First 24 hours in... Cape Town

The Rainbow Nation’s diverse ‘Mother City’ is a great introduction to South Africa. From the heights of Table Mountain to the cosmopolitan Waterfront, Clare Wilson helps you plan your stay

6 mins

Where? Western Cape, South Africa
Why? A bit of everything: beaches, mountains, penguins, shops and wine!
When? Nov-Mar (summer) is generally warm and dry

Before you arrive

Cape Town is a rainbow city for a Rainbow Nation. From the brightly coloured houses of Bo-Kaap to the LGBT friendly bars, it’s a great city to start your South African adventure before exploring the country in more depth.

Cape Town shelters between Table Bay and Table Mountain on the northern edge of the Cape peninsula. Kloof Nek Road and Buitengracht Street run almost north-south between these two landmarks, passing through the Gardens district and the City Bowl before arriving at the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront complex – usually just known as The Waterfront – backdropped by the extraordinary view of Table Mountain.

On the big mountain’s western side are the cosmopolitan beaches of Clifton and Camps Bay. On the south-east side of the peninsula is False Bay, home to the surfing beach at Muizenberg – just watch out for sharks!

The city has a fascinating if troubled history, from its origins as a stop on the trade route east to the era of apartheid. Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, is worth a read.

At the airport

Cape Town International Airport (CPT) is 20km from the city. You’ll be asked to fill in a landing card while you’re in the air so going through immigration is reasonably quick and easy. The airport is modern and easy to negotiate.

Foreign exchange facilities and ATMs are available in Arrivals just before you get to the Transport Plaza exit.

Getting into town

MyCiTi shuttlebuses run every 20 minutes, 5.10am-10pm, from the airport to the Civic Centre in central Cape Town. Tickets cost ZAR57 (£4) one way; buy them from one of the kiosks at the airport bus station.

A taxi into the city should cost ZAR300-400 (£21-28); use Touch-Down Taxis, the official airport taxi service. Most hotels also offer an airport collection service.

Cape Town is very vehicle friendly, especially for visitors from the UK – South Africans drive on the left. Cars can be hired from the airport, from the usual suspects.


Other ways to arrive

Trains in South Africa are generally safe but can be quite slow. The Shosholoza Meyl long-distance passenger trains link Cape Town to  Johannesburg. The journey takes about 26 hours; Tourist Class Sleeper fares cost from ZAR560 (£40) one way. More plush are the twice-weekly Cape Town-Johannesburg Premier Classe trains, which cost ZAR2,500 (£177). For an utter splurge, board the Pretoria-Cape Town Blue Train; fares from ZAR12,515 (£874) one way.

Interstate buses arrive at the bus terminus at Cape Town Train Station. Bus companies include Greyhound and Intercape Mainliner.

Top tip

The best way to find out if the cable cars are running up Table Mountain is simply to look! If there’s cloud on the top chances are it’s not the day to go, if it’s clear – get moving the weather can change fast! 

Cape Town orientation

Where to stay, swim, eat and explore in South Africa’s cosmopolitan hub

First day’s tour

If the weather is right, head straight up to Table Mountain: the cablecar doesn’t run if winds are too high, so take your chance when you can. The first cablecar leaves at 8am (ZAR205 [£14] return); there’s often a lull 2-4pm. The more active could hike up – the walk takes 2-3hrs; carry water, snacks and extra layers. Taking a guide is recommended. Descend by cablecar, or abseil.

Back at ground level, chill-out in Company’s Garden before strolling Adderley Street to grab some grub at the Eastern Food Bazaar on Longmarket Street.

One of Cape Town’s best markets – Greenmarket Square – is nearby. The moving District 6 Apartheid Museum on Buitenkant Street, near the Castle of Good Hope, should be your next stop. Spend the evening at the V&A Waterfront, soaking up the harbour views from one of the great restaurants. While you’re there (and if you haven’t already done it at, pre-book your tickets for the   ferry out to Robben Island for another day.


First night's sleep

Top end: A former wine estate, the Alphen Boutique Hotel preserves the best Dutch Cape traditions and adds a contemporary boho-chic twist. There are 19 luxurious suites with extra-long king-size beds. Doubles from R1,800 (£125).

Mid range: Ocean View House is right by the beach at Camps Bay. Breakfast is included, and they’ll pack a scrummy picnic for your day’s exploration. Doubles from R770 (£54).

Budget: Ashanti Guesthouses has three properties across Cape Town. The original Gardens Lodge (11 Hof St, Gardens) has camping (from ZAR75), dorms (from ZAR140) and en-suite rooms (from ZAR600 per room), plus a pool, bar and travel centre. The refurbished Guesthouse, three minutes away, is more tranquil, with twins, triples and quads (from ZAR600 per room). Downtown, the Ashanti Greenpoint (23 Antrim Rd, Green Point) mixes the vibe of both.

Stay or go?

Stay, for at least a few days. The half-day trip to Robben Island is conducted by former inmates of this prison-isle and gives a fascinating insight into South Africa’s troubled past. You could also take a township tour, though some find the contrast to the wealthy, cosmopolitan areas of the city difficult to deal with.

Cape Town has some great beaches: Camps Bay is best for swimming; head to Muizenberg or Llandudno for surf. Outside the main city, head south to Boulders Beach at Simon’s Town to meet African penguins. Carry on to Cape Point – the most south-westerly tip of Africa – or visit Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens.

Then there’s the rest of SA to explore. Sip and cycle through the nearby winelands of Stellenbosch and Paarl. Or drive the coastal ‘Garden Route’, running east to Tsitsikamma and Knysna; along the way, watch whales in Hermanus (best Aug-Nov) or go cagediving with sharks in Gansbaai.

Essential info

Population: 3.5 million
Languages: South Africa has 11 official languages; Afrikaans, English, and Xhosa are widely spoken in Cape Town
Timezone: GMT+2
International dialling code: +27
Visas: Not required by UK nationals
Currency: South African rand (ZAR), currently around ZAR14 to the UK£
Highest viewpoint: Table Mountain; the highest point (1,085m) is marked by Maclear’s Beacon.
Health issues: You’ll need a valid yellow-fever certificate if you’ve travelled from or through an infected area.
Recommended guidebook: Cape Town and the Garden Route (Lonely Planet, 2012); Cape Town (Rough Guides, 2012); Top 10 Travel Guide: Cape Town and the Winelands
(DK Eyewitness, 2012)
Web resources: – official tourist board site; – up-to-date info and listings.
iPhone app: Walking Tour of Central Cape Town – picks up your location and tells you
about nearby attractions.
Climate: Cape Town has a Med-style climate. Winter (May-Sept) is generally cool and
wet; temps 7-17°C. Summer (Nov-Mar) is usually hot, sunny and dry; temps of 19-35°C. It can be windy year round.

Insider tip

For a fun way to explore consider taking one of the yellow Rikkis. Cheap and cheerful they offer fixed fares rather than meters, and you can go privately or share. Hail one using one of the yellow phone boxes dotted around the city!

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