You really can’t overstate the case for visiting Cape Town. First, there’s the in-your-face beauty of a craggy mountain range that drops precipitously into a glittering sea, its flanks carpeted in greens and delicate florals – the Cape Floral Kingdom, smallest yet richest in the world.
Then there’s the pristine white beaches lapped by – it must be said – a chilly Atlantic, their curves defined by giant granite boulders to bake on, and burbling mountain streams in dappled forests. The proximity of nature is a constant source of amazement here, whether it is spotting zebra and wildebeest grazing on the slopes of Table Mountain from the highway, watching whales breach from a restaurant deck overlooking False Bay, supplicating before the Twelve Apostles mountain during a yoga class on Camps Bay beach or being halted by cavorting baboons near Cape Point.
Yet Cape Town has a cool urban edge, too: excellent art galleries, hip bars, world-rated restaurants, design-savvy shops, and home to Africa’s innovative artists and designers, drawn by the city’s innate beauty.
Certainly it has always been the most cosmopolitan city in Southern Africa: the Dutch who planted the first gardens and built the sombre Castle of Good Hope in 1666 were followed by the French, who augmented the wine-making skills and gabled homesteads of the original colonists; Malay slaves brought spices and minarets; the English left Georgian mansions and Victorian terraced homes, and refugees from all over Africa have made their way south to seek their fortune in the shadow of its flat-topped mountain.
Food, jazz and gospel tours introduce a broad spectrum of cultural experiences, and no visit is complete without at least one full day exploring some of the surrounding vine-carpeted valleys, their rich terroir spawning not only award-winning wines but superb produce, accounting for some of the best (and most affordable) fine dining in the world. It’s a city that has only really been open to the world for the last two decades, and – at R17/18 to £1 – still offers excellent value for money, and a sense of new discovery. Small wonder then that Cape Town has – for the third year in a row – won the Telegraph reader’s survey award as the best city in the world to visit. Despite this the city remains highly seasonal, which keeps a cap on development – and the number of beds. Like most things, it pays to plan ahead.
When to go
You can visit Cape Town pretty much any time of year. Summer is the most popular, with peak season falling between mid-December and early January.
Another surge of visitors descends during the hot months of February and March. In April, the temperatures are balmy, the light is softer, the Cape Doctor (the South-easterly wind that howls through the city) is dormant and the sunsets are spectacular.
The temperate winter sometimes starts in May, more often June/July. Sunny days alternate with downpours that bring verdant relief, the mountain streams gushing into rocky gullies and watering the winter-flowering fynbos, including proteas, lilies and aloes. This is the most exhilarating time of year to explore the slopes of Table Mountain on foot.
July to November is the time when the southern right whales migrate to calve and nurse, providing the best land-based whale-watching in the world – but be warned, July and August can be wet. October to November is when the Cape floral kingdom again wows with a new cycle of flowering species, while the beaches, still relatively empty, sparkle in the temperate sun. This is when some of the best deals of the summer season are to be had – especially if you book early.
Where to go
No visit to Cape Town is complete without circumnavigating the peninsula, travelling south from the city, Waterfront or Camps Bay (the most popular areas where visitors choose to base themselves) along the M3, stopping at Kirstenbosch (these gardens are essential viewing) and visiting a few Constantia wineries en route (Klein Constantia and Eagles Nest make a good contrast). I’d recommend you stop for lunch in the charming seaside village of Kalk Bay, and set aside an hour or so to browse the quaint shops and art galleries there (or revisit them at a later time), before tackling Cape Point and Chapman’s Peak Drive. Llundudno, Clifton and Boulders are the city’s prettiest beaches. And do set aside a day to tour the Winelands options, ringed with mountains – Stellenbosch terroir produces the best red wines and has a lovely historic town centre. With so much choice, it’s best to book a winetour (gourmetwinetours.co.za) but do ask that your tour includes the Helshoogte pass: linking Stellenbosch to pretty Franschhoek, the scenery will have your spirit soaring.
Know before you go
Currency: South Africa Rand (R or ZAR).
Telephone code: From the UK, dial 00 27 for South Africa, followed by 21 for Cape Town. From within South Africa, dial 021 for Cape Town.
Wi-Fi: Most hotels and guest lodges offer free Wi-Fi as do an increasing number of excellent coffee shops. For a list of some of them, see redbutton.co.za (then click on “sites”). Loading Bay (30 Hudson Street, De Waterkant) ticks all the right boxes – good coffee, good food, cool people, close to Cape Quarter shopping precinct and free Wi-Fi. If you want a bit of a sea view, head to Caffe Neo at 129 Beach Road, Mouille Point.
Time difference: +1 hour/2 hours
Flight time: From London to Cape Town is about 12 hours.
Local laws and etiquette
As in any large city, crime is an ongoing concern, but note that most incidents occur away from tourist areas. That said, take the usual precautions: don’t flash your wealth; don’t visit no-go zones (your host or concierge will advise); don’t walk when there are no other people around; and be alert/keep a close eye and hand on your belongings.
It takes only a fraction of a second to clone a card, using a skimmer concealed in the hand. Don’t let your card out of sight and keep a close eye on how it is handled.