Why isn't Cape Town a more popular digital nomad destination?
Cape Town has Southern California-esque weather, world-class bang-for-your-buck food, drink, and accommodation, an easy-to-integrate-into culture, and enough outdoor adventure to keep Sean O'Connell from The Secret Life of Walter Mitty busy for years.
So why isn't it more renowned as a digital nomad destination?
A fellow foreign Cape Town fanatic and I recently wondered this as we slurped $8 US bowls of handmade Biang Biang noodles in a hipster, open-aired restaurant on a happening strip in the city, two blocks from the sea. This was her second go-around down here. It was my fourth-straight six-month South African stint.
If this restaurant were in Chiang Mai, Bali, Lisbon, or Medellin, the tables around us would be teeming with fellow digital nomads. Why were we the only ones?
We couldn't put our fingers on it.
Well, my fingers tend to find answers best when typing. So here's my attempt to answer.
Rating Cape Town's Digital Nomad Destination Credentials
To assess Cape Town's potential as a digital nomad destination, I scoured the web to compile the criteria that seem to matter most to remote workers.
Then I subjectively ranked them from best—i.e., "Every digital nomad will love Cape Town for this"—to worst—i.e., "This justifiably would turn off a lot of potential remote workers."
Isn't Cape Town already a popular digital nomad destination?
As I write this, Nomad List ranks Cape Town tenth in the world. Doesn't that mean it's already on the pantheon of digital nomad hotspots?
I don't know.
Cape Town feels very different from Medellin, where my wife Kim and I lived for six months.
Colombia's "City of Eternal Spring" had so much going on for remote workers that it may as well have been called the "City of Eternal Digital Nomad Meetup."
South Africa's "Mother City," on the other hand, makes us feel lacking in digital nomad family.
But maybe we're out of the loop. We're in our thirties with a toddler, after all.
So I thought it'd be interesting to compare the size and activities of various destinations' Digital Nomad Facebook groups:
- Cape Town Digital Nomads: 4.8k members, 123 posts in the past month
- Medellin Digital Nomads: 10.2k members, 267 posts in the past month
- Bali Digital Nomads: 13.6k members, 423 posts
- Lisbon Digital Nomads and Expats: 29k members, 196 posts
- Chiang Mai Digital Nomads: 34.6k members, 101 posts
- Tbilisi: 6.8k members, 270 posts
- Playa del Carmen and Tulum: 3.2k members, 246 posts
- Canary Islands Digital Nomads & Remote Workers: 10.9k members, 182 posts
Cape Town holds up better than I thought. So maybe I'm wrong. Or maybe this rough analysis tells us nothing. Oh well. I thought it was interesting enough to share.
Cape Town's Huge Positives
✓ Value for Money
I like to say Cape Town allows us to live a 5-star lifestyle on a 3-star budget. Some examples:
- A bottle of wine with a 4.0+ Vivino rating costs about $12 US at the store and $25 at a restaurant.
- A farm-to-table set-menu meal on a luxury wine farm, like this, costs $25 US.
- Our two-bedroom apartment in a prime location with modern Smeg appliances, fiber internet, and a garden big enough to host 10+ people costs $1,300 a month to rent.
- We pay $27 a day (8am to 5pm) for a nanny to look after Zac and do domestic work.
- A 15-minute Uber ride, which gets me from one end of Cape Town's compact city center to the other, costs $5 US.
- Cocktails at one of the city's most happening bars, such as Café Caprice, are $6 to $9 US.
- One night at our favorite getaway destination, a luxury private cottage with dipping pool surrounded by an olive grove, with a garden we can make our own salads from, and within walking distance of a quaint town with great food is $96 a night.
This last point brings me to The Mother City's next super sexy trait:
✓ Get-Out-Of-Town Appeal
Before first coming to Cape Town, I'd heard rumblings of wine farms, hiking, beaches, and shark cave diving. Now that I've experienced what Cape Town's surrounds have to offer, I think those rumblings should be a roar:
- The scenery is "stunning," to use a word overused by South Africans. And to use a global cliché, it truly has to be seen to be believed.
- Within a day trip's distance are hundreds of immaculate wine estates where you can taste unhealthy amounts of fine wine for a few bucks. (I didn't care about wine before coming to Cape Town; now, it's one of the city's biggest draws for me.)
- The variety of topography and geography. There are game drives, deserts, forests, mountains, sand dunes, beach resorts, and even a ski hut, all within a weekend road trip. (And road trips in South Africa are safe and highly recommended.)
- The countryside is littered with designer rural cottages with pools, damns, or wood-fired hot tubs that make for glorious getaways from the city.
