Last updated on October 22, 2023 by Wandering our World
South Africa easily ranks among the world’s most exciting vacation destinations. It’s one of the best places to visit in all of Africa, boasting extraordinary biodiversity, jaw-dropping landscapes, and some spectacular cities, too. Cape Town and Johannesburg are two of those super cities, and many travelers hesitate between them when planning their South African adventures.
Fortunately, Cape Town and Johannesburg are quite contrasting places, differing in areas like size, nightlife, food, and activities. Once you learn a little more about the big differences between them, you should find it becomes a lot easier to make up your mind and decide on the ideal city to suit your needs and preferences.
On the one hand, there’s the thriving coastal haven of Cape Town, nestled on a pretty peninsula at the base of the towering Table Mountain. A real gem for nature lovers and outdoor adventurers, this city is perfect for days at the beach, majestic mountain climbs, wilderness hikes, and more.
Then, there’s Johannesburg. Affectionately known as “The City of Gold”, this is the biggest city in the nation, a vast and diverse metropolis, filled with museums, galleries, and historic landmarks galore. It’s also conveniently situated near some of the country’s biggest and best wildlife areas for those dreaming of a South African safari experience.
Of course, there are many more differences to discover between Cape Town and Johannesburg, and that’s what this guide is here for. Below, we’ll put South Africa’s two biggest cities side-by-side, comparing them in a series of key areas, from their typical weather conditions to their most exciting attractions.
- A Quick Overview Of Cape Town vs Johannesburg
- Which Has The Best Weather?
- Which Is Best For Activities?
- Which Is Better For Outdoor Adventures?
- Which Is Better For Shopping?
- Which Is Better For Nightlife?
- Which Is Better For Food?
- Which Is Best For Families?
- Which Is Best For Couples?
- Which Is Best For Backpackers?
- Which Is Cheapest?
- Which Is Safest?
- Cape Town vs Johannesburg: Which Is Better?
A Quick Overview Of Cape Town vs Johannesburg
Cape Town: A Quick Overview
Cape Town is the second-biggest city in South Africa, as well as the country’s legislative capital, boasting a huge population in excess of 4.8 million people. It’s situated on the country’s southwest coast, enjoying dramatic surroundings of gorgeous golden beaches and towering mountain peaks.
The oldest urban area in the Western Cape and the first permanent European settlement in the country, Cape Town was originally founded back in 1652 by the Dutch East India Company. It started life as a simple outpost, but swiftly developed into a thriving trading hub and major economic power.
In the modern era, Cape Town ranks as one of the most desirable destinations in all of South Africa, drawing in countless travelers from far and wide. A lot of people head here to take in the city’s striking natural beauty, and it’s by far one of the best destinations in the country for those seeking time in the great outdoors.
But there’s much more to Cape Town than its mountains and beaches. This is also a thriving cultural hub, with lots of fascinating and impressive attractions, like the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront – the oldest working harbor in the entire Southern Hemisphere – and the gorgeous green paradise of Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden.
Johannesburg: A Quick Overview
Johannesburg, also known as Joburg or Jozi to locals, is the biggest city in South Africa. It has a massive population of more than 6.7 million people, with over 11 million in the full metropolitan area. It’s located inland, in the northeast part of the country, and it’s a vast, sprawling metropolis, feeling even busier and livelier than Cape Town in many respects.
The history of Johannesburg goes all the way back to 1886, and the city has a fascinating origin story. It was originally quite a barren and deserted place. Then, gold was discovered in the area. That led to an event known as the Witwatersrand Gold Rush, with thousands of people flocking to the newly-formed city, which underwent rapid development.
In the years since then, Johannesburg has continued to grow and evolve. It serves as the seat of South Africa’s Constitutional Court, as well as being the home city of many of the nation’s biggest businesses and banks. But, despite being an economic powerhouse, this city also has plenty to offer for tourists and travelers.
As a diverse and lively place, Johannesburg pulses with excitement and energy, making it a dream destination for big city explorers. It’s packed full of museums, galleries, cafés, bars, restaurants, stores, and historic landmarks, too, with lots of diverse districts and vibrant neighborhoods to uncover.
Which Has The Best Weather?
There are around 800 miles separating Johannesburg and Cape Town, and they’re essentially at opposite ends of the country to one another. Cape Town is also on the coast, while Joburg sits inland, and all of that means that these two cities have notably different weather conditions throughout the year.
