What do you want in a city? For me, it should:
- Have great food. Food markets are a plus
- Be walkable and have fun neighbourhoods
- A warm beach would be amazing
- Have ample outdoor activities
- Be scenic
- Offer good day trip opportunities
- Be affordable
- Have good weather year round
- Have wildlife. Squirrels are acceptable, bonus points for more exotic animals.
- Feel safe everywhere (vs having good and bad/no-go neighbourhoods)
- Be reasonably close to home (Montreal)
Let’s go over these points one by one.
Living as vegetarians in the hipster mecca of Williamsburg, NYC, you wouldn’t think that I’d be dreaming of a city in Africa. I wasn’t expecting the food in Cape Town to be anything special, but it is absolutely incredible. We ate at little cafes (Baked Cafe), beautiful outdoor restaurants in parks (Company’s Gardens), super fancy restaurants on the side of a mountain
that are way too expensive (The Roundhouse), casual vegan places (Plant), restaurants by the ocean (Mynt), amazing breakfasts (Lola’s), and even your standard boring chain restaurant with a big menu THE GREATEST RESTAURANT IN THE WORLD (Tashas). Of course, no meal cost more than ~$8 USD per person. If you get bored of restaurants, the quality of the food markets here is up there with London, except a quarter the price and with a better vibe (fun fact: South Africans love/crazy misuse the word “vibe” and all its derivatives). We visited Bay Harbour Market in Hout Bay, which had tons of food, shops, young people, and loud music; The “Neighbourgoods” Saturday market at the Old Biscuit Mill in Woodstock (a very hipster/slowly gentrifying neighbourhood), Cape Town’s answer to Smorgasburg/Brooklyn Flea; and the market at V&A, which is smallish but still had around 20 excellent vendors.
Cape Town is on a peninsula, with water on all sides, the Table Mountain/Lion’s Head/Signal Hill mountain range in the middle, and a bunch of neighbourhoods around the edges. Any big city with both mountains and beaches automatically makes it to the top of my list! The most touristy one is Victoria & Alfred Waterfront (V&A), on the near left side of the image (just past the soccer stadium). The closest parallel I can think of is Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco: a fun waterfront with lots of shopping and good restaurants. Many tourists stay here, or in Kloof Street/Gardens if they’re very hipster or on a budget. I highly recommend Camps Bay (top right of the photo above), which I would describe as the Malibu of Cape Town. It’s ridiculously beautiful, right on an amazing beach with huge houses, fancy cars, and upscale restaurants. Somehow the prices are still absurdly low (we had dinner across the street from the beach at a great restaurant for under $10 for two). We could easily spend all day walking the residential streets at the foot of the mountains or lying on the beach watching surfers and impromptu rugby games. We stayed at the Villa Surprise, a luxury boutique hotel with a huge balcony facing the ocean, for a little under $70 USD/night.
Cape Town is all about being outside. In addition to the incredible beaches, parks, and gardens, Cape Town has the best hiking of any large city that I know of. The most famous hiking trails can be found at Table Mountain (where you have the option of hiking or taking the cable car up) and Lion’s Head, but there are dozens of other prime hiking spots. We hiked up Lion’s Head, the mountain which towers above Camps Bay. The hike was breathtaking. As the trail spirals around the mountain, you get 360-degree views of Cape Town, the most scenic big city I’ve ever been to. For the first half, the trail is wide and smooth but still pretty steep and gives you a good workout. The second half of the hike consists of ladders and rock climbing; it’s not for the faint of heart.
If you’re into history, I would highly recommend a visit to Robben Island, where political prisoners in Apartheid South Africa were held, including Nelson Mandela for 18 years. All the tours are led by former prisoners (take this tour now, they won’t be around much longer!). The tour includes a 30 minute ferry each way from V&A to the island and a guided bus/walking tour around the island. The ferries leave a few times a day, and it’s recommended to make a reservation in advance as they sell out (even in the winter when we were there).
We only had time for one day trip. We chose a quick drive around the Cape Peninsula, but there are many more options to choose from, including the Cape Winelands, Whale Watching in Hermanus, West Coast beaches, or Spring Wildflowers in Clanwilliam.
It takes approximately 3.5 hours to drive around the Cape Peninsula. We drove clockwise, while allows you to drive on the ocean side of the road (since they drive on the left), and the timing allows you to tour the west-facing Chapman’s Peak drive close to sunset.
Our first stop was Muizenberg, famous for its colourful beach houses (although we didn’t know of their existence before we saw them). We parked our car and spent some time walking along the beach and the main street before continuing with our drive.
