Cape Town is South Africa's oldest and most pleasant city center, featuring a combination of Cape Dutch, Georgian, Victorian, and 20th-century architecture, all framed by the backdrop of Table Mountain. Hardly surprising, then, that Cape Town is also the only South African city that, with the efforts of the Cape Town Partnership, is slowly transforming itself into a residential enclave, with many of the city's period buildings being redeveloped into apartments and hotels, and retail and restaurant outlets planned to service these new city dwellers.
The prettiest axis, Adderley Street, runs past the railway station, cutting the city in half. East of Adderley is the Castle of Good Hope, Grand Parade, and City Hall. West are the more charming shopping areas, the best of which, Long Street and, to a lesser extent, St George's Mall (a pedestrian street), run parallel to Adderley. Greenmarket Square, a lively flea market surrounded by coffee shops, lies between these two streets and Longmarket and Shortmarket streets. South of Adderley Street (where it takes a right turn at The Slave Lodge and melds with Wale St.) is the Company Gardens, Cape Town's very own central park, and the green lung where most of the museums are situated. These Gardens started out as the vegetable patch to supply the Dutch East India Company, which first established Cape Town as a refreshment station for passing ships in the 17th century. From the Gardens, you can also get a clear view of Tuinhuis, the official Cape Town residence of the President, where world dignitaries are received. Also adjacent to the Gardens and Tuinhuis is Parliament, scheduled for expansion in the next few years. To arrange a free tour through the halls of one of the world's most intriguing, controversial and hard-fought-for democratic parliaments, call tel. 021/403-3341, and ask to speak to Ms. Zelda or Mr. Govender. You'll need to bring your passport along for security purposes -- the entrance to Parliament is from the other side of town, at the junction of Roeland and Plein streets.
The city is small, so the best way to get to know it is on foot (or by carriage); you can either take a 3-hour guided walking tour, which departs from the tourism office at 10:30am (offered by knowledgeable guides, these are highly recommended) or enjoy your own pace: Start at the Castle, then head down Darling Street to Adderley Street. Either turn right to look at the brilliant blooms trading at Trafalgar flower market before continuing up Darling to browse the markets and shops at Greenmarket Square, Church Street, and Long Street, or turn left onto Adderley to complete a loop that takes in The Slave Lodge, the Company Gardens, the National Gallery, and/or the South African Museum before returning down Queen Victoria Street or Long Street to Greenmarket Square. Besides the recommended museums and galleries below, you might want to take a look at Koopmans-De Wet House, 35 Strand St. (tel. 021/481-3935; R10 adults; Tues-Thurs 10am-5pm), which is the country's oldest house museum, from 1914, and a repository for some of the finest Cape furniture and silverware to survive the 18th and 19th centuries; there's also a priceless ceramics collection. Originally built in the 18th century, the facade of this urban mansion really stands out among some of the city's towering modern structures, and the gracious interiors provide insight into a world of privileged circumstance and social entitlement. Another even grander example of 18th-century townhouse architecture is Rust en Vreugd, 78 Buitenkant St. (tel. 021/464-3280; free admission, donations appreciated; Tues-Thurs 10am-5pm), built in 1778 and sporting a remodeled period garden. Housed here is part of the eye-opening William Fehr Collection, donated by the super-conservationist, Dr. Fehr (1892-1968); his collected historical paintings, etchings, and lithographs provide amazing insight into the early colonists and how they were to change the face of the Cape completely. The collection's painted works are housed at the Castle of Good Hope.
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