape Town's trains exist as the Metrorail, but they're not particularly reliable. If you ask locals, they can also be unsafe. It's not recommended to ride them alone, especially at night. If you do want to take one, the most popular line is the South line running to Simon's Town. Tickets can be purchased at stations or from Metrorail officials with portable ticket machines.
Buses: While there are several local buses and minibuses, basically vans shuttling commuters, the best buses for visitors are the MyCiTi buses. They connect with the airport and serve scheduled stops in high traffic tourist areas. Fares are loaded onto myconnect cards which can be purchased at station kiosks and select retailers and ATMs. Another option is the City Sightseeing Bus. These Hop-On-Hop-Off buses also make scheduled stops at popular tourist destinations and include commentary in 15 languages. The Red Line covers the northern part of Cape Town, and the Blue Line goes all the way to Hout Bay in the south. Tickets can be purchased online.
Taxis/Rideshare: Ubers are everywhere in Cape Town. They're reliable, safe and extremely affordable. A 45-minute Uber from downtown Cape Town to a Muizenberg can cost as little as $12. They also service the airport. If you don't have Uber and want to use a traditional taxi, try to use a call ahead car service that is verified.
Things to Do
Neighborhoods to Know
City Bowl: Nestled in a natural depression between the coast, Table Mountain and Signal Hill, City Bowl is the heart of Cape Town. It's home to the central business district, impressive municipal buildings, and several of Cape Town's oldest and most Insta-worthy streets. There's the well-preserved Dutch colonial architecture on Long Street, the colored houses lining the hills of the Bo-Kaap, and the V&A where you can paddleboard on canals winding through the bustling waterfront district.
Cape Flats: Although most tourists never step foot here, it would be remiss not to mention the Cape Flats. This lowland area is home to Cape Town's most infamous suburbs or townships. It's where the black and colored populations were forced to relocate during the Apartheid years. Although it's a bit off-the-beaten tourist path, it is possible to visit the townships with a guide and learn about life in them with the locals. Most visitors start with a walking tour of Imizamo Yethu in Hout Bay.
Atlantic Seaboard: Informally called Cape Town's Riviera, the Atlantic Seaboard is a string of oceanfront communities on Cape Town's west coast. This is where one finds the fanciest hotels (mostly boutique properties although there are chains like Radisson), high-rise luxury condos for rent, and of course the eye-catching mansions belonging to Cape Town's elite. Each community, centered around a beach, has its own character from the uber posh Camp's Bay to the fishing village vibes of Hout Bay.
Woodstock: Technically a part of City Bowl, Woodstock is like Cape Town's answer to Williamsburg in Brooklyn. If you're interested in art, theater or anything hipsters like, this former industrial area is a destination in itself. It's still a little rough around the edges, and you probably shouldn't wander the streets alone at night, but it's not to be missed. If nothing else, in 10 years you can say you visited Woodstock before everyone knew how cool it was and property developers ruined it.
Cape Town has four seasons although they're not as distinct as northern destinations. It has a Mediterranean climate. Summers are dry and not too hot, and winters are rainy, but mild. The highest temperatures occur in February when it can reach the mid-80s°F. The coolest temperatures occur in July when temperatures are typically in the mid-50s°F. June is usually the wettest month with around 14 days of rain. Cape Town is famous for its strong winds. Today, they're good for kitesurfing. Hundreds of years ago they were the cause of many historic shipwrecks.