This Idiot’s Guide to Visiting Cape Town is one of our 5-Part Cape Town Upside Down Series, where we dump out all the city’s best things to do, eat, and see for you to discover.
Simple, But Important
Even though you’re probably very smart, this idiot’s guide to visiting Cape Town can help you have the best possible trip.
We all have to start somewhere after all, don’t we?
So here we’re going to keep it simple. Simple, but important.
Consider it your first lesson on this first-class city before we move on to intermediate and advanced guides.
Outline of Our Idiot’s Guide to Visiting Cape Town
Mythbusting Cape Town
How Likely Is It that I Get Robbed?
Everyone’s first concern about Cape Town is safety.
Ours was too.
For our first few days, we were on edge, but eventually we relaxed as we realized it’s safer than we’d been warned.
We’ve had zero problems in six months and most of our lifelong Capetonian friends had never been robbed in their lives.
How to avoid getting robbed?
Be a bit more on guard than in Western Europe. Don’t walk on empty streets at night, don’t go hiking alone, don’t get wasted on Long Street, and don’t flaunt valuable cameras and phones outside of the safe bubbles of Gardens and the Atlantic Seaboard.
Follow that simple advice and you’ll experience no robbin’, just Robben (Island).
Cape Town’s in Africa, so It’s Super Hot, Right?
Cape Town’s almost never stinkin’ hot.
Even in the peak of summer, December and January, humidity is low and winds are often high, so you’ll rarely be baking hot and will often need a jacket.
In the winter months from June through August, well… take a look at this weather forecast screenshot I just pulled now at the beginning of July:
Isn’t Cape Town Out of Fresh Water?
Didn’t you just see the above weather forecast?
Cape Town has water. It rains quite a bit in the winter, though in the summer it can get so dry you might see wildfires.
The whole drought issue came about because the city doesn’t do the best job at managing its water supply (more on this in Fun Facts below) and faces the challenge of keeping up with out-of-control population growth (another Fun Fact coming up on this).
Don’t let any water concerns sway your decision to visit Cape Town. Just be a bit more water conscious in Cape Town than usual by taking shorter showers and not flushing your pee.
p.s. The tap water’s perfectly good to drink.
How Scared Should I Be of Lions?
…if you were to go hiking around Cape Town a few hundred years ago.
Now, lions and pretty much all wildlife has been wiped out in the parks around Cape Town. All you can expect to see are baboons (a big nuisance around urban areas), dassies (a.k.a. rock hyraxes), and, everyone’s favorite, penguins.
How Scared Should I Be of Sharks While Swimming?
It depends on how much you look and smell like a seal, sharks’ favorite food.
At Cape Town’s Indian Ocean beaches like Muizenberg, the waters are warmer and more shark-friendly, but there are hundreds of surfers in seal-like wetsuits to attract the sharks away from you, there are shark spotters, and there are essentially never any shark attacks anyway.
The Atlantic Ocean beaches like Camps Bay and Clifton are shark-free. Your biggest deterrent to going swimming will be the freezing water temperatures.
Is Cape Town Right on the Southern Tip of Africa?
Contrary to what many believe, Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope aren’t as far south as you can go.
The real southernmost point of Africa is about 50km further south and a three-hour drive away from Cape Town at Cape Agulhas.
What Other Not-So-Obvious Things Should I Know Before Visiting Cape Town?
For tips on how to pay for stuff, how not to screw up your trip, and more, advance on to our Cape Town Travel Tips: 25 Dos and Dont’s to Know Before You Go.
The No-Brainer Basics
Why is Cape Town Famous?
Cape Town is well-known because it could very well be the most beautiful and well-rounded city in the world.
The beauty comes from being squished between the sheer cliffs of Table Mountain and the turquoise, soft sand beaches of the Atlantic and Indian Ocean.
The well-roundedness comes from its proximity to everything you could ever want to do:
- Modern dining, shopping, and cavorting in the city center
- Old-world European-style class at the hundreds of wine estates near the city
- Unrivaled outdoor adventure and beauty in the nearby mountains, deserts, forests, and beaches.
And Cape Town’s famous because of the penguins. Everyone loves the penguins.
What Language Do Capetonians Speak?
Every Capetonian speaks English, but the majority of them have a different mother tongue.
South African English
Roughly 28% speaks it as their mother tongue.
Their accent is so soft and soothing that whenever I hear it I want to lie on a couch and tell that person about my Mommy issues.
Afrikaans is a creolized version of Dutch. About 36% of Capetonians speak it as their mother tongue.
Afrikaans speakers generally speak perfect English too, with a guttural and bubbly accent that’s sometimes mixed with so much Afrikaans slang that it’s hard to understand.
Xhosa (roughly pronounced Koh-sah), is the mother tongue of about 30% of Capetonians.
Keep an ear out for its famous clicks.
Their English accent is soft and regal. You’ve probably heard it before in videos of Nelson Mandela. (Morgan Freeman’s attempt to mimic it in Invictus doesn’t count.)
10 Fun Facts About Cape Town
1. Cape Town’s South Africa’s Capital (…Kinda)
Cape Town is one of South Africa’s three capital cities. It is the legislative capital, Pretoria is the administrative capital, and Bloemfontein is the judicial capital.
2. Cape Town’s #2
Just under 4 million people live in Cape Town, making it the second most populous city in South Africa after Johannesburg.
3. Cape Town’s Population’s Exploding
For instance, Cape Town’s largest and fastest-growing township, Khayelitsha, was only established in 1985 and now has a very-roughly estimated population of 2+ million.
