🇱🇻Visiting Riga, Lativa

I visited Riga, Latvia in October 2017 as part of a visit to the Chernobyl nuclear exclusion zone. I discovered a beautiful city that I would love to return to and explore more, along with the rest of the Baltic states.

More photos in the Flickr album.

Riga Cathedral

Riga is small, walkable city with a well persevered Gothic Old Town surrounded by a river and a canal ring with a string of lovely parks. Most of the sights and destinations are within walking distance of Old Town. 

The city is full of architecture, culture, parks, nightlife, and history. It has a bit of a reputation for stag and hen party trips from the UK, but overall is very laid back. 

Safety is not an issue. Riga is clean, safe, and family-friendly. The people are friendly and helpful, if a bit shy when sober.

Canal ring around Old Town

Riga is an accessible place to start if it’s your first time in the former Soviet Union or a Soviet satellite country. The culture, cityscape, and vibes are very European – but with a US Midwestern feel. The Occupation Museum near the canal is a great way to learn about life under the Soviets, and the Nazis before them.

Further afield, the Centrs is surrounded by old Soviet-style apartment blocks that Riga is now reclaiming and modernizing

Monument to Russian poet Alexander Pushkin in one of the canal-side parks.

Art Deco

Art Deco Museum

Just outside the Old Town is the newer Centrs district and the Art Deco District. Riga is known for having the world’s largest collection of buildings in this style. The Art Deco museum is a great small museum worth a visit to learn more about the city’s architecture.

View from Old town across the river to western Riga

Food and Drink

Lido Latvian restaurant has several locations around the city, including the Old Town. Authentic local food served cafeteria-style. Kitschy atmosphere but popular with the locals. Great value. 

Black Balsam is the Latvian liquor. It’s super bitter and super strong, but I did enjoy the version with black current. 

Riga Central Market
The largest public market in Europe is an old Nazi-era complex of Zeppelin airship hangers that can easily take up a full day’s worth of wandering around. The buildings are stunning and the number of vendors is enormous.

Riga Central Market (Google Street View)

Each hanger is devoted to a different food (meat, veggies, fish, etc.). There is a maze of merchandise stalls surrounding the hangers, including a big section selling second-hand Soviet kitsch. Many of the farmers and smaller food stall vendors speak limited English, but pointing and gestures will get you by.

More things to see and do

Easy Wine and Easy Beer
Self-serve bars for sampling many local, European, and international beers and wines.

SemeraH Hotel Metropole and De Commerce Gastro Pub
Hotel and pub near in the Old Town

Taverna Kirbis (Pumpkin) 
In the vegetable and produce hall.

Convenience store chain

The Armoury
Bar in the Old Town, with guns.

Omas Briljanta Istaba
Bar, live music, and food in the Old town

Cafe Britt Shop
Coffee in the Art Deco district

Gan Bei
Japanese restaurant in the T/C Gallerija Centrs shopping mall

Coffee in Centrs.

Gift shop in Centrs.

Aspara Tea House
Lovely little place in the park on the south end of the canal.

One of the many, many small parks around the city

Money, Language, Transport

Latvia is on the euro, but prices are much lower than the average European city.

English is widely spoken. Learn a few key phrases in Latvian to be respectful of the locals. Russian is also common.

Most of the things for visitors are within walking distance of Old Town or Centrs districts. Buses, trams, and bike share are readily available. The airport small and well-designed, close to the city. Taxify is the most common taxi and ride share app.

Bike share at the Cathedral

☣️Visiting the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster Site

In October 2017 I visited the site of the most infamous nuclear power disaster in world history, the Chernobyl Power Plant in Ukraine (formerly part of the Soviet Union). This included the famous ghost city of Pripyat and other sites within a 30 kilometer exclusion zone that is permanently off-limits for most people.

Over the last decade Chernobyl has emerged as a disaster tourism destination, with around 20,000 people visiting per year. It is a very doable visit, but there aren’t many good resources for planning a trip. This post is about the logistics you need to plan and what you can expect to experience if you visit. At the end there are more resources for you to learn about the history of Chernobyl and tourism there.

My post about visiting Kyiv.

See all of my photos over on Flickr.

