Keeping up appearances: what a city owes its tourists

Credit: Postcard Farm at

Credit: Postcard Farm at

I’ll admit it; I’m shallow.  In some ways.  I find it difficult to take people who voluntarily go barefoot in public seriously.  I judge people who use SMS-language when we no longer pay per 160 characters, and I very quickly lose interest in movies starring unattractive people doing mundane things.  I suppose these inclinations spill over into my preferred travelling style.

When I invest the time and savings to go somewhere, I want that unspoiled white beach I saw on the postcard, and I expect to see a moustachioed Parisian whizzing by the Eiffel Tower on his bicycle, beret on head and baguette in basket.  I expect the smell of urine in alleyways and the sight of derelict buildings to be stuffed into the outskirts in preparation of my arrival – just as my floor-dwelling clothes, books and tsatskes are forced to become intimately acquainted with one another in an unsuspecting cupboard in the frenzy that precedes my receiving house guests.

Am I selfish as well as shallow?  Or is it not really too much to ask for a city to put on a bit of a show for the tourists who have made the effort to come visit?  These questions first occurred to me on my trip to Budapest a few months ago.  I’d been dying to go for some time, since first watching the magnificent film, Gloomy Sunday, set in 1940s Budapest.  I wanted the splendour, the culture, the macabre glamour advertised in the movie.  And I got these in abundance.

I watched a Danube sunset from the glorious Parliament Buildings, I sipped hot chocolate like a movie star at Café New York and I felt like a queen surveying the city from the majestic Fisherman’s Bastion.  I couldn’t, however, escape the grittier, soviet reality of Budapest.   Arriving in Pest, I was struck by the once grand, now almost foreboding, main train station, ugly communist apartment blocks juxtaposed with the beautiful but crumbling art nouveau buildings crowding the compact layout of the city, and Saturday afternoon streets eerily devoid of people.  The dull hue cast by the October sky made it even easier to imagine that I had been teleported to a grey, communist state.

Surprisingly, this contrast of impressions intrigued rather than repulsed me.  True travellers (who refuse to call themselves tourists because that’s too mainstream) may argue that experiencing a city, in the raw, visceral way that locals do, is superior to enjoying the conventional tourist attractions from the safe height of a red open-top bus.  But surely that’s only worthwhile if the locals’ daily grind is somehow noteworthy and different from one’s own, with the ability to impart valuable lessons and make life-long impressions – or else why travel thousands of kilometres just to replicate your boring everyday life somewhere else?

Budapest, it seems, has managed to get its offering right.  She can be the gorgeous, awe-inspiring belle of the ball, in full make-up and all composers, architecture and formidable history, or the worn down potato planter, without her face on or her hair did, and so real and raw and naked it’s almost embarrassing to look at her.  And both sides are equally proud to show themselves off to visitors.  There are, of course, the conventional river cruises, souvenir shops and traditional restaurants presenting gypsy dancing with your goulash – all of which completely enchanted me – but the people of Budapest have also managed to turn aspects of the city which others might try to sweep under the carpet, into attractions in themselves.  There are numerous free walking tours, hosted by volunteers, covering everything from life under communism to life in the Jewish ghetto.  The guides, locals who have been part of the city’s history and continue to observe its development today, give warts and all accounts of life influenced by communism and the fall thereof, contemporary economic turmoil, and a city that has been tossed around by the powers that be for longer than they care to contemplate.

Another example of a proverbial phoenix rising from the literal ashes is a 21st celebration of Budapest at its most vulnerable: the advent of the ruin pub phenomenon.  Instead of destroying or abandoning disused tenement houses and factories, locals embraced what others might have considered a source of embarrassment, filled them with rejected furniture and grandmothers’ antiques and turned them into some of the world’s trendiest nightlife spots.

