The Backpacker’s Crash Course Guide to Cape Town

Oh, Cape Town. A city where the sizzling African sun clashes with the violent ocean. A place whose iconic mountains are omnipresent and unwavering in their defense of the Mother City. The howling winds and unceasing waves have led many to crash ashore. It’s up to you whether you decide to become a shipwreck or a conqueror.

I didn’t know my dream city could actually exist until I came to Cape Town. Breathtaking scenery everywhere, hundreds of hikes, and the ocean always just a half hour away, the nature lover in me is obsessed with Cape Town. With hundreds of bars, clubs of every genre, and a festival seemingly every weekend, the partier in me is having the time of his damn life. Throw in some incredible coffee shops, the trendiest restaurants, and the thrilling chaos of a bustling African city and Cape Town becomes a strong contender for my favorite city I’ve ever been to.

lions head sunset cape town views

After having spent a solid month and a half here, I still feel like I have hardly scratched the surface of this vibrant metropolis. With cultures clashing yet coexisting, the dynamic feel of this city brings me to life. Yes, Cape Town is a city that has hundreds of activities to do but the real appeal of this city is its indescribable vibe. It feels laid back, yet in constant motion. Chaotic, yet in control.

The mountains stand watch over the Mother City as the waves crash incessantly on its endless shorelines. The ocean breeze, gentle yet devastating. Shipwrecks still line many parts of this historically significant port city. Just like those shipwrecks, many people who wash up here will find it hard to ever leave the city.

As a backpacker who not only survives, but lives for the constant motion of travel, Cape Town sucked me in frustratingly well. Every attempt I made to leave left me coming back just a few short days later. Backpackers don’t fall in love, not with a person and definitely not with any city. Yet there I was, on my 42nd day in Cape Town after arriving ready to conquer the African content with just a backpack and a dream.

Ight bru, here’s what you need to know.

How To Get Around Cape Town

Cape Town has a bus system that is a strong contender for least reliable thing on this planet. If you’re lucky that there isn’t a strike currently going on, you’ll probably quickly learn about African time instead. It is the cheapest way to get around but I’d say there’s only a 20% chance you get to where you need to go by the time you need to be there.

Taxis are just as crazy, although also a cheap option. You’ll get stuffed in a little van that swerves like a maniac through traffic with little concern for casualty or consequence.

With all that being said, Ubers should be your preferred form of transportation. Within the city, you should only be spending about 60-80 rand maximum to get anywhere within 20 minutes. Split between a few friends, you’re basically paying $1-2 to get anywhere within the city. The money you would save from taking a city bus or a local taxi is minuscule at that point. The comfort and simplicity will be worth it. Trust me.

How To Budget For Cape Town

The South African currency is called the Rand and currently, the exchange rate stands at about 14 Rand per U.S. dollar. As far as prices go, Cape Town might be the most expensive city in all of Africa. As far as modern, Western big cities go, Cape Town is significantly cheaper. It isn’t South East Asia cheap but I would estimate most prices to be about 20-30% cheaper than an equivalent in the U.S.

For food, you can get by on about $10-15 a day even eating out for every meal. You can do a lot cheaper if you buy your own groceries and cook your own meals. For drinks, going out in South Africa is dangerously cheap. The surprise I felt every time I would walk into a nice club and only paying maximum $3 USD for a beer never got old. Even in the nicest bar I went to, a double gin and tonic only ran me about $7. I couldn’t get prices that cheap sometimes in my university town.

Staying Street Smart in Cape Town

First things first, let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way. Like many big cities in South Africa, Cape Town has a pretty bad reputation as an unsafe city. Be street smart and you should have no problems, although there are a few minor annoyances that will prove to be unavoidable.

If you’ve got a car, always lock your doors and shut your windows. Keep all of your stuff in the boot (or trunk) and never leave anything in plain sight. Shut your windows at robots (traffic lights) especially in sketchy areas where someone might do a quick snatch and grab in traffic. Just lock all your doors in general and keep your stuff in a safe or locked up when you’re in your room or dorm. I’ve been pretty chill about all of that stuff lately but it’s way better to take a little extra time to be safe.

Another thing to be aware of is sticking to the safer, more touristy neighborhoods, especially at night. Most places within Cape Town are fine but wandering too far from the tourist hubs can be ill-advised, especially if you are by yourself. Even in the tourist hubs, I often felt sketched out if someone was following me for too long or bothering me incessantly. Most of the time, it’s just a minor annoyance but you never know what can happen. As sexy as Cape Town might seem on the outside, its very brutal history still has major effects on social inequality today.

