South Africa is an extremely diverse country that offers so many unique experiences for travelers. Whether you’re planning a family vacation or a solo backpacking trip, South Africa has a little bit of something for everyone to enjoy. You’ll find heart-racing adventures for the thrill seeking enthusiasts, beautiful hikes up it’s mountainous terrain, historical monuments that have shaped history, and so much more. Coming from a tumultuous past, this country has built itself up into one of the best travel destinations with thriving cities like Cape Town and Johannesburg along with many quaint towns and villages in between. Here are 15 of our favorite things to see and do in South Africa.
15. Spend a Night at the Afrovibe Adventure Lodge
Located in the town of Sedgefield on Myoli Beach, the Afrovibe Adventure Lodge is a backpackers paradise. This hostel sits on 14 km of untouched beach, far away from any large cities, but is easily accessible by Baz Bus, a bus service in South Africa. You don’t need to venture far to have fun, this hostel offers plenty of activities like surfing, wakeboarding, kite surfing, paragliding and paddle boarding just to name a few. But, if you’d like to go off-site for some more exhilarating fun there is an on-site Adventure Center that will hook guests up with excursions like shark cage diving and bungee jumping. Guests can stay in four star rated rooms with private bathrooms and spacious balconies. If you are looking for some of the more refined comforts of home, stay at the nearby beach house which has free WiFi, a fireplace, kitchen, outdoor terrace, wooden deck with ocean views, a braai (barbecue) and indoor lounge areas. Need I say more? In the evening, wander downstairs to the Pilipili Beach Bar and restaurant to grab some grub. As the night continues, go outside grab a drink from the tiki bar and sit by the fire. Don’t forget to walk out onto the beach and view the most beautiful sunset you’ve ever seen!
14. Take a Tour of Robben Island
Robben Island is one of the most monumental places in South Africa as it played a significant role in the country’s history. This island is now a historical hub as it was home to Nelson Mandela for 18 of his 27 years of imprisonment. Now a World Heritage Site, Robben Island was feared by many because of its haunted past. It has been a hospital, prison, mental institution, leper colony and even a military base. Located 9 km from the shore in Table Bay, Robben Island is a short ferry ride away from Cape Town’s waterfront. Ferries to the island depart daily on each hour from 9 am to 3 pm. Upon arrival, visitors will be given a tour of the island by former political prisoners who can provide personal accounts of their experience on Robben Island. The tours will include a visit to maximum security, Mandela’s former cell (which has been virtually untouched since he was imprisoned there), a trip to the lime quarry where Mandela and his fellow inmates participated in hard labor, the Leper’s Graveyard and the house where Robert Sobukwe was left in solitary confinement for nine years. This island’s treacherous past is sure to leave an imprint on all of its visitors and is a must-see for all of South Africa’s tourists.
13. Go to the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg
The Apartheid Museum is another historical monument to visit while in South Africa. Located near downtown Johannesburg, it’s one of the most popular attractions in this big city. The experience is both eerie and inspiring. Taking guests down South Africa’s dark path of racial discrimination, you will learn what it was like living during the rise and fall of the Apartheid. The entire tour is entertaining as the museum is full of interactive displays like text, film, audio and live encounters. Even the building itself is an exhibit as it was designed to resemble the prison conditions of Robben Island. The first interactive exhibit begins before even entering the museum. Visitors are ushered into two different lines depending on what their ticket says, one entrance is labelled ‘white’ and the other ‘non white’ to give people the idea of what it was like to live in a racially segregated society. Venturing through the museum is a dramatic and emotional journey with areas that are not recommended for small children. But if you’ve got little ones, the day doesn’t have to be all about education and history, located beside Gold Reef City, a popular theme and amusement park that will thrill the kids, so stop by before or after visiting the museum.
12. Spend a night on Long Street in Cape Town
Long Street is the party capital of Cape Town, especially since it is conveniently located in the central hub of downtown. The entire street has a buzzing atmosphere with bustling streets and tons of culture and fresh authenticity oozing from the various shops, restaurants and bars. With a constant buzz of energy, Long Street is a great place to visit day or night, it never seems to slow down. A personal favorite among tourists is Mama Africa’s which is a common tourist spot offering some great authentic food, drinks and friendly service. As a central destination for tourists and locals, there are plenty of places to stay while on Long Street. Check out the Long Street Boutique hotel which is centrally located with easy access to all the major nearby attractions and activities.
