Skip to content

48 Things to Know Before Visiting Cape Town, South Africa

Our site includes affiliate links to products we recommend. If you use one to make a purchase, we earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. Thanks for your support!

Well, for starters, in case you didn’t already suspect this; Cape Town is a very cool place. I mean, we’d seen the photos and all that but it’s always a bit different being there in person, what with that extraordinary set of hills/mountains always rising over you and the beautiful coastline ever-present on the other side. Don’t worry, that flowery sentence doesn’t count as one of the things to know before visiting Cape Town, there are still 48 to go.

Either way, the city feels so different in all the different parts of town, with different looks at all the different natural landmarks – Signal Hill (the low one), Lion’s Head (the pointy one), Table Mountain (the big, flat one) and Devil’s Peak (the ominous one).

Table Mountain and Lion's Head in Cape Town

The malecón is fantastic, as are the beaches, and the weather, oh my, no complaints there. At least not in South African fall (25/15, not so windy and only a smattering of rain in 2 weeks). Of course, it turned suddenly nasty a few days after we left, with winds so strong they were wreaking havoc on roofing and small, fluffy dogs alike, but that was no longer an “us” problem, was it?

But, wait, you say, I already know all this, that’s why I want to go to Cape Town. Right, so what you’re looking for is some actual advice then? Not just endless pandering that reads like a poorly structured job application for the Cape Town Tourism Board.

All right, useful isn’t necessarily our specialty, but we’ll give it a go. Here are 48 things that struck us as pertinent tidbits worth sharing?

Things to Know Before Visiting Cape Town

Cape Town is two words. True story.

South African money is called the “rand” (ZAR) and at the time of writing, $US1 = 19r / $C1 = 14r. Most ATMs let you take out up to 3000r at a time with about 50r in fees. Not that you’ll need much cash. More on that later.

Green cliffs and colourful village

South Africa has, if you can believe it, 11 (!) official languages. Thankfully for us, one of those 11 is English, which is the one most commonly used in cities, on signs and in business in general. Which is handy because even though Afrikaans and Dutch are fairly similar, it turns out that 3 days of Duolingo Dutch only gets you so far. Sure, I can say “the boy drinks milk” but, in my experience, most boys already know that about themselves and so far no one else has asked. As for Xhosa, Zulu and the other 7 languages, well, I can’t even remember them all, let alone speak them.

There used to be a bus to and from the airport. There is no longer a bus to and from the airport. Why, you ask? Good question, but I have no idea. The point, though, is that you’ll need to find a ride. Taxis are available but not as trustworthy, apparently. Uber is good but you may have to wait a bit for one to show up (at the airport – everywhere else they are always close by). Most people recommend booking a private transfer online ahead of time. We paid about $US15 and our driver was on-time, friendly and informative.

View of Cape Town from on top of Table Mountain

As always, we recommend getting a local SIM card for your (unlocked) phone. We’re told Vodacom is the best. We bought eSIMs online from Airalo that worked well, as usual. 285r ($C14) for 5GB. You can also buy a physical SIM card at the airport or any shop in town (400r for 10GB).

Cape Town is a huge place (4.5 million) but doesn’t seem that large because it is divided into many very different areas, which means choosing the right area to stay is crucial. Based on blogs we read on the subject, we chose Sea Point and it was perfect for us. A relatively upscale neighbourhood right on the malecón with good restaurants, amazing sunsets and free parking along Beach Road. Plus, popular Sea Point Pavilion (34r) – a beautifully scenic salt water pool that we often talked about swimming in, yet somehow never did.

Three pools overlooking the ocean in Sea Point

If you’re staying more than a few days in Cape Town, a MyCiti bus card is a good idea. There are several useful and easy to memorize routes, the card is just 35r and rides usually cost 10r ($US0.50) or less. You have to tap the card getting both on and off.

Even better, for our purposes, were the very reliable and affordable Uber trips to and from the various trailheads around Cape Town. Most rides cost just $US5-8 (90-150z) for 10-20-minute rides and the drivers were always friendly and prompt. Sure, you can use a rental car but then you have to find your way, find parking and, you know, pay for the car. Not worth it within Cape Town itself. One of our Uber drivers concurred, solemnly suggesting “People should probably take an Uber instead”.

Parking is particularly nightmarish at the Table Mountain cableway – if you insist on driving there, be sure to go very early in the morning or late in the afternoon.

Laynni can be grouchy when dealing with jet lag, so tread lightly. This advice isn’t specific to Cape Town, but it definitely applied during our visit.

