We all know about the popular Cape Town activities, like a hike up Table Mountain and a trip to Robben Island. And while these are fantastic things to do, and no doubt worthwhile, there are some incredible alternatives. After all, Cape Town is a phenomenally beautiful, diverse place with a lot more to offer than the usual tourist tracks.
So, this is a local’s guide on where to go and what to do for those intrepid travelers looking for something unusual.
Safety First – What Areas to Avoid in Cape Town
Most of Cape Town is safe to visit as long as you’re self-aware and you stick to daylight hours. Unfortunately, things can get quite shifty at night, and you certainly shouldn’t stray from densely populated, brightly lit areas. It’s also important not to walk alone at night. If you’re a night owl, be sure to travel in groups and don’t carry anything too valuable on your person.
It’s also best to avoid Cape Town’s townships unless you’re going with a local. If you do want to visit them – after all, it’s a totally unique cultural experience – it’s important to be respectful of people’s privacy. Locals are often uncomfortable with being watched by tourists, and will show it. A local guide will be able to navigate the area, and communicate with residents who may speak little English.
It’s also better to stay central and coastal. Cape Town is a sprawling city and you could easily get lost here, but you’ll find that the central suburbs are well populated and often more friendly to foreigners.
Your Unique Cape Town Bucket List
Whether you’ve been to Cape Town before and want to try something new, or you just want to stray from the beaten track, this little bucket list will keep life interesting. You’ll be immersed in the Saffa culture with good food, fun, art and nature.
Join a Local Braai
You can’t visit South Africa without trying a proper, traditional braai (barbeque). The different cultures within this diverse country do their braaiing differently, but it’s always a very social affair. People spend hours braaiing, and it’s considered a bit of an art. And not only will you get to try the smoky meat, but you’ll also get a taste of other local dishes, like bobotie and malva pudding.
If you can’t get yourself invited to a local’s house (although you’d be surprised), there are casual restaurants in the city that offer braai food. Mzoli’s is the most popular of these – it’s a braai spot in Gugulethu, a Cape Town township.
See a South African Comedian
Spend a few days with any South African and you’ll know we have a strong sense of humor, often used subversively to critique our politics, our past, and ourselves.
Watching a good Cape Town-based comedian is a fantastic way to learn about the cultures, as well as get a great laugh. You’ll also be surrounded by locals having a good time. There’s really no downside – it’s just a wonder that it’s such a secret thing to do in Cape Town.
The best place to find local comedians is the Cape Town Comedy Club. But other pubs like Obviouzly Armchair Theatre and Premium Sports Bar offer weekly comedy shows and a brilliant atmosphere.
Try a Streetside Cafe Gatsby
An authentic streetside gatsby is messy and huge, and slightly suspect-looking when you don’t know what you’re in for.
Gatsby’s are a local favorite – they’re a footlong sandwich stuffed to the brim with meat, chips, and sauces, among other things. One sandwich can be shared between multiple people, and few can finish one on their own. Chowing down a giant gatsby may not be one of the most romantic things to do in Cape Town, but it’s certainly memorable.
Local cuisine is such an important part of any trip! Other favorites include bunny chow (an Indian curry stuffed into a half-loaf of bread), vetkoek (just deep-fried goodness), and koeksisters (sweet deep-fried goodness). None of it is very healthy, but you’re embracing the culture, so it doesn’t even count.
Take a Train to Simons Town
When you chat to other tourists in Cape Town, you’ll almost definitely hear that the trains are dodgy and should be avoided. But honestly, they’re a relatively safe, reliable mode of transportation that locals make use of every day.
For a perfect day trip, catch a train to Simons Town. This is a coastal Cape Town suburb with beautiful views and plenty of opportunities to spot local wildlife. The train will also take you all along the coast, so you’ll see so much of the city and the mountainous views.
The trains do look a bit dodgy, with frequently ripped out seats and walls plastered with flyers advertising various sangomas and medicine men. But that’s just the aesthetic – as long as you travel between 8 am and 5 pm, you’ll feel comfortable and safe surrounded by working Capetonians. It’s one of the coolest cheap things to do in Cape Town.
If you prefer to travel solo, a scooter trip along the coast is also a magnificent opportunity to see everything!
Go Snorkeling in Kalk Bay
Cape Town’s ocean is freezing, but much like its iconic mountain, it is one of the most biodiverse and unique biomes in the world. Duck your head underwater, and you’ll find brightly colored sea anemones, sand sharks, and colorful fish swimming among the kelp.
You can easily rent out some snorkel gear and make your own adventure – just be sure to chat to a local to find out the areas to avoid.
Cape Town does have a lot of sharks, but don’t worry, they don’t come to the shallows. At least, none of the scary ones do! They’re off stalking seals, so you’re free to roam the shallow waters and admire the incredible beauty that so few know about.
Watch a Film at The Labia
One of the oldest and most beloved theatres in the country is The Labia. Its old school style, laid-back vibe and fantastic prices make it a favorite haunt for Capetonians. You’re also likely to find a screening of a South African film here, which is another big plus.
The Labia allows people to bring in snacks, and they have an alcohol license, so in winter you can watch a movie with a lekker (Afrikaans for great) cup of Gluhwein or a craft beer. And in summer you can enjoy a vodka slushy!
The charming little theatre also hosts local film festivals. It’s right in the city center, and tickets cost just R50 ($3). The perfect start to an evening, it’s one of the best things to do in Cape Town at night.
See Street Art in Woodstock
One of the city’s most interesting and artistic neighborhoods is Woodstock. Here, you’ll find stunning galleries showcasing local art. As well as bookstores and cafes galore. But one of the biggest draws is the street art.
Turn any corner in Woodstock and you’re likely to find some eye-catching graffiti. Some are political and social commentaries, others celebrate Cape Town’s life and culture, and still others are just meant to be beautiful.
Street art in Woodstock has become so prolific that you can now take a street art tour. In fact, I’d highly recommend it. You’re taken around by a Woodstock local who can tell you about the artists, the area, and the meanings behind the work. As well as the changes Woodstock’s gone through because of its increasing popularity – including gentrification and income opportunities. It’s a really great, genuine experience.
Capetown Trip Tips from a Local
- Definitely try the street food.
- Travel consciously but don’t be nervous, most parts of the city are totally safe.
- Chat to locals for an idea of where to go next – we’re a friendly bunch!
- No matter the season, pack for all weather – the mother city is famous for having every season in a day.