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Cape Town
Ocean Road

As South Africa’s oldest city, Cape Town has plenty to discover and explore. Read these tips to find out how best to unearth the treasures of what locals also refer to as “The Mother City.”

A National Pastime

The South African version of the barbeque is called a braai. Everyone loves this sociable, potluck-style gathering that spotlights food roasted over an open fire, whether it takes place at the beach, a winery, in a backyard or on a verandah. National Braai Day (September 24) confirms its cultural significance. At any braai, you can expect to see plenty of meat, which the locals consume in mass quantities. If you don’t get invited to one, leave Cape Town on a Sunday and head to the township of Gugulethu. There, you’ll find Mzoli’s, which offers a very local braai experience.

Cape Dutch Cuisine

Many popular South African dishes are hybrids of Dutch, French, Indonesian and Indian cooking traditions. The Cape Malays—descendants of 17th-century Dutch slaves that hailed mostly from Indonesia, Madagascar and Sri Lanka—retain a strong influence. Their dishes contain fragrant herbs and spices, curries, sambals, stews and fruit cooked with meat. Popular favorites include:

  • Bobotie: Curried, minced meat baked in an egg custard
  • Bredie: Slow-cooked meat (usually mutton) and vegetable stew; comes in many varieties
  • Sosatie: Skewered meat soaked in a curry marinade

Downtown Walking Tour

The German-born Ursula Stevens established the first walking tours of Cape Town almost 30 years ago, and continues her forays through its streets and neighborhoods today. A history graduate who has lived in Cape Town for over 45 years, Ursula expertly guides her guests through gardens, flower markets, churches and the colorful Muslim quarter of Bo-Kaap, all while providing interesting historical and architectural facts. The R180 (180 South African Rand, equivalent to approx. $19.65 U.S.) for her 2 1/2-hour Cape Town on Foot & Bo-Kaap tour is money well-spent.

The Cape Doctor

Cape Town’s famous southeastern wind—also known as South-Easter—gusts in gale forces from False Bay through the mountain range to Cape Town and north to Blouberg. Locals say it keeps their city healthy, fondly referring to it as die Kaapse Dokter (The Cape Doctor). Most active in November, the billowing physician works from spring (August and September) to late summer (March and April), blowing away pollution, often at great force. Although its effects can be bracing at the beach, the Doctor conjures up clear skies, fresh air and great opportunities to watch masters of windsurfing and kite surfing, particularly in Blouberg.

Beach Conditions

When you visit Cape Town, go to the ocean. Rent a chair or take a walk on the brilliant white beaches of the Cape Town Riviera. Ocean swimming is safe in designated areas, but expect colder waters on the Atlantic side of the peninsula year-round. You’ll find warmer swimming in the Indian Ocean at great beaches like Muizenberg. Windy conditions often prevail at the beaches, so when the “Cape Doctor” blows (see above), head to sheltered Clifton Beach on the Atlantic side. February and March are the least windy, but they also draw the most crowds. If you want more space to yourself, go on weekdays.

Cape Town Travel Seasons

During the summer (December to February), tourists and film crews descend upon Cape Town and take up most of the beds in town. Holidays—especially Easter—also make for slim pickings. If you plan to visit during these times, be sure to book well in advance. Try going in late summer and early autumn (March, April) when the weather is mild, the crowds have faded and accommodations are more plentiful. You can also look for more affordable rates in the so-called “Secret Season,” from June to August.

Capetonian Attire

Cape Town is not a formal city. Its residents have a casual, friendly attitude that extends to their attire. Smart-casual ensembles are perfect for dining out, while casual wear is fine for day tripping. Cape Town experiences all four seasons, which are the opposite of seasons in the northern hemisphere (their winter is our summer, and their summer is our winter). Shorts and T-shirts are a common sight in summer (December to February). Layer up in winter (June to August) and always bring a windproof jacket for touring the Cape peninsula. The wet season runs from May to August, so come prepared with rain gear. Find everything you need for every time of year at TravelSmith.

What Shall I Speak?

South Africa has 11 official languages. Zulu, Xhosa and Afrikaans are the three most popular; Sepedj is fourth; and English is fifth. Capetonians mostly speak Afrikaans (a primarily Dutch-derived Germanic language), but English is commonly understood. Learn some Afrikaans to help navigate the culture and avoid misunderstandings. If a Capetonian tells you “Now now,” it means right away. If he says he will do something “just now,” it means in the near future but not immediately, and possibly never.

Driving & Road Safety

Cape Town is quite spread out, encompassing approx. 950 sq. miles, so be prepared to rent a car or use a tour bus to get around. The roads are excellent and safe, but watch where you stop and always be aware of your surroundings. Park in lots where official parking guards look after your vehicle. Popular areas like Long Street and the main beaches employ official guards. Self-employed “guards” in yellow bibs offering to watch over your car are a common sight on the streets. Locals trust them and tip them a few rand upon returning to their cars. If you can’t find a guarded lot, park on populated, well-lit thoroughfares and keep a few spare rand in your pocket for tipping.

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