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Are you planning a Cape Town holiday? Great news! As you may know Cape Town used to be my home and I still spent a good part of the year here. Mind you, for me that is family time and I think I have annoyed you with too many ‘tips’ that involve my cousin’s pool or my aunt’s pizza making skills – stuff you may not be able to enjoy. So I thought it was high time to put together a proper travel guide for Cape Town so you can enjoy the Mothercity with or without family connection.
How to get to Cape Town
Many international airlines fly to Cape Town but direct connections are hard to come by these days. A lot of flights will take you to Cape Town via Johannesburg. Not a biggie, however, connections are often tight and you will need to go through customs (yes, that includes getting and rechecking your luggage) – I have seen a lot of people miss their connecting flight which adds so much hassle and travel time to the trip.
My solution? Better search for those direct flights and have your layover anywhere else than Johannesburg. Or if you are flying from Germany I recommend using Condor. They fly direct from Frankfurt and the machines leave in the evening. As there is no time difference to Cape Town you get on board, watch a movie, have a glass of wine, and sleep only to arrive rested the next morning. Perfect as you are not losing valuable holiday time due to jetlag or daytime flights.
If you want to be even more comfortable I recommend flying their premium economy: more movie choices, more luggage, more wine, and most importantly – more legroom!
Condor flies direct on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays to Cape Town and back to Frankfurt on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays.
Practical Cape Town tips
Alongside with Pretoria and Bloemfontein, Cape Town is one of South Africa’s three capitals and is lovingly called Mothercity by South Africans.
South Africa has 11 official languages with English, isiXhosa, and Afrikaans being predominant in Cape Town. Cape Town is also a melting pot of religions so you will find that in different communities different holidays are being observed. Important holidays for everyone include Heritage Day on September 24th, also called Braai Day, and Day of Reconciliation on December 16th.
Getting Around Cape Town
My preferred kind of getting around is driving and many international car rental companies have a branch at Cape Town airport. You will need an international license – when in doubt check for special requirements of your rental company. I recommend taking out comprehensive insurance as well as a tire and windscreen waver. Be careful – Cape Town sidewalks are notoriously high and have scratched many rims.
On the road, you will see a few old VW Beetles with a sign say ‘rent a cheapie’. If you are looking for a cheap car rental Cape Town they are alright but as per usual you get what you pay for – don’t expect power steering or AC.
Unfortunately, drinking and driving is all too common in South Africa. In order to enjoy your wine and get home safely, I recommend Uber and prefer it to regular taxis any day. You have the choice between different cars (from regular to fancy) as well as bigger vehicles if you travel in a group.
If you prefer public transport I have bad news: Cape Town is not known for its public transport. Most people get around with taxi buses (white minivans with drivers usually shouting loudly which direction they are going) but those are often overcrowded and quite mad. If you want a local experience go for it though I don’t recommend it – safety first. The somewhat new MyCiti bus is a better alternative and has many routes connecting the City Bowl to the various suburbs. Note that you have to buy and refill a card at station kiosk or an authorized retailer.
Unfortunately, Cape Town is not really a walking city either. While more and more bike lanes have popped up in the last couple of years, there are few areas where strolling is safe and fun. Those areas include the V&A Waterfront, the Sea Point Promenade, and the Greenpoint Urban Park. I wouldn’t advise walking around in the areas like Long Street and Woodstock or really any other areas after dark.
Petrol & Parking in Cape Town
There are quite a few parking garages in various malls and plenty of public parking that you will need to pay for. Unlike a lot of other cities, Cape Town doesn’t have parking meters but parking attendants. You can estimate how long you want to park and they will charge you accordingly and put a receipt on your window. If you overstay you will need to pay them the difference upon your return. Areas where you need to pay are clearly marked with a blue sign and the times you need to pay for parking. In other areas or after-hours you will often see car guards in a reflective vest around. They can help you get in and out of a parking spot and are generally there to guard your car though it really depends on the person on whether they are doing that. You are not obliged to pay them however if someone helps you with your parking I think it is the courteous thing to do (and not to mention that this is how they make their living) and I will tip them between ZAR 5 and 20 depending on how long I was in a spot.
When you need to fill up your car, note that South Africa (still) has petrol attendants. I find that is a weird concept for many visitors as is the fact that a lot of families have a cleaning lady or housekeeper. However, here it is a job like any other and not a bad one at this as they work on a fixed salary and also get tips. Just tell them for how much you want to fill up and if you want oil/water/tires checked. They will also wash your screens. Depending on the amount I pay and the time they spend with my car, I tip between ZAR 5 – 25.