Now, although car rental isn’t necessary within the city, you WILL want your own wheels at some point to explore the top attractions around the cape. We used Discover Cars (as we do most places) to book through First Car Rental and had another very good experience. Sure, the car they gave us was small, boxy and embarrassingly called an “S-Presso” but, luckily, we weren’t out for style points (nor did we earn any).

Small silver car parked on a windswept set of sand dunes on the ocean

As for driving in South Africa, there are a few things to know. First, they drive on the left side. A basic tip, sure, but a very important one if somehow you didn’t already know that.

South African drivers are quite reasonable and predictable (around Cape Town, anyway). Parking can be tricky, though, and in most popular areas you’ll run across a “parking attendant” who is really just some guy that invested in a reflective vest who will wave you into the empty spot you were already headed toward, enthusiastically guide any backing up you may need to do (and mainly get in the way and make your sensor go crazy) and, eventually, ask for a small fee/tip for “keeping an eye on it”. A little confusing and unnecessary but at least they are providing a service (of sorts) and you’ll never actually know if your car would have been broken into if not for them. Or possibly by them.

We asked one of our waitresses the going rate locally for the parking guys wandering the main street. “Oh, just 5 or 10 is fine. Well, maybe 10 for you, or they might kick your car.” Useful advice.

Unquestionably the best part of driving in South Africa? They call their traffic lights “robots”. Like a little kid might. Or a dog that somehow learned to talk.

Another good way to get around town, especially back and forth on the malecón between the waterfront and the beaches, is to rent a bike or e-scooter. They can even be rented at one location and dropped at another.

Lion's Head sunset in Cape Town

Spending Tips

Overall, Cape Town is a very cheap place. Especially when compared to other major cities around the world (oh, don’t go getting all offended, Istanbul, even you’ve let your popularity go to your head a bit). Random examples, but examples, nonetheless: studio apartment $C55/night, pizza $C9, fish & chips or burger & fries $C7, pint of Jack Black Lager $C3-4, IMAX showing of Dune 2 $C15.

Cape Town is fully onboard the digital era when it comes to paying – there are a LOT of places that don’t even accept cash, let alone prefer it. Which is extremely handy, in general. Honestly, the only reason we ever paid with cash was to get some change to tip the parking dudes.

If you follow our advice and decide to stay in Sea Point, you’ll definitely want to visit the Mojo Market. We barely went anywhere else because, honestly, this trendy, diverse international food court was all our food dreams rolled into one, with everything from burgers to poke bowls to wood-fired pizza to fish and chips to ice cream and even Mexican burritos. And to top it off, the place is full of big screen TVs showing constant soccer matches, including a couple that seemed solely dedicated to showing Arsenal highlights on a loop. The fact no one thought to compliment my Arsenal shirt while standing right next to it was, frankly, a little hurtful.

Art Deco building with a large international food court

If you want to eat in, there are two main grocery stores. Spar is a little fancier (they even have “fridge pasta”), a little more expensive and has more options. Checkers is also quite big but cheaper, unless they happen to “accidentally” double-charge you for your expensive cheese and cheap Oreos, then it’ll end up being a wash.

We get tired of drinking out of water bottles all the time and couldn’t be bothered wasting our time on those tiny glasses supplied in most apartments, so we are often on the lookout for huge plastic cups. Enter, “The Crazy Store”. There we found the perfect set that fit all our requirements – very large (fewer refills), cheap plastic (no stress about breakage) and some truly inspirational slogans (constant motivation).

Two plastic cups with motivational slogans

Things to See and Do

There are literally umpteen Things to Do in Cape Town lists out there already, so that is not what this post is about. However, after spending two weeks there it seems worthwhile sharing our personal recommendations.

The V & A Waterfront is like Disneyland for adults – basically a huge cluster of places to eat, drink and shop. There is also a park and rugby stadium nearby and some very colourful rhinoceros statues (plural).

Boats docked in a pretty harbour

Bo-Kaap is a colourful old neighbourhood in downtown Cape Town where you can get some terrific photos and… well, no, there is no “and”. That’s about it. But colourful, definitely colourful.

Man walking up the street next to colourful buildings in the Bo-Kaap neighbourhood of Cape Town

The Labia Theatre is a classic arthouse theatre with a fantastic name that shows all the exact movies that I love. Unfortunately, we actually had too much in common, I guess, because I’d already seen all the movies they were showing during our stay.

