How to visit Cape Town on a budget, while traveling in South Africa.
In just one short week, Cape Town catapulted itself to the top of my favorite cities list. It has gorgeous beaches, amazing hikes, delicious food, interesting animals, friendly people, and it’s overall very affordable. I even managed to fit in wine tastings and a safari into my stay, so Cape Town was pretty much a dream for me.
With this article, I’ll list and explain all the best parts about this city. Of course, everything is suitable for the budget traveler, which makes it even better. From the super helpful locals, to the diverse range of fun activities, to the hilarious sight of baboons running across the road, Cape Town really exceeded my expectations.
When To Go
Anytime of year is great for visiting South Africa. Summer is hot and more crowded, but there’s more hours of daylight so you have plenty of time to see everything.
During winter, the weather can get pretty cold but still mild and comfortable during the day. There are less crowds in winter, and I’ve been told it’s a better time for safaris and surfing. Flights tend to be cheaper during the off-season as well, so I’m happy I came here in winter.
Where To Stay
Cat and Moose Backpackers is one of the most affordable hostels, costing only 124 Rand per night ($8 USD) for a dorm bed. It’s located on Long Street, a popular street in the city center with lots of cool restaurants and bars.
I stayed at this hostel for one week, and there were lots of friendly locals staying there as well; everyone was happy to give me advice about Cape Town and South Africa and show me around themselves.
How To Get Around
Cape Town is huge, and if you want to visit all the cool places on the Cape Peninsula you’ll have to drive or take public transport. The most flexible option is renting a car so you can go wherever whenever, if you’re prepared to drive on the left side of the road. We just searched on rentalcars.com, and picked the cheapest option, but there are tons of online platforms to use for your rental car search.
If you don’t rent a car, there are public buses in Cape Town for getting around the city.
Check out the popular bus company, Baz Bus, which travels all along the South African coast to the most popular tourist spots. Travelers who don’t rent a car like to buy a long term Baz Bus ticket that allows them to hop on and off at different towns throughout the country. Find more info on the Baz Bus website.
Top Tourist Attractions
Of course you shop try and see all of Cape Town’s main tourist attractions; they are popular for a reason! Luckily most of these places can be seen for free, or for very little money.
V and A Waterfront
This bustling hub of entertainment and commercialism is located next to the Cape Town Harbor in Table Bay. It’s fun to stroll around and watch street performers, get some snacks, and absorb the vibrant energy. You can visit the waterfront at any time of day, though it’s a bit more lively at night and on the weekends.
Chapman’s Peak Road
You need a car for this attraction, and it’s the only one I’ve listed that costs money. You have to pay a 50 Rand ($3) toll to drive along this winding, cliffside road, but the views are worth it.
It takes about 30 minutes to drive Chapman’s Peak Road, including lots of stops for photos since it’s been called “one of the world’s most scenic drives”. Check out this website for more info and to stay updated on weather conditions and road closures.
African Craft Stores
Every country has their typical tourist shop where they sell traditional souvenirs. In Cape Town, it’s the African craft stores and markets, which you’ll see lots of while walking through the city.
Popular finds in these shops include cool sculptures and paintings, colorful clothing, intricate beadwork, and carved wooden utensils. Africa’s wild animals act as inspiration for lots of the artwork and souvenirs as well.
One particularly cool shop is the African Trading Port on the V and A Waterfront.
This little neighborhood is famous for it’s rows of brightly colored houses and its history as a former Malaysian slave town. Visit the Bo-Kaap Museum and the first Muslim mosque in South Africa known as Auwal Mosque. Or just stroll around and watch people taking Instagram shots in front of the pastel backdrops.
To read more about the history and cultural significance of Bo-Kaap, check out this website.
Other popular tourist attractions:
I put these attractions in a different category because they’re pretty expensive and therefore I didn’t actually do them. But because they’re so significant to Cape Town’s history, landscape, and tourism industry, I’ll include them briefly.
Robben Island: Here is where the revered first president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, was imprisoned before he changed the fate of the country forever. You can only visit with a tour company, and and the standard price is 550 Rand ($36).
Cape of Good Hope: The southernmost tip of the Cape Peninsula is full of picnic grounds, biking trails, and rich wilderness. This Nature Reserve is supposed to be beautiful, but we didn’t have enough money on us when we arrived so we had to skip it. The price for foreign adults is 303 Rand ($20).
As a popular tourist destination and multicultural city, Cape Town is full of amazing food. You can find any type of cuisine here, and unless you go to fancy five star restaurants, everything is pretty affordable.
For a really tight budget, stay in a hostel with a kitchen so you can cook. Buy your groceries at the local grocery store, which is usually Spar. This store even has a buffet-style selection of hot, prepared food as well as groceries, which is great for quick, easy meals.
For eating out, visit Kloof Street and Long Street, as they’re full of funky bars and restaurants. I had a mindblowing veggie burger at Jerry’s Burger Bar and delicious, cheap breakfasts at Arnold’s, both located on Kloof Street.
To satisfy your sweet tooth, visit Charly’s Bakery. This place has the cutest cookies and cupcakes decorated with faces, animals, emojis, bright colors, and decorations, and they also have delicious cakes and the biggest fudge brownie I’ve ever seen in my life.
My favorite place to eat is the V and A Food Market, an indoor smorgasbord of high quality food for decent prices. This place has everything: flavored popcorn, artisan ice cream, fudge, crepes, donuts, and hearty meals like sushi, pizza or curry. You can also find stalls selling fresh rice paper rolls, savory pies, paninis, poke bowls, samosas, and other local specialties. For a rough idea of the pricing, a small snack or dessert costs about 35 Rand ($2), small meals cost about 50 Rand ($3.50), and a big meal costs around 100 Rand ($7).
Everyone must try Malva Pudding while in South Africa. This traditional dessert is a dense, sweet, sticky pudding served with ice cream or custard. It’s so filling and indulgent but absolutely incredible.
Any city where you can escape the congested crowds and the chaos of commercialism by laying on the sand and watching the waves roll in, is a superior city.
Because Cape Town is set on a peninsula, it has too many gorgeous beaches to count. The sand here is pure white, the water is cold, and the waves are fun.
Here are all the beaches I visited, with a brief description.
Muizenberg Beach: Perfect for learning how to surf or just practicing if you’re a beginner. The beach is super long and flat, and holds the record for most people on one wave. There’s lots of surf schools here offering lessons, and plenty of surf shops for renting or buying boards and wetsuits.
Muizenberg town also has lots of trendy cafes and shops, giving off full hipster surf town vibes. It’s super chill and relaxing here, and the colorful cabins on the beach are a popular photo spot.
Boulders Beach: Famous for it’s penguin colony, Boulder’s Beach costs 152 Rand ($10) to enter if you’re a foreigner. If you’re an animal lover the fee is worth it; I felt so happy to see African penguins thriving outside a zoo or aquarium, and these adorable creatures seem to be pretty content here.
Beaches Closest To The City Center:
Camps Bay is one of the prettiest beaches in Cape Town, and the area also has a natural rock pool and lots of nice seafood restaurants.
Clifton has 4 beaches all right next to each other and conveniently named 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Beach (the 4th is the most popular). Just beware that these beaches get super crowded on hot summer days.
Less Touristy Beaches:
Scarborough, Llandudno, and Kommetjie are three nice beaches further down the Cape Peninsula. Here you’ll find bigger waves for surfing if you’re more advanced, and they’re way less crowded and more peaceful than the city beaches. Here you’ll find lots of locals walking their dogs, surfing, or walking along the sand.
Hiking and Fitness
The main reason why I love Cape Town so much is the abundance of greenery and wilderness located right next to the city center. Actual mountains for hiking are rare to find so close to the city, so I was impressed with how active I could stay in Cape Town.
Hiking in Cape Town is perfect for the budget traveler because it costs little to no money, and it’s a great way to experience the area through nature. It’s also an amazing workout, so you can burn off all the sugar you ate at Charly’s Bakery.
Here are the three best ways to exercise while enjoying the beauty of Cape Town.
Hike Table Mountain
This famous mountain has been named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, and Nelson Mandela named it a “Gift to the Earth” in 1998. After spending a whole day on this mountain, I agree with him.
The natural beauty here is unbelievable, with saturated natural hues exploding all around the urban landscape. The hike is not easy, but it’s 100% worth it.
The most popular and most direct route for climbing to the top of Table Mountain is through Platteklip Gorge. Just drive up to the cable car station (or take an uber, public bus, or walk if you don’t have a car), then drive a bit further down the road until you see the sign for the trail on the right.
You basically hike up and over rocks the entire time, but the trail is easy to follow and can be done in 1-3 hours. It’s pretty steep, so the time it takes depends on your fitness Ievel.
Upon reaching the top, you have until sundown to enjoy the gorgeous views.
