South Africa's "Mother City," Cape Town is dominated by Table Mountain and surrounded by the wild Atlantic Ocean, giving it an unquestionably jaw-dropping backdrop. It was once described by Sir Francis Drake as "the fairest cape in all the circumference of the earth," and since the 16th century, seafarers have been drawn to its dramatic coastline and strategic location on the southwestern tip of the African continent. Cape Town leads South Africa in developing attractions to appeal to visitors, and it is now one of the world's top travel destinations.
Cape Town's highlights include the historical center, cutting-edge museums, the famous Constantia wine estates, and Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned. There is also a variety of trendy restaurants and nightclubs, as well as some of the best shopping opportunities in Africa.
Beyond Cape Town, a stunning coast road winds its way around the Cape Peninsula as far south as Cape Point, where there are pristine beaches, quaint seaside villages, and marine wildlife such as penguins and seals. The Winelands is South Africa's oldest and most beautiful wine-producing area, and the scenic valleys are covered by the vineyards of historic estates that have been cultivating grapes for more than 300 years. The southern coast is dubbed the Whale Coast, and it claims to have the best land-based whale-watching in the world. In season, sightings are almost guaranteed from the clifftops in Hermanus.
Cape Town's appeal also lies in its fascinating mix of nationalities and identities—African, European, Asian— and its history is compelling, too, from the early hunter-gatherers to the arrival of the Europeans, the Boer War and the breakdown of apartheid. In fact, it's Cape Town's mix of culture and lifestyle that makes it one of the world's most vibrant and cosmopolitan cities.
Situated on the southwestern point of the African continent, Cape Town lies in the shadow of Table Mountain, which towers 3,563 ft/1,086 m above the city and harbor. The central part of the city faces north, toward Table Bay, and is cradled in the City Bowl between Table Mountain (to the south), Lion's Head and Signal Hill (to the west) and Devil's Peak (to the east).
Cape Town proper is a relatively compact area. The loosely demarcated districts include City Centre (the central downtown area); Victoria & Alfred Waterfront (just north of City Centre, on the harbor); Gardens (south of City Centre); and Bo-Kaap (west of City Centre).
Immediately west of City Centre and Victoria & Alfred Waterfront is Green Point, which forms the tip of the landmass that shields Table Bay and the harbor from the Atlantic. Following the coast south from Green Point, you'll pass through the Atlantic Seaboard suburbs of Sea Point, Bantry Bay, Clifton, Camps Bay, Llandudno and Hout Bay, all home to beaches, restaurants and nightspots.
Other communities spread east and south out of City Centre (the opposite side of Table Mountain from the Atlantic Seaboard). Woodstock is the first of what's known as the Southern Suburbs, followed by Observatory, Rondebosch, Newlands, Claremont and Constantia. If you continue south far enough, you'll reach False Bay and the coastal communities that spread down the east coast of the Cape Peninsula, including Muizenberg, Kalk Bay and Simon's Town. Farther east and beyond the metropolitan area are Stellenbosch and the other towns in the picturesque Winelands.
Among the first residents of the Cape area were the Khoikhoi, a group of nomadic hunters and herders. Early visitors to the area may have included the Phoenicians, and later, in the 15th century, the Portuguese arrived but never stayed. In 1652, the Dutch arrived and began using the Cape to supply the large trading ships of the Dutch East India Company—then the most powerful mercantile force on Earth—as they sailed to and from Java. Creating vegetable gardens and vineyards, the Dutch used the Khoisan people as laborers and brought in Malays from Indonesia as slaves. At this small, remote outpost named Da Kaap (the Cape), a separate language emerged, called Afrikaans, essentially a form of kitchen Dutch that incorporated elements of Khoikhoi, Malay and other languages.
Both French and British ships regularly docked at the port. Its strategic position on the shipping lanes led the British to try to occupy it (they called it the Gibraltar of India). When Dutch shipping went into decline in the late 18th century, the British took over without much bloodshed. Many of the Dutch settlers (known as Boers and then Afrikaners) left when the British abolished slavery. The majority headed into the interior with their ox wagons to establish new colonies in the northeast. This became known as the Great Trek, and the pioneers as the Voortrekkers (Afrikaans for "fore-movers"). But the Cape Colony thrived in the 1870s following the discovery of diamonds at Kimberley and gold in the Boer Republic of the Transvaal (centered on present-day Johannesburg). Ultimately, these riches set off the Anglo-Boer War (1898-1902) between the Afrikaners and the British. With the establishment of the Union of South Africa in 1910, Pretoria became the administrative capital, while Cape Town became the seat of parliament and the legislative capital of the country.
Following World War II, the National Party came to power in South Africa and fostered the apartheid system of racial separation. In Cape Town, one of the government's actions was to forcibly remove nonwhites from District Six, a precinct adjacent to the center of Cape Town. Buildings were bulldozed and people forcibly relocated to townships on the Cape Flats, and today much of the land still stands vacant as a testament to forced removals and segregation during apartheid. Nelson Mandela and other dissidents were imprisoned on Robben Island, situated in Table Bay, off the coast of Cape Town.
In the 1980s, the city was racked by civil unrest, but this period gave birth to the United Democratic Front, one of the most important and instrumental antiapartheid organizations of the time (it had the support of around three million members by 1985). Archbishop Desmond Tutu waged his antiapartheid campaign from Cape Town, and peaceful protests in the city sparked similar demonstrations throughout South Africa. Mandela was eventually released from prison in 1990, and democratic elections were held in 1994, which instigated sweeping positive changes across all of South Africa.
