If you visit only one place in South Africa, make it Cape Town. Whether you're partaking of the Capetonian inclination for alfresco fine dining (the so-called "Mother City" is home to many of the country's best restaurants) or sipping wine atop Table Mountain, you sense—correctly—that this is South Africa's most urbane, civilized city. Here elegant Cape Dutch buildings abut ornate Victorian architecture and imposing British monuments. In the Bo-Kaap neighborhood, the call to prayer echoes through cobbled streets lined with houses painted in bright pastels, while the sweet tang of Malay curry wafts through the air. Flower sellers, newspapers hawkers, and numerous markets keep street life pulsing, and every lamppost advertises another festival, concert, or cultural happening. But as impressive as Cape Town's urban offerings are, what you'll ultimately recall about this city is the sheer grandeur of its setting—the mesmerizing beauty of Table Mountain rising above the city, the stunning drama of the mountains cascading into the sea, and the gorgeous hues of the two oceans. 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 often synonymous with a visit to the peninsula beneath 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. You could spend a week exploring just the city and peninsula. Often likened to San Francisco, Cape Town has two things that the City by the Bay 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 shiver and hold its breath. Meanwhile, for all of its bon-vivant European vibe, Cape Town also reflects the diversity, vitality, and spirit of the many African peoples who call this city home. Cape Town has grown as a city in a way that few others in the world have. Take a good look at the street names. Strand and Waterkant streets (meaning "beach" and "waterside," respectively) are now far from the sea. However, when they were named they were right on the beach. An enormous program of dumping rubble into the ocean extended the city by a good few square miles (thanks to the Dutch obsession with reclaiming land from the sea). Almost all the city on the seaward side of Strand and Waterkant is part of the reclaimed area of the city known as the Foreshore. If you look at old paintings of the city, you will see that originally waves lapped at the very walls of the castle, now more than half a mile from the ocean.
Cape Town is the culinary capital of South Africa. Nowhere else in the country is the populace so discerning about food, and nowhere else is there such a wide selection of restaurants. Western culinary history here dates back more than 350 years—Cape Town was founded specifically to grow food—and that heritage is reflected in the city's cuisine. A number of restaurants operate in historic town houses and 18th-century wine estates, and many include heritage dishes on their menus.
Today dining in the city and its suburbs can offer a truly global culinary experience, since Cape chefs are now showing the same enthusiasm for global trends as their counterparts worldwide. French and Italian food has long been available here, but in the last decade, with the introduction of Thai and Pan-Asian flavors, locals have embraced the chili. Kurdish, Pakistani, Persian, Ethiopian, Lebanese, and regional Chinese cuisines are now easily available, and other Asian fare is commonplace. Sushi is ubiquitous. If there is a cuisine trend it is toward organic produce and healthful dishes made with foams rather than creams.
Finding lodging in Cape Town can be a nightmare during peak travel season (December-January), as many of the more reasonable accommodations are booked up. It's worth traveling between April and August, if you can, to take advantage of the "secret season" discounts that are sometimes half the high-season rate. If you arrive in Cape Town without a reservation, head for the Tourism Office, which has a helpful accommodations desk.
Hotels in the city center are a good option if you're here on business or are here for only a short stay. During the day the historic city center is a vibrant place. At night, though, it's shut up tight (though this is changing slowly as more office buildings are converted into apartment complexes); night owls may prefer a hotel amid the nonstop action of Long Street or the Waterfront. Hotels and bed-and-breakfasts in the Southern Suburbs, especially Constantia, offer unrivaled beauty and tranquility and make an ideal base if you're exploring the peninsula. You'll need a car, though, and should plan on 25-45 minutes to get into town. Atlantic Coast hotels provide the closest thing in Cape Town to a beach-vacation atmosphere despite the cold ocean waters.