11. Take a Hike up Table Mountain or Lion’s Head Mountain
Table Mountain is by far the most well known hike as it is South Africa’s most iconic landmark. This mountain is so popular, there are 350 trails to choose from- each varying in skill level so you can choose the route that works for you. The more strenuous hikes can take up to three hours and you’ll want to spend some time at the top as there is a restaurant, gift shop and spectacular lookout points that provide some great photo opportunities, so plan to spend a good amount of time here. After an exhausting climb, catch a ride to the bottom on the cable car and you’ll receive a breathtaking bird’s eye view of the mountain you’ve just conquered. Lions Head is the second most popular hike among tourists and locals. At an intermediate level with some steep climbs, this hike is not suitable for the unfit, elderly or very young. There are areas of this hike where you must use a chain link fence to keep balance and metal ladder grips for climbing. The reward for finishing is great, because once you’ve reached the top of this hike, you’ll feast your eyes on the scenic backdrop of Cape Town’s city bowl while scanning the other side with a view of Table Bay and the Atlantic shoreline. The trek takes about an hour and half to hike one way (depending on breaks, of course), so allow for three hours to finish the hike in its entirety.
10. Check out the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront in Cape Town
The Victoria and Alfred (V&A) Waterfront is an area of Cape Town that is a must-see and hard to avoid as it contains lots of shopping, dining and entertainment venues. The scenery is beautiful with Table Mountain towering in the background of the old working harbor with large ships and tugboats constantly moving in and out of the bay creating an oddly pleasing contrast with the modern V&A district. With lots to do there’s two large cinema complexes within the shopping center, Two Ocean’s Aquarium which is a world class aquarium and two museums. The Alfred mall and clock tower are where you’ll find most of the best shops. If you’re looking to spend more of your time outdoors, take a walk along the beachfront boardwalk or hop on one of the numerous boat rides that run regularly out of the harbor. There’s a giant Ferris wheel known as the Cape Wheel that gives riders a 360 degree view of the city’s landscape. Take a guided historical walking tour of the waterfront and you’ll be told stories from an era when the Dutch, British, Flemish and Malay slaves and sailors had to blend together to create South Africa’s working population. Don’t forget to check if the outdoor amphitheater is hosting any music, dance or theater performances because show’s run constantly throughout the year.
9. Go on a Safari Game Drive
South Africa is home to what is known as the ‘big 5’ which includes leopard, lion, elephant, buffalo and rhino. The most popular and well-renowned park to visit is Kruger National Park which ranks as the best in all of Africa. Kruger is also the largest game reserve in South Africa, the park totals nearly two million hectares of land and is larger than the entire country of Israel! A natural sanctuary where animals roam freely this is an experience unlike any zoo. This park is so large that many people spend more than one day here – the accommodations range from camping in overnight hides to luxury lodging. Kruger offers the chance to do a self drive through the park and view the wildlife or participate in a guided tour with park operators. Choose from game drives, bush walks, wilderness trails and foot safaris – there’s a little something for everyone. There are rest camps, picnic areas and waterholes that offer prime opportunity to view animals who wander out of the bush for a refreshing water break. Because of the vastness of this park, it is divided into regions so visitors can decide what kind of experience they would like to have. The northern areas of this park border on Zimbabwe and Zambia so be sure to do your due diligence and check to see if you will need malaria pills to enjoy a stay at this park.
8. Take a Drive Down Chapman’s Peak Drive
Chapman’s Peak Drive, or “chappies” as known to the locals, is a winding highway that travels down the Atlantic coast along the Southwestern tip of South Africa between Noordhoek and Hout Bay. It is a 9 km route with 114 curves and 593 m of rocky coastline and has been deemed by many as ‘the best marine drive in the world.’ This trek gives 180 degree views of incredible scenery, with towering mountains that contrast beautifully with the sheer drops to the sea. Whether you’re traveling alone or with the family, there’s plenty of areas to stop and have a picnic. There are three major picnic stops and 45 pit stops along the way with small tables to sit and relax on the Hout Bay side. Don’t have a car? Don’t fret! You can explore this route on foot by hiking one of the numerous trails on the Silvermine Nature Reserve and Cape Peninsula National Park. It is worth setting aside half a day or even a full day. If you are traveling during the late winter (South African winter) you’ll even spot some southern right whales as they migrate along the coast! Be sure to make a pit stop in one of the small country villages along the way for a souvenir from the local shops or refreshing beverage at a local restaurant.
7. Go Whale Watching in the Western Cape
South Africa is one of the best places in the world to go whale watching with frequent visits from annual migrations of southern right and humpback whales, plus pods of dolphins all year round. Every June, the southern right whales migrate from Antarctica to the warmer South African climate. The best time for whale watching is from June to November along the Cape South Coast. Peak calving season is in July and August, but the whales can be seen into September and October. Now – where’s the best place to spot these majestic creatures? The best areas are from Doringbaai to the coast of St. Lucia. If you’re in Cape Town, you can often see them from the road right along the False Bay coast. Hermanus in Walker Bay offers the best whale viewing from land in the entire world! Follow the path along the cliffs and you can get within 20 meters of the traveling whales.