- Ocean activities like surfing, Oscar-worthy free diving, kite surfing, fishing, whale watching, abalone poaching, and beach volleyball-ing abound along the coastline.
- Day and overnight hiking in protected parks amongst the Cape Floral Kingdom's fynbos—more diverse than the Amazon!—in every direction and world-class bouldering and climbing in the Cedarberg Rocklands.
- There are handfuls of charming smaller towns to visit like Hermanus, Montagu, Greyton, McGregor, and Riebeeck Kasteel—many with happening weekend markets.
Cape Town's got festivals, concerts, events, parties, and markets going on all the time.
The city is especially happening during the summer season (November through March-ish). It's "model season," so beautiful young people come from all over the world to pursue lucrative gigs on shoots for European and American brands. And when they're not at casting calls, they're prancing around at festivals and regular parties at places like Cape Caprice, La Parada, and The Lawns.
For better and for worse, as I've said, there aren't many digital nomads to ugly up those spots yet.
Every month's First Thursday is a street party downtown. And on the weekends are markets like Orajezicht, Neighborgoods.
I also strongly endorse everyone coming to Cape Town head to Rands in Khayelitsha for tshisa nyama, sheesha, drinks, and dancing to a DJ.
The dining options are as varied and sophisticated (and hipster) as in any big American city, but with European class and African prices.
Check out my only-slightly-dated Cape Town restaurant picks post for more detail.
As for cooking at home, the ease of access, variety, and quality of ingredients in Cape Town is about the same as in Vancouver, and maybe slightly cheaper. So it's nothing special, but nothing terrible either.
From our limited experience during Kim's pregnancy and what others have told us, Cape Town's private hospitals and healthcare workers are top-notch. Because of this, medical tourism is reported to be one of the country's fastest-growing industries.
✓ Diversity Friendliness
Demographically speaking, I'm a plain vanilla guy, so I'm not the right person to judge this.
But I also don't mind spicing things up, even if that means accidentally offending people with my well-intended opinions, so I'll try.
Based on what I see and what people of non-vanilla flavors tell me, Cape Town's as welcoming as a West Coast American city.
For instance, it's one of the world's gay-friendly capitals. And while the lines of segregation are quite literally black and white (and Coloured), especially outside of the city center, inside the higher-income circles and spots we digital nomads bounce around in, everyone's more than welcome.
Regarding race, specifically, resentment remains strong in politics, but we don't see or feel it in day-to-day life. If anything, people try extra hard to look past it and get along. There's also a refreshing lack of pussyfooting about the history and differences between the mix of cultures in the country. I recommend going to a comedy club to see what I mean. And maybe start by watching some of these Nando's Chicken ads:
While English is most people in Cape Town's second language, almost everyone you meet speaks it with ease—just like the level English fluency in the global digital nomad community.
On Par With Other Digital Nomad Destinations
Cape Town is the same number of degrees south of the equator, 34, as Los Angeles is to its north. And the weather is similarly temperate. Because of this, few apartments have heating or air conditioning.
A fan is all we ever need in the summer (November through March). Temperatures are moderated by the freezing cold Atlantic ocean, and the weather is dry and breezy, with an occasional blow-your-patio-furniture-off-the-patio "Cape Doctor" wind.
Winters (May through September) can get rough. Even though during Cape Town's coldest month, July, the average high is 17C/64F and the average low is 7C/45F, it can feel frigid because there is no central heating. There's less wind and precipitation on 30 to 40% of days.
⁃ Places to Work
There are WiFi cafés in every Cape Town neighborhood and always tables available to set up shop on. Some are fancy spots run by cool young trust-fund baby Capetonians. Others are corporate chains, notably Bootlegger, which have reliable internet and generators for load shedding (see: Modern Conveniences below).
I don't use a co-working space, so I can't add any insight on top of what you'll find with a Google Maps search: There are multiple options that my friends are happy with.
⁃ No Need for a Car
Even with a baby, we've managed to get by easily without a car in Cape Town. Ubers are abundant and cheap, the buses along the Atlantic Seaboard are frequent enough to be useful, and rental cars are inexpensive for road trips and weekend getaways.
That said, most digital nomads we've met rent cars for the whole time they're in Cape Town. And no Capetonian I know doesn't own a car.
Part of that's because there is so much adventure within a gas tank's reach. Not having a car is kind of like buying tickets for an amazing fair, but not spending a bit extra to have unlimited access to all the rides.
While Cape Town benefits from direct flights from the US and Europe,
- They're super long flights, and
- The city's at the end of the line, so unlike other digital nomad hubs like Lisbon, Bali, Bangkok, or Medellin, you can't continue flying from there to other places.
