Start Your Cape Town Travels on the Right Foot
Our 5-Part Cape Town Upside Down Series continues with these 25 Cape Town Travel Tips to Know Before You Go.
The best way to express how much we loved Cape Town is to say that, even though we could go anywhere else in the world, we plan on moving back next year.
But our relationship didn’t start out perfectly.
We had some ups and downs, especially early on. Had we known the following Cape Town travel tips from the get-go, our relationship with the Mother City could have blossomed even faster.
If they can do the same for you, maybe you’ll enjoy Cape Town as much as we did. Maybe more…
We challenge you to try.
✓ Do start your Cape Town trip on a high point
Make it a priority to get up on top of Table Mountain or Lions Head as soon as you can upon arrival in Cape Town.
We made the mistake of not doing so, piddling around the bottom of City Bowl for our first few days not understanding what all the “Cape Town is so stunning” hype was about.
But when we hiked Lions Head for the first time, it all made sense.
The views also gave us a better understanding of what’s where around the Cape, which even lifelong residents find confusing. For example, when we were playing volleyball on Camps Bay and asked our Capetonian friend in which direction the surf beach of Muizenberg was, he pointed in the wrong direction.
✗ Don’t ever count on the internet working
Never trust any claim that “we have WiFi,” no matter what your Airbnb host or server or barista says.
We can’t even say so about our home fiber internet, which mysteriously cuts off from time to time.
Some places are more reliable are others (any Bootlegger Café location is our go-to when all else fails), but to maintain sanity we advise hoping for the best and expecting the worst.
And to have ample data on your phone, just in case.
Speaking of which….
✓ Do get a local SIM card from MTN
Get a SIM card upon arrival at Cape Town’s airport and go with MTN because they have cheaper packages than Vodacom and their network doesn’t go down with load shedding (see the next tip).
Also, if you’re traveling with others make sure they get MTN because MTN often offers free MTN-to-MTN minutes.
Tip Within a Tip
Counterintuitively, the cheapest data plans are the weekly ones so, to get the most gigabytes for your buck, buy a new package every seven days.
For instance, I re-load 1.25 GB for R55 every week rather than pay R300 for 5.5 GB over 30 days.
✗ Don’t be in the dark about load shedding
“Load shedding” is the term they use here for rolling blackouts that plague not just Cape Town but all of South Africa for around two-and-a-half hours at a time, sometime multiple times a day.
It doesn’t happen year-round. We only had to deal with it for a few weeks of our six months in Cape Town, so if you’re lucky you won’t experience load shedding at all. But double check, just in case, and plan accordingly.
Here’s the load shed-ule.
✗ Don’t expect too much from South African cuisine
Not a single traditional African or Cape Malay restaurant that we ate at had us eager to return for more.
Maybe we didn’t go to the right places, but we gave up looking.
It’s not worth it. The other Cape Town restaurants that serve modern or international cuisine, some with a South African twist, are too good.
✓ Do try some South African dishes, though
Our favorite South African specialties to look out for during your Cape Town travels include:
- Bobotie. A heavily-spiced minced meat pie with egg baked on top.
- Malva pudding. A sweet and sticky bread pudding.
- Gatsbys. Gigantic subway sandwiches stuffed with fries, cheeses, sauces, and various meats.
- Boerewors, droerwors, and biltong. Spiced meats. The latter two are dried.
This Eat Out post has an extended list of more South African foods.
✗ Don’t withdraw too much cash
When we arrived in Cape Town, I withdrew R3,000 in cash.
That turned out to be overkill.
It lasted me over three months because I only needed cash to pay for our cleaning lady and our beach volleyball classes.
You won’t need much cash either if you use Uber to get around town, pay with your credit card at restaurants and shops (ideally a foreign-exchange fee-free one), and download a free app called SnapScan for paying vendors at markets like Neighbourgoods, Oranjezicht, and Bay Harbour.
✓ Do always keep a few coins on hand
If you’re renting a car, keep some coins on hand to tip gas station attendants (R5-10) and the guys who “look after” your car when you park on the streets (R2-10).
This prevents the predicament of having to choose between over-paying them with a bill or being a prick who tips nothing.
Extra Rental Car Tip:
Car break-ins are so rampant in Cape Town that rarely a day passes that we don’t walk past broken car window glass on a sidewalk.
To save your car’s windows from the same fate, don’t leave anything in your car when you park on the street.
We really mean ANYTHING. Someone broke into our friend Cailyn’s car for nothing more than her stinky yoga mat.
