Visiting Cape Town, South Africa
I visited Cape Town for two weeks in May of 2016 and really enjoyed the city. The cityscape and vibe both have elements of Europe and San Francisco.
Where to Stay
The exchange rate means it’s very possible for Americans to find a nice hotel for $50-$75/night. Airbnb is common, though it is starting to displace lower income residents from previously affordable apartments.
There are several compact neighborhoods in the city center that are safe, walkable, and convenient to many attractions. I stayed in the Der Waterkant neighborhood, which had lots of bars, restaurants, coffee shops, and a small shopping center with an excellent Spar supermarket for basic supplies.
The coastal neighborhoods of Clifton, Camps Bay, and Hought Bay get you easy access to the beach, plus lots of food and drink options. The first two are a quick bus or Uber from the city, while the third is a bit further out.
Things to do
Do this on the first clear day of your trip. The mountain is often covered in fog that rolls in unexpectedly, so you might not have many opportunities for this must see place. You hike up in a couple hours, or take the quick cable car. There is a cafe at the top, plus many walking trails and look-out points. Get some food and drink from the supermarket for a sunset picnic. Just be mindful of the last cable car off the mountain, or you will be hiking down in the dark.
Seaside neighborhood with a nice beach, shops, and restaurants. Nice place to spend an afternoon, find some good seafood, etc. The boulders are especially fun for playing around.
Sea Point Promenade
Very nice coastal boardwalk for walking and biking.
See below why you should do this, and how you can do it responsibly and ethically.
The traditional safaris are all in the national parks on the eastern side of South Africa, and require a domestic flight and several days to visit. However, there are a few game reserves that give you a taste of the safari experience and get you up close to the big game like elephants, lions, giraffes, etc. I visited the Aquila preserve, about two hours outside Cape Town. In addition to the normal driving safari, they offer a very fund guided four wheeler safari that I highly recommend. They also offer options to stay overnight in the preserve, including a few places inside the wildlife fence!
Another of big hills in the middle of the city. Drive to the top for easy hiking, great views, and parasailing over the Atlantic Ocean.
Emerging hipster neighborhood with the standard shops, restaurants, and breweries.
Victoria & Albert Waterfront
Besides a large shopping center, “the V&A” has the ferry terminal for visits to Robben Island (Nelson Mandela’s prison) plus cool things like catamaran tours of the harbor.
There is a good comedy club at the V&A Waterfront. While the accents and vocabulary where sometimes challenging to understand, comedy was still a great way to get a different insight into local culture.
Poverty, race, and segregation
Even though the official segregation policy of Apartheid is long gone, it will take generations to overcome the segregation and spatial separation of the whites, blacks, and coloureds (a non-derogatory, socially acceptable term for Asian and mixed-race people). The city center and surrounding residential areas are mostly white or coloured, and are surrounded vast expanses of the former township areas for blacks.
The townships are slowing being improved with paved streets, formal housing, shopping centers and other services. However, there are still vast areas of informal settlements that are basically the shacks and slums you see on TV. Interestingly, in recent years young people and lower income whites are moving into the townships as high housing prices and gentrification pushes them out of the central neighborhoods.
Visiting the Townships
Do not miss the opportunity to see the other side the country’s vast wealth gap. Despite the poverty and lingering segregation, I was surprised how much commerce, culture, and entrepreneurship is happening in the townships. While you are completely free to go into the townships and they are safe to visit during the day, it’s best to join an organized group.
There a several township tours that are operated by residents and that bring revenue back to residents. Folks are incredibly nice, welcome visitors, and love to meet you. Just be sure to research these in advance to avoid a tour that exploits the residents or treats them like exhibits in a zoo. Seek out opportunities to meet residents. The townships do have shops, crafts, and some basic cafes. I visited Langa and Khayelitsha.
The city is generally safe, but does require a lot of common sense. Most areas are totally safe to walk around during the day. There is a lot of panhandling and people trying to sell you things, but most are not aggressive if you politely say no or keep walking. It might be intimidating, but it’s harmless.
Pick pocketing and muggings can happen if you are walking alone late at night. The most common scam is people offering to help you at the ATM, then observing your PIN and running off with your card — be careful using ATMs. It’s not unusual to have cell phones stolen if you leave it sitting on your table in a bar or restaurant — put them away when they aren’t in your hand.
If you rent a car, never leave anything in the car, even if it is not visible. Thieves will take cheap stuff that might not seem valuable to you. Leave the glove compartment open so people know there is nothing inside. Unofficial parking lot attendants will ask you to pay them to watch your car. It’s easier to give them a few rand than risk having them mess with your car.
Tap water is safe at hotels and restaurants. HIV is still an epidemic across Africa, so be safe if you mingle with the locals.
If you head out of town you will see many people walking or hanging out along the highways. They are looking for informal carpools into the city to get to work. It might seem weird or alarming, but it is not dangerous to you.
English is a second language for most people, though vocabulary and mannerisms are more British than American. Whites and Coloreds (mixed race) often speak Afrikaans as their first language, it’s an offshoot of Dutch. Most Blacks in Cape Town are Khosa people and speak Khosan as their first language.
- Braai — Barbecue. Grilling is a national pass time.
- Bru — Bro, Dude, Mate — authentic, not cheesy
- Robots — traffic lights
- Hooters — horns or sirens
Cape Point National Park, Simon’s Town, Boulders Beach, Hought Bay
These sites are a great day trip just south of the city. Do it in a circular route to see both sides of the peninsula. Plan to spend a few hours at Cape Point hiking, visiting the lighthouse, and exploring the point. There multiple hikes available. Boulders Beach in Simon’s Town is where you can get up close with penguins — a very unique opportunity.
I visited this small town a couple hours outside the city, which is centered around an old Christian missionary center. There is good hiking in the foothills about the town. Next door is the town of Greyton, and antique and shopping destination.
I did not get to experience any of the wineries, but the Western Cape province is famous wine, including the native pinotage. Constantia is located in the city limits, but most are a good day trip to the east of the city in towns like Franschoek, Paarl, and Stellenbosch. There are many options for shuttles and tours to avoid getting a DUI or needed to rent a car.
The exchange for North American and European visitors is very favorable. A pint of beer in a good bar will be $1–2. An Uber ride within the city will be $4–5, and from the airport $10. Credit cards are widely accepted at stores and restaurants.
The City Bowl and close-in neighborhoods are very walkable. Uber is readily available and very cheap at current exchange rates. There is a new rapid bus system called MyCITI that links most of the central destinations. Commuter trains go further out, but can be very crowded. There is a lot mixed advise about whether or not the commuter trains are safe for visitors. The last few years they have been the target of protests, setting trains on fire, etc.
Pick & Pay is the local supermarket chain. The German chain Spar is a bit more posh. Most over the counter medicine is actually behind the counter. You have ask the pharmacist for things like sudafed, Benadryl, etc. On the plus side, Tylenol 3 (paracetamol with codeine) is available without a prescription.