South Africa 101: What To Do In South Africa

It is no surprise that South Africa is known as the “Rainbow Nation, ”with 11 official languages and lifestyles as diverse as the countries of the world.  Each city has a culture of its own and a different pace of life, yet they are all proudly South African. Born and bred in South Africa, I consider myself a bit of a nomad, not quite sure where home really is.  From Cape Town, to Johannesburg to Durban – I’ve lived in the country’s major cities and traveled extensively through the smaller ones.   You might be surprised at what you find when visiting the tip of Africa.  Let me give you the 101.

Cape Town – The Mother City

Cape Town - What To Do In South Africa

At the very tip of Africa, beneath the monstrous Table Mountain, lies the multicultural, breathtaking city of Cape Town.  Cape Town was named the World Design Capital in 2014 and the best place in the world to visit by the New York Times and the British Daily Telegraph. The city is extremely popular for expat living, especially during summer months, when there is always a buzz of activity and many international sporting events.

Table Top Mountain, Cape Town

Table Top Mountain, Cape Town

Heading up Table Mountain is a humbling experience.  The breathtaking view of endless oceans, ships sailing out of the harbor and the city bowl nestled just below the foot of the mountain make you realize just how small you really are in the grandness of nature’s enormity.  The mountain is an adventure lover’s paradise with numerous hiking trails, mountain biking paths, paragliding, and abseiling (the process of sliding down a rope under controlled conditions).  The Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden displays the flora and fauna endemic to the Cape region, making it an incredibly unique natural setting and popular picnic spot.  Summer sunset concerts and outdoor cinema in the gardens couldn’t get more romantic, with the majestic mountain as the backdrop.

Concert in Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden

The coast boasts magnificent beaches and a water sports playground. Kite-surfing, stand-up paddle, surfing, and wind surfing are all popular activities, and for the novice, lessons are available too.  But be warned, the water is cold.  If you would like to take your adventure to the next level, you may consider a cage dive with Great White Sharks.  The region is known for shark activity, as Seal Island lies just off the coast and can be reached by a short boat trip.  You will possibly smell it before you see it, but it is a great lunch spot for the Great Whites to frequent.

If all the action sounds a little too exhausting for you, because let’s face it, Capetonians can be an active bunch, then head off to the wine lands where some of the world’s best wines can be sipped in style.  During the wet winter months, Capetonians take more to hibernation, fireplaces, and red wine.  The valleys of Franschoek, Paarl, and Stellenbosch are, however, always a good idea, regardless of the season, with magnificent mountain ranges, superb five star dining, and of course world-class wine.

Camps Bay, Cape TownCamps Bay, Cape Town

The number of historical sites, museums, monuments, and galleries to visit are endless.  The unique Cape-Dutch architecture gives the city an old-style charm.  I love visiting the South African Museum in Cape Town city center, where after listening to whale sounds and floating through the galaxy at the planetarium, you can feed the squirrels in the Company Gardens next to the antiquated parliament buildings.  The garden paths will lead you straight through to the city center, where quirky coffee shops, markets, and eateries wait to be explored.  It is easy to get around.  Get on the red, hop-on hop-off, open roof bus and you can visit many historic and shopping sites at your own leisure.  While you are at it, grab a cape-malay curry in one hand, a local beer in the other, and say “cheers” to one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

KwaZulu Natal – the Zulu Kingdom

After visiting the cosmopolitan city of Cape Town, you may have completely forgotten that you were in Africa.  What happened to the real African experience of lions, rhinos, spears, and huts?  Welcome to KwaZulu Natal, where you can get a taste of the African wild.  The city of Durban is a unique blend of African, Indian, and European culture.  Local favorite grub here is a Bunny-chow.  Half a loaf of white bread filled with mutton curry – if you are into yummy and you are into spicy, you’ll be into bunny chow.  In contrast to Cape Town, Durban’s beaches offer you warm water and a very moderate climate over winter.  It’s like the perfect summer get-away in winter.

Sand Castle. Durban BeachSand Castle. Durban Beach

Far up the north coast of KwaZulu Natal are some world renowned diving spots boasting colorful reefs.  One of my fondest experiences in Natal has been a micro-light flight over the sugar cane fields and north coast.  I was left in awe as I flew over schools of dolphins frolicking in the warm Indian Ocean waters.