How to do it

Chernobyl tours depart from Ukraine’s capital of Kyiv (or Kiev), a two hour drive away. It will be at least 10-12 hours for a day trip, so plan to spend the night in Kyiv before and after your tour. It is a beautiful and relatively undiscovered city that is worth a few days itself.

Tour group required
Visiting the exclusion zone is regulated by the government and can only be done with a licensed tour group. Be sure to book at least 30 days in advance so the agency has time to file the required paperwork for you. There are several companies to choose from. I used SoloEast, one of the oldest Chernobyl tour companies, and was very happy with the entire experience.

My tour was a small group of about ten people in a comfortable mini-bus. It was good size for maintaining an intimate feeling, getting in out and of sites easily, and having some flexibility to follow people’s interests. There are also large motor-coach tours with 30-plus people, but those looked to be much less enjoyable. Do your research, and read reviews on sites like TripAdvisor.

Consider an overnight tour
I took a two-day tour staying overnight in the exclusion zone, and was very glad I did it. We saw more sights, were able to go at a leisurely pace, and had the flexibility to cater the itinerary to the group’s taste. This included three separate visits to Pripyat and lunch at the actual Chernobyl Power Plant canteen serving the workers who monitoring and dismantling the complex.

More on staying overnight in the exclusion zone below.  Be sure to confirm your tour booking a week or so in advance. Longer tours are available for research and educational trips. Smaller groups can book private tours. The tour companies can talk to you about specific needs and interests. Most companies are responsive via email.

Don’t forget your passport
Government and military authorities will check your passport and the tour company’s paperwork very carefully. Be sure to triple check your passport number when booking your tour, and keep your passport on you at all times. If your passport number doesn’t match or you forget it, you will not be permitted inside the exclusion zone. And you will be left waiting at the checkpoint for 8-10 hours until your group finishes its tour.

When to go

Spring and autumn are the high seasons for visiting Chernobyl spending several hours hiking around outside. Ukraine has hot, humid summers and cold winters.  I was there in late October, and the autumn foliage was beautiful. Temperatures were about 50F during the day, which made for a nice, cool hike. Since this is the normal shoulder season for travel, you’ll get better deals on flights and hotels. However, on the weekends the main sites and the cafe can get quite busy.

A two-day tour will likely be Friday-Saturday or Sunday-Monday, giving you a less-busy weekday to explore the more popular sites. On a Saturday in October I saw at least 5-6 other small groups and 3-4 large groups on big buses.

Memorial in front of The New Safe Confinement that now encloses he 1980s sarcophagus and the destroyed Reactor #4.

What you will see

All tours will likely stop at the top 3 destinations in the exclusion zone:

1. Pripyat: The famous ghost city with the apartment blocks, amusement park, schools, etc. Most of the photos you see online come from Pripyat. You will likely see the spots of the most famous photos like the hospital, gas masks in the school, and amusement park. Many of these scenes have been staged, but there are still opportunities to find spots that are relatively undisturbed.

2. Chernobyl Town: The small town that is still inhabited by a couple thousand people working in the exclusion zone doing cleanup and research. Radiation safety rules require two-week rotations inside and outside the zone. Chernobyl town has a cafe and small hotel, a couple of hostels, and a small convenience store. Your tour will stop here for lunch and any other meals included on the trip.

3. Chernobyl Power Plant: All tours let you stand outside the plant’s walls for a brief visit to the New Safe Confinement building that was constructed in 2016 to cover the destroyed reactor, and eventually allow for its dismantling. Depending on your tour, you might have lunch in the canteen serving the plant’s workers, especially on a two-day tour. It’s a traditional Ukrainian meal with pork and borscht.

Other destinations

Depending the length of your tour, the interests of the group, etc. – you might get to see a few additional sites. These sites seem to be less visited and closer to the state it was left when area was evacuated.

Duga-3 radar array: A giant, horizon-dominating metal structure that was a long-distance radar receiver for detecting nuclear missiles coming from the US. Depending on your guide, you can climb the array and explore the adjoining control room and other Soviet military facilities.

Cooling Towers: Two of the large, distinctive nuclear towers were under construction at the time of the disaster. Your tour might visit the larger one, especially on a longer tour.