6. Go On a Township Tour
Township tours have been debated, scrutinized and praised by the media and fellow traveler enthusiasts. Despite all of this, townships in South Africa are an important part of the country’s history and act as a constant reminder of Apartheid in the 90’s. These townships were built as a way to segregate the population, but now despite widespread poverty, some are now thriving communities. There are many tour companies that operate walking tours (and driving tours, but walking tours are much more respectful). It is important to note that you do not attempt to venture into these townships unguided as it can be dangerous for tourists to explore alone, so go with a guide. Most of these tour companies provide employment to individuals living in the townships as tour guides, so you’ll definitely get the most authentic experience! These tours are inexpensive and most put profits back into the communities. It’s a great learning experience and chance to really experience the country. Don’t make the common mistake of being a disconnected tourist!
5. Take a Wine Tour in Stellenbosch
The small picturesque town of Stellenbosch is about an hour from Cape Town, tucked away between secluded mountains in the Jan Kershoek River Valley. This small university town is home to the oldest wine route and most developed wine estates in the county, thus why it is the best place to experience South African wine! The scenery here alone is worth the trip, and the opportunity to soak in the views while sipping wine is just an added benefit. You can enjoy thorough educational tours learning about the entire wine-making process, or simply go visit these beautiful wineries for the elegant experience. Before heading out on a wine tour, be sure to explore the town of Stellenbosch and all is unique sidewalk cafes and restaurants!
4. Do the World’s Highest Commercial Bungee Jump
Are you an adrenaline junkie? If so, this is the perfect adventure for you! On the border of the Eastern and Western Cape along the Garden Route is where the company Face Adrenalin has been operating it’s bungee on South Africa’s largest bridge over the Bloukrans River since 1997. Home to what was once the highest commercial bungee jump in the world, it’s technically now the third, but when you’re jumping head first off a bridge it’s all the same thing, right? For bragging rights it’s still recognized around the world as ‘the world’s highest bungee from a bridge.’ Those brave enough to take this leap are suited up in a full body harness with ankle connections and dropped 216 meters toward the river below. Don’t worry, we won’t hold it against you if you chicken out!
3. Swim with Penguins at Boulder’s Beach
Located in Simon’s Town about a 35 minute drive from Cape Town is a place known as Boulder’s Beach, the home to a breeding colony of over 2000 endangered African penguins. The unique boulders which are spread along the sandy shores are up to 540 million years old. As part of a marine protected area, be prepared to pay an entrance free in order to enter this park and view the penguins. The large boulders keep the beach safe and sheltered so it’s the perfect beach spot to bring the little ones. There’s plenty of hidden spots to explore! Then, take a walk down the wooden boardwalk that winds through the park along the breeding and nesting grounds of the penguins. With visitors flocking in and out each day, the penguins here are definitely not afraid of people, but be respectful and don’t try to pick up the penguins or touch them because they can and will bite! The penguins will swim in the water with you and wander along the beach, it’s quite unbelievable to get so close, it’s sure to be a day your kids won’t forget.
2. Go Shark Cage Diving in Gansbaai
Shark cage diving is one of the most popular tourist attractions in South Africa. This activity is not for the faint of heart! This thrill seeking activity allows people to view the underwater world in the most unique way, a true up close and personal experience! The world’s largest predatory fish is commonly spotted off the shores of South Africa. There are many tour companies operating out of Gansbaai – so there are no shortage of choices! You will have the option of viewing sharks from above water (for those who are a little bit nervous!) and of course, for the unique experience of coming face to face underwater in the cage. There’s no need for scuba gear or a diving license because the cage has an open top for breathing, secured to the boat never going more than one meter below the surface. The typical tour takes about three to five hours depending on weather conditions, sea conditions and shark behavior. The best time to book an excursion is between the months of June and September when trips to the open water average sightings of four to five different sharks a day! Sign me up!
1. Travel the Garden Route
The Garden Route stretches along the south-eastern coast of South Africa, from Mossel Bay in the Western Cape to Storms River Village on the Eastern Cape border down the N2 coastal highway. This road trip route is the most popular tourist attraction in South Africa and is completely unique to the country. An iconic feature of South Africa with no shortage of sights to see, the best sights are found in secrets spots off the side roads, perfect for a quick stop and photo-op. The towns along the way have a rich history of early inhabitants and tales of elephants crossing the Outeniqua Mountains from the Oudtshoorn coast for many centuries. The name was coined from its rich ecological system, vegetation and large floral kingdoms, secluded bays, lakes and lagoons. The road follows along the ocean shores, through luscious green mountains and quaint little towns untouched by the developed world. Keep your eyes peeled at all times and you’ll likely catch a glimpse of some humpback whales, bottlenose and common dolphins, even killer whales who frequently visit the shore, especially in Plettenberg Bay.