Next up was the highlight of our
day lives, seeing penguins at Boulders Beach! Contrary to common belief, you don’t need to go to Antartica to see wild penguins. This spot provided us with lots of amazing pictures and videos – penguins are funny to watch. Even without the penguins, the beach is pretty scenic in it’s own right, with its namesake boulders dotting the coast.
After reluctantly saying goodbye to the penguins, we reached Cape Point, the southern tip of the peninsula. We drove all the way to the end of the road, seeing a few ostriches and a mongoose along the way. It’s a very nice drive with great coastline views. We made a detour to the Cape of Good Hope (the Southwestern-most point of Africa), which wasn’t that special. At the end of the road we parked our car and walked up to the lighthouse, which is a 20 minute uphill hike (or there’s a funicular which we didn’t take). The views from the top, especially from the Cliff Lookout, are stunning. Huge cliffs that look like they belong in Newfoundland or Ireland, not Africa. I didn’t even know about the Cape Point before we got to South Africa, but it was one of the surprise highlights of our trip.
Although we thought this would be a quick stop to check out the scenery, we ended up spending over two hours here, which meant we didn’t have time for more stops on the return to Cape Town. The high point of the drive was Chapman’s Peak Drive, the toll road (R42) just south of Hout Bay. We had heard that this is a great scenic route, blasted into the cliffs above the ocean, and it far exceeded our expectations. It can honestly be compared to the Pacific Coast Highway in Big Sur, albeit much shorter and with less to do off of the road.
For a city to be high up on my list it must be affordable. Obviously it’s fun to visit New York or London (or Palau), stay in a tiny room, and choose your meals wisely, but there’s something special about being able to stay in a four star hotel, eat wherever you want, and do whatever activities peak your fancy without worrying about the price. Cape Town is ridiculously cheap, to the point where it doesn’t make sense. Of course Thailand is cheap, but you still need to be alert about scams and Western amenities (Western hotels, cars, food, etc.) are expensive. Many people go to Thailand and spend a fortune. I honestly don’t know how to go broke in Cape Town. We did everything “wrong” by budget-traveller standards:
- We decided to stay in the best location in richest part of town, where seemingly everyone owns Ferraris. Then we decided to spring for a luxury hotel, yet still managed to spend only $70 USD/night. How could it get any more expensive than that?
- We ate at the nicest restaurants we could find. Anything from five star dining experiences (The Roundhouse), chain restaurants and markets in tourist traps (anything in V&A), or on the beach. Each meal was at most ~$8 each.
- I would say that we did whatever activities we wanted, but honestly everything in Cape Town was free.
- I drove to the most touristy part of town and parked my car in a parking lot, instead of searching for street parking. Around 70 cents per hour. And the car rental was only $14/day.
Cape Town is that cheap. I could happily survive there for a long long time on very little money, without having to abandon my first-world comforts.
As someone who can be entertained for hours by watching my pet rabbit run around, this is a big deal! Cape Town is a great place for animal lovers. You can go on a short drive to see exotic wild animals like ostriches or penguins, or go on a long drive or a short cheap flight to a safari anywhere in the country. I would guess that most South Africans do this often, since many of the visitors at Kruger were South African. But I would recommend going for a hike up Lion’s Head, where you’ll see a ton of Rock Hyrax/Dassies who are very unafraid of humans. They are very cute little animals that look like rodents, but their closest relative is actually the elephant. This is Africa!
Fears about crime in South Africa are overblown for the average tourists. We never once felt a even a little unsafe. We would walk around at night, drive everywhere, and stop in small villages where we were the only white people. The only problem is that there are many neighbourhoods (especially in the suburbs/townships) that are very much “no-go” zones. So you can’t just go for a drive at night and stop wherever. Stick to Camps Bay, V&A, and the other touristy areas, and you’ll be fine. But overall, this category will be a slight negative for Cape Town. Still, I’m convinced that Cape Town is the greatest city ever, and I’ve decided to move there. I’ll just check out the last category to be sure.
Be reasonably close to home
Why can’t North America have a city like Cape Town? I guess I’ll have to settle for the occasional visit instead. Luckily Aeroplan charges a reasonable 150,000 points for a roundtrip in business class, which is very desirable for 20+ hours of flying. Or you can live the high life and fly Cathay Pacific’s First Class for only 70,000 Alaska miles. But honestly, it’s worth it to sit in coach. Cape Town, we’ll be back.