Walking in Cape Town - The Best Strolls
Updated: Oct 27, 2021
How do you describe an incredible city in a single blog post? You don’t. Cape Town just has too much to offer. Looking back at a month and a half there and trying to organize our thoughts, we picked up on a theme. Tied into all the stunning sights, meals, and experiences, we walked - a lot. So, writing a post specifically dedicated to walking in Cape Town - and some of the best strolls we took - just seemed to make sense.
Cape Town - a Snapshot Layout
Before talking about walking in Cape Town, it helps to have a general sense of the city’s topography. It’s absolutely dominated by high ground, and the city’s neighborhoods have sprung up around these slopes.
Picture a horseshoe shape sitting out on a peninsula, with the open portion facing up to your two o’clock. The mountains of Table Mountain National Park - Table Mountain, Lion’s Head, and Signal Hill - comprise the actual horseshoe. Inside of that, you have Cape Town’s City Bowl (aptly named due to the bowl-like shape resulting from the surrounding mountains). This area holds the high-rise-y central business district as well as some really cool, more residential neighborhoods climbing up into the hills.
As you exit the mouth of the horseshoe, you get to the Cape Town waterfront - both the industrial and touristy portions (more on that below). If you hook right and follow the outside of the horseshoe south, you hit a bunch of residential neighborhoods and, eventually, the wine farms of Constantia.
On the other hand, hooking left out of the mouth of the horseshoe takes you to a series of awesome neighborhoods wedged between the city’s high ground on one side and the ocean on the other. Starting from the north (the mouth of the horseshoe) and working back down south, you have De Waterkant, Green Point, Sea Point, Bantry Bay, Clifton Beach, and - eventually - Camp’s Bay.
Now, if you asked a local to name every single neighborhood in Cape Town, you’d get a much longer list than this. But, in our month and a half there, we could only see so much (more reason to go back!). Plus, we didn’t have a rental car during our time there. As a result, our walks really just extended from the front door of the two apartments we rented: three weeks in the City Bowl, and three weeks in Green Point.
Common Question: “Is Walking in Cape Town Safe?”
Cape Town’s gotten a pretty bad reputation over the years as a crime-ridden city - not necessarily deserved. But, it still is a city, and crime happens. For us flying in, we asked the same question that most first-time visitors likely ask, namely, is it safe to walk around Cape Town?
First, some numbers help. As of 2020, Cape Town ranked as the eighth-most violent city in the world. Surely we can’t go there! Well, when you take a step back and look at the rankings, Saint Louis ranks ninth, Baltimore 11th, and Detroit 34th. Would you tell foreigners visiting the United States they should never visit those cities? Certainly not (e.g. Chipp’s had a lot - maybe too much - fun in Baltimore after Navy football games at M&T Bank Stadium…).
But, just like cities anywhere, visitors to Cape Town should take certain precautions - particularly as they’re acclimating to the local dynamics. Some basic guidelines:
Pay attention to your surroundings! People walking with their faces stuck in their phone screens are asking to get robbed, wherever they are (or hit by a bus…). Keep your head on a swivel and just know what’s going around you. Most petty crimes are ones of opportunity, where some clueless tourist leaves a purse or expensive camera sitting on a table near a restaurant’s exit (Chipp can say that, as he was once that clueless tourist pick-pocketed in Athens - still leaves a bad taste in the mouth!).
Don’t carry/wear flashy, expensive things. Maybe leave the Rolex at home… But seriously, it’s better to leave your expensive stuff back in the apartment - just bring some cash, a credit card, and a phone (in your front pocket) out in town. Personally, we’d only take one of our phones out walking around, so if that got stolen, we still had another back home.
Assume every situation is a scam: It may sound cynical, but it’s just a better approach - at least until you get your bearings. If someone approaches you, just assume they’re trying to rope you into some sort of scam. TripAdvisor threads are full of horror stories of naive tourists falling for ridiculous scams.
Don’t walk around at night: Better to take an Uber or taxi point-to-point. Looking at crime statistics, muggings skyrocket at night. And, Ubers aren’t too expensive in Cape Town - makes more sense to shell out a couple bucks for a ride than risk a knifing…
Firmly tell beggars ‘no’: South Africa has rampant unemployment, leading to huge numbers of beggars on the street, some of whom can be extremely persistent. The city has nonprofits you can donate to if you’d like to support with food and lodging. Don’t give cash - you’ll likely get your entire wallet or purse snatched. It’s better to firmly say “I have nothing” and walk away.
Maybe Chipp’s paranoid, but these are pretty much the same recommendations for visiting an American city. Long way of saying, yes, Cape Town does have crime issues, but they shouldn’t prevent you from visiting such an amazing city.
Oh yeah, one more thing - the cars come from the other side in South Africa. Getting used to which ways to look when crossing the road led to more near-death experiences for us than crime…
Now, here are some of the best strolls through Cape Town!
From the V&A to VOC - Waterfront to Company’s Garden
This is a great, we-just-arrived-in-Cape-Town-and-know-nothing-of-the-city walk. The Victoria & Albert, or V&A, Waterfront was recently redeveloped into a touristy, Disney-for-adults-esque neighborhood. As such, South Africans scoff at it as not real Cape Town, but it’s still a pretty cool little waterfront area of restaurants and bars, live music, people watching, and views (the rooftop bar at the Silo Hotel - a former grain silo - provides a particularly good place to get a “sundowner” and take in the views).
And, a cool little piece of historical trivia: the V&A Waterfront was so named after Albert, Queen Victoria’s consort, commissioned a breakwater that allowed ships passing around the Cape in the 19th century to be insured.
