First Impressions: Cape Town

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An American traveler’s first 48 Hours in Cape Town, South Africa

IMG_1511 Images by Travis Levius, @misterlevius

Pre-Arrival

My Johannesburg visit was lovely- very grateful to have experienced the misunderstood city for myself- but Cape Town has been one of my “must-visit places before dying” for ages.  It’s a place that doesn’t need much selling…we’ve all seen the Mother City top many a list as one of the world’s most beautiful cities, anchored by Table Mountain’s magnificent presence. I have yet to meet an American who’s been and didn’t love it (and want to move there).  Anything attracting such constant superlatives runs the risk of being over-hyped, and I was sure I’d correctly assess Cape Town for what it was in my first 48 hours. Is the city really as amazing as everyone (and every travel article) says it is?

The Verdict

In terms of natural beauty: yes. Yes, indeed. Throw in all of those hefty words connoting “greatness” and “gorgeous” and “paradise” into a hat and pick one…they are all apropos for Cape Town.

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Enjoying a remarkable sunset on Signal Hill

The city had me even on the plane’s descent flying from Johannesburg. I sat slanted toward my seat’s window, craning my neck to search and lock eyes on that mighty mountain from above. The plane passed over several ranges and hills minutes from landing, and I wondered if the real Table Mountain was so underwhelming that it had passed me undetected…then the plane turned. Like a dramatic film, my window view slowly unraveled a monstrous form in the distance, silhouetted by the backlit haze of the sun with its peaks blanketed by pillowy clouds. I sat speechless in my seat. This was the sight I’ve anticipated for years, a dream finally made real.

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My iPhone shot of *that* moment

The dreaminess continued on a scenic taxi ride from the airport- through the city with more amazing mountain, city and sea views- to Camps Bay, a posh and popular beachside area with Table Mountain National Park towering from behind. There, I witnessed a gorgeous bright stretch of Atlantic beach, a diverse scattering of people and plenty of cosmopolitan restaurants/bars yards away from the waters. Cape Town, just 3 hours into my trip, was paradise.

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The spectacular Camps Bay

Little Bit of Everything

As a traveler, it’s difficult to resist comparing cities, but alas, I give in all the time. I mentally compared Cape Town with Johannesburg (ha…that will be an upcoming post on its own!) and other cities that resemble a facet or two with the Mother City.  While exploring Cape Town’s compact neighborhoods, I saw Miami: modern, mid-rise waterfront condos along the coast in Greenpoint and Sea Point; and San Francisco: daunting hills with gorgeous homes in the City Bowl with a touristy waterfront district (the V&A Waterfront). I also saw Sydney for world-class beaches, posh Los Angeles for its jaw-dropping hillside luxury homes in Bantry Bay and Clifton, and Seattle for its downtown charm and laid-back vibe. And dare I say: it’s just as world-class as the aforementioned cities. If you were to transplant the Cape Town’s city proper to the American West Coast, you wouldn’t notice it’s an African city…

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V&A Waterfront: Cape Town’s Answer to San Fran’s Pier District

But perhaps that’s the problem. Without the iconic sights of Table Mountain National Park and the spectacular beaches, would Cape Town feel like another American or European town?  At times it felt a bit too prim, perhaps a tad predictable and familiar – especially compared to Johannesburg.

The style quotient and cool factor also seemed a tad tepid, but it’s a common observation for most seaside cities with perfect weather.  You can find hip places if you do your research; I found plenty on my 2nd night out with a Cape Town insider on the periphery of Long Street- Cape Town’s rowdiest, Bourbon Street-esque strip of nightlife.  La Parada, a popular, trendy Spanish tapas & cocktails joint, and the Lower Manhattan vibe of Tjing Tjing Rooftop Bar were excellent places, both conveniently tucked a block away or so away from Long Street’s madness.

The Big Issue

Not all is perfect in paradise.  I’ve heard from many South Africans- and visitors- that Cape Town’s racial climate is still tense and skewed, and it’s far more apparent than in Johannesburg.  As much as I dislike rumors, I found them to be true.  The gap of the haves and have nots here are conspicuously divided by race, a sharp contrast between Cape Town’s downtown patrons/residents and those that serve them.  While wary of the city’s state of post-apartheid progress, I was still able to meet wonderful Capetonians of all races (even made a new friend on my flight!), and I didn’t let those issues despoil my overall lovely experience.

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View towards Table Mountain from the luxurious One & Only Hotel

Holiday Mecca

I witnessed the opposite of the “Johannesburg effect” in Cape Town during my December visit; whereas Jozi locals vacate their coast-less city during the end-of-year holidays, Cape Town fills up (and bloats) with visitors from everywhere. During my visit days before the New Year, hotels and hostels were completely booked, beaches and city attractions were far more crowded than usual, and it was difficult to meet people who actually live in Cape Town (I, for one, met a lot of people visiting from Johannesburg). Now that I’ve been, I completely understand its tremendous seasonal draw for both international and domestic travelers. Why wouldn’t you celebrate the New Year in one of the world’s most lovely, laid-back and gobsmackingly gorgeous destinations?

Well, that depends. You don’t come to Cape Town (as you certainly would to Johannesburg) for edginess, excitement and buzz…you come for scenery that commands gratitude from all able to witness such beauty on Earth.

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Do you live in or visited Cape Town?  Would love to know your thoughts on the gorgeous city as well!

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One Comment on “First Impressions: Cape Town”

  1. Your photos are GORGEOUS! But I see that you’re a photographer, so that makes sense!

    Love that you call London your dream city, it is also one of mine! I lived there for a year and miss it everyday!

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