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Boulder's Beach
Boulder's Beach | © South African Tourism
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10 Essential Tips for Your First Visit to Cape Town

Picture of Andrew Thompson
Updated: 27 February 2018
Cape Town is a surprisingly safe and easy city to visit, and if you’re planning your first trip, your biggest problem may just be how to fit all of the city’s notable attractions into your tight itinerary. But with a few tips and some insight into the city, you’ll be able to maximise your time and ensure you leave South Africa yearning to return.

Stay close to the city centre

If it’s your first visit to Cape Town, you’ll want to stay close to the urban action. Though charming accommodation pictures may lure you out to suburbs like Big Bay, Blouberg, Muizenberg, Kalk Bay and the Winelands, the reality is that the outlying suburbs are relatively sleepy and quite hard to get to without your own vehicle. Instead, try and stay somewhere central – anywhere in the so-called City Bowl will do, or if you’re willing to spend a bit more, the Atlantic Seaboard offers great views and a glimpse of the highlife.

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Cape Town City Centre | © Andrew Thompson

Be weary of the expensive touristy regions (unless you’re loaded)

As in any developed tourist city, there are businesses expert at luring in visitors and helping them part with their hard-earned cash. Some, such as those at the Camps Bay Strip and V&A Waterfront, are easy to spot and beautiful to walk around, but drastically overpriced. Others, like curio markets and some appealing restaurants and stores, are better at keeping it under cover until the bill arrives after a mediocre experience. If money is no object, then go ahead and treat yourself to that exquisite sea view or ostentatious cocktail. But if you’re looking for good value, do a bit of research and follow the locals.

Table Mountain from the V&A Waterfront
Table Mountain from the V&A Waterfront | © HPBotha / Pixabay

Work with the weather, not against it

Cape Town has a Mediterranean climate, and the weather can be dramatically different depending on which side of the mountain you find yourself. During summer, it’s often hot but windy; in winter it won’t get horrendously cold, but can rain for a few consecutive days. Fortunately, there are plenty of things to do when the weather turns.

Perfectly still day? Head straight for the mountain while the cable cars are operating. Wind pumping? Why not try your hand at kite surfing, or take a scenic drive? Rain getting you down? Find a cosy wine estate with a roaring fireplace. It’s easy to get grumpy with the weather in Cape Town, but the best approach is to seize the opportunities on a good-weather day, and embrace the indoor activities at other times.

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Lion’s Head from Table Mountain | © South African Tourism

The city is pretty safe, but stay alert

If it’s your first trip to Cape Town, you’re probably anxious about your safety and security. The reality is that there are parts of the city that aren’t particularly safe, but if you keep your wits about you, you should be fine. Don’t flash valuables, and never leave them on your car seat or in the boot unattended. If you’re going for a hike, leave irreplaceable documents and valuables behind. And stick to withdrawing cash from well-lit, public automatic teller machines – and politely but firmly refuse any assistance from people lurking nearby. As with any big city, there are opportunists waiting to take advantage of visitors, but those who are smart and alert to the fact will likely scare off any would-be criminals.

Wine lover? Plot a route or consider overnighting out of town

As incredible as the city of Cape Town is, the wine farms nearby are equally worthy of a day or two of your time. If you’re simply looking to escape the city for a few hours to sample some great wines, you can’t go wrong with Constantia, just a short drive from the city. But if you’re a true wine fanatic, you might be better off booking an overnight stay in nearby Franschhoek. You’ll be free from the pressure of a busy day trip, and close to at least a dozen world-class wine estates and restaurants, some of which you can explore over the course of a 24-hour stay.

franschhoek
Franschhoek | Courtesy of South African Tourism

Book far in advance for the city’s popular restaurants

Cape Town’s become a foodie capital of the world, and there are dozens of top restaurants to explore. Many accept walk-ins or last-minute reservations, particularly in the off season, but others, such as the Test Kitchen or La Colombe, book up months in advance. If eating out is a primary goal of your trip, then it pays to book a long way in advance. If not, you can’t go wrong with an evening walk down Bree Street, where any number of restaurants will serve up a high-quality meal.

The Shortmarket Club interior
Shortmarket Club in Cape Town CBD | Courtesy of Shortmarket Club

Steer clear of the peak summer season

If you have any say on the dates you choose to come to Cape Town, then try to steer clear of the end-of-year madness. Though the weather is sublime and the atmosphere electric, from late November to early February you’ll be fighting with crowds and paying a premium to do it. The shoulder seasons of spring and autumn may have slightly more variable weather, but you’ll have many top attractions to yourself and find some good deals.

Familiarise yourself with the (limited) public transport

Cape Town has better public transport than many other South African cities, but it’s still quite difficult to wrap your head around if you’re a first-time visitor. If you’re staying in the city centre, you’ll easily be able to catch a safe and reliable MyCiti bus to most attractions and even some outlying regions. There’s also a direct bus from the airport to the CBD. Download the MyCiti app, or visit the mobile website for up-to-date route information. If you’re not renting a vehicle for your stay, it’s likely that you’ll need to use private transport at some stage. If this is the case, your safest and cheapest bet is to turn to Uber or Taxify.

A MyCiti Bus station in Cape Town
A MyCiti Bus station in Cape Town | © Warren Rohner / Flickr

Prepare for some time in the outdoors

Cape Town may have incredible restaurants and museums, and some fascinating indoor activities, but to take full advantage of the city you’ll want to spend time outdoors. If you’re an enthusiastic hiker you can easily spend a day exploring the mountain, and beach bums will revel in the pristine coastline. But even if you’re not a massive outdoor enthusiast, it’s well worth taking the time to flit to the top of the mountain in the cablecar, take a gentle walk along a beach or take a scenic drive to an dramatic view point. A pair of decent walking shoes, suncream and a water bottle or two will stand you in good stead.

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Table Mountain | © South African Tourism

Dust off that bucket list, and double your allocated time

Cape Town is bucket-list central, and there are people who’ve lived here their whole lives and not yet ticked everything off. So a bit of good planning, and adding as much time as possible, will go a long way towards easing the pressure and ensuring you have enough time to at the every least get to the city’s most iconic attractions.

table moutnain
Table Mountain from Lion’s Head | © South African Tourism