Johannesburg, South Africa
Cape Town is known as the “Mother City,” and like all mothers, she will leave a permanent mark upon your psyche. With any luck, therapy will not be required. Her landscape is both stunning and isolating - the presence of the titanic Table Mountain and the myriad beaches conspire to separate the metropolis from the rest of South Africa and the world at large. South Africa’s most diverse city, Cape Town proves dizzying and dazzling in its limitless range of possibilities.
Still, beneath its glamorous veneer, Cape Town offers numerous insights into the pulse of the New South Africa. The vibrant scene around Long St., Kloof St., and Loop St. equals any hotspot elsewhere in the nation. The residue of the apartheid is still apparent in the townships that push against the edges of the city and in nearby wealthy wine estates. These distinct realms produce a kaleidoscopic effect; the very nature of Cape Town shifts and evolves throughout different areas of the city. Cape Town embodies a range of experiences that are challenging, exhilarating, and ultimately, irresistible.
Table Mountain, which overlooks the city from a height of 1000m, provides a spine-tingling view of Cape Town’s beaches and suburbs, and acts as a reference point for those who get lost. Signal Hill and Lion’s Head are smaller bumps annexed to the Table Mountain range. The N2 runs between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth along The Garden Route; the N1 runs to Johannesburg via the Karoo and Bloemfontein; the N7 goes between Cape Town and the Namibian border along the West Coast, continuing to Windhoek as Namibia’s B1. In the immediate vicinity, the N1 heads northeast to Paarl, the R102 cuts eastward to Stellenbosch, and the M4 heads south to Muizenberg, Kalk Bay, and Simon’s Town.
While the brilliance of the landscape surrounding Cape Town is unavoidable and undeniable, many overlook the thriving art scene found in the city’s museums and galleries. Poignant memories of the injustices of the Apartheid Era lie beneath the veneer of neighborhoods such as Bo-Kaap and the Cape Flats, and many of Cape Town’s art and cultural institutions deal with themes that are highly charges and visceral importance to Capetonians. Often, museum guides and staff have firsthand experience with the issues and narrative being exhibited and will offer personal opinions and interpretations. Cape Town’s unique and vibrant sights function a educational tools, but also as expressions, coping mechanisms, memorials, meeting places, and experiments. Many of the city’s sights are within walking distance of the city center and accessible by public transportation during the daytime.
With so many options to choose from, it can be hard to decide which sights to visit during your stay. Check out our recommendations. Click the links to explore and book tours or local guides.
Cape Town keeps its devotees happy with excellent food at low prices. While the range of culinary offerings proves pleasing to any palate, one institution dominates outside the confines of Cape Town restaurants: the unabashedly carnivorous, artery-clogging culture of the braai. Locals revel in the smoky bliss of sky-high flames and charred boerewors (sausages). Evening braais capture the gregarious flavor of Cape Town; a visit to the city is incomplete without the experience. Only a few restaurants serve “Cape cuisine,” a blend of Dutch, Malay, and other influence, which includes spicy Indonesian curries, bredies (stews), and bobotie (Malay minced beef and lamb).
Strips of snazzy restaurants - from pizzerias to champagne bars - line Long St. in the City Center and Kloof St. in the Gardens. Main Rd. in Sea Point, Green Point, and Three Anchor Bay offer almost as many restaurants as accommodations. Main Rd. also hosts a handful of kosher restaurants. The elegant Heritage Square, at Bree and Shortmarket St., is home to numerous chic restaurants, shop, and bars, and its courtyards bustle gracefully on weekend nights. Supermarkets and convenience stores are scattered throughout the city for groceries.
The many cultures that have contributed to South Africa’s history have also contributed to its cuisine. At an early stage, cooking was profoundly influenced by the Far Eastern slaves who were brought to the area by the Dutch. These slaves infused traditional Dutch dishes with spices, leading to the creation of such dishes as sosaties - kebabs in a spicy marinade - and bobotie - minced lamb or beef with a top of baked egg, milk, and toasted almonds. Curries, also a product of the Malay influence, are usually served with spicy, flavorful sauces, chutney (onions and fruits cooked with spices and vinegar), and atchars (pickles).
Traditional black “chow” (food in South Africa slang) relies heavily on beans, grains, and corn. Putu, a staple of the Zulu diet, is made by cooking cornmeal (known as “mealie meal”) into a stiff, dry porridge and is eaten with amasi, a sour milk. The Afrikaners have developed their own version called pap which they serve with sweet tomato and onion relish known as sous. Cooked greens maize and roasted mealie (corn) on the cob are favorite snacks, especially in cities. Homemade brews from cornmeal, sorghum seeds, or millet are common beverages.
The Great Trek resulted in some unique ways to preserve food as the Afrikaners made the long trip across arid territories. The best-known and perhaps best-tasting is biltong - salted, spiced, and air-dried beef. Beef or lamb ribs were pickled in brine to make soutribbetjies, and scones were dried to make beskuit (called rusks in English) to be dunked in tea or coffee. Bredie, a stew of vegetables and meat, was cooked over campfires in three-legged, round-bellied iron pots. Potjiekos, or pot food, consists of layers of pork, beef, lamb, and different vegetables simmered over a low fire to blend the flavors and make the meat melt-in-the-mouth tender.
South African barbecues, or braaivleis (more commonly known as braai), also derived from the Great Trek. The staple is lamb chops, and boerewors, a juicy sausage with coarsely-chopped beef, pork, herbs, and spices. Vetkoeks (fat cakes), made from yeast dough deep-fried in oil and eaten with savory mince or Bovril (South African-style Vegemite), are a dinner favorite.
Traditional African sweets include melkert (milk tart), soetkoekies, cookies from the Cape Area, and koeksusters, small plaited portions of dough, deep-fried and then dipped in a syrupy sauce which they soak up to become very sweet and moist. These have been adopted into black culture and are called itwist.
Specialties of Durban’s Indian population include: samosa, a three-sided, deep-fried triangle with spicy meat and vegetable fillings; biryani, a blend of meat and spices marinated overnight in yogurt, and roti, a flat bread.
South Africa is home to a thriving wine industry, initiated in 1655 when the first governor of the Cape, Jan van Riebeeck, planted a vineyard and produced the first Cape wine. Cape vineyards now offer 21,000 wines from which to choose. Revelers may come across local and home-brewed specialties such as “cane,” a spirit distilled from sugar cane and frequently mixed with Coca-Cola. Beer brands in South Africa include Lion, Castle, Hansa, and Ohlssons, and are consumed with gusto at braai and sporting events. Maheu is a thick and sour homemade beer with a sorghum base.
Cape Town rocks to varied beats, from understated, cooler-than-thou venues to wild drums-and-didgeridoo circles to trance parties that usher in the dawn. While the ephemeral scene frequently (and frustratingly) shifts in some of the here-today, gone-tomorrow pubs and clubs, those who want to find a place to party won’t go home disappointed. The local music scene is also thriving, with outstanding indie, marimba, and jazz bands burning it up.
Unfortunately, nightlife is still racially divided, and not too much of it is specifically African, with the predominantly white City Bowl remaining the center of the action. Long and Loops St. are the veins of Cape Town’s nightlife, where thousands of people wander to the cacophonous soundtrack of myriad cubs. The large security presence on weekends make clubs feel quite safe. Observatory also serves up a central but slightly more sedate scene. Elsewhere in the city, nightlife tends to be quite dispersed, making it difficult to move between venues without the assistance of a cab or the Boogie Bus. Cape Town is also renowned for its welcoming gay nightlife scene.
The evolution of some South African holidays manifests how South Africa has changed over the past decade. December 16th - once called the Day of the Vow to celebrate the Boers’ pact with God that led to their victory in the Battle of Blood River - is now Reconciliation Day. Most businesses are closed on holidays. If a public holiday falls on a Sunday, it will be celebrated the following Monday.
South Africans are generally very outgoing. Many will engage you in conversation, often enthusiastically referring to the popular topic of national sports. White South African have continental manners. Initiating conversations with a firm handshake is key. Make eye contact and don’t put your hands in your pockets while talking to someone. When you arrive at the airport, you might be greeted by porters with cupped hands. These men are not begging; rather they are indicating that they will be grateful for any tip you may give them.
Always receive gifts and reach for things with two hands. Ladies don’t always go first; African men usually enter the door before women do. Greetings are usually more involved than a simple “hello” - you should ask how someone and their family is doing.
If you plan to visit a Zulu village or homestead, wait to enter until people notice you and invite you in. Do not stand when a Zulu chief or high ranking official walks toward you; your head should always be below his. Accept offers of food or drink (refusing them is insulting). Don’t be surprised if children are shy when you approach them. People who are younger than you will not make eye contact and will not speak until you address them.
Do not point; it’s rude, and it looks like you are trying to challenge someone. Indicate where objects are with an open hand instead. Making a “V” with your middle and index fingers with your palm facing your body is very insulting.