Cape Town is Africa like you’ve probably never imagined it. With the legacy of apartheid fading into history, the city is a vibrant, diverse, perfectly situated harbor city that evokes Sydney more than Dar es Salaam.
Cape Town is moderately expensive, but the dollar-to-rand conversion means that you can live well and enjoy the city on a budget. Here are seven attractions that will give you a flavor of South Africa’s crown jewel without forcing you to sell your own:
1. Table Mountain National Park
As one of Cape Town’s top tourist attractions, you’ll have to fight off hoards of camera-wielding tourists from around the globe. If you don’t have a car, you’ll need to take a taxi or tour bus up to the cableway base station. From there you’ll ride up to the peak on the Table Mountain Aerial Cableway.
I try to avoid using travel clichés, but there’s no other way to describe the view than breathtaking. Pictures are fine for friends back home but don’t really do it justice.
The top of the mountain is far more than just the viewing area; there are miles of hiking trails that provide Instagram-worthy views in every direction.
You’ll want to go on a clear day to fully appreciate what the park has to offer. Go early in the day, as the weather tends to change for the worse late in the afternoon, especially during summer. If you hear the “hooter” go off, that’s a warning that high winds are approaching and the cableway will close soon. Head back to the station immediately.
The adventurous and in-shape can hike down from the top to the base station, weather permitting.
Price: About $20 roundtrip. Save a little if you purchase tickets online.
2. Day pass on the City Sightseeing Cape Town bus
It’s a little touristy, but the hop-on, hop-off City Sightseeing bus is a great way to get around to popular parts of the city (including the Aerial Cableway base station) and experience the most popular attractions. The passes are a great value for the transport alone.
There are two lines: Red and Blue. The Red line takes you around the city center and popular neighborhoods such as Camps Bay. The Blue line goes a bit farther afield, allowing time to visit sites including the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens and a township.
Even if you’re not a big fan of organized tours, this is worth doing. Since you make your own schedule and itinerary, it’s about as laid back as a tour gets. If you plan to sit up top, wear sunscreen.
Price: $12 – 23 for a one or two-day pass. The two-day pass includes a wine tour.
3. District Six Museum
In the 1960s and 1970s – under the apartheid government of the day – non-whites were forcibly relocated from this part of central Cape Town. The District Six Museum is of good quality, but the story it tells of this terrible period in South African history is the compelling reason you’ll want to spend several hours here.
While District Six would be a medium walk from most downtown hotels, be sure to take a taxi or other transportation to and from the museum (the City Sightseeing bus has a stop just out front). Sadly, the neighborhood – like much of South Africa – continues to bear the scars of the apartheid era. In the case of District Six, this means crime, prostitution and drug use. If you are white and walking around on your own you will likely be hassled. Be smart and pre-plan your transport.
Price: Donations accepted.
4. Victoria and Alfred Waterfront
While Lonely Planet and other guidebooks refer to this as the “Victoria and Albert” Waterfront, it’s actually Victoria and Alfred, named after Queen Victoria’s second son, not her husband.
The Waterfront is filled with enough shops and restaurants to keep a bored tourist busy for a day. When your stomach is full and wallet empty, head outside to the central plaza and watch local performers ply their craft in seek of tips. Many are very entertaining, and if you enjoy their performance it’s courteous to share a few rand.
Price: Free to explore, and meals are reasonably priced considering the location.
5. Sail the harbor
While you’re at the Waterfront, take a walk along the pier and pick out a boat for an evening champagne cruise on Table Bay. The two-hour cruise will give you a new perspective on the City Bowl, Table Mountain and the surrounding area.
A plan for a lovely evening is dinner at the Waterfront followed by a few hours out on the water. Bring a long-sleeved shirt or light jacket, as it can get chilly on the water, even during summer.
Price: About $25.
6. Camps Bay
Camps Bay is Cape Town’s SoHo or West End. It’s full of beautiful people, lavish hotels, expensive homes and trendy bars and restaurants. It also has a gorgeous (and very popular) beach scene.
If you really want to splurge, stay a few nights at The Bay Hotel. Infinity pools and cabanas await, but it will cost you. Peak season rates start at about $450 per night. If you want to rub elbows with South African movie stars, this is the place to do it.
The main road that runs through Camps Bay is lined with shops, restaurants and bars. Take an afternoon, discover some good eats and soak up a little of the good life.
Price: Free to explore, moderate to eat, expensive to drink and stay.
7. Day trip to Stellenbosch
An easy day trip from Cape Town, Stellenbosch is a university town in the Western Cape with a distinctly European feel. Beyond the charms of the town, the big draw in the Stellenbosch area is wine.
For ambitious wine tasters, plan to spend a night or two in town to allow enough time to enjoy what the vineyards have to offer.
Price: You can get there for as little as $1.50 on the train. Travel during daytime to be safer. If you have a rental car it’s about an hour’s drive.
The most expensive part about South Africa is getting there and back from the United States. And with such a lengthy flight time, who wants to fly coach? Learn how to master airfares and frequent flyer miles to make the journey less expensive and much more comfortable.