South Africa Travel: Cape Town Travel Guide
Cosmopolitan is how the locals describe this rare city. Nature and structure work hand in hand to create one of the most spectacular settings in the world.
Historically rich, Cape Town is one of the few cities in South Africa that has saved and maintained many of its old buildings. Old and new blend together to form a compact and walking friendly city centre.
Table mountain, the backdrop for the city, is breathtaking to behold. A renegade splinter of the countries famed fold mountains, it stands in the centre of the city hugging the ocean on one side and stretching out the other towards the wine vineyards.
350 years old, the city and surrounding suburbs cling to the slopes which abruptly sink into the sea but not before providing spectacular beaches that circle the peninsula. The cold Atlantic ocean makes swimming a quick affair but doesn’t detract from the beach going culture that possesses Capetonians in the summer season.
Restaurants and café’s are in huge supply in the city and surrounds. Camps Bay, a page out of the lifestyles of the rich and famous, provides an atmosphere not unlike South Beach Miami with bikini clad people spilling into the street from the trendy bars and café’s that are perfectly situated for balmy sunsets and long evening walks.
Not forgetting the counties unsavoury past, the division between rich and poor is marked. Landing at Cape Town international, the first sight you see upon leaving the airport are the infamous squatter camps that line the national N2 highway. A result of segregation, these informal settlements look bleak and are riddled with criminal elements but when visited provide an exciting window into the countries positive future.
Since 1994 great efforts have been made to make the living conditions bearable and today all shacks have access to toilets, sanitation, electricity, telephones and, believe it or not, postal and refuse services. Not a place to wander around as an unsuspecting tourist, it is strongly advised that you take a professional tour with an experienced guide when entering these areas.
South African wine, well known on the international market flows from the peninsula. Not 20 minutes car ride from the city centre are numbers of beautiful wine estates. Vineyards roll outwards from traditional Cape Dutch homesteads. A sight to behold any time of year.
As a destination Cape Town suits a variety of travel objectives. Fantastic in the summer season for a relaxed, go slow, beach holiday it is the perfect place to unwind but at the other end of the spectrum provides an endless supply of things to see and do that could keep the energetic and inquisitive traveller busy for weeks if not months on end.
When to visit
Cape Town has very distinctive seasons. Summer is hot and dry and winter wet and chilly but both hold their fascinating secrets. If you are looking for sun, great nightlife and partying the peak season from early December to mid January is when you should come. The sun persists well into April and sometimes May and this is a great time to come to avoid the crowds but still get the great African weather.
From May through to October Cape Town goes through ‘the green season’. The rain brings out the green grass and lush vegetation and the common occurrence of wood burning fires in restaurants and houses brings warmth and atmosphere to the wet winters. Nothing beats this time for a romantic getaway. July should be avoided as the rain can sometimes persist for weeks on end.
An exposed city, Cape Town is known for wind. Expect it to blow at some stage no matter when you are there but due to the mammoth mountain in the centre of the city there is always a little cove that can be found out of the wind at any given time.
Some people plan their whole trip to Cape Town around some of the events that are hosted in the city.For excellent and up to date information, access the following site to learn more about these events.
The high season runs from November through to March. Local schools and universities take leave over the month of December, which makes this a very busy period. Expect crowds over this period!
Best times are November, and then Jan to March. Temperatures at this time can go as high as 38º Celsius but averages out at about 30º. Humidity is not an issue due to the cold ocean.
Winter runs from April through to October and is windy and rainy but is called ‘The Green Season’ due to the lush and misty atmosphere and can provide spectacular weeks of crisp winter sun.
Your preference in weather will dictate the most appropriate time to book your holiday. Just make sure that you pack according to the season when you do. Bring a raincoat in winter and a swimsuit in summer!
As with any destination prices fluctuate in and out of season. Expect the most expensive rates from November to January and the most reasonable rates in June to August.
Money and Tipping
The local currency is called the Rand (R.). The notes are popular with foreigners due to the vibrant colour and African animals that adorn them. R1 is divided into 100cents. The exchange rate is very favourable to most foreign tourists and as a destination Cape Town can be considered extremely cheap compared to Europe and the America’s.
South Africa and thus Cape Town has a very well developed banking system and there are major banks all around. There is a highly extensive Auto Teller Machines (ATM) system around the city that allows you access to cash through machine withdrawals. Note that crime around ATM machines can be a problem. Never accept help from anyone and Never draw money in badly lit or quiet areas at night if avoidable. Should the machine jam or swallow your card do not leave the machine and call the emergency number printed on the display immediately to make sure your money is safe.
Traveller’s cheques are accepted in most of the major centres and major credit cards accepted everywhere. Tipping is a way of life in South Africa. The standard rate for tipping waiters is 10% on the total bill and more if the service is great which it often will be, and less if not to your satisfaction (note that in larger groups a service charge is often added automatically).
