When it comes to amazing ways to spend your time, South Africa is a land of endless opportunity. For the cultural traveler, cities like Cape Town and Johannesburg have a wealth of museums, galleries, and fascinating historical sites. For the discerning foodie, it's difficult to rival the restaurants and wineries of the Western Cape, while adrenalin-junkies are spoiled for choice with shark-diving, white-water rafting, and the world's highest bridge bungy. Of course, South Africa is also a country of unparalleled natural beauty, and exploring its diverse flora and fauna is top of the list for many visitors—whether they stay for several months or just a few days.
Realize Your Safari Fantasies
For most people, going on an African safari is probably one of the main reasons for visiting South Africa in the first place. The country's most famous game reserve is the Kruger National Park, and for a good reason—it's also the largest and oldest park, and it's easily accessible. You can see all of the Big Five here, and there's a wide range of accommodation from self-catering chalets to luxury lodges. Night drives, horseback safaris, and walking safaris are all possible.
Kruger's popularity means that it is also often crowded. For a more off-the-beaten-track safari destination, consider Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, a true wilderness located on the Botswana border and known for its population of black-maned lions. If you like the idea of a self-drive safari, check out Mkhuze Game Reserve (located north of Durban in Zululand) or Addo Elephant National Park (located near Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape). There are also several smaller safari parks near Cape Town.
Tee Off at a Top Golf Course
South Africa is home to some of the most beautiful golf courses on the planet, and they're surprisingly affordable. Gary Player and Ernie Els earned their first birdies on South African golf courses, and some of the country's top spots were designed by these two golfing legends. Stand-out favorites include The Links at luxury hotel the Fancourt (located in George, Western Cape) and Leopard Creek, located near Kruger National Park.
The former is the top-rated golf course in South Africa and the 34th best course in the world. Designed by Gary Player, it boasts spectacular views of the Outeniqua Mountains. The latter is special for its truly African flavor. Where else can you see giraffes wandering across the green, or spot crocodiles and hippos wallowing in the water hazards? Many of South Africa's golf courses are affiliated with luxury spa hotels so that non-golfers have plenty to do too.
Discover World-Class Surfing
South Africa's coastline stretches for more than 1,600 miles, from the frigid Atlantic to the balmy Indian Ocean. Both coasts have their fair share of surf spots, but the most famous are all in the Cape Town area or further north along the east coast. If you're headed to the Mother City, check out Muizenberg for beginner waves, or Big Bay near Blouberg Beach. For pros, the most famous wave here is Dungeons, a beastly right-hander known to get as big as 60 feet.
South Africa's surfing capital, however, is Jeffreys Bay, located 50 miles south of Port Elizabeth. This laid-back town welcomes the likes of Kelly Slater and Jordy Smith for the annual J-Bay Open, which focuses on legendary right-hand break Supertubes. Further north, Durban is another hotspot for beginners and pros alike. For the biggest thrills, check out the waves at North Beach, Bay of Plenty, and New Pier.
Go Swimming With Sharks
If you'd rather be under the water than on top of it, consider signing up for an encounter with the world's greatest apex predator: the great white shark. These magnificent animals are drawn to the waters of the Cape by an abundance of their favorite prey—Cape fur seals. Several companies in Gansbaai, Mossel Bay, and Simonstown offer cage-diving tours, allowing you to see the sharks in their natural environment without compromising your safety.
If you'd rather do away with the steel bars, head further north to Aliwal Shoal, a Marine Protected Area located just south of Durban. Here, you can dive with several species of sharks without the protection of a cage. In summer (November to April), baited dives allow you to get up close and personal with tiger sharks, while bull sharks and oceanic blacktip sharks are common throughout the year. During winter (June to September), sand tiger sharks congregate on the reef to mate.
Hike Amidst Stunning Scenery
South Africa's natural scenery is undoubtedly some of the world's most beautiful, and the best way to experience it is on foot. There are many long-distance hiking trails to explore, some of which take you along the breathtaking coast, while others introduce you to the hidden secrets of the country's interior. Amongst the most famous routes are the Fanie Botha trail in Mpumalanga, and the Rim of Africa, which traverses the Western Cape mountains.
If you're looking for a less structured hiking experience, head to the Wild Coast or the Drakensberg Mountains. In both places, an abundance of short and long trails allow you to explore as much or as little as you like. The Wild Coast (also known as the Transkei) offers an insight into the rugged beauty of the Eastern Cape shore and the culture of the Xhosa people. The Drakensberg is home to the highest mountain range in South Africa.
Photograph a Wildflower Bloom
For the avid botanist, South Africa is a truly special destination. In the far south of the country, the Cape Floral Region is home to approximately 9,500 plant species, 70 percent of which are found nowhere else on Earth. The region is one of the world's six floral kingdoms and is especially famous for its utterly unique fynbos species.
For a brief period every year, the flowers of the Western Cape are usurped by wildflower blooms in the Northern Cape. In late July or early August, the arrival of spring sees the arid landscapes of South Africa's northwest transformed into a sea of color. The bloom starts in the far north and slowly spreads south, and lasts for just a few splendid weeks. Hotspots for viewing the wildflowers include Namaqua National Park and Goegap Nature Reserve.
