While for many a trip to South Africa is a once-in-a-lifetime exploration of a safari camp, the vibrant culture and food scene of this country should make it a hot spot to frequently visit (with or without a safari pit-stop). And Washington, D.C. metro residents have it particularly easy when it comes to the long-haul 17 to 19-hour flight to Johannesburg since South African Airways offers a nearly non-stop service from Dulles International Airport – a short refueling – at a cost of $1,235.
Once landed in South Africa, it’s fairly easy to pinch pennies and use the leftover money not spent on airfare on American standard “luxury” hotels and restaurants, which due to the exchange rate in South Africa, are truly affordable. Consider both of the most popular cities of Johannesburg and Cape Town.
The political heart of South Africa is the rather formal Johannesburg. While staying at an upscale hotel like The Maslow Hotel in D.C. would run upwards of $600, in Johannesburg you can stay at this hotel for a fraction of the cost. Please note the insane eight shower head (rain shower), plus dual shower heads down three rows in the suites. After a 19-hour flight, for a mere $50 more a night, few things ease jetlag as much as this kind of shower.
Of course, the close proximity of this hotel to most of the traditional tourist stops in Johannesburg is lovely, but it’s the pulsating and fresh Maboneng Township Arts Experience which really makes the Johannesburg experience pop. Small business owners have transformed this formerly industrial space to showcase artists who may not be able to take their art into more traditional venues.
Furthermore, the U.S. friendly exchange rate makes anything super “cheap” for Americans but no-less-amazing. Everything from $7 handcrafted earrings to $10 woven dresses and, of course, an abundance of food for an average of $5 or less for a sky-high, hot plate. The main building is set up in a free-for-all, farmer’s market kind of feel (think Union Market but cooler, more packed and with better industrial chic interiors) with an exposed courtyard in the center. So meander and then grab a bite, sit and drink a locale beer such as from Clarens Brewery, before starting the whole process all over again.
However, for me personally, all of Cape Town has the feel of Maboneng. The vibe in the city is fresh with possibilities with many more young people who are keenly cultured. And, above all of Cape Town, is the breathtaking new Seventh Wonder of The World: Table Mountain. Climb a few flights before boarding a cable car to the top where you can see the entire scene of Cape Town below you. Or hide away in the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden, one of the great botanic gardens of the world with the eastern slopes of Table Mountain also in view.
After enjoying these two venues, with a nominal entry fee, be sure to head over to the Woodstock Street arts area. Home to one of the world’s largest collection of graffiti, the art itself has become very formalized to the point where there is even a formal graffiti arts program.
Then walk a few blocks over to Old Biscuit Mill + Goodman Gallery where there is plenty of shopping, almost all of which are exclusively locally made. However, whatever you do, if you make it to Cape Town you have to eat at The Kitchen.
Not to be confused with the Michelin-starred restaurant “Kitchen,” The Kitchen is a bustling, small neighborhood eatery in the heart of Woodstock. Famous for their fresh informal food, basically huge platters of different kinds of salads. Individuals can choose between three to five of these salads for a plate, along with hummus and other dressings. To say the salad ingredients are fresh would be a mild understatement. All the vegetables jumped with flavor and complexity. I literally ate a plate-and-half and then ordered more. Plus, I bought the cookbook. And then I bought the other cookbook. I’ve never done that in a restaurant in my entire life so that’s really saying something.
While it’s never easy to travel the world on a budget, and while South Africa is not a place one would normally consider to be budget friendly, it is possible to fly over and see two great cities on the cheap particularly if you focus on the local art scene as well as the natural wonders of South Africa. Also, if you have to do a safari, Tangala Safari Camp is a budget-friendly safari.