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Cape Town Travel Guide

Getting Oriented

Cape Town lies at the northern end of the Cape Peninsula, a 75-km (47-mi) tail of mountains that ends at the Cape of Good Hope. Drive 15 minutes out of town, and you may lose yourself in a stunning landscape of 18th-century Cape Dutch manors, historic wineries, and white-sand beaches backed by sheer mountains.

Everyone uses Table Mountain for orientation. Cape Town's aptly named heart, the City Bowl fills the basin between the lower northern slopes of the mountain to the rim of the harbor. Though it's called interchangeably the "City Centre" or "Cape Town Central," the City Bowl actually encompasses Cape Town Central as well as adjacent neighborhoods located in the bowl, such as Gardens and Bo-Kaap. But don't get hung up on names: Cape Town is compact, with neighborhoods quickly morphing one into the next, and even locals disagree as to where the boundaries fall.

As you face Table Mountain from within the City Bowl, the distinctive triangular-shape mountain on the left is Devil's Peak; on the right are Lion's Head and Signal Hill, which takes its name from a gun fired there every day at noon. Lion's Head looks southwest (out to sea) past Table Mountain. Over Signal Hill and Lion's Head (and therefore outside the bowl) lies the fashionable Atlantic Seaboard, also known as Millionaire's Row, which includes cosmopolitan Green Point and Sea Point through to the exclusive suburbs of Clifton and Camps Bay. Cape Town's Southern Suburbs—Rondebosch, Newlands, Claremont, and the posh Constantia—are on the southern side of Table Mountain.

The vibrant V&A Waterfront lies at the northern end of the City Bowl across the freeways that separate the docks from downtown; nearby Waterkant is a fashionable and largely gay neighborhood between Green Point and the Bo-Kaap. Beyond the predominantly white suburbs surrounding Cape Town's city center, the infamous townships of the Cape Flats stretch over what were once dunes and wetlands. Though separated from the city by highways, the continually expanding townships of Khayelitsha, Nyanga, Langa, and Gugulethu are integral to Cape Town's life, housing the majority of the city's nonwhite workers and influxes of immigrants.

Table Mountain National Park. Running north-south through the Cape Peninsula from Cape Town, Table Mountain National Park's 85 square mi include Table Mountain itself, most of the high-lying land in the mountain chain that runs down the center of the peninsula from Table Mountain south, the Cape of Good Hope nature reserve at the peninsula's end, and beautiful valleys, rugged cliffs, sandy flats, and some of the world's most stunning beaches. The park is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean to the west and False Bay to the east.

Cape Town Central. The small area roughly bounded by Hans Strijdom to the north, Buitenkant to the east, Buitengracht to the west, and the Company's Garden to the south is Cape Town's central business district and the only part of the city where you're likely to find anything approaching a skyscraper. The head offices of banks and big businesses, Parliament, the central railway and bus stations, some great architecture, and a good number of the city's tourist attractions are found here.

Bo-Kaap. Gracing the lower slopes of Signal Hill, wedged between the hill, De Waterkant, and Cape Town Central, this small City Bowl neighborhood is the historic home of the city's Muslim population, and remains strongly Muslim to this day. Its main thoroughfare is Wale Street.

Gardens. The affluent Gardens neighborhood begins at the southern end of the Company's Garden, stretching south toward the base of Table Mountain and Lion's Head. Most shops and restaurants are centered on Kloof Street.

V&A Waterfront. Once a seedy harbor, the V&A (Victoria & Alfred) Waterfront, often simply referred to as the Waterfront, is now one of South Africa's premier tourist destinations. Each year millions flock to this commercial area between the bay and Table Mountain to shop, eat at one of the many outdoor restaurants and bars, or just people-watch. The working harbor and buskers performing in public squares add character to the shopping malls, expensive hotels, and plush apartments lining the water's edge.

Southern Suburbs. Southeast of the City Bowl and at the base of Table Mountain's "backside" are the mainly residential neighborhoods known collectively as the Southern Suburbs, where the fantastic Kirstenbosch Botanic Gardens is located, along with a few other worthwhile attractions.

The Peninsula and Beaches. The Cape Peninsula, much of which is included in Table Mountain National Park, extends for around 40 km (25 mi) from the city through to Cape Point. The peninsula's eastern border is False Bay, whose Indian Ocean waters are (relatively) warmer and calmer than those of the peninsula's wilder, emptier, and arguably more beautiful Atlantic side. A coastal road and railway line connects east-coast towns.

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