With golden beaches, jagged mountains and national parks overflowing with wildlife, South Africa is the Africa you’ve always imagined.
With golden beaches, jagged mountains and national parks overflowing with wildlife, South Africa is the Africa you’ve always imagined. While memories of a troubled past remain, the republic is well on the way to regaining its throne as the holiday capital of Africa, visited by nearly 10 million people every year.
Topping a long list of attractions is the republic’s spectacular wildlife and natural scenery. National parks and nature reserves preserve an incredible variety of landscapes – rolling plains, towering mountains, arid deserts, coastal fynbos (shrubland) and pure blue oceans – home to an incredible variety of wildlife, from lions and elephants to great white sharks and playful penguins.
South Africa’s cities are no less varied. In the far south, lorded over by iconic Table Mountain, Cape Town is South Africa’s most accessible gateway, with gorgeous beaches, vibrant, multicultural neighbourhoods, famous vineyards, lively nightlife and fine dining to rival any European capital. You’ll find a similarly cosmopolitan vibe in Johannesburg, the energetic capital, and in beachside Durban, where the hot sunshine is matched by the scorching curries cooked up by the South Asian community.
In between, you can lose yourself for days on safari. The undisputed top spot for wildlife spotters is the world-famous Kruger National Park, where the Big Five – lions, leopards, elephants, buffaloes and rhinos – are joined by hundreds of other African species. If the landscape sounds diverse, wait until you meet the people. South Africa boasts 11 official languages and more than a dozen tribes, living alongside communities from Africa, Europe and the Indian subcontinent – little wonder this is known as the Rainbow Nation. This diversity is tangible everywhere, from the architecture and language to the nation’s spectacular cuisine.
Nevertheless, huge inequality remains, still sharply marked out along racial lines. To understand modern South Africa, everyone should visit Johannesburg’s moving Apartheid Museum, and Robben Island prison, where Nelson Mandela was held for 18 years. Or you could join a township tour in Soweto, which, like the rest of your trip, you’ll never forget.
Attractions in Egypt
Cape Town’s famous flat-topped mountain is one of the New Seven Wonders of Nature. It provides a magnificent backdrop when you’re exploring Cape Town at street level, whilst from the top, the expansive views are truly breathtaking at sunset. Hiking up is a popular option for the fit. The lazier way is to take the cable car to the top.
Drive the Garden Route
The popular Garden Route is a casual road tripper’s dream, winding along the sunny, scenic and perennially verdant southeast coast between Mossel Bay and the mouth of Storms River. Along the way, pass languid lakes and lagoons, dense indigenous forests and pretty towns including Wilderness, Knysna, Oudtshoorn and Plettenberg Bay.
Experience the ‘real’ South Africa on a township tour
Thanks to a history of racial segregation, the majority of South Africans continue to live in so-called townships. But places like Soweto in Johannesburg and Khayelitsha in Cape Town are much more than living apartheid museums – they are also central breeding grounds for South Africa’s vibrant contemporary culture. There are a number of tours that will give insight into both aspects.
Explore the Apartheid Museum
Johannesburg’s excellently curated and profoundly moving Apartheid Museum recounts the still-recent history of racially segregated South Africa. Your entrance ticket comes in ‘white’ and ‘non-white’ versions, determining which entrance you’re allowed to use. A particularly poignant and painful chapter of South Africa’s history is revealed through photographs, artefacts, newspaper clippings and film footage.
Frolic among the spring flowers in Namaqualand
The usually bare and arid region of Namaqualand suddenly explodes into colour after the onset of the annual rains between mid-August and mid-September, when wildflowers blanket the landscape like a beautiful mosaic. The West Coast National Park is one of the best places to see the phenomenon, while a number of charming provincial towns provide lodging in the area.
Get the adrenaline going on a shark cage dive
Adrenalin junkies can get up close and personal with the ocean’s apex predator. Seal Island the Western Cape is a favourite hunting ground for great white sharks, with a veritable buffet of penguins, seals and game fish to feast on. From the (relative) safety of a metal cage, you can observe these formidable fish in their natural habitat.
Hike the Drakensburg mountain trails
For outdoor enthusiasts, South Africa has excellent hiking, with trails in the dramatic Drakensberg mountain range among the very best. Pass through ancient yellowwood forests and see even older Bushman rock art along the way, whilst presided over by some rare birdlife; camp in caves if you’re hard enough, then abseil your way back down.
Play a round of golf
Got golf clubs and some money to burn? South Africa is brilliant for golfing, and the swanky Fancourt Estate on the south coast has three courses designed by Gary Player, South Africa’s most famous golfer, including The Links, described as his greatest design feat. There are hundreds of golf resorts and courses across the country, many in scenic coastal locations.
See the Big 5 on a game drive
The Big 5 (lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo) is South Africa’s greatest attraction, not to mention its favourite tourism marketing moniker. All can be elusive beasts, but chances of sighting these heavyweights and various other crowd favourites are as good as anywhere in safari stalwarts like Kruger National Park, or the exceptionally accessible Pilanesberg National Park.
See what lies beneath at Sodwana Bay
The picturesque coastline and warm waters of KwaZulu-Natal offer superb conditions for underwater exploration. Sodwana Bay near Durban is a particularly popular base for reef dives among turtles and tropical fish, while Aliwal Shoal and Protea Banks further south are favourites for sharks and wrecks. Courses are available for the newbies.
Spot whales in Hermanus
One of the world’s greatest whale watching spots is Hermanus, which hosts an annual Whale Festival and is an easy couple of hours jaunt down the coast from Cape Town. Southern Right Whales migrate along the coast from around June until September and at Hermanus they come so close to shore you can see them breaching from your hotel window.