Where To Stay in Cape Town for Backpackers

91 Loop Hostel

For me, this was the best choice. It had an amazing central location as well as a spacious and modern common area. There was a restaurant downstairs that often was converted into event space for small concerts, wine tastings, and more. There was always something going on at 91 Loop and it was the perfect mix of social while allowing you to have space for yourself.

91 Loop Cape Town

There are quite a few hostels in Cape Town, although most backpackers will flock to the most popular half-dozen or so. Along with 91 Loop, those other hostels are:

The Best Neighborhoods to Visit in Cape Town

Cape Town has among the most diverse neighborhoods I’ve ever experienced in a city. You’ve got anything from the high class fancy beachfront neighborhoods to the trendy hipster neighborhoods and more.

  • Green Point
  • Camps Bay
  • Woodstock
  • Observatory
  • City Bowl
  • Sea Point
  • Hout Bay
  • Bantry Bay
  • Clifton

Quick Highlights

Short Hikes To Do in Cape Town

Cape Town is one of the best cities for hiking that I have ever come across. There are apparently over 200 hiking trails in Cape Town alone. These are some of the best short hikes I did, some of them even multiple times. I hit up Lion’s Head three times and Kloof Corner twice. I can highly recommend visiting each one for sunset.

  • Little Lion’s Head

  • Kloof Corner

  • Signal Hill

Longer Hikes To Do In Cape Town

Once you’ve warmed your legs up a bit, you can take on some of the more challenging hikes in Cape Town. After a month in this city, my Cape Town calves had evolved into cows. I did a lot of hiking and would have done more if I could. These are some of the more iconic hikes, most are different trails leading up to Table Mountain, which I also hiked four times.

  • India Venster
  • Kasteelpoort
  • Elephant Eye
  • Skeleton Gorge
  • Devil’s Peak

Must-Visit Attractions in Cape Town

While the natural beauty of Cape Town is what made me fall in love with the city, there’s quite a few attractions within the city itself. I’mm sure you’ve seen the iconic colored houses of Bo-Kaap or the classic view of the Twelve Apostles from Camps Bay before.

  • Bo-Kaap

  • Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens

  • Table Mountain Cable Car

  • Zeitz MOCAA

  • Two Oceans Aquarium
  • Cape Town Stadium
  • V&A Waterfront

  • Sunset Champagne Cruise

  • Greenmarket Square

greenmarket square

Food Markets in Cape Town

Although you won’t find anything as cheap or as chaotic as a Latin American mercado or South East Asian street food extravaganza, Cape Town has some good spots for food. Often, these can make for good hangout spots if your group can’t decide on one thing to eat. Some markets will have live music or entertainment as well as bars where you can have a few casual drinks. Old Biscuit Mill on Saturday even had a DJ where the sunny weather and flowing drinks gave off strong festival vibes.

  • V&A Waterfront Market
  • Old Biscuit Mill (Saturdays only)
  • Mojo Market
  • Hout Bay Market

Best Coffee Shops in Cape Town

I practically lived in coffee shops while I was in Cape Town. As a digital nomad, Cape Town is a dream destination. There are countless places to work with modern and trendy aesthetics, great Wi-Fi, and a bangin’ playlist to crank out work to. The Strangers Club was my absolute favorite, and I’m still subscribed to their Spotify playlist today. Kauai is more of a chain but go for their Mocha freezes.

  • Truth
  • The Strangers Club
  • Harvest Cafe and Deli
  • Kauai
  • Stacked

Bars and Nightlife in Cape Town

Cape Town has an amazing nightlife scene. At its peak, Cape Town arguably has among the best nightlife in the world. From its music festivals to speakeasy bars, there is no shortage of ways to party in Cape Town. The beachside nightclubs to the long strip of pubs on the aptly-named Long Street guarantee that there’s always a place for you to get L-I-T in the C-P-T.

Despite what my name suggests, I did not get to take as much advantage of the nightlife in Cape Town as I would have liked. That doesn’t mean I didn’t do my fair share of bar hopping. However, like with everywhere else, it really helps to get to know some locals. It was only towards the end of my time in Cape Town that I started figuring out the local hubs and nightly hotspots.

  • Cause and Effect
  • Tiger’s Milk
  • Shimmy
  • Cafe Caprice
  • No Name Bar
  • Mantra
  • Arcade
  • The Village Idiot
  • Beer House

The Best Beaches in Cape Town

Cape Town is one of the most stunning cities I have ever been to. The mountains side by side with the beaches is something very few cities can claim, and none can execute such a sight quite like Cape Town. Unfortunately, the beaches aren’t as welcoming as they seem. The waters of Cape Town are cold and inhospitable, although on a hot summer day, they can still make for a beautiful setting.

