If someone mentions idea of Christmas in a warm climate, your instant response is probably, ‘Christmas means snow and eggnog, not sunshine and barbeques!' So I’ll make my case carefully – the festive season in Cape Town is like this: almost every day is a good beach day, the festive spirit infuses the friendly smiles of the people you meet, and each long sunny day begs to be lived to the fullest outdoors, whether visiting penguins on Boulders Beach or enjoying the views from Table Mountain.
Plus, it’s super-easy to go onto a Big 5 safari afterwards where the savannah is a wild manger full of gorgeous baby grazers and the promise of a thrilling New Year is just on the horizon…
Why Choose Cape Town for Christmas?
If you’re a first-time visitor to Africa or travelling with younger children, then we heartily recommend you time your December vacation to be in Cape Town over Christmas and New Year.
This is because:
- There is so much to see and do that you won’t be ever be bored.
- The weather is generally hot and sunny – perfect for picnics and other outdoor activities like paragliding, mountain biking, hiking, abseiling, snorkelling with Cape fur seals, sand boarding and even kite surfing. Click on the links to watch our real-life videos.
- If your kids are used to Santa Claus (called Father Christmas there) and decorations, then it will feel more familiar to them.
- If you are religious, there are plenty of welcoming church services to attend.
- Cape Town organises safe outdoor parties with controlled fireworks.
- Hotels and restaurants lay on great Christmas lunches and dinners (plus, you can really treat yourself as the exchange rate is so good!)
- Cape Town is a great first stop where you can ‘acclimatise’ before moving onto the Garden Route or a safari.
- The infrastructure is excellent – you can self-drive in a rental car or we can arrange guided tours for you.
- The food and wine are the best in Africa and a non-negotiable part of an African Christmas!
- As are presents – Cape Town has some of the best shopping in Africa (second only to perhaps Johannesburg) and plenty of arrangements for onward shipping.
Tips for a Merry Christmas
There is no denying that Cape Town is very popular over the festive season. The country’s school and university students are on holiday, and many workers take leave, with plenty flocking to Cape Town. It’s South Africa’s premier Christmas holiday destination.
To ensure you have a wonderful time, it’s worth doing some preparations for your vacation before you arrive:
- Book as far in advance as you can. Although there is plenty of accommodation across all budget ranges, inter-connecting and family suites are limited. Booking ahead gives you your first choice.
- Consider carefully which area you want to stay. Your personal Africa Safari Expert will work closely with you to determine your interests and expectations. See below for more details of Cape Town’s neighbourhoods.
- Make as many reservations in advance as you can, especially for top attractions and restaurants. The city is jam-packed and it’s best to nail down your ‘must do’s’ before you arrive. Your Safari Expert can help with this.
- Have a loose schedule. While it’s important to relax and have fun, do keep a rough idea of your plans in mind. The sun rises very early (about 5am) and sets quite late (about 8pm) so you can beat the crowds by making an early start, especially for popular places like Cape Point, Table Mountain and the beaches.
- Bring plenty of organic, eco-friendly sunscreen. Temperatures can hit 40°C+ / 100°F+ and sunstroke is no fun. It might be tempting to bake if you’re coming from a snowy winter but try to avoid direct sun between 10am and 3pm, and wear a hat, sunscreen and sunglasses, no matter how dark your complexion.
- Make use of your hotel’s shuttle service (if there is one) and certified cab services (such as Taxify, Uber and Excite Taxis).
Where to Stay: Cape Town’s Neighbourhoods
Although Cape Town is a fairly small city of only three million inhabitants, it’s important to choose your neighbourhood carefully so you have the experience you really want.
Think about whether you:
- Like to walk to shops and restaurants.
- Want to be part of ‘the action’.
- Prefer big hotels or smaller guesthouses.
- Like to work out on holiday.
- Like to have access to a garden and swimming pool.
- Want to be able to have all your meals at your accommodation if necessary.
The following is a rough breakdown of what you can expect in the different areas of the Mother City:
- Huge selection of shops, bars and restaurants.
- Nelson Mandela Gateway to Robben Island.
- Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa.
- Ferris wheel, harbour tours and sunset cruises.
- Great views of Table Mountain.
- Travellers who want to be on the go 24/7.
- Those who prefer bigger hotels.
- Those who want rainy day options like easy shopping or movies.
- Families with young children who want age-appropriate activities or kids’ clubs.
- Large, luxurious hotels such as One&Only Cape Town, the Cape Grace and the Table Bay Hotel.
- Private vacation apartments along the marina.
- Upscale boutique shopping amid funky Georgian architecture.
- LGBTQI-friendly bars, accommodation, restaurants and nightclubs.
- Close to V&A Waterfront, city centre and the colourful Bo-Kaap neighbourhood.
- A close-knit residential community.
- LGBTQI travellers.
- Honeymooners or couples.
Camps Bay and Clifton
- Some of the prettiest beaches in the world that are sheltered from the wind.
- Laid-back beach bars under the peak of Lion’s Head and the Twelve Apostles mountains.
- The best views of the sunset in Cape Town.
- Families, honeymooners and couples who want to mix sightseeing with plenty of beach time (this is the Atlantic Ocean so water temperatures are significantly cooler than the Indian Ocean).
Boutique hotels, vacation apartments and very luxurious beach villas.
