South Africa, officially known as the Republic of South Africa, offers a great introduction to the many jewels of the Dark Continent. Tourists here will find classic African scenery: golden savannah, great gaping gorges, and hauntingly beautiful deserts, as well as their favorite African creatures – and, as a bonus- the creature comforts. Apart from the big-name game parks of Kruger and the Kgalagadi (Kalahari) Transfrontier Park, South Africa is home to some of the world’s most luxurious private game reserves and lodges. Wildlife lovers come here from all corners of the globe in search of the “Big Five”: lion, buffalo, leopard, rhino, and elephant, and often they find it, and so much more.
Coral reefs, shark dives, dragon-backed mountain ranges, white-water rafting, and golden beaches lapped by legendary surf breaks are some of South Africa’s many other attractions. Traveling around this vast land and touring the vibrant cities, visitors can learn about the nation’s turbulent history: in Cape Town, one of the world’s most beautiful cities; in Durban, a melting pot of cultures and cuisines, at the poignant museums and galleries in Johannesburg, and in Soweto, birthplace of Nelson Mandela, who helped birth democracy in this astoundingly diverse nation.
1 Kruger National Park, Mpumalanga and Limpopo Provinces
Kruger National Park, Mpumalanga and Limpopo Provinces
Kruger National Park is one of the world’s most famous safari parks. One of the oldest game reserves in South Africa, the park lies about a 3.5 to 4.5 hour drive from Johannesburg and offers visitors the chance to see the “Big Five”: lion, leopard, buffalo, elephant, and rhino, as well as an astounding diversity of other wildlife. It’s also home to bushman rock paintings and archaeological sites. Visitors can explore Kruger on the large network of sealed roads; organize a walking safari; or soar over the vast grasslands, gallery forests, and river systems in a hot air balloon. Accommodation ranges from basic campsites to comfortable lodges.
2 Cape Town, Western Cape
One of the planet’s most breathtaking cities, Cape Town is, by population, the second largest settlement in South Africa. Nature surrounds this multicultural city, which nuzzles between a rugged range of mountains and the sea. For a spectacular overview, hike to the peak of flat-topped Table Mountain, or glide up on the cableway. The hour-long hike up Lion’s Head also provides panoramic city vistas. On Table Mountain’s eastern slopes, the magnificent Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens lie within a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Strolling along the waterfront boardwalk, visitors might see whales spouting from the harbor. Penguins waddle along the golden beaches in False Bay, while south of the city, Cape Point is home to abundant wildlife and diverse botanical wonders. One of Cape Town’s top attractions is the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront. Reminiscent of Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, visitors come here to shop, dine, and enjoy the many entertainment venues, including Two Ocean’s Aquarium. Camp’s Bay, rimmed by beautiful boulder-flanked beaches, offers chic shops and cafes. At sunset, nature lovers stake a spot along spectacular Chapman’s Peak Drive in a dusk ritual known as “sundowners” to watch the sun sink slowly into the sea.
3 Kgalagadi (Kalahari) Transfrontier Park, Northern Cape
Kgalagadi (Kalahari) Transfrontier Park, Northern Cape
A merger of South Africa’s Kalahari Gemsbok National Park and Botswana’s Gemsbok National Park, the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is one of the largest wilderness areas in the world. Established in 2000, it is Africa’s first officially declared transfrontier park and lies in a remote region of South Africa’s Northern Cape. Gnarled camel thorn trees, red sands, golden grasslands, and deep blue skies provide a bold backdrop for photographs and game viewing. Among the huge diversity of wildlife, this vast conservation area is home to the famous black-maned Kalahari lion, stately gemsbok with their V-shaped horns, the sprawling nests of sociable weavers, meerkats, and many birds of prey. Other predators such as leopard, cheetah, and hyenas are also found here. Four-wheel drive vehicles are recommended for some of the minor rugged roads or for those venturing into Botswana.
4 Stellenbosch, Western Cape
Stellenbosch, Western Cape
Stellenbosch is one of the most picturesque towns in South Africa. A mosaic of farms, old oak trees, and white-washed Cape Dutch dwellings, Stellenbosch is one of the best preserved towns from the era of the Dutch East India Company. Today, it’s a university town with a vibrant feel and fantastic scenery. Foodies will love it here. Stellenbosch is home to some of South Africa’s best restaurants as well as many sidewalk cafes. History buffs can take a walk back in time at the Village Museum, a group of four restored houses and gardens dating from 1709 to 1850. Rupert Museum displays important works by South African artists, and the Botanic Garden at the University of Stellenbosch is another top tourist attraction. In the surrounding area, nature buffs can hike and bike on the wilderness trails in the breathtaking Jonkershoek Nature Reserve.
5 The Drakensberg, KwaZulu-Natal
The Drakensberg, KwaZulu-Natal
The spectacular Drakensberg, meaning “Dragon Mountains,” is one of the most popular vacation destinations in South Africa and home to the country’s highest peaks. The region encompasses the World Heritage-listed uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park, a region of jaw-dropping beauty with jagged basalt buttresses and San rock art, and Royal Natal National Park, home to the awe-inspiring Amphitheatre, a magnificent cliff face and source of South Africa’s main rivers. The Giant’s Castle Game Reserve in the region protects large herds of eland. Dense forests flourish in the sheltered valleys, and the area is home to more than 800 different species of flowering plants as well as a rich diversity of wildlife. In the summer, the mountain landscapes are lush and fertile with gushing waterfalls and crystal-clear streams. In the winter, snow cloaks the dramatic peaks. Visitors flock here to hike and bike the scenic mountain trails, fish for trout, rock climb, abseil, parasail, and raft the waters of the fast-flowing rivers. Hot air balloon rides are a great way to appreciate the dramatic topography.
