Good-looking, fun-loving, sporty and sociable. If Cape Town was in the dating game that's how her profile would read. And - for once - it's all true. The Mother City of South Africa occupies one of the world's most stunning locations, with an iconic mountain slap-bang in her centre.
As beautiful as the surrounding beaches and vineyards can be, it's the rugged wilderness of Table Mountain, coated in a unique flora, that grabs everyone's attention.
Long before the Dutch took a fancy to the Cape Peninsula in the 17th century, the land was home to the Khoisan people who valued the spiritual power of the mountains and their life-providing water. While the European immigrants, and the slaves they brought here, have all shaped the physical environment of South Africa's third-largest city, Table Mountain - now protected within a national park that covers some 75% of the peninsula - remains at Cape Town's heart. This ever present backdrop is the city's adventure playground, as well as a source of legend and continuing spiritual nourishment.
Under the Khoisan name of Hoerikwaggo - meaning 'Mountain in the Sea' - the national park is promoting a new series of trails that will allow visitors, for the first time, to sleep on the mountain top while hiking a world-class trail from Cape Point to the City Bowl. Complementing the mountain's natural beauty is Cape Town's eye-catching way with design and colour in everything from the brightly painted façades of the Bo-Kaap and the Victorian bathing chalets of Muizenberg, to the contemporary Afro-chic décor of the many excellent guesthouses, restaurants and bars. The city is crammed with galleries displaying amazing artworks and shops selling wonderfully inventive craftwork. It's also getting a reputation as the fashion nexus of South Africa. This creativity seems to spring naturally from the city's multiethnic population, proof of South Africa's status as the rainbow nation and a visual record of the country's tumultuous recorded history of over 350 years.
For all the city centre's visual harmony and cosmopolitan atmosphere, you don't need to be in Cape Town for long to realise that the scars of modern South Africa's violent birth and apartheid adolescence still run deep. The wealth of Camps Bay and Constantia sits side by side with the ingrained poverty of townships, such as Khayelitsha, and the deprived coloured suburbs, home to the vast majority of the city's citizens. Friendly as Capetonians can be to visitors, among themselves suspicions and misinterpretations endure, and if you take one of the deservedly popular trips into the townships you'll be a step ahead of the vast majority of locals.
Seeing life in the townships may shock and upset, but you'll also discover it's not a one-note story of grim survival. There are huge differences in lifestyle and many great examples of civic pride and optimism to balance against the shocking crime and HIV/AIDS statistics. And there's ubuntu, true African hospitality and care for fellow human beings. Look across the city and you'll also see people of all skin colours working together to make Cape Town a better place for everyone. Discovering the Mother City's true diversity and spirit is all part of getting the most out of a visit here.
Reality check aside, Cape Town is an old pro at showing visitors a good time. There may not be game parks on Kruger's scale, but there are plenty of great wildlife-spotting opportunities, from the penguins at Boulders to the antelopes, buffaloes and black rhino at Solole Game Reserve. The restaurants and bars compare favourably with those of other cosmopolitan cities. There's a lively cultural scene, particularly when it comes to music, which pervades every corner of the city, and if outdoor activities and adrenaline buzzes are your thing, you've come to the right place. As local troubadour David Krammer's sing-along anthem for the Cricket World Cup has it, 'Welcome to Cape Town/Enjoy the party/Come in and have some fun/Cape Town's number one'.
The capital of Western Cape province and the parliamentary capital of the republic, Cape Town works in a way that so few cities on the African continent do. Historic buildings have been saved, businesses are booming, inner-city crime is coming under control and you'll seldom be stuck for a parking space. Factor back in those stunning mountains, magnificent surf beaches and outstanding vineyards and you'll soon discover - like many before you - that it's easy to lose track of time while exploring all the wonders of this unique Southern African city. Now don't you think it's time you made a date with Cape Town?
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