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How to Enjoy Cape Town on a Budget

12 Must-Dos in South Africa’s Mother City

Article and photos by Lies Ouwerkerk
Senior Contributing Editor
9/2015

Cape Town with Table Mountain
Cape Town with Table Mountain complete with the famous "table cloth" clouds in the background. Photo by cocoparisienne.

1) Live with Capetonians and Share their Daily Lives

Get to know the country through its people!

During a recent stay in Cape Town, I rented rooms with annex bathrooms through AirBnB, HomeAway, and VRBO (editor's note: see our section on vacation home rentals), averaging about $40 per night. It was a great opportunity to meet extraordinary locals who picked me up at the airport, drove me to places in and around the city, invited me to their tables to wine and dine, provided me with great tips and let me pose them probing questions about anything South African. Above all, they offered me a most valuable insight into daily life in Cape Town.

2) Get Your Bearings Around the City Bowl

As I was totally new to Cape Town and in need of a quick heads-up of the inner city—the so-called City Bowl—I signed up for two free half-day walking tours. Cape Town Free Walking Tours organizes one walk along the landmarks of the historic city to give visitors an idea of the Cape’s architecture and troubled yet fascinating history and politics, and another around the colorful Bo-Kaap district, formerly known as the Malay Quarter, and inhabited by many descendents of former slaves from various African and Asian countries.

Visit the website of Cape Town Walking Tours for more information. No costs, but a tip is appreciated.

House in picturesque Bo-Kaap
House in picturesque Bo-Kaap.

3) Explore Larger Cape Town and its Surroundings

To get a better idea of the layout, scenery, and other offerings in the city and the Cape Peninsula at large, the hop-on hop-off bus is ideal for covering it all in one day. Via the District Six Museum (do visit this testimonial of forced removal of blacks under Apartheid!), the impressive—world’s first—botanical garden Kirstenbosch and the 17th century Constantia wine estate, the Blue Line continues through the seaside towns of Hout Bay, Camps Bay, Clifton, and Sea Point, offering spectacular views, beautiful beaches, and trendy side walk cafes.

Visit the City Sightseeing South Africa website for more information.
Cost: $14 a day.

Coastal towns near Cape Town
With hop-on hop-off bus along the coastal towns of Clifton and Camps Bay near Cape Town.

4) Pay a Visit to Robben Island

Although Robben Island is one of Cape Town’s biggest tourist attractions, and you are definitely not the only visitor to the island, walking through the site where many South African freedom fighters were incarcerated—including Nelson Mandela—was one of the highlights of my stay in Cape Town. Not only do previous political prisoners function as guides and make the stories about past life in the maximum-security facility more interesting, but you also have a chance, as I had, to bump into former prison guards such as Christo Brand. Brand is the author of the book My Prisoner, My Friend, and was more than happy to exchange some salient anecdotes about his involvement with Mandela during his 27-year imprisonment.

Advance booking is highly recommended, and can be done online at the Robben Island website.
Costs: $25, including boat and guided bus tour over the island.

Because of rough seas, tours are regularly cancelled, which will be communicated to ticket holders by email on the day of the tour. It is therefore advised not to plan a visit to Robben Island for one of your last days in Cape Town, but rather leave some room for potential rescheduling.

Mandela's prison cell on Robben Island
Mandela's prison cell on Robben Island.

5) Stroll Over Neighborhood Markets and Eat Your Heart Out

Cape Town is experiencing a true Renaissance in neighborhood markets, held in parks, squares, and heritage buildings, where Capetonians trade artisan food, farm-fresh produce, curios, unique handicrafts, jewelry, antiques, designer goods, second-hand vintage clothes, books, wines, and craft beers.

Enjoy an affordable lunch at one of the stalls at the lively markets of the Old Biscuit Mill and the Palms, both in the Woodstock area, where you’ll also encounter the highest concentration of contemporary designer and artists’ studios, coops, and galleries in town.

