Originally a replenishing point for ships en route between Europe and Asia, Cape Town is the city from which the nation of South Africa grew.
Most of its key attractions lie in the City Bowl and adjacent districts set scenically between the waterfront and Table Mountain. Summer (December to March) sees the city in full stride, but off-season (June to September) comes with the promise of watching whales and great white sharks.
Cape Town is also synonymous with the late, great Nelson Mandela, whose presidential inauguration took place here 25 years ago this month.
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What to do
Discover Nelson Mandela’s story on boat trip to Robben Island, the infamous high-security prison (now a museum and World Heritage Site) where the future president spent 18 years behind bars (R360/£20pp). Tours are led by former inmates whose real-life tales add a humbling sense of reality to a touristy day out. Continue the history lesson on a Footsteps to Freedom walking tour (R1,970/£110 for up to four people) of city-centre sites that played a part in Mandela’s long walk to freedom, including City Hall’s steps from where he gave a speech on the day he was released.
Take a 90-minute street art walking tour of Woodstock’s inspiring murals (R350/£20pp). The rapid regeneration of this formerly rundown district is being driven by microbreweries, artisanal designers and colourful graffiti, and each piece has a story to tell.
Take a hike
Table Mountain is a Cape Town icon. Follow the crowds to its peak by taking the Table Mountain Aerial Cableway (R330/£18pp), or earn those views on a guided hike with Kiff Kombi Tours (R850/£48pp). Scenic Platteklip Gorge makes for a challenging ascent; but you can always give your knees a break by taking the cable car back down.
Up and away
Get an even more magical bird’s eye view of the city on a tandem paraglide with Cape Xtreme (R1500/£84pp). Take a leap of faith from Signal Hill and soar above the rooftops before touching gently down on Sea Point’s promenade. It’s the most invigorating five minutes imaginable.
Although you’ll have to go elsewhere in South Africa for a safari, there’s plenty of wildlife close to the city: spot African penguins on Boulders Beach (R65/£3.60pp).
Where to stay
The classic place to stay in Cape Town is the legendary Belmond Mount Nelson. With its pastel-pink façade and ever-present Table Mountain backdrop, it has an unbeatable sense of place matched by timeless elegance and style. The 198 contemporary guestrooms are complemented by two outdoor pools and a spa – but perhaps the most outstanding feature is its wonderfully peaceful gardens that provide a resort-style sanctuary from the city’s urban grit. Doubles from R4,500 (£250), B&B.
An edgier option is the all-new Stock Exchange, which opened earlier this year in up-and-coming Woodstock. This stylish but affordable property is almost entirely furnished from nearby businesses, giving it stacks of local flavour. All 33 spacious, apartment-style rooms have an urban aesthetic with plenty of character, plus views of either Table Mountain or over the docks to False Bay. Doubles from R1,870 (£104), B&B.
For budget digs, Atlantic Point is one of Cape Town’s top-rated hostels. Located in the Green Point neighbourhood within walking distance of the V&A Waterfront, it has en-suite doubles from R1,080 (£60), B&B (or dormitory beds from £15).
Where to eat
Start the day with breakfast at the excellent Jason Bakery, set amid the buzz of Bree Street. Go for excellent coffee and pastries or upgrade to heartier egg-based dishes; come back at lunchtime for toasties, sandwiches and salads made with seasonal produce.
Seafood doesn’t come fresher than at Ocean Jewels, a simple diner in Woodstock selling sustainably-caught fish at incredibly reasonable prices. Choose from lighter options such as seared tuna rice bowls (R80/£4.50) or heartier plates of fish and chips (from R65/£3.60).
Ocean Jewels began life as a stall down the road at the weekly Neighbourgoods Market, which draws crowds every Saturday to graze on local and regional foods. Sample anything from ostrich burgers to dumplings and quality biltong, plus pizzas, local wines and Woodstock craft beers.
Where to drink
Woodstock offers a memorable caffeine kick at Rosetta Roastery, whose African, Asian and South American coffee beans are roasted on-site to bring out each one’s personality. Go for something regional (Ethiopian or Kenyan) and sip it hot or iced in the industrial-chic café.
The beachy suburb of Camps Bay has the best sunsets in town. Drink in the fiery skies from Chinchilla, a rooftop lounge and bar that’s a big hit with the sundowner set. Go for a watermelon mint G&T (R160/£9) and watch the sinking sun’s rosy glow above the Twelve Apostles cliffs. A resident DJ entertains on Saturdays and Sundays.
Orphanage Cocktail Emporium on inner-city Bree Street offers a more urban feel. The speakeasy-style bar’s signature drinks include the Benedict Cucumber Patch (gin, cucumber and apple, R90/£5), plus there’s a snack menu with a London accent thanks to Kings Cross quesadillas and Brixton mustard chilli beef.
Where to shop
Pedestrianised St George’s Mall is the city centre’s main shopping street, with Greenmarket Square about halfway down. Hit the latter for its colourful market of arts, crafts and souvenirs. There’s a more upmarket selection of similar goods at The Watershed, a recently expanded indoor market on the V&A Waterfront. Top picks here include upcycled items that celebrate the ingenuity of artisans in the townships: look for cushions crafted from old rice sacks, guitars made from oil cans and animal sculptures hewn from discarded flip-flops, with everything either made or designed in South Africa.
Creative craft items can also be found in the boutiques along Kloof Street. Among them is Opulent Living, a concept store stocking ostrich-leather handbags, original artworks and ornaments from 43 talented local designers. On the other side of town, Woodstock Exchange is a former factory that’s been converted into restaurants and shops selling homewares and hand-made bags. It’s just up the road from the Old Biscuit Mill, whose stores and Saturday market are an essential weekend experience.
Don’t miss Zeitz MOCAA, an art museum occupying a repurposed, derelict grain silo that’s topped with the striking, bug-eye windows of the The Silo hotel. Recycled concrete never looked so good.
Nuts and bolts
What currency do I need?
South African rand.
What language do they speak?
English and Afrikaans are just two of 11 official languages.
Should I tip?
10 per cent is generous.
What’s the time difference?
One or two hours, depending on the time of year.
What’s the average flight time from the UK?
Around 12 hours. British Airways offers the only non-stop flights from the UK (from Heathrow). Emirates, South African and Qatar Airways offer one-stop connections.
MyCiTi bus is inexpensive, reliable and convenient.
Hit the V&A Waterfront to see Table Mountain looming above the city and docks.
Head to colourful Bo Kaap for koeksisters, daaltjies and other hard-to-pronounce street food.
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