Phoenix from the ashes: Szimpla Kert ruin pub in Budapest

Phoenix from the ashes: Szimpla Kert ruin pub in Budapest. 
Credit: daniel.edwins at

As always, I relate my experiences back to home.  Cape Town, despite being (in my opinion) the most beautiful city in the world, has a lot of imperfections that it would rather airbrush out of its touristic image.  I do strongly believe that the city has the responsibility to show its tourists a good time, make them forget their problems in Mother City magic, and ensure that they come back, bringing their friends with them.  But as much as I advocate making the most of our best assets – the beaches, the mountains, the world-class restaurants – I wonder whether we could appeal to a wider audience by putting our quirks on display as well.  We have the township tours and Mzoli’s, but surely there is scope for more involvement of everyday Capetonians…what about shopping tours down Long Street, or ancestral visits to the BoKaap?

When one hears phrases like “the real Cape Town”, images of the Numbers Gangs or the Gini coefficient may be conjured up by the more cynical parts of our minds.  The reality is that the city is not perfect yet, but a lot of passionate people are putting a lot of effort into getting it there – first for its inhabitants, and for its visitors as a secondary effect.  The serious travellers may want to see the ‘real’ city, the crime, grime and poverty, but there is no reason not to construct something positive out of this interest.  Mariette du Toit-Helmbod, CEO of Cape Town Tourism wisely proclaimed in her article for that “to be a great place to visit, we must first and foremost be a great place to live”.

There is no need to target one type of tourist over another; holidaymakers looking for a luxurious and relaxing escape are entitled to enjoy a bit of a façade as much as students wanting to change the world are welcome to get their hands dirty and contribute to Africa in their own way.  And the rest of us, who see their future against a backdrop of Table Mountain, will welcome them all with open arms, until the ‘real’ Cape Town and the Cape Town of postcards are one in the same.



About Pamela Hellig

Proud Paarlite, Capetonian and South African on a London sojourn. Actuary by day, actuary by night, but a weekend epicurean through and through.

There are 7 comments

  1. Luke

    As an architectural student and a lover of all things Cape Town, you have truly inspired me to contribute greatly to the built environment with you final statement: ”until the ‘real’ Cape Town and the Cape Town of postcards are one in the same.”
    Currently living in Namibia and hearing/seeing the ”real” Cape town on the news daily. It is important to look past it all and strive to create the city we all see on the post cards, the city we WANT to live in and not only HAVE to live in.

    1. Pamela Hellig

      Thanks for your comment, Luke. I agree – it’s almost as if there’s a tax (in addition to the corporate ‘mountain tax’) on living in such a special city: contributing to maintaining and improving it. You, as an architect, will be able to physically build what you want Cape Town to be. While you design the buildings, people like me can contribute by working, living and spending money in them!

  2. Brad Baard

    Pamela, this makes me think Cape Town could really use some ‘in the street’ walkabouts, like those happening in Joburg “Walk through an African City JOBURG” and some of the historical & culinary walking explorations I’ve heard Ishvara Dhyan operates in Joburg’s Chinatown and Lenasia. Does Iain Harris do something similar in Cape Town? Walking a neighbourhood is the key IMO.

    1. Pamela Hellig

      Exactly, @facebook-629279664:disqus. I think walking tours are such a low maintenance and green way to add a new dimension to a city’s attractions – especially if they can be offered for free (with guides being paid in tips). Because of their flexibility, there’s a possibility of presenting a variety of tours to suit all tastes, from history to food to fashion to nature. Walking a neighbourhood also allows inhabitants to ‘take back’ streets that were considered untrendy or unsafe. Maybe Rashiq (FTC) can provide more info on happenings in Cape Town – I know he’s presented a few walking tours himself.


        Hi Brad and Pam.

        We are actually working on a tour like this at the moment, which will use aspects of the CBD e.g. spaces, transport, tall buildings, to provide perspectives on liveabiity challenges and opportunities in Cape Town. After learning from this, a good idea would then be to expand for World Design Capital 2014.

        Iain Harris already runs many awesome tours, including Bo Kaap, Princess Vlei, and many others.

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