Strand Street marks the edge of Cape Town's original beachfront (though you'd never guess it today), and all urban development to its north stands on reclaimed land. To its south is the Upper City Centre, containing the remains of the city's 350-year-old historic core, which has survived the ravages of modernization and apartheid-inspired urban clearance, and emerged with enough charm to make it South Africa's most pleasing city centre.

The entire area from Strand Street to the southern foot of the mountain is a collage of Georgian, Cape Dutch, Victorian and twentieth-century architecture,, as well as being the place where Europe, Asia and Africa meet in markets, alleyways and mosques. Among the substantial drawcards here are Parliament, the Company's Gardens and many of Cape Town's major museums. North of Strand Street to the shore, the Lower City Centre takes in the still-functional Duncan Dock.

Adderley Street, running from the train station in the north to the Gardens in the south, is the obvious orientation axis here. To its east, and close to each other just off Strand Street, are the Castle of Good Hope, the site of District Six, the Grand Parade and the City Hall. The district to the west of Adderley Street is the closest South Africa gets to a European quarter – a tight network of streets with cafés, buskers, bookstores, street stalls and antique shops congregating around the pedestrianized St George's Mall and Greenmarket Square. The Bo-Kaap, or Muslim district, three blocks further west across Buitengragt (which means the Outer Canal, but is actually a street), exudes a piquant contrast to this, with its minarets, spice shops and cafés selling curried snacks.
Southwest of Adderley Street, where it takes a sharp right into Wale Street, is the symbolic heart of Cape Town (and arguably South Africa), with Parliament, museums, archives and De Tuynhuys – the Western Cape office of the President – arranged around the Company's Gardens

In the mid-nineteenth century, the city's middle classes viewed the Lower City Centre and its low-life activities with a mixture of alarm and excitement – a tension that remains today. Lower Long Street divides the area just inland from the docklands into two. To the east is the Foreshore, an ugly post-World War II wasteland of grey corporate architecture, among which is the Artscape Centre, Cape Town's prestige arts complex. The Foreshore is at last being redeveloped, its centrepiece being the Cape Town International Convention Centre, completed in 2003 and linked by a canal and pedestrian routes with the Waterfront.