Cape Town, South Africa: First Impressions

View from the top of Table Mountain after a challenging but rewarding climb up Platteklip Gorge

I’m on the road right now. If you’ve been following my Instagram or Facebook, you’ll see daily updates from Cape Town, South Africa. I’ve been hiding out in the southwestern tip of of Africa for the past week, living and working here. If I’ve learned anything so far, it’s that I can’t hope to begin to understand the complexity that is South Africa. I’m quite aware that I’m new to the area, and that first impressions aren’t always accurate, but I wanted to capture my first thoughts on this beautiful yet complex city.

The Good

Cape Town is beautiful. The city is built around a series of peaks, the most notable being the flat-topped and aptly named Table Mountain. You can see mountains from every spot in the city.

View of the Twelve Apostles mountains from the top of Table Mountain

Being a peninsula, there’s also many beaches to pick from for enjoyment, surfing, whale watching, and more. Cape Town is blessed with nature and it’s been rare in my experience to find a place that has both mountains and beach.

Camps Bay Beach

Cape Town is affordable (if you’re white and middle-class). Coming from the US, it’s quite affordable to go to nice restaurants or take tours. However, it’s important to keep in mind that many of these luxuries only reach the (white) middle and upper class, while remaining out of reach for the rest of the population.

The food is delicious. I’ve been eating out so much, mainly because it’s affordable AND delicious. One of my favorite features of the city is the late breakfast menu during the week. I’ve visited multiple cafés that had breakfast until noon during the week. Eggs Benedict for weekday lunch? Yes please.

Eggs Benedict from Cocoa Cha Chi, on a weekday!

There’s a lot to do. The choices have been a bit overwhelming, to be honest. For a city of its size (<500,000 residents) Cape Town punches above its weight in terms of beauty, attractions, culture, and food. Though my goal was to hit the tourist spots as much as possible, I’ve been distracted by the events in the area. Streetopia 2019, an all-day street festival with live music and food? Yes. First Thursdays, where local businesses and galleries host free art shows? Yes! Even exercise – there’s a yoga studio on every corner, it seems (I had a great class at The Shala Yoga School). I’ve made peace with the fact that I’m not going to do everything I want because there are so many options and I’ve got a full schedule.

This art installation achieved the Guiness World Record for the largest display of origami butterflies, seen at Youngblood Africa Art & Culture Development
Views from Beau Constantia winery – such a lovely spot!

The Bad

Safety. I’ve traveled to a lot of places, but I don’t feel safe in Cape Town. For a city that should be pedestrian friendly, there’s not as many people walking around as you’d expect. And people I’ve met, both foreigners and locals, have warned me about safety. Don’t leave the apartment door open for a second and always set the alarm. Take taxis to get around, even during the day. Don’t go out alone at night, even down the street. There’s a lot of areas where you should never go alone. It’s a pity, because the city is so beautiful and fun, but I can’t relax here.

Such a cute apartment! But don’t forget to lock the doors and turn on the alarm before you leave…

The food is…generic? I’ve had some great food here, don’t get me wrong (see above). But a lot of it is the same as restaurants I’ve had at home: eggs Benedict, croissants and muffins, dumplings, avocado toast. It’s delicious, but not specific to this place. I know there’s lots of great South African food, and I hope to sample some before I leave, but most of what I’ve seen so far has felt generic.

Shashuka, coffee, and sourdough bread from Harvest Cafe in Muizenberg . So delicious! But wait, I can eat the same thing at home…

The inequality is difficult to deal with. Apartheid, the imposed system of racial segregation, only ended 25 years ago, so it’s understandable that a place cannot heal its wounds so quickly. The posh and touristy areas of Cape Town are predominantly white, even though only about 8% of the population is white. So official apartheid has ended, but it doesn’t feel to me as though the population has mixed much, or that there’s upward mobility.

Lovely cafes, but out of reach for many South Africans…

I also visited the township of Philippi briefly. Township is pretty clearly a euphemism for slum, at least in the case of Philippi. The town of corrugated metal houses packed into a tiny area was predominantly black and coloured (the word used to describe those who have ancestry from multiple ethnic/racial groups). Gangs are prevalent in the area and even the taxi drivers didn’t want to pick us up. It was a sharp contrast to the posh restaurants and yoga studios of downtown Cape Town, that’s for sure.

I hope to continue learning in my second week and check out some more sights in the area – stay tuned!

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Fergy. says:

    I have often considered visiting RSA and my South African friend here in London is always telling me I should go and promising to put me in touch with her friends but, like you, I have heard horror stories about safety. In September 2018 the police minister said the country “borders on a war zone” and according tp the most recent figures I can find it has the fifth highest murder rate in the world. I am pretty switched on when I travel but I really don’t want to be on “high alert” all the time so I think I shall give it a miss!

    I do hope you get to try some food that you cannot get at home. or me (and I suspect you also), that is one of the great joys of travelling.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m not sure if I’d go so far to say don’t come visit here, but it’s not as safe as it might seem and feels less safe to me than other countries I’ve visited. Stay tuned for more adventures in my second week here!


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