My Favorite 25 Things to do Cape Town, South Africa - Understand
Cape Town needs no introduction - it's famous for its incredible scenery, quirky weather and European 'savoir vivre' lifestyle. The former British 'Cape Colony' has been getting much cheaper since the harsh devaluation of the South African Rand. It's now starting to become a victim of its own success, with a huge influx of European tourists and Chinese tour groups.
Cape Town is a rather small city, with just a few focal points of interest; compared to my last visit a few years ago, it now feels exceedingly crowded.
The city is blessed with warm, sunny weather in summer (much like San Francisco
) and misty, rainy days during most of winter (just like San Francisco in winter). While quality hotels here aren't cheap, prices for local services like food of comparable quality are easily 40-50% lower than in the US.
South Africa is home to a huge agricultural industry and a number of food entrepreneurs have set up shop to make use of this bounty. However, good and cheap food needs to be discovered in Cape Town - it is NOT on every corner.
My Favorite 25 Things to do Cape Town, South Africa - Get Around
With its small streets - many with a steep slope - traffic feels incredibly hectic in Cape Town. South Africans are good drivers in terms of skills, but drive small cars in an aggressive manner - more like traffic in Germany or Dubai
than what we are used to in America.
Uber is in town and rides are very affordable. The same is true for car rentals which give you many more options to explore the 'hinterland'.
Don't rely on public transport here; it's spotty and unreliable and after dark it's just a big no-no.
My Favorite 25 Things to do Cape Town, South Africa - Safety
Cape Town Downtown and Woodstock are shaky areas. If you are a local you won't have trouble staying safe but for the uninitiated I'd avoid the areas at night and be extra careful during the day. The Cape Town suburbs are much safer (as further you go away the safer it gets) and Stellenbosch seems another world all together.
Walking after dark isn't usually a good idea anywhere in the Cape Town area - stay in your car after dark and avoid neighborhoods that you are not familiar with.
My Favorite 25 Things to do Cape Town, South Africa - Pollution
Don't worry about pollution in Cape Town - you will barely notice any.
My Favorite 25 Things to do Cape Town, South Africa - Connectivity
For a (almost) First World country the Internet speeds in the Cape Town area are atrocious. Expect 1 Mbit and less for most public WiFi (that also come with a limitation on Megabyte usage).
Many hotels (including chain hotels) do little to provide quality Internet. I eventually bought a Telkom SIM card
which delivered good speeds. You pay about $7 per Gigabyte of data.
My Favorite 25 Things to do Cape Town, South Africa - Sights
Cape Town is world-famous for its scenery and it is (not just) a tourist trap - it is just stunningly beautiful to see the mountains that make up this southeastern edge of Africa.
This landmark is a 3,000 ft rock that towers over the city of Cape Town, not unlike Hong Kong
(those Brits liked their rocks). The sheer rock face that drops down to the scenic beaches is something you can't get enough of, even when you live in Cape Town.
Table Mountain attracts a fog layer at many times, so try to time your visit on a clear day (lunchtime is usually a safe bet). There is a two-hour hike up the mountain or a 5-minute cable car ride. The cable car ride is ZAR 150 one-way or ZAR 280 return. It's so fast that it's hard to justify the two-hour hike, but it is scenic in its own right.
There's a number of trails at the top, which you can freely roam without being bossed around by guards. Some of the visitors take it too far and dangle off the cliff edge, which is not recommended. Plan at least an hour to take in the 360-degree views and to have some time to escape the crowds up there.
Chapman's Peak Drive / Chapman's Peak Hike
Chapman's Peak Drive connects Hout Bay
on a superbly scenic drive of 9 kilometers. You will need to pay a ZAR 48 toll, which is totally worth it; there's wonderful views, especially later in the day with the golden light hitting the long bay. It's two sections - one a perfectly paved, wide road and another one that is barely big enough to drive at 15mph. It's a treat for your eyes and soul and no Cape Town visit can be complete without it.
Noordhoek must have once been a rustic village, but it is now an upscale town with pretty houses and a fantastic beach.
A few years ago, I went to the Foodbarn
at the Farm Village
, which had excellent tapas-style food and lovely staff. I went back this time and found the staff to be apathetic. From the 4 tapas we ordered (each costing about $5), two were bad and two were excellent. Talk about hit-or-miss.