4. The Original Capetonians Weren’t Black or White
Before the white Europeans and black Bantu Africans arrived, Cape Town was inhabited by native the Khoisan, who today would be considered “coloured.”
(“Coloured” is not considered derogatory in South Africa, by the way.)
The Khoisan were renowned for their hunting ability and knowledge of local plant life. Also, according to The Covenant, some Khoisan women had buttocks so large babies could sit on them.
5. Cape Town’s Got More than a Jungle
The plant life around Cape Town is more botanically diverse than the Amazon.
These incredibly varied and mostly only-in-South-Africa plants are called fynbos (pronounced feign-boss).
6. The Colored Houses Were Plain White Not Too Long Ago
The emblematic brightly-painted houses in Cape Town’s Bo-Kaap district were painted that way in 1994 by residents to celebrate their independence at the end of apartheid.
7. Cape Town’s Got A LOT of Wine
South Africa’s got 542 wineries and the vast majority are within an easy day-trip Cape Town. Close to 300 of them are less than an hour away.
To help you choose which to visit, we’ve given you our Top 10 Most Unique and Unforgettable Wine Tastings.
8. Downtown Cape Town Faces North
It’s admittedly confusing.
Whenever we’re in the city center or the V&A Waterfront and looking out to the sea with Table Mountain behind us, we can’t help but think we’re facing south. But it’s the opposite.
9. Cape Town’s Got Tons More Fresh Water
Millions of liters of fresh water flow from Table Mountain directly into the ocean every day along four underground rivers and up to thirty-six underground springs that have yet to be tapped into.
10. Cape Town’s Not As Far South As You Think
Cape Town is only as far south of the equator, 34 degrees, as L.A. and Marrakech are to the north of it.
How Expensive Is Cape Town?
Cape Town gives you world-class city quality for second-class prices.
Restaurants, wine, accommodation, and tours all roughly cost the same as less-touristy parts of Europe and definitely less than Canada or the US.
That’s why we, as barely-paid bloggers who make pennies on these crappy ads you see on our page, love it. In Cape Town we can live as if we have real jobs.
So if you have a real job in an expensive part of the world, you’ll really live like a king down here.
How Do I Get Around?
Uber’s almost always your best bet.
Definitely use it to get into Cape Town from the airport (it costs about R200 / $14US). And definitely take it at night. Short rides are only R26 / $1.85.
Walk wherever you want around the City Bowl (the downtown part) and along the Atlantic Seaboard during the day.
And only rent and drive your own car if and when you go further out of town. Uber’s too cheap to deal with the hassle (and risk of broken windows) of parking.
Finally, since this is an idiot’s guide to visiting Cape Town, always remember to drive on the left side of the road and to look both ways before crossing the street.
Where Should I Stay?
To keep in short and simple, stay around the De Waterkant neighborhood. It’s central, secure, and has character and good food and drink.
If you want to put a bit (or a lot) more thinking into the right place to stay in Cape Town, refer to our Where to Stay in Cape Town Guide. In it we outline the pros and cons of the best neighborhoods in the city and score them all on the criteria that matter most to visitors.
What Must I Do When I Visit Cape Town?
Only 5 things are true musts. Hopefully that’s not too complicated for you.
Here they are:
- Get a view from above. Whether it be from Table Mountain, Lion’s Head, a cable car, or a helicopter, you have to get high to get high on the views.
- Go to the beach. They’re “stunning,” to use a favorite word among Capetonians, and the people sunning themselves can be quite stunning too. So is the cold water, in a numbing kind of way.
- Visit wine farms. Even if you don’t drink wine, the opulence, class, and gardens of these places will leave you tipsy. These are our 10 favorite wine farms (…so far).
- “Pitch up” to a weekend market. Cape Town’s weekend markets are where the who’s-who stops by for rooibos lattes, G&Ts, and to fill their wicker baskets with artisanal foods.
- Hit the highway. Driving along Cape Town’s highways is the only way to truly appreciate the setting.
On top of those five must-dos, there are a ton of other things you can do, depending on what you’re into. Our Cape Town Must-Dos, Maybe-Dos, and Maybe-Don’t-Dos post covers them all.
What Should I Eat and Drink?
- A lot of meat if you’re not vegetarian because the steaks and game meat (kudu, warthog, springbok) are world-class.
- Some Cape Malay cuisine if you want to try some traditional cuisine.
- And eat a Gatsby if you’re hung over.
Speaking of drinking…
- Wine to discover that South Africa’s wine gets a bad rap internationally because they drink the good stuff themselves and export what they don’t want.
- Gin and tonics, which are all the rage here now, especially with craft gins infused with they local fynbos (feign-boss) botanicals.
- Craft beer to support the up-and-coming scene.
- Coffee from Cape Town’s perky cafes. Deluxe has the cheapest beans, Bootlegger the best wifi, Truth the wildest interior, and Crossley & Webb the showiest.
- The tap water to stay hydrated.
For more specific food and drink tips see what’s on the menu on our picks for Cape Town’s Best Restaurants for 25 Different Occasions.
What Should I Wear?
Cape Town’s relaxed fashion sense is pretty much idiot-proof. You can wear whatever’s comfortable for you and not stand out.
Just don’t go anywhere without a jacket, and bc careful with flow dresses (or kilts) because the wind is enough to make trees grow sideways here and you can famously experience four seasons in one day in Cape Town.
You passed our idiot’s guide to visiting Cape Town.
Now on to some more advanced guides, the remaining four parts to our Cape Town Upside Down series: