48 Hours In: Cape Town

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There's lots to celebrate in South Africa's dramatic coastal city this year, from a festival of design to a milestone for democracy, says Chris Leadbeater

Travel essentials

Why go now?

This is a big year for Cape Town. It marks the 20th anniversary of the dawn of modern democracy in South Africa, with the election as president of the recently departed Nelson Mandela – a moment that will be celebrated in a city that is the main home of the government.

Cape Town is also the World Design Capital for 2014, and hopes to use this as a platform to begin the re-engineering of a metropolis whose districts are still divided along apartheid lines, by highways and railways. See wdccape town2014.com.

Touch down

Cape Town airport (00 27 21 937 1200; www.acsa.co.za) sits 12 miles east of the centre in Matroosfontein. British Airways (0844 493 0758; ba.com) flies twice daily from Heathrow. Virgin Atlantic (0844 209 7777; virgin-atlantic.com) offers daily direct flights from Heathrow – though this seasonal service finishes at the end of April. South African Airways (0844 375 9680; flysaa.com) flies from Heathrow every day via Johannesburg.

Touchdown Taxis (00 27 83 652 0786) is the official airport cab company. Rides to the centre take around half an hour depending on traffic, costing from 150 rand (£9). MyCiti bus A01 leaves every half hour, from 4.45am to 10.15pm (R62/£3.70), taking 45 minutes to reach Breakwater Boulevard (1), behind the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront (2).

If you book with a tour operator, transfers may be included. I travelled with Cox & Kings (020 7873 5000; coxandkings.co.uk), which offers three nights at the Mount Nelson Hotel (3) including flights, transfers and breakfast, from £1,345 per person.

Get your bearings

Cape Town is South Africa's second-biggest city, the capital of the province of Western Cape. It sits at the south-west corner of Africa, framed by rocky ridges, of which Table Mountain (4) is most iconic. The city flows southwards and uphill. Areas such as Gardens and District Six lie in the centre, with Sea Point and Green Point to the west by the ocean.

The MyCiti bus network (00 27 800 656 463; myciti.org.za) has 19 routes. Journeys under 5km cost from R4.40 (25p). However, the centre can be seen on foot – it is safe to walk in daylight. Cape Town Tourism has an information office (5) at the Waterfront on Dock Road (00 27 21 408 7600; capetown.travel), open daily 9am to 6pm. For more information, see southafrica.net.

Check in

A convenient four-star at the corner of Strand and Loop Streets, Strand Tower Hotel (6) (00 27 21 431 7500; strandtowerhotel.co.za) offers doubles start from R1,300 (£77), excluding breakfast.

Table Bay Hotel (7) is the five-star option at the Waterfront at Quay 6 (00 27 21 406 5000; suninternational.com/table-bay). It has doubles starting at R3,460 (£204), including breakfast.

And the Mount Nelson Hotel (3) is an Orient Express dame, dating back to 1899, at 76 Orange Street (00 27 21 483 1000; mountnelson.co.za). Doubles start at R3,960 (£234), including breakfast.

Day one

Take a hike

Start at the corner of Buitenkant and Darling Streets, where the Castle of Good Hope (8), the city's Dutch fort, sings of the 17th century as the oldest colonial building in South Africa (00 27 21 787 1260; castleofgoodhope.co.za) – open daily 9am to 4pm; admission R30 (£1.75).

A little to the north-west along Darling Street, pause outside City Hall (9). This ornate pile of Somerset limestone, built in 1905, hosted one of the 20th century's keynote events – Mandela's speech to 60,000 people, preaching tolerance and forgiveness, on the day he was set free from prison (11 February 1990). Banners bearing his face adorn the balcony.

Continue along Darling Street and take the third left into Parliament Street and walk to Church Square (10), where marble memorial blocks remind you that this was once a slave market.

Window shopping

Reborn in the past 20 years, the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront (2) is the city's retail hub. Shopping here – in the likes of the Victoria Wharf mall (11) (waterfront.co.za) – is of the name-brand variety, but the heady swirl of people is a totem of modern South Africa.

You can find vintage fashions at the flea market held daily, except Sunday, 9am to 4pm, on Greenmarket Square (12). But the city's most intriguing pocket of stores lies east of the centre, at 375 Albert Road in Woodstock. The Old Biscuit Mill (13) (00 27 21 447 8194; theoldbiscuit mill.co.za) makes fine use of a former factory. Wine @ The Mill (00 27 83 357 9353; wineatthemill.com) sells Cape wines, Cocoafair (00 27 21 447 7355; cocoafair.com) dispenses organic chocolates and the market area deals in cheeses and coffee.

