Cape Town Travel Guide

Jul 2nd, 2014 Africa

White-sand beaches, blue skies and cobalt seas are just the beginning of Cape Town’s allure. Set against the majestic backdrop of Table Mountain, this geographic wonder at the foot of Africa is home to surfers, foodies and jet-setters, as well as penguins, baboons, diamonds, wineries and world-class beaches. Join us as we explore the exciting city of Cape Town and its unique surroundings.

Cape Town – Streets of Plenty

Long Street is Cape Town’s main artery, pulsing with activity day and night. Spend some time exploring its 20 blocks of local-designer boutiques, antique arcades, music stores, bookshops, mosques and century-old Turkish baths. Recharge at one of the many restaurants, cafés, pubs and bars, which include two Cape Town institutions. The rustic Mr. Pickwick’s dedicates a whole page of its menu to exotic milkshakes, great for an afternoon pick-me-up, while a table on the balcony at the Royale Eatery affords great people-watching and the best burgers in town.
Venturing further toward Table Mountain, you’ll run into the lesser-known Kloof Street, which is filled with local arts, fashion and curios. Stylish restaurants and a well-established café culture on tree-lined sidewalks provide ample opportunity to explore Cape Town’s fabulous eateries. Here are some options to get you started:

  • Dine outside in the pebble gardens at Café Paradiso while gazing at Table Mountain.
  • Delve into an intriguing fusion of modern and eclectic at the elegant Opal Lounge.
  • Settle in for a cocktail and tapas at Asoka on an open-roofed courtyard anchored by an ancient olive tree.
  • For traditional South African cuisine, don’t miss Arnolds, beloved by locals for its relaxed ambience and great values. Enjoy delicacies like warthog ribs, ostrich fillet, Gemsbok Wellington and a game platter stocked with kudu, croc, ostrich and wild boar.
  • Cape Town Travel Guide - TravelSmith
    Photo Credit: Davide Stanley

    The Wine Routes – Leaving No Grape Unturned

    Cape Town’s scenic geography and grape-loving Mediterranean climate set the stage for wine tourism—South Africa’s fastest growing industry. Close to 560 wineries grace the Cape winelands (wine-growing region) area east of Cape Town. You’ll need a few days to explore the historic homesteads, cellar tours and tastings in the traditional wine enclaves of Stellenbosch, Franschhoek, Paarl and Wellington. Over 100 wine cellars alone surround the lovely town of Stellenbosch, where early settlers planted oak trees that gave the community its moniker Eiketad (village of the oaks). In addition to a vibrant university, Stellenbosch also boasts the oldest and largest wine route in the country. Top-flight restaurants ensconced in bucolic wine farms (vineyards) feature serene vineyard views and innovative cuisine. To sample some of the best, book a table at Clos Malverne or Rust en Vrede, which was chosen by Nelson Mandela for his Nobel Peace Prize dinner. If you fancy a taste of France, head to Franschhoek. South Africa’s gourmet capital emphasizes its French roots in superb restaurants, street-side cafés, cheese tastings and guesthouses in a small-village atmosphere.
    Cape Town Travel Guide - TravelSmith
    Photo Credit: John Hickey-Fry

    Hout Bay to Cape Peninsula – Take a Ride on the Chappies

    For a look at Cape Town’s marvelous surrounding geography, take a spin on Chapman’s Peak Drive. Steep inclines, sheer cliffs, sandy bays and sapphire seas mark this stellar passage, which begins south of Cape Town, connecting the towns of Hout Bay and Noordhoek en route to the Cape of Good Hope. Chappies—as the road is also known—clings to the spectacular Atlantic coastline on 5.6 miles (9 km) of winding curves that ascend to the orange sandstone cliff of Chapman’s Peak. Parking areas and vista points along the way allow you to enjoy picnics, panoramas and whale-watching (from mid-August to mid-November). Try to time your drive for sunset when the cliffs turn a vivid orange. The R33 (33 South African Rand, equivalent to approx. $3.60 U.S.) toll is a small price to pay for one of the world’s most dramatic ocean routes.

