With Table Mountain providing a spectacular backdrop, Harriet O’Brien soaks up the culture of South Africa’s coastal gem before it gets swamped by football fever
Why go now?
Sunshine, low prices, magnificent scenery — with great summer weather and a relatively weak exchange rate, South Africa's most glamorous city is an attractive destination right now. What's more, in the build-up to the World Cup, the current buzz is almost palpable. Visit soon to capture the spirit of excitement and avoid the influx of football fans in a few months' time.
South African Airways (0871 722 1111; flysaa.com), British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) and Virgin (0870 380 2007; virgin-atlantic.com) fly non-stop from Heathrow to Cape Town. The 23km taxi ride from the airport to the city centre costs around R250 (£20.50).
Get your bearings
Cape Town's setting is implausibly spectacular. The Atlantic Ocean lies to the north and west, while Table Mountain rises a sheer 1,086m to the south, with the ridges of Signal Hill and Lion's Head providing a dramatic skyline in the midst of the city. The historic centre, known as the City Bowl, is to the east of Signal Hill. The new football stadium at Green Point is directly north, and the stylish, revamped docklands is to the north-east. It was called the Victoria and Alfred Docks after Queen Victoria (who never actually visited) and her son Alfred (who did, in 1870). Now known as the V&A Waterfront it is South Africa's most visited tourist site. The City Bowl is easily navigable on foot. Yet given Cape Town's geographical spread, most visitors will also want to explore farther afield. Public transport, however, is limited.
Your best bet for getting around is the hop-on, hop-off tourist bus (00 27 21 511 6000; citysightseeing.co.za) that runs every 20 minutes (from 9.10am-6.30pm). It stops at all the major city sights and costs R110 (£9) for unlimited travel over a day. The central tourist office is on the corner of Castle and Burg streets (00 27 21 487 6800; capetown.travel). It opens 8am-6pm (Saturdays 8.30am-2pm and Sundays 9am-1pm). An alternative tourist office is located on the V&A Waterfront and is open daily 9am-6pm.
The city's most luxurious accommodation is the new One&Only Cape Town at Dock Road, right on the V&A Waterfront. This resort hotel opened last April and offers celebrity restaurants Nobu and Gordon Ramsay's Maze, as well as 131 super-spacious rooms (00 27 21 431 5800; oneandonlyresorts.com). Doubles start at R5,950 (£484) including breakfast. For a boho-chic boutique option check into Daddy Long Legs Art Hotel at 134 Long Street (00 27 21 422 3074; daddylonglegs.co.za) in the heart of the city centre. It has 13 funky rooms, individually devised by different artists. Doubles from R775 (£62) excluding breakfast. Cape Town also has a great choice of upscale B&Bs, such as Olaf's Guesthouse at 24 Wisbeach Road in Sea Point, the up-and-coming western district of the city (00 27 21 439 8943; olafs.co..za). Guests at the eight comfortable rooms here also have use of the swimming pool. Doubles from R675 (£55), including breakfast.
Take a hike
For a poignant walk around the city centre, start at the top of Wale Street. This was the 18th-century slave area — and also the district where the first freed individuals set up home. Lined with small, colourful houses, the neighbourhood is now called Bo-Kaap. No 71 is the Bo-Kaap Museum, which celebrates Cape Town's Malay-Muslim culture (Mon-Sat 9.30am-4.30pm; adults R10/£0.82).
Continue down to the intersection with Queen Victoria Street where St George’s Cathedral stands tall. This became known as the ‘People's Cathedral’ during the apartheid years (open 8am-5pm daily; free). Turn next right into Government Lane and branch off along a path through the Company's Garden, originally used for growing vegetables for the Dutch East Indies ships and now a pretty city park. The South African Museum at the end contains an especially absorbing collection of rock paintings (Mon-Sun 10am-5pm; adults R15/£1.20).
Walk back along Government Avenue, past the Company's Garden and alongside the Houses of Parliament, where South Africa's government spends six months of the year, from January to June.
