48 hours in: Cape Town

South Africa's most beautiful city is the perfect destination for those in search of stunning scenery, warmer temperatures and good value



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WHY GO NOW?

With its dramatic location, tumultuous history and collision of cultures, Cape Town should be on everyone's wish-list. In January South Africa's most attractive city offers the ideal escape from the northern hemisphere winter: near-perfect days and cool nights. And, bluntly, it's a cheap city: the South African rand has mirrored sterling's decline, and the exchange rate at the start of this year is exactly the same as a year ago.

TOUCH DOWN

British Airways (0844 493 0787, ba.com), South African Airways (0871 722 1111, flysaa.com) and Virgin Atlantic (0870 380 2007, virgin-atlantic.com) fly non-stop from Heathrow to Cape Town. The airport is 22km east of the city. A taxi to the centre takes about 20 minutes and costs 200-250 rand (£14.40-18). City Hopper airport shuttle buses (00 27 21 934 4440) charge around R100-150 (£7.20-10.80) per person to the city centre, a little more to the Waterfront. En route, you'll pass the Cape Flats, a massive sprawl of matchbox houses and townships that house well over half the city's population.

GET YOUR BEARINGS

The locals use Table Mountain as an orientation point ("Can you see the mountain? Good, walk towards it and we're on your right..."). But Cape Town's irregular layout can sometimes leave tourists wandering around in perplexed circles. Downtown Cape Town is known as the City Bowl. The main street is Long Street, home to plenty of restaurants, the city's nightlife, some quirky shops and a dozen or more backpacker hostels. Much of the action happens around the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, a shopping mall-cum-restaurant complex based in a harbour on the city's northern shores. A little further around the coast, Camps Bay and Clifton are the local answer to St Tropez, where the city's young and beautiful meet to sip martinis while watching the sun setting into the Atlantic.

The Visitor Information Centre (1) is on the corner of Burg and Strand Streets (00 27 21 426 5639; www.tourismcapetown.co.za); it opens 8am-5pm from Monday to Friday, 8.30am-1pm on Saturdays, 9am-1pm on Sundays.

CHECK IN

The city's oldest hotel is the magnificent Mount Nelson (2) at 76 Orange Street (00 27 21 483 1000; mountnelson.co.za). Rooms reflect the hotel's 19th-century origins, and the extensive grounds offer respite from the busy city centre – just a 10-minute walk away. Doubles start at R4,950 (£356) including breakfast.

For a more modern option, try An African Villa (3) at 19 Carstens Street (00 27 21 423 2162; capetowncity.co.za/villa), a boutique hotel with chic African-themed rooms and a friendly welcome. Doubles from R995 (£72), which includes breakfast.

Cape Town Backpackers (4) is just off the main drag at 81 New Church Street (00 27 21 426 0200; capetownbackpackers.com). Rooms are spotless and stylish; even the dorms come with a fluffy towel at the end of each bed. Dorm beds are R110 (£8) excluding breakfast. Doubles are R300 (£22) with a shared bathroom, R500 (£36) with an en-suite bathroom.

TAKE A VIEW

Take the cable car that revolves 360 degrees as it sweeps visitors to the flat top of Table Mountain. The Lower Cableway Station (5) is on Tafelberg Road, a five-minute cab ride from the city centre. The cableway runs every 15 minutes from 8am until around 9.30pm, return tickets R145 (£10.40). It's a fine way to spend the morning, but if you're feeling energetic the challenging two-hour walk to the 670m summit of Lion's Head gives a superlative view of the city with its iconic landmark as a backdrop.

WINDOW SHOPPING

For alternative souvenirs check out the African Music Store, the African Bead Centre and the multi-storey Pan African Market (6) on Long Street. Make time for some hard haggling at the excellent curio market at Greenmarket Square (7).

LUNCH ON THE RUN

It's a steep hike to get from the Long Street area to the Noon Gun Tea Room (8) on Longmarket Street (00 27 21 424 0529), but worth the effort for the best koeksisters in town. These fabulously sweet snacks are given the Cape Malay treatment: a twist of deep fried dough dipped in syrup and powdered with cinnamon and coconut. The café also serves curries, but the main reason to hike up here is for what happens at noon. Just before midday, scramble up the path to Signal Hill (9) for some wonderful views and to hear the noon gun in action – a cannon that heralds the afternoon every day except Sunday.

CULTURAL AFTERNOON

Cape Town has some fascinating museums that are sufficiently close to one another to be combined on a busy afternoon. Start in the Bo Kaap, the city's Muslim district. Inhale the aromas of Cape Malay cooking and admire the glorious clash of brightly pained houses on Chiappini Street (10), probably the most photographed road in the city. The Bo Kaap Museum at 71 Wale Street offers a history of the area; it opens 10am-5pm daily except Sunday, admission R10 (£0.72).

