Cape Town vs. Rio de Janeiro: A travel guide to the twin cities

In August 2016, my boyfriend and I relocated to Cape Town immediately after visiting the 2016 Olympics hosted in Rio De Janeiro. The quick transition between the two cities highlighted the many similarities that each city shares with one another.

We are an Australian couple who love Summer and visiting tropical places that offer everything from sun, beach, mountains to bars, restaurants and a quirky live music scene. This is a travel guide to Cape Town and Rio De Janeiro through a four category comparison; local hangouts, eat and drink, a dark history and natural beauty.

Cape Town, affectionately known as The Mother City, is one of South Africa’s three capital cities, a country home to a whopping 11 official languages. This melting pot of ethnicity, along with its dark history, has transformed Cape Town into an awe inspiring creative capital of the world. Once Nelson Mandela stepped foot onto Cape Town’s soil after spending 27 years in prison, freedom begun and ascended into the rest of South Africa. Locals whether Black, White, Asian, Indian or Coloured, feel deeply about their country and artistic expression has flourished.

Mother nature has created Table Mountain to put you under her spell. She is known to blow a cloudy potion known as the ‘table cloth’ that drapes perfectly over the mountain. The potions effects can only be explained once you enter this divine city. Awaken those senses with unique culinary experiences, mountain meets ocean scenery and bustling brightly coloured neighbourhoods.

Cape Town travel guide

Rio De Janeiro, commonly known as The Marvelous city, or what we like to call it, Cape Town on steroids, is a city that oozes ethnic diversity. With a nation having the second largest African population following Nigeria, it is needless to say that the African culture and people play an important role in the culmination of what the city is today. Music and rhythm are pumped into your bloodstream from the minute you enter the fold. From romantic melodies, street funk drumming to hip hop; there’s an energy few places can compare. The city’s vibrant and turbulent energy flows between lush forested mountains, fairytale gardens, white sandy beaches and a nightlife to tickle any fancy.

Rio De Janeiro travel guide

Local hangouts/nightlife

Cape Town

 Nightlife hotspots are spread across three vibrant streets boasting three different styles.

  1. Kloof Street: Yours Truly bar and restaurant, attached to the Once in Cape Town Hostel, is a hangout for backpacker revellers and locals alike. This is a popular starting and end point for many African overland safari tour groups. This café by day and beer garden by night has a super cool ambience and has recently become a hub for the local music scene showcased on their rooftop bar UP YOURS.
  2. Bree Street: This street is now Cape Town’s most happening with specialty and new concept restaurants and bars popping up along this strip. First Thursdays (aptly named for the once-a-month event) can somewhat compare to Rio’s street party vibes, where bars and restaurants spill out onto the pavement. Restaurants along Bree Street offer their own street eat options while local musicians belt out their beats onto a lively crowd. Don’t forget to walk around with a glass of wine pretending you can afford the unique pieces of artwork on display in the many bars, galleries and open spaces.

    First Thursdays

    First Thursdays street vibes

  3. Long Street: The spiritual home of the South African ‘jol’ (South African slang for party). A night out in Long Street will sure be a night to remember, or forget. Walk along the bustling street passing locals performing Xhosa drumming shows, smoke bellowing out of shisha bars above and feel the base echo from every venue on this chaotic street. There are an endless glut of bars and restaurants that will cater to any social class.

Rio De Janeiro

This city is a sprawling metropolis with most bars and street vendors spread between the developed areas of Copacabana, Ipanema and Lapa.

  1. ‘I Hate Mondays’ is a local club experience in Copacabana. When the club on a Monday closes at 5am, everyone spills out onto the street. The DJs lead the way to the beach with a boom box in one hand and a cooler box filled with free beers in the other – just in time for sunrise.
  2. Bar Urca, a Carioca family owned bar and restaurant that opened sometime in the 1930’s is set on Urca’s bayside waterfront underneath Sugar Loaf mountain. In the evening, young and old Cariocas crowd along the bayside wall to enjoy Brazilian beers, Caipirinhas in a wide range of fruits (I can’t go past strawberry) accompanied with salivating finger food. Try the ‘frango coxinhas’ (chicken croquettes), or what we like to call them ‘frango dollops’. This food can best be described as fried and crispy on the outside, following with a doughy layer and shredded meat for the climax. Look up to see the big man looking over you!
  3. Lapa, in all its glory is Rio’s street party mecca. Attracting tourists and locals, this bohemian suburb is Rio’s historical city centre. You’ll find yourself in a crowd weaving the streets between bars, corner restaurants and finishing up in a timely manner for breakfast. Check out Bar da Cachaça for the most authentic street bar vibes.
  4. Favela Funk parties are not for the faint-hearted. They are synonymous with booty popping and non-stop pounding beats. These range from organised warehouse parties to pop-up street parties where girls bounce to the unique favela funk genre. Best to go with locals, as some of these areas are still unstable.

