South Africa -Cape Town - Overview

One of the most beautiful cities in South Africa, and possibly the world, is strategically situated at the south-western tip of Africa. When the world carried out its trade by boat, Cape Town was an important stopping off point on the spice route to and from Asia. The city lies about 60km north of Cape Point, in a natural bowl with the magnificent Table Mountain to the rear and the vast Atlantic Ocean to the front.

It has the reputation as being the most laid back city in South Africa with Capetonians adhering to "Africa time", which is somewhat slower than most other major cities. This relaxed atmosphere is attributed to Table Mountain which is known to be amongst the most spiritual places on earth. You only have to look up to see the quartzite granite cliffs towering over the city with a protective presence. People are drawn towards the mountain and every visitor feels the need to climb up or take the revolving Cable Car to the top. At 1086 metres above sea level, you are privy to the most dramatic views of the whole of the Cape Peninsula.

Cape Town is safer than most cities on any continent with a bustling street life of shops, cafes, market stalls and street artists. This vibrancy is set amongst historic buildings of old Cape Dutch and English architecture with the Castle of Good Hope dating back to 1666, when the first Dutch settlers set up a re-victualling station for trading ships.

City Overview

With its stunning location, tucked into the arms of a broad bay, surrounded by wild, white-sand beaches and set against the canvas of Table Mountain, Cape Town is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Affectionately nicknamed the Mother City, the city is the epicentre of South Africa’s Western Cape region and the seat of South Africa’s parliament. Originally home to the nomadic Khoi people for at least 30,000 years, the Cape Peninsula was first settled, on 6 April 1652, by Dutch sailors led by Jan van Riebeek of the Dutch East India Company. Portuguese explorer Bartholemew Diaz had already discovered the Cape in 1488 and christened it Cabo Tormentoso or ‘Cape of Storms’, but Portugal’s King John II later renamed it ‘Cape of Good Hope’. In 1795, it became a British colony, when the British Empire extended its borders. The city has been the first port of call for many a European settler, entrepreneur and religious refugee, as well as for Indian, Madagascan and South-East Asian slaves. All these people interspersed with the local Khoi and Xhosa population and the city became a melting pot of cultures, religions, styles and flavours. Nowadays, traders from other African countries (such as Malawi, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia and Nigeria) also favour Cape Town, particularly because there are so many tourists there. The city has a reputation for being the least xenophobic and most welcoming city in South Africa, with a strong diversity and open-minded benevolence. Capetonians are proud of their easygoing and laid-back nature, jokingly known as the ‘Cape coma’, so different from their more frenetic counterparts in the north.

On the streets, a great variety of languages are spoken, while stalls selling all manner of crafts, food and textiles are squashed among American-style malls, European fashion boutiques, art galleries, luxury hotels, backpacker lodges and the ubiquitous chains. In summer, it is difficult to escape the glitz of the international media, whether film crews, fashion shoots, music videos or commercials, lured by great foreign exchange rates, exotic locations, a world-class infrastructure and seemingly endless supply of drop-dead gorgeous models and extras.

Although Cape Town is undeniably on the up and up, it is still surrounded by the ever-visible legacy of apartheid. The first glimpse of the city coming from the airport is of shanty towns or ‘townships’, a hangover from the days of the notorious Group Areas Act, which reserved the prime city land for whites only. At the foot of Table Mountain, the area known as District Six (once populated by the local mixed-race community known as ‘Cape coloured’), now renamed Zonnebloem, is still somewhat of a ghost town, although housing development is underway. The inhabitants were moved to the bleak and windswept Cape Flats, which has become notorious as the gangland of disaffected Cape Town youth. Even today, relatively few non-whites live in the more upmarket suburbs, although some of the former townships are gradually turning into middle-class estates as the economic situation improves.

Nevertheless, natural beauty spreads out from Cape Town. To the south, the impeccable beaches of the Cape Peninsula are fringed with pretty towns and mansions ending in the beautiful Cape Point nature reserve. To the east lies the mysterious magnificence of the Overberg, the rolling plains, deserted beaches and lofty mountains of the Southern Cape. To the north and northwest, the misty and severe splendour of the West Coast, the austere wilderness of the Cedarberg and the verdant valley of Ceres await the traveller.

Many visitors think that Cape Town is best during the peak summer months (December to February) but it is attractive all year round. Summer brings long, hot beach days and balmy outdoor evenings, but they could also be described as sweltering and overcrowded and there is the chance of the legendary strong ‘southeaster’ wind. Spring (September to November) brings blooms of flowers, while autumn (March to May) promises a golden haze of warm days. Winter (June to August), although wet and often cold, is interspersed with weeks that are both warm and clear. The city is free of tourists and wonderfully green; dolphins and whales stop in the many small bays along the coastline, and waterfalls, the most spectacular sight of this ‘secret season’, streak silver paths down the mountains.


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