City visited: Cape Town, South Africa
City Rating: 9 (Rich contemporary history, spectacular natural attractions)
Our AA Abroad: Evan Russell, a medical student and public health worker currently posted in Afghanistan. While a student at Brown University, Evan spent a semester in Cape Town studying South African politics, traveling, conducting public health research and volunteering in a public clinic.
Should you visit Cape Town? Our AA says YES! Here’s why:
Like many countries that have undergone recent political upheaval, South Africa displays tremendous economic and social disparities. Though Apartheid was abolished in 1994, its impact on the country’s social and economic fabric endures. A prime example is found in Cape Town’s sprawling urban shantytowns which are locally known as townships. Despite a variety of laws that promote racial and socioeconomic equity, just about everyone still experiences and acts on the vestiges of Apartheid. Given this history, African-Americans generally receive a warm welcome albeit with some initial confusion. Americans are generally treated well in South Africa however, many African-Americans in South Africa are mistaken for locals. Depending on the cultural background of the person you’re talking to this can entail a warm welcome, a confused welcome or a less than enthusiastic welcome. Keep in mind that although most people are friendly, Apartheid culture is still, in many ways, a part of every day life so don’t take anything negative you hear too personally.
While in South Africa, AA’s should be prepared to be called by the Apartheid terms: “coloured” if they’re on the lighter side or “black” if you’re of very dark complexion. Although English is virtually ubiquitous, many AA’s will be mistaken for locals and spoken to in Afrikaans or Xhosa, the traditional languages of coloured and black groups respectively.
If safety is a concern, be aware that Cape Town is more dangerous than most American cities and that South Africa as a whole has the dubious distinction of possessing one of the highest crime rates in the world. For that reason, looking like members of the dark-skinned majority will certainly have advantages. Blending in with the crowd will come in handy, for instance, should you find yourself in a dangerous situation, as you may be better able to blend in with the locals who are marginally less targeted for crimes. You can take steps to avoid dangerous situations by using reputable taxis to transport yourself around the city, avoiding excessive walking outside after dark, and conferring with familiar locals about trip plans and sightseeing. Having said all that, however, you will not want to miss a visit to Cape Town because of the extraordinary opportunities to experience some of the most interesting history, nature and culture anywhere in the world!
Since travel in Africa is often associated with ecotourism, cultural immersion programs, and expensive guided safaris run by weathered local ex-pats, Cape Town offers a pleasant departure from these potentially overwhelming options. Depending on your preference and budget, you can find a variety of attractive housing options, ranging from spectacular oceanfront rentals to cozy urban townhouses, and economical hostels. Don’t be surprised if you find that accommodations in Cape Town compare well with those in popular tourist cities in Europe and Asia. During my five months of study abroad in Cape Town, I lived in a small townhouse in Mowbray, quiet, student-centric suburb of Cape Town nestled at the base just below the looming Table Mountain. At about $500 per month it was an affordable yet comfortable alternative to expensive hotels. Like any tourist destination, high profile hotel chains with even higher prices may offer a lower value than their local, mid-range, lower cost counterparts so be sure to shop ahead.
Options for getting around the city are equally as varied. If you’re feeling adventurous, or prefer an authentic local experience take a ride in the frantic “combies” that run up and down most of Cape Town’s major roads. Running at around $.50 each way, these cramped shared rides mini-buses offer an exciting albeit hectic mode of transportation. Taxis are a good alternative to combies as they are relatively cheap and, if you opt for established companies (consult a local!), very safe. I recommend against renting a car for short trips since driving the typically standard transmission cars on the left hand side of the road is challenging enough in itself, but combined with the unpredictable driving of fellow South African motorists, driving a rental car can be a perilous experience!
You’ll find no shortage of wonderful restaurants in Cape Town. With a style that often reflects the varying influences of the Dutch, English, Germans and more recently Indians, South African food, both indigent and imported, is exciting and versatile. A great place to try is the Hussar Grill (located in Rondebosch adjacent to Mowbray, Greenpoint in the southern part of Cape Town and Camps Bay east of the city) which features a variety of game animal steaks along with more traditional Western entrees. A word of warning though, if you try any of the delicious Kudu steaks, your next experience with beef will be bland and disappointing by comparison! For delicious Italian food in a quirky factory style environment, try Primi Piatti in Rondebosch’s Cavendish Mall. When you’re finished eating, head out into the Chiq Mall for some Afro-Euro shopping or American/South African movies in their top floor cinema. If you’re in a hurry try some of the smaller fast food restaurants that dot major roads including the South African chains, Nando’s and Steers.
Cape Town also offers a variety of different kinds of activities so be sure to pack clothes for leisure time at the beach, a light hike, some classy dining and/or upscale clubbing. If you are into the outdoors, Table Mountain offers an exciting climb, hike, or gondola ride experience in addition to stunning views of the surrounding wildlife, plains, and oceans.
Although it’s cold, the Atlantic Ocean side has some of the most stunning beaches you will ever see. Bordered by the vacation homes and restaurants of the international elite, the pristine white sands of Clifton or Camp’s Bay offer a relaxing beach experience by day and fire throwers and live music by night. If you’re feeling daring, arrange for a guided shark tour and marvel at one of the world’s largest breeding grounds. Getting to the Indian Ocean side of Cape Town is easy and worth the trip. The train is probably the fastest way to get there, but be on your toes, or travel with a group because the train has periodically provided a venue for robberies and violence. Once on the Indian Ocean side, head straight to Muizenberg, a sleepy surfer town, that’s largely untapped by tourists. If you’ve ever had an interest in learning to surf, rent a board and head out into the gentle waves for an afternoon of fun. If you’re into enjoying the ocean without the surfing accoutrements, the ocean is much warmer and friendlier than the nearby Atlantic so hop on in!
Best advice: Wherever you go be sure to bring sunscreen! Repeat: Wherever you go, be sure to bring sunscreen! My AA friend and I both experienced our first sunburns in Cape Town so regardless of your complexion, be prepared for sun that’s much stronger than anything in the continental U.S.
Another fabulous feature of Cape Town is its wine country. Centered in the rolling vineyards of Stellenbosch just north of Cape Town, South African wine is among the best in the world. Wine tours are ubiquitous and vineyards plentiful so be sure to set aside time to explore the sprawling estates and unique varieties including the native Pinotage. When you’re back in the city limits, stop in to explore the outdoor Green Point Market just off the ocean in the southern portion of the city for some great gifts made by locals including paintings, trinkets, clothing, sculptures and much more.
You will absolutely not want to leave Cape Town without making the poignant and historic journey to Robben Island, the detention center just off the coast of the city, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned. While there, you will have an unprecedented opportunity to ask questions of your guides as almost all of them were, themselves, jailed as political prisoners along with Nelson Mandela. The University of Cape Town and the Rhodes Memorial are also worthwhile stops. Located adjacent to each other on the slopes of Table Mountain, they offer majestic views of greater Cape Town and evidence of the influence of British diamond mogul Cecil Rhodes, the founder of De Beers and the Rhodes Scholarship. You may also want to take a tour of a township health center or community development site in any of the many townships surrounding Cape Town. Before making a reservation through a community center or the South African tourism bureau, be sure that the price of your admission goes toward developing the local community. Although some townships are dangerous, most tours are safe and offer a peek into the history of South Africa’s Apartheid regime. Tours are generally in-depth and immersive so be respectful of the local residents while in their neighborhoods.
Nightlife in Cape Town is tremendous! Clubs, bars, and restaurants stay open late serving all the food and drinks you’re used to plus a few special brews of their own. Enjoy a glass of Amarula cream liqueur, Savanna cider, or any of the simply tremendous local wines. Long Street, one of the main drags in downtown is the place to go for most of Cape Town’s bars, restaurants, and clubs although excellent spots can be found all over the city. In particular, be sure to visit one of the many dance floors that play South Africa’s unique version of house music. Even if you’re not a fan of electronic music, the beautiful fusion of European house with an African backbone is worth the experience. Local music abounds in many restaurants so explore till you find a spot you like: there are plenty of choices. If you’re looking for something a bit more quirky, head to the western Cape Town suburb, Observatory, or “Obz” to Carte Blanche. This bar and restaurant reminiscent of a mansion a la Edgar Allen Poe, offers an oddly attractive ambiance with unique decor. Right around the corner, the Obz Café (or really any of the local pool halls) offer relaxing, fun places to spend an evening or night. And if you’re feeling really into the weird, visit any of the “Lord of the Rings” themed bars just down the road from Carte Blanche where you’re likely to meet some eccentric bar goers and even the occasional costume laden movie enthusiast. Wherever you go, don’t hesitate to ask around for a recommendation, Cape Town offers a lot of nightlife options, and you can count on the locals to point you, generally, in the right direction.