Since then, despite facing challenges with unemployment, poverty and crime, Cape Town has grown into a sophisticated city where most of its residents enjoy a lifestyle that even other South Africans envy. It has also established itself as a world-class tourist destination and is often ranked as one of the top must-see cities in the world. Today facilities and infrastructure for visitors are of a very high standard, and Cape Town now attracts some 80% of the foreign tourists who visit South Africa—estimated to top 10 million per year.
Cape Town's majestic setting puts nature at the top of the sightseeing list. Plan to visit Table Mountain, centerpiece of the eponymous national park, on the first clear day available, because you cannot ascend it in cloudy weather.
Another side of nature can be seen in the city's parks and gardens. The two standouts are Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden, a spectacular collection of more than 4,700 species of indigenous flora on the slopes of Table Mountain; and The Company's Garden, a former vegetable garden of the Dutch East India Company that is now a park filled with trees, decorative flower beds and elegant fountains in the heart of the city.
Lovers of wine and beautiful scenery won't want to miss a drive inland to the Winelands of the Western Cape, where the vineyards of award-winning wineries unfurl along some of the world's finest wine routes. The most popular trip follows the Stellenbosch Wine Route, which lies in the heart of the Winelands, a 45-minute drive from Cape Town. The Paarl and Franschhoek wine routes are farther away and can be seen on a day trip from Cape Town. Older than all of these, the Constantia Wine Route lies on the Cape Peninsula south of Cape Town and includes several legendary estates with wonderful Cape Dutch architecture.
Cape Town has an unusually lively nightlife—things are joyously raucous after dark, especially in summer. You can boogie in the luxury of a nightclub or step out under the stars at an impromptu outdoor trance party. A bewildering number of venues present live music—rock 'n' roll, jazz, soul, rhythm and blues, reggae (you name it, you can find it)—or featured DJs laying down the latest international grooves. Most places also have special theme parties weekly or bring in foreign acts: Look out for flyers or simply ask around—the cafes along Long Street in the City Centre are a good place to start.
Most of the best bars and clubs are in or close to the City Centre, especially up and down Long Street. Other nightlife districts include fashionable Victoria Road in Camps Bay and the thriving gay and lesbian scene based in the De Waterkant area, close to Somerset Road in Green Point. There are also a few places dotted around the Southern Suburbs, which especially cater to the lively student crowd from the University of Cape Town (UTC).
Most taverns and pubs open for lunch just before noon and serve alcohol until closing time, usually between 11 pm and 1 am, depending on the season—summertime is party time. City bars and nightclubs open by 9 or 10 pm and rock until the sun comes up. Generally speaking, the later they open, the later they close.
Cape Town and the surrounding area offer an overwhelming amount of consistently excellent restaurants ranging from fine dining, French and Asian to fusion, seafood and African. The options vary from the opulently elegant to the conveniently casual. It's not just type of cuisine or price that determines choice—because of Cape Town's varied climate, a table on a sunny deck with a view is de rigueur in summer, while dining next to a cozy fireplace is preferable in winter.
The city is known for its "Cape cuisine," which broadly is made up of the finest local ingredients and borrows from all points of the culinary compass. Local delicacies worth trying include crocodile, ostrich and a large selection of game fish (called line fish)—snoek and yellowtail are scrumptious. The selection of local shellfish includes crayfish (Cape rock lobster) and West Coast mussels. The most ubiquitous local delicacy is known as biltong (pronounced BILL-tong): spicy strips of dried venison, ostrich or beef. It is comparable to beef jerky, only better. Samosa (pronounced sa-MOO-sa) is spicy curried vegetables or meat in a triangular deep-fried pastry. Koeksisters (pronounced COOK-sisters) are syrup-soaked doughnuts.
Other local delicacies: bobotie (pronounced bo-BOO-tee), a spicy ground meat with a savory custard topping; bredie (pronounced BREE-dee), a stew of meat, often lamb, with vegetables; waterblommetjies (pronounced VA-ter-blom-a-kees), a nutty-tasting flower that grows wild in ponds; and stuiwe pap (pronounced STAY-ve-pup), a firm cornmeal porridge similar to polenta. Tripe, known as upens (pronounced OO-pence) in African restaurants, and mopane worms (dried caterpillars, pronounced mo-PAH-nee) are strictly for the daring palate. For something more traditional, you should try authentic African and local cuisines, such as Cape Malay (spicy food with its origins from the slaves from Malaysia) and Boerekos cooking (Afrikaans cooking with a strong Dutch influence).
The most concentrated restaurant districts in Cape Town are in the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront; Long Street and its extension, Kloof Street (heading up the hill toward Table Mountain); Victoria Road on the Camps Bay promenade (great views of the Atlantic Ocean, but pricey); Green Point (Somerset Road going into Main); Sea Point (an entire main street filled with delis, restaurants and bars); False Bay's fishing villages; and the lush and historic Winelands.
Breakfast is generally served 8-11 am (if you want to eat earlier, hotels or established coffee shops are best); lunch runs noon-3 pm; dinner is 7-10 pm or later. Many of the more casual restaurants serve meals all day and also double as bars and cafes.
Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of dinner for one, not including drink, tip or tax: $ = less than R100; $$ = R100-R200; $$$ = R201-R300; $$$$ = more than R300.
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