Jupiter Factory: The former electronics factory on the edge of Pripyat is relatively less disturbed and looted than most of the city. In addition to many post-apocalyptic industrial buildings, there are also many military and industrial vehicles.

Going inside the buildings

It is officially illegal to go inside the buildings in Pripyat or any of the other abandoned sites. However, it seems to be widely done. If this is important to you, correspond with your tour company before booking. Also try to book with a small group of 10-12 people. The giant motor coaches with 30 people have less flexibility for getting off the beaten path (yes, there is a beaten path, even in Chernobyl!).

After more than 30 years of being reclaimed by nature, many buildings are starting to collapse and/or become too unstable to enter. An experienced guide will know where to go and where to avoid. However, always be careful where you step and test any precarious-looking floor boards before putting your full weight on them. There is some speculation that in another 5-10 years most of the buildings will be too dangerous to go inside.

The tallest apartment blocks in Pripyat are about 16 stories tall. It’s worth the climb to the top for the views of the reactor’s New Safe Confinement building, the Duga-3 radar array, and the surrounding forests. Keep in mind that these abandoned buildings do not have safety railings around the roofs. There are many dangerous things like open elevator shafts, holes in the floors, and collapsing stairs.

The Radioactive Puppies

As nature reclaims the exclusion zone, wildlife is flourishing. Deer, foxes, bears, etc. Are all thriving in the zone. Recently the Internet freaked out about the radioactive puppies of Chernobyl, a semi-wild population of dogs that have at least some level of radiation. They likely pick it up in their fur by rolling in contaminated soil.

The dogs hang out around Chernobyl Town, the hotel/cafe, and most of the military checkpoints. Many have ID tags in their ears, so I assume researchers are monitoring them. The soldiers and locals didn’t hesitate to pet the dogs, and neither did I!




Gear and safety

Prepare like you are doing on an all-day hike. Long sleeve shirt and long pants are required by government regulations. Layers are helpful in cooler weather – even if the temperatures are low you will do a lot of climbing and get hot. Wear shoes suitable for climbing over broken glass, uneven terrain, etc. I did it in a pair of Clark’s desert boots that were not proper hiking boots, but still performed quite well. Use sunscreen and bug spray in warm weather.

Bring a day pack with water, snacks, extra camera batteries, and a backup phone battery. A small first aid kit for cuts and scrapes is a good idea, as is making sure your tetanus vaccination is current. Lunch could be anywhere between 11am and 2pm, as the itinerary and availability of cafe seating varies greatly. Your guides will drive you between sites, and you’ll be out of the bus anywhere from 15 minutes to 2 hours at a time.

Your tour will probably stop at a convenience store on the way out of Kyiv for one last chance at modern toilets and snacks.


Hot spot registering 2.20
Hot Spot with 22 on the counter vs normal background radiation of 0.1

All of the places you will visit have been cleaned and re-mediated to the point where radiation is relatively low. The ambient background radiation level is actually lower than the main square in Kyiv’s city center. Stay with your guide on the main paths, avoid sitting or leaning on anything (including the ground), and you will be fine. There are many “hot spots” with higher levels of radiation that are well marked with warning signs.

You will pass through a radiation detector when leaving the 10km and 30km checkpoints. If you’ve followed instructions you will have no problem passing the check. At worst you might need to clean dust/debris off your clothes if a higher level is detected. In rare cases an article of clothing may have to be left behind. Your guide will carry a Geiger counter, and you can rent your own for around $20.

Your total radiation exposure is estimated to be equivalent to one or town trans-Atlantic plane flights. Do you let fear of radiation keep you from flying?

Internet, with patience

Yes, you can Tweet from inside a radioactive wasteland, but photos will take a very long time to upload, if at all. Much of the exclusion zone has mobile coverage in the areas you will be visiting, though there are many gaps. Ukraine on the whole is still on 3G speeds as of 2017. WiFi speeds are also generally slow.

There is WiFi at the cafe in Chernobyl town where most visitors stop for lunch. Your tour van or bus might have WiFi when it’s in an area with decent mobile coverage. If you stay overnight there’s a good chance your lodging will have WiFi, though it will be slow.


