The thing about me and safaris is that I don’t do them. I have too much respect for lions (and the animals they routinely devour) to ever want to be in the same enclosed space as one. So, me heart your safari pics, but won’t be taking any of my own.
When I announced that my sister, two of her friends and I would be descending upon South Africa for a week, you can guess what the first question was. And while lots of people visit the country (and other African tourist destinations) to see the wildlife and biodiversity, I wanted to see the people. I wanted to get to know Africa’s most developed country as a semi-local—sampling the food, shopping the boutiques, enjoying the wine and frolicking in the ocean.
the squad, posing in the blipster heaven that is braamfontein
And eat, drink, frolic and explore we did. There was so much to check out, unpack and enjoy that I felt overwhelmed by the trip for weeks after. (Case in point: I’m writing this blog in
May June August. We took our trip in February.) So my first piece of advice, especially for African-American travelers, is prepare for the emotional weight of visiting this country. It’s beautiful and developed and progressive in its way, but the violent and devastating history (and present) of racism hangs in the air like a stinky musk. More on that as we go along.
Here is South Africa, sans safari.
Neighborhoods to See
[me, getting my whole entire life in front of post.]
Braamfontein: Say it with me: blipster heaven. This was the first neighborhood we explored in Johannesburg, and it did not disappoint. From the cute little boutiques where I scored gorgeous Kenyan-printed clutches in bright colors, to the juicery where we loaded up on African chocolate to the scores of cafes and restaurants, we really enjoyed our time here, and made sure to return before we left.
[braamfontein giving me new orleans vibes]
Maboneng: On a recommendation by our hotel staff, we checked out the arts and business hub that is the Maboneng district in Johannesburg. Although it was past dinner time, the restaurants on this strip were jumping on the evening we visited. Offering food from everywhere from Ethiopia to Argentina, we settled on Japanese and had a really nice meal on a cute (if not a little frightening) elevated patio. We drove past this area a couple of times in the daylight before we left and the Instagram-worthiness is unreal. Artful graffiti and interesting structures galore, I only regret not getting the chance to explore this place when the sun was out.
[this cool mandela mural is actually located in braamfontein as well.]
Sandton: To be fair, we didn’t fully explore this affluent area of Joburg, but we did have the best meal of our trip in this neighborhood. (See the “Must Eats” below for deets on the food.) As it always is, after we’d left our amazing meal behind and were well on our way to Cape Town, we realized there are a few attractions in this part of town, like a Nelson Mandela statue and a shopping center.
[the paradise that is camps bay beach]
Camps Bay: This was the neighborhood we explored most in Cape Town, which you should definitely make time to visit if you fly into Johannesburg. We found a great rental home in this area, and set up shop. It’s minutes away from the beach and some of the best seafood restaurants ever in the history of the world. If you’re not a fan of the beach and beach-associated businesses, you won’t like this neighborhood, as that’s pretty much all there is to do. But, the beach is so gorgeous and the sea fare is so delicious that you won’t mind spending a day or two lounging around this place.
[the view from our camps bay house. seriously.]
Blackanese, 20 Kruger Street, Maboneng Precinct, Johannesburg: This was the first meal we ate in Johannesburg and it was everything. Between the four of us, we ordered tons of sushi and prawn, all of which was really tasty. The atmosphere was amazing on the (tiny) outdoor patio, music floating up from below and the smoke from the grill where our food was prepared right below us. The service was also fantastic.
[sip, sippin on the coffee at post]
Post Breakfast Lunch, 70 Juta Street, Braamfontein, Johannesburg: In the aforementioned Braamfontein, we found this gem of a coffee and light bites spot. Inexpensive, impossibly cool and featuring an outdoor eating area that’s connected to three or four of the clothing boutiques I mentioned, this was the perfect brunch locale on our first full day in Jozi.
The Smokehouse, 73 Juta Street, Johannesburg, Braamfontein: We returned to our beloved Braamfontein for lunch after a day of fabric shopping. Now, this place bills itself as “Southern-style” BBQ, which obviously is just not to be had outside of the American South. (This Texan has learned this the hard, unflavored way.) But, this is a nice place for burgers, sandwiches, fries and fruity drinks. They also have a great selection of domestic beers, none of which I really liked, but was happy that I was able to try.
[look at the wood paneling on the menus! that’s how you KNOW it’s authentic.]
Bull Run Restaurant, 20 Maude Street, Sandton, Johannesburg: Pants-down, the best meal we had in Jozi. Great, traditional steakhouse fare with a sick list of South African wines, any of which are pretty amazing. We sampled the local wine at nearly every restaurant and never tasted anything that wasn’t uber-delicious. Again, great service and ridunkulously affordable prices (if you’re converting from U.S. dollars).
Codfather, 37 The Drive, Camps Bay, Cape Town: This unreal sushi and seafood restaurant happened to be about a mile away from our rental house, and that’s the sole reason we chose to visit. Little did we know, this is the most reviewed restaurant in Africa on TripAdvisor (according to their website) and super, super delicious. You pick from a display of humongous fish, pay by the pound and get a plate of veggies to eat the chosen fish with. Same goes for the sushi. All of it is really simple, uncomplicated, fresh and really tasty. We raved about this meal before, during and after consuming, and weeks and weeks later, the way a really great meal should be.
Attractions to See (and Some to Skip)
Apartheid Museum: So, this is where it gets hard. Especially as a diasphoric Black person. Especially as a Black woman in the throngs of deadly white supremacy here in the States. Visiting this museum was hard. One of the hardest things I’ve ever done. From beginning to end, and long after. It’s an important lesson, especially for white people, but it’s one that I know viscerally and cerebrally as a Black person. If I had to do it all over again, I don’t know if I would have chosen to visit this place on vacation. So, proceed at your own risk.
[how do you pose in front of a museum like this? me, awkwardly trying to figure it out.]
Mandela House: We visited this museum, along with the Apartheid Museum, as a part of a Soweto tour, which is a tour of the region of Johannesburg that Black and colored people (there’s a distinction in South Africa) were pushed into during apartheid. It’s a tiny house with lots of history for the Mandela family, and it was much less gut-wrenching than the museum.
[the house of Bishop Desmond Tutu isn’t officially a museum, but you can see the outside during the Soweto tour]
Soweto Tour: I initially had no interest in this tour. I find it weird, not to mention wildly disrespectful, to “tour” neighborhoods of Black people. It galled me the summer I lived in Harlem to see tour groups flooding historically Black churches as if they were museums and not a places of worship. I get that Black history and Black neighborhoods and the history of “progress” are forever intertwined, but there has to be a better way to show and celebrate that than simply gawking at people in their neighborhood.
I researched Soweto tours a bit before we left, and decided that since we weren’t simply riding around the neighborhood and taking pictures, that I wanted to participate. The tour includes two museums, a meal of traditional South African food (our food was cold, so I didn’t mention it in the “Must Eats”) and a visit to the Regina Mundi church. As a Black person, I think this tour is definitely a “if you’re emotionally ready,” not a “must-see” experience.
Table Mountain: One word: terrifying. You ride up this super-high mountain in a glass cable car full of other tourists, all the while praying the wires used to hold you up are ready for the task. But, once you get to the top, it’s electrifying. It’s a gorgeous view of Cape Town (and probably much further out) with lots of rocks and little mountain creatures to keep you company.
[gorgeous V&A Waterfront]
V&A Waterfront: A great little community of restaurants and shops in Cape Town, I lived for the food court area where everything from sushi to ice cream could be procured, along with cute little trinkets like African olive oil and black soaps.