Lunch on the run

The Mill has several lunch options, including Burrata (00 27 21 447 6505; burrata.co.za), which serves a selection of pizzas. The "Di Mare" comes laden with prawns and squid for R112 (£6.50).

Cultural afternoon

In the 18th century, Slave Lodge (14), on the corner of Adderley and Wale Streets, was a processing house for the trade in humanity. Open daily, except Sunday, 10am to 5pm, R30 (£1.75), it sheds light on the practices of the era (00 27 21 467 7229; iziko.org.za).

The District Six Museum (15) shows how this busy area was emptied under apartheid rule by the removal of its black population to segregated suburbs. Artefacts – old photos, school uniforms – make these persecution tales personal. It is open 9am to 4pm daily, except Sunday, at 25a Buitenkant Street (00 27 21 466 7200; districtsix.co.za; entry R30/£1.75).

Elsewhere, the South African National Gallery (16) on Government Avenue (00 27 21 481 3970; iziko.org.za), showcases art by British luminaries (Gainsborough, Turner) and major South African figures (Walter Battiss, Irma Stern). Open daily 10am to 5pm; entry R30 (£1.75).

An aperitif

Tjing Tjing (17) at 165 Longmarket Street (00 27 21 422 4920; tjingtjing.co.za), is one of a clutch of trendy central bars, with a rooftop terrace and local beers from R19 (£1.10).

Dining with the locals

The Victoria and Alfred Waterfront (2) has a range of inviting eateries. Karibu (18) at Shop 156, The Wharf Centre (00 27 21 421 7005; kariburestaurant.co.za) serves South African cuisine, including ostrich fillet with onion marmalade for R169 (£10).

Hildebrand Ristorante (19) at Pierhead (00 27 21 425 3385; hildebrand.co.za) revels in seafood – its tuna steak with pesto mash is R140 (£8.25).

Planet, meanwhile, is the splendid in-house restaurant at Mount Nelson Hotel (3), where the signature beetroot-glazed springbok is R195 (£11.50).

Day two

Sunday morning: go to church

Pitched at 5 Wale Street, St George's Cathedral (20) is a Victorian feast of red brick and stained glass (00 27 21 424 7360; sgcathedral.co.za). Mass is at 10am. Its key period was 1986 to 1996, when Desmond Tutu was Archbishop of Cape Town. Its proximity to the South African Parliament (21) – directly behind on Government Avenue – underlines just how this great man was a thorn in the side of apartheid.

Take a ride

Robben Island (22) was Cape Town's most pertinent location before Mandela's death – but is even more in focus now. Ferries depart daily at 9am, 11am, 1pm and 3pm from the Waterfront (2) at Nelson Mandela Gateway (though not in bad weather), where the small Robben Island Museum (23) (00 27 21 413 4220; robben-island.org.za; weekdays 7.30am to 6.30pm, weekends 8am to 6pm) gives an overview of the island prison's history.

Tours cost R250 (£15) and unveil the prison buildings and lime quarry where Mandela lived and toiled from 1964-1982.

Out to brunch

The House Of Machines (24) at 84 Shortmarket Street (00 27 21 426 1400; thehouseofmachines.com), is part bar, part motorbike workshop, part café. A roast chicken and pesto sandwich is R50 (£2.90).

Take a view

Table Mountain (4) can be inaccessible in bad weather. But the views – across the centre and Table Bay – make it an essential element of a weekend in the city.

The fast way to the 3,558ft summit is the Table Mountain Aerial Cableway (00 27 21 424 8181; tablemountain.net), which departs from the lower station (25) on Tafelberg Road. During February, the first car up is at 8am, the last up at 7.30pm, and the last down at 8.30pm. Singles R110 (£6.50), returns R215 (£12.50).

A walk in the park

The Company's Garden (26) is an indelible fragment of the city's story (www.capetown.gov.za/en/parks). It dates back to 1652, when Dutch settlers founded it as an agricultural plot for restocking ships in the harbour. Now, it is a soft leafy space that provides a backdrop to the National Gallery (16) and De Tuynhuys (27) – the presidential office.

Icing on the cake

Mandela Rhodes Place (28) (00 27 21 481 4000; mandelarhodesplace.co.za) is a swish hotel and spa where the former president is saluted in 21st-century manner with galleries selling African art and cafés such as Doppio Zero (00 27 21 424 9225; doppio.co.za) where iced coffee is R30 (£1.75).

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