Lion's Head Trail
Lion's Head is another sheer rock face just next to Table Mountain, with even better ocean views. Go on the trail well before sunset (as the hours after dark can be dangerous) and take some water.
Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens
The Botanical Gardens is less a sight for its manicured flowers and plants and more for yet another perspective of - you guessed it - Table Mountain. The many short trails here provide a great way to stroll around the interesting flora, though.
The promenade along Sea Point Beach and Clifton beaches
Cape Town residents love their seafront (which is much like an Middle EastCorniche, like in Abu Dhabi
) - everyone and their cousin come out here at the weekend for a run or stroll. It's a long stretch of safe seafront, with a stunning sunset at the end. Do this at least once - or even better, find a hotel that is on the promenade.
The Cape Town Central Business District isn't terribly impressive and has been taken over by the seedier parts of the city (like, for instance, San Francisco). The best area is up Long Street towards Kloof Street, which has a number of good food and drink options. Skip the rest, unless you really need the touristy pictures.
Cape of Good Hope
The Cape of Good Hope was a marvel of my trip here a few years ago. I was almost the only person there and discovered the most southwestern point of Africa in peace on a calm and clear day. This time, it cost ZAR 150 per person and it was all different; it was windy, cold and incredibly crowded, with Chinese tour group after tour group in big buses racing to the parking lot for a two-minute stop.
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Picture courtesy of Can A
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Picture courtesy of Henrique C
To avoid such crowds, come equipped with good hiking boots and leave the car at the Buffelsfontein Visitors Center
and go for a hike to take in the magnificent views. Otherwise skip it.
Kalk Bay is a popular lunch spot along the route to the Cape of Good Hope. I'm not sure I would recommend coming here anymore... Yes, the ocean views are awesome, but it's hectic, crowded and expensive now (which is still rather cheap when seen in USD terms, though).
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Picture courtesy of Jon-Luke L
Stop by Olympia Café
for brunch if you can get parking and a seat.
Boulders Beach was home to just a few penguins a few years ago, but has grown into a major colony, with 3,000 penguins now roaming there.
The government has decided to make it part of the National Park and charges a $5 entrance fee for something that's worth just a few minutes of your time. Well, surprise - the penguins are everywhere now and the next city block (which also has parking) has them, too. Let's see when it will also become a National Park extension.
Stellenbosch is just 30 minutes from downtown Cape Town with no traffic and it's another world. It looks just like a more European version of Napa Valley
There's plenty of wineries and a tasting of five wines and a gourmet lunch is usually under $15. This is remarkable value and the tasting itself (without food) can be had for just $2. It's hard to even get ONE glass of wine in Napa Valley for this. Now you might think wineries are makeshift areas with picnic tables, but the ones here would easily compete with the most stylish ones in Napa.
I visited Rust en Vrede
and Middelvlei Wine Estate
, which were both excellent. The former has super-friendly staff and the more sophisticated food, while Middelvlei scores with a more rustic setup and an authentic 'farm experience'.
There are at least two dozen more wineries and you can spend a week just drinking your way through the many options here.
Downtown Stellenbosch along Church Street
has a number of outdoor cafes and eateries. None struck me as much better or worse than the other; food can be hit-or-miss here.
The best place for food I found in town is Thirsty Scarecrow,
which can't decide what it is - hipster foodie spot, bar, wine tasting place or farm. Anyway, most of it (especially the flatbread) is way above average.
My Favorite 25 Things to do Cape Town, South Africa - Eat & Drink
While most of Africa's eateries seem to always be open in Cape Town (although often not when I showed up), you need to carefully watch the opening hours. That means YOU NEED TO CALL AHEAD, since Google and Foursquare often have incorrect data. My experiences included:
- At The Test Kitchen, I asked for a seat at the bar and assured I'd be gone after a quick 45-minute meal. While there were plenty of empty tables and no line I was not served, though I was reminded that I could make a reservation for a lunch almost a month away!
- I noted that a popular coffee shop in Stellenbosch (Schoon de Companje) closes every Saturday afternoon until Tuesday morning.
- The Kitchen - my favorite spot - only opens Monday to Friday for breakfast and lunch and closes at 3.30PM sharp.
- An ice cream store closed up 'in my face' at 5PM on a sunny Saturday.
- A popular tapas place opening at 6PM gave me the worst seat in the house, despite me clarifying that I was there for a super-quick meal, and while there were NO other diners there (!) until I left at 6.45PM.
