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Cape Town Travel Guide

  • Photo: Darrenp / Shutterstock

Plan Your Cape Town Vacation

A favorite South African topic of debate is whether Cape Town really is part of Africa. That’s how different it is, both from the rest of the country and the rest of the continent. And therein lies its attraction. South Africa's most urbane, sophisticated city sits in stark contrast to the South Africa north of the Hex River Valley. Here, the traffic lights work pretty much consistently and

good restaurants are commonplace. In fact, dining establishments in the so-called Mother City always dominate the country's "best of" lists.

What also distinguishes this city is its deep sense of history. Nowhere else in the country will you find structures dating back to the 17th century. South Africa as it is known today began here. Elegant Cape Dutch buildings abut ornate Victorian structures and imposing British monuments. In the predominantly Malay Bo-Kaap neighborhood, the call to prayer echoes through cobbled streets lined with houses painted in bright pastels, and the sweet tang of Malay curry wafts through the air. Flower sellers, newspaper hawkers, and numerous markets keep street life pulsing, and every lamppost advertises another festival, concert, or cultural happening. This is a relaxed city, packed with occasions and events.

What you'll ultimately recall about this city depends on your taste. It could be the Cape Winelands over the mountain, the Waterfront shopping (a consistent winner, given exchange rates favoring virtually any foreign currency), or Table Mountain itself. Thoroughly imposing, presiding over the city as it does, the mountain is dramatic, with a chain of "sister" mountains leading from the Table to Cape Point (roughly 68 km/42 miles south) cascading into the sea in dramatic visual fashion. Francis Drake wasn't exaggerating when he said this was "the fairest Cape we saw in the whole circumference of the earth," and he would have little cause to change his opinion today.

A visit to Cape Town is synonymous with a visit to the peninsula south of the city, and for good reason. With pristine white-sand beaches, hundreds of mountain trails, and numerous activities from surfing to paragliding to mountain biking, the accessibility, variety, and pure beauty of the great outdoors will keep nature lovers and outdoor adventurers occupied for hours, if not days. A week exploring just the city and peninsula is barely enough.

Often likened to San Francisco, Cape Town has two things that the former doesn't: Table Mountain and Africa. The mountain, or tabletop, is vital to Cape Town's identity. It dominates the city in a way that's difficult to comprehend until you visit. In the afternoon, when creeping fingers of clouds spill over Table Mountain and reach toward the city, the whole town seems to hold its breath—because in summer it brings frequent strong southeasterly winds. Meanwhile, for all of its bon-vivant European vibe, Cape Town also reflects the diversity, vitality, and spirit of Africa, with many West and Central Africans and Zimbabweans—many of them having fled from conflicts elsewhere—calling this city home.

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Top Reasons To Go

  1. City Sophistication. Cape Town is a cosmopolitan city with a rich heritage that's proudly on display. It might be more laid-back than Johannesburg, but it has shaken off its sleepy, parochial air and now bristles with world-class shops and restaurants and cutting-edge art and design.
  2. Table Mountain. Fantastic Table Mountain towers over Cape Town and dominates the whole peninsula. Exploring the mountain is a must; you can either take the cable car to the top or hike up various routes. It’s not a particularly difficult climb, but having an athletic frame will help you pull and scramble up the odd steep bit, and there are easy routes, too.
  3. Nature's Playground. Capetonians are proud of their city's stylish good looks and make the most of the mountain and beaches. In summer you'll find professionals shrugging off their suits as they head for the beach after work, surfboards, picnics, and sundowner drinks in tow. In winter they bundle up against the cold and go walking, mountain biking, or running in the city's countless green spaces.
  4. Markets Galore. Cape Town's markets are the best in the country—informal, creative, funky, and with a good selection of both tacky and splendid African curios. The Old Biscuit Mill is all about designer food, and the Oranjezicht City Farm Market is a community garden in the midst of established, well-to-do suburbs right below the mountain.
  5. Historical Heritage. Cape Town is saturated with an extremely rich and fascinating history. At Robben Island you can stand in Nelson Mandela's old cell and learn about political and social banishment during apartheid, and the District Six Museum tells the poignant tale of the destruction of one of the country's most vibrant inner-city neighborhoods. The Castle of Good Hope—the first European building on the continent—is also a remarkable piece of history, with interiors of antique furniture and historic paintings.

When To Go

When to Go

Whatever activities you hope to accomplish in Cape Town, head up Table Mountain as soon as the wind isn't blowing. Cape Town wind is notorious...

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