    Stellenbosch – Summer Theater of the Winelands

    The Cape’s Stellenbosch region draws legions of wine enthusiasts, but there’s more in store than just wine and vines. During the summer months (November to March), locals pack a picnic and blankets—or order them ahead—to enjoy an evening of entertainment. The seasonal open-air Oude Libertas Amphitheater is set in one of South Africa’s oldest wineries, overlooking the lovely Stellenbosch mountain range. This intimate site is flanked with ancient oak trees, picturesque gardens, vineyards and starry skies that form the backdrop for a wide variety of South-African musicians, dancers and artists. Be it opera, drama or dance, the performances are all accompanied by a coffee, wine and tapas bar. Go on a Saturday to catch the Stellenbosch Slow Market, which features superb local fare such as smoked fish, artisan cheese, sandwiches, baked goods, juice and wine, plus arts, crafts and other treasures. Have a picnic on the lawns or a glass of wine on the terrace before the show.
    Cape Town Travel Guide - TravelSmith
    Photo Credit: Jeroen Looyé

    V&A Waterfront – South Africa’s Glittering Bounty

    In 1867, a young boy found a pretty pebble near Hopetown that turned out to be a 21-carat yellow diamond. A few years later, it was eclipsed by the discovery of an 83-carat diamond—coined the Star of South Africa—in present-day Kimberley, located in central South Africa. The great diamond rush ensued and mining boomed as prospectors descended on the area. Kimberley mushroomed overnight and became the domain of the De Beers empire—its diamond mine (the Big Hole) is the largest in the world. South Africa also lays claim to the world’s largest diamond ever found. The Cullinan weighed in at 3,106 carats and was later cut into 105 pieces, some now part of the British Crown Jewels.
    You’ll find more fascinating tidbits about this gem and its unique history at the Diamond Museum in Cape Town. Take the short but highly informative private tour through the small diamond cutting and polishing workshop to see and learn how diamonds are cut, polished, fashioned and graded. Knowledgeable guides also provide purchasing strategies before leading you to the Shimansky jewelry showroom, where a sparkling array of diamonds and tanzanite (a rare blue gemstone found only in Tanzania)await.

    Table Mountain – The African Eden

    Set against the eastern slopes of Table Mountain, Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens are an African garden dream. Paved paths weave through 1,305 acres of glorious botanic abundance that showcases the incredible Cape Floral Kingdom (one of six floristic regions in the world), while hiking trails continue high up into the mountains. Trees, flowers and exotic plants are laid out in and around grassy expanses that climb steep hillsides. The fynbos—a native shrub of this coastal region—takes center stage, flowering at the end of winter to early summer (August to November). Benches under magnificent trees provide spots for reflection in this tranquil haven, while art and sculpture exhibits, a restaurant, café and tea garden further stimulate the senses. But it’s the Sunday Summer Sunset Concerts (beginning in November) that inspire locals to flock to the lawns with picnics, blankets and wine. Watching local and international musicians—from rock to classical—perform in this dramatic setting is a summer highlight.
    Cape Town Travel Guide - TravelSmith
    Photo Credit: Christopher Griner

    Cape of Good Hope – A Beach & Baboons at the End of the World

    The southwestern point of Africa was rechristened the Cape of Good Hope because it created by a sea link to India and the East. However, the new name belied the mercurial weather of its original name, “Cape of Storms.” Fortunately, you don’t need to go to sea to enjoy the beautiful peninsula, which is home to at least 250 species of birds—including wild ostriches and African penguins—along with antelope, zebras and 11 troops of Cape baboons. Part of Table Mountain National Park, the Cape features outstanding scenery and views, small seaside towns, surfing villages and plenty of opportunities to see the wandering baboons up close.
    To escape the crowds, make your way to the Cape Point car park at the southern tip of the peninsula and take the path to the sheer rocky cliffs for fantastic ocean views—and occasional ostrich sightings. If you navigate the stairs down the hillside, you’ll be rewarded with an exquisite pearl-white stretch of sand known as Dias Beach. Besides the occasional local surfer, you’ll have the place largely to yourself for a terrific experience at the foot of the continent.
    Cape Town Travel Guide - TravelSmith
    Photo Credit: Laura