✗ Don’t forget to add a tip
You’re expected to tip around 10% on top of your bill at restaurants.
The tricky part is, unlike in North America, the credit card machines don’t give you the “add a tip” option before you enter your pin. You have to calculate the tip yourself, add it to your bill, then tell your server how much to charge.
Ok, it’s not that tricky, but it’s worth letting you know because we’ve seen enough Cape Town newcomers screw it up one way or another.
✓ Do ask for tap water
Cape Town’s tap water is perfectly fine to drink, but you have to ask for it specifically at restaurants.
Your servers won’t offer it to you—because of the “water shortage” and all—and they will bring you bottled stuff if you don’t specify.
✗ Don’t bother waiting for the “robots”
“Robot” is the South African word for traffic lights. Only cars obey them here (…most of the time).
Pedestrians definitely don’t and you shouldn’t either when you’re walking around Cape Town. If you did, you’d be stranded on a street corner your entire trip because the traffic lights are as undecipherable and unpredictable as a drunk elephant.
Be just as cautious crossing the street as you would be around a drunk elephant, too, especially if, like us, you’re used to cars that drive on the right side of the road.
✓ Do keep in mind supermarkets’ restricted hours for selling alcohol
You can’t buy wine from supermarkets after 8 p.m. (and after 6 p.m. on Sundays).
This restriction may not seem like a big deal to you. We didn’t think so either until the first, second, and third time we forgot, popped into a supermarket in the evening for a bottle, and slapped our foreheads upon seeing that the wines were locked-up.
✗ Don’t make plans before checking opening hours
Wine farms close as early as 3 p.m, many microbreweries inexplicably close at 5 p.m and on weekends, cafés’ hours are all over the place, and restaurants seem to always be closed on the days we want to go to them here in South Africa, so always check opening hours in advance.
✗ Don’t get stuck in rush hour traffic
If you can, avoid coming into the city between about 6:30 and 9 a.m. and going out of the city between 4 and 6 pm on weekdays.
Disregard this Cape Town travel tip and you may end up here longer than you’d like. Quite a few Uber drivers have lamented to us about times the normally 20-minute drive from downtown to the airport has taken them close to two hours because of rush hour traffic.
✓ Do check if you can BYOB to restaurants
If you’re on a budget like us but still want to drink wine with dinner when eating out, check if you can bring your own wine.
Most Cape Town restaurants allow it for only a modest corkage fee of thirty to sixty rands. Some, like Hussar Grill, one of our favorite Cape Town restaurants, don’t charge anything.
✗ Don’t go anywhere without a warm layer
The Mother City, as Cape Town is nicknamed, is a hormonal, temperamental beauty. No matter how pleasant her weather currently appears to be, never ever count in it staying that way because it changes fast and can differ enormously depending on which side of Table Mountain you’re on.
So bring a warm layer with you wherever you go, just in case.
More Fashion Advice:
Cape Town may have a European vibe, but fashion-wise it’s much more casually American or Australian. Shorts and sandals are fine in all but the swankiest establishments.
✗ Don’t just do wine tastings
In addition to wine tastings, which by all means we recommend indulging in in great abundance while in South Africa (these are our top 10), be on the lookout for tastings of locally-made vinegar, rooibos tea, cheese, sorbets, chocolate, and biltong.
✓ Do grab a copy of the free Cape Town Guidebook
Us smarty pants bloggers didn’t pick up a copy of the free Cape Town travel guide until three months into our time here. And that was only because Kim’s mom showed it to us when she visited.
The thing turned out to be surprisingly useful!
Unlike other city’s free guidebooks, which are paper-wasting hotel, restaurant, and attraction directories, the Cape Town one offers plenty of interesting tidbits of info.
For us, the most helpful pages are the neighborhood overviews, which include tips and recommendations for literally every one in the city, not just the most touristy ones.
✓ Do get the Entertainer App if you’re staying for a week or more
The Entertainer App is basically a mobile coupon booklet of 2-for-1 specials at hundreds of restaurants and attractions all around Cape Town and the Western Cape.
It costs roughly R400, so you only need to use it about three times to break even. And that’s easy to do because quite a few of our favorite Cape Town restaurants have offers on it.
We have the Entertainer and have used it…. let’s see… 35 times (!), so it’s saved us thousands of rands.
Download the app for free to see all the deals then, if you decide to buy it, use our code UNCONVENTIONAL2019 for 10% off.
✓ Do read some South African books
Speaking of 2-for-1 deals, the following books have had the two-in-one benefit of being entertaining reads while at the same time adding perspective and understanding to what I’ve seen and experienced in South Africa:
- The Covenant, by James Michener. I’m so glad I started (and finished) this 1,4000-page behemoth. It quadrupled my excitement to visit South Africa and gave me a foundational understanding of the country’s history that enhanced my appreciation of everything I saw and experienced while here.
- Born a Crime, by Trevor Noah. Just about every Cape Town visitor I meet seems to have read this one. So should you to get a light-hearted insight into what it was like growing up under apartheid.
- 13 Hours, by Deon Meyer. A Cape Town-based page-turner about an American tourist on the run from a mysterious gang of killers and the cops who’re trying to save her. Once you’re in Cape Town, you’ll recognize many of the locations from the book.
- The Power of One. My favorite book when I was a kid turned out to be just as entertaining to Kim and I as we listened through the audio version during our two-week Johannesburg to Cape Town road trip, a.k.a. the Hectic Route.
If you’re not much of a reader, get any of these two in audiobook format (or any two other audiobooks of your choice) for free when you sign up for a free trial of an Audible account. They’ll help you get through the long flight to Cape Town.
✗ Don’t just hang out among white people and tourists
Do a Khayelitsha tour with the guys from 18 Gangster Museum, make new friends at Rands, enjoy a gourmet township meal at 4roomed eKasi Culture, get a Gatsby at Cosy Corner in Wynberg, and laugh along with the mostly coloured crowd at the Cape Town Comedy Club.
All of the above make up a big chunk of our favorite Cape Town travel memories. Our time here wouldn’t have been the same without them.
Note: Mzansi’s, the #1 Cape Town restaurant on TripAdvisor as I write this, doesn’t count. The food’s good, but it’s about as “authentic” as a buffet dinner at an all-inclusive Mexican resort while a mariachi band is playing.
✓ Do talk to your Uber drivers
This especially applies if you choose to disregard our previous Cape Town travel tip.
Uber drivers come from all over Cape Town, South Africa, and the African continent. About 90% of them have something interesting to say and they are more than happy to share it with you if you ask. Your challenge is to figure out what it is and get it out of them.
Through our Uber drivers, we heard funny stories about pro athletes and Samuel L. Jackson, fine-tuned our limited knowledge about African geography and culture, found out about some of our favorite local Cape Town eateries, and became somewhat knowledgeable about South African politics.
Other quick Uber tips:
- Sit in the front seat. Most of our drivers say they don’t care whether you sit in the front or back, but A) the front’s more comfortable and B) you’ll have a friendlier chat that way.
- At the very least always greet your driver and wish them farewell after your ride.
- If you’re coming from the beach, have the courtesy to not get in the car wearing a wet swimsuit and to wipe off all the sand from your body and feet before getting in the car. You’re guaranteed a 1-star rating if you don’t.
✗ Don’t be careless on Long Street
Long Street is Cape Town’s grimy but go-to downtown party street.
They should rename it “Your Stuff Is Not Yours for Long Street” because pretty much everyone we know who’s gotten mugged or had something stolen from them in Cape Town had it happen to them there.
In every instance it was partly their fault. They were either walking along it alone at night, acting stupid or drunk, or carelessly flaunting their phone. Don’t do any of the above and you’ll be fine.
Either that or avoid Y.S.I.N.Y.F. Long Street entirely.
✓ Do stay in De Waterkant or Green Point
We tried staying in the CBD (downtown) and Sea Point, and know lots of people who stayed at Gardens and Camps Bay but, in our opinion, De Waterkant and Green Point are best neighborhoods in Cape Town for tourists.
They’re safe and relaxed, yet close to all the action and attractions.
For a whole lot more specifics, see our guide on where to stay in Cape Town, where we share our top neighborhoods and score them across various criteria so you can find the perfect match for your trip.
✗ Don’t stay too long in Cape Town
Spend two days in Cape Town, then get out of the city to explore and experience more of South Africa’s amazing variety.
Here are some suggestions:
- Hermanus or its next-door neighbor Stanford for wine tasting, whale watching, and walking or running along the cliff path.
- Cederberg for extraordinary wine tasting, star gazing, rock pool jumping, hiking, and climbing.
- The Garden Route for wine tasting, seaside hikes, and good food
- Barrydale for wine tasting (do you see a trend?), waterfall walking, milkshake drinking, and quirkiness appreciating.
- The Drakensberg for world class hiking and scenery (…and wine tasting).
I could go on.
The point is you may find it hard to leave Cape Town so soon, but you’ll be grateful you did, no matter where you go.