In general, conditions tend to be more extreme and diverse in Johannesburg, with slightly warmer summers than Cape Town and significantly cooler winters. Both cities can also get quite rainy, with Cape Town being drier in the summer and Johannesburg drier in the winter months. There is no longer a water crisis in Cape Town as water levels were restored to 95% in 2020. Given its coastal location, Cape Town is also notably windier than Joburg.
Ultimately, it all depends on when you plan to visit and what kind of weather you prefer. Johannesburg has wetter but warmer summers and is a little more unpredictable. Cape Town is a little cooler for summer trips, but less rainy.
Which Is Best For Activities?
One of the joys of visiting South Africa is that this country is home to so many exciting activities that you simply wouldn’t find in many other parts of the world. There are lots of fun ways to spend your time, especially in the big cities of Cape Town and Johannesburg, but they offer very contrasting experiences, with Cape Town more oriented around beaches and outdoor fun, with Joburg being more about history and culture.
Cape Town: The Activities
There’s an awful lot to do in Cape Town, and many of the best activities allow you to spend time outdoors, soaking up the sun and diving headfirst into nature. A trip up Table Mountain is a terrific way to get started, and you can enjoy some truly spectacular views of the cityscape from the mountaintop.
If you prefer to stay within the inner city, head down to the Victoria & Alfred (V&A) Waterfront, easily Cape Town’s most famous and beloved manmade landmark. It’s a buzzing, vibrant hotspot where you can do everything from shopping to people-watching, or even hop on a boat and set off on a whale-watching tour or day trip over to Robben Island.
Of course, since Cape Town is on the coast, it’s also a dreamy beach destination. Head to places like Camps Bay or Boulders Beach to enjoy soft sands, peaceful coves, or even an encounter with the area’s famous African Penguins. Or, if you’re in the mood for flora over fauna, head to Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens, home of over 7,000 native species.
Of course, there might be times when Cape Town’s rainy and windy days force you inside. Fortunately, the city also has a series of fun indoor attractions to visit, like the fascinating District Six Museum, which charts the city’s apartheid past. The Two Oceans Aquarium is another nice place to spend time on rainier days, along with the 17th century Castle of Good Hope, one of the oldest structures in the city.
Johannesburg: The Activities
Compared to Cape Town, Johannesburg has a lot more indoor attractions, and the Apartheid Museum is one of the best places to spend some time. It charts the history of apartheid in South Africa, with an extraordinary collection of educational artifacts, old film footage, and personal stories from those who lived through that troubled time.
Other museums and cultural landmarks to visit in and around Joburg include Mandela House, where the famous former president lived for many years, and the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum. The Lindfield Victorian House Museum is another intriguing place to spend a day, letting you dive back into the Victorian era, with wonderfully-preserved decorative interiors to admire.
Constitution Hill, the Wits Art Museum, and the South African Museum of Military History can add even more historic and cultural value to your stay in the big city, and there are lots of rich, diverse neighborhoods to explore across Johannesburg. The recently revitalized Maboneng Precinct, for example, is a thriving hub of galleries, cafés, restaurants, and shops.
For wildlife lovers and outdoor adventurers, Johannesburg is also a terrific destination to consider, especially if you’re hoping to head off on a wild African safari. You can visit the Lion & Safari Park to meet Africa’s big cats, or set off on a trip to a major nature reserve, like Pilanesberg National Park, where antelope, zebras, rhinos, leopards, and elephants roam free.
Overall, there’s a stark difference between the activities in Cape Town and Johannesburg. In the former, you’ll spend most of your days and nights outside, visiting beaches, climbing mountains, and so on. In the latter, you’ll have more indoor and educational places to visit.
Which Is Better For Outdoor Adventures?
Of course, one of the big reasons why so many people head to South Africa is because they want to spend time outdoors enjoying the nation’s stunning scenery and admiring some of the most amazing animals on the planet. But which city is best if you want to have the very best outdoor experiences?
Well, Cape Town just about has the edge in this category, for several reasons. Firstly, it’s got a great location, with beaches and mountains within the city itself, just short drives or bus rides from the center. It’s also rated as one of South Africa’s premier outdoor havens, offering everything from surfing to swimming, hiking, mountain climbing, and more.
At the same time, even though Johannesburg is more built-up and urban, it shouldn’t be ignored by nature lovers. Some of South Africa’s biggest and best national parks and wildlife preserves are just short drives out of this city, and it’s an ideal place for safari-style experiences. If you want to see all the big highlights of African wildlife, like lions and elephants, this is the place to be.