History lovers will find plenty of interest in South Africa. At Blood River, two monuments stand as a record of the conflict between the Zulu people and the Dutch Voortrekkers. The Anglo-Zulu War is commemorated by memorials and museums at historic battlefields like Rorke's Drift and Isandlwana. Of course, South Africa's modern history was overshadowed by the horrors of apartheid, and many of its sights are connected to that period of racial injustice. In Johannesburg, it is possible to see firsthand the revival that has taken place since apartheid with a tour of Soweto. Once the site of bloody uprisings, the township is now a cultural hotspot.
Visit a UNESCO World Heritage Site
South Africa has no fewer than eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites, each one recognized by the United Nations as being of great cultural or natural importance. Other cultural sites include the Cradle of Humankind (where fossils of our ancient ancestors were discovered) and the ruins of the ancient kingdom of Mapungubwe.
The remaining sites range from Vredefort Dome to iSimangaliso Wetland Park. The former represents one of the largest meteor craters on the planet, created in a collision so big that it is thought to have shaped evolutionary history. The latter is an incredible protected area that stretches from the Mozambique border to the east coast province of KwaZulu-Natal. Here, you can explore beaches, game reserves, and precious estuarine areas.
See Incredible Flowers at Kirstenbosch Gardens
If you have limited time, Cape Town's Kirstenbosch Gardens offers a spectacular overview of South Africa's plant life. Described as one of the world's greatest botanical gardens, this South African showpiece is set at the eastern edge of Table Mountain. The gardens house more than 7,000 of the 22,000 plant species that grow in South Africa, including unique plants like fynbos, pelargoniums, and medicinal flora.
Learn About Johannesburg's History at Constitution Hill
Few places showcase South Africa's turbulent past as eloquently as Constitution Hill. This living museum, which was once a prison, follows the country's long path to democracy. Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Fatima Meer, and tens of thousands of ordinary South Africans were all confined here at some point during the country's volatile history, making it a must-visit.
See the Cape of Good Hope
If you're staying in Cape Town, it's worth making the excursion to the Cape of Good Hope, a promontory off of the country's southern tip. While the true southern tip of Africa is a few hundred miles south at Cape Agulhas, Cape of Good Hope is still worth visiting for its rugged natural beauty. Here, you can whale watch from June to November, climb the lighthouse for stunning views, or simply explore the scenery. Don't forget to stop at Boulder's Beach if you want to see penguins!
Visit the Apartheid Museum
The Apartheid Museum opened in Johannesburg in 2001. Visitors here can learn about South Africa's painful history of racial segregation, including how residents were once classified by their nose width, hair type, skin pigmentation, and other physical features. The museum includes interactive displays, film footage, and historic photos.
Explore the Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve
The Blyde River Canyon Reserve is the third-largest canyon in the world and one of South Africa's most-visited attractions. The reserve includes hiking trails, a resort, and spectacular viewpoints of natural wonders such as Bourke's Luck Potholes, the Three Rondavels, Pinnacle Rock, and God's Window.
Have Dinner at Fermier
Fermier is a popular restaurant in Pretoria that farm-to-table dining on the map in South Africa. Don't expect a chic, ultra-modern restaurant though. Instead, you'll be eating dishes like lamb loin with confit lemon and asparagus in a mud-walled and tin-roofed shed.
Admire the Majesty of Table Mountain
This flat-topped mountain is one of the best-known landmarks in Cape Town. If you want to head to the top for spectacular views, you can either hike or take a cableway. It's part of the Table Mountain National Park, which is home to incredible wildlife, especially bird species like booted eagles, and African harrier-hawks.
Take a Day Trip to Pilanesberg National Park
Pilanesburg is an underrated national park that's home to the Big 5 and so much more. The park is just three hours from Johannesburg and offers single-day safaris that include guides and lunch. The best time to visit is from July through October, when it's dry and clear.
Tour the World’s Largest Hand-Dug Hole
The Big Hole, also known as the Kimberley Mine, is an open pit that is claimed to be the deepest hole dug by hand. Mining operations ceased here way back in 1914, but it's still worth a visit for the excellent exhibition center, diamond vault, and subterranean experience.
Learn About the Past at Robben Island
In Cape Town, you can take a tour of Robben Island, the one-time political prison where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for 18 years. You can also tour District Six, where forced evictions of non-whites took place after the passing of the racist Group Areas Act in 1950.
Drink Wine at Babylonstoren
Babylonstoren is an old Cape Dutch farm that's home to an elegant hotel, a stunning garden, multiple restaurants, and most importantly, a 200-acre winery that produces excellent pinot noir and chardonnay. There's also an on-site spa.
Check Out Contemporary Art at Zeitz MOCAA
The Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa opened in 2017 as the largest museum of contemporary African art in the world. Located at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town, the stunning museum is housed in a converted grain silo. It contains more than 100 galleries.