From V&A, you can leisurely stroll up from the water into the City Bowl, that is, up into the horseshoe. It’s a nice, gradual ascent through the yoga studios, streetside cafes, and beautifully restored homes of De Waterkant into the City Bowl proper. Once there, you definitely feel more downtown - bustling environment of bars, restaurants, hole-in-the-wall sandwich joints, little shops, and high-rise apartment buildings. And, the focal point of this area - where we’d spend three weeks living - is Greenmarket Square, a city square that turns into a daily market with dozens of vendors selling local crafts and snacks.
Walking through the City Bowl - and Greenmarket Square, in particular - can definitely cause some sensory overload. This makes arriving at the Company’s Garden - a gorgeous, tree lined park just beyond Greenmarket - a welcome transition. Officially known as the VOC Gardens, the Dutch abbreviation for the Dutch East India (DEI) Company, this greenspace began as a means of refitting DEI Co. ships with fresh fruit and veggies on their way east on the spice trade. Now, it’s a little oasis in the city - perfect place to grab a coffee or picnic lunch and just relax on the grass.
Wrapping up this stroll, you have a decent overview of the city center’s layout - if not a true understanding of all the awesome places within that city center.
The Sea Point Promenade
Transitioning from the city center stroll, Cape Town also has some incredible stretches along the water, the Sea Point promenade being one of them.
According to some local friends, Sea Point is the place where young, first-“real”-job-out-of-university kids go to live after graduating. Yes, you’re kind of doing the adult thing there, but it’s really more of a “half-way house neighborhood,” the place where you can party like a college kid while still making it to work in the morning. Naturally, there are plenty of awesome bars and restaurants in this stretch tucked between Signal Hill and the ocean.
And, along that ocean portion, the city poured a bunch of money into developing a beautiful, grassy park and paved promenade. People biking, jogging, power walking, or, in our case, just going for a leisurely stroll - whatever works for you. Pair a stroll with dinner and drinks at any of a seemingly unlimited number of delicious restaurants in the neighborhood, and you’ve got yourself a pretty good evening.
A - Very Steep - Hike through Kloof’s Nek
We - almost - bit off more than we could chew on this one. From our Greenmarket Square apartment, we decided to take the high route over to Camp’s Bay, the La Jolla of Cape Town - high-end restaurants, too-expensive cars, hillside mansions, and a stunning stretch of coastline. As the kids like to say these days, it’s a real “scene…”
As the crow flies, the walk’s a little over six kilometers - certainly reasonable. But, back to the horseshoe thing, we’d have to climb up and over that horseshoe to get to Camp’s Bay. Technically speaking, we’d climb through a pass, or “nek” in Afrikaans. Leaving City Bowl, you follow Long Street - the Bourbon Street of Cape Town - until it becomes the more laid back Kloof Street.
Following Kloof Street, you ascend up towards the eponymous Kloof Nek. Hoofing your way that direction, you have two imposing formations on each side of the nek - Table Mountain to your left, and Lion’s Head to your right. Looking at those towering peaks, the pass is relatively low. But, climbing from close to sea level up to over 200 meters - in the oppressive heat - wildly out of shape - well, it was harder than we anticipated.
Eventually, sweating profusely and exhausted, we made it through the nek itself - absolutely worth the climb. Looking down from Kloof Nek into Camp’s Bay, you’re rewarded with an incredible vista. And, strolling down from that mountain pass to the water takes you through some beautiful neighborhoods, parks, and just neat areas, in general.
Yes, you can Uber from City Bowl to Camp’s Bay in about 15 minutes - certainly physically easier (and faster). But, you appreciate the view a hell of a lot more when you lug your out-of-shape self up there on foot!
Taking the “Coast Route” to Camp’s Bay
Once again returning to the horseshoe description, there’s another way to walk to Camp’s Bay - the coast.
At the three-week mark of our Cape Town time - already past the time we initially planned on leaving - we swapped our Greenmarket Square apartment for a place in Green Point. There, we found ourselves outside the horseshoe, in a neighborhood gradually sloping down from Signal Hill to Cape Town’s famous soccer stadium and the ocean.
Realizing we’d pretty thoroughly explored the City Bowl area, we wanted to see more of the area along the coast. In another half-baked plan, we decided to walk from Green Point to Camp’s Bay. But, rather than go up and over Kloof’s Nek, we’d follow the outside of the horseshoe, strolling along nine-ish kilometers of some of the most beautiful waterfront in the world.
To kick things off, we took a bit of a detour. Instead of heading due west to the water, we went north to Mouille Point, a high-end residential area between Cape Town Stadium and the waterfront. As with all of Cape Town’s coastal neighborhoods, it’s outstanding. It’s also another surreal example of the cognitive dissonance one experiences in Cape Town.
Just offshore, sailboats raced in a Saturday regatta. A few miles out to sea immediately behind these sailboats sits Robben Island, the notorious prison that held Nelson Mandela and the other apartheid-era political prisoners. It’s tough to explain, but it’s just strange - walking hand-in-hand, enjoying a sunny Cape Town day in one of the most expensive neighborhoods in the country, and watching a regatta - all against the backdrop of one of apartheid’s cruelest elements. To say the least, we had much to ponder on the next couple hours of our walk along the water to Camp’s Bay.
From an aesthetic perspective, our philosophical discussions would shortly be derailed by our surroundings. If Mouille Point and Camp’s Bay are high-end, the neighborhoods we’d shortly meander through are the highest-end places in Cape Town. Sure, all of the coastal neighborhoods are wealthy enclaves, but Clifton Beach and Bantry Bay - both built into the cliffside between Lion’s Head and the ocean - are the true bastions of oligarch-like wealth in South Africa.
Bottom line. Yes, you should absolutely walk in Cape Town - the more, the better. Yes, you’ll stroll through some of the most beautiful urban stretches in the world. And, yes, while doing it, South Africa’s history and current struggles will force you to think.