By Jessica Russo
Alright, so you've heard that Cape Town is all the rage, and now you're finally ready to experience it for yourself! You know it boasts a unique mix of vibrant nightlife, coastal beauty, culinary excellence, and fascinating culture, but what do you really know about South African everyday life? Here are some tips and tricks that'll make you feel like a native in no time.
You definitely get a lot of bang for your buck in South Africa. Don’t be alarmed when you see that your dinner cost R200 – 200 Rand is equal to only about 15 US dollars! South Africa’s awesome exchange rate may allow you to do more than your budget ever thought possible - just make sure you make room in your luggage for all those souvenirs.
• What should I leave for a tip? In Cape Town, tipping 10-15% of your bill is the norm - and greatly appreciated.
• Can I use my credit card? Yes, credit/debit cards are accepted at most businesses. Using a credit card at a South African restaurant, however, is a different experience than using one at an American restaurant. Instead of scooping up your card with the bill, running it, and returning it to you, your server will bring a small portable reading device to the table, where you will complete your purchase. While credit card fraud in SA is rare, it does occur, so if your server happens to take your card into the back, you have the right to question it - and then double-check your bank statement.
Most international electrical adapters can easily be found in electronic stores, and most stores even sell a multi-national adapter that works for most countries. Be warned, however, that most of those "universal" adapters do not include South Africa. Even if the packaging states "Africa" as one of the places it serves, you will be disappointed. Most of the continent uses a different type of outlet, which will not work in its southernmost country, so do not waste your money. You’ll need to find a 3-pronged “type M” adapter, which you can easily find online or in the airport upon arrival.
Contrary to popular opinion, not every part of Africa is always hot! Summer in Cape Town (mid-October to mid-February) is hot, dry, and windy, with rare pockets of rain and thunderstorms. Temperatures during these warm months range anywhere from 80 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
South Africa’s transitional seasons, autumn and spring, tend to be very short but pleasant, ranging from about 60 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Winter (May – August) can get a bit chilly! With temps sitting comfortably in the 50s, you’ll need to bring a jacket, but you won’t freeze. No matter what the weather is, the scenery will always be beautiful – weather you’re lying on the sunny beach or walking the coast in a sweatshirt.
While most people in Cape Town understand and speak English, South Africa is home to a whopping 11 official languages! English, Afrikaans, Zulu, and Xhosa remain the most-spoken, but 7 other languages are spoken throughout the country. So, although you’ll be able to communicate using English, keep your ears open for some unfamiliar words and phrases. You may want to learn the basics before you go, especially if you’re planning on venturing outside the city.
Yes, you can drink the water...
... as long as you're inside the city proper. Cape Town's drinking water is very safe, so no need to worry in nice hotels and restaurants. Venturing outside the city on safari, perhaps? That's when you'll want to drink only bottled water or use filtration tablets.
With the help of wallet-friendly exchange rates, taxi and Uber rides are the most convenient ways to get around. You can also take the MyCiTi bus, which runs throughout Cape Town and even offers a special “tourist route” highlighting major landmarks.
As a precaution when using taxis: be sure to check the car for the name/logo of a transportation company. Locals in unmarked vans/cars will act as taxis and ask you if you need a ride. If you can't find a company name on the car, simply say "no" and keep walking. While these people are usually just looking for some extra money, it's not worth any safety risk - or astronomical price.
Venture off of Long Street
While Long Street is a vibrant playground of restaurants, clubs, Victorian architecture, and New Orleans-style balconies, keep in mind that it’s not the only cool street in Cape Town. In fact, it can get a bit, let's say... desolate, at night. While crime in Cape Town is relatively low, it's no secret that this popular street is also popular among panhandlers. Don't be afraid! Remember that South Africa is still a developing nation with a substantial population of impoverished people. While they can be uncomfortably persistent, most of them are not looking for any trouble - just some quick cash.
Not far from Long Street, be sure to check out Kloof Street and Bree Street, foodie havens that boast relax beachy-chic vibes. Stroll along Albert Road in Woodstock, hit up a bar on Lower Main Road in the Observatory neighborhood, and see the city’s famous flower sellers on Adderly Street!
Don't be afraid to bargain
There’s no better way to immerse yourself in South African culture than by going to local markets. See street performers dance, feel the beat of djembe drums, and feast your eyes on colorful crafts and handmade goods! Markets are where you’ll want to snag some serious souvenirs, but before you buy, be sure to bargain. Vendors expect locals to knock down their asked prices, so don’t feel like you’re being pushy - it's totally customary. If something is R50, ask the vendor if they’ll take R40 – they usually will. A couple of Cape Town's most popular markets are held at Green Market Square and Old Biscuit Mill.
This word simply means "grilled meat" in Afrikaans. If someone says they are "having a braai," it means they are having a social gathering, similar to a BBQ! Braais are a huge part of South African culture, and they are the perfect places to meet locals, try new foods, and immerse yourself in local customs.
Generally speaking, South Africa is a very "meaty" country, meaning, South Africans eat tons of meat. In Cape Town and most other cities, however, vegetarian options are widely available. And when you're on the coast, be sure to try some fresh seafood!
Wear comfy walking shoes.
In any mountainside city, the streets are not perfectly flat; Cape Town is no exception! While most main streets are easily walkable, there are many hilly twists and turns. You'd totally regret not walking up the hill to see the sunset just because you wore heels, right?
Do I need shots? Not in Cape Town.
You should always be up-to-date on your routine vaccinations, but no additional precautions need to be taken when traveling to Cape Town (unless you are coming from a country in which Yellow Fever is prevalent). The only medication worth considering is malaria tablets if, and only if, you plan on taking a journey into the rural bush. Many travelers do take malaria tablets "just in case," so that they are not restricted from going anywhere, but that decision is up to you and your doctor.