If you want to experience Cape Town food, there is no getting around that you'll need to eat in Woodstock - a former seedy area that has been gentrifying a lot, but is still considered dangerous at night.
Clearly the star of food in Cape Town. This small eatery cooks lunch from scratch every day. The ingredients are fresh and organic and the recipes are intricate. A big lunch plate is just ZAR 70. Go early or late to avoid the huge lines and go there hungry to eat two plates - it is that good.
Watch the hours, as stated above, as it is only open Monday-Friday (except for holidays) between 8.30AM and 3.30PM.
The Test Kitchen
The fine dining version of The Kitchen is The Test Kitchen. It's a few blocks away, at the Old Biscuit Mill (see below). Book at least a few months ahead as it sells out ages in advance. It's expensive for South Africa, but certainly not for US standards.
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Picture courtesy of Marites L
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Picture courtesy of Wilson Z
The Old Biscuit Mill Farmer's Market
The equivalent of the SF Ferry Building Farmer's Market is the Saturday morning happening at The Old Biscuit Mill. Lots of food from South African entrepreneurs can be found in the huge food stand area to the right when you enter. It gets crowded, so come early or late to get a relief from the masses.
Burrata is also in The Old Biscuit Mill, but come here for dinner any day. The restaurant is one of the best organized I have ever seen and the staff are motivated beyond their chef hats. The team spins out fantastic Italian food creations for prices you won't believe; a whole Napoli-style pizza made with fresh ingredients is just $3. And this is a gourmet restaurant, not a dump. AMAZING.
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Picture courtesy of Phaedon
Rosetta is the de facto hip coffee shop in Cape Town. Coffee isn't much of an addiction here (maybe because of all that summer sun) and this place was surprisingly empty. I found the interior design top-notch but the coffee just OK.
Superette is the place for breakfast if you like eggs (I don't). I saw tons of good reviews and it looks fantastic.
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Picture courtesy of Ranmalee G
Tribe Coffee is a more relaxed version of Rosetta that seems to get even fewer people (much to my amazement). The coffee is just OK, but the setting is beautiful and it's beyond cheap.
Espresso Lab Microroasters
ELM is in part of the same compound as Burrata and The Test Kitchen. The staff are incredibly friendly and there must have been 12 baristas there on the day of the Farmer's Market (their busiest day). I wish SF had that kind of setup and less attitude.
CBD - Along Kloof and Long Streets
Most of the CBD is a sketchy affair, but there's a few exceptions to be found if you are ready to explore.
Hudsons The Burger Joint
Hudsons is a chain and a local mainstay. The Kloof Street location is a beautiful spot with a great patio. The burgers are good (though not incredible) and cost just $6 in a restaurant. Wow!
Yours Truly is the spot to be seen when in Cape Town; you'll mostly meet locals here who never give up their seats on the wonderful summer patio.
Unframed Ice Cream
Unframed Ice Cream is likely the best ice cream in Cape Town. However this does not mean so much, as I found it lacking in taste and having too much salt.
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Picture courtesy of Greg L
This was one of the many places I could not try out, since their opening hours are so sporadic. Unlike its name it's actually more of a cafe and makes sandwiches. It closes early on Saturday (REALLY?) and reopens on Monday. Oh my.
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Picture courtesy of Neil B
The same story here. At 4.01PM I was a minute too late and was yelled at to stay outside while lunch was still in full swing inside. I very nicely asked for some 'leftovers' to try and was told to, "Go away".
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Picture courtesy of Dominik R
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Picture courtesy of Joel B
Reviews for the food here are excellent, but it's $50 for two people for the 3-course tapas set. That's expensive for South Africa.
There's also a health food and juice place in Cape Town called nü, which has a few outlets and gets decent reviews.
My Favorite 25 Things to do Cape Town, South Africa - Roadtrips & Garden Route
The area east of Cape Town is known as the Garden Route
. The name will sound misleading when you drive a few hours east of Cape Town (as it looks more like a desert), but once you reach Mossel Bay, George and Knysna you will see what why it is dubbed that way.
The Southern coastline is easily as beautiful as the Big Sur / Monterey area in California
. In addition some parts look more like Norway than the Monterey Coast. The area suffers from lots of fog but often has beautiful sunny days in summer.
In general the area is safe, has extremely friendly people, excellent food, great wines and low prices. I liked the area so much I would skip Cape Town entirely on my next trip!