Cape Town Overview

Cape Town is the second-most populated city in South Africa after Johannesburg, and the provincial capital and primate city of the Western Cape. As the seat of the National Parliament, it is also the legislative capital of the country. It forms part of the City of Cape Town metropolitan municipality. The city is famous for its harbour as well as its natural setting in the Cape floral kingdom, as well as for such well-known landmarks as Table Mountain and Cape Point. Cape Town is also Africa’s most popular tourist destination.

Located on the shore of Table Bay, Cape Town was originally developed by the Dutch East India Company as a victualling (supply) station for Dutch ships sailing to Eastern Africa, India, and the Far East. Jan van Riebeeck’s arrival on 6 April 1652 established the first permanent European settlement in South Africa. Cape Town quickly outgrew its original purpose as the first European outpost at the Castle of Good Hope, becoming the economic and cultural hub of the Cape Colony. Until the Witwatersrand Gold Rush and the development of Johannesburg, Cape Town was the largest city in South Africa. Today it is one of the most multicultural cities in the world, reflecting its role as a major destination for immigrants and expatriates to South Africa. As of 2011 the metropolitan region had an estimated population of 3.74 million.

The city was named the World Design Capital for 2014 by the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design.

Cape Town is located at latitude 33.55° S (approx. the same as Sydney and Buenos Aires and equivalent to Casablanca and Los Angeles in the northern hemisphere) and longitude 18.25° E. Table Mountain, with its near vertical cliffs and flat-topped summit over 1,000 m (3,300 ft) high, and with Devil’s Peak and Lion’s Head on either side, together form a dramatic mountainous backdrop enclosing the central area of Cape Town, the so-called City Bowl. A thin strip of cloud, known colloquially as the “tablecloth”, sometimes forms on top of the mountain. To the immediate south, the Cape Peninsula is a scenic mountainous spine jutting 40 kilometres (25 mi) southwards into the Atlantic Ocean and terminating at Cape Point. There are over 70 peaks above 1,000 feet (300 m) within Cape Town’s official city limits. Many of the city’s suburbs lie on the large plain called the Cape Flats, which extends over 50 kilometres (30 mi) to the east and joins the peninsula to the mainland. The Cape Flats is situated on what is known as a rising marine plain, consisting mostly of sandy geology and confirming that at one point Table Mountain was itself an island. The Cape Town region generally, with its Mediterranean climate, extensive coastline, rugged mountain ranges, coastal plains, inland valleys and semi-desert fringes, has much in common with Southern California.

Cape Town was home to many leaders of the anti-apartheid movement. On Robben Island, a former penitentiary island 10 kilometres from the city, many famous political prisoners were held for years. In one of the most famous moments marking the end of apartheid, Nelson Mandela made his first public speech since his imprisonment, from the balcony of Cape Town City Hall hours after being released on 11 February 1990. His speech heralded the beginning of a new era for the country, and the first democratic election, was held four years later, on 27 April 1994. Nobel Square in the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront features statues of South Africa’s four Nobel Peace Prize winners: Albert Luthuli, Desmond Tutu, F. W. de Klerk and Nelson Mandela.

Cape Town is not only the most popular international tourist destination in South Africa, but Africa as a whole. This is due to its good climate, natural setting, and well-developed infrastructure. The city has several well-known natural features that attract tourists, most notably Table Mountain, which forms a large part of the Table Mountain National Park and is the back end of the City Bowl. Reaching the top of the mountain can be achieved either by hiking up, or by taking the Table Mountain Cableway. Cape Point is recognised as the dramatic headland at the end of the Cape Peninsula. Many tourists also drive along Chapman’s Peak Drive, a narrow road that links Noordhoek with Hout Bay, for the views of the Atlantic Ocean and nearby mountains. It is possible to either drive or hike up Signal Hill for closer views of the City Bowl and Table Mountain.

