Things to see and do in South Africa
Attractions in South Africa
Climb Table Mountain
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 breath-taking 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 Khayelithsa 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 wild flowers 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 in 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 immaculate 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 African Tourism Board in the USAAddress: 333 East 38th Street, 9th floor, New York City, NY 10016
Telephone: (212) 213 4880
Mon-Thur 0830-1300 and 1330-1700; Fri 0830-1400
South African Tourism Board in the UKAddress: Victoria, 1-2 Castle Lane, 2nd floor, London, SW1E 6DR
Telephone: (020) 8971 9350.