Iconic Cape Town: Why is Cape Town so special?
There is a gnarled finger of land projecting near the southern tip of the African continent...
It is a place of iconic beauty, diversity & vitality
A place where "iconic" has real meaning
Table Mountain is Cape Town's biggest icon, yet so much about Cape Town is iconic.
Imagine surfing a wave the same height as a seven-storey building at The Dungeons near Hout Bay. And never forget the legacy of an iconic statesman.
Photos: Red Bull Big Wave Africa surfing event | Nelson Mandela from a Cape Town 2004 Olympic Bid publication
REJECTING Portuguese explorer Diaz’s description of the Cape of Storms in 1488, the King of Portugal named it the Cape of Good Hope, which epitomises the spirit of goodwill that carried South Africa through to a new era of democracy.
This peninsula, which defies the onslaught of the southern oceans, was formed before the last ice age and sculpted over millions of years by the elements. The chronicler of Sir Francis Drake’s circumnavigation called it ‘the most stately thing, and the fairest cape we saw in the whole circumference of the earth.’
From Hoeri ‘kwaggo (Sea Mountain), the name given by the first Khoi inhabitants, to Taboa do cabo(Table of the Cape), given centuries later in 1503 by Antonio da Saldanha, a Portuguese admiral and explorer, Table Mountain signified an eagerly awaited landfall.
Cape Floral Kingdom: World Heritage Site
It was not long before the mountain was regarded as one of the great natural wonders of the world, not only for its imposing grandeur but also for the diversity of its rich and beautiful flora. The Cape Peninsula hosts the richest floral kingdom in the world. In an area of some 500 square kilometres, there are over 2,600 plant species – more than in the entire British Isles (and more species of heather than even Scotland). Table Mountain is home to over 1,700 of these species.
This peninsula is nature’s masterpiece, dominated by an imposing mountain spine, criss-crossed by valleys, and constrained by sheer cliffs rising from the oceans. At the northern flank, the mountain chain terminates majestically at Table Mountain, flanked by Devil’s Peak on the one side and Lion’s Head and Signal Hill on the other – like two arms cradling the city.
Expand your vision
View of Hout Bay from the top of Constantiaberg, near Chapman's Peak.
Table Mountain National Park is the world's premier urban park, used by tens of thousands of people daily. It also offers one of the world's unique trails – the Hoerikwaggo Trail – that extends from the V&A Waterfront to Cape Point. It's a portered trail with overnight accommodation on the mountain chain.
Table Mountain runs from east to west and squarely addresses the African continent to the north. Within this mountain face, Africa Face traces the outline of Africa in the contours of the topography and nearby, to the east, one can identify India Face.
It is a mountain shrouded in mystery and mystique. Legends began with the earliest Khoi inhabitants; even today it is regarded as one of the energy centres of the earth and the only feature on earth represented in the heavens, complete with tablecloth – the cloud that periodically covers the mountain.
Devil’s Peak has the myth of Van Hunks, a retired pirate who smoked an evil-smelling pipe. Van Hunks was last seen challenging a stranger to a smoking competition on the mountainside. They puffed until the mountain was covered in a dense cloud – the origin of the tablecloth – but Van Hunks was never seen again. He’s still puffing with the Devil!
With the mountain as one of the most recognisable beacons on the globe, it’s for good reason that Cape Town became known as The Tavern of the Seas – it provides a haven and hospitality for the weary traveller.
Today, now that SA has re-entered the world community, this mountainous outcrop is being rediscovered as one of the most breathtaking destinations, unparalleled in the melodramatic diversity of its natural beauty.
Cape Town is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Mountains – from sheer cliffs which rise from the oceans to valley upon valley separated by craggy peaks, forests, beaches, winelands and wheatlands, and the traditional Cape Dutch architecture responded by taking its cue from the grandeur of the setting.
It is a large and sophisticated city by any standards with hotels which number among the best in the world. The city’s architecture traces the influence of Dutch and English occupations, alongside settlers from France, Germany and the East. Cape Town is also home to the South African Parliament and a host of outstanding museums, the SA National Gallery and the SA Library.
Cape Town has weather!While it has been named one of the top five Blue Skies Cities in the world, Cape Town also has weather! Visiting different suburbs on different sides of the mountain can show you four seasons in one day. Capetonians make much of their weather and as Otto Stehlik, Protea Hotel's chairman once told us, "Capetonians moan too much! In the middle of winter you have clear days with blue skies... it's pure champagne weather!" Click here for a comparison with the weather in some European cities.
An ideal place to start savouring the beauty is at the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront. The breathtaking backdrop of the mountain, ever-changing as the play of light and cloud reveals different textures, can be enjoyed from many of the 40 restaurants and taverns, while one sips a glass of Cape wine or Waterfront-brewed beer.
Boat and helicopter trips that start here offer a unique but essential perspective of the mountain chain. Boat trips take in the Atlantic suburbs and the range which steps back from Table Mountain called the Twelve Apostles. Boat trips are also offered from Hout Bay, Simon's Town and Gordon's Bay.
Robben Island: A World Heritage SiteIn the middle of Table Bay, Robben Island is a reminder of a period in history that South Africa has left behind. Ferries now ply the route to the Island each day – a trip which for many is a pilgrimage. Now Robben Island is one of SA's most powerful icons, not as a picture but for its "triumph of the human spirit." Now that should be deeply ingrained in what Cape Town shares with the world!