Or combine a visit to False Bay (see #10) with a stroll and dinner at the Friday Blue Bird Garage Food and Goods Market in Muizenberg, located in an old postal plane hangar.

The Pan African Market, housed in a historic building on downtown’s Long Street, is all about jewelry and folk art, with representatives from many West, sub-Saharan and southern African countries. There is a quaint terrace on the first floor.

For more markets and their locations in and around Cape Town, visit the Cape Markets and Mother City Living: Slow Food & Green Living in Cape Town websites.

The Pan African Market in Cape Town
The Pan African Market in Cape Town.

6) Engage in an Outdoor Activity

Could you see yourself tandem paragliding from Lion’s Head with one of the many paragliding companies in Cape Town and taking in the stunning views of flat-topped Table Mountain, one of world’s 7 natural wonders, towering above the Cape Peninsula? Or, if that is too extreme, how about hiking the scenic trails of Table Mountain National Park? You can do it solo, or with a guide from a company like Hike Table Mountain. Although the latter organizes guided hikes for all levels of fitness, the climb to the top is not for the fainthearted! For those who have second thoughts, the trip up Table Mountain can also be done by cable car. If you specifically go for the view, keep an eye out for low-lying cloud forming (the "table cloth"), especially with S.E. winds.

Cape Town and surroundings have opportunities galore for other outdoor activities as well, including surfing, fishing, kayaking, rock climbing, cycling (also electric bikes), mountain biking, sand boarding, game drives and bush camping. For more info on all kinds of outdoor pursuits, visit the SAN - South African National Parks, Adventure Escapades, and Uncover the Cape websites.

Views from above Cape Town
Enjoy views from above after hiking in hills near and above Cape Town. Photo by MichiBieri.

7) Taste Wines at a Historic Estate

Wine tasting is a must when surrounded by so many vineyards and wine cellars on the Cape Peninsula, including those of famous Stellenbosch, Franschhoek, and Paarl. Many of the hundreds of vineyard estates in the foothills of Table Mountain are handed down from generation to generation and still possess their old-world charm, featuring a Cape Dutch architectural style. Nearly all of them offer wine tasting tours, which can be joined privately or through a group tour, departing from Cape Town or Stellenbosch. Typically, you can taste about five different wines, starting with the dry whites, then the reds, and topping it off with a sweeter dessert wine.

For information on guided tours visit the Afrivista Tours, WineToursCapeTown.com, Cape Town Day Tours, Bikes ‘n Wines, and Wine Flies Wine Tours websites.
Costs: $40-$60.

If going solo and taking the train to Stellenbosch: the train runs every 1½ hours from CT Railway Station, and takes about 1 hour and.20 minutes.

Wine tasting in Stellenbosch
Wine tasting in Stellenbosch.

8) Learn About the Cape’s Traditional Foods

Many different nationalities have called the Mother City home over the last couple of centuries, including the Dutch, French, English, Germans, Malay slaves, and indigenous tribes, so the Cape cuisine is considered a true melting pot of culinary influences.

For a newcomer to Cape Town, the names of some typical foods are truly challenging. What to make of waterblommetjie bredie, bobotie, potjeskos, koeksisters, sosaties, smoorsnoek, boerewors, and slaphakskeentjies, for instance?

In order to master some traditional South African recipes, I joined both a Malay cooking class in the Bo-Kaap district, and a food tour along various culinary highlights in town.

In the cooking class we made finger licking samosas and a Cape Malay curry, and we ate delicious koeksisters (sticky sweets resembling our donuts) for dessert.

During the food tour, we visited the Company Gardens, the very spot where Jan van Riebeeck discovered the abundance of fresh water, fertile soil, rich marine life, and started South Africa’s first garden in 1685. I also had a traditional Xhosa lunch at the home of a well-known trumpeter with whom I shared isopho (corn bean soup) and umpoqhoko (maize porridge). In Gugulethu Township, my guide introduced me to a typical braai (BBQ) at the iconic Mzoli’s, where guests pick their own cut from the butchery counter, and then eat it off a tin plate in the adjacent canteen.

