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Cape Town, the oldest city in southern Africa, is regularly heralded as one of the most beautiful on Earth. The massive sandstone bulk of Table Mountain, often draped in a flowing "tablecloth" of clouds, forms an imposing backdrop, while minutes away, pristine sandy beaches line the cliff-hugging coast. Mountainous slopes sustaining the world's most varied botanic kingdom (some 9,000 species strong) overlook fertile valleys carpeted with vines. As you drive away from the highway, you can spot zebra and wildebeest grazing unperturbed by the hubbub below. The place has the uncanny ability to make everyone feel at home. Every year brings a slew of new awards and recognition.

Situated in the country's far-southwestern corner, Cape Town is physically separated from the rest of the continent by a barrier of mountains. It feels -- and is -- very different from the rest of Africa (so much so that during the 2009 national election campaign, a group calling itself the Cape Party campaigned with a call for regional independence). The hot, dry summers and cool, wet winters are Mediterranean, while the Atlantic Ocean remains icy throughout the year. It is by far the most cosmopolitan city in Southern Africa, and you're as likely to hear locals speak German and French as you are Afrikaans, English, and Xhosa. Unique, too, is the architectural heritage -- a multifaceted colonial past gave us Cape Dutch homesteads, neo-Gothic churches, Muslim minarets, and Georgian and Victorian terraces that punctuate an evolving Art Deco and brutalist cityscape where cranes seem to be ever in motion.

Inevitably, colonialism has left its mark on the residents of Cape Town as well; the majority of the population is made up of the mixed-blood descendants of European settlers, Asian slaves, and indigenous people. This Afrikaans-speaking group is referred to as the "coloureds" -- a divisive designation conferred during the apartheid era, when those of mixed race were relocated behind Table Mountain into the grim eastern interior plain known as the Cape Flats. Since the scrapping of influx control in 1986, this area has seen phenomenal growth, and today squatter towns form a seamless ribbon of cardboard-and-corrugated-iron housing that many visitors only glimpse on their way from or to the airport; for real insight into contemporary South African society, though, you'll want to join an eye-opening cultural tour of these townships, where you're likely to discover common ground through music, food, or humor.

Cape Town's newest residents come from the poverty-stricken Eastern Cape; others hail from as far afield as Somalia, Angola, and Mozambique, making it one of South Africa's fastest-growing cities. Unfortunately, the gangster-ridden Cape Flats have also made it one of the most violent. Although violent crime is mostly contained in these areas, visitors to Cape Town should take the same precautions they would in any large city -- don't wear expensive jewelry or flash fancy cameras, and don't let your credit card out of your sight; in the buildup to the much-anticipated 2010 FIFA World Cup championships, great strides have been made in tourist security, but organized crime syndicates will be eyeing the blossoming city with avarice.

Many who come to Cape Town choose to just whip straight out from the airport to the Winelands, where you can stay amid some of the best-preserved examples of Cape Dutch architecture, sample award-winning wines, and play golf on a variety of gorgeous courses. This area makes a great base if you're looking for a relaxing, rural escape, with the bright lights of the city a mere 60-minute drive away; the coastal town of Hermanus, capital of the Whale Coast, a 70-minute drive away; and the lakes, lagoons, and forests of the Garden Route an easy 4- to 5-hour drive along the N2. Alternatively, visit the Winelands or Whale Coast as a day trip, and base yourself here, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, where the sun sets on an unbelievably azure sea. Regardless of where you choose to stay, you will leave Cape Town wishing you had more time to explore, so plan your stay, then add at least 2 more days or a week, if possible.

Visitor Information

You'll find a Cape Town tourism desk at the airport (tel. 021/935-3160; international terminus daily 7am-5pm, domestic daily 8am-midnight), but the best place to gather information is at Cape Town Tourism, in the city center at the corner of Burg and Castle streets (tel. 021/487-6800; www.capetown.travel; Mon-Fri 8am-6pm, Sat 8:30am-2pm, Sun 9am-1pm). Knowledgeable staff can assist with anything from specialized tour bookings to transport queries and general information. You'll also find a wine bar, where you can do wine tastings and arrange for exports, a foreign-exchange desk, a VAT desk (to claim back the tax on certain purchases;), and an Internet cafe. There are hundreds of brochures, but look for the Footsteps to Freedom Cape Town City Guide, which has a good map covering the top sites, as well as the series of special-interest maps. Shuttles to the city's top attractions, the hop-on, hop-off Cape Town Explorer bus, and city walking tours depart regularly from here.

A satellite tourism office at the Waterfront Clock Tower (tel. 021/408-7600) has similar services and longer hours (9am-9pm), and there are many more information offices scattered throughout the region, including one at the Table Mountain lower cableway station (tel. 021/422-1075).

The Netcare Travel Clinic, 1107 Picbell Parkade, 58 Strand St. (tel. 021/419-3172; www.travelclinic.co.za) offers expert advice and medical services (inoculations, malaria tablets), should you be traveling farther afield. MTI Medi-Travel International (tel. 021/419-1888; www.meditravel.co.za) has similar services, but you may find its Waterfront Clock Tower location more convenient.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.