    Betty’s Bay – The African Tuxedoed Brigade

    There are only three locations on the mainland that African penguins call home—two are in South Africa and one is in Namibia. In South Africa, the more famous Boulder’s Beach penguin colony in Simon’s Town on the Cape of Good Hope draws visitors to see the black-and-white sea crusaders in their daily routine. To avoid the tour buses and crowds, check out the more remote Stony Point penguin colony in Betty’s Bay instead. Here, you’ll see many more African penguins in a more natural and rustic environment—at half the cost. Viewing platforms and boardwalks amongst the nests cover a large area to make spotting penguins easy. In the late afternoons, you can see the flightless birds waddling up the pebbled pathways to their nests. The area closes at 5 p.m., so leave time to get there and wander, and be sure to bring a jacket for windy coastal conditions. The nearby Harold Porter National Botanical Garden, nicknamed “little Kirstenbosch,” is also a worthy stopping point. To get to Betty’s Bay from Cape Town, drive southeast along the stunning coastal route for a scenic one-hour journey.
    Cape Town Travel Guide - TravelSmith
    Photo Credit: leyla.a

    Franschhoek – Lord of the Vines

    For a classic country Cape experience, head to the winelands (wine-growing region) and treat yourself to a stay in Franschhoek. The French Huguenots first settled this fertile valley in the 17th century to escape religious oppression in France. The area was later called Franschhoek—meaning “French corner” in Dutch.
    Nestled in the country’s gourmet food and wine heartland at the foot of the Franschhoek Mountains, the bucolic Holden Manz is a stellar place to stay. This splendid Cape Dutch country house lies on a small estate and wine farm (vineyard) that blends contemporary art and feng shui principles with cozy architecture and warm hospitality. Lounge at the pool with a glass of wine, picnic under ancient trees along the river, indulge in the spa and stroll through the vines to the first-class Franschhoek Kitchen for lunch or dinner. The menu includes seasonal fruit, vegetables, herbs, mustard, eggs and blue-gum honey harvested fresh from the estate gardens. At night, retire to your suite to enjoy the fireplace and your plush bed. In the morning, a fresh, farmhouse breakfast awaits in the airy manor house. Touches like high tea, cellar-door tastings (wine tastings) and a butler make this a true delight.
    Cape Town Travel Guide - TravelSmith
    Photo Credit: Prasad Pillai

    The Beaches – Cape Town’s Crown Jewels

    Visiting one of the Cape’s magnificent beaches is a great way to experience the allure of Capetonian culture. Beaches are located on both sides of the Cape, and each has a slightly different feel. Positioned regally on the scenic Atlantic seaboard just southwest of the city, Clifton, Camps Bay and Llandudno are the key players on the Cape Town Riviera. Divided into four coves separated by boulders, Clifton features changing rooms, snack kiosks, chair and umbrella rentals, and great people-watching. Trendy restaurants, hip cafés and small grocers line the beach promenade of Camps Bay, which buzzes with an upbeat Riviera vibe. Photogenic Llandudno is a favorite local spot for sundowners (sunset drinks).
    If you’re looking for a quieter scene, keep heading south. The farm and lobster-fishing enclaves of Noordhoek and Kommetjie offer peaceful settings inhabited by artsy residents. Between them, Long Beach glistens with five miles of fine, white sand skirting deep-blue seas—perfect for surfers, kiters and horse riders. The area’s many pub-type restaurants make a fine place to enjoy a summer brew or sit by the fire on a chilly winter day. Drop into The Red Herring for a pizza and beer with great views, or try The Foodbarn for deli fare by day and atmospheric tapas by night. More beaches with slightly warmer waters lie on the Indian Ocean side of the Cape.
    Cape Town Travel Guide - TravelSmith
    Photo Credit: Diriye Amey

    Cape Town Travel Tips

    As South Africa’s oldest city, Cape Town has plenty to discover and explore. Read these tips to find out how best to unearth the treasures of what locals also refer to as “The Mother City.”

    A National Pastime

    The South African version of the barbeque is called a braai. Everyone loves this sociable, potluck-style gathering that spotlights food roasted over an open fire, whether it takes place at the beach, a winery, in a backyard or on a verandah. National Braai Day (September 24) confirms its cultural significance. At any braai, you can expect to see plenty of meat, which the locals consume in mass quantities. If you don’t get invited to one, leave Cape Town on a Sunday and head to the township of Gugulethu. There, you’ll find Mzoli’s, which offers a very local braai experience.

