First I am going to give all of my warnings, then I am going to tell you all the awesome things there are to do in Cape Town… because there are so many great activities!
That being said, I have been to South Africa a couple of times, and the first time I went, I had only listened to the tourist hype: it is so pretty and such a cool place, you have to come. So I went with a friend, and it took us about a week to figure out that we were in a pretty dangerous place. For the first week, though, we were not extremely careful, and still nothing bad happened to us.
The next time I went with a friend who lived in South Africa for seven years – and this is a VERY confident man, not at all paranoid about anything – and to see how careful he was there, it was pretty shocking.
There is no doubt that Cape Town is beautiful, but if you are going to go, you have to be very careful. The crime statistics you see reported are nothing even close to the truth, and it is a much more dangerous city than it will publicly admit.
If you are taking taxis, have a card for a very reputable taxi company, and only call that one company to come pick you up. Do not get into random taxis – unfortunately, it is simply not safe to do so.
If you are driving, be very careful of the route you plan to take. Talk to your hotel’s front desk and make sure you are not going through bad areas. When I say there are bad areas there, I mean BAD AREAS. I had one concierge tell me that if I was driving down the road and there were boulders in the road, immediately go into reverse and drive quickly back the way I came. Also, she said never to pull over for anyone on the side of the road, even if it appears to be a wounded child. This really scared me, but I am glad someone warned me.
If you are walking in Cape Town, check with your hotel’s front desk to make sure this is a safe route. A ten minute long walk might not actually be a safe option for you. If you are a woman, walk as far away from the road as possible, and try to tuck your purse where it is not immediately visible. If you can walk around without a purse, that is even better.
All warnings aside, now I will talk about everything I love about Cape Town. This is South Africa’s second-biggest city, but it is right on the beach, and the beach vibe is incredible and laid back. There are some fantastic beaches, like Camp’s Bay or Clifton. The sand is soft and light, and in America’s winter, South Africa is having its gorgeous summer, so it is the perfect time to visit. One thing about the beaches you should know, though: there are people selling things constantly, so either be prepared to listen to chants for “ice cream sandwiches, necklaces” or wear headphones. On the plus side, it gets pretty darn hot, so someone selling ice cream can be a happy sight, not really a nuisance at all.
For a slightly more unique beach experience, drive down to Boulder’s Beach and see the famous penguins. They are tiny and adorable, and the photo opportunities are endless. Be aware, though, penguins are stinky creatures! You might not have the most romantic time there, but it really is very cool to see.
You should really take a day to drive down towards Hout Bay and stop at Chapman’s Peak, where there is a great outdoor restaurant that is, I think, attached to a restaurant. I had some of the very best mussels of my life there, on a big wooden deck. The drive from Cape Town to Hout Bay has to be one of the very prettiest things I’ve ever seen, and I go back to that memory on dark, cold days, sometimes.
Cape Town is funny, though, because you have the beach scene, then you have a very distinct city area. The city area is very urban, very busy, and feels very much not policed, so you have to watch out for yourself. Long Street is the main drag with the bars and a lot of restaurants, and it is great for beers and relaxing. Just make sure you do not get too sloppy and make bad decisions.
One thing South Africa does extremely well is hard apple cider. There is a brand there called Savannah, and it is absolutely delicious and crisp. I can almost taste it, now.
For a great taste of authentic South African food, go to Africa Café. There are absolutely tourists there, but locals go there, too. The food is top notch, and I had some of the very best meat I have had in my entire life in Cape Town. You can eat kudu – it is sort of like an antelope, I think – zebra, and all other kinds of wild game. I love game meat, and it often comes on a metal hanging skewer, and you just pull each bite of meat down and eat it. Why is South African food not more popular in America?! That kills me.
Right in the downtown area is Green Market Square, where you can pick up all kinds of knick knacks and great presents for your house or your family. Bartering is a big part of the culture, so do not think that the first price you hear is anywhere close to the one you can end up with.
Not far from downtown – and not far from the beaches – is the Victoria and Albert Waterfront, which most people call the waterfront or the harbor. There are some really nice hotels there, and I recognized it at the end of Blood Diamond, when Leonardo DiCaprio called his girl: she was sitting in the waterfront having coffee. You can see Table Mountain behind her.
Which brings me to Table Mountain! Definitely South Africa’s most famous landmark, this is a mountain with a flat top just like… you guessed it… a table! You can hike up the mountain, or take a cable car. When I went, there had been a lot of muggings of tourists walking, so it was recommended that we take a cable car, but I have plenty of friends who hiked up with no problem.
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens are stunning. I mean, STUNNING. I do not love plants or flowers that much, and I basically got dragged there, but I was really impressed once I actually got there. You will see such beautiful collections of flowers, you feel like you are in an alternate universe.
One of the crazier things you can do in South Africa is go shark cage diving. It is pretty self explanatory: you are lowered into the water in a cage, and sharks are baited to swim very close to you. For me, this is basically my hell, but if sounds like something that floats your boat, amen!