Plus, South Africa's major hub airport is in Johannesburg, so there are far fewer flights.
Word is South Africa's working on introducing a remote working visa. That would be huge for piquing interest among the digital nomad networks and creating a core of "resident nomads" to help a stronger community take root.
Until then, we settle for three-month visitor visas, which are automatically granted to most nationalities upon arrival.
As I write this, I'm at Ground Art Café. The speed is 6.98 Mbps down and 13.98 Mbps up. That's pretty typical for cafés around here. And that marks a significant improvement over a few years ago, when many cafés limited you to 200Mb at snail speeds.
So the internet situation is improving. And Cape Town calls itself a tech startup hub, so if you need super high-speed internet, you can get it. It's just not as abundant as elsewhere, especially during load shedding.
A fifteen-minute Uber ride will get you from one side to the other of the parts of Cape Town where most digital nomads spend their time. So in this regard, it's a conveniently compact city.
The reason I'm listing compactness as a con is that Cape Town lacks a central digital nomad ghetto like El Poblado in Medellin, Ruzafa in Valencia, or Santos in Lisbon. So there's no hub of remote working activity, businesses that cater to us, and events.
I suspect this is because of the lack of language and cultural barriers. Remote workers get diluted into local society here and end up mostly befriending South Africans. This is fine for longer-dwelling nomads like me, but makes Cape Town tougher to settle into.
❌ Modern Conveniences
If it weren't for load shedding, I'd say Cape Town is among the top digital nomad destinations on this criterion. The city has all the global apps like Uber and local ones like Take-A-Lot (South Africa's Amazon wannabe), Mr. D's Delivery, SnapScan (for QR code payments), and grocery delivery from all the major chains plus local farms.
But then there's load shedding.
Load shedding is such an un-modern inconvenience that it sinks Cape Town to the bottom relative to other digital nomad destinations. These rolling blackouts deprive different areas of the city of electricity at 2.5 hours intervals throughout the day and night.
During the summer tourist season (December through early February), load shedding tends to be lighter. It can even disappear for a month or more.
At its worst, from our experience, it went on daily for a couple of weeks straight.
Normally, the blackouts are scheduled, so you can plan for them by ensuring your phone's fully charged and ready to hotspot. But sometimes they surprise us and leave us with no choice but to do internet-free Deep Work until our batteries are empty.
Like it is for most digital nomads thinking of coming to Cape Town, the lack of safety concerned Kim and me. And nothing upon our arrival assuaged those concerns:
- The corrugated metal township of Langa outside the airport alerted us of the crime-breeding inequality.
- The electric fences of houses in the Woodstock and Vredehoek neighborhoods warned us that you don't want to be the least-secure link.
- On the city center street our Airbnb was on, security guards outnumbered pedestrians.
- Our first night, after celebrating the First Thursday street celebration, we made a wrong turn down a dark street and felt like fat seals swimming across a great-white-infested bay.
But we had no incidents.
And we soon relocated to the Sea Point neighborhood, which felt much more relaxed. People walk around with their heads buried in their phones—something we wouldn't dare do in Medellin. You also don't feel the same, "Hey, where'd my phone/wallet/laptop go?!" sticky-fingered fear like Barcelona or Buenos Aires are famous for.
Safety in Cape Town is kind of like being Will Smith in I Am Legend. During the day, we feel free to go about our merry way so long as we avoid dark places. But at night, we hunker down, ensuring all doors and windows are locked and taking door-to-door Ubers everywhere except on busy, lighted streets.
This doesn't affect Kim and my life much. Our idea of a wild time is hosting blind taste test dinner parties with friends. Depending on your lifestyle and natural levels of paranoia/carelessness, your experience may be quite different.
All things considered, safety in Cape Town is a way bigger concern than we'd like it to be. But for us and the vast majority of people we know, it's a price of admission well worth paying to enjoy everything the city offers.
After breaking down Cape Town's bona fides as best I could, I now see why it doesn't deserve a spot atop the world's digital nomad destinations.
The weather's not as year-round perfect as in Southeast Asia or Latin America, crime will continue to be a fear, and the internet infrastructure can be infuriating, especially during load shedding.
Even so, for people like Kim and me and the few nomads we've met in Cape Town, it's a magical place to keep coming back to.
I just hope something I've shared here helps you decide.
I'm here to help.
I want Cape Town to grow as a digital nomad destination, so even though I'm not the coolest guy or best connector out there, if you're coming to town between October and April and want to meet someone, get in touch. I'll help you feel welcome.
Also, I want this guide to be as helpful as possible, so let me know any other questions you have—or, if you've spent time digital nomading in Cape Town, any disagreements.