South Africa is astounding. Visit South Africa for its affordability, its luxury, and its stunning natural beauty, from the beautiful beaches of KwaZulu-Natal, to Table Mountain, to God’s Window. Visit for its African authenticity with world-class ease and comfort, for its adventure, for its wildlife, for its amazing sunny weather, and for the phenomenon of the Rainbow Nation and its 11 official languages living in peace. Visit to learn about its amazing struggle for freedom following the footsteps of Mandela, Gandhi, and many other celebrated revolutionaries. No matter why you visit, South Africa will touch and inspire you.
South Africa’s varied climate and topography, exquisite surreal natural beauty, and great cultural diversity all make it a favorite destination for travelers from around the world. Since the legal ending of Apartheid in 1994, various award-winning museums on the history and effects of the barbaric system and the resulting heroism to shape a new South Africa have created life-changing experiences for visitors.
South Africa has been fully “open” since June 22, 2022, when the indoor mask mandate and other Covid restrictions were lifted. When I visited in April of this year, it was fully masked and every indoor location, including vehicles, would spray your palm with sanitizer upon entry. While there, it was announced that variants BA.4 and BA.5 originated in South Africa, in addition to Omicron, but it didn’t feel that different from a country like America while under COVID restrictions. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has determined South Africa has a moderate level of COVID-19 and the country is now fully open for business.
Start in Capetown, the picturesque port city which surrealistically combines almost all of the miracles of nature into one thriving metropolis. The cosmopolitan city of 4.6 million is one of the most scenic on earth with breathtaking nature weaved throughout the entire town. Founded by the Dutch in 1652, Capetown is known for its powdery beaches lapped by two separate oceans (the Indian and the Atlantic) and a 3500 feet tall andesitic stratovolcano. The Mother City also boasts nearby world class winelands like Stellenbosch, as well as the towering, lush Table Mountain which looms over the city. (Try a cable-car ride to the top for views.) The Twelve Apostles Mountain Range marks one of the most striking stretches of coast in the world. The Victoria and Alfred Waterfront has shopping, dining and five-star hotels, and at the grim site of the prison at Robben Island you can visit where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 of his 27 years of incarceration. All of this makes Cape Town a must see, if you had to choose one city in all of South Africa. And that’s not to mention the cuisine and creative and ethnic cultures.
While there, try a relaxing helicopter ride with NAC Helicopters to get an overview of the entire city and its nature. Then hop into a classic sidecar along the winding scenic coast with Cape Side Car adventures; choose the motorcycle with Brody, the owner’s dog. Then try a street art tour with Juma Art Tours, a Cape Malay father and son who started out as an Airbnb experience, and end the Woodstock neighborhood experience at their home. You’ll feel like a genuine guest in their artsy and warm abode.
You’ll also feel at home during a tour of the Bo-Kaap neighborhood, a traditional Muslim enclave famous for its bright pastel mulit-colored homes all maintained by the residents, in view of beautiful Table Mountain. After touring and photographing the area, have a traditional halal Cape Malay lunch in Auntie Fazlan’s home on the Halal Hopper tour, with rices, stews, tea and koesister (fried donuts) lovingly prepared from scratch. Be prepared to leave with a lot of leftovers.
A must in Capetown is the Gold Restaurant owned by Cindy Muller and her staff. It is more of a learning journey of South Africa’s soul and cuisine. Begin with a gold flake champagne and learn African drumming in a group class with a master, then enjoy an artfully prepared 14 dish taste “safari” learning about the history of the region and its spices. The staff sings and performs traditional African dances and Mali puppets between courses, and natural choruses break out in the kitchen along with high kicks, a Zulu style of dance. Be prepared to dance off dessert in between bites and leave with vibrant gold face paint.
Visit nearby Wine Country, Stellenbosch and Franschoek, which have a quaint train you can take to each winery. The Grande Provence Heritage Wine was established in 1694 in Franschoek, with 124 hectares of premium and limited reds and whites made in amphorae French oak and staved for an average of a year. Warwick Estates is a beautiful high-end winery with rolling green hills and the native grape pinotage classics worth purchasing after tastings. Stay at the iconic Mount Nelson hotel, or at least have high tea at this Belmond property—a palatial, lush garden estate for celebrities and dignitaries , replete with pool, tennis courts, and villas, that has been famous for its pink color since it was painted to commemorate the end of World War I in 1918. The first minion was held here for the Jewish community and there is also the South African Jewish Museum in walking distance. The Museum of Contemporary Art Africa is the world’s largest collection of contemporary African art and the diaspora and will educate and inspire you. If you have the time, try your hand at cooking South African cuisine yourself with the former Masterchef contestant Jade De Waal and her charming and cheeky staff at Food Jams, who invite you to “hydrate” with wine between each meal. It’s not a competition, just plain fun.
