Table Mountain, frequently mantled by its “tablecloth” clouds, is the solid core of Cape Town, dividing the city into distinct zones, with public gardens, wilderness, forests, hiking routes, vineyards and desirable residential areas.
To its north lies the City Centre, home to the most important places to visit in Cape Town – museums, galleries and streets buzzing with buskers, hawkers and market traders. In the adjacent Bo-Kaap Muslim quarter, colourful terraces and restaurants serving local curries add piquancy to the city’s heart.
A stone’s throw from the centre, the V&A Waterfront is Cape Town’s most popular spot for shopping, eating and drinking in a highly picturesque setting among the piers and quays of a working harbour. It’s also the embarkation point for catamarans to Robben Island, the site of Nelson Mandela’s notorious incarceration.
The rocky shore west of the Waterfront is occupied by the inner-city suburbs of Green Point, De Waterkant and Sea Point, home to some of the peninsula’s oldest and best restaurants, their back-streets crammed with backpacker lodges, B&Bs and hotels.
Equally good for accommodation, but more leafy and upmarket in comparison, the City Bowl suburbs gaze down from the Table Mountain foothills across the central business district to the ships in Duncan Dock.
South from Sea Point, a coastal road traces the chilly Atlantic seaboard under the heights of the Twelve Apostles and past some of Cape Town’s most expensive suburbs and spectacular beaches to Hout Bay. From here, the road merges with the precipitous Chapman’s Peak Drive, ten dramatically snaking kilometres of Victorian engineering carved into the western cliffsides of the Table Mountain massif, high above the crashing waves.
To the east, across Table Mountain, the exceptionally beautiful Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens creep up the lower slopes, as do the Constantia Winelands a little further south, while the middle-class southern suburbs stretch down the peninsula as far as Muizenberg.
The scenic Metrorail train line cuts through these suburbs and continues along the False Bay seaboard, passing through village-like Kalk Bay, with its intact harbour and working fishing community, and Fish Hoek, which has the best bathing beach along the eastern peninsula, before the final stop at the historic settlement of Simon’s Town.
Most visitors see only the areas that were classified under apartheid as “white” and which still remain relatively safe and salubrious. But the townships of the Cape Flats to the east of the city can be visited on guided tours, and if you really want to get under the skin of the African areas, you can enjoy the hospitality of any of several B&Bs in Xhosa homes.
Beyond the city, the beautiful Winelands lie just an hour east of the Cape Flats, rich in elegant examples of Cape Dutch architecture, wonderful wines and excellent restaurants. Southeast of Cape Town you can take the picturesque coastal route, winding around massive sea-cliffs, to reach Hermanus, the largest settlement on the Whale Coast, and a fabulous spot for shore-based whale-watching.