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48 Hours in Cape Town

From the June/July 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveler

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The Twelve Apostles range graces Camps Bay, one of Cape Town’s best beaches.

Yes, vineyards may surround it, and oenophiles may sip glass after glass at its waterside cafés, but there’s more to Cape Town than wine. This sunny coastal city, long divided between the wealthy metropolis and outlying townships, was revitalized by the 2010 World Cup, with improvements to public transportation and the grimy downtown area known as City Bowl. Main draws include hiking, kite-surfing, miles of sandy beaches, and a world-class shopping and dining scene, all less than an hour and a half’s drive to the storied Cape of Good Hope. Nevertheless, ongoing racial tensions—though not a threat to visitors’ safety in central areas of town—are a haunting legacy of apartheid.

What to Do

After a multimillion-dollar renovation, the Robben Island Museum, where former President Nelson Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in prison during apartheid, reopened to the public in 1997. Visitors arrive at the World Heritage site by ferries departing from a waterfront terminal and are taken to what used to be the island’s maximum-security prison, where they see Mandela’s cell. The island also serves as a nature conservation area, home to the African penguin and herds of springbok, South Africa’s beloved national mascot.

The frequently foggy flat top of Table Mountain, in expansive Table Mountain National Park, dominates this city’s every vista. Most tourists opt to take an aerial cableway, which reaches the top in five minutes, though there’s a steep path all the way to the summit for hardy hikers. Once there, replenish at the Table Mountain Café. Visitors meander along level hiking trails or simply admire the view from a bench near the mountain’s edge.

On the other side of the park is the Silvermine Nature Reserve. Once a site of Dutch silver prospecting, it’s now a popular spot for a leisurely stroll and features a wheelchair-accessible boardwalk. “Being here feels as if you’re in the countryside,” says Kathryn Pettit, business and project manager at Cape Town’s African Impact, a leading volunteer-tourism organization. “The lake is always warm and a deep red in color.”

At the foot of Table Mountain and covering more than 1,235 acres, the Kirstenbosch National Botanic Garden was the first garden devoted to flora native to South Africa. A sculpture garden displays contemporary African stone artwork. Easy-to-follow trails wind through fynbos (shrubland) and mountain forest. The strenuous Smuts Track (named after former Prime Minister Jan Smuts) traverses Skeleton Gorge. In summer, a Sunday-evening concert series brings out residents and tourists.

In a sprawling art deco building, the South African National Gallery’s permanent collection includes African and European art, beadwork, masks, and sculpture, and its temporary exhibits showcase local talent, such as Peter Clarke, whose multimedia works have made him one of Cape Town’s most acclaimed artists.

Nearby stand the Houses of Parliament, with their porticos, red walls, and towering white columns. Dating back to 1885, the complex includes the Library of Parliament and is the site of the annual State of the Nation address. Buy tickets for the public gallery and check out the live parliamentary sessions (only allowed the first six months of the year), or take a guided tour of the facilities. Afterward, walk next door to the Tuynhuys, South Africa’s official presidential residence. From its famous steps in 1992, former President F. W. de Klerk announced that his country had “closed the door” on apartheid.

Where to Shop

Situated on a tree-shaded, cobbled square in the business district, the open-air Green Market has aisles packed with jewelry, textiles, paintings, and curiosities from every corner of South Africa—but be prepared to haggle. Musicians and other characters populate the square, built in 1696 as a trading post; find a good bench to sit and people-watch.

The Victoria and Alfred Waterfront is Cape Town’s epicenter for shopping and dining. More than 450 retail outlets have set up shop here, flanked by a breezy seaside boardwalk. Check out the Victorian Gothic-style clock tower and then hop a ride on the 131-foot-high observation wheel.

Surrounding an outdoor courtyard, the shops at Cape Quarter Lifestyle Village—a development in the chic Green Point neighborhood—sell contemporary African crafts, locally designed fashions, and home decor. The Quarter is designed in the Cape Malay architectural style influenced by the area’s Dutch settlers, with dark beams and multicolored facades.

The Red Shed Craft Workshop, on the V&A Waterfront, provides an alternative to megamall glitz. Bargain hunters troll stalls for recycled-glass vases, antique silver jewelry from Ethiopia, and hand-painted cushions in safari animal shapes.

Where to Eat

Long Street—a traditional backpackers’ hub—is lined with one-of-a-kind craft shops and eateries in every price range, open until early morning, when Cape Town’s liveliest avenue finally closes down. The menu at Long Street Café, located in a former bookstore, runs the quirky gamut from Thai wraps to waffles and ice cream. Join the cosmopolitan crowd for Wednesday night karaoke. Down the street, Lola’s lists its fare on a chalkboard: sweet corn fritters, anchovies on toast, and steamed west coast mussels. At Fork, the seasonal small-plates menu ranges from deep-fried goat cheese with port-and-onion marmalade to mini kudu (antelope) fillets with chili potato puree.

In Camps Bay, an affluent area sandwiched between white-sand beaches and the far side of Table Mountain, Camps Bay Retreat hotel holds a traditional South African braai (barbecue) on Wednesdays and Saturdays amid impeccable lawns, herb gardens, and restored fynbos ($39 per person).

Roundhouse, in a 1786 former guard station, features contemporary South African cuisine and a long wine list. Its more casual, outdoor sister, Rumbullion, serves picnic-style breakfasts and lunch pizzas with expansive views of Camps Bay and the Twelve Apostles mountain range.

Though its decor and formal ambience now come off as a bit dated, La Perla in beachy Sea Point has become a local legend since opening in 1959 (Marlene Dietrich once ate here). Stick to the fresh seafood, and request a seat on the recently refurbished terrace, a popular spot for “sundowners,” the British colonial tradition of outdoor sunset cocktails.

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