Stand on the tip of Africa at Cape Point
If you’ve come this far, you have to go all the way. As the land runs out, you’ll reach sheer cliffs and a historic lighthouse towering above the sea. The surrounding conservation area is populated with buck, baboons, zebra, ostrich and indigenous flora. Winding your way back towards town, duck off the main drag to find a number of secluded white sandy beaches.
Surf South Africa’s famous waves
Surfers are spoilt for choice on both the Indian and Atlantic coastlines of South Africa. The surf mecca of Jeffrey’s Bay has long drawn the sport’s disciples from all over the world, thanks to what many consider the world’s best right-hand point break. On the outskirts of Cape Town, Muizenberg’s Surfer’s Corner is another favourite for beginners and pros alike.
Swim with penguins at Boulders Beach
A large colony of entertaining African penguins live on a protected part of Boulders Beach in Simonstown, near Cape Town. A modest entrance fee lets you approach the penguins via various walkways and gives you access to the idyllic beach itself, where you can swim with the penguins between the great granite boulders from which the beach takes its name. Take a turn around Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens
This immaculately landscaped garden at the foot of Table Mountain was created in 1913 and showcases a wide array of indigenous plants and flowers, particularly those unique to the Cape. There are also a number of manicured lawns perfect for a picnic or the Sunday evening open-air concerts that run throughout the summer.
Taste the Cape Winelands
More than a dozen wine routes and a bevy of wine estates tempt you with delectable tastings and equally excellent cuisine. The views are unfailingly splendid, with whitewashed Cape-Dutch mansions sitting prettily amongst rolling hills and rugged mountains. The wine price tags are equally easy on the eyes. Organised trips from Cape Town let you avoid drunk driving.
Unearth the history of the Anglo-Boer War
At the very end of the 19th century, bloody skirmishes between the Afrikaners, British and Zulus raged across the tranquil rolling hills of KwaZulu-Natal, as evinced today by various gravesites and monuments. Knowledgeable guides lead you around the former battlefields, telling tales that send shivers down your spine.
Unwind in the old Transkei
In the Eastern Cape, the peaceful rural idyll and rustic Xhosa villages of the old Transkei still seem to belong to a different time, and belie a turbulent history from which emerged many of South Africa’s most iconic freedom fighters, including Nelson Mandela. Head south to the aptly named Wild Coast and you’ll find some of South Africa’s best-kept coastal secrets.
Walk-in Mandela’s footsteps on Robben Island
A short but often rough ferry trip from Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront takes you to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela and other iconic anti-apartheid activists were jailed for many years. It’s a strangely bleak and melancholic place, where tours are still conducted by former political prisoners for an accurate personal account of a life in chains.
South Africans love shopping and tend to do it in huge shopping centres rather than in shopping streets. The Gateway Mall in Durban is reputedly the largest in the southern hemisphere. However, areas, where shops and restaurants spill out onto the streets, are becoming increasingly popular as both daytime and evening venues.
Johannesburg has three popular weekend markets that have sprung up as part of the city centre’s rejuvenation plans: 44 Stanley, Arts on Main and the Neighbourgoods Market. Cape Town’s V&A centre at the Waterfront is a tourist-friendly combination of shopping and entertainment with bars, music, restaurants and cinemas, as well a large arts and craft shed. Traditional African arts and crafts are sold in numerous craft markets including Johannesburg’s Rosebank Mall craft market. The intricate beadwork necklaces and bold wooden carvings including large masks are particularly attractive, and six-foot-tall giraffes are often being wrapped for safe transit home in the cargo hold.
Impromptu craft stalls often appear at the side of the road, particularly on popular tourist routes, and some have become permanent attractions in their own right, such as the one between Johannesburg and Sun City. Haggling is perfectly acceptable and often expected in the craft markets.
Gold, diamonds and local wine also make excellent buys, In general, visitors will find
the exchange rate favourable and prices much easier on the pocket than in many other countries. Visitors can claim a 14% VAT refund on purchases worth more than R250. You need to show your passport, flight ticket, items and invoices to the refund desk in airports.
Nightlife revolves around restaurants, bars and cinemas, with a scattering of good nightclubs in the main cities too. The most popular areas are the few streets where café spill out onto the pavements for late nights in the balmy summer air. There’s a thriving theatre scene, and the quality of stand-up comedy has improved enormously over the years with comedy clubs, theatres and bars running regular comedy nights. Some cities have art house cinemas that screen less mainstream movies and run offbeat film festivals.
Cape Town is the place for jazz, with several live music venues and an annual international jazz festival. South Africa is firmly on the international pop and rock circuit, and the local music scene is also successful, with most cities having a handful of live music venues. Classical music and opera fans will only get their fix in larger cities. There are several stadiums and other large venues where international bands often perform.
Football and rugby are national addictions, and many bars and some restaurants have large-screen TVs for sports enthusiasts.
The braai, South Africa’s equivalent of the barbecue, is practically a national sport, a religion even. Almost all campsites, self-catering resorts and picnic spots have built-in braai facilities, as does every self-respecting garden.
The long and bountiful South African coastline guarantees a seemingly endless supply of the freshest fish and seafood. The agreeable coastal climate further contributes to the distinctly Mediterranean feel of many of South Africa’s beachfront restaurants, Just inland in the Cape Winelands, the local wine industry is thriving and generally of a very high standard, while many of South Africa’s best restaurants are also found on its wine estates.
The country’s cosmopolitan heritage is matched in its variety of culinary offerings, with fruity and veet Cape Malay cuisine a speciality of Cape Town, and a strong Indian influence stirred into Durban’s cracking curries.
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