When I started my blog, I did not think that I would be doing any travel posts because, well, I am currently in medical school and my free time and income are limited. I then began to think that although I am not an avid, 100 countries down traveler I have spent an extensive amount of time researching my trips, going through trial and error on the ground and thought that my experience would benefit someone who is looking for recommendations, ideas or useful information. One of my most meaningful and soul warming trips I ever took was to South Africa. I decided to go there during a time in my life that I would consider a difficult transition period. In many ways it may have been my escape clause but where better to escape to than a paradise at the near bottom of the world? It turns out, that my trip to SA was the perfect escape, would transform my future, leave me with friends and acquaintances all around the world and a longing for wanderlust for the remainder of my life (at least thus far).
So first let’s talk about Cape Town the city on the SW tip of South Africa, a melting pot of cultures, extensive history and the most beautiful landscapes! I honestly almost don’t know where to begin there is so much to cover for this beautiful city and the surrounding suburbs. I spent 10 weeks in Cape Town during the southern hemispheres summer from November to January. I was there interning in public health however I had plenty of free time to enjoy the sites, dive into the culture and be so incredibly free!
To me, Cape Town is one of those infectious places that I believe people (Americans, specifically) often overlook when choosing their next destination. Whether you are a student looking for volunteer work or an internship, a group of friends looking for a lively place with lots of adventure or a couple, CT is an amazing choice. In this guide I will cover so much you need to know to visit Cape Town and how to get the most out of your trip.
Let’s start with the fun stuff, what to do while you are there, AKA the reasons to get on a plane and go!
When you land I would, after you get settled and succumb to the jet lag, reserve a seat on the City Sightseeing Tour.
While I did not do this many of the individuals I lived with took the Hop on Hop off red bus tour and had nothing but great things to say.
If I could redo my stay I would start with this bus as it provides a great way to gather your bearings, see multiple sites and learn more about the city in a single day. Now lets dive into specific recommendations.
PLACES TO GO
Cape Town Downtown
Long Street, the street of the life, at night. This area of downtown is incredibly popular for nightlife, especially for a younger crowd. In particular, Beer House, which is a rather assaulting color of yellow, has a great range of beer selection as well as many other options. This bar gets filled quickly and is often very busy which can be annoying BUT it is a good time. There are multiple other places all within walking distance of each other that are worth a visit. Just walk up and down the street and you are sure to find something, read my safety tips below to make sure you are prepared.
The colorful row houses, what a site to see. You can just drive to them yourself or if you want to take a walking tour they are free but work off gratuity! They are beautiful, unique and worth a stop after lunch.
First Thursday of the Months
If you happened to plan your trip to be in the city on the first Thursday of the month then you for sure should head downtown and visit all the art galleries. Cape Town has a huge art presence as well as beautiful galleries, eateries and bars to check out. This event is essentially free and a wonderful way to spend the evening. This is an event that even the locals frequent so it is one way to immerse yourself in the real vibe of CT.
The VA waterfront is where you will find some shopping, this is a huge mall mixed in to the harbor and has amazing, higher end places to eat, shop and relax. Here you can find all the popular brands as well as the ticket counter for Robben Island, outdoor live music, some rides at times and when I was there they had a Titanic Exhibit, and since I was obsessed with that movie, ahhem Leonardo DiCaprio as a youngster, I surely made an appearance there. There is also an aquarium nearby that is great for the kids and adults.
I would suggest timing your visit with the Robben Island Tour. If you are a history buff or a Nelson Mandela fan, I highly recommend taking the ferry to Robben Island. Not only do you get a lesson but the feeling you get when you are on an island with such a troubled history is heavy but meaningful. Not to mention the views from the island to the neighboring Table Mountain are top notch! For this tour you can get tickets at the VA waterfront but I highly suggest purchasing them online to make sure you get the time you want. Click here for their website. Robben Island (Nelson Mandela)- get tickets at VA waterfront.
Cape Town and surrounding areas is home to many original designers, artisans and the most delicious, sustainable food markets you can think of. These are certainly to be one of the highlights of your trip with each of the markets having a unique personality.
Definitely check out-
Go hungry and bring your wallet to buy some beautiful hand-crafted designs you won’t regret your visit to these markets but check the times in country because they get crowded quick.
The botanical gardens might sound boring but there is so much beauty here that it is a must see! They have events at the gardens and sometimes have outdoor movie showings for the perfect date night. The gardens are at the base of the mountains and provide the a great backdrop for a breath-taking picnic.
Just above the gardens and just about in any line of sight within the city you will see three iconic peaks (or two peaks and one plateau and a hill, if you will) Table Mountain, Lions Head and Devils Peak with a smaller Signal Hill. All of these have hiking trails that are easily reachable within a day and usually with in a few hours. I did not personally hike these when I was there as I was not in hiking shape but if I have the chance to go back I most certainly will!
I think when a lot of people hear about South Africa they think, Surfing! Well there is some surfing here but from what I understand most of the world class surfing is on the South East Coast of the country. Nevertheless, there are a wide variety of beaches in and around Cape Town that are worth the visit, with one notable beach we will discuss in a very short moment, spoiler alert it involves an animal in a tuxedo!
First, Camp’s Bay, is a beautiful beach, with some massive boulders to climb and restaurants lining the road so you can have a scenic brunch or lunch. I found that it was not great for swimming as it was cold and windy.
If you are looking for a swimming beach, I think Simon’s Town/ Boulders Beach is the most ideal. If you pay to go into Boulders Beach you can lay your towel down on the sand and swim in a shallow area that is walled off from the rest of the ocean by boulders, hence Boulder’s Beach and wait for it…. Swim and hang out with the South African Penguins that live there!!! I mean what more could you want?
If by any odd chance you don’t want to swim with penguins but would rather swim with sharks, I would check out Muizenberg. I am only half joking but this beach had/has the iconic colorful huts lining the beach. This is also were you can find many places to rent a surf board, easy waves and a long beach to relax on. This beach is popular with locals and tourists alike and can get very busy. Also, they do have a shark watch that warns the beach goers if there so happens to be a Jaws swimming about the surfers and swimmers. So I wouldn’t worry too much.
Another beautiful beach- I mean they are ALL beautiful so I guess I can stop saying that- but one for surfing is Llandudno.
If you are even more adventurous than surfing or love to watch action sports, then I HIGHLY recommend visiting Blouberg Beach. Not only will you get a great view of Table Mountain on a clear day, but you will also witness kite boarders soaring many meters into the sky! I mean they go so high! You can also reach out and find kite boarding lessons if that is something you like. This beach is not one for swimming and it is EXTREMELY windy, so wear a wind breaker and make sure you don’t get sand in your eyes.
There are truly so many beaches to choose from that you could probably spend an entire month checking them all out so I would pick a few and visit those depending on what you want to do.
Cape Town and food go together like peanut butter and jelly. This is one of the best cities for amazing dishes. It is largely affordable, for example I had a filet steak dinner with wine for less than 13 USD! Whatever kind of cuisine you want they have it! Some of the best, more authentic and iconic places to eat though are
- Mzolis in Gugulethu Township – great for those who love meat, BBQ and beer. The party is always lively and you eat so much!
- Mzansi in Langa Township a traditional meal, cooked in a residence within the township, the hospitality is top notch and there is live music. Seating is limited so I would make reservations.
- Rhodes memorial tea garden is just a small tea café, but is on the side of signal hill and after you eat you can go to the overlook at Rhodes Memorial.
- The Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel has a High Tea that is not to be missed if you fancy that kind of environment. It is a true tea party, little sandwiches, a large selection of tea and many, many pastries and deserts to choose from. It was a great experience.
One of the things I can not speak to are accommodations. Like I stated, I was there for an internship so I lived in a house in the Mowbray area with several other students. This was a great accommodation for me at the time but didn’t allow me to find any others. However, if I were to go back on holiday I would look in to Airbnb type accommodations. In many places there are extremely nice houses and not two blocks over is a make shift neighborhood with shacks, and I don’t mean this to be negative it is just reality, you will find that the resourcefulness of some of the residents is outstanding. So be mindful of this when trying to book a place to stay online. There are also many backpackers and hostels that are highly rated, so look for those when deciding where to stay.