Next on your list should be Johannesburg, a two hour flight from Capetown. The original city of gold, South Africa’s largest city and most vibrant artistic cultural hub, Joburg is a pulsating arts mecca with diverse cuisine and an enduring popularity among the young. Your first stop should be Nelson Mandela Square, where you can see a towering six meter tall statue of the great leader and freedom fighter. The square is home to a first-class shopping mall where you can find many smaller statues by the same artist. Stay at the Voco Johannesburg Rosebank, a sleek modern five star in the heart of urban luxury Sandton; nearby is a large African Arts and Craft Market to get your hand made masks, zebra skins, drums, dresses and horned animal plaques. Check out the artistic underground with a tour of one of the many abandoned historic bank vaults of Joburg; Zwipi Underground. near Gandhi Square, turns one of those vaults into an art bar and café. Gandhi worked as a lawyer in town and a museum exists near Durban that commemorates the night in 1893 that the young Indian lawyer was thrown off a train in Pietermartizburg for refusing to move from a whites only compartment. His contribution to fighting apartheid can also be found at the must-visit Apartheid Museum, which graphically portrays the apartheid story through photos, artifacts, newspapers, chilling personal accounts, and film.
A natural sight to see outside of Johannesburg is the Cradle of Humankind, the reported place where humankind began. Discovered in 1924, the first-ever hominid fossil, Australopithecus africanusis on display here at the Maropeng Visitor Centre. It’s a Unesco World Heritage site with 13 excavation sites and is a 40-minute drive from Johannesburg’s city center.
Eat at Marble, a modern, sleek rooftop restaurant that serves South African cuisine all cooked with fire by Award winning chef David Higgs. This distinguishes SA cuisine, and has a grand wood fired grill for creating braai and high level meat, poultry and seafood in an upscale ambience. It’s delicious, including its craft cocktails and wine.
Then head to Durban, an Indian Ocean beach town, which has the highest population of Indians outside of India and unparalleled ocean views. It’s also home to bunny chow: a combination of curry served in a bread bowl. Visit the landmark stunning red and white themed Oyster Box hotel for luxury ocean views, dinner, high tea, champagne, oysters and bunny chow with a view of the iconic lighthouse and Indian Ocean to situate yourself. The beach is not the cleanest but the stretch of boardwalk promenade rivals Rio de Janeiro; it pulses with runners and rollerbladers each morning at sunrise and sunset. If you want to stay right on the water, look into the four-star hotel Southern Sun Elangeni and Maharani.
The surrounding province of KwaZulu-Natal is a richly green and fertile landscape of mountains and valleys. It has many Big Five game reserves offering safari experiences and the theatrical Drakensburg (Dragon’s back) Mountains for adventure. It is the historic homeland of the Zulus and offers rich historical and cultural experiences to visitors. Durban was where Ghandi rose to prominence. He spent 20 years there and many of the historical sites of his legacy can be found in the Gandhi Trail through Durban. Durban can be gritty, but it ought to be included in an exploration of the country’s culture.
The critical Nelson Mandela capture site is actually beautiful. It happens to be a sunny country road, and today it is home to an awe-inspiring 3-D statue of Mandela, with his inspiring story told inside a museum. The sculpture consists of laser cut steel columns between six and nine and a half meters high along a 30-meter length which can be seen from the road as a forest of steel poles. To see the sculpture, visitors must walk along a path representing “the Long Walk to Freedom” with milestones culminating at a gradual focus creating the illusion of a flat two dimensional image magically recreating Madiba’s portrait. Metaphorically the statue announces his return to the site of his disappearance from world view.
Not far sits one of the continent’s best safaris for the big five (lion, leopard, buffalo, elephant and rhino), called, appropriately enough, Big Five. This safari lets you explore in the heart of Zululand along the Elephant Coast with proximity to the Indian Ocean or the epic wilderness of Kruger, Kgalagadi. On this tour the red sand dunes of Kalahari will frame the majestic kudus, nyala, warthogs, wildebeests, and more.
Thanda Safari is recommended for its high level of level and authenticity, with staff who have worked there for generations. It is an absolute oasis, with an option to stay at the owner’s $3000 a night villa with a butler, the equally luxurious safari lodge, or in more affordable glamping tents. We spotted all Big Five while there, with each day waking to roaming wildlife like warthogs, elephants, tigers, rhinoceros, African buffalo, nyala (indigenous springbok), and spotting lions in their most vulnerable. On the sleek Land Rover cruisers a picnic can be had with rusk (biscotti-esque breakfast to dip in coffee) and Amarula coffee liqueur in hot cocoa. Dinner is a treat outdoors, with Zulu dancing and singing performances from the staff.
The Drakensberg Mountains are a world heritage site outside of Durban, South Africa, and the backdrop for the stunning 95 meter tall Howick Falls in Howick, South Africa. Hours away are the highest falls in the world: Togela Falls.
When you come to South Africa, come for the culture, stay for the hospitality, and then get lost in the endless offerings of one of the most beautiful countries in the world. South Africa’s nature, wildlife, shopping, cuisine, culture, art and people will all make you want to stay.
Alyssa Pinsker is an award-winning travel writer and writing and publishing coach based in Boulder, Colorado. She has visited 45 countries so far and lived in five. Follow her at @girlgoneglobal or visit alyssapinsker.com.