All filling stations, called petrol stations, are full service, meaning that there is someone who will fill the car for you as well as check oil and water, tyre pressure and clean the windshield. For this service a tip of R5 will be more than enough. Note that credit cards are not accepted at petrol stations, only cash or Garage Cards.
In informal trading situations barter all you like but note that in the formal sector, barter is not generally accepted norm. The price you see is the price you pay. All prices include 14% Value Added Tax and can be claimed back when leaving the country.
So to recap, tipping is common ground. At restaurants and bars 10% is normal. Petrol attendants that fill your car and clean your windshield expect R2 to R5. For porters, R2 to R3 a bag is fine.
The public transport system in Cape Town leaves a lot to be desired. Although serviced with Trains and Busses the system is antiquated and a lot below standard. This is apparently an issue currently being dealt with but for now getting around, as a tourist, is generally reserved to using Meter Taxi’s and renting a car.
There is a well developed system of Mini-bus taxi’s that are reckless to say the least but they are the cheapest and most convenient way of getting around. Merely gesturing your little finger towards them will see them slamming on breaks and cutting across lanes of traffic to pick you up but be ready for a squashed seat, very loud music and a new perspective of driving skills.
The Metered taxi industry is somewhat regulated but all taxi’s should be marked with a yellow taxi light on the roof and the rates should be printed on the outside of the door. The industry standard is R7 per kilometre.
There are many rental agencies at the airport, but in season you can be hard pressed to find a vehicle so book in advance. For more information use the advanced search function on the site, type “car rental”!
Driving in Cape Town can be hair raising to say the least. The roads are very well maintained but are confusing to the novice and we are convinced, designed to get you lost at times. Having said that, once comfortable with the roads it is an easy city to navigate.
South Africans drive on the Left hand side of the road and they tend to drive over the speed limit even though speeding is monitored through cameras and on the spot speed traps. Speed limits vary but are generally 120km/h on highways and 60km/h in residential zones and fines can be hefty, if caught.
Advice is to drive on the limit but stay out of the fast lane to let the speedier locals get past. Capetonians are renowned for over taking on the left on multi-lane roads so beware of this. It is not uncommon to move into the emergency shoulder lane, over the yellow line to let people pass, just make sure you have a clear view up ahead.
Parking in the city is all metered. You can buy an ADO Parking card at most corner shops and café’s and that will work throughout the city and the country. Try and avoid help from informal vendors and don’t park illegally as your car is likely to be towed and/or fined.
Car rental age is 23 and up due to insurance complications so if you are under 23 you will have to pay hefty young driver’s supplement.
Once within the city centre it is easily walkable. The flash map on the opening page shows landmarks that are all easily accessible by foot once in the city centre. Walking from dot to dot will provide an excellent walking tour. Getting from the city to other more outlying areas is not really accessible on foot. Note that as with any city, exercise caution. Do not walk alone at night in badly lit or quiet areas and do not carry all your valuables on you. It is strongly advised that women on their own avoid walking alone at night. Make use of the hotel safe. At night, rather take a metered taxi.
Where to stay in Cape Town
There are so many options in Cape Town. Note that although it is a value for money destination the top end establishments in the city are not shy to charge in line if not more than European and American rates. There is a range of choices from backpacker lodges and hostels to 5 star plus accommodation.
The City Center
This area is the place to stay if you want to be right in the middle of things. Quite small and easily walkable, the city is a vibrant and happening spot. Efforts to decrease crime and bring the city centre to life have been very successful and it is definitely a 24-hour city. To really be in the centre of the action stay on the upper ends of Long and Loop street. These beautiful streets boast old buildings with delicate wrought iron balconies housing restaurants, clubs, businesses and many other interesting delights.
At night be cautious and be aware of the street children that will do anything to steal and rip you off. You will often be offered drugs in a whisper as you walk past however the city is patrolled and cameras film almost every movement so stay clear of them.
This area is best suited to younger travellers that want a cultural stay at street level rather than a plush pampering.
The City Bowl
This area, named after the fact that it forms a giant bowl, the centre of which is the city centre, is fantastic and easily accessible. The best areas are highly recommended for finding a trendy guesthouse or boutique hotel. They include Tamboerskloof, Oranjezicht and Upper Gardens. If you find the right spot the views will be breathtaking and the atmosphere a delight. These areas house young upwardly mobile city slickers that work and play hard. The old buildings and small streets blend together to bring a feeling of solidity and history.
Try stay close to Kloof Street. This windy and steep road is home to countless restaurants, coffee shops and bars, all of which are worth a try.
You will be amazed by some of the views; sometimes they are hard to escape, as Table Mountain looms high in the backdrop with the city stretching out ahead.
