A favorite South African topic of debate is whether Cape Town really is part of Africa. That's how different it is, both from the rest of the country and the rest of the continent. And therein lies its attraction. South Africa's most urbane, sophisticated city sits in stark contrast to the South Africa north of the Hex River Valley. Here, the traffic lights work pretty much consistently and good restaurants are commonplace. In fact, dining establishments in the so-called Mother City always dominate the country's "best of" lists.
What also distinguishes this city is its deep sense of history. Nowhere else in the country will you find structures dating back to the 17th century. South Africa as it is known today began here. Elegant Cape Dutch buildings abut ornate Victorian structures and imposing British monuments. In the predominantly Malay Bo-Kaap neighborhood, the call to prayer echoes through cobbled streets lined with houses painted in bright pastels, and the sweet tang of Malay curry wafts through the air. Flower sellers, newspaper hawkers, and numerous markets keep street life pulsing, and every lamppost advertises another festival, concert, or cultural happening. This is a relaxed city, packed with occasions and events.
What you'll ultimately recall about this city depends on your taste. It could be the Cape Winelands over the mountain, the Waterfront shopping (a consistent winner, given exchange rates favoring virtually any foreign currency), or Table Mountain itself. Thoroughly imposing, presiding over the city as it does, the mountain is dramatic, with a chain of "sister" mountains leading from the Table to Cape Point (roughly 68 km/42 miles south) cascading into the sea in dramatic visual fashion. 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 synonymous with a visit to the peninsula south of 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. A week exploring just the city and peninsula is barely enough.
Often likened to San Francisco, Cape Town has two things that the former 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 hold its breath—because in summer it brings frequent strong southeasterly winds. Meanwhile, for all of its bon-vivant European vibe, Cape Town also reflects the diversity, vitality, and spirit of Africa, with many West and Central Africans and Zimbabweans—many of them having fled from conflicts elsewhere—calling this city home.