Cape Town: The Top 25
How do we love the South African center of surf, sand, and style? Josh Dean counts the ways, in no particular order
1. Keys to a mansion
In Tamboerskloof, a warren of streets winding up Signal Hill, dozens of 19th-century mansions have been converted into guesthouses. An African Villa, co-owned by Jimmy van Tonder and Louis Nel, is decorated in a Modern African style; a lamp in the lobby (pictured) is shaped like the head of an oryx, a type of antelope (19 Carstens St., 011-27/21-423-2164, capetowncity.co.za/villa, from $135). Further uphill, 1 on Queens imports Tuscan style with a terra-cotta patio and simple rooms (1 Queens Rd., 011-27/21-422-0004, 1onqueens.co.za, from $80).
2. Regal flora
Cape Town is part of what's called a Floral Kingdom, a region with thousands of plant species that aren't found anywhere else. This kingdom is by far the smallest of the world's six, with more than 5,800 endemic species in a 35,000-square-mile area. The crown jewel is the king protea, an armored tulip that looks like it's been around since the dinosaurs. Most of the foliage, including the protea, comes to life in spring and summer (September through March), though at least one plant from every variety is always on display at Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden, on the side of Table Mountain. Rhodes Dr., Newlands, 011-27/21-799-8783, nbi.ac.za/frames/kirstfram.htm, $3.50.
3. When the "tablecloth" suddenly lifts
In a region of fickle weather, there's one thing you can almost always count on: a thick pillow of clouds atop 3,560-foot-tall Table Mountain. The "tablecloth," as locals call it, often lasts for days and then disappears overnight. Keep one eye on the mountain, so you can head up the moment the cloud cover clears. The mountain's website has a ticker with up-to-the-minute visibility news. Tablemountain.net.
4. Cosmic sunsets
In 1997, the cableway that takes visitors up Table Mountain added a twist, literally: The tram slowly revolves as it rises. Hiking trails also wind up through the mountain's crevasses; the Platteklip Gorge path, from Tafelberg Road, was the first known ascent (in 1503), and the two-hour hike is still the easiest way up on foot. The top is cosmic--the gray sandstone plateau looks like the surface of another planet. Expect to reach the summit by sunset, and bring a bottle of wine. (The only restaurant at the top, Dizzie Dazzie, closes before the sunset is over.) Note: Resist the urge to linger. The last tram down follows the final sliver of sun, between 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. depending on the season. 011-27/21-424-8181, tablemountain.net, round trip $17.
5. The big bang, daily
At noon, a gun goes off on Signal Hill--the blast can be heard all around the city. It was originally intended to herald the arrival of ships into port. Today, it heralds brunch.
6. Snacks with wanderlust
Sold from carts in most neighborhoods and at many 7-Elevens, Cape Town's street food reflects the city's diversity. Try bobotie, a curried mince pie originally made by the Cape Malay people; biltong, a thick South African jerky cured from beef, kudu, or ostrich; and Indian samosas, deep-fried pastry pockets of spicy meats.
7. March of many penguins
A sign on the walk approaching Boulders Beach reads: the easiest place in the world to make the acquaintance of penguins. It's no joke. There's a real colony of more than 4,000 African penguins, waddling around and fishing and paying absolutely no attention to the many pasty sunbathers competing for the sand. 1 Kleintuin Rd., Simon's Town, 011-27/21-786-2329, $2.25.
8. Backseat drivers
Hundreds of minibus taxis hurtle around town, stopping at random to pick up anyone ready for a little risk and a tight squeeze. Flag one almost anywhere (though for safety's sake it's best to stay in well-populated areas), and grab a seat with the other passengers. A guy in the back serves as a sort of carnival barker, shouting out the next stop from an open window. You can figure that most destinations in the city cost under a few bucks. A less alarming way to get oriented is a topless double-decker bus. The bright red Cape Town Explorer buses stop at 15 major attractions--from the city center to the Atlantic beach communities--and allow riders to get on and off at their leisure (011-27/21-511-1784, hyltonross.co.za, full day $14).