Saunders Rocks is a popular beach hangout. The beach itself is small and rocky but the swimming areas are… well, also small and rocky, also. On certain Saturday mornings you might find a tiny, blow-up ice bath, though, so there’s that.

People swimming among the rocks

Some people surf right in town off Queen’s Beach, although judging by the guy trudging in with just half a surfboard under his arm, it may be a tad treacherous.

Rocky beach with mountain behind

Walking south out of Cape Town (or driving, biking or scootering) you pass four Clifton Beaches with the photogenic Lion’s Head backdrop, followed by beautiful Camps Bay Beach, with it’s equally photogenic 12 Apostles backdrop. Of course, that’s just what they call the hills/mountains, obviously the beach is not backed by the actual apostles of Jesus, that would be crazy. They are long dead.

Rocky Camps Bay Beach in front of Twelve Apostles mountain range
Camps Bay Beach with 12 Apostles behind

Cape Town’s natural scenery is incredible, from Signal Hill to Lion’s Head to Table Mountain to the 12 Apostles. And that is just the stuff actually in the city. There is plenty more close by. Great for hikers, and a big reason we wanted a good long stay there. So, things to know about hiking in Cape Town:

Most of the hikes are straight up one hill or another, usually involving 400-700 metres of elevation gain. Strenuous but not crazy. What IS crazy is that almost nobody uses hiking poles (one annoying woman and one abandoned pole sitting on a route marker ruined my ability to use the term “literally”). Hiking in the Alps it’s easily 80-90% with poles, maybe more like 50-60% in the Rockies and in Cape Town, apparently, just me (once Laynni decided she’d rather fit in, anyway). In fact, poles are so uncommon that at one point a young guy hiking toward us stopped and stared in surprise for a moment, before explaining that he “thought we were blind or something”.

One lone hiking pole left on top of a trail marker

Table Mountain is the most famous landmark and viewpoint in Cape Town, with a very busy cable car taking up people who aren’t interested in the 1.5-2 hrs climbs on various different trails. And the views are stunning, just know that the top is quite often covered in clouds – clouds that kind of stick to the top like icing on a cake or hair on a Lego character. Locals refer to this as “The Tablecloth” and it can look quite cool sliding off the top of the cliffs. Not great for photos from the top, though. If you’re planning to head up, be sure to check the Table Mountain webcam first, or, from most parts of the city, just turn around and have a look.

Bank of clouds moving down off Table Mountain

Some great hiking options:

Lion’s Head Loop

Man hiking down from Lion's Head with views of the 12 Apostles in Cape Town
The 12 Apostles from Lion’s Head

Kasteelspoort (Castle Gate) and “the diving board”, a unique rock outcropping sticking out from the cliff atop Table Mountain that is big enough to safely take photos on but precarious enough to actually make those photos interesting.

Couple perched on the end of a rocky overhang high above a steep gorge

Platteklip Gorge is a steep, exhausting hike up a narrow gorge that takes you to the exact same viewpoint as everyone casually stepping off the cable car.

Hikers coming up a narrow gorge

The 12 Apostles run for several kilometres south of Cape Town and can be hiked on both sea and inland sides as a loop.

Kloof Corner – a terrific (and short) sunset hike.

Colourful sunset with Lion's Head silhouette

Devil’s Peak was probably our favourite viewpoint, with great views along the way as well as at the top. You can combine it with an extra hour or so on the relatively flat but still scenic Contour Trail for a best of both worlds experience.

Man standing on a viewpoint looking at Table Mountain and Lion's Head

Chapman’s Peak is about a half-hour drive south of Cape Town but offers stunning views of Hout Bay. Chapman’s Peak Drive goes for about 15 minutes beyond the trailhead and is considered one of the most scenic drives in the world. That seems a bit excessive, but it was pretty amazing. Even though it wasn’t the fastest route, we kept using it to get places, paying the $C4 each time (5 in total). If you only have one shot, though, try to go late in the afternoon when the sun is shining on the cliffs.

View of Hout Bay, South Africa from Chapman's Peak
View from Chapman’s Peak
View of Chapman's Peak coast drive
Chapman’s Peak Drive

For an easy adventure that won’t require hiking shoes OR a few litres of precious sweat, we recommend taking the city bus to Hout Bay. The trip itself takes about an hour along a very scenic coastal road for the bargain price of $C0.60. Once there, you can eat, drink and shop at the Bay Harbour Market (Laynni had eggs benny and pasteis de nata in one meal in case you’re worried about variety), check out the seals in the harbour (don’t know if seeing them herding and devouring schools of fish is a regular occurrence but it is definitely a fascinating one), walk along the beach and even visit Lichtenstein Castle.

