Sitting in a bowl-like valley framed by mountains that seem to rise vertically out of the sea, Cape Town is known as the Mother City. Get your bearings from above by taking the cable-car ride up to Table Mountain. Return for a lunch and stroll around the bustling V&A Waterfront, which holds many shops, restaurants and such hotels as Cape Grace and 12 Apostles Hotel & Spa.
From here, take the ferry to Robben Island to see the former prison that held many political figures, including Nelson Mandela (whose memoir, "Long Walk to Freedom," is a must-read). Cape Town's apartheid history is also on display at District Six Museum. Some 60,000 people were forcibly moved from District Six in the 1970s, and the many personal tragedies examined at the museum powerfully reflect the city's darkest time.
It's hard to stick solely to the museums in Cape Town, while the natural splendor beckons. At the stunning Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden, founded in 1913, stop by the Tea Room for an afternoon break. Another fabulous excursion is the False Bay Coast, which runs along the Indian Ocean, with breaks at Kalk Bay (increasingly trendy with restaurants and art galleries) and a visit to the penguin colony at Boulder's Beach, a delightful stop for families traveling with kids. En route back to central Cape Town, reserve a table at the minimalist-chic Harbour House in Kalk Bay.
In recent years, Cape Town has emerged as a real foodie destination. When looking for great dining, seek out any project headed by Luke Dale Roberts, one of South Africa's most celebrated chefs. His Test Kitchen, in the reclaimed Old Biscuit Mill, as well as his Pot Luck Club & Gallery are both excellent.
Gourmets should also save at least one day for exploring the Cape Winelands, about an hour's drive from Cape Town. Scenic town like Stellenbosch, Franschhoek, Paarl and Constantia offer a historic frame to this dynamic region that seems to have invented the concept of farm-to-table dining. Don't miss Reubens, a Franschhoek classic; Le Quartier Français, headed by innovative chef Margot Janse; Overture, a sleek eatery overlooking Stellenbosch, and Pierneef à la Motte, a newcomer at the wine estate of opera singer Hanneli Rupert.