This is a big year for Cape Town. It marks the 20th anniversary of the dawn of modern democracy in South Africa, with the election as president of the recently departed Nelson Mandela – a moment that will be celebrated in a city that is the main home of the government. Cape Town is also the World Design Capital for 2014, and hopes to use this as a platform to begin the re-engineering of a metropolis whose districts are still divided along apartheid lines, by highways and railways.
Get your bearings
Cape Town is South Africa's second-biggest city, the capital of the province of Western Cape. It sits at the south-west corner of Africa, framed by rocky ridges, of which Table Mountain is most iconic. The city flows southwards and uphill. Areas such as Gardens and District Six lie in the centre, with Sea Point and Green Point to the west by the ocean.
The MyCiti bus network (myciti.org.za) has 19 routes. Journeys under 5km cost from R4.40 (25p).
However, the centre can be seen on foot – it is safe to walk in daylight. Cape Town Tourism has an information office at the Waterfront on Dock Road (capetown.travel), open daily 9am to 6pm. For more information, see southafrica.net.
Take a hike
Start at the corner of Buitenkant and Darling Streets, where the Castle of Good Hope, the city's Dutch fort, sings of the 17th century as the oldest colonial building in South Africa (castleofgoodhope.co.za) – open daily 9am to 4pm; admission R30 (£1.75). A little to the north-west along Darling Street, pause outside City Hall. This ornate pile of Somerset limestone, built in 1905, hosted one of the 20th century's keynote events – Mandela's speech to 60,000 people, preaching tolerance and forgiveness, on the day he was set free from prison (11 February 1990). Banners bearing his face adorn the balcony.
Continue along Darling Street and take the third left into Parliament Street and walk to Church Square, where marble memorial blocks remind you that this was once a slave market.
Reborn in the past 20 years, the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront is the city's retail hub. Shopping here – in the likes of the Victoria Wharf mall (waterfront.co.za) – is of the name-brand variety, but the heady swirl of people is a totem of modern South Africa.
You can find vintage fashions at the flea market held daily, except Sunday, 9am to 4pm, on Greenmarket Square. But the city's most intriguing pocket of stores lies east of the centre, at 375 Albert Road in Woodstock. The Old Biscuit Mill (theoldbiscuit mill.co.za) makes fine use of a former factory.
Lunch on the run
The Mill has several lunch options, including Burrata (burrata.co.za), which serves a selection of pizzas. The "Di Mare" comes laden with prawns and squid for R112 (£6.50).
In the 18th century, Slave Lodge, on the corner of Adderley and Wale Streets, was a processing house for the trade in humanity. Open daily, except Sunday, 10am to 5pm, R30 (£1.75), it sheds light on the practices of the era (iziko.org.za). The District Six Museum shows how this busy area was emptied under apartheid rule by the removal of its black population to segregated suburbs. Artefacts – old photos, school uniforms – make these persecution tales personal. It is open 9am to 4pm daily, except Sunday, at 25a Buitenkant Street (districtsix.co.za; entry R30/£1.75). Elsewhere, the South African National Gallery on Government Avenue (iziko.org.za), showcases art by British luminaries (Gainsborough, Turner) and major South African figures (Walter Battiss, Irma Stern). Open daily 10am to 5pm; entry R30 (£1.75).
Dining with the locals
The Victoria and Alfred Waterfront has a range of inviting eateries. Karibu at Shop 156, The Wharf Centre (kariburestaurant.co.za) serves South African cuisine, including ostrich fillet with onion marmalade for R169 (£10). Hildebrand Ristorante at Pierhead (hildebrand.co.za) revels in seafood – its tuna steak with pesto mash is R140 (£8.25). Planet, meanwhile, is the splendid in-house restaurant at Mount Nelson Hotel, where the signature beetroot-glazed springbok is R195 (£11.50).
Go to church
Pitched at 5 Wale Street, St George's Cathedral is a Victorian feast of red brick and stained glass (sgcathedral.co.za). Mass is at 10am. Its key period was 1986 to 1996, when Desmond Tutu was Archbishop of Cape Town. Its proximity to the South African Parliament – directly behind on Government Avenue – underlines just how this great man was a thorn in the side of apartheid.
Take a ride
Robben Island was Cape Town's most pertinent location before Mandela's death – but is even more in focus now. Ferries depart daily at 9am, 11am, 1pm and 3pm from the Waterfront at Nelson Mandela Gateway (though not in bad weather), where the small Robben Island Museum (robben-island.org.za; weekdays 7.30am to 6.30pm, weekends 8am to 6pm) gives an overview of the island prison's history. Tours cost R250 (£15) and unveil the prison buildings and lime quarry where Mandela lived and toiled from 1964-1982.
Out to brunch
The House Of Machines at 84 Shortmarket Street (thehouseofmachines.com), is part bar, part motorbike workshop, part café. A roast chicken and pesto sandwich is R50 (£2.90).
Take a view
Table Mountain can be inaccessible in bad weather. But the views – across the centre and Table Bay – make it an essential element of a weekend in the city. The fast way to the 3,558ft summit is the Table Mountain Aerial Cableway (tablemountain.net), which departs from the lowwer station on Tafelberg Road. During February, the first car up is at 8am, the last up at 7.30pm, and the last down at 8.30pm.
A walk in the park
The Company's Garden is an indelible fragment of the city's story. It dates back to 1652, when Dutch settlers founded it as an agricultural plot for restocking ships in the harbour. Now, it is a soft leafy space that provides a backdrop to the National Gallery and De Tuynhuys – the presidential office.
Icing on the cake
Mandela Rhodes Place (mandelarhodesplace.co.za) is a swish hotel and spa where the former president is saluted in 21st-century manner with galleries selling African art and cafés such as Doppio Zero.