The Greater St. Lucia Wetlands Park is a World Heritage site, and so dubbed due to its great variety of different ecosystems, ranging from coral reefs and sandy beaches to subtropical dune forests, savannas, and wetlands. Here you will see elephants, African leopards, rhinos, buffalos, and in the ocean, whales, dolphins, and marine turtles.  The sunset cruise I enjoyed here not only landed me an exquisite sunset over the lake, but also the meeting of a few Nile Crocodiles and hippos.  Located in the surrounding area are conservation projects protecting rhinos, wild cats, and sea turtles.  This makes a great visit, where you can volunteer and support these important initiatives rescuing these incredible animals on the brink of extinction.

There is also a chance here to experience some true African Zulu cultural dancing, beer brewing, and traditional rituals.  Although traditional African life is far removed from the Western way of living in our larger cities, the rural areas of South Africa still practice many of these traditions.

Inland lies the majestic Drakensberg Mountains. The escarpment stretches for over 1,000 km (600 miles).  This area is known not only for its fairytale scenery, rolling green hills, pointy mountain peaks, and endless hiking trails, but also for loads of adventure activities.

Drakensberg Mountain - What To Do In South AfricaDrakensberg Mountain

From horse riding, zip-lining, and treetop adventures to quad biking and abseiling, there is always something to do.  There are many farm stalls with cheeses and local produce, as well as pubs in the nearby towns.  Should the weather not be on your side, find a warm fireplace and enjoy the view of the misty and mysterious mountains.  Winter months can get pretty cold, and the yearly winter snow fall usually draws some local crowds as a bit of a novelty experience.  After all, this is Africa, not the Alps.

On your way towards the “berg” you will most likely pass the Nelson Mandela capture site, a remarkable sculpture that marks the place former president Nelson Mandela was taken into custody. The site is an extraordinary historical monument.

Nelson Mandela Capture Site, KZNNelson Mandela Capture Site, KZN

Johannesburg – the City of Gold

Johannesburg, South Africa’s largest and most populated city, was formerly a gold mining hub.  The pace on this side of the country is a lot faster, and you will most probably find that service is better.  The coastal regions tend to be a little “laid back” and work according to what we call “African time.”  A few hours’ drive (or short flight) out of Johannesburg city lies the Kruger National Park, one of the best locations for Big 5 game viewing (leopard, lion, elephant, buffalo, and rhino).

Elephants in Kruger National Park

Johannesburg is the city where you can visit many historical museums and, on the flip side, also has great theme parks, casinos, and water parks.

The Cradle of Humankind is one of eight World Heritage Sites in the country. It is home to around 40% of the world’s human ancestor fossils and many birds, animals, and plants, some of which are endangered.  Close by, you can visit the Lion Park, walk with lions, go for a hot air balloon ride, or sky dive.

KwaZulu Natal may have given you a glimpse into the rural African way of life, and Johannesburg will reveal its urban counterpart.  Hop on a red minibus taxi for a unique trip to Soweto, Johannesburg’s largest and most vibrant township.  It is home to more than 1.2-million South Africans, and each stop of the tour through the township ties into the theme of freedom.  Although most sites in South Africa are perfectly safe to travel on your own, I recommend you do this trip only with a registered tour.

Soweto Towers, JohannesburgSoweto Towers, Johannesburg (citysightseeing)

I have hardly touched the surface of South Africa’s glorious travel menu.  There is still bungee jumping (one of the highest in the world I might add), numerous historical and cultural experiences, diamonds (yes we have plenty bling bling), and you cannot leave without having a truly South African braai (otherwise known as a barbeque).  South Africans love to barbeque so much that we even have a national day dedicated to it.

There are also plenty of opportunities to volunteer among our poorer communities should you wish to stay longer than one or two weeks. South Africa has a lot to offer, we have a lot to give traveler who want to experience our country. We look forward to receiving you in our very diverse nation, but I have to warn you in advance – you may lose your heart in Africa!

Sharing is caring!

Leave a Comment