Keep in mind that international flights from the United States and Europe arrive in the morning and return flights depart in the evening. Because most hotels have an 11 am checkout, you may have to wait for a room if you've just arrived; if you're leaving, you will be hauled kicking and screaming out of your room hours before your flight. Most hotels will try to accommodate you, but they often have no choice in peak season. Some of the larger hotels have residents-only lounges where you can spend the hours awaiting your flight. Note that many small luxury accommodations either do not permit children or have minimum-age restrictions. It's a good idea to inquire in advance if this will be an issue. Cape Town has led the global trend of not smoking in public places. All hotels will have no-smoking rooms, and some have no-smoking floors or are entirely smoke-free.
There's plenty to do in Cape Town after dark. The city's nightlife is concentrated in a number of areas, so you can explore a different one each night or move from one hub to another. That said, walking from one area to another isn't advisable, as there are some parts of the city that are completely deserted and unsafe. Women, in pairs or singly, and couples should not walk alone. One of the safest places to start is the Waterfront, where you can choose from movies, restaurants, bars, and pubs and walk between them quite happily, as there are plenty of security guards and other people walking around. The top end of Long Street is probably the city's best nightlife area. Here you'll find several blocks of bars, restaurants, and backpacker lodges that are open late. The area bounded by Loop, Long, Wale, and Orange streets is the best place to get a feeling for Cape Town's always-changing nightclub scene, but ask around for the latest on the current flavor of the month. De Waterkant in Green Point is also very busy at night and is home to many of Cape Town's gay venues; if you're in the area, you can take in the Green Point strip, where restaurants and bars open out onto the streets. On weekends these bars are packed, and you'll get a good idea of how Capetonians let down their hair. Heritage Square, in the city center, hosts an ever-changing mix of bars and restaurants generally catering to a more discerning (think wine bars and microbrewery) crowd. Mouille Point's Platinum Mile is an excellent place for evening cocktails, though it's less of a late-night spot. The views over the Atlantic and onto Robben Island are breathtaking, and this is where the ultracool set hangs out after a hard day at the beach or gym. Be prepared to line up to get in to places, especially on a Friday night.
When it comes to shopping, Cape Town has something for everyone—from sophisticated malls to trendy markets. Although African art and curios are obvious choices (and you will find some gems), South Africans have woken up to their own sense of style and creativity, and the results are fantastic and as diverse as the people who make up this rainbow nation. So in a morning you could bag some sophisticated tableware from Carrol Boyes, a funky wire-art object from a street vendor, and a beautifully designed handbag made by HIV-positive women working as part of a community development program.
Cape Town has great malls selling well-known brands, and the V&A Waterfront is an excellent place to start, followed by Cavendish Square in Claremont and Canal Walk at Century City, on the N1 heading out of town toward Paarl. But it's beyond the malls that you can get a richer shopping experience, one that will give you greater insight into the soul of the city and its people. Shopping malls usually have extended shopping hours beyond the normal 9-5 on weekdays and 9-1 on Saturdays. Most shops outside of malls (except for small grocery stores) are closed on Sunday.
Obs Holistic Lifestyle Fair
For everything weird and wonderful, this market is an absolute winner. Cape Town is home to plenty of alternative-therapy practitioners, crystal gazers, and energy healers, and they congregate on the first Sunday of every month to sell their wares and trade spells. Food is abundant, healthful (of course), and vegetarian. Kids are not ignored; they run wild together with their parents.
If you aren't crazy about traditional African artifacts, you might want to visit this store, which stocks contemporary African art that's quirky and interesting. Original African art is showcased for those looking for one-of-a-kind pieces. Come Christmastime, the store is transformed with beaded African Christmas decorations: gorgeous stars, divine angels, and brilliant nativity animals. Even if you aren't buying, it's worth visiting for the display.
You can get good buys on clothing, T-shirts, and locally made leather shoes and sandals, and you can find a plethora of African jewelry, art, and fabrics here, too. It's one of the best places in town to purchase gifts, but it's lively and fun whether or not you buy anything. More than half the stalls are owned by people not from South Africa. Here you'll find political and economic refugees from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Zimbabwe, and the Democratic Republic of Congo trying to eke out a living. Bargain, but do so with a conscience.