Chris Leadbeater makes the most of a short visit to the harbour city.

Cape Town is South Africa's second-biggest city and the capital of the province of Western Cape, framed by rocky ridges, of which Table Mountain is most iconic. Last year it marked the 20th anniversary of the dawn of modern democracy in South Africa, with the late Nelson Mandela's election as President.

Day One

Take a hike:

Start at the corner of Buitenkant St and Darling St, where the

Castle of Good Hope

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, the city's 17th century Dutch fort, is the oldest colonial building in South Africa. A little to the northwest, 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 (February 11, 1990). Banners bearing his face adorn the balcony. Continue along Darling St, take the third left into Parliament St and walk to Church Square, where marble memorial blocks remind you that this was once a slave market.

Window shopping: 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 - is of the name-brand variety, but the heady swirl of people is a totem of modern South Africa.

Cultural afternoon: In the 18th century, Slave Lodge, on the corner of Adderley and Wale streets, was a processing house for the trade in humanity. It sheds light on the practices of the era. 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. Elsewhere, the South African National Gallery on Government Ave showcases art by British luminaries and major South African figures.

Dining with the locals: The waterfront has a range of inviting eateries. Karibu serves South African cuisine, including ostrich fillet, while Hildebrand revels in seafood. Planet Restaurant is the splendid in-house restaurant at Mt Nelson Hotel, where they serve the likes of beetroot-glazed springbok.

Day Two

Go to church:

St George's Cathedral

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is a Victorian feast of red brick and stained glass. 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 Ave - 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 several times a day from the waterfront at Nelson Mandela Gateway, where the small Robben Island Museum gives an overview of the island prison's history. Tours show the prison buildings and lime quarry where Mandela lived and toiled from 1964-1982.

Take a view: Table Mountain can be inaccessible in bad weather, but the views - across the city centre and Table Bay - make it an essential element of a weekend in the city. The fastest way to the 1084m summit is the Table Mountain Aerial Cableway.

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 is a swish hotel and spa where the former President is saluted in 21st-century manner with galleries selling African art and cafes such as Doppio Zero.

IF YOU GO
Getting there: Qantas flies via Sydney to Johannesburg. From there, you can travel to Cape Town with South African Airways.

- INDEPENDENT