Camps Bay

As far as nightlife goes, this is the spot to be. Come here for the sunset and stay all night at one of the many beachside bars and clubs. Tiger’s Milk and Cafe Caprice are staples of any outing in Camps Bay, although there are plenty of places that line the beachside road.

Muizenberg

This is one of the more popular beaches to surf at around Cape Town. It is also home to a lot of sharks, apparently. I didn’t do any surfing in Cape Town but for surfers, this is the spot to be.

Boulders

Although this beach is absolutely stunning, the main attraction is not the view. It’s not the clear blue water or pristine white sand or the giant rocks. Two words: Peng. Uins. There are thousands upon thousands of them here. There are parts of the beach where they’ll even roam around freely next to humans, although you shouldn’t get too close at all. Respect their territory and admire these beautiful animals in a beautiful setting.

Table View/Bloubergstrand

This is a really popular beach among kitesurfers. Like most Cape Town beaches, it isn’t particularly ideal for swimming because the water is absolutely freezing. I stayed right on the shores of Blouberg Beach for a month and it would be constantly blustering with strong winds. The sand would assault my face, but for the epic sunset view of Table Mountain, it was worth it.

table view sunset table mountain

Clifton

One of the more upscale neighborhoods of Cape Town, Clifton is like a more exclusive Camps Bay. There are fewer tourists but it boasts beautiful views and its fair share of higher class establishments.

St James Beach

This is where those iconic colorful changing houses are. The beach is very popular among locals and I really enjoyed the vibe here. Although the beach is small, the locals pack every inch of it and are truly having fun while doing so.

Best Day Trips from Cape Town

Cape Point Natural Reserve

This is one of the best day trips you can do from Cape Town. Going to Cape Point Natural Reserve takes you to the world-renowned Cape of Good Hope and Cape Point.

Stellenbosch

If you’re into wine, then Stellenbosch is well worth a day trip. With nearly 150 wineries in the region alone, you have an almost overwhelming selection of wineries to choose from. I’ve been to about ten, and was not disappointed by a single one.

I’d suggest Remhootge for some chill, laid back vibes in the great outdoors. Muratie is great for its history and authentic, vintage feel. Fairview has some amazing cheese and they’ll tell you everything you need to know about pairing wine with cheese. Babylonstoren has an incredible botanical garden that you can let yourself get lost in. And that’s barely scratching the surface.

remhootge winery stellenbosch

Robben Island

This is the island where Nelson Mandela was held prisoner. For an in-depth look into the history of South Africa, visiting Robben Island is an essential and somber experience. It is important to visit Cape Town with an open mind that is eager to learn about the city and country beyond first glance.

Hermanus

For whale watching, Hermanus is the place to go. During humpback whale season, it is possible to see dozens and dozens of humpbacks along this part of South Africa’s coastline. We went closer towards the end of the season and weren’t able to see too many, although the few that we did see made it worth it.

Apart from whales, Hermanus is also well-known for its wineries. There are dozens of beautiful ones to choose from throughout the area.

Atlantis Sand Dunes

Cape Town surprised me in a lot of ways but the overwhelming diversity of its nature might have been the most surprising. The mountains and oceans are enough for me, but the biodiversity and different ecosystems was just as wild. Did you know Table Mountain has more different species of plants than all of the United Kingdom total? Wild, right?

Anyway, there’s a desert with dunes big enough to go sandboarding on just outside of Cape Town. It’s about an hour away from the city center but well worth it if you wanted a different type of adventure.

So yeah, basically Cape Town is the bee’s knees. It is still my favorite city in the world and I don’t know if anything can top it anytime soon. As a backpacker, it is surprisingly budget-friendly and you can meet a lot of fellow travelers. South Africa is one of my favorite countries in the world and Cape Town is the perfect introduction to this beautiful country and continent.

South Africa: The Epic 3 Month Recap

Where To Go After Cape Town:

The Garden Route and beyond with Baz Bus

Winery hopping, game driving, all-around adventuring with Reveler Tours

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11 thoughts on “The Backpacker’s Crash Course Guide to Cape Town

  1. I couldn’t agree more with the list of best beaches in Cape Town. I’ve been to most, but I’ve heard of the others. Beautiful views, too.

  2. Cape Town looks so beautiful! The photos you captured are breathtaking and it brings me to the location. I definitely want to go visit one day.

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