Despite a bit of bad press, Cape Town truly is a magical holiday destination. Whether you are here for a week, a month, a year or ten (like me!), there is never a shortage of things here to keep you entertained. If it is your first trip to the Mother City, you’ll naturally want to tick off all the must-see attractions like Table Mountain, Robben Island, Cape Point and of course, the adorable African penguins at Boulder’s Beach. There is no doubt that even sticking strictly to the well-trodden tourist trail will be an unforgettable vacation. However, if you’re keen to have a more authentic experience and see the good, the bad and the ugly of Cape Town you’ll need to get acquainted with the locals and their way of life.
Sound like your kind of adventure? Well then, here are a few insider tips to help you along the way:
1. Take A Mini-Bus Taxi
First things first. I always find that the best way to get your bearings of a new city is to spend some time finding your feet on public transport. Unfortunately, extensive public transit networks are noticeably lacking here in the Cape. Sure, things are improving with the introduction of the MiCiti Bus service but its not much if you are used to the sophisticated systems found in places like London, New York or Paris. And sure, most middle-class Capetonians drive or Uber to get to where they need to be but there is one mode of transport that provides a pretty fun experience (well, if you aren’t in any sort of hurry) and that’s a minibus taxi.
Minibus taxis are a mode of shared transport that’ll get you almost anywhere in the city. They tend to take the long route around to whatever destination but on the up, they’ll drop you wherever you want to stop along the way. They also cost next to nothing (just be sure to have small change on hand to make life easier). You’ll need to be prepared for a rollercoaster ride though as the drivers are pretty erratic. Take note, most vehicles have a banging sound system but the tunes that’ll entertain you through your journey will depend on the individual driver’s music. You could be bopping along to some great house tunes or else be serenaded by the beautiful vocals of Celine Dion. Who knows? I was once even treated to a stunning acoustic guitar performance - no joke!
Oh, and as for getting up-close-and-personal with the locals, a minibus taxi ride will certainly tick all those boxes. The drivers are known to pack their vehicles to the brim. You’ll find extra spots pop up in places you didn’t realise existed. Be warned you could be required to sit on a stranger’s lap. That said, you’ll find most people are pretty friendly and they’ll help you find your ‘stop’ if you are struggling. You might even be entrusted to hold someone’s baby. I once had a lady offer to braid my hair. The stories are endless. Sure, this may not be a luxury ride but you’ll certainly have a tale or two to tell when you get home.
2. Participate (or Just Spectate) in a Sporting Event
Sport and exercise are part of Cape Town’s DNA. Almost everyone here seems to be a runner, a hiker, a cyclist or a gym bunny of sorts. And in all honesty, you can’t blame them? When you are in the most beautiful city in the world, you want to take in as much of that beauty as possible and that means spending time outdoors exploring. Even after a decade, I haven’t tired of climbing Table Mountain or taking a sunset run along Sea Point Prom.
If you hang around long enough you’ll find that this Capetonian obsession with the endorphins is pretty contagious. You’ll feel compelled to get involved in some way or another. If you are a runner (or are just willing to plod around the course) there will almost always be an event to take part in. Overachievers should tackle the mama of all Cape Town runs - The Two Oceans Marathon. The name is a little misleading though as it is in fact a 56km ultra-marathon. Failing that take part in the slightly more doable Two Oceans Half, which takes part on the same day. Other recommended races include The Cape Town Marathon, The Slave Route Challenge or The Gun Run. And if your trip to the Cape doesn’t coincide with an official race then give the Green Point Park Run ago. Sure, running is tough but I guarantee whichever route you take it’ll be among the prettiest you’ve ever run.
Running not quite your thing. How about cycling then? The obvious choice here would be the Cape Town Cycle Tour. Even though, I’m a runner at heart, the CTCT (or the Argus, as most of us old hands call it) is something else. It’s a 109km cycle tour which requires the city to come to a standstill as they close the roads across the peninsula to give cyclists the right of way (for one day at least!). The views are spectacular and the atmosphere is electric. Even if you don’t make it the whole way around, the CTCT is something everyone should attempt at least once in their life.
Whatever your vibe, make it your mission to get involved in something active while you’re in the Mother City, it’ll certainly give you an insight into what makes these crazy Capetonians tick.
3. Meet The Weird and Wonderful Folk of Bohemian Observatory
In the shadow of ever-imposing Devil’s Peak lies the quirky little suburb. Observatory, or Obs as the local residents lovingly call it, is a magical little place I only discovered when I decided to lay down some roots in the Mother City. The last 5 years have been an experience and then some. I really do wish I’d discovered this place sooner. Unless perhaps you are one of those foreigners that did a semester overseas at the University of Cape Town, Observatory pretty much falls beneath the tourist radar.
As the name suggests, it’s home to a prominent observatory, not that this is necessarily something that’ll be of interest to a traveller. If you are medically inclined, you might know surgeon Christian Barnard performed the world’s first heart transplant happened in Cape Town. Well, it actually happened right here is Obs, at Groote Schuur Hospital, which is hard to miss as you drive along Main Road. Anyway, if that’s your vibe there is a museum dedicated to this momentous event based at the hospital which you can check out.
Enough of the background information though. What really makes Observatory unique are the weird and wonderful residents. Living a stone’s throw away from Valkenburg Psychiatric Hospital means you’ll likely to run into an outpatient from time to time. Generally, they are all pretty harmless although they might try to sell you a dream catcher. Despite the fact that this bohemian little suburb is off the tourist trail proper, there is a certain type of expat that somehow manages to find themselves here. From the loud American lady who utilises her retirement fund (and humble abode) to play pied-piper to the local leeches or the well-meaning but the well-meaning British girl who finds herself trying to break up a street fight between a couple of the area’s usual reprobates, the foreign element certainly add to the vibe of this place.
Honestly, you won’t get the full-experience by just popping through to check out some of the local thrift shops, although you’ll certainly find an eclectic range of bargains. If you truly want to experience Obs life, I suggest you book yourself into an Air BnB for at least a couple of days, meet a local resident and have them show you around the hood. As slightly unhinged as some may seem, they really are a lovely bunch, somewhat immune to all the issues that taint some of the more affluent parts of the city.
4. Braai in A Township
You might have read that there is a huge wealth gap in Cape Town. And while you won’t be able to avoid people hustling for an extra buck all over the city, the fact is most tourists only take a glimpse of the situation as they drive past the township and its endless shacks on the way from the airport. Most people will then spend the rest of their vacation avoiding the reality as the sip cocktails aboard a catamaran and shop to their heart's content at the V&A Waterfront.
But it doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom. Of course, I’d not recommend that any outsider go for a casual township stroll on their lonesome or take a late-night Dewani tour (I think the Brits at least may remember that whole saga of a honeymoon gone wrong). But township communities do know how to have fun and this is an opportunity not-to-be-missed. Mzoli’s Meat in Gugulethu. Or Gugs, as it is affectionately known, is the place to become the weekend. As the name suggests, Mzoli’s is a restaurant (although that may be stretching it - the place really consists of a few barbecues at the back on a butcher shop)
While it is great if you can find a local that’ll be comfortable to take you under their wing a show you the ropes, that may not be possible especially if you are just in the Cape for a short time. It could potentially be risky as well so look into doing a local tour instead. Not only will you get to feast on as much meat as your system can take (veggies can fill up pap and chakalaka) but you’ll be able to spend the afternoon getting down to some house music with the neighbourhood folk. The experience will cost you next to nothing and you can even BYOB (or buy your booze at one of the many nearby liquor stores!). An unforgettable time is guaranteed.