Overall, Cape Town offers more accessible outdoor fun and is generally the more appealing destination for hiking and similar activities. But, if wildlife is what you want, Johannesburg may be better-suited to you.
Which Is Better For Shopping?
As two of South Africa’s biggest cities, Johannesburg and Cape Town are also excellent shopping destinations. In Johannesburg, for instance, you can while away the hours in one of the country’s biggest malls – the Mall of Africa – and visit local markets to barter for traditional textiles and handmade goods at very low prices.
Cape Town has more of a European city vibe, with very pleasant and well-maintained shopping spots, like the huge Canal Walk shopping center and the famed V&A Waterfront. Prices tend to be a bit higher in this city, but it’s generally more of a pleasant and engaging place for shopaholics to comfortably browse the boutiques and find all sorts of items.
Overall, for the best budget buys and markets, head to Johannesburg. For everything else, pick Cape Town.
Which Is Better For Nightlife?
Cape Town and Johannesburg have plenty of ways to fill your days, but they’re also very exciting places to be at night. With millions of inhabitants and huge numbers of tourists, these cities both have lots of bars, clubs, and night time hangout spots.
In Johannesburg, the nightlife scene is impressively diverse. There are so many different styles of clubs and bars to spend your time at, from raw, underground dance spots to trendy jazz bars and upscale, exclusive nightclubs. The only downside is that certain parts of the city can be a little seedy and unsafe after dark, so you have to be careful, especially as a solo traveler.
Cape Town, meanwhile, is rated as one of, if not the best city for nightlife in all of Africa, right up there alongside the likes of Marrakech and Nairobi. A great thing about this city’s nightlife is that so many of the best bars and clubs are conveniently situated in the city center, all within walking distance of one another. Head to spots like Long Street and Bree Street for the wildest experiences.
Overall, Cape Town is the better and safer place to spend your nights, and it’s a little easier for mingling with other travelers, too.
Which Is Better For Food?
Another fabulous thing about going to South Africa is the food. There are so many traditional dishes and delights to sample, and meat is a big part of the menu in this nation, with lots of hearty stews, flavorful curries, and a big BBQ, or braai, culture. So, if you’re a meat lover, you’ll adore South Africa’s meat-based dishes and snacks, like bobotie, boerewors sausages, and jerky-style biltong.
And you can enjoy all of those great tastes in both Johannesburg and Cape Town, with both cities having pretty broad, impressive culinary scenes. Johannesburg’s restaurants are particularly good for those who want the most traditional African meals and flavors, while Cape Town’s menus are a little more diverse, with a wider range of options from around the globe.
Overall, it all depends on what kind of food you’re searching for. For simple, traditional, and budget-friendly eats, opt for Johannesburg. For more diversity and upscale restaurants with fantastic sea views, pick Cape Town.
Which Is Best For Families?
For families, a trip to South Africa can be a memorable, magical adventure, and there are benefits to both Cape Town and Johannesburg. Johannesburg, for instance, has fun family attractions like the Gold Reef City theme park and exciting Sterkfontein Caves, as well as all the local nature reserves and safari expeditions where kids can see lions in the wild.
Cape Town, meanwhile, has the advantage of multiple sandy beaches and lots of parks and play areas, perfect for kids to have fun and stay entertained. Places like Table Mountain and Robben Island provide lots of ways to have happy days in the sun, with wonderful whale watching and hiking opportunities galore.
Overall, Cape Town will probably be more appealing to most families. It has a safer, more kid-friendly vibe, along with so many super places to have time with little ones. Teens, too, will enjoy the city’s vibrant feel and super shopping scene.
Which Is Best For Couples?
Couples seeking romance and adventure can also hesitate between Cape Town and Johannesburg. However, Cape Town is once again the better option for most people, with much more of a romantic and scenic vibe. Whether you’re sipping drinks at the waterfront or relaxing on the beach, there are lots of ways to have special moments with your partner in this city.
Johannesburg can also appeal to couples. It’s not quite as romantic, but it can be a fine place to spend time if you and your partner are eager to wander around museums and learn all about the history and culture of South Africa. It’s perfect, too, for couples in search of thrilling safaris and wildlife expeditions.
Overall, Cape Town tends to be the better of the two destinations for couples of all ages, but Johannesburg may be more to your taste if you prefer culture and history over beaches and outdoor fun.
Which Is Best For Backpackers?
South Africa often features on backpacking bucket lists, and it’s easy to see why. With such awesome cities, wild nature, and once-in-a-lifetime experiences on offer, this nation is a big draw for adventurers of all ages. But where will you have the better backpacking experience – Cape Town or Johannesburg?