There are limitless opportunities for amazing shots. This was one of the few times in recent years when I wished I still carried something other than a phone camera. With the limited internet situation, you will not be able to mass upload photos to the cloud or Internet until you are back in Kyiv. Bring back-up media if are concerned about losing data on your camera.


Be prepared to be without modern toilets for several hours. Modest toilets are available at the checkpoints, at the cafe in Chernobyl town, and at your lodging if you stay overnight. The abandoned city of Pripyat has two very primitive outhouses available near the entrance. Bring your own paper. Be OK with going in the woods.

Staying overnight

Chernobyl town has a modest hotel with a cafe, plus a couple of hostels. Your tour company should make all of the arrangements and payments. I visited during the high season, so a hostel was the only available option. Most lodging is double, so you will likely have a roommate if traveling solo. If staying in a hostel, come prepared with your own soap, travel towel, toilet paper, etc. – just in case.

Bring a small bag or day pack suitable for a couple hours away from the tour van. When staying overnight, a medium-sized backpack should also be OK. Pack super light.  Suitcases will be cumbersome in a small group tour, and may not be allowed by your tour company. Leave them with your hotel in Kyiv.

Food and booze. All food and beverages are brought in from outside the exclusion zone, and you are not allowed to eat any berries or produce growing there.  The cafe at the hotel has a small bar. If you are staying at a hostel, the town’s one convenience store has a small selection of snacks, bottled water, beer, and vodka. Bring cash Hryvnia, as neither place is likely to take credit cards. There is a curfew of about 8:00 pm, and tourists are never allowed to walk around the town without their guide. Make sure you buy provisions before curfew.


Dark Tourism

“Dark tourism” or “disaster tourism” comes with some ethical questions that you should consider. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/features/is-dark-tourism-ok-chernobyl-pripyat-disaster-sites/. In the case of Chernobyl, many people died in the disaster and years after. Tens of thousands were displaced. The long-term health effects continue to impact the people of the surrounding area, including the capital of Kyiv. Do not take the trip lightly.

My personal experience was that many of large abandoned sites had a reverent or almost sacred feeling. The zone is generally very silent, adding to the somber, spiritual vibe.


A few hundred people have returned to their villages and farms in the exclusion zone. They are primarily elderly people who did not adjust well to being resettled in cities and want to live out their days in their family homes. They are referred to as self-settlers or re-settlers. The government tolerates this, and provides them some basic services like a pension and a weekly mobile market to buy supplies and groceries. However, they live very isolated lives far from their families. Most re-settlers are doing some farming or gardening to supplement what their pensions and family members in Kyiv can provide.

My tour visited an elderly woman living alone in a remote area of the exclusion zone. While the situation seems ripe for exploitation, our guide knew the woman personally. We all chipped in a few dollars to purchase some staples like sugar and flour to bring to her. She was delighted to see us and brought out a bottles of homemade pickles and her own homemade, honey-infused vodka. It was delicious! (But keep in mind it is technically against the rules to eat or drink anything produced inside the one) She was pleased to have visitors since her family wasn’t due to visit again for several weeks.

Resources and Information

Further reading

SoloEast tour company

McClatchy DC: Ruined Chernobyl nuclear plant will remain a threat for 3,000 years (4/24/2016)
By former KC Star journalist Matt Schofield.

Washington Post: In Ukraine, a radioactive nuclear ghost town near Chernobyl is a hot destination (7/27/2017)

Wikivoyage Travel Guide to Chernobyl

More: All of my Chernobyl bookmarks

Movies and documentaries

This list of 6 films is a good place to start.

The Babushkas of Chernobyl, documentary about the women who have moved back into the exclusion zone to live out their days in their old villages and farms.

Chernobyl’s Cafe, documentary about the small cafe and hotel that recently opened to serve the military, cleanup workers, scientists, and tourists in the zone.

The Chernobyl Diaries, an awesomely bad horror movie about tourists stranded overnight in the exclusion zone.

YouTube playlist

I made this playlist of YouTube videos with info about visiting, about the nuclear accident, etc.



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🇺🇦Visiting Kyiv, Ukraine

I visited Kyiv (Kiev), Ukraine in October 2017 as part of a visit to the Chernobyl nuclear exclusion zone. I had little prior knowledge about it, but was pleasantly surprised to discover a beautiful city that I hope to someday return to for a proper exploration.

Kyiv is a beautiful city. It’s very walkable. The people are warm and welcoming. Ukraine is still a developing democracy, and the people seemed to determined to persist despite some big challenges. Here are the highlights of my experience in the city. Some of the better city guides are linked below.

Independence Square
The square or maidan is the main center of the city, and the site of two important series of protests where Ukrainians successfully acted to assert their desire for democracy and anti-corruption in the post-Soviet era. The first was the Orange Revolution in 2004. The second was the Euromaidan movement in 2014-15. The most recent one brought down the corrupt government, but resulted in 100-plus civilian deaths. Be sure to take some time understand the importance of Euromaidan and the people’s desire for closer ties to Europe. Check out the series of small memorials along Heroyiv Nebesnoyi Sotni Alley, where the Heavenly Hundred where shot from the bridge above.

Murals and street art.
Street art and large-scale murals are very popular in Kyiv. This app tracks the pieces and provides information about the artwork and the artist. The largest murals are on the left bank, across the Dnipro River from the city center, on the sides of the old Communist high rise apartment blocks. Several are wishing walking distance of 2-3 Metro red line stations.


Underground pedestrian passages and shopping
Many major street intersections have underground pedestrian passages for crossing the street. These underground areas have small shops, coffee stands, and even food courts. They seem very popular for locals running errands on their daily commutes. In can be disorienting and confusing to figure out which exit to use to emerge on the correct side of the street, but after some trial and error it becomes easier.

The Left Bank
Across the Dnipro River from the city center the Left Bank doesn’t have any traditional tourist sites or destinations. However, it is a good opportunity to see how many residents live the old Communist “micro-districts” of high rise apartment blocks, as well as an increasing number of new luxury high rises. Take the Metro red line out a few stops past the river and walk around. You’ll get a preview on the taxi ride in from the airport.

Hotel Salyut
I stayed in this old Soviet hotel with great Communist-era architecture. While the interior is a bit dated, it’s well-appointed and the service is good. Most rooms have balconies. Ask for an upper floor with view of the river. The restaurant doubles as a nightclub, and can be loud if your room is on a lower floor. There is a good continental breakfast. Expect to pay around $50/night. It’s about a 35 minute walk from Independence Square.

hotel salyut
Soviet-style Hotel Salyut. (Photo: TripAdvisor)

Other places to walk
An old bridge over the Dnipro has been re-purposed as a pedestrian bridge, which is a good place for views of the river and city. There are many trails to walk on the hillside between the city and the river.

Food and Drink
English menus seem to be fairly common. Restaurant service is very European – severs will leave you alone. You’ll need to wave them over if you need something, especially the check.

Syndicate Brewery has excellent beer and an excellent burnt end burger that rivals KC BBQ. Patrick Pub has a big range of traditional and modern food, including good seafood.

Silpo is a local supermarket chain that is totally modern and has good options prepared sandwiches and other things to go.

The metro is fast, safe, and convenient. It has classic soviet subway cars, and some stations are impressive works of art and architecture. It still uses old plastic subways tokens for €5 per trip. It’s easiest to buy them from the ticket counter, but self-service machines are available and somewhat usable. The new contactless card requires purchasing from a ticket booth where no English is spoken. Signage includes the Roman spelling of stations, and the on-board announcements are in both Ukrainian and English.

Taxi drivers can be aggressive, especially exiting the airport. Uber works really well, especially since you and the driver unlikely to speak the same language. UberX tends to be a little rough around the edges. It’s worth spending a little bit more on UberSelect, especially since the exchange is so favorable.

The airport is 30-45 minute Uber rider for under €10. There are three mobile networks selling SIM cards at arrivals. Turn left after leaving baggage claim and look along the back wall. ATM machine is opposite. Uber pickup – exit the terminal, turn right, and way a few hundred feet to the entrance/exit for terminal-side surface parking lot.

English is generally not spoken. As a former part of the Soviet Union, Russian is widely spoken. However, the government is now trying to promote Ukrainian. So language is a bit of a touchy subject. The culturally appropriate thing seems to be to start out with Ukrainian and let the local choose which language to continue.

Both Ukrainian and Russian use the Cyrillic alphabet, not the Roman alphabet of English and most European languages. Some signs have Roman transliterations, but it helps to spend time in advance learning the basics of Cyrillic alphabet so you can decode street signs and such. Use Google Translate to look up some basic phrases like “hello, thank you, toilet”, etc. and save them as favorites. You can also download the Russian and Ukrainian languages for offline translation.

Mobile data is still 3G across the whole country. Hotel and other public WiFi can be very spotty. Be sure to download an offline map of the city.

Crime seems very low. Many people, including families, were hanging out in dimly lit parks well into the night.

Ukraine is involved in an ongoing conflict with Russia in the eastern part fo the country, but the danger is far from Kyiv. There is a very visible presence of police and military around the city, but they are generally low-key about it. Military recruitment posters were common throughout the city. There were some peaceful anti-corruption demonstrations happening while I was there, but the only worry they caused was traffic congestion due to police cordon around the area.


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🇿🇦Visiting Cape Town, South Africa

I visited Cape Town for two weeks in May of 2016 and really enjoyed the city. The cityscape and vibe both have elements of Europe and San Francisco.

Where to Stay

The exchange rate means it’s very possible for Americans to find a nice hotel for $50-$75/night. Airbnb is common, though it is starting to displace lower income residents from previously affordable apartments.

City Bowl
There are several compact neighborhoods in the city center that are safe, walkable, and convenient to many attractions. I stayed in the Der Waterkant neighborhood, which had lots of bars, restaurants, coffee shops, and a small shopping center with an excellent Spar supermarket for basic supplies.

The coastal neighborhoods of Clifton, Camps Bay, and Hought Bay get you easy access to the beach, plus lots of food and drink options. The first two are a quick bus or Uber from the city, while the third is a bit further out.

Things to do

Table Mountain
Do this on the first clear day of your trip. The mountain is often covered in fog that rolls in unexpectedly, so you might not have many opportunities for this must see place. You hike up in a couple hours, or take the quick cable car. There is a cafe at the top, plus many walking trails and look-out points. Get some food and drink from the supermarket for a sunset picnic. Just be mindful of the last cable car off the mountain, or you will be hiking down in the dark.

Camps Bay
Seaside neighborhood with a nice beach, shops, and restaurants. Nice place to spend an afternoon, find some good seafood, etc. The boulders are especially fun for playing around.

Sea Point Promenade
Very nice coastal boardwalk for walking and biking.


Township Tour
See below why you should do this, and how you can do it responsibly and ethically.

The traditional safaris are all in the national parks on the eastern side of South Africa, and require a domestic flight and several days to visit. However, there are a few game reserves that give you a taste of the safari experience and get you up close to the big game like elephants, lions, giraffes, etc. I visited the Aquila preserve, about two hours outside Cape Town. In addition to the normal driving safari, they offer a very fund guided four wheeler safari that I highly recommend. They also offer options to stay overnight in the preserve, including a few places inside the wildlife fence!

Signal Hill
Another of big hills in the middle of the city. Drive to the top for easy hiking, great views, and parasailing over the Atlantic Ocean.

Emerging hipster neighborhood with the standard shops, restaurants, and breweries.

Victoria & Albert Waterfront
Besides a large shopping center, “the V&A” has the ferry terminal for visits to Robben Island (Nelson Mandela’s prison) plus cool things like catamaran tours of the harbor.

Comedy Club
There is a good comedy club at the V&A Waterfront. While the accents and vocabulary where sometimes challenging to understand, comedy was still a great way to get a different insight into local culture.


Poverty, race, and segregation

Even though the official segregation policy of Apartheid is long gone, it will take generations to overcome the segregation and spatial separation of the whites, blacks, and coloureds (a non-derogatory, socially acceptable term for Asian and mixed-race people). The city center and surrounding residential areas are mostly white or coloured, and are surrounded vast expanses of the former township areas for blacks.