A wise saying goes like that: at the airport, you can immediately recognize who is a local and who is a foreigner. When it is 23 degrees all foreigners will sigh in delight and take their jerseys off while Capetonians will declare it too cold and put a jersey on. When you are planning a Cape Town holiday take into consideration that summer months start in November and last until March whereas June, July and August are winter month and rainy season.
What I like about Cape Town summer is that the days are hot and the evenings are cool – so always bring a jersey. Keep in mind that Cape Town gets extremely busy from mid-December to mid-January due to school holidays and many national and international visitors. That means lots of traffic and crowds – do not attempt to go eat without a reservation!
Even the winter months while rainy at times and cold-ish (expect about 10-15 degrees) can have stunning sunny days that allow for outside sundowners and ask for sunscreen.
Regardless of what time of the year, Table Mountain dominates the weather when it comes to wind and is not to be underestimated. A special bother is the Cape Doctor, a southeasterly wind that blows from spring to late summer and messes up plans for Table Mountain visits (if the wind is too strong, the cablecar won’t go and makes hiking too dangerous), beach afternoons, and outdoor dinners. When you check the weather forecast make sure to check for wind as well.
Many nationalities like myself (I’m German) do not need a visa for South Africa and can stay for 90 days on a visitor’s permit. You will need a passport that is valid for at least thirty days and has a minimum of two free pages. As per usual, regulations like this can change so do make sure you get up to date information from the South African consulate in your country.
You will also need to have a valid return ticket and yes, both the airline and immigration may ask you about it. Just because they usually don’t, doesn’t mean it ain’t the rule. Just sayin’…
If you plan to stay longer you can request an extension at Home Affairs which needs to be applied for within 30 days of arrival.
Children will need a passport as well as an international birth certificate, either the original or a notarized copy.
Currency is the South African Rand (ZAR) – you can find an up to date currency exchange here. As with most of my travels, I prefer my credit card to draw money from the ATM over exchanging money but that is an entirely personal preference. I don’t recommend traveler’s cheques as those can be difficult to exchange.
Most restaurants and shops accept credit cards however cash comes in handy for tips, smaller stores and at markets. Unfortunately, I have known quite a few cases of credit card fraud in Cape Town. Make sure to use bank ATMs when drawing money and request the card machine to be brought to the table when you use a credit card to pay at a restaurant.
South Africa is only slowly catching up when it comes to internet and wifi. Unfortunately, this entails that it is often slow and usually expensive. Having to pay for wifi is still a standard in many hotels but luckily you will find more and more restaurants and coffee shops where you can enjoy free wifi with your latte.
When renting an Airbnb do check beforehand what kind of speed you can expect and also if there is a limit on data usage.
I always get a local sim card which I top up with data. While not cheap (especially when compared to South East Asia) I enjoy the convenience of it. How to get a sim card in South Africa? There is a Vodacom shop at the airport, however, I just recently had a horrible experience with them – again. I recommend you head to a Cell C store to get your sim card. Bear in mind that you will need to bring your passport. Once you are all set up you can top up at most grocery stores or online.
Medical & Vaccines
You can find excellent medical care in Cape Town and pharmacies are well equipped. You will find a small pharmacy section at most drugstores like Clicks and Dischem. When staying in town I recommend to head to the MediClinic if you have an emergency.
You should always check with a health professional or doctor regarding vaccines, however, in addition to routine vaccines I have the following: Hepatitis A and B, Typhoid, and Rabies. I got my rabies shot when I first traveled to Borneo – they are usually a good idea if you are traveling to remote areas and are planning to have some sort of animal encounters.
If you are staying in Cape Town and surroundings you do not need malaria prevention. And while there is no yellow fever in South Africa you will need proof of vaccination if you are coming from a country with yellow fever risk.
Historic Cape Town
Cape Town’s history is rich and fascinating (read more about it here) and South Africans lovingly call it the Mothercity. While Johannesburg is a true metropolis, innovative and business-oriented, Cape Town doesn’t mind taking the more relaxed back seat. After all, there are waves to catch, sunsets to see, and mountains to hike – so much more important than who drives the fanciest car.
Visitors will find some of the most important sights of South African history here, the most impressive being Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years. Other historic places you shouldn’t miss are the District Six Museum, Castle of Good Hope (don’t expect something like Versailles though!), and Company Gardens.
While not an off the beaten path tip, I recommend a trip with the hop-on-hop-off bus that takes you to some of the historic sights in one go as well as to Cape Point and Boulders Beach (that’s the one with the penguins). A perfect way to do all your sightseeing in one go or to get an overview of the city and inspiration of what you may want to explore further.
When it comes to South Africa one has to address the elephant in the room and talk about safety. It’s a tricky topic because while I would always recommend people to come visit Cape Town (otherwise why write a guide like this?!), to say that I have always felt safe would be a lie. I wish it was different but I during my years in Cape Town I had my car stolen, my flat broken in to, and witnessed a few smash & grabs. I am not telling you this to scare you, but the gap between rich and poor is a steep one here and with poverty comes desperation.
Tips for staying safe during your Cape Town holidays:
Capetonians are quite used to their electric fences, barred windows, and signs for security companies on most homes but visitors are usually shocked at first. But if anything all these things should make you feel safer. If you are renting an Airbnb or staying at a private home, make sure you have the police number handy (10111) as well as that of the security company the home uses. In case of emergency call them first!
If you have a rental car, avoid driving outside of town at night. Do not leave anything in sight in your car. Not even your stinky yoga mat or your old sneakers. People will break into your car for stuff that you may deem worthless. If you don’t have your own car or need to get around at night, don’t hail a cab on the roadside and rather use Uber.
Just like anywhere else you should leave flashy jewelry and electronics at home. Keep your handbag close to your body, under the seat in the car while driving, and between your feet at a restaurant.
Do not leave your things unattended on the beach and don’t hike alone. Make sure to have your phone on you in case of emergency, but don’t flash it – if you have, rather take an old phone on your Cape Town holiday than your fancy iPhone X.
I don’t like the notion that townships are just areas of crime and violence because they aren’t. Many of them are regular neighborhoods where people go about their daily lives and businesses. And there are quite a few tourist hotspots to be found in townships these days. Still, I would recommend to either go with a guide or be very sure where you are going. And I definitely wouldn’t recommend driving around townships alone at night.
Be aware of your surroundings and don’t walk around at night even in seemingly busy and popular areas like Long Street.
And just like anywhere else – trust your gut!
Cape Town Food Scene
I am always surprised that not more people know about the amazing food South Africa has to offer. Yes, the wine is fabulous and you could drink your way through your Cape Town holiday, however, the food is also next level. Amazing meats, great fish and seafood, and different types of cuisines make for a really lekker holiday.
The one thing you will not find all that much in Cape Town is street food at least not if you are used to something like Bangkok or Singapore. However, there is a myriad of restaurants and cafes for all budgets. Find my favorite restaurants in Cape Town below but to be honest if you avoid touristy areas like Camps Bay you cannot have a bad meal in this city.
If you are interested to try a bit more authentic African food, check out places like Gold Restaurant, Mama Africa or Mzolis for an authentic braai (barbeque) experience.
Coffeebean Routes also offers a fantastic food tour that will take you from the Cape Malay cuisine in Bo Kaap to traditional Xhosa food in a township. A great way to experience South Africa on a plate and also to get a glimpse into township life without it being a zoo-like experience.
If you need a quick snack, many Engen garages have a Woolworths shop attached with some good sandwich and snack options. Chains like Kauai are great for fresh wraps and smoothies and Melissas makes a decent breakfast and has their own gift range of beautifully packaged foods like cookies, dried mangos, and teas.
Where to stay in Cape Town
Which area to stay in when you are coming for a Cape Town holiday? Oh, the options – there are just so many great suburbs to choose from.
I have finally gotten around to write a massive post about my favorite hotels and guesthouses. A little overview over the different Cape Town suburbs below.
City Bowl & Bo Kaap
The city center of Cape Town might not be the prettiest but you are smack bang in the middle of all the action here with easy access to all the sights. Bree Street is a true little gem with great cafes, restaurants, and shops while Long Street is backpacker heaven. Do remember that it might not be the quietest of areas and therefore not ideal for light sleepers. Bo Kaap is famous for its colorful houses and cobble-stoned streets at the slope of Signal Hill. This Cape Malay area is predominantly Muslim so do expect to be woken by a mosque if you are staying here. If you don’t mind Bo Kaap is ideal for foodies, fans of good coffee, and to take the perfect colorful Instagram.
Gardens, Tamboerskloof & Oranjezicht
These areas are set below Table Mountain and offer lots of green (DeWal park, Company Gardens, Deerpark) and some of the quaintest Victorian houses. Great eateries and a neighborhood feel all around make these the perfect base camp for your Cape Town holiday.
Green Point & Sea Point
Green Point is the gateway to the Atlantic Seaboard and home of the stadium, the Urban Park, and Metropolitan Golf Course. I like Mouille Point with its quaint lighthouse, ocean breeze, and its close proximity to Cape Town favorites, Giovanni’s and El Burro. Sea Point is one of my favorite areas in Cape Town and was my first home when I came here over ten years ago. The promenade is such a highlight any time of the day whether you have a dog to walk or not. Also not to miss: a dip in the Sea Point pool, a basil daiquiri at Rockpool and some seafood pasta at La Perla.
Clifton & Camps Bay
You won’t find pricier real estate than this but one can quickly see why – the houses are fancy and the views are to die for. Renting a villa in Clifton or Camps Bay makes for the ultimate Cape Town holiday if you have the wallet for it. Do keep in mind that it gets quite busy during the summer months on Victoria Road (the main road connecting the two) and traffic jams are common. However, you may not mind if you can roll directly from bed onto the beach.
Not an obvious choice but one of my favorite areas in Cape Town is Hout Bay. After the most beautiful drive of the world, Victoria Road from Camps Bay, you will find this little, somewhat sleepy fishing village surrounded by hills and forest (hout means wood in Afrikaans). Here you will find a small but great selection of restaurants, a lively harbor with boats departing to the seal colonies, quick access to Noordhoek via Chapman’s Peak as well as close proximity to Constantia and its wine farms.
Observatory & Woodstock
Two of the coolest areas in Cape Town are Observatory and Woodstock. Warehouses, lofts, and cool street art await in Woodstock alongside some of the trendiest eateries and shops. Observatory is quaint, full of cute colorful houses, and a hub for students and young families. If you want to stay here, your best option is an Airbnb for a real local experience.
The best beaches in & around Cape Town
One of the biggest draws for a Cape Town holiday is, of course, the city’s beaches. While the water is usually various degrees of freezing cold (depending on whether you dare to tip your toes in on the Atlantic side or the False Bay side with the Indian ocean) the views are worth a trip.
Probably one of the most famous beaches in Cape Town is Camps Bay beach. It is big, there are palm trees and Instagram-worthy spots and it has the oh so popular Victoria Road with busy bars and restaurants (which I think are oh so overrated!). I do like the views here and the little tidal pool that is great for swimming but more often than not the wind is pumping in Camps Bay turning a beach day into a very sandy affair.
The Clifton Beaches 1 – 4 are close to Camps Bay but offer much better protection from the wind. Clifton 4th beach is where the cool kids and photo teams hang out, 3rd beach is the ‘gay’ beach, and 1st and 2nd beach are for the rest. Or so they say….
I personally like Clifton 1st beach best as it is quiet. I don’t really go to the beach to see & be seen but to each their own…
Llandudno Beach is another stunner and well worth the trip. This beach is also great for surfers and comes with an all-around relaxed vibe.
Hout Bay Beach & Sandy Bay
I love Hout Bay Beach for walking dogs and soaking up the atmosphere of this little harbor village. There are some impressive dunes that are slowly making their way onto the roads and Dunes, a Hout Bay institution, which is great for a sundowner.
Sany Bay Beach is the only unofficial nudist beach in Cape Town ideal for those who are looking for a more freeing beach visit.
Up north, you will find Blouberg beach another stunner and kitesurfer heaven. What makes this beach so special is that it offers postcard-perfect views of Table Mountain.
Boulders & Windmill Beach
Boulders Beach in Simonstown is probably the most famous beach in South Africa. Here you can find the local African penguins and go for a swim with them. The beach itself is rather tiny but the funny (yet stinky) happy feet make up for it.
Alternatively, head to adjacent and free Windmill Beach. This one is beautiful and usually deserted but you might still get some stray penguins joining you for a swim.
My absolutely favorite beach is Kraal Baai in the Westcoast National Park. Pack a picnic and go for a day trip – it is well worth it. Not only is the drive amazing and the beach stunning but thanks to it being a lagoon this is the only beach where you will find warm-ish water temperatures.
Things to do & See in Cape Town
Need some inspiration on how to fill your days during the ultimate Cape Town holidays? Click below for some of my favorite Cape Town activities:
Do you have questions about traveling to Cape Town, anything I didn’t cover?
Please comment or shoot me a mail!
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