If you are traveling outside of Cape Town definitely keep reading!
As you extend out from the city center you can check out some other incredible activities!
I experienced and would highly recommend seal snorkeling and white shark diving.
In Hout Bay, where the market is you can ride a boat for about R60 to Seal Island, this is amazing because I have never seen so many seals in one spot before!
Also at Hout Bay is where you catch your charter for the Seal Snorkeling– I believe I used . How this works is use dress in a dry, full suit because the water is very cold, you are given a snorkel and flippers, hop on a little boat and they take you back out to seal island. This is where you hop off the boat and just flip you’re little heart out. You may ask, well aren’t seals a white shark’s favorite snack, and the answer would be yes but the water around seal island is too shallow for the white sharks so they do not tend to come there. This is an INCREDIBLE experience, to watch a seal (AKA: water dog) come up to you in amazement and swim away, your adventure bucket will definitely be full for the day.
The next stop for the not faint of heart would be to try White Shark Cage Diving. Yes, I mean hop in a metal cage, in the ocean and bait a Great White Shark, just like you see on TV!! The sharks are great whites, but they are usually juveniles, so the one I saw was “only” about 3 meters long. The older, larger sharks don’t tend to come up to the surface so you likely won’t see the largest white shark but it is still VERY exciting. The sharks do swim very close and sometimes into the cage so queue the squeals.
My only advice with this is to make sure you don’t fall off the boat and if it is advised by your physician to be safe, take a motion sickness medication because even if you think you don’t get sea sick, you probably will, especially if it is a choppy day. This is a once in a lifetime experience. I believe I used this service here but there are others and they are all similar. The Shark Diving is in Hermanus so either book a tour from Cape Town or if you are going to head to Hermanus as part of your trip, say to watch the whales, I would also recommend just staying there and enjoying a few days. One of my own dreams is to own a house in Hermanus, it is just breathtaking and quiet, the perfect city for relaxation.
Next up, WINE COUNTRY!
A visit to one or both of the wine countries in South Africa, Western Cape is a must!
The first one I visited was in Paarl, this was the first weekend I arrived and I have to say, it definitely set the tone for my trip.
Paarl is quite a drive from the city center so if you have a big group, you can negotiate a mini bus to drop you but you will have to get an uber or similar back as it is quite a rural area. This is why it is much easier to have a rental car.
The vineyard we went to was Spice Route it has to have the most beautiful scenery in that area, so grab a table outside, order a wine tasting and pairing (R85) and just enjoy the time. It was a top-notch experience. After you are done with the tasting of wine you can enjoy the various other departments they have including a chocolate factory and tasting, a brewery, biltong and gift shops. Spend the whole day here, you won’t regret it.
The next wine country to go is Stellenbosch, I would recommend staying in Stellenbosch and doing some winery hopping. There are so many to choose from and the scenery is just as beautiful. This is about an hour from Cape Town so a car would be best for transportation.
In addition to this some family friendly options also include World of Birds, Cheetah Outreach, and a trip to Cape Point.
World of Birds is a nice little stop with walkways where you can walk among birds and other small animals. I love owls and there was one just sitting on the ledge next to me, it is was amazing! There are also other animals and a monkey den to go hang out in, which is a super experience. The kids would love this!
Cheetah Outreach is another great place for those who love animals, this is an animal sanctuary, reputable, that has some elderly cheetahs that they care for as well as a few other animals including, at the time, a couple of meerkats that were rescued from owners who illegally purchased them. This outreach aims at educating the public on the cheetah’s plight by allowing an interaction and intimacy that aims to help us connect and understand, care. It was a nice half day experience and could be done on your way to Stellenbosch as it is located in Somerset West, on the opposite side of False Bay from Cape Town.
Cape Point is the most south western point on the continent of Africa, it is a large, drivable park with violent baboons just on the side of the road, so you will want to drive slow and keep your windows closed. At the end you reach a car park where you walk up A LOT of stairs to reach the lighthouse, there is a gondola ride too for those who don’t want to or are unable to walk.