The townships are slowing being improved with paved streets, formal housing, shopping centers and other services. However, there are still vast areas of informal settlements that are basically the shacks and slums you see on TV. Interestingly, in recent years young people and lower income whites are moving into the townships as high housing prices and gentrification pushes them out of the central neighborhoods.

Visiting the Townships
Do not miss the opportunity to see the other side the country’s vast wealth gap. Despite the poverty and lingering segregation, I was surprised how much commerce, culture, and entrepreneurship is happening in the townships. While you are completely free to go into the townships and they are safe to visit during the day, it’s best to join an organized group.

There a several township tours that are operated by residents and that bring revenue back to residents. Folks are incredibly nice, welcome visitors, and love to meet you.  Just be sure to research these in advance to avoid a tour that exploits the residents or treats them like exhibits in a zoo. Seek out opportunities to meet residents. The townships do have shops, crafts, and some basic cafes. I visited Langa and Khayelitsha.


The city is generally safe, but does require a lot of common sense. Most areas are totally safe to walk around during the day. There is a lot of panhandling and people trying to sell you things, but most are not aggressive if you politely say no or keep walking. It might be intimidating, but it’s harmless.

Pick pocketing and muggings can happen if you are walking alone late at night. The most common scam is people offering to help you at the ATM, then observing your PIN and running off with your card – be careful using ATMs. It’s not unusual to have cell phones stolen if you leave it sitting on your table in a bar or restaurant – put them away when they aren’t in your hand.

If you rent a car, never leave anything in the car, even if it is not visible. Thieves will take cheap stuff that might not seem valuable to you. Leave the glove compartment open so people know there is nothing inside. Unofficial parking lot attendants will ask you to pay them to watch your car. It’s easier to give them a few rand than risk having them mess with your car.

Tap water is safe at hotels and restaurants. HIV is still an epidemic across Africa, so be safe if you mingle with the locals.

If you head out of town you will see many people walking or hanging out along the highways. They are looking for informal carpools into the city to get to work. It might seem weird or alarming, but it is not dangerous to you.

English is a second language for most people, though vocabulary and mannerisms are more British than American. Whites and Coloreds (mixed race) often speak Afrikaans as their first language, it’s an offshoot of Dutch. Most Blacks in Cape Town are Khosa people and speak Khosan as their first language.

Local slang:

  • Braai – Barbecue. Grilling is a national pass time.
  • Bru – Bro, Dude, Mate – authentic, not cheesy
  • Robots – traffic lights
  • Hooters – horns or sirens


Cape Point National Park, Simon’s Town, Boulders Beach, Hought Bay
These sites are a great day trip just south of the city. Do it in a circular route to see both sides of the peninsula. Plan to spend a few hours at Cape Point hiking, visiting the lighthouse, and exploring the point. There multiple hikes available. Boulders Beach in Simon’s Town is where you can get up close with penguins – a very unique opportunity.

I visited this small town a couple hours outside the city, which is centered around an old Christian missionary center. There is good hiking in the foothills about the town. Next door is the town of Greyton, and antique and shopping destination.

I did not get to experience any of the wineries, but the Western Cape province is famous wine, including the native pinotage. Constantia is located in the city limits, but most are a good day trip to the east of the city in towns like Franschoek, Paarl, and Stellenbosch. There are many options for shuttles and tours to avoid getting a DUI or needed to rent a car.


The exchange for North American and European visitors is very favorable. A pint of beer in a good bar will be $1-2. An Uber ride within the city will be $4-5, and from the airport $10. Credit cards are widely accepted at stores and restaurants.

The City Bowl and close-in neighborhoods are very walkable. Uber is readily available and very cheap at current exchange rates. There is a new rapid bus system called MyCITI that links most of the central destinations. Commuter trains go further out, but can be very crowded. There is a lot mixed advise about whether or not the commuter trains are safe for visitors. The last few years they have been the target of protests, setting trains on fire, etc.

Pick & Pay is the local supermarket chain. The German chain Spar is a bit more posh. Most over the counter medicine is actually behind the counter. You have ask the pharmacist for things like sudafed, Benadryl, etc. On the plus side, Tylenol 3 (paracetamol with codeine) is available without a prescription.

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