Well, Cape Town pretty much comes out on top in this category. It’s a little more expensive than Johannesburg, which is a downside. But, apart from that, it’s a backpacker’s paradise. It’s the safest of the two cities, and it has so many exciting outdoor activities to enjoy, combined with the beautiful beaches and thrilling nightlife scene.
Johannesburg isn’t a bad place to backpack, either. It’s great for those who want to see a rawer side of South Africa and enjoy more traditional food and cultural experiences, as well as those looking to learn about the country’s past. However, it’s not as safe and can be a little tricky to get around, meaning that solo backpackers could feel a little overwhelmed in this city.
Which Is Cheaper?
Price-wise, it’s Johannesburg that comes out on top. In general, you can expect to spend less on pretty much everything in Joburg. That includes accommodation, food, and touristic activities, too. So, if you’re heading to South Africa with a pretty strict, limited budget, Johannesburg may be the best place to go.
Cape Town is notably more expensive, mainly due to the fact that it’s such a touristic hotspot and has more of a European vibe, compared to the more authentically African ambiance of Joburg. Food and hotels cost more, and it can be a little trickier to plan out a budget-friendly travel itinerary.
Which Is Safest?
Safety might also be on your mind when planning a trip to South Africa, but you won’t have to worry too much if you visit Cape Town. It’s statistically the safest of the nation’s major cities, and generally feels quite welcoming and safe to walk around, although there are still risks of petty crimes, like pickpocketing, so travelers should still exercise caution.
Johannesburg, on the other hand, doesn’t rank quite as highly in the safety department. It’s not exactly a dangerous place, and the vast majority of tourists have no trouble at all in this city. However, it’s not as safe as Cape Town. There are high crime rates in certain areas, and you have to keep your wits about you, especially on public transport.
Where to Stay According to your Budget
Budget: Bliss Boutique Hotel in Cape Town offers a picturesque retreat with direct beach access, a solar-heated pool, and breathtaking views of Table Mountain, Robben Island, and the Atlantic Ocean. Indulge in well-appointed rooms, a restaurant serving all meals, and a bar. Enjoy activities like golfing, windsurfing, and hiking nearby. The hotel’s prime location and serene ambiance make it a true Cape Town gem. See photos and rates!
Luxury: Labotessa Luxury Boutique Hotel in Cape Town offers a truly opulent experience in the heart of the city. This elegant hotel boasts spacious suites with a range of amenities, including direct elevator access. The three-bedroom penthouse provides a private splash pool and breathtaking mountain views from two terraces. Explore Cape Town’s attractions with ease from this prime location. See photos and rates!
Budget: Home Suite Hotels Rosebank offers a haven of sophistication and convenience in the vibrant Rosebank district of Johannesburg. Perfect for both business and leisure travelers, this stylish property is less than a mile from Rosebank Gautrain station. Enjoy the added benefits of Wi-Fi, a meeting room, and a generator for power security. Delight in a Full English/Irish breakfast while exploring the nearby attractions, including Gold Reef City & Casino, and the O.R. Tambo International Airport is easily accessible. See photos and rates!
Luxury: The Houghton Hotel, Spa, Wellness & Golf is a 5-star oasis in Johannesburg, boasting a spectacular outdoor pool and an indoor pool, sauna, and more. Guests can enjoy the beauty of the property from their luxurious rooms, complete with all the amenities. Savor a variety of culinary delights at the hotel’s restaurant while exploring nearby attractions, such as Observatory Golf Club. With minigolf, room service, a hot tub, and a business center, this hotel is perfect for a memorable stay. See photos and rates!
Cape Town vs Johannesburg: Which Is Better?
Overall, Cape Town and Johannesburg are both worth visiting to get a full taste of what South Africa is all about. Cape Town has more of an upscale, touristic vibe, with European-style architecture, lively nightlife, and beautiful beaches, while Johannesburg feels more distinctly African and raw, with lots to learn about apartheid, African art, and culture.
Of the two, Cape Town is probably the more appealing destination for the majority of people. It takes the win in most of the categories in our guide, from nightlife to safety and family-friendliness. It’s also the most beautiful city of the two, combining all the best bits of nature and big city fun.
At the same time, Johannesburg is still worth considering, especially for those who are looking for something a bit more culturally substantial than the beaches and mountains of Cape Town. Joburg has lots of interesting museums and cultural sites, ideal for travelers who want to learn all about Africa and head home feeling enriched and enlightened.