To the south you can look over the entire Cape Peninsula, which is full of rugged cliffs and surrounded by bright blue ocean.
To the west, you can look over the curving coastline of the Clifton and Camps Bay Beaches, and see where the warm, turquoise Agulhas Current from the Indian Ocean meets the cold, deep blue Benguela Current from the Atlantic Ocean.
To the north you can see the sprawling city center of Cape Town with the harbor, Lion’s Head Mountain, the busy streets, and the surrounding neighborhoods all melding together.
To see the east, you need to walk to the other end of the tabletop. This path leads you to Maclear’s Beacon, the highest point on Table Mountain, and takes about 45 minutes one way (the path is dotted with yellow footprints to guide the way).
At the end of the path, you can look over the huge mass of congested houses that make up the suburbs of Cape Town, the long stretch of sand that is Muizenberg Beach, and the distant mountains and hills.
Climbing this gorgeous beast of a hill is quite the accomplishment, and it’s a privilege to see all of Cape Town from above.
The Cable Car whisks you to the top in a matter of minutes, and the price varies depending on age and time of day. It’s definitely not as rewarding as hiking, but it’s an option for the less fit or for those short on time. If you have sensitive knees, take the cable car back down after hiking to avoid the stress of climbing down the steep hill.
Hike Lion’s Head At Sunrise
A local friend told me Lion’s Head is only worth hiking at sunrise or sunset.
Because it’s not as high as Table Mountain, the view is a bit less impressive. But with the sun rising or setting over the beautiful city, the experience is much better. You also get a perfect view of Table Mountain from here.
The hike takes about 1 hour if you’re reasonably fit. The first half is pretty easy, with a wide dirt path that wraps around the mountain at a steady incline. Eventually the path narrows and becomes rocky, as you start to near the top. The last 15 minutes is all climbing, with ladders and chains in place to assist you. There is also an alternative path for those who don’t want to climb, though it’s still steep and rocky.
The top of Lion’s Head also provides a 360 degree view of the picturesque Cape Town area, so be sure to bring a camera.
Rent A Bicycle
One way to exercise while staying on the ground in Cape Town is renting a bicycle. If you’re really on a budget, visit Bike and Wines on Loop Street where you can rent a basic city bike for two hours for free.
If you want to bike for a full day, check this website for pricing. You can also rent a bike at the waterfront.
Bike along the coast to enjoy the ocean views, as it’s not as hectic as biking in the crowded city streets. Basically bike to the waterfront, and head along the coast from there. If you need help finding your way, ask anyone. People are super nice and willing to help.
Day Trips From Cape Town
The Cape Peninsula itself could easily entertain for weeks. It’s full of so many diverse neighborhoods and other challenging hikes that I didn’t even have time to consider. But if you are keen to explore other areas outside Cape Town, here are a couple day trips to consider.
Wine Tasting in Stellenbosch
About 45 minutes northeast of Cape Town is the Stellenbosch region, famous for its amazing wineries. There are lots of tour companies offering wine tasting day trips, including Bike and Wines that I recommended previously.
But this day trip is a lot more affordable and convenient with your own car so you can drive from winery to winery as you please. Just walk into any winery and ask about tastings; most of them cost around 30-60 Rand (less than $5).
Spier Winery has a nice wine and chocolate tasting for 70 Rand ($4.60), and Lovane Winery is the smallest winery with an intimate tasting experience. But there are honestly so many wineries to choose from that you can spend a whole day tasting delicious South African wines (make sure you have a designated driver if you’re indulging in lots of tastings).
Check out this website for downloadable maps of the area.
Safari in Karoo Region
There aren’t any self-drive safaris near Cape Town, so you’ll have to book a tour if you want to see some wild animals. I searched for one-day Safaris on Get Your Guide, and found a day trip to Aquila Game Reserve for $187, including transport to and from Cape Town. I inquired at a few other safaris near Cape Town and they all required at least one night stay, so Aquila offered the most convenient and affordable option.
I was picked up from my hostel at 9am, and arrived at the Game Reserve around 12 for a buffet lunch. The drive through the Karoo Region was stunning, with massive cliffs, tumbling waterfalls, rolling green hills, and lots of baboons on the side of the road.
After lunch, we had a three hour drive in an open 4WD through the huge game reserve, spotting animals like rhinos, giraffes, zebras, wildebeest, springboks, ostriches, antelopes. The lions were kept in a separate enclosure to prevent them from eating the rest of the wildlife, but they seemed pretty happy snoozing away in their massive private section.