This picture perfect, village style, area is home to the gay community in Cape Town. Originally a sector of the Old Malay Quarter or the Bo Kaap, little row houses, once slave cottages, have been snapped up and over restored to way beyond their former glory.
Bright colours and cobbles streets make this place feel very European and cosy. Coffee shops fall into the narrow streets and picture windows look out over Green Point and the ocean in the distance. Certainly not reserved for the gay community this area is recommended if you are looking for something different and accessible. About a 20-minute walk from the city centre and a stones throw from the V&A; Waterfront, this is central enough to get away with seldom, if ever using a taxi.
Green Point and Sea Point
Both of these areas are a little hit and miss. Both have plenty of great options when it comes to accommodation and both are conveniently close to The City and the Waterfront. If you choose to stay here make sure you have thoroughly researched where you are staying. Many Guest Houses, B&B;’s luxury Hotels and other options are there for the taking. Try and stay above (mountain side) of Main Rd, which runs through both areas. The views from both Upper Green Point and Sea Point are also worth taking into consideration if that’s what you are after.
Known colloquially as The Waterfront, the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront Development is a sight to behold. This modern combination of shops and hotels is right in the middle of Cape Town’s busy port. Endless airy and light corridors filled with great shops and at least 6 excellent hotels can be found here. A great place to stay if you want atmosphere and a feeling of being by the ocean. Swirling Seagulls dodge busy tug boats as they carry out their days work.
The accommodation here can be pricey but worth it if that’s what you are looking for. A very safe option, the area is constantly patrolled by security staff and safe to walk around all times of the night and day. You might get a feeling of being in a theme park quite separate from the city. Very popular with foreign visitors, this would be an excellent choice.
The Atlantic Seaboard
Bantry Bay, Clifton, Camps Bay and Llandudno fall under this category. This exquisite route along the Atlantic coastline is nothing less than the African Riviera!! The rich play here and the prices are to match but nothing beats the sea views and the sunsets. A little more secluded than the rest, Llandudno is separated by a scenic drive along the rocky shores. Great for beaches and beautiful people, this is a must if your pockets are deep and you are looking to catch a tan.
Both Bantry Bay and Clifton hang from steep rocks and look straight over the ocean. A thin and winding main road skirted on both sides with apartment after apartment is the only way through these suburbs. Bantry Bay, a hideaway from the, sometimes relentless, prevailing wind is not right on the beaches unlike Clifton and the lower roads of Camps Bay.
Camps Bay is a much bigger suburb, with houses going far up the more accommodating mountain slopes. If you are just after a beach holiday make sure you are not high up on the hill as the walk can be a back breaker after a lazy day of tanning. Even the traffic becomes a bit of a nightmare in summer.
The Southern Suburbs
In the shadows of the back of Table Mountain this is as local as it gets. This is where life just goes on in Cape Town. All very easily accessible by train from the City Centre and within easy driving distance from town this is a great choice for convenience as it is midpoint between most attractions in the peninsula and close to all major routes. For the more expensive choices try Bishopscourt, Newlands and Constantia all of which skirt the back side of Table Mountain. They are all very affluent suburbs that are home to some grand houses that epitomise the grand life.
For a nice comfy guesthouse and a village atmosphere try Harfield Village in Claremont. Situated below the railway line this small area is very homely and has some great restaurants and bars that are an excellent lazy option at the end of a log day of touring the surrounding areas.
Constantia does deserve more mention, as it is a rare find. Nestled on the slopes of the mountain this area was once nothing but rolling vineyards and wine estates. Urban sprawl has seen the area grow but only with the biggest and best of developments but still amongst it all lies a number of excellent wine farms that are open to the public for tasting and wine sales. Breathtakingly beautiful to say the least!
More remote, the following areas offer their own unique taste of Cape Town. In brief:
Hout Bay: Great beach but a little further out of town. A great place to horse ride on the sand dunes or just sit at a seaside pub and have a good meal.
Kommetjie and Scarborough: The place to go if you are looking for a sleepy seaside village away from the hustle and bustle. Both have great beaches and dusty roads. Typical old fishing villages with nothing but relaxation in mind.
Simonstown, St James, Muizenburg: Moving around the Cape Point to False Bay you will find these areas. Scenic and historic these towns are easily accessible by train all the way from the city centre and boast many unique shops and eateries. Try Simonstown for some antique hunting and Muizenburg if you want to learn to surf. A little out of town but still a great option.
Get the latest Cape Town Travel Information online
Because Cape Town is the most popular travel destination in South Africa, it should come as no surprise that so many people visit it, although sometimes it does, because it never seems that busy during quiet periods.
Because Cape Town has so much to see and do, visiting it is a great idea for anyone who likes seeing and doing the kind of things that they can do in Cape Town such as going up Table Mountain, visiting the Victoria and Albert Waterfront and so on.