The Slave Lodge (11) on the corner of Adderley and Wale Streets is one of the city's best laid-out and most interesting museums; it opens 10am-5pm daily except Sunday, admission R15 (£1.10).

Next stop: the Company's Gardens (12), a fine city park. Once little more than a vegetable patch for the Dutch East India Company, the park today houses the government buildings and the Tuynhuys – the official Cape Town office of South Africa's president. It's also home to the South African Museum and Planetarium (open 10am-5pm daily, R15/£1.10) and the National Gallery (open 10am-5pm daily except Monday, R15/£1.10).

Take the south-east exit from the park and head towards the fascinating, if distressing, District Six Museum (13) on the way; the wretched years of Apartheid are exposed in all their cruelty. It opens 9am-4pm daily except Sunday (to 3pm on Mondays); suggested donation R10 (£0.72).

End your historical hike at the Castle of Good Hope (14) – the city's oldest building, containing exhibits of South Africa's military history; open 9.30am-4pm daily, admission R20 (£1.45).

AN APERITIF

Buses leave every 20 minutes from the main bus station (15) on Adderley Street to the Victoria and Albert Waterfront (16) (00 27 21 408 7600; waterfront.co.za); the fare is R4 (30p). Much of the place is plainly devoted to tourism, but it also has some local shops (don't miss the township art in the Red Shed) and a postcard view of the mountain. Mitchell's pub at the Waterfront serves excellent beer of the same name, fresh from a microbrewery along the Garden Route. Join the locals at the outdoor tables for a fine pint and a spot of people watching.

DINING WITH THE LOCALS

Back in the city centre, Nyoni's Kraal (17) at 98 Long Street (00 27 21 422 0529; nyoniskraal.co.za) has a permanently fired-up braai, or barbecue. You can sample fresh game meat, such as ostrich, kudu or springbok, or some unusual African dishes including chicken's feet, tripe and Mopani worms. Main courses are between R50 and R90 (£3.60 to £6.50).

SUNDAY MORNING – GO TO CHURCH

St George's Cathedral (18) (00 27 21 424 7360), known affectionately as "The People's Cathedral", welcomed worshippers of all races during the apartheid years. It became a regular meeting point for civil rights protesters, even being raided by the police on a couple of occasions. As the seat of the Archbishop of Cape Town, the cathedral saw crowds of parishioners flocking to hear the sermons of Desmond Tutu in the 1980s as he campaigned for an end to the apartheid era. He still attends mass whenever he is in Cape Town. Sunday services are held at 7am, 8am and 12.15pm, with evensong at 7pm. On other days it opens 8am-5pm (Saturdays to 1pm).

TAKE A HIKE

The three-hour Footsteps to Freedom walking tour provides a good overview of the historically packed central district. It starts at the Visitor Information Centre (1). Tours leave daily at 10.30am and cost R100 (£7.20); book on 00 27 21 426 4260.

LUNCH ON THE RUN

Grab a gourmet picnic from Andiamo (19) at 72 Waterkant Street in the fashionable De Waterkant district (00 27 21 421 3687; andiamo.co.za). There are more than 2,000 options in the deli, so designing the perfect sandwich could take a while. It opens 9am-11pm daily (to midnight on Friday and Saturday).

A WALK IN THE PARK

Spread out a blanket and enjoy your picnic in the magnificent Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens (sanbi.org). Founded in 1660 by the first governor of the Cape, Jan van Riebeeck, the park was bequeathed to the nation by the later owner Cecil John Rhodes. Work off your lunch by following the fynbos walk: the Cape's most celebrated plant is at its most colourful in the summer months. From November to April a series of concerts is held in the park on Sunday evenings, with Table Mountain providing the perfect stage set. The gardens open 8am-7pm daily, admission R32 (£2.30).

THE ICING ON THE CAKE

You can taste some splendid wines just 10 minutes from the city centre. In fact, the Constantia vineyards were the first to be planted back in 1685. Enjoy down to earth, no-hassle tastings and a walk through the magnificent grounds of South Africa's original wine estate, Groot Constantia (00 27 21 794 5128, grootconstantia.co.za). The grounds are littered with old relics, monuments and a couple of good museums. They open 10am-5pm daily, tastings R25 (£1.80).

Shun the quick route back to the city and opt instead for a scenic drive along the coast. The tight bends (114 of them) and steep cliffs can make Chapman's Peak Drive a hair-raising journey but you can stop regularly at the viewpoints for superb views of the ocean and picturesque Hout Bay. From Constantia take the R64 road to Noordhoek, then head north. It's a toll road, but R26 (£1.90) for these views is a snip.

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