Cape Town center

Cape Town occupies one of the world's most stunning locations. A large part of that impact comes down to a 1073m (3520ft) mountain slap bang in the center of the city. The Plateau of Table Mountain and its attendant peaks - Devil's Peak and Lion's Head - are the city's most enduring image.

As beautiful as the surrounding beaches and vineyards can be, it's this rugged wilderness, coated in a unique flora that is the focus of everyone's attention. Like all major world ports, Cape Town is also a long-time master of the art of showing visitors a good time. Its mix of trendy hostelries match up favorably to those in any other cosmopolitan city. There's a lively cultural scene, particularly when it comes to music, which seems to pervade every corner of the city.

The Castle of Good Hope, was built to defend Cape Town. This stone-walled castle has not seen action in all its 350 years, unless you count the more recent stormings by hoards of school kids and tourists. It’s worth coming for one of the tours, although you can quite easily find your own way around. Besides extensive displays of militaria, some interesting ones on the castle’s archeology and the reconstruction of the so-called Dolphin Pool, the highlight is the bulk of the William Feur Collection, which includes some fabulous bits of Cape Dutch furniture, such as a table seating 100, and some more paintings by John Thomas Baines.

Get to grips with Cape Town’s troubled history, which is summed up movingly at the District Six Museum. The fate of the city’s large colored community is fascinating and essential for putting Cape Town fully into context. The museum is as much for the people of the now-vanished District Six as it is about them. Most memorable of all are the staff, practically all displaced residents, each with a heartbreaking story to tell. If you only see one museum in Cape Town, make it this one.

At the mountain end of the Company’s Gardens, South Africa’s oldest museum is beginning to show its age. There are, however, plans to upgrade it and the building contains a truly fascinating collection of objects, starting with a fossilized human footprint believed to be 117,000 years old!

Always known simply as ‘the Waterfront,’ this rehabbed area is a buzzing place where pockets of dockside life remain alongside good attractions like the Two Oceans Aquarium and quite a lot of nightlife. Despite all the development, it remains a working harbor and that is the source of most of its charm. Although it’s tempting, don’t walk between the city and the Waterfront; muggings do happen here.

Hike up Table Mountain for an unforgettable view. The cable car is such an obvious and popular attraction you might have difficulty convincing yourself that it’s worth the trouble and expense. It is. The views on the way up and from the top of Table Mountain are phenomenal, and there are some good easy walks on the summit.

Bo-Kaap Museum is a small but engaging museum that gives an insight into the lifestyle of a prosperous, 19th-century Cape Muslim family and a somewhat idealized view of Islamic practice in Cape Town. The house itself, built in 1763, is the oldest in the area. Many of the Muslim Bo-Kaap residents are descendants of the slaves imported from the Indian subcontinent and Indonesia.

A sightseeing walk around the City Bowl could take the best part of a day, depending on the stops you make. The Castle of Good Hope is an appropriate place to start. Immediately to the west is Grand Parade, the former military parade and public execution ground and now homes to a lively market every Wednesday and Saturday. Nearby, the impressive old Town Hall has been superseded by the hideous civic.

The Cultural History Museum & Slave Lodge occupies the former Slave Lodge of the VOC and contains displays on that period as well as bits and pieces from ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome and the Far East. It’s worth pottering around, particularly for history buffs, and will likely be recast one day as a museum about slavery in the Cape.

The Slave Lodge is one of the oldest buildings in South Africa, dating back to 1660. Up until 1811 the building housed as many as 1000 slaves who lived in damp, unsanitary conditions. Up to 20% died each year. The slaves were bought and sold just around the corner on Spin St. From the late 18th century the lodge also doubled up as a brothel, a jail for petty criminals and political exiles from Indonesia and a mental asylum.

Arranging a visit at Houses of Parliament is one of the most fascinating things you can do in Cape Town. If parliament is in session, fix your tour for the afternoon so you can see the politicians in action. Opened in 1885 and enlarged several times since, this is where British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan made his famous ‘Wind of Change’ speech in 1960. The articulate tour guides will proudly fill you in on the mechanisms and political makeup of their new democracy.

The South African National Gallery in the Company’s Gardens always has interesting exhibitions as well as permanent displays; check out the portrait of Desmond Tutu, the remarkable carved teak door in the courtyard, and a dinosaur sculpture made from wire. There’s a good shop with some interesting books and a pleasant cafe.

Truly awesome scenery, some fantastic walks and deserted beaches, plus the chance to spot rare wildlife is what a visit to the Cape of Good Hope is all about. If you come on one of the many tours that whip into the reserve, now part of the Cape Peninsula National Park, pause long enough at the tourist center for you to walk to Cape Point and back, and then zip out again, you’ll not even have seen the half of it. If possible, hire a car and take your time to explore the reserve the way it should be: on foot.

If the weather is good - or even if it isn’t - you can easily spend at least a day here. It’s particularly beautiful in spring, when the wildflowers are in bloom. There are a number of picnic spots as well as a decent restaurant at Cape Point, generally packed with the tour bus crowds. It’s not a difficult walk, but if you’re feeling lazy a funicular railway runs up from beside the restaurant to the souvenir kiosk next to the old lighthouse. Pick up a map at the entrance gate if you intend to go walking, but bear in mind that there is minimal shade in the park and that the weather can change quickly.