1. Food and drinks at restaurants are shockingly cheap
This was the first and biggest surprise for us (and granted, we have only lived in LA and NYC, so we have a slightly different metric of prices than most) but we had no idea how affordable eating out would be here. When we first arrived, we drove straight to Camps Bay and stopped in one of the tourist restaurants (IE. always higher prices) right on the beach strip and were very pleasantly surprised to find that 2 large beers and an appetizer platter came to the equivalent of $11 USD. A nice Italian dinner with wine in the Newlands neighborhood came to $40, and we regularly saw bottles of wine in restaurants for under $10.
2. Parking is free!
Almost everywhere around the city and surrounding areas we went, we found that parking was completely free - although you do need to pay at the downtown and waterfront areas. But Camps Bay, Table Mountain, Boulder Beach, and everywhere else we went around the city had free street parking or lots, and it was never too difficult to find. One things I truly appreciate in a city where it is really best to drive everywhere.
3. But there are unofficial parking attendants everywhere
Most lots or streets with shops and restaurants have ‘parking attendants’ in orange vests, you will guide you into a space (whether you need it or not) and say they will “watch the car” for you. We were very confused by this our first day and looked it up - it turns out that in most areas, these parking attendants are not official, but are there as a way to get tips. You are not required to tip them anywhere, but you can give them a small tip if you choose to. Most were not aggressive or threatening, but a few times we had someone ask us multiple times for a tip in a pushier manner. The first couple of times, we tipped way, way more than was customary, as we had heard about this system before arriving. Know before you go!
4. Is it safe to rent a car and drive yourself around South Africa? Absolutely
I am always nervous about renting a car in a country we have never been to previously - and did a LOT of googling as we planned our travels here. Every blog and article I landed on stated that we would be perfectly fine driving ourselves around the city and along the Garden Route - and that was exactly how I felt. We came into no issues with driving ourselves around - and we were extremely grateful that we chose this method - the drives are amazing! The winding cliff-side roads around Cape Town and the surrounding area are breathtaking, and reminiscent of the Amalfi Coast or California 1 at Big Sur. Not just in views, but most roads were pristine - freshly paved and with plenty of turn offs to stop for the unbelievable views. We drove out of Cape Town about 4 hours along the Garden Route to our Safari Lodge, and then up into the Winelands, and every drive showed us something new, gorgeous, and worth stopping and photographing. I cannot recommend getting a car and driving yourself around more - with one exception….
5. Don’t rent a manual car - even if you know how to drive them
In planning our trip, we noticed that the automatic cars were quite a price jump from the base model - which all had manual transmissions. Brandon knows how to drive manual, and we have rented them in France and Germany, so we chose the basic option.
Cape Town is extremely hilly, and a city with a good amount of stop and go traffic. And our best guess that the nature of inexperienced drivers in the city have worn down a lot of the rental cars. We spent most of our first 24 hours in Cape Town dealing with our rental - the cars just did not drive well, stalled constantly, started smoking, and no matter how delicately Brandon drove, the clutch gave us nonstop issues. We had our first rental car replaced with another of the same model (thinking that the issue was just with his one particular car) and a few hours later just returned it and rented a standard automatic - which immediately made our experience infinitely better. Even the tow truck driver that picked us up mentioned that he was constantly needing to come get these rental cars. Spring for the automatic car, it will be so worth it.
6. The landscapes are even more majestic and diverse than the photos
We had seen images of the Lion’s Head peak, Table Mountain, the penguin colony, and knew that Cape Town was beautiful - but we had absolutely no idea how varied and awe-inspiring the area would be. In driving just a couple of hours from central Cape Town we found towns in the Winelands that looked like France or Italy - full of colonial houses, vineyards, open fields, and surrounded by a stunning mountain lands. Other areas out along the waterfront looked more like Norway or Iceland, with green mountains, low-hanging fog, and small villages. There are sand dunes, white sand beaches with tropical aqua water, and a constant backdrop of jutting mountain ridges. I cannot emphasize enough how incredibly blown away I was with the stunning beauty of the Cape Town area
7. You can still feel the impact of Apartheid and the race divide
I know that this is a delicate issue, but I did want to mention it. While South Africa has come a long way since the days of Apartheid (A system of racial segregation that was law from the 1940s to the 1990s), you can still see the divide in a lot of ways - something that of course you feel in many cities and countries around the world. There were a number of restaurants and cafes that we went to where I couldn't help but notice that all of the customers were white and all of the wait staff were black - however there were areas of town that seemed to be much less segregated. And while Cape Town is a modern city that felt quite a lot like Los Angeles but with more dramatic scenery, we also noticed that while driving out of the city towards our Safari, we passed a large shanty town - you can read more about this here.
8. You can drink the tap water
The tap water in Cape Town is fully drinkable and some of the best in the world! I am always very cautious about drinking tap water to cut the potential risk of getting sick while traveling, but I absolutely love it when we are in a place where it is safe to do so - and I always take the chance to cut down on my plastic use by using a refillable bottle. I did not expect this from South Africa, so it was a very pleasant surprise.
9. The animals are amazing!
I had been dreaming of swimming with penguins on the beach here for years now, which I believed to be the main animal attraction in the city, but there is so much more than we knew about. To start, Boulders Beach Penguin Colony is not a cheap tourist attraction, it really is incredible. We were very respectful and approached the penguins very slowly, but I was surprised at how close they let you get and how used to people they seemed to be. Even without the penguins, Boulders is a stunning beach - but the added attraction made it a serious highlight of our trip.
But beyond the main attraction, there are Cape Fur seals on some of the coast lines, the impossibly cute chipmunk-like scavenging dassies (but beware - lots of signs tell you not to pet or feed the dassies, they bite), and even wild baboons just outside of town on the Cape Peninsula. Out in the waters just off the Cape, you can watch the humpback whales migration and cage dive with sharks. AND you are only a 4 hour drive from wild safari parks where you can see lions, giraffes, elephants, and hippos. If you're looking for animal spottings, South Africa is one of the greatest places to do it.
10. Hiking Table Mountain is no joke
Table Mountain is one of the major highlights of Cape Town - and for good reason. The views are stunning, the cable car is a wild experience, and it is considered one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature. Hiking up it was one of our must-dos for this trip, and definitely held up to the hype. However, even as avid hikers, we were both getting heavily winded here - the hike is more like climbing a few thousand steep stairs, and takes some good athletic ability and endurance to make it up. I would absolutely recommend doing it, but make sure you are up for the task, and prepare yourself with sunscreen and plenty of water. We started our climb at around 8 or 9 am, and the sun was already beating on our backs. Luckily, there is a restaurant at the top where you can have a full meal (with a view) or just buy snacks and more water. After hiking up, we opted to take the cable car back down the mountain - a thrilling but short ride that feels like you are going to drop almost vertically. One thing we didn't know until we got on - the cable car slowly rotates so every guest can get a 360 degree view.