Eight of the Best Things to Do in South Africa

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

01 of 08

Realize Your Safari Fantasies

Human tourists coming across a group of elephants
Jessica Macdonald
South Africa
+27 13 735 4000

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).

02 of 08

Tee Off at a Top Golf Course

A golf course below mountains
Hein von Horsten/Getty Images
1 Montagu St, Blanco, George, 6529, South Africa
+27 44 804 0844

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. 

03 of 08

Discover World-Class Surfing

A surfer catching a wave
Paul Kennedy/Getty Images
Beach Rd, Muizenberg, Cape Town, 7950, South Africa
+27 21 480 7700

South Africa's coastline stretches for more than 1,600 miles/ 2,500 kilometers, 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/ 18 meters. 

South Africa's surfing capital, however, is Jeffreys Bay, located 50 miles/ 85 kilometers 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. 

04 of 08

Go Swimming With Sharks

A close-up of a great white shark
Steve Woods Photography/Getty Images
1, Roland Norris Dr, Umkomaas, 4170, South Africa
+27 82 800 4668

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 shark 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. In winter (June to September), sand tiger sharks congregate on the reef to mate. 

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05 of 08

Hike Amidst Stunning Scenery

Sunrise at the Drakensberg Mountains
Emil Von Maltitz/Getty Images
Unnamed Rd, South Africa

South Africa's natural scenery is undoubtedly some of the world's finest, 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.

06 of 08

Photograph a Wildflower Bloom

Wildflowers blooming at Namaqua National Park
Peter Van Der Byl/Getty Images
99 Rhodes Dr, Newlands, Cape Town, 7700, South Africa
+27 21 799 8620

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% 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. If you have limited time, Cape Town's Kirstenbosch Gardens offers a spectacular overview of South Africa's plant life. 

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.

07 of 08

Explore South Africa's History

An aerial view of Robben Island, Cape Town
Marc Hoberman/Getty Images
1963 R33, South Africa
+27 34 632 1695

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 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. 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. 

08 of 08

Visit a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Interior of the Sterkfontein Caves, the "Cradle of Humankind"
Mark Harris/Getty Images
R400, Mogale, 1911, South Africa
+27 14 577 9000

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. Three of them have already been mentioned on this list - Robben Island, the Maloti-Drakensberg Park and the Cape Floral Region. 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 all the way from the Mozambique border to the east coast province of KwaZulu-Natal. Here, you can explore beaches, game reserves, and precious estuarine areas. 

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Eight of the Best Things to Do in South Africa