Colourful boats in Hout Bay harbour
Seal herding a school of fish

Down at the bottom of the peninsula, you’ll find the Cape of Good Hope, extremely famous among 16th century sailors and readers of Wilbur Smith novels, and lovely Cape Point. There is gorgeous scenery galore, a funicular, not one, but two, lighthouses, sand dune beaches, some random ostriches and, may I say, one handsome lizard.

Man standing on rocky shelf looking down at an old lighthouse in the distance
Sandy beach surrounded by rocky cliffs
Diaz Beach and the Cape of Good Hope

Even the drive there is pretty spectacular, with the option to pass by “Misty Cliffs”, which just happened to be suitably misty as we passed, and a very edgy speed limit sign that someone took great pains – with actual paint – to change from “60” to “69”.

Straight highway with misty cliffs looming over

Boulders Beach has a colony of penguins – you have to pay to see the best parts but there is also a sign in the parking lot telling you to check under your car for penguins before driving away so, who knows, maybe you could get lucky with a free parking lot penguin or two.

Turquoise bay surrounded by rocky shoreline and a small town

Simon’s Town is cute but not essential, and Muizenberg Beach is great for beginner surfers and has some strategically coloured shacks perfect for Instagram. Or the social media vice of your choice.

Colourful chainging huts on Muizenberg Beach in South Africa

There are also some relatively famous botanical gardens (didn’t go), plenty of wine regions (didn’t go) and Robben Island, Nelson Mandela’s old stomping ground (and current home to a shit-ton of penguins, didn’t go). Pick and choose at your leisure.

Random Stuff to Know

“Load-shedding” refers to planned electricity reductions or outages that seem to influence all life in Cape Town. Follow ESKOM on X for updates or follow our lead and simply hope for the best and get lucky (no power for a couple hours in the middle of one night meant no fan, but other than that…)

We felt perfectly safe during our stay in Cape Town, although we didn’t really do anything you might call risky so that isn’t necessarily informative. Since we opted to pass on all-night rave and Molly sessions followed by unsteady walks home through sketchy neighbourhoods in exchange for 6:30 pm sunset beers on the rocks followed by a 10 pm bedtime, things went rather smoothly, not surprisingly.

Man hiking under rocky overhang

However… the frequency of warnings and level of security present suggests Cape Town is still a place to stay alert and tread carefully. For example, in nice neighbourhoods like Sea Point, home security companies boast “tactical response units”. You know, in case it comes up.

On a lighter note, if you’re wandering the beaches among the rocks you are likely to come across a flock/herd/passel/gang of adorable brown rodents. Don’t be alarmed, those are just “dassies” (pronounced “dussie”, for some reason), some kind of rock hyrax, which is apparently some kind of tiny-eared rabbit, I guess. Cute, except for the way they stare into your soul.

If you bite your lip really badly while enjoying a delicious burger, don’t do it three more times, that will only make it worse.

Man in an Arsenal shirt smiling over a huge burger and fries

There are many different South African beers, plus all the local microbrews and the usual international favourites (Corona is surprisingly common). So there is plenty of room for experimentation on the beer front. So all I’ll say is that Castle isn’t great, but Jack Black lager is.

Cape Town is full of fit people running/jogging/speed walking along the malecón and, although I acknowledge this is probably a skewed demographic sample (perhaps we should expand our study to include the mall, for example) but, still, with all the hiking trails, walking paths, surfing and just huge hills, in general, the city seems to really attract active people. Kind of reminded us of Squamish or Canmore in that way. Not Houston, so much.

Couple selfie on the malecon in Cape Town

Summary

Laynni and I tend to have roughly similar tastes when it comes to travel destinations. But it is still very rare for us both to love a place this much. Kudos, Cape Town, you managed to bridge the old married couple gap. Without even discussing it, we are already just randomly throwing around phrases like “when we come back” and “next time”, like it’s as completely inevitable as me throwing a tantrum every time I have to deal with slow internet.

All of which is to say, yes, we recommend you visit Cape Town.

More Posts You Might Like:

The Sand and the Fury: The Day We Climbed Big Daddy Dune

Our Favourite Cities in the World

24 Hours in Paris

Best Hanoi Photo Spots

Weird Things to Do in London

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *