I set impossibly high standards for our final city in South Africa, and somehow — even during a drought – Cape Town met them effortlessly. I couldn’t help but compare it to my hometown of Honolulu, as both places are known for beaches, hikes, diverse populations, and incredibly welcoming people. However, there are glaring differences. Cape Town has a population three times the size of Honolulu’s, more exciting animals (penguins and baboons!), and more efficient public transportation. Meanwhile, Honolulu has calmer weather, better beaches, and less segregation. Oh, and no drought problem.
Yes, Cape Town is in the middle of an unprecedented water crisis. Day Zero, the day on which its taps will be completely shut off and residents will need to line up for water at collection points, is set for July 15. Cape Town will be the first major city in the world to run out of water. This crisis can be blamed on a few factors: huge population growth in the past two decades, dry summers, poor management, and short-sightedness.
While we were there, we noticed signs everywhere urging us to conserve water. We used hand sanitizer in bathrooms, limited our showers, and drank out of paper cups instead of glass cups at certain dining establishments. In other words, we experienced minuscule effects, but I can’t imagine what it must be like for a struggling family living here. The world should be watching Cape Town. Australia and western states like California, Arizona, and Nevada have also been dealing with historic droughts, and I don’t think they’re far behind. We were intrigued to be visiting Cape Town during such a precarious time.
As soon as we landed, we were in love. Right outside the airport is a huge shuttle bus station, and one of the workers immediately offered to help us purchase tickets. As New Yorkers who have to deal with JFK AirTrams and taxi lobbyists, we were amazed by the convenience of Cape Town’s MyCiTi bus. Departing every 30 minutes, it offers a nonstop route right into downtown. When we got off the bus, we were promptly introduced to famous Cape Doctor. In the summer (October through March), a strong south-easterly wind blows through the city, clearing up the air and moderating the summer heat. Capetonians call this the “Cape Doctor” because early settlers believed it blew away any bad air and illnesses.
The two blocks we had to walk to our Airbnb felt treacherous as we struggled to avoid getting dust into our eyes due to the Cape Doctor, but at last we made it and stepped into one of the swankiest lobbies we’ve ever entered. Our stylish apartment was on the tenth floor, with two walls of windows facing Table Mountain and Lion’s Head. Our host had left us a bottle of sauvignon blanc, a list of restaurant recommendations, and a friendly reminder to conserve water. During our entire time there, we only showered once and flushed the toilet only after pooping.
Like in Johannesburg, we hired a private guide to take us around because the sites are fairly spread out. Sarel was our hilarious tour guide who drove fast, had the most entertaining anecdotes to tell, and seemed to know everyone in Cape Town, so we were given VIP treatment everywhere we went.
Our first stop was the flat-topped Table Mountain, the oldest mountain in the world, at 600 million years old. We caught the revolving cable car up to the top. This is brilliant! Each cable car can hold 65 people, and the floor rotates so that each person gets a view throughout the five-minute ride. When we got to the top, I was amazed by how spacious the summit is – a lot more comfortable than Diamond Head in Hawaii! The summit is a two-mile-wide plateau, flattened after centuries of wind and rain erosion. We happened to be there on a clear day, so we could see the entire city below, including Robben Island. On other days, however, condensed moisture from the Cape Doctor lingers near the summit, forming a “table cloth” of cloud covering Table Mountain. Sarel pointed out the unique fauna and flora growing on the summit, many of which can only be found on this mountain.
Due to the wind, our next site, Chapman’s Peak Drive, was closing early, so we had a mere half an hour to take the cable car down, find our car, and drive to the beginning of Chapman’s Peak. This was one of my favorite moments in Cape Town – watching Sarel presumptuously speed along the coastline and sweet-talk the guards to let us through even though they’d already shut the drive. We made it! Note to self: Hiring a charming private guide is always worth the money. Chapman’s Peak is the name of the mountain on the western edge of the Cape Peninsula. Chapman’s Peak Drive runs along the mountain’s near-vertical cliffs that drop into the Atlantic Ocean, offering one of the most stunning drives in the world. Once again, I couldn’t help but compare it to Hawaii – my drive from Kahala to Sandy’s, specifically – so I wasn’t quite as enthralled as most tourists probably are, but it was still lovely to see.
For lunch, Sarel took us to a beachfront restaurant that was so picturesque that I was sure the food would be mediocre, but I ended up loving my fresh mussels and glass of South African bouquet blanc. After that, we walked over to Boulders Beach, a beach famous for its colony of endangered jackass penguins that settled there in the ‘80s. These penguins can only be found on the coastlines of South Africa and Namibia, and are called jackass penguins because they sound like donkeys (they really do!). On Boulders Beach, they wander freely in their naturally protected environment, thanks to huge granite boulders. I could have watched them all day, but it was quite windy, and we had more sites to visit.
After that, we made our way to the Cape of Good Hope, passing beaches and quirky towns, finally reaching the tip of the African continent, where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet. In 1488, Bartolomeu Dias sailed here in an attempt by the Portuguese to establish direct trade with the Far East. It’s another extremely windy area, and I struggled just to walk a few feet. It reminded me of the black sand beach we tried to walk on in Iceland last year – just about 50° more pleasant.
We also visited an ostrich farm, where Sarel tried to feed one, but the ostrich was probably too dumb to realize what was happening — seriously, their brains are the size of half a teaspoon. Then we stopped by the quirky town of Kalk Bay, where we had rooibos (South African bush tree) ice cream. We did wine tasting at the oldest winery in South Africa, where Sarel got us free glasses of muscat and rosé. Apparently there’s wine production in South Africa because of the French Huguenot refugees who settled in Cape Town in the 17th century. We ended our long tour watching the sunset from Signal Hill. It seems every tourist goes to Signal Hill to watch the sunset, because we were surrounded by Europeans and Americans. Just like in Santorini, we weren’t too impressed by the sun setting on water, so we left our spot on the slope, walked closer to the parking lot, and actually preferred the view from there because it included Lion’s Head in the background.
We didn’t spend too much time exploring the city center even though we were staying there, but we did walk to Company’s Garden, which struck me as an odd “must-see” for tourists. Company’s Garden is a former vegetable garden that was built when European explorers roamed the coasts of Africa attempting to find a sea passage from Europe to Asia for spices. The Dutch East India Company chose this site as a permanent station because Dutch colonists feared that the British wanted to annex the Cape. In other words, Company’s Garden reeks of colonialism, and there’s even a statue of Cecil Rhodes here, the imperialist who was obsessed with “civilizing” the African continent.
The Victoria & Alfred (V&A) Waterfront is one of the most touristy areas in Cape Town, which is why I initially wanted to avoid it, but we ended up having so much fun there that we went twice. It does have a corny ferris wheel and a fancy mall filled with chain stores, but it also has an interesting food hall, an open-air coffee shop, and free performances – one of which made me cry.
One afternoon, as I was drinking an iced turmeric latte and appreciating my view of Table Mountain, an informal band comprising a few trombones and French horns started playing Cher’s “Believe.” It was our last day in South Africa, and the song just melted my heart. Cape Town’s natural beauty is obvious, but what made me cry was the spirit and resiliency of the people we met across the country. Throughout our trip, locals told us, “Welcome home,” referring to the fact that South Africa is the cradle of humankind; the oldest human fossils are from this country, so technically we all come from here. When locals eventually found out where we were from, they’d tell us, “It’s so nice to see Americans again.” South Africans are well aware of what our president says about their continent, and with so many Americans living in fear these days, South Africans don’t see that many Americans anymore. Being here has been such an honor, and South Africa will always be one of my favorite places in the world.
Tips for future travelers:
We only had a short time in Cape Town, but we tried to live like Capetonians as much as we could. We stayed at an Airbnb instead of a hotel. For breakfasts, we fell in love with a fantastic neighborhood bakery called Jason Bakery and quickly became regulars, thanks to one of our waiters who had to help us get in touch with Sarel on our first day. When we were too lazy to go out, we used UberEats to order two of our dinners – and this led to more interactions with our doorman, who made us feel like permanent residents. Always try to interact with locals any chance you can, because they are the ones who make the city.
Eat at the V&A Food Market. This former power station is now a food hall, with a biltong shop, a place that specializes in samosas, an African vendor that sells pap and Durban curry, as well as the usual things like Neapolitan pizza, craft beer, and Belgian waffles.
Stay near the V&A Waterfront. While I loved our Airbnb and our neighborhood bakery, at night the area got a bit sketchy with homeless people and very little nightlife. The Waterfront is stunning, and there are always things to do.
Buy tickets to the Table Mountain cable car in advance. The weather changes every minute, and you’ll need to check online continuously to see if they’ve shut down the cable car yet. Tickets will let you bypass long lines, and even if the weather is bad that day, the ticket allows you to use it another day.
Hire a private guide. Just like in Morocco, Johannesburg, and Cappadocia, our trip could only be possible with a guide. We had so many sites to see in such a short amount of time, and it was handy to have someone provide commentary. It’s also a great way to get to know a local well. Sarel felt like an uncle by the time we had to say good-bye to him.
Conserve water. In Cape Town, we were so aware of the amount of water we typically use, from flushing the toilet, to washing dishes. It’s heartbreaking — almost unjust — that such a beautiful city has to deal with this.
If you’re visiting other parts of South Africa, save Cape Town for the end. Cape Town is the Positano of South Africa; I really left my heart here, and I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed Johannesburg or even the safari if we had not done them first.