One difficulty with travelling is that it quite often requires a lot more energy, thought and uncertainty than being in familiar terrain. This article will provide you with a broad overview of how Cape Town works; hopefully taking some of the stress out of your visit by giving you the knowledge you need to be safe.

To begin with, you should understand that there are essentially 5 experiences of Cape Town.

The most marketed experience is “European Cape Town”. According to the office of the Provincial Minister for  Economic Development and Tourism, tourism income makes up 10% of the entire region’s annual economy. As a result, the city has put immense effort and money into ensuring the safety and enjoyment of tourists. This approach to seeing the city involves high quality hotels, a strict itinerary of only the major attractions (preferably in a tour group), and great meals in restaurants in the V&A Waterfront or along the Atlantic Seaboard (Mouille Point, Camps Bay, Clifton).

This approach is virtually 100% safe. For example, there are over 800 CCTV cameras in the Waterfront precinct alone, centrally monitored, with armed response teams on 24-hour duty. But, while it’s almost free of worry and also a fantastic holiday, it is extremely expensive by local standards, and you’ll miss out on some of the most interesting parts of the city. It’s also hardly an authentically South African experience, and is not at all African. For a large number of people every year, that’s entirely acceptable, but you hardly need this guide if you plan to take this option.

The “real” Cape Town experience involves a lot of time in the City Bowl – the central area which lies in a rough circle at the foot of Table Mountain, hemmed in by Devil’s peak, Signal Hill and Table Bay. Live music and comedy venues, interesting museums and art galleries, Long Street, Greenmarket Square, the flower market and the famous Company Gardens are all located here. You’ll also find budget accommodation and well-priced restaurants throughout this area. And, of course, Cape Town crime.

Since walking is probably the best way to approach this part of Cape Town, we provide plenty of advice on how to best protect yourself in other parts of this guide. The key to safely experiencing the genuine Cape Town city culture is to know which specific areas, or even roads, to avoid. In many cases, one section will be well policed and monitored while one city block away drug dealers, prostitutes and petty thieves await. If you’re actually looking for these people’s services, you must read our advice on “How To Not Be a Victim” and our warnings about “Dangers at Night Time” in the rest of this guide.

In general, we strongly recommend that you regularly and often ask for advice. Don’t simply ask people on the street; the employees at almost every place that serves the public are friendly, well informed about local conditions, and especially eager to keep tourists safe. Hotels and B&B’s are an excellent source of this information and there are many of them. They won’t mind giving you advice about the area you’re in – their income depends on the city’s reputation. Your very best source of practical advice is probably backpacker lodges. They are naturally inclined towards the adventurous spirit and will give you an honest assessment of the current situation.

In the City Bowl, you’ll encounter a lot of beggars, especially very young homeless “street children”. Their situation is heart-wrenching and they will tell you stories that make you feel compelled to help in some way. Many of these stories will be true, but these are hardened survivors whose morals and priorities are shaped by daily life-and-death struggles. Their interactions with you are entirely directed at getting the maximum financial benefit out of you. They operate in small gangs; one distracting you, while another steals your valuables. There will be a lot of body contact – primarily to make this easier. Avoid them as much as possible, try not to make eye contact, and be fairly aggressive about keeping their hands off you. Most of all, don’t panic – they are only after your valuables. Don’t hesitate to call for help, people will assist you – even locals experience the same problem.

If you feel you must help; there are official programmes, as well as excellent non-government organisations, and charities attempting to help them. Find out about these organisations, and give money to them. These groups, including grassroots projects like Big Issue magazine, are engaged in long-term solutions, and all of them agree that hand-outs keep people trapped in poverty.

Another completely different side to the Cape Town experience exists. These are the “townships”. A grim legacy of the Apartheid era, these are densely populated residential areas that were deliberately located away from the main economic opportunities. They tend to be impoverished, but because they were racially – not economically – defined, they encompass everything from cardboard shacks to family homes with luxury sedans. It’s this variation that creates difficulties, because in particular parts (like Nyanga) violent crimes such as murder and rape, and localised riots are astonishingly common, while others are quite safe with very active neighbourhood watch programmes.

Most importantly, these are the kinds of places where the vast majority of South Africans live; it’s here that the true spirit of the new South Africa lives; the rebuilding of an entire society. Brick houses, electricity, running water, sanitation and policing are all being rolled out to these communities and being there and interacting with the residents is a unique and inspiring experience. We believe that the only safe way to do so is to go on a “Township Tour”. These are specialised tour agencies that will take you to specific locations that they know are safe and where the locals welcome foreigners and will happily engage you in debate about politics, football, and how young people today have no respect.

This is a well-established niche tourism market, and there are highly organised and reliable tour operators offering visits to Khayelitsha and Langa. Choose an operator based on the recommendation of your accommodation or a tourist information office, or look for those companies that have printed brochures, websites and vehicles in good condition. This level of sophistication indicates that they are well-connected and supported in the areas you’ll be visiting.

The rest of Cape Town consists of two kinds of suburbs. Firstly, in a North-South line from the city centre, the family-oriented suburbs typical of a successful market economy the world over. They are, frankly, pretty boring, but short-term home rentals and family-run B&B’s are available here and are generally quiet and safe. If you’re self-catering the supermarkets are market-priced and well stocked. Be aware that the most common Cape Town crimes in these areas are the theft of goods from vehicles (quite common), and theft of the vehicles themselves. Don’t leave valuables in the car, and use whatever vehicle protection is on offer.

The last group of residential areas, generally referred to as the Cape Flats, is to the East of the city. In general terms, you should completely avoid these areas. Specific parts have some of the country’s worst drug and gang-related Cape Town crime statistics. Places like Phillipi, Delft and Grassy Park have figures of well over 1 000 reported drug crimes every year, and assault is commonplace.

For a simple look at where to avoid, or what to expect from different parts of Cape Town, please read our section titled “Your Safety Map”.