Cape Town is South Africa’s least intimidating major city and absolutely the easiest and safest to travel to with children. With its glorious waterfront location and close proximity to stunning beaches, it offers everything one would expect from a cosmopolitan, thriving metropolis and is (in the tourist areas) happily without too much danger or visible poverty. If you're going to South Africa with kids, Cape Town should definitely be on your family holiday destination list.
Whether you prefer shopping, teaching the kids to surf or stepping back into history, Cape Town has all the options. While its weather is temperate enough to be enjoyable all year round, the summer is particularly glorious and when the beaches and friendly waterfront are at their best. As a stopover on the way to safari or a destination in itself, Cape Town has a surprising amount to offer.
Even better, it isn’t dangerous or poverty-ridden as you might presume. There are very few beggers or touts and if you stick to the tourist areas, feels just as first world as being in Sydney or San Diego.
The city is situated right between Table Mountain and the Atlantic Ocean which means a cornucopia of beaches against a magnificent mountainous backdrop. In the city there are historical areas to visit, shopping strips to explore and plenty of seafood and wine to be sampled.
The Victoria and Alfred Waterfront is a large lifestyle complex of shopping centre, restaurants, markets, museums, boat trips and free street entertainment. It’s a great way to spend a few half days in-between other excursions where everyone can grab a meal and partake in the many activities. As well as the lively local musicians busking to clapping and dancing audiences, kids will love watching the boats coming into the swing bridge and visiting the Two Oceans Aquarium and Scratch Patch (where they can dig for semi-precious stones).
A revolving cable car ride up Table Mountain is an obvious joy for children and offers adults spectacular views over the city and surrounds. The ride up and most of the walks can be done with a stroller. Queues can be long though, so book your tickets online in advance to try to reduce your wait times.
There are several beaches to chose to visit and it’s worth dedicating a whole day to the scenic drive that takes them all in and goes right down to the Cape of Good Hope. Along the way you might even do some wildlife spotting including wild ostrich and blesbok.
The most youngster-friendly is Boulders Beach. There are shallow rock pools for the kids to explore, the waves are very flat (if a little cool) and a short walk away a colony of 3000 wild African penguins can be seen living right on the beach.
For another day outdoors, Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden is a beautiful, peaceful place with huge lawns where the children can run amuck and parents can chill over a picnic lunch. Look out for the scratch and sniff section that encourages kids to learn about plants through their distinctive fragrance and the guinea fowl scratching about the foliage.
There are also several historical activities on offer including a visit to the colourful Malay quarter of Bo-Kaap (which makes for some great family photos). But do your research before you go as some historical sites may not be suitable for kids, particularly given South Africa’s recent apartheid history. For instance, an excursion to Robben Island (where Nelson Mandela was famously incarcerated) is a few hours long and made up of historical talks which are conducted in large groups. The lecutres can be boring for young kids and it can be hard to hear, nor will other visitors appreciate listening to your children complain throughout. If you still decide you want to visit Robben Island, pre-book your tickets in advance as tours are very popular.
It is safe to move around all the tourist areas and CBD of Cape Town in the daytime. But once the sun goes down it is not recommended that you walk or drive yourself anywhere. The only exception to this is the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront which has a high security presence and is perfectly safe for tourists.
If you are going out at night, organise with your hotel for a pre-arranged pick-up or limit your taxi use to well-reputed companies such as Unicab.
While serious crime is on the downturn, petty crime is still an issue. This means you need to take extra precautions – put all your valuables in the hotel safe and out of temptation and never let your credit card out of your sight. (All restaurants have a mobile credit card device they can bring to your table for exactly this reason – even the waiters will tell you not to trust them with your cards.) But these safeguards are small inconveniences – Cape Town is still a friendly, vibrant city the family will enjoy.
As a family, it makes sense to stay at a hotel at the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront which is perhaps the only part of Cape Town that is safe for visitors to walk around at night. This allows for easy access to amenities such as supermarkets and stores as well as restaurants and entertainment. The Victoria & Alfred Hotel is right in the heart of this lifestyle precinct with excellent views over Table Mountain and they pride themselves on a concierge that can organise kid-friendly tours of Cape Town.
If you prefer more apartment-style living, Cape Royale Luxury Hotel & Residences offers large suites with full kitchens and a supermarket and DVD rental only a few doors away and is only a 10 minute car ride from Victoria and Alfred Waterfront.
Cape Town is just a short drive away from Stellenbosch and Franschhoek. For travel tips on things to do in the South African wine region with kids, see the suitcases&strollers story here.