LAY OF THE LAND
Table Mountain National Park sits bang in the center of the city, while the Atlantic Ocean is to the west and the Indian Ocean to the east. The city center, or "city bowl," is encircled by Table Mountain, Devil's Peak, Lion's Head, and Table Bay, while the rest of the city developed south along the peninsula and north toward the winelands. Most of the hotels, restaurants, and bars are located in the city bowl or along the Atlantic seaboard. If you're based on the Atlantic, you'll need a car or taxi to get into town.
WHEN TO GO
For travelers from the Northern Hemisphere, seasons south of the equator are, of course, flipped—so the summertime months of December and January comprise high season. Avoid October, which is usually wet. One of the best times to visit is fall (February to May), when the weather is balmy and the wind has dropped. Although temps in winter (May to August) drop as low as 40 degrees and it gets wet, there are also sunny, perfect days—so you might take a chance. Some restaurants close during the quieter winter months. Every March, over 35,000 cyclists from around the world ride into Cape Town for the Cape Argus Pick 'n Pay Cycle Tour. So as not to leave runners out, there is also the Two Oceans Marathon in the same month; at 36 miles, it's longer than standard marathons.
HOW TO GET THERE
From Cape Town International Airport, you can take a 20-minute shuttle bus to the city center (several companies operate them, and buses run frequently). Some hotels provide a complimentary pickup service (check when booking).
The city center is small enough to explore on foot, but you'll need a car if you want to travel further than the city bowl. Cape Town doesn't have a reliable public transport system, so rent a car or book a guide through your hotel to take you around. Don't be put off by the traffic congestion and limited parking. Cape Town is an easy city to navigate, as long as you're comfortable driving on the left-hand side of the road. Many residents travel by minibus taxis, which stop anywhere when hailed, but beware, these taxis are usually overcrowded, and drivers tend to speed and ignore traffic rules. If you are at the wheel yourself, drive defensively and only cross a traffic light once oncoming traffic has stopped. Metered cabs need to be reserved ahead of time, so call Sea Point Taxis (27-21-434-4444; $1.35 per km.).
Although Cape Town is reasonably safe, the townships of the Cape Flats have high crime rates and are best avoided unless you have a guide. One reliable company is African Eagle Tours (27-21-464-4269; www.daytours.co.za). Even in Cape Town, take safety precautions: Don't walk at night in deserted areas; instead, book a taxi. Don't leave personal belongings in view in your rental car. Be aware of your bags at the airport and when out in public.
Cape Town Tourism has an Internet café as well as information on tours, hotels, rental cars, and so forth. The main office is at the Pinnacle building at Burg and Castle streets (27-21-487-6800; www.tourismcapetown.co.za). There is also a smaller Cape Town Tourism office at the Clock Tower at the V&A Waterfront (27-21-405-4500).View South Africa Factsheet