First time Cape Town: A beginner's guide to the Mother City

By Richard Holmes

9 October 20196 min read

Aerial view of Cape Town with the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, DHL Stadium, Mouille Point Beach all featured and Table Mountain looming over the city

A beguiling mix of culture, cuisine and jaw-dropping scenic beauty, Cape Town is the type of city that leaves first-time visitors in awe.

With barely a time zone change from the UK (South Africa is GMT+2) there’s no jetlag to speak of, and direct overnight flights with British Airways put the city within easy reach of a long weekend – or as a jumping off point for the spectacular Garden Route.

But why rush? You’ll need at least a week to properly soak up South Africa’s ‘Mother City’…

Cape Town: Why should I go?

For starters, it’s gorgeous. Hailing the city as a “coastal gem, lying in the shadow of a cloud-hugged mountain,” it’s no surprise Cape Town edged out Vancouver and Tokyo to bag the ‘Best City’ gong at the 2018 Telegraph Travel Awards.

No doubt, its iconic centrepiece will be the first thing to draw your eye. The kilometre-high massif of Table Mountain dominates the city, a landmark for locals and a constant distraction for visitors.

Once known as the ‘tavern of the seas’, the ocean surrounds Cape Town on three sides, dishing up memorable coastal drives and beaches that wouldn’t look out of place in St. Tropez. While the so-called ‘Atlantic Seaboard’ is undeniably glamorous, the southern coastline along False Bay is its more laid-back boho-chic cousin. Here, you’ll find family-friendly beaches and boutique hotels, as well as the famous Boulders penguin colony.

And then there’s the food. Cape Town is the culinary capital of the country and you’ll be spoilt for choice here. Throw in warm hospitality so often lacking in an age of over-tourism and you’ll wonder why it’s taken you so long to visit.

Last, but certainly not least, it’s fabulously affordable thanks to the strength of the pound against the South African Rand (Currently, £1 for R18,65*).

Best place to stay in Cape Town

If it’s your first time in Cape Town you’ll want to stay in the city centre (known locally as the ‘city bowl’), cradled by the ocean, Table Mountain and Signal Hill. This puts you in striking distance of most major sights. Around this area you’ll find an excellent array of self-catering apartments, boutique hotels, guesthouses and five-star establishments. ONOMO Hotel Cape Town - Inn On The Square and Daddy Long Legs Art Hotel are great budget options.

It’s a rare visitor that doesn’t spend time in the V&A Waterfront, a vibrant shopping, nightlife and restaurant precinct that surrounds the working harbour. Although accommodation tends to be a bit pricier here, Protea Hotel by Marriott Cape Town, is affordable and offers easy access to the Waterfront, Two Oceans Aquarium and nearby sights.

If you want to take full advantage of the city’s glorious beaches, book a room in nearby Camps Bay. While the waters here may be chilly, this palm-lined strip of sand is backed by a string of chic restaurants and bars, allowing you to segue straight from the sands into sundowners.

Multi-generational travellers may prefer the warmer waters of False Bay, in the south, for the safe swimming beaches and quaint suburbs of Kalk Bay and Simonstown. The aha Simon's Town Quayside Hotel is an excellent choice, with dedicated family rooms and views overlooking the historic harbour.

Must-do Cape Town

Whether you’re a globetrotting gourmand or dedicated culture-tripper you’ll find no end of ways to fill your days in the Mother City.

But start with a bird’s-eye view and a trip up the iconic Table Mountain. There are well-marked walking trails if you fancy a challenge, or take the Table Mountain Aerial Cableway, which will whisk you to the top in minutes.

Meanwhile, the V&A Waterfront is a popular hub for shopping and dining, and also the departure point for boat trips around Table Mountain. Likewise, for trips to Robben Island – the notorious prison where Nelson Mandela was jailed for 18 of his 27 years behind bars.

The Waterfront is also a fantastic area to enjoy Capetown’s eclectic art scene at the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art (MOCAA). Elsewhere in the city, other notable galleries include the impressive Norval Foundation in Constantia, and private galleries such as the Goodman Gallery, Everard Read and Whatiftheworld.

A day-trip to Cape Point is a popular excursion and allows for a visit to the wonderful Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens and penguin colony at Boulders Beach en route.

Keen to get active? Capetonians are an energetic bunch, and across the city you’ll find operators offering surf lessons, mountain-bike trails, paragliding, stand up paddle boarding and more.

What to eat in Cape Town

Cape Town is one of the continent’s great culinary capitals, no question. You’ll find everything from buzzy city centre bistros and chic seaside restaurants to cult dive bars and laid-back pavement cafés.

While South African cuisine is hard to pin down, it’s worth seeking out the Cape Malay flavours, an echo of the South Asian early slave trade; The Bo-Kaap Kombuis in the colourful Bo-Kaap neighbourhood is an excellent choice. For belt-busting Cape street food, seek out a Gatsby. This bread roll stuffed with chips, steak and salad is a calorie-punch best enjoyed after a late night out.

But with the favourable exchange rate you won’t need to stick to cheap and cheerful street food – the city is packed with world-class fine dining. The Test Kitchen is a regular fixture on the list of World’s 50 Best Restaurants, but the likes of La Colombe, Salsify at The Roundhouse, and Greenhouse at Cellars-Hohenort are all worth a reservation. Indeed, in peak season, you may need to book months ahead.

Cape Town tips and advice

Summer is peak season in Cape Town (December to February), when prices spike and availability can be hard to come by. The shoulder seasons of late spring (October to November) and autumn (March to April) are ideal, with fewer crowds and (usually) better weather. You’ll even find occasional blue skies in winter (May to August), when there are cheap specials aplenty.

While South Africa has a reputation for its high crime rate, few incidents occur in tourist areas. Take the usual precautions not to flash money and jewellery, and avoid deserted areas of the city at night.

Though the city’s public transport network is growing, a hire car remains the best way to explore Cape Town. Uber has blossomed in the city and short rides will set you back less than £2.

*Accurate at time of writing.

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