It’s a setting so distinctly European you half expect the Eiffel Tower to form part of the skyline. Dozens of restaurant tables, each sporting a candle, cover a cobblestone walkway while minute light bulbs placed strategically in nearby trees hover over diners like fireflies. To complete the effect, the nasal wailing of Edith Piaf wafts through the air from a pair of speakers hidden behind colourfully decorated plantpots. It’s not until you spot a group of men in bright orange bibs patrolling the car park – guards looking after your vehicle for a small fee – that you’re reminded that this is Cape Town, a city where the joy of a buzzing nightlife is still tempered by the unwelcome spectre of violent crime.

Dunkley Square, a charming circle of restaurants and pubs in the heart of the Mother City just around the corner from the parliament building, is indeed a snapshot of what Cape Town has become. Most of the people tucking into everything from shawarma to seabass on a beautiful autumn evening are tourists, mainly from the UK and Germany. Ask them to talk about Cape Town and they wax lyrical about natural beauty, cheap food and friendly people. Point to the car guards and ask if the constant reminder of high crime figures induces indigestion and they’re likely to shake their heads and shrug.

“Oh, we have been warned about muggings and car-jackings,” says Samantha from Kent as she works her way through a mountain of pasta. “But I just don’t feel threatened in Cape Town. There always seems to be enough security everywhere. To be honest, I felt more threatened in London’s West End.”

Anyone who experienced Dunkley Square five years ago will be amazed by this assessment of Cape Town’s nightlife and will be equally gobsmacked to find that Samantha and her friends next headed for a club in Long Street. A stretch of road long synonymous with pimps, prostitutes and drug dealers, it’s now a hub of nocturnal activity everyone can enjoy.

“There has been massive private investment in the area over the past couple of years,” explains Elle Geva, owner of the popular live music venue The Purple Turtle at the top of Long Street. “Consequently, about 20 new clubs have opened in Long Street, making it Cape Town’s main jol area. Each venue brought with it its own security guards and CCTV, so now it’s a really safe stretch of road, as is Loop Street that runs parallel to it. It really is a great time to be partying in Cape Town.”

Such is the reputation the Long Street clubs have built up that travellers now head there as soon as they touch down in the Mother City. “One of the first things young guests want to know is how to get to Long and Loop streets,” smiles Lisa Mason, who co-founded the Ashanti Lodge and Travel Centre. “Backpackers tend to head down there in large groups and dance until the early hours. Long Street now has a reputation as being the Khao San Road of Cape Town.”

Staff at Ashanti implore guests to be careful when travelling around Cape Town at night, but Mason insists that most of her guests enjoy the city’s cutting edge. “Obviously one of the real joys of backpacking is to experience new and extreme situations and Cape Town has the atmosphere of an undiscovered city,” Mason says. “People I’ve spoken to enjoy the fact that parts of Cape Town are not for the faint-hearted in the early hours of the morning. They thrive on that.”

One the biggest factors in the rebirth of Cape Town’s nightlife has been an improved public transport system, something that will no doubt continue following the announcement that South Africa will host the 2010 World Cup. With the Mother City easier to negotiate than ever before, new restaurants have been springing up like mushrooms.

“Cape Town is now undoubtedly one of the world’s culinary hotspots,” says Harald Bresselshmidt, owner of posh restaurant Aubergine. “With so many people rediscovering the city’s nightlife, restaurant owners have been forced to offer more variety than ever before. The rebirth of Cape Town as a party capital has gone hand-in-hand with the birth of exciting new cuisine as chefs blend classic European cooking with an African and Asian way of preparing food.” You can now try diverse dishes like masala crocodile or guinea fowl with roast tomatoes.

While there’s nothing as exciting on the menu at restaurants in Dunkley Square, the atmosphere seems to improve with each bite. When TNT finally pays up and heads into the night at about 11pm, French cabaret has made way for Johnny Clegg and two car guards are Zulu dancing in the dim candlelight.”