Continue straight on, over Wale Street and into Adderley Street. Slave Lodge at No 49 houses a museum focussing on the role of slavery in the city's history (Mon-Sat 10am-5pm; adults R15/£1.20). On Church Square, around the corner, Groote Kerk dates from 1678 and was the first Dutch Reformed church in South Africa (Mon-Fri 10am-2pm, free). Continue along Parliament Street and turn right into Darling Street. It was from the splendid City Hall that Nelson Mandela made his first speech after being released from prison in front of crowds gathered opposite in the Grand Parade, which will screen the city's World Cup games this June.
Greenmarket Square, its cobbles newly relaid, is where to bargain for souvenirs, but head to the Pan African Market on Long Street if you want more serious crafts. The Victoria Mall at the V&A Waterfront offers plenty of sophisticated retail therapy.
Lunch on the run
Head to the Eastern Food Bazaar close to City Hall at 96 Longmarket Street (00 27 21 461 2458; easternfoodbazaar.co.za). As you tuck into the likes of vegetable biryani at R20 (£1.65), savour the exotic decor of this cool canteen restaurant.
It would be impossible not to be moved by District Six Museum at 25a Buitenkant Street (00 27 21 466 7200; districtsix.co.za; Mon 9am-2pm; Tues-Sat 9am-4pm; adults R15/£1.20). This former Methodist church was a sanctuary during the apartheid years. It now tells Cape Town's story, from slavery to racial segregation — and through to the present day. It may sound grim, but this is a lively, positive place with sections on Cape Town culture, including the Capetonians' enduring love of ballroom dancing.
Enjoy a sundowner on the terrace of Paulaner Bräuhaus by the Clock Tower on the V&A Waterfront (00 27 21 418 9999; paulaner.co.za).
Dining in style
Baia Seafood Restaurant in the Victoria Mall beside the V&A Waterfront offers twinkling views over Cape Town's most ritzy district (00 27 21 421 0935; baiarestaurant.co.za). The menu features dishes such as freshly caught langoustine at R179 (£14.70); and plenty of meat options, such as herb-crusted ostrich at R139 (£11.40).
Sunday morning:go to church
St Georges Cathedral is a late-Victorian building designed by Sir Herbert Baker (00 27 21 424 7360; stgeorgescathedral.com). Between 1986 and 1996 it was the seat of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and it was from here in 1989 that he led a mass demonstration of 30,000 people, which signalled the beginning of the end of apartheid. The main Sunday service is at 10am.
Take a view
Catch the tourist bus to the aerial cableway station on Tafelberg Road, and board a revolving cable car, which will take you to the top of Table Mountain (00 27 21 424 8181; tablemountain.net; adults R145/£11.90 return). The spectacular ride takes three to four minutes. At the top there's a cafe, viewing area and plenty of hiking trails. Free guided walks on the plateau are led by local volunteers departing from the upper cable station at 10am and at noon. Even if you don't want to join one of these walks, morning visits are best since wind and cloud can make conditions difficult in the afternoon.
Out to brunch
Hop back on the tourist bus and head south-west to Camps Bay, below Lion's Head. Here Tuscany Beach at 41 Victoria Road (00 27 21 428 1213; tuscanybeachrestaurant..co) is a cool Italian brasserie complete with sunny terrace. It serves breakfast daily until 12.30. Try a ‘croissant supreme’ — topped with fried egg, tomato, and three slices of bacon — at R58 (£4.75).
A walk on the beach
Camps Bay is Cape Town's most beautiful stretch of coast. This long arc of white sand is backed by palm trees and set beside clear blue waters. Notice boards provide guidance as to sealife in the area, from dolphins to right whales and sharks. The latter are not the only deterrents for taking a dip here — even on the hottest of days the Atlantic sea is painfully chilly.
The icing on the cake
Take a thought-provoking trip to Robben Island, declared a World Heritage Site in 1999, eight years after its most famous former prisoner was elected President of South Africa. For 18 years, Nelson Mandela was an inmate at the maximum-security jail. Tours to the island, about 7km off the coast, take around three and a half hours, departing from the Clock Tower on the V&A Waterfront daily at 9am, 11am, 1pm and 3pm. The ticket (adults R200/£15) includes return ferry rides, a tour of the jail led by a former inmate, and a 45-minute bus trip around the island which has also served as a leper colony and quarantine station (00 27 21 413 4263/4; robben-island.org.za).