If you are more into a cultural immersion I would suggest seeking out the many walking tours that are available to the various townships. There are many named townships, as you will see that have a unique structure and provide an insight into the daily life of many Capetonians. The walking tours and township tours can be flighty so I would just ask while you are there, someone is sure to be up to date but I have provided the link below.
I only spent 10 weeks in the city and I also worked so I did not have time nor the funds to do everything I wanted. If I were to return the top 3 things I would make sure to accomplish in addition to revisiting a few places would be to go to Cape Aghulas-where the Atlantic Ocean and Indian Ocean meet, watch the whales migrate, Take a Garden Route Tour, and take a visit to Kruger National Park.
Now lets chat about logisitics, the not so fun but very necessary information.
WHEN TO GO
I think that anytime during the year is a great time to visit Cape Town, although if you want beach weather you would have to stay during the southern hemisphere’s summer. I found my time in November-January to be pleasurable with the climate, it barely rained, and the heat was not too bad, although I am from Florida so summer heat is a high bar to reach for me. If you want to see the South Right whale migration then I would suggest going between the June-November! That is when they say you see the most around the southern tip.
HOW TO GET AROUND
So, unlike many other destinations that have a taxi mafia, if you will, Cape Town did not have such problems. This means that if you want to catch an Uber at the airport it is perfectly acceptable. However, after my time there I strongly wish I would have had a rental car so when you arrive at CPT I recommend having a car reserved! There are many options there so it should not be a problem. This option will give you the most freedom. The parking situation is do able almost everywhere you want to go and the petrol is not expensive.
I don’t recommend using the public transportation unless you have expendable time. The public buses are usually not on time and the mini buses beat to their own drum that does not have a steady rhythm. If you do not want to rent a car Uber will do. If you are feeling particularly frugal, have a death wish or just want the excitement I would take the mini busses. Just remember that they drive on the left side of the road so if that bothers you, it may be a problem but I found that it only takes a couple of hours to figure it out. You can use a US drivers license there but to be honest, I hardly ever saw police pulling anyone over, but don’t quote me on that.
Cape Town is one of those places where you can travel on an extreme budget or spend a considerable amount of money. It all depends on you. South Africa uses the South African Rand which exchanges with the US dollar, British Pound or Euro quite favorably. It takes some getting used to so I recommend downloading Globe Converter App, I used it my entire trip until I could calculate the change myself and I continue to use it on other trips as well. Trip hack: If you are trying to travel somewhere on a budget I recommend going somewhere where your currency exchanges favorably, that’s of course if you are open to destinations!
As far as getting money while you are there- I do not think it is necessary to exchange currency before you go, there are numerous ATMs in the city, all over that always have money in them. I used Standard Bank and found them to be reliable and provide a good exchange rate. Fees will also depend on your home institution so if you do have international ATM or international transaction fees I would recommend withdrawing as minimal times as possible and pay with cash as the fees can add up. If you are looking for a US bank that has no international fees, Capital One does not have any international transaction fees on their credit card or checking account options (as of January 2019-subject to change). Check with your banking institution before you go and always make them aware of your travel!
Digital security in Cape Town is good, most restaurants and places of business require you to put in your pin code when making a purchase and you do so at the table with your card, so it never leaves your sight.
One of the things I would highly suggest is to be very vigilant with your surroundings at some of the more inner-city ATMs as pin and card theft are VERY common. You think it won’t happen to you but my roommate had her debit card stolen and cash was withdrawn, this was a nightmare for her as it took a long time to get a replacement from a different country.
This brings me to my next topic, SAFETY. When I told my friends and family I was going to South Africa they all thought that I would be in danger, all the time. While I will not tell you that it is completely safe I will say that if you are super aware of your surroundings, keep your wits about you and don’t put yourself in potentially dangerous situations then you will be fine. Here are some tips I have:
If you go to a large gathering in the city I would make sure you keep your belongings in a hard to access, bag or zipped/buttoned pocket. I would not wear valuables or even flash your cell phone and definitely do not flash money. The majority of people in CT are extremely friendly but just like any populated city there are individuals who live on the street, prey on tourists, pick pocket and pan handle.