"Braai" (BBQ) is prepared at Mzoli's
"Braai" (BBQ) is prepared at Mzoli's.

Cooking class: Lekka Kombuis.
Cost: $30

Food Tour: Coffeebeans Routes.
Cost: $100 (NB: although it was an enjoyable experience, this tour seemed grossly overpriced, and did not enough highlight the multicultural aspect of Cape Town’s cuisine).

Interactive meals with local hosts on their own turf are offered by Pozay.com and Dine-with-a-Local.
Costs are around $30, depending on number of people.

9) Participate in a Tour Through the Townships

Under Apartheid, many black and colored families were forced into settlements on the periphery of the metropolis, the so-called Townships. For a balanced view of life in Cape Town, these settlements are as central to any visit to the Peninsula as for instance the Winelands and Table Mountain.

The focus of our tour, which employed locals as tour conductors for a first-hand experience, was on the people who live in the Townships, their struggles, triumphs, resilience, and solidarity. A lunch at a local’s house was included. The outing can also be combined with a gospel tour, a social soccer game with local teens and kids, or a homestay.

Visit Camissa, Vamos Township Tours, AWOL Tours, Proteam SA Tours websites for more information.
Costs are $45 - $75.

Xhosa hosts in Gugulethu Township
Xhosa hosts in Gugulethu Township.

10) Hop on the Train to False Bay

The Atlantic Ocean with its beautiful sandy beaches is always beckoning! For a few bucks you can enjoy a scenic train ride to the seaside villages of Muizenberg, Kalk Bay, and Simons Town. Muizenberg has the perfect beach for surf lessons, Kalk Bay is known for its bohemian, arty vibe, and fresh seafood (recommended harbor restaurants: Harbour House, Live Bait, and Lucky Fish), and Simons Town is just around the corner from the endangered African Penguin colony at Boulders Beach, which can be viewed at close range from boardwalks or a kayak.

Visit SANParks - South African National Parks for more information.

Kalk Bay Harbor
Kalk Bay Harbor.

11) Enjoy the South African Beat

Music is big in Cape Town. There are many annual music festivals such as the International Summer Music Festival in January, the International Jazz Festival in March, the Big Band Festival in May, the Marimba Festival in June, and the International Opera Festival in September.

Over the summer (November – February), there are also regular picnic concert series held in the Botanical Garden or on the lawns of various wine estates.

For the most up-to-date music calendar visit CapeTownMagazine.com

Some venues tried-and-tested (booking recommended):
The Crypt Jazz Restaurant in the famous St. George’s Cathedral (tel. 079 683 4658),
Alexander Bar Upstairs (tel. 021 300 1088), and
The Assembly (tel. 021 465 7286).

Playing music in Africa
Photo by Hugh Grant.

12) Let it All Soak in a Turkish Bath

With such an action-packed program, nothing feels better than a good hot soak to relax.

Although by no means a fashionable, state of the art facility, there is something very charming about the 1908 Turkish Baths at the very end of Long Street (mountainside). Massages are unfortunately a perk of the past, but the use of steaming room, sauna, day bed, and towel are still a good deal for the entry fee of $3 per hour and $6 for 4 hours. There are different days and times for men and women. There is also a public swimming pool in the building ($1).

Turkish Baths
Turkish Baths.

How to Get Around Cape Town

Buses:

TCT Transport for Cape Town

Golden Arrow Bus Services.

Shuttle Service exists between Cape Town and Johannesburg via Port Elizabeth and Durban with Baz Bus.

Taxis:

Taxi Cabs Cape Town

Uber Cape Town

The Green Cab (the only carbon-neutral taxi service in Cape Town, owned and operated by women).

Minibus taxis drive along major routes, and are frequent and inexpensive.

Lies Ouwerkerk is originally from Amsterdam, The Netherlands, and currently lives in Montreal, Canada. Previously a columnist for The Sherbrooke Record, she is presently a freelance writer and photographer for various travel magazines.

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