Eat & Drink 

Cape Town

  1. Mzoli’s place (township experience) was created to encourage the integration of all races and walks of life through merely the sharing of meat.  Situated in Gugulethu Township 20 mins out of the CBD, people congregate to purchase meat from Mzoli’s butchery, have it braai’d, buy some beers and dance to pumping house music by local DJs. Tourists, families and young party goers regress to cavemen mentality as they rip apart meat with their hands smothered in a secret sauce. This is as authentic as Cape Town gets.
    Mzoli's Place- Cape Town travel

    Mzoli’s Place

    Mzoli's Place- Cape Town Travel

    Mzoli’s Place

  2. Tuck in at Moyo Restaurant in the Kirschenbosch Gardens for a Sunday feed. They put on an all time African braai and buffet from game meats to gourmet cheese boards. This national garden is acclaimed to be one of the greatest botanic gardens in the world and one of the best picnic spots rated by National Geographic Magazine. If it couldn’t get any better, you can also pick up a gourmet picnic box from Moyo and enjoy the dramatic scenery from a picnic rug. If you’re here in summer, check out the Kirstenbosch Summer set concerts too.
  3.  Bombay Bicycle Club is an innovative and intimate restaurant and bar that will welcome you with a bang, sharing an on the house tequila shot with you if you come on a good night. The walls are filled with bohemian artefacts from every corner of the earth. Be careful not to fall off your swing, as their ‘happy hour’ is from 10pm- midnight.

Rio De Janeiro 

  1. If you’re seeking a Brazilian BBQ, make your way to a Churrasco buffet called Fogo de Chão. Feed your soul with an upmarket gaucho feed where the wait staff overflow your plate with an assortment of sliced meats. Situated on the water in Botafogo, book your table on the deck for spectacular views of Sugar Loaf Mountain while overlooking the ocean. Be strategic with your meat eating so you can also pack away food from the extensive salad bar.

    Fogo De Chao- Rio De Janeiro restaurant

    Brazilian BBQ at Fogo De Chao

  2. For some cheap and authentic street food head to the Lapa arches. Here you can feast on super cheap meat skewers, corn on a cob, kebabs, rice dishes and quench your thirst with local beers and their lethal cocktail, Caipirinhas. If you’re a little loco and the Caipirinhas are not lethal enough, just ask for a top up ;).


    Lapa arches

  3. Spend an entire day chilling on Copacabana or Ipanema beach while indulging in the tasty treats that come your way. You can’t go home without tasting the unique flavour of the acai berry. Icy, musky and sweet, it’s the perfect way to cool down. Grilled prawn kebabs, acai bowls, roasted nuts, local tea, vegetable and meat pastries, cocktails and beers – you name it. Who would of thought a day at the beach could get so damn tasty? 

A Dark History

Cape Town

Cape Town’s most significant influences come from the Dutch and English colonisation, introduction of Asian and African slaves, as well as the local natives. Not to mention the French Huguenots who fled France and brought their grape vines and winemaking skills.

