Diverse and dramatic, this rainbow nation offers a world of experiences.
Occupying the entirety of the continent’s southern tip, South Africa certainly does things on a grand scale. Head out on safari in search of the Big Five, tour the sun-soaked vineyards of the Cape, or cruise the Garden Route on a self-drive tour. Should the mood take you, your trip could veer from penguin spotting to wine tasting, to surfing, to safari and back again.
With such a diversity of landscapes and habitats, South Africa is often referred to as the ‘World in one country’. Dramatic mountain ranges give way to vast savannahs and deserts to the north, two ample coastlines stretch 3,000km around both the Indian and the Atlantic oceans, while the monumental setting of Cape Town helps to create one of the world’s most exciting cities. South Africa really does have it all, so prepare to be bowled over.
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The top things to do in South Africa
There are countless wonderful experiences to be had in this vast country. For further inspiration take a look at the trip ideas put together by our trusted local experts at the foot of this page, but in the meantime here are our top things to do in South Africa.
Savour wild encounters
Famed for the Big Five – elephant, buffalo, rhino, lion and leopard - South Africa offers many opportunities to don your khakis and head out on safari. The country boasts over 20 national parks, including the big-hitting Kruger National Park with its lazy Limpopo River. Other national parks encompass forested coastline, wetland ecosystems, mountain ranges and deserts, and are home to a myriad of creatures great and small, from penguins and whales to flamingos and hippopotami.
Cruise the Garden Route
Perhaps one of the most glorious road trips the world over, the Garden Route covers some 200km of spectacular countryside from Mossel Bay in the Western Cape to Storms River in the East. Stunning coastline, lush forests, rolling hills, idyllic beaches, lakes and lagoons, all combine to dramatic effect. Roll down the window, put on your favourite tunes and enjoy.
Hike in the Drakensburg Mountains
Known as uKhahlamba, ‘the barrier of spears’, in Zulu, the Drakensberg Mountain range is the highest in South Africa, reaching a dizzying 3,482 metres above sea level and spanning over 1,000 km. The towering basalt buttresses give you a clue as to how it earned its name and beg for exploration. The mountains are not only home to beautiful 'fynbos', but here you’ll also find the epic Blyde River Canyon with its incomparable views.
Make time for trying the wine
South Africa’s award-winning vineyards are centred on the fertile Cape. The towns of Stellenbosch and Franschhoek make great bases from which to quaff. Reds here are particularly full bodied and include Pinotage and Syrah, while popular South African white wines include Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc. A useful invention is the popular wine tram, on which you can enjoy a jovial jaunt around the vineyards without having to take the wheel.
Live it up in Cape Town
With arguably one of the most mesmerising settings in the world, Cape Town is justly proud of her own beauty. Table Mountain looms large over the city offering stellar views out over the metropolis, and the shining sea beyond. With cutting edge design, gourmet delights and a thriving arts scene, Cape Town’s melting pot of cultures, coupled with its setting, has created one seriously charismatic city.
The lesser-known things to do in South Africa
While there are many well-known things to do in South Africa, what about the lesser-known highlights? Our local experts have shared some of their top tips for where to go and what to do if you fancy a bit of an alternative South African adventure.
Marvel at the West Coast's flower power
The spring flowers of South Africa’s Northern Cape and West Coast really are a sight to behold. After the winter rains, the usually dry and dusty land explodes into carpets of colour that have to be seen to be believed. Purple, orange, yellow, blue, white and red all mix together with brilliant, clashing abandon. The flower season starts in the Northern Cape and Namaqualand in late July / early August and peaks in late August, depending on the weather. Speak to our local experts if you would like your trip to coincide with these spectacular blooms!
The Klein "Little" Karoo
This lesser-known area of South Africa is a beautiful expanse of sparsely populated, semi-desert the size of Germany. A scattering of pretty towns and farms are surrounded by wild, empty lands and crowned with a spectacular starry sky at night. Desert landscapes seem to attract creative minds, and the Klein Karoo is a cultural haven of galleries, independent bookshops and quirky encounters. Every town you stop in has its own identity and a unique buzz.
Sample the Cape Malay Cuisine
An unexpected but memorable genre of food in South Africa is the sweet, subtly spiced Cape Malay cuisine, perfect when sampled in the Bo-Kaap area of Cape Town, its historical home. A legacy of the Malaysian slave trade, Cape Malay cuisine brings the sparkling flavours of Asia to the table. The secret is in the complex spicing, which creates a unique blend of flavours you shouldn’t miss.
South Africans are an outdoorsy crowd, and adrenaline-charged escapades can be easily arranged. Ever fancied bungee jumping, abseiling or surfing? Well now’s your chance – and what a setting for it. Equally, if beautiful views are quite enough of a thrill for you, then South Africa has plenty of more gentle ways to appreciate its great outdoors.
When is the best time to visit South Africa?
The best time to visit South Africa varies as weather tendencies change considerably region by region. Visitors to Cape Town will wish to avoid May to July, the wet winter months, and target August to October, when the spectacular flowers of Namaqualand bloom. Beach lovers can visit Durban or the KwaZulu-Natal region year-round (quieter in winter), but game watchers may prefer a winter visit when minimal rainfall draws animals to watering holes, making for excellent viewing.
Interesting facts about South Africa
South Africa is a fascinating country. But did you know any of our top three facts about it?
- South Africa shares borders with Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mozambique, and entirely surrounds two independent countries - Lesotho and Swaziland.
- During the annual sardine run between May and August, enormous shoals of sardines move en masse from Cape Point northwards – this phenomenon is epic in scale and visible even from space.
- In 2006 South Africa became the first African nation to recognise same sex marriage, making it the fifth country in the world to take this progressive step.
Insider tips from our trusted local experts
Being local, our experts have an extensive knowledge of the secrets to experiencing the 'real' South Africa. Here are a few of their top tips - ask them for other recommendations when you enquire to ensure you have the most in-depth experience whilst on holiday!
Travel in time to see the whales...
You don't have to go out on a whale watching boat to see the magnificent creatures breaching and playing in the shallows. They can be easily seen from the shore, particularly in De Hoop Wildlife Reserve and Hermanus, but also from all along roads and coastal paths that fringe the eastern shores of the country. Humpback and southern right whales are in South African waters from June to November.
Held in the Tankwa Karoo National Park every April/May, AfrikaBurn is an official offshoot of Nevada’s famous Burning Man Festival. This eccentric celebration of the weird and the wonderful culminates in a ceremonial burning down of the art installations created over a week of festivities.
Hipster heaven in Cape Town…
For boutiques, cutting-edge design, artisanal food, craft beers and contemporary dining, head to the Woodstock Market at the Old Biscuit Mill. It is bustling from 9am - 3pm every Saturday - make sure you go with room for food or you'll regret it!
Elephants and cars…
When a male elephant is in musth, he is overrun with hormones that drive him to seek out a mate. In this state he can be aggressive to cars, so if on a self-drive safari be sure to give him a wide berth. He’ll be identifiable by wet patches on his back legs and around the eyes.
What to read before you go to South Africa
If you're looking for something to get you in the mood before you set off on your travels to South Africa, we've gathered a list of our favourite books to inspire you.
'Long Walk to Freedom' by Nelson Mandela
'Cry the Beloved Country' by Alan Paton
'My Traitor's Heart' by Rian Malan
'A Dry White Season' by André Brink
'Disgrace' by J M Coetzee
'The Conservationist' by Nadine Gordimer
'Country Of My Skull' by Antjie Krog
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