People are often drawn to South Africa’s fascinating landscape for its natural beauty, wildlife and ever-present sunshine. This large, diverse country located at the southern tip of the African continent is roughly twice the size of Texas and includes a wide variety of terrain, from the scenic Garden Route towns of the Western Cape, to premier safari destinations at its center, and Zulu Kingdom’s North Coast, which stretches from Zimbali to the Thukela River, home to golden beaches and bottlenose dolphins frolicking just offshore. With the help of this guide, you can plan to experience the best that South Africa has to offer.
Many visitors are surprised by South Africa’s complexity. The country is almost like two different nations in one, with major cities like Cape Town and Johannesburg existing as more of a first-world state, while other areas remain mostly underdeveloped with large-scale poverty. Here, you’ll notice a striking imbalance, with extreme prosperity starkly constrasted against extreme poverty in the same geographic space.
Given this contrast, it’s perhaps even more surprising to visitors that South Africa has an excellent infrastructure, and often draws favorable comparison to countