Cape Town is most international travelers’ first port of call when visiting South Africa. The international airport is a convenient 20-minute drive away from the city, and it’s a great starting point for anyone wanting to go on a road trip along the famous Garden Route. Over the years, I’ve heard a lot of hype about Cape Town and seen incredible photos of the adorable penguins at Boulders Beach, the view from Table Mountain and the pristine beaches along the coast.
So, did Cape Town live up to the hype? Yes, and no, but to be fair it wasn’t the city’s fault. On the flight over to Cape Town from Sri Lanka, my body felt off but I brushed it off as fatigue. Before I knew it, I had come down with probably the worst stomach bug I’ve experienced in my life, was bedridden in Cape Town for the better part of 2 days and couldn’t keep much food or drink down. In a city with incredible gastronomic offerings and world-class wine this was a damn shame. A real damn shame.
Nevertheless, I struggled my way through some sightseeing during our remaining day and a half in the city – hopefully you’ll fare better than I did! Here are some of the incredible places you should visit and an easy itinerary for Cape Town.
Essential information to know before visiting Cape Town
- The exchange rate is approximately 1 USD to 13 Rand, and most places will accept Visa or Mastercard. American Express is accepted in some places, but not all merchants will take it. We exchanged some money at the V&A Waterfront, though you may get a better rate if you find an ATM that accepts your card.
- You probably won’t need a visa to enter South Africa, but check the full list of visa-exempt passports here.
- This is probably one of the most budget friendly vacations you will go on, because the food, wine and accommodation is extremely cheap in South Africa.
- Navigation is easy in Cape Town, you’ll just want to make sure that you have a local SIM card (we got a local SIM and data package from Vodacom at Cape Town Airport) and access to Google Maps.
- The best time to visit Cape Town is during summer from November to about February as the sun is out and the days are warm. However, so if you want to avoid the tourist crowds then consider visiting during the shoulder seasons in autumn and spring (September to end of November or March to May).
Water crisis in Cape Town
Cape Town has been in news headlines around the world for its drought and the ominously named “Day Zero” – the day the city would eventually run out of water. The city experienced little to no rainfall for the better part of 3 years, and its dams were close to dry. Like many other tourists, I started to wonder if we should push our trip back – Day Zero was supposed to strike around the time of our trip, and shouldn’t the water be saved for the citizens of Cape Town?
Here’s what you need to know: Day Zero has been pushed back several times, and the latest is that there will be no Day Zero for 2019 if appropriate water restrictions are maintained. Should you visit Cape Town during the drought? Here’s what the Trade & Investment Promotion Agency for Cape Town and the Western Cape says:
Thinking about cancelling trips to our destination? Think again. We need tourism, decreasing numbers hurt our economy and only create further challenges. You can be confident in choosing to travel here, and assured that we have water available as we embrace what we’re calling the new normal.
During peak season (November – January) international tourists only add 1% to the population of the Western Cape. This number drops from April – September. If the tourists follow the daily usage guideline the impact would therefore be negligible. The tourism sector supports approximately 300,000 much needed jobs across the Western Cape. It is vital to preserve these jobs. Travellers can also put their water use to good use when visiting by going to www.mywaterfootprint.capetown and supporting local water projects.
Worried about not having access to water? Don’t be. There is adequate water for essential daily needs such as washing, using the toilet, and daily hygiene, and restaurants are open for business. Everyone (residents and tourists alike) need to drop their daily water use to 50 litres per person per day or less, so do your bit water by using hand sanitizer when it’s provided and limiting your shower time. Most places will ask that you follow the golden rule (haha, get it?) – “If it’s yellow, let it mellow. If it’s brown, flush it down”. Rental car companies may also avoid washing cars to conserve water.
Where to stay in Cape Town
We decided to stay in the heart of Cape Town in the CBD and chose to book Cartwrights Studio. This beautiful studio apartment has a massive kitchen if you are self catering, otherwise there are plenty of restaurants nearby. Katrin, the owner, is very helpful and was kind enough to allow a late check out.
What was especially handy was the secure (and free) underground parking within the building – perfect if you are venturing on and exploring the Garden Route in South Africa. Cartwrights Studio is a great place to stay for solo travelers or couples visiting Cape Town. Click here to check current rates and availability for Cartwrights Studio or click here for more highly rated hotel options in Cape Town!
Safety in Cape Town
Is Cape Town safe? Use your common sense, be aware of your surroundings and you’ll be fine. We stayed downtown and the city streets tend to be quite empty after 6 or 7 PM, so the easiest way to get around town in the evenings is by Uber, even if you have a rental car – that way, you won’t have to worry about parking either. Like many other destinations, you should aim to keep your valuables (phone, camera, wallet, jewellery) out of plain sight when you’re out and about as petty theft is not uncommon.
There are some common scams to be aware of, such as being told that there are specific “tourist” ATMs that visitors have to use, or that you need a permit to enter into a certain area. Sometimes you may even be approached by “official” security guards with this information – just walk away if you’re not sure.
If you’re driving around Cape Town or to places like Muizenberg, Boulders Beach or the Cape of Good Hope, you should know that most parking in South Africa is free/not metered, and “parking attendants” will offer to watch your car for you. You’re expected to leave a small tip of 3-5 Rand so make sure you have coins, but avoid leaving any belongings and valuables in your car.
When you’re booking your accommodation in Cape Town, look for places that offer free onsite parking – even better if it is secured parking instead of street parking. Click here to see highly rated hotel options in Cape Town!
How to get around Cape Town
If you don’t plan on traveling beyond Cape Town and the surrounding areas, you’ll be able to get around by taxi or Uber. However, if you want to visit places like Boulders Beach, the Cape of Good Hope or Muizenberg your best bet is to rent a car. This way, you can also take the car on an epic road trip along the Garden Route!
We hired our incredibly trusty Hyundai through Avis and paid approximately 40 USD per day for rental and the one-way drop off so that we could pick the car up in Cape Town and drop it off in Port Elizabeth (the fee included collision damage waiver, theft loss waiver and unlimited free mileage). We added another 10 USD per day to add an extra driver and emergency roadside assistance.
You’ll need to show your local driver’s license, and they might ask if you also have an international license though they didn’t ask for a copy of ours. I would highly recommend Avis – the car was in tip top condition, the service was incredibly efficient and the pick up and drop off was extremely easy. Make sure you check the car with an attendant from the rental company to make a note of any existing scratches and damage, and take your own photos and video so you have a record in the event of any disputes. Click here to check for current car rental rates!
Looking for the best prices for rental car companies around the world? Click here to book your rental car ahead of your trip. Bookings can be cancelled or amended if your plans change!
Driving in Cape Town
If you’ve driven in Australia or the U.K., you won’t have any issues driving in South Africa. South African drivers drive on the left (the steering wheel is on the right), and the highways are well paved with multiple lanes. The general speed limits are 60 KM/h on a road within an urban area, 100 KM/h on a road outside of an urban area; and 120 KM/h on freeways.
When you stop at a long traffic light, it is not entirely uncommon for people to approach your car to sell trinkets or ask for money. It’s best to keep your windows up and wait for the lights to change.
Gas is cheap in South Africa (approximately 13-15 Rand/litre), and we often filled up the tank for under 30 US dollars. You may want to tip your gas station attendant 3-5 Rand for filling your tank and cleaning your windows.
Best places to visit in Cape Town if you only have 3 days in the city
Cape Town is a gem of a coastal city which features some of the most incredible geography and landscapes, and is a melting pot of different backgrounds and cultures. You’ll want to spend a minimum of 3 to 4 nights in the city to cover its various attractions and landmarks. Read on for some of the top attractions in Cape Town!
1. Hike up Table Mountain or take the cable car to the summit
Table Mountain is an iconic landmark that overlooks Cape Town city. You can take a cable car to the top or hike up for the most incredible 360-degree views and a chance to see these incredible rock hyraxes (AKA dassies) that sunbathe on the top of the mountain. However, the weather in Cape Town isn’t always sunshine and rainbows, and on those foggy days you won’t be able to see much from Table Mountain.
The cable car also shuts down if the wind is too strong, so check the Table Mountain Aerial Cableway website each day to see if it is open. They tend to update the cable car status at approximately 8 AM each morning.
Make sure you buy your tickets online ahead of time so you don’t have to wait in the massive queue for tickets – it is on almost every single itinerary for Cape Town visitors so you need to plan ahead.
2. Visit the penguin colony on Boulders Beach and Foxy Beach
Who doesn’t love penguins? Boulders Beach and Foxy Beach is located just outside Cape Town city and is home to hundreds of adorable endangered African penguins. This area has 3 pristine beaches, 1 penguin viewing area and 3 boardwalks – seeing the African penguins waddle around freely was one of the top Cape Town highlights for me!
The boardwalks were built to allow for viewing of these wonderful birds whilst keeping them safe from poking fingers. When you’re there, remember that these are wild animals – don’t feed or touch them, and turn your flash off so you don’t startle the penguins.