Many tourists also visit Cape Town’s beaches, which are popular with local residents. Due to the city’s unique geography, it is possible to visit several different beaches in the same day, each with a different setting and atmosphere. Though the Cape’s water ranges from cold to mild, the difference between the two sides of the city is dramatic. While the Atlantic Seaboard averages annual water temperatures barely above that of coastal California around 13 °C (55 °F), the False Bay coast is very much warmer, averaging between 16 and 17 °C (61 and 63 °F) annually. This is similar to water temperatures in much of the Northern Mediterranean (for example Nice). In summer, False Bay water averages slightly over 20 °C (68 °F), with 22 °C (72 °F) a common high. Beaches located on the Atlantic Coast tend to have very cold water due to the Benguela current which originates from the Southern Ocean, whilst the water at False Bay beaches may be warmer by up to 10 °C (18 °F) at the same moment due to the influence of the warm Agulhas current, and the surface warming effects of the South Easter wind.

Both coasts are equally popular, although the beaches in affluent Clifton and elsewhere on the Atlantic Coast are better developed with restaurants and cafés, with a strip of restaurants and bars accessible to the beach at Camps Bay. Boulders Beach near Simon’s Town is known for its colony of African Penguins. Surfing is popular and the city hosts the Red Bull Big Wave Africa surfing competition every year.

The city has several notable cultural attractions. The Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, built on top of part of the docks of the Port of Cape Town, is the city’s most visited tourist attraction. It is also one of the city’s most popular shopping venues, with several hundred shops and the Two Oceans Aquarium. The V&A also hosts the Nelson Mandela Gateway, through which ferries depart for Robben Island. It is possible to take a ferry from the V&A to Hout Bay, Simon’s Town and the Cape Fur Seal colonies on Seal and Duiker Islands. Several companies offer tours of the Cape Flats, a mostly Coloured township, and Khayelitsha, a mostly black township.

Cape Town is noted for its architectural heritage, with the highest density of Cape Dutch style buildings in the world. Cape Dutch style, which combines the architectural traditions of the Netherlands, Germany, France and Indonesia, is most visible in Constantia, the old government buildings in the Central Business District, and along Long Street. The annual Cape Town Minstrel Carnival, also known by its Afrikaans name of Kaapse Klopse, is a large minstrel festival held annually on 2 January or “Tweede Nuwe Jaar” (Afrikaans: Second New Year). Competing teams of minstrels parade in brightly coloured costumes, performing Cape Jazz, either carrying colourful umbrellas or playing an array of musical instruments. The Artscape Theatre Centre is the main performing arts venue in Cape Town.

The city also encloses the 36 hectare Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden that contains protected natural forest and fynbos along with a variety of animals and birds. There are over 7,000 species in cultivation at Kirstenbosch, including many rare and threatened species of the Cape Floristic Region. In 2004 this Region, including Kirstenbosch, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Cape Town’s transport system links it to the rest of South Africa; it serves as the gateway to other destinations within the province. The Cape Winelands and in particular the towns of Stellenbosch, Paarl and Franschhoek are popular day trips from the city for sightseeing and wine tasting. Whale watching is popular amongst tourists: Southern Right Whales and Humpback Whales are seen off the coast during the breeding season (August to November) and Bryde’s Whales and Killer Whale can be seen any time of the year. The nearby town of Hermanus is known for its Whale Festival, but whales can also be seen in False Bay. Heaviside’s dolphins are endemic to the area and can be seen from the coast north of Cape Town; Dusky dolphins live along the same coast and can occasionally be seen from the ferry to Robben Island.

The only complete windmill in South Africa is Mostert’s Mill, Mowbray. It was built in 1796 and restored in 1935 and again in 1995.

The most popular areas for visitors to stay include Camps Bay, Sea Point, the V&A Waterfront, the City Bowl, Hout Bay, Constantia, Rondebosch, Newlands, Somerset West, Hermanus and Stellenbosch, as well.

The total accommodation capacity in Cape Town currently stands at close to 60,000 beds (29,800 rooms) in 2,690 establishments, the highest of all South African cities.