When I review the U.S. government website and hear various news stories, I wonder if I should consider myself more courageous than I do for visiting Cape Town on my own. It became one of my favorite cities in the world. Though reasonable caution is necessary, this is one of the most beautiful places you can visit. Here are 10 lessons I learned on my recent solo trip to Cape Town.
1. It Feels Like Many Cities In One
At first, I thought Greenmarket Square was the heart of the city while everything nearby was a suburb. It turns out Cape Town is huge -- with such varied landscape and activities that it seems like multiple cities. Camps Bay is only 20 minutes from Greenmarket yet feels like escaping to a distant beach town with majestic mountain views. Another part of the city houses Kirstenbosch, a beautiful botanical garden. It’s easy to get lost in its nature. You can also go to the World of Birds Wildlife Sanctuary and Monkey Park to see a cassowary and enjoy monkeys sitting on your head.
And then, if you visit a township like Khayelitsha, you’ll feel you’ve entered a different world.
I recommend leaving two days for the City Sightseeing bus, which gives you an excellent city overview. One day isn’t enough time if you want to hop off and spend any meaningful amount of time in more than two locations, so plan accordingly.
2. The Area Of Greatest Danger Is Also That Of Greatest Community
Greenmarket Square is reputed as one of the more dangerous areas in Cape Town. Even with security guards on every corner, I felt uncomfortable with so many people asking for money. Of all the areas in Cape Town, however, this was one of my favorites because of its community. Most impressive was Saint George’s Mall, a food and shopping street closed to all but pedestrian traffic.
Every Thursday morning, vendors come in for a small food-and-craft market. You can grab a takeaway lunch and any of the restaurants on the street will let you sit down and enjoy your meal with no obligation to purchase anything. During the rest of the week, the shop owners help one another; if one owner loses Wi-Fi and can’t take your credit card, he’ll ask another shop owner to do the transaction and take payment when it goes through. It’s a beautiful scene to witness.
3. Some Of The World’s Best Wine Is Right In Town
While everyone thinks of Franschhoek and Stellenbosch for South African wine, you can visit excellent vineyards in Cape Town without an expensive day trip. My two favorites were High Constantia and Groot Constantia. The first is small and unassuming. In fact, I thought I was accidentally at someone’s garage! Once inside, I was escorted to the porch and served some of the most delicious wines of my stay. From here, I walked up the road to Groot Constantia and it was such a treat I stayed there the rest of the day.
There are two tasting rooms -- the one that’s further down the road is closer to the restaurants, of which you can choose from higher end or more casual options. After wining and dining, you can walk on the property and take in the beautiful lines of grapes among the blue sky and mountain surroundings. You can reach the vineyards by Uber or take the City Sightseeing bus to Groot Constantia then walk to High Constantia.
4. Marijuana Is Legal
I don’t do drugs (apart from red wine), yet I found it fascinating to see what’s happening around weed. It was recently legalized in South Africa. You can use it, but you’re not allowed to buy it or sell it. This begs all sorts of questions like, Where and how do you get the weed if it can’t be bought or sold? If you can’t figure it out, head to Kamili Coffee on Long Street, right next to the City Sightseeing bus office, and have yourself a Cannuccino. It may just be hemp, but it left me feeling happy and energized.
5. The Coffee Is Some Of The Best In The World
Second to my love of red wine is my love of coffee. Cape Town has some of the best coffee I’ve ever tasted, Cannuccinos aside. The blend of African beans is on par with the depth of Colombian coffee. If you’re a caffeine addict, you will not be disappointed in Cape Town.
6. People Are Surprisingly Open To Racial Discussions
Depending on where you’re from, you may be shocked to learn that calling people “colored” is common in South Africa. While everyone has a different perspective on the country’s past and present, I found it refreshing that we could sit at the table and talk about apartheid and racism. This is where I began to understand that life in South Africa has been tough, and yet many people are open and willing to work together for a better future.
7. You Should Trust Your Gut
If you read anything about Cape Town, you’ll hear a lot about danger. I noticed that the longer I stayed, the more comfortable I felt. I listened to warnings from locals and never went out alone after dark. I learned to pay attention to my surroundings, my belongings, and my feelings.
One weekend afternoon, I went to The Old Biscuit Mill, where there’s a wonderful handicraft market. (Note: Everything shuts down around 3 p.m., so if you want to enjoy a cup of coffee or food, get there early.) I then walked one block away and a man approached me, asking if I was from the area. I found his question strange since I obviously wasn’t, and my gut warned me instantly. The man asked me to come to his car to help him. I remained silent and he kept on talking. His story got so long and detailed that I knew he was lying. I said no and walked away.
When I told some local friends about the incident, they told me this was a typical way I could have ended up a statistic.
8. It’s Important To Understand Transportation Options
If you’re traveling solo or without a car, make sure you know which transportation options exist and which to avoid. Don’t use the white vans. They exist to bridge the gap in transportation between the townships and the town center. My Uber drivers warned me that they aren’t regulated, so drivers could, essentially, kidnap anyone who opts for a white-van ride. To travel safely, I found the two best options were using Uber and learning to navigate the MyCiTi bus.
9. The Town Is Very Fishy
Cape Town is on a port, and you’ll want to eat as much fish as possible. The locals go to Hout Bay and delight in the fish and chips at Fish on the Rocks. (If it’s freezing and raining outside, then try Snoekies, which has more insulation.)
I found sushi a strange experience, however. Though the fish itself is excellent, local preparation uses a lot of cream cheese and frying. If you’re used to Asian or American sushi, you might not like it.
10. Local Meats Are Strange But Delicious
While you may go to Cape Town because you can easily get to Kruger Park and The Garden Route, don’t miss out on eating local delicacies like ostrich, kudu, and springbok. All of them have zero cholesterol and are prepared in local dishes you won’t be able to find outside Africa. Biltong is another must-try.
My now-favorite place to eat in Cape Town is Biltong and Blade because in addition to beef, they have kudu, springbok, ostrich, and more, and it’s delicious. (If you go, please tell Fred and Glenn I say hello!) I feel that new experiences are one of the main purposes of travel, and food is no exception to the new things you can try.
Cape Town is a powerful blend of beauty and controversy. In my opinion, danger can, and does, happen in any city, so while you should be aware of your surroundings and behavior, you don’t need to be afraid of going. Some of the loveliest people I ever met are from Cape Town, and the kindness and generosity with which they treated me is why I plan to return.
Also read up on traveling to South Africa responsibly: six things to know.