Make sure Boulders Beach and Foxy Beach are on your Cape Town itinerary!
3. Hang out in Camps Bay and watch the sunset
Camps Bay is the ritzy part of Cape Town with rows upon rows of west-facing luxury houses and condos. It’s only 15 minutes away from the city center and is one of the best places to watch the sun go down. Camps Bay beach is also a popular spot during the summer months.
4. See the colourful houses of Bo-Kaap and learn about its unique heritage
Bo-Kaap is also known as the Malay Quarter and is home to rows of colourful houses that were once leased to slaves from Malaysia, Indonesia and the rest of Africa to work in the cape. Many of the families in the Bo-Kaap have been living there for generations, and you can learn more about the history of the neighborhood at the Bo-Kaap Museum on Wale Street.
While you’re there, grab a cup of joe from Deluxe Coffeeworks, a cute little espresso bar across the street from the main row of houses.
5. Check out the V&A Waterfront
The V&A Waterfront on the Atlantic shore is a mixed-use development with hotels, shops and plenty of restaurants. We loved walking around the waterfront and grabbed some dinner from the V&A Food Market – it’s also the perfect place to pick up any edible goodies for loved ones back home.
If you’re willing to splurge on a helicoptor tour of Cape Town, this is where you’ll find most of the helicopter operators as well.
6. Hike up Lion’s Head
Lion’s Head is a hike that is known to be less challenging than the hike up to Table Mountain – the hike generally takes under 2 hours. It’s a popular hike for locals and visitors alike, especially during full moon nights – bring a bottle of wine and a torch to get back down after the sun has set.
7. Visit Robben Island
Unfortunately, we ran out of time to visit Robben Island because I was so ill, but it’s an important landmark to visit if you are interested in the history of South Africa. Nelson Mandela was imprisoned there during apartheid, and has been used to imprison many other political prisoners since the 17th century. You can go on a guided tour to the island that departs from the V&A Waterfront to see the old prison and museum.
8. See the beach boxes on Muizenberg Beach
Muizenberg is a 30 minute drive outside of Cape Town city, and is a charming little surf town that is an easy day trip destination. There are a number of little surf shops and schools along the beach and you can take a surf lesson if you’re keen (the waves tend to be more beginner-friendly), and you can also check out this row of colourful beach boxes.
9. Walk along the Cape of Good Hope
The Cape of Good Hope is a rocky headland on the Atlantic coast known for its spectacular scenery. Today, you can drive out to the cape point and walk along the edge. It can get extremely windy here, so bring a hoodie/jacket and proper walking shoes!
10. Drive along Chapman’s Peak Drive
Chapman’s Peak Drive is one of the most picturesque scenic drives in the world. It starts at Hout Bay and ends at Noordhoek, winding and weaving along the coast. The toll road closes from time to time for maintenance, so check to see if it’s open on the Chapman’s Peak Drive website.
Where to eat in Cape Town
Do me a favor and do what I couldn’t: stuff your face in Cape Town! It has some of the most amazing restaurants in the world and the prices are incredibly cheap for what you get. Head to Chefs Warehouse for an incredible tasting menu, V&A Waterfront Food Market when you can’t make up your mind, Carne for the tastiest meat dishes, and Kleinskys for amazing bagels and coffee.
Where to go after Cape Town
You can see and do a lot even if you only have 3 days in Cape Town. After you’ve explored Cape Town, make your way along the Garden Route to check out more cities on the Western and Eastern capes of South Africa. Don’t skip Wilderness, Jeffreys Bay and Plett! Click here to see more incredible stops on the Garden Route in South Africa.
If you don’t have enough time for the Garden Route, head towards Stellenbosch or Franschoek to explore Cape Town’s wine country. It is just 30-40 minutes away by car from Cape Town. Make sure you stay at Banhoek Lodge, a beautiful boutique property with a killer view! Click here to check rates and availability at Banhoek Lodge, or click here to check out other highly rated accommodation options in Stellenbosch!
Ready to book your trip to Cape Town? Click here to check current rates and availability for Cartwrights Studio, a beautiful studio apartment in the heart of Cape Town, or click here for more highly rated hotel options in Cape Town!
You might also find these guides helpful:
- Planning a road trip along the famous Garden Route? Here are some stops you can’t skip
- Want to go on a wildlife safari along the Garden Route? I recommend checking out the Amakhala Game Reserve on the Eastern Cape
- Head on over here for even more South Africa travel guides and tips
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