6 The Garden Route
Along the country’s southeast coast, the Garden Route runs for about 200 kilometers through some of South Africa’s most breathtaking coastal scenery. The route stretches along the Indian Ocean from Mossel Bay, in the Western Cape, to the Storms River, in the Eastern Cape. This popular driving route passes through rolling green hills, pretty coastal towns, lagoons, lakes, and coastal cliffs. Highlights of the route include the charming town of Knysna snuggled between dense forests and a sparkling lagoon; the beautiful Garden Route National Park with its gorges, tidal pools, and thick forests; Oudtshoorn’s ostrich farms and Cango Caves; and the seal colony of the Robberg Nature Reserve in Plettenberg Bay. Adventures along the way run the gamut, from elephant back rides and whale watching trips to bungee jumping and tree canopy tours.
7 iSimangaliso Wetland Park, KwaZulu-Natal
iSimangaliso Wetland Park, KwaZulu-Natal
iSimangaliso means “miracle and wonder” in the Zulu language, and it’s a fitting name for this World Heritage Area, home to Africa’s largest estuarine system. Formerly the Greater St. Lucia Wetland Park, iSimangaliso lies on the northeastern coast of Kwazulu Natal and connects eight interwoven ecosystems, including coral reefs, croc-filled rivers, lakes, towering coastal dunes, swamplands, and savanna. Not surprisingly, the area supports an incredible variety of wildlife. More than 526 species of birds inhabit the reserve as well as leatherback and loggerhead turtles, leopards, rhino, and Africa’s highest concentration of hippos and crocodiles. This unique wilderness area offers visitors the chance to combine a classic safari experience with coastal adventures in the marine reserve such as kayaking, fishing, diving, and snorkeling.
8 Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve, Mpumalanga
Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve, Mpumalanga
Beautiful Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve (also called Motlatse River Canyon) is a favorite stop on the drive between Johannesburg and Kruger National Park. The park is home to Africa’s second largest canyon as well as a rich diversity of wildlife and plants. Lush subtropical foliage, waterfalls, glistening rivers, and lichen-covered rock formations create a striking canvas of color and texture. Game viewing can be particularly rewarding with all the common species of South African primates and many hippos and crocodiles. The best way to explore this spectacular park is via the scenic driving routes or by hiking the extensive trails. Panoramic viewpoints include Three Rondavels and the aptly named God’s Window. Boat trips and whitewater rafting are also available on the rivers.
9 Cage Dive with Great White Sharks
Cage Dive with Great White Sharks
Climb into a thick iron cage, plunge into the ocean, and come face-to-face with a great white shark. Believe it or not, this is one of South Africa’s top attractions – for thrill seekers. The sport has become so popular that new tour operators keep sprouting up every year. The best time to try the dive is April through October, but great whites swim these waters throughout the year thanks to healthy populations of seals and fish. Cape Town tour operators organize shark cage dives to areas such as Simon’s Town, Seal Island, Dyer Island, Mossel Bay, and Gansbaai, the self-proclaimed “Great White Shark Capital of the World.” Trips can also be arranged out of Durban and Rocky Bay. Since divers are enclosed in the custom-designed cages, no diving certification is required. For a little less excitement, it’s also possible to watch the action from the boat.
10 Robben Island, Western Cape
Robben Island, Western Cape
In Table Bay, World-Heritage-listed Robben Island is a haunting reminder of the horrors of apartheid. Nelson Mandela spent 18 years imprisoned in a tiny cell here along with other political dissidents and social misfits. Perhaps the best part about this experience is that ex-prisoners are usually the guides, sharing poignant first-hand accounts of the atrocities they endured. Tours to the island begin with multimedia exhibits in the museum at the Nelson Mandela Gateway at the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront. Sightseers then board boats to Robben Island, often braving rough swells on the 30-45-minute ride. Be sure to book early as the tours can fill up fast.
11 Durban’s Golden Mile, KwaZulu-Natal
Durban’s Golden Mile, KwaZulu-Natal
Durban’s sweeping waterfront promenade, the Golden Mile, is a legendary tourist magnet and a great starting point for a tour of the city. Long blond beaches lure swimmers, surfers, and anglers, while the bustling promenade feels like Miami Beach with its high-rise hotels, shops, restaurants, and flashy entertainment complexes. Visitors can stroll along here or rent a bike or Segway. Besides the beach scene, top attractions along this stretch include uShaka Marine World, a wonderland of sea-themed attractions; Moses Mabhida Stadium; and Mini Town, a tiny replica of Durban with a miniature rail network, airport, and harbor scene.
12 Johannesburg and Pretoria, Gauteng
Johannesburg and Pretoria, Gauteng
Johannesburg, also known as Jo’burg, is the largest city in South Africa by population and a gateway for many travelers on safari. Named the “City of Gold” for its rich deposits of the precious metal, it’s also the economic engine and vibrant heart of the country. Top historical attractions include the Apartheid Museum, a poignant look at the oppression of apartheid to the birth of democracy; Constitution Hill; and Gold Reef City, which traces the region’s history through mining-themed attractions. If Johannesburg is the heart of South Africa, the shanty towns of Soweto, are its soul. An abbreviation for “southwestern townships,” Soweto birthed the freedom movement, which created South Africa’s new democratic constitution. Guided tours of the townships often include a visit to the Mandela House, now a national monument. Close in distance, but a world away in feel, Pretoria is the administrative capital of the country. It’s a city of parks and gardens, and home to the Voortrekker Monument and Heritage Site and the highly-lauded Freedom Park.