    Cape Dutch Cuisine

    Many popular South African dishes are hybrids of Dutch, French, Indonesian and Indian cooking traditions. The Cape Malays—descendants of 17th-century Dutch slaves that hailed mostly from Indonesia, Madagascar and Sri Lanka—retain a strong influence. Their dishes contain fragrant herbs and spices, curries, sambals, stews and fruit cooked with meat. Popular favorites include:

  • Bobotie: Curried, minced meat baked in an egg custard
  • Bredie: Slow-cooked meat (usually mutton) and vegetable stew; comes in many varieties
  • Sosatie: Skewered meat soaked in a curry marinade
  • Downtown Walking Tour

    The German-born Ursula Stevens established the first walking tours of Cape Town almost 30 years ago, and continues her forays through its streets and neighborhoods today. A history graduate who has lived in Cape Town for over 45 years, Ursula expertly guides her guests through gardens, flower markets, churches and the colorful Muslim quarter of Bo-Kaap, all while providing interesting historical and architectural facts. The R180 (180 South African Rand, equivalent to approx. $19.65 U.S.) for her 2 1/2-hour Cape Town on Foot & Bo-Kaap tour is money well-spent.

    The Cape Doctor

    Cape Town’s famous southeastern wind—also known as South-Easter—gusts in gale forces from False Bay through the mountain range to Cape Town and north to Blouberg. Locals say it keeps their city healthy, fondly referring to it as die Kaapse Dokter (The Cape Doctor). Most active in November, the billowing physician works from spring (August and September) to late summer (March and April), blowing away pollution, often at great force. Although its effects can be bracing at the beach, the Doctor conjures up clear skies, fresh air and great opportunities to watch masters of windsurfing and kite surfing, particularly in Blouberg.

    Beach Conditions

    When you visit Cape Town, go to the ocean. Rent a chair or take a walk on the brilliant white beaches of the Cape Town Riviera. Ocean swimming is safe in designated areas, but expect colder waters on the Atlantic side of the peninsula year-round. You’ll find warmer swimming in the Indian Ocean at great beaches like Muizenberg. Windy conditions often prevail at the beaches, so when the “Cape Doctor” blows (see above), head to sheltered Clifton Beach on the Atlantic side. February and March are the least windy, but they also draw the most crowds. If you want more space to yourself, go on weekdays.

    Cape Town Travel Seasons

    During the summer (December to February), tourists and film crews descend upon Cape Town and take up most of the beds in town. Holidays—especially Easter—also make for slim pickings. If you plan to visit during these times, be sure to book well in advance. Try going in late summer and early autumn (March, April) when the weather is mild, the crowds have faded and accommodations are more plentiful. You can also look for more affordable rates in the so-called “Secret Season,” from June to August.

    Capetonian Attire

    Cape Town is not a formal city. Its residents have a casual, friendly attitude that extends to their attire. Smart-casual ensembles are perfect for dining out, while casual wear is fine for day tripping. Cape Town experiences all four seasons, which are the opposite of seasons in the northern hemisphere (their winter is our summer, and their summer is our winter). Shorts and T-shirts are a common sight in summer (December to February). Layer up in winter (June to August) and always bring a windproof jacket for touring the Cape peninsula. The wet season runs from May to August, so come prepared with rain gear. Find everything you need for every time of year at TravelSmith.

    What Shall I Speak?

    South Africa has 11 official languages. Zulu, Xhosa and Afrikaans are the three most popular; Sepedj is fourth; and English is fifth. Capetonians mostly speak Afrikaans (a primarily Dutch-derived Germanic language), but English is commonly understood. Learn some Afrikaans to help navigate the culture and avoid misunderstandings. If a Capetonian tells you “Now now,” it means right away. If he says he will do something “just now,” it means in the near future but not immediately, and possibly never.

    Driving & Road Safety

    Cape Town is quite spread out, encompassing approx. 950 sq. miles, so be prepared to rent a car or use a tour bus to get around. The roads are excellent and safe, but watch where you stop and always be aware of your surroundings. Park in lots where official parking guards look after your vehicle. Popular areas like Long Street and the main beaches employ official guards. Self-employed “guards” in yellow bibs offering to watch over your car are a common sight on the streets. Locals trust them and tip them a few rand upon returning to their cars. If you can’t find a guarded lot, park on populated, well-lit thoroughfares and keep a few spare rand in your pocket for tipping.