  • The Apartheid ideology was a system of racial segregation and was enforced into legislation in 1948. District 6 was a low socio economic settlement in Cape Town where all races would mix. Apartheid laws forced the removal of nonwhites and pushed them out to the Cape Flats as it’s currently known. Informal settlements known as townships rapidly grew as more blacks and coloureds were pushed further out of the city centre. These aptly named flat areas were left without basic services, leaving the residents to build homes with basic tools and materials that they could get their hands on. Shanty like and corrugated iron sheets are a common sight for these areas today. There are many NGO projects and government initiatives currently operating within these areas that are helping people find a life out of poverty. 
  • Street art plays a significant role in giving a voice to the locals, expressing their struggles, successes and current issues. District 6, Woodstock and many townships are just a few areas where murals have broken the silence. These murals convey extremely powerful messages, a constant reminder about human rights, animal rights, peace and education. Some international artists have been invited from countries such as Australia, Brazil, China, England and Ukraine to contribute pieces to this street art community.
Cape Town street art

District Six street art

Rio De Janeiro

The Portuguese founded Rio de Janeiro in the 16th century and made it the capital city of Brazil for nearly 300 years. The economy boomed from the sugar cane, diamond and gold industries that were made prosperous through native and African slavery. An estimated four million slaves had been imported from Africa to Brazil by the time slavery was abolished in 1888.

  • Favelas begun in the late 19th century as squatter settlements due to the absence of affordable housing and severe land inequality. With over a century of development these communities have evolved into working class neighbourhoods. They are characterised by low quality housing, limited access to public services, high population density and insecure property rights. Rich in ethnic and cultural diversity, they are recognised as significant producers of popular Brazilian culture. Gang and drug traffic controlled favela’s still exist, however, they continue to buzz with activity and an ever increasing tourism industry.
Favela de Rocinha

Favela de Rocinha

  • The city walls are plastered with street art from pillars to large buildings catching your eye from every corner of the city. The number of murals has soared as a result of the decriminalisation of street art. Pixação is a distinctive and cryptic style of graffiti unique to Brazil. Also, characteristic of this style is the daring location from which it is painted. Artists are known to free climb to the highest and most inaccessible places to deliver powerful messages. The style is still used today by people representing their gangs, names and other social statements depicting the rebellion element of the city. With Brazil having one of the worst wealth distributions in the world, many murals portray significant social and political discontent. A mural found in Favela de Rocinha depicts South Africa’s most famous freedom fighter and former President, Nelson Mandela, alongside one of his famous quotes: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”.

Rio De Janeiro favela street art

  • Escadaria Selaron, running between Lapa and Santa Teresa is a much loved piece of street art dedicated to the Brazilian people. A working class, Chilean born artist named Rua Joaquim Silva established a deep connection with his adopted city. His passion for the people led him to create a vibrant mosaic of tiles from around the world, representative of the people of Rio de Janeiro. These tiles fill the steep 125 metres of steps and were an iconic image used by Pharrell Williams and Snoop Dog’s in their ‘Your Beautiful’ film clip.

Escadaria Selaron staircase

Natural Beauty

Cape Town

When entering into Cape Town you are immediately struck by a magical energy that flows from Table Mountain and her three mates, Devil’s peak, Lion’s Head and Signal Hill (not to mention the Twelve Apostles in Camps Bay). Imposing mountains sit over you from wherever you are in Cape Town. There are an endless amount of trails to cater to the out of shape backpacker or experienced trail runner. For the faint hearted, the cable car is your gateway to Table Mountain’s view, 1000m above sea level.  Don’t forget to visit Africa’s garden of Eden, the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, set at the foot of Table Mountain. During the summer months picnics, music concerts and open-air cinemas are plentiful in this national park. Top this off with white sandy beaches and turquoise waters, and you’d be rude to stay inside.

Cape Town beach

Rio De Janeiro

Rivalling this beauty is Rio de Janeiro’s seducing tropical landscape. Dense forested mountains surround the city with long beaches and tiny islands scattered along the coastline. Take a cable car up to Sugarloaf Mountain, a dramatic and jutting peak over the city, in the same breathe that Table Mountain does. Even for the non-religious, few can argue the powerful energy the statue of Christ the Redeemer exudes over the City of God. Rio has an abundance of beautiful Botanic Gardens, with Parque Lage and Parque Nacional de Tiquca being our must do’s. For something different, hike from Parque Lage to Christ The Redeemer. One of the coolest hikes!

Rio De Janeiro forest

Whether you enjoy a ‘lekker braai’ with some Capetonians, or quench your thirst on the beach with some Cariocas; either way you’ll find it hard to turn back. Which city will you choose next?

For a few more ideas click here to check out Buzzfeed’s “Top 20 beautiful cities in the world”. 

<3 Drew & Sophie