City Centre: Gardens and Oranjezicht
- The Company’s Gardens and surrounding museums and galleries.
- Fabulous views of Table Mountain and Lion’s Head plus the city skyline.
- Plenty of quirky shops, restaurants, galleries and bars.
- The historic city centre with Greenmarket Square, Parliament and Bree Street.
- Multi-generational families who want a quieter neighbourhood.
- Those who enjoy ‘living like a local’.
Boutique hotels, vacation apartments and very luxurious beach villas.
- The oldest vineyards and some of the most prestigious wine estates in the southern hemisphere.
- Superb views of the back slopes of Table Mountain.
- Close to Boulders Beach, Kalk Bay, Simon’s Town, Cape Point, Chapman’s Peak Drive and Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden.
- Very peaceful atmosphere amid lush gardens and refined accommodation.
- Norval Foundation art gallery and sculpture garden.
- Foodies and wine lovers.
- Older travellers who want a quieter environment away from the city.
- Those who love nature.
Upscale small hotels.
How Africans Celebrate Christmas – What to Expect
Christmas Day is a public holiday across South Africa. The day after Christmas – 26 December – is also a public holiday and is known officially as the ‘Day of Goodwill’ although many people still refer to it by its previous name of ‘Boxing Day’.
Here’s what to expect so you can plan your holiday in Cape Town:
- Banks and offices will be closed. ATMs (cash points) will be working.
- Some restaurants, attractions, bars, petrol stations and shops will be open at their own discretion but check before going.
- It is best to make a reservation to eat out on Christmas day as restaurants will be very busy.
- A traditional South African Christmas lunch usually includes gammon, ham, turkey or duck, trifle, mince pies with brandy sauce, Christmas pudding and crackers with paper hats. It is very influenced by a traditional British Christmas.
- Most South Africans stay home and pass the day with their families and friends.
- There will be regular church services should you wish to worship on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.
- Check for dress codes and age restrictions. Evening events are likely to be smart-casual and not allow very young children.
- It is traditional to view the festive street lights along Adderley Street in the city centre in the evening.
- Tipping in restaurants is generally calculated at least 10% of the bill.
- The weather is unpredictable but it definitely won’t be snowy!
- Many spend Boxing Day watching the opening day of a 5-day cricket test match between South Africa and another country – it’s an arcane but fascinating sport!
Where to Eat Christmas Dinner or Lunch
Christmas lunch is the most popular meal and is generally a multi-course affair with all the trimmings. If you aren’t staying in a vacation apartment or villa where you can cook your own meal, then make a booking at one of the city’s top hotels for a Christmas celebration.
Here are some ideas:
Where to Celebrate New Year’s Eve in Cape Town
As across the world, New Year’s is a time to party across Cape Town. New Year’s Day (1 January) is a public holiday across South Africa while 2 January (Tweede Nuwe Jaar or ‘Second New Year’) is traditionally also a holiday in Cape Town, although not an official one.
Here are some pointers:
- New Year’s Day is a public holiday in South Africa so banks and offices will be closed.
- Some restaurants, attractions, bars, petrol (gas) stations and shops will be open at their own discretion but check before going.
- Please do not drink and drive if you have a rental car. Book cabs in advance or make arrangements with your hotel’s shuttle surface if there is one.
- Tipping in restaurants is generally calculated at 10% of the bill.
- Traditionally the Cape Minstrels or 'Kaapse Klopse' parade through the city on 2 January to celebrate the day that slaves had off after working over New Year, and to rejoice in the end of slavery.
- The V&A Waterfront hosts a free party with live music and fireworks (fireworks can only be lit in designated areas because of the dry summer conditions so please do not light them yourself).
- It is illegal to drink alcohol on the beach – the police will confiscate it and issue fines.
- Long Street is very popular with younger revellers.
- Many hotels will host parties with canapes, dinner, cocktails and entertainment – enquire with your hotel or ask your Africa Safari Expert for ideas.
- If it is full moon, many people climb Lion’s Head in the evening. Make sure you have a headlamp and a bottle of water should you decide to join them.
What to Pack
Cape Town is famous for having four seasons in one day and no true Capetonian goes anywhere without a warm top, even on the hottest day! The top of Table Mountain can be cold, it occasionally rains lightly in the city over summer, and the Southeaster wind gives surfers and kiteboarders perfect conditions in the afternoon.
Pack your summer clothes but do add long trousers and a long-sleeved top, just for those days when it’s cooler. See our useful infographic below for more information:
Combine Cape Town with Other Destinations
Whether you have a rental or leave it to us to arrange a guided tour, there are plenty of day-trips outside Cape Town that can be an exciting part of your holiday:
The Cape Winelands – an hour’s drive
Visit Franschhoek, Stellenbosch and Paarl for superb wine estates and the stunning scenery. There are also lots of family-friendly restaurants and attractions so the under-18s (the legal drinking age is 18 in South Africa) will have plenty to keep them busy.
Hermanus – 90-minute drive
Renowned for some of the best whale watching in the world, sadly most of the southern rights will have swum on by December. But there will still be stragglers and the town is also home to a small but picturesque wine route.
Christmas and New Year’s is a time for family, reconnecting and reminiscing. Why not do it all in Africa? Beautiful sunny days, endless white beaches, fantastic nature and busy shopping markets await you and your family this December. PS Santa delivers!