“While we will not forget the brutality of apartheid we will not want Robben Island to be a monument of our hardship and suffering. We would want it to be a triumph of the human spirit against the forces of evil, a triumph of wisdom and largeness of spirit against small minds and pettiness; a triumph of courage and determination over human frailty and weakness.” – Ahmed Kathrada
For another perspective, take the cable car to the top of Table Mountain. Opened in 1929 and completely upgraded in 1998, the trip to the 3000 foot summit takes five minutes. Here, locals with a picnic and a bottle of wine, watch the sun set over the Atlantic as the city lights start twinkling below. In the distance lie False Bay, Hout Bay and the mountains stretching to Cape Point. On a hot day, dassies or rock rabbits sun themselves on the boulders all around. The creatures are, in spite of their size, the closest living relative to the elephant!
A drive around the peninsula takes in a world of superlatives derived from differing microclimates as one passes from one side of the multi-faceted mountain chain to another. Sunlight – filtered by mountain ranges or clouds, or reflected by a sea which varies from an azure blue to a stormy grey – gives Cape Town its unique quality of light; rich in colour and contrast. Because of this, the city is an international centre for fashion photography and television commercials, and the Cape Town Film Office facilitates more filming than any other city in the world.
Driving around the peninsula can stretch from half a day to a day or more. Leaders in the Annual Cycle Tour, which attracts 35,000 competitors, complete the 110km course in just over two hours!
Leaving the city, one drives around the back of Table Mountain. Kirstenbosch – home to the National Botanical Gardens – nestles at the foot of Table Mountain at the southern face. It is a treasure trove of indigenous flora, and a popular destination for family outings.
Icons of the deep
"We have plenty of whales (and dolphins) in season – guaranteed! (In the unlikely event of not seeing whales, a free trip voucher will be issued.)" So says Dave Hurwitz of Simon's Town Boat Company.
One travels down the False Bay coast, through the historic naval base at Simon’s Town, and returns along the Atlantic coast to Kommetjie. The favoured route is along the breathtaking Chapman’s Peak drive, but this is frequently closed due to rockfalls. The alternative route is over Ou Kaapse Weg (Old Cape Road) into the Tokai and Constantia valleys, home to the Cape’s first wine estates. Groot Constantia, Klein Constantia, Buitenverwachting and Steenberg are all worth a visit.
Then, driving over Constantia Nek one enters Hout Bay, a picturesque fishing village, and along to the Atlantic suburbs – and the world famous beaches at Camps Bay and Clifton.
Where else in the world can you go swimming alongside penguins or dolphins? Penguin colonies are found near Simon’s Town and on Robben Island; while early morning swimmers at Camps Bay may be entertained by large schools of dolphins frolicking in the surf.
It is at Cape Point that the warm Mozambique current of the Indian Ocean meets the cold Benguela current that sweeps up from the Antarctic into the Atlantic Ocean. While the Benguela causes desert conditions in the Namib, a thousand kilometres to the north, it nurtures Cape Town’s environmental diversity and provides an ocean teeming with pelagic fish feeding in plankton-rich waters.
From the Vin de Constance (above) that was favoured by European royalty and nobility 300 years ago, Cape wines have a worldwide appeal. Many cities and towns have wine routes – but Cape Town has three – Constantia, Helderberg and Durbanville. Constantia was the second Wine Appelation area in the world to be established.
A half hour drive takes one into the country, to towns which are now synonymous with wine – Paarl, Stellenbosch and Franschhoek. On these historic estates, set on steep mountainsides and in lush valleys, the whitewashed gables and thatched roofs of manor houses pay tribute to 300 years of wine making.
Whale watching, around the Peninsula and further afield to Hermanus and Gansbaai, now rivals the 'Big Five' in the attention of visitors.
Africa's brightest sparkCape Town is one of the world's entrepreneurial hotspots and far outstrips the rest of South Africa in its levels of entrepreneurial activity. A recent international study has shown that the city has a much higher level of knowledge, innovation and opportunity than elsewhere in SA and it's ranked at number one out of the 34 global cities studied in terms of having an Early-Stage Entrepreneurial Opportunity Activity level greater than the national average.
Cape Town's activity is 190 percent higher than South Africa's national average, compared to 60 percent in Johannesburg. And success breeds confidence - the city is ranked at number one in the analysis of people's confidence in their own ability to start a business, 70 percent above the national average
The Compelling Cape
“By any standard, the Cape Town region of South Africa is one of the most beautiful and compelling places to visit on the planet…
Here, in addition to a city with fascinating historic sites, excellent museums, vibrant markets and a handsomely restored waterfront … I encountered mountain wilderness, rugged coastlines, sandy beaches, lush gardens, beautiful wine estates, superior hotels and some of the warmest, most welcoming people I’ve ever met.” – RICHARD BUSCH, TRAVEL EDITOR, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC TRAVELER
Parliament of the Republic of South Africa
“On 25 October 2007, the National Assembly of South Africa agreed to a motion, noting that Cape Town was ranked the best city out of the country’s 283 municipalities.
“The House further noted that the city won this award because of the way in which the municipality dealt with poverty, the level of access to basic services, its economic activity and infrastructure and because its citizens are well qualified.
“The House recalled that in July  Cape Town was ranked by USA’s Travel & Leisure magazine as the number one city in Africa and the Middle East and claimed tenth spot* in the “best city in the world” category.
“The National Assembly congratulates both the city administration and the residents of Cape Town on making it a world class city and a top tourist destination.” – MS BALEKA MBETE, SPEAKER OF PARLIAMENT (* Travel & Leisure magazine rated Cape Town as the third best city in the world in 2007)