As with visiting any city, it helps to get a sense for how it operates before you arrive.
If you intend to do some exploring on your own, self-drive is the best option. The roads are good, traffic flows pretty smoothly and most rental cars come fitted with a GPS.
The Cape Town city centre and Atlantic seaboard are great for moving by bicycle. Rent from Up Cycles at the Sea Point Promenade, Silo District, V&A Waterfront, Camps Bay or Breakaway Cafe in the city.
Uber works really well, and is a great way to get anywhere in the city. No matter where you are, you never wait longer than ten minutes for an Uber. Taxify (now Bolt) also works, while regular cab services that are booked through a phone call, such as Sea Point Radio Taxis and Intercab, are also available.
City Sightseeing Bus
This is a great hop-on hop-off option that provides excellent value. You can get a city route, valid for a couple days, that you can use as a kind of taxi. There are longer routes, around the Winelands and the Peninsula, as well as a canal cruise.
The MyCiti bus system, introduced in 2010, is strong on the Western routes connecting Bloubergstrand, Tableview, Atlantis and surrounds to the city. It’s good around the city and can get you to Khayelitsha. Cash isn’t accepted: you need to have a MyCiti card, loaded with credit at a MyCiti bus station.
The most ubiquitous form of transport, providing access to everywhere, minibus taxis are an institution, and create more revenue than mining in the country. Rides are short, easy to pick up, and high frequency. Cash payments only.
Like in any city, when navigating Cape Town you need to have your wits about you. Crime is a reality everywhere in the world. And so a little street suss is always valuable. Be aware of your surroundings, leave your jewellery at home and don’t pay with wads of cash. Being conspicuous is never a great idea. The biggest threat is from pickpockets.
Statistically speaking, the people most at risk in Cape Town are us residents. The reality is that most Capetonians are really happy you are here, especially when you venture out of the tourism hubs and into different communities.
It’s a good idea to draw cash from ATMs in well-lit and busy areas. Don’t let anybody help you – that’s a well-known ruse to swipe your card and steal your cash.
You might encounter on the streets people who will ask you for money, especially around the historic centre. The reality is that socio-economic inequality is massive in this country, and tourists are obvious sources of a few bucks. Your hotels and perhaps your guides will suggest that you don’t hand over any cash. That’s one approach. Another is to keep R5 coins and R10 notes on hand and give something to people that ask. It beats ignoring people who ask for something, and allows a glimmer of human exchange to those who survive on the streets. Whether or not you are around, people will live on the streets, so your kindness is not perpetuating any problems.
You are probably safest in townships, where the fact that you are there is always graciously welcomed. Certainly white South Africans sedom visit, and you can tell this by how you are immediately asked where you are from!
The prospect of Day Zero – when the taps would run dry in Cape Town – turned 2018 into a miserable year for Capetonians, as citizens contemplated the prospect of queuing to collect daily water rations from army-controlled water points.
The international coverage was dire. Would this be the first city on the planet to run out of water? The fears around Day Zero discouraged a lot of travellers. Visitors who did come were quite at ease being restricted to one-minute showers and asked not to bath. Hotels installed water-harvesting and grey water reticulation systems. Given that Cape Town’s problem is part of a global climate change phenomenon, many visitors gladly took tips from our water management systems home.
2019 is looking much better. Rainfall is up, and we are expecting good winter rainfall. We are not out of drought – it is likely that drought will become our norm, and water restrictions semi-permanent. Most hotels have eased off to three-minute shower limits, and have kept the plugs out of the baths.
By Iain Harris, first published in Travel Africa magazine, edition 86, April-June 2019. To purchase this edition, click here.
Planning your trip
Greg Fox and Chris Goldring established UK tour operator Mahlatini Luxury Travel in 2002. In 2018, Johannesburg-born Greg moved to Cape Town to run the company’s new South African branch. We asked him for his insight for people planning a visit to the Mother City.
Why Cape Town?
This is an exceptionally scenic city, which encourages an outdoor lifestyle. It has generally great weather, excellent food and wine and a fascinating melting pot of cultures. It’s a cosmopolitan bustle, uniquely African with touches of European influence, as evidenced in the Cape Dutch architecture. It has an appealing mix of world-class hotels and caters for a diversity of interests, people and budgets.
I have been fortunate to spend much time here over the last 25 years, and I have seen great changes. The city has grown notably in the last ten years or so, which has brought with it infrastructural challenges and traffic congestion. However, the character, history, people and cultural heritage still remains its backbone and that, together with its incredible natural beauty, will keep it at the forefront of South Africa’s tourism offering for many years.
How long should one visit for?
Southern Africa offers so many attractions that usually it’s difficult for tourists with limited time to fit in another major destination as well as a lengthy stay in Cape Town. For this reason, the normal duration for a stay in Cape Town is three or four days, possibly up to a week. This gives sufficient time to explore the major sites whilst getting a feel for the ‘mood’ of the city. More time would allow the chance to escape the tourist bubble, travel further afield or explore areas of the city frequented by locals, to experience a more authentic perspective on Cape Town. We repeatedly have clients say they could have spent two weeks in Cape Town and still wanted longer.
When is the best time to visit?
Cape Town is visited year-round. If you want guaranteed hot and sunny weather, the summer months from November to March are best. Being the most popular, you will have to be prepared to wait in queues at tourist attractions and must book well in advance to ensure you get the hotel of your choice.
My favourite time to recommend to those who are willing to travel ‘off-peak’ is April/May or September/October. Autumn and spring can still offer lovely warm days with cooler nights and less of the crowds.
Winter is the riskiest time to visit. Cold fronts hit the coast, bringing with them cold, wet and windy weather, but this can be followed by several beautifully warm days where some may even be up for a dip in the pool! Families tend to visit in these months due to northern hemisphere summer holidays. It is the best time for seeing the southern right whales visit the Cape coast, and you will find better value for your accommodation.
Connections within the region?
Cape Town has easy flight connections to many of southern Africa’s top attractions, including the Victoria Falls and safari regions in Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe or beach destinations in Mozambique, Mauritius, the Seychelles. Of course, there is very easy access to other South African destinations such as Kruger National Park and KwaZulu-Natal, or you can drive the scenic Garden Route and end with a safari in the Eastern Cape. This is particularly well suited to families, and offers a quality, malaria-free safari experience.
What about ‘Big 5’ wildlife experiences?
There aren’t many quality safari destinations within a short driving distance of Cape Town; which is why many clients limit their time here before going to Kruger NP or other regions in southern Africa. That said, it depends on what wildlife you are after: Cape Town provides the opportunity to see the ‘Marine Big 5’ (whales, sharks, penguins, seals and dolphins) and if you are prepared to travel along the Garden Route or into the Karoo (4-5 hour drive) there are good wildlife reserves there to explore.
Is it expensive?
Cape Town is relatively cheap when compared to many other major cities in the world. Due to the favourable exchange rate, food and drink is very reasonable, with a meal for two including wine at a quality restaurant for around GBP £40-50, often less. Accommodation, when compared with equivalent standard in London or New York, is more affordable but shopping for clothing and other items may be comparable.