This caution is not so important in airy spaces or in places with no crowds but just always be aware.
I would not suggest walking out at night by yourself unless you are staying in a very secure area.
I also recommend bookmarking you Embassy website to keep up on travel advisories. This will be the first place that you will find information on what is going on in the country, if any civil unrest has started or any natural disasters that you should be aware of. If you click HERE , it will take you to the US Embassy/State Department website where you can register your travel, sign up for notifications and click HERE to get the low down on what is going on!
As a general observation the townships are not the safest place for outsiders, there are many areas that have high end housing but down the road, individuals have started to make a home. This is very common, to set up housing wherever, using whatever resources they have available so do not be surprised when you see this. There are very low-income areas that are not like places in countries such as the US.
No vaccinations are required to enter South Africa unless you are also traveling through a Yellow Fever designated area, click HERE for a list from the WHO. In this case you are required to show proof of immunization.
Other items I would suggest having are your own prescription medications with the active copy of the prescription, in the original bottles and if they are scheduled medications check the list of the country to make sure they are not illegal.
Travel insurance is not necessary but also not a bad idea. I use World Nomads when I travel abroad, and the only reason I do this now is to prevent loss of money if the trip gets delayed or canceled which seems to happen all the time now.
In addition to this, if you are traveling into Kruger Park outside of Cape Town you will need Malaria prophylaxis but, in the city, you will not be at risk. I purchased malaria prophylaxis without a prescription at a chemist in the city but not sure if that was a rule or an exception. I would suggest speaking with your primary care physician to discuss what might be best and necessary for you to bring.
For US Citizens, a US passport with at least 2 blank visa pages is required. It must not expire during your travel and at minimum have 30 days validity. US citizens receive a FREE 90-day tourist visa upon arrival at the first airport in South Africa. Check the link above or your countries state department for up to date information. US citizens are not allowed to work on this VISA, but one can volunteer and intern with it without pay.
Now that we have gone through the fun, beautiful and the serious aspects of traveling to South Africa I am going to provide some fun facts of very specific things you might encounter.
- Ice, in drinks, is a luxury. If you like a lot of ice in your beverages you will need to be specific when ordering your drink.
- If you rent a car, and park it almost anywhere that is not at a private residence then there will be a person “watching your car” and you will tip them when you go back to the car to leave. Not a lot usually around 10R but just do it, it’s their hustle.
- Do not give the pan handlers money, even children, there is an established gang system out there that exploits the children and unfortunately it is impossible to distinguish between the needy and the exploited.
- Try Biltong if you like beef jerky it is game changing, as in you will want it forever!
- If you are walking on the side of the road you will get honked and screamed at, a lot. It is not personal usually, it is just a mini bus.
- You have to pay for bags at the supermarket, this is not uncommon in other places but it is good to know because they don’t assume you want one.
- If you are there long term and buy groceries, you don’t have to keep eggs in the refrigerator, which was weird for me, I did it anyways.
- Tipping is usually about 10%
- “How’s it” means something along the lines of “How are you?, What’s up?, Hello, What’s going on?, I could never quite tell.
- “Slow down, its Cape Town”, where everyone is in a rush but never in a rush all at the same time! Most definitely applies, so plan accordingly.
- Don’t forget there is a beach, with PENGUINS!
I mean, what more do you need to go to Cape Town than a beach with penguins? The answer is nothing!
I hope that my reflections, recommendations, regrets and tips have helped you become excited about travel, convince you to go to Cape Town or has helped you prepare for your trip. If anything, find inspiration! Feel free to share my guide with anyone who you think it might help. I did the leg work so others don’t have to.
My lasting thought about Cape Town is that this city will capture your heart. It allows you to be free, explore the world and be exposed to so much culture and liveliness in such a short amount of time. The beauty that you will encounter there is so unique and I hope it touches your soul in the way that it touched mine.
If you have any questions for me feel free to leave them below or contact me!
P.S. Excuse my poor photo quality, I was not yet an amateur photographer and I was more focused on my experience versus documenting them at this time.