9 Essential South Africa Experiences

There are three stages to an African vacation: The pre-journey stirring of one’s imagination (What is this oft-misunderstood continent really like? Are the locals really that enchanting? Will I stare down a lion?), the actual boots on the ground experience (watching zebra herds stampede across verdant grasslands, swapping stories with local tribes and waking at dawn in a tent in the bush) and lastly, and best of all, post-trip memories that linger for a lifetime.

Africa really is that kind of place and no country on the continent epitomizes its relentless and restless spirit quite like South Africa. Cosmopolitan cities tug at the culture vulture’s soul, national parks enthrall even the most seasoned adventure seeker and perfectly paved highways guarantee motorists endless bucket list road trips. The country literally checks every vacation box. Heading to South Africa soon? Here are 9 essential experiences you must have.

Goof around with penguins

How many places in the world can you hang with endangered African penguins while also working on your tan? An hour’s drive south of Cape Town is Boulder’s Beach, a swimming beach hemmed in by large rocks and home to the increasingly rare African penguin. You can’t touch the feathered birds, but angle your selfie stick just right for drool-worthy Instagram pics.

Cultivate your own garden

Driven the Overseas Highway? Checked Australia’s Great Ocean Road off your bucket list? Now follow the anything-but-garden-variety Garden Route from Mossel Bay to the Storm Rivers. This 190-mile road trip swoops through coastal beaches, mountains and lakes. Don’t miss Kynsa Lagoon, Monkeyland and whale watching along Plettenberg Bay and the Robberg Peninsula.

Enjoy hints of licorice, blackberry, hoisin and more

Ever turned down a South African wine in favor of a more familiar Italian or California varietal? Now is the chance to right that wrong. Only an hour outside of Cape Town are wine regions Stellenbosch and Franschhoek. Think cabernet, merlot, pinotage and Shiraz in the former and Semillon, chardonnay and cabs in the latter. Stay a night at the swanky Last Word Franschhoek.

Meet Victoria and Alfred

Cape Town’s cosmopolitan offerings are numerous. There’s shopping the indie boutique along Bree Street, fancy dining at restaurants like Test Kitchen, La Colombe and the Foodbarn and enjoying the mishmash of hostels, Boho shops and cool eateries on Long Street. But for sure don’t miss a stroll along the pretty V&A Waterfront. A working harbor, the V&A (named for Victoria & Alfred) boasts a megawatt shopping complex, pretty architecture and epic views.

Meet the village people

Colonial rule brought industrialization to South Africa, but tribal life still survives and thrives in parts of the country. Pay a visit to the province of Kwazulu-Natal and spend an afternoon visiting a Zulu Village. The Zulu are the largest ethnic group in South Africa and here you’ll see thatched roof huts, tribal dress and observe Zulu traditions, rituals and ceremonies.

Rock the Cradle

Lacking Cape Town’s waterfront charms and dramatic backdrop, Johannesburg entices with numerous cultural offerings (Mandela House, Apartheid Museum, Soweto tours) and a bumping restaurant and nightlife scene. But don’t miss a day trip to the Cradle of Humankind, a UNESCO anthropological site and home to 40% of the world’s human ancestor fossils.

Follow in legendary footsteps

There are numerous South African sites to pay tribute to anti-apartheid revolutionary, former president and 1993 Nobel Peace Prize winner Nelson Mandela. A visit to Robben Island, where Mandela was imprisoned for 18 of his 27 years spent in jail, is a must. Thrice daily tours from Cape Town loop in the UNESCO site’s many attractions including a visit to his prison cell.

Witness the “big five” at Kruger National Park

Visitors come to South Africa for many reasons, but topping first-timer lists is an unforgettable safari adventure. At Kruger, prepare to check numerous wildlife sightings off your bucket list. The big five (African elephant, black rhino, Cape Buffalo, African lion and African leopard) are all at Kruger (as are many others) and if you’re lucky, you may spot a lion in action.

Take a hike

South Africa has staked its claim as the world’s adventure capital and indeed you can swim with Great White Sharks and jump out of a plane in the space of a single day. Less nerve-frazzling, however, is hiking and South Africa boasts many enviable treks including the multi-day Otter Trail, the luxurious Hole in the Wall Trail and Skelton Gorge which ends atop Table Mountain!

Ready to go?

Here’s a quick-reference mini guide to help get you on your way!

How to get there: Take to the skies in exceptional comfort on South African Airways. Enjoy premium cuisine and plenty of personal space, not to mention the lie-flat beds!

Where to stay: The Radisson RED Cape Town is just a few minutes walk from the V&A Waterfront. This stylishly modern hotel features a rooftop sun terrace and stunning views of the sea. If you plan on visiting Johannesburg, stay at the DAVINCI Hotel and Suites to experience the luxurious side of the city.

Where to eat: In Cape Town, see if you can get a reservation at La Mouette for their 6-course tasting menu or The Pot Luck Club for a tapas style tasting experience. In Johannesburg, head to Marble for its exquisite South African fare or try Little Addis Cafe for its traditional and hearty Ethiopian cuisine.

If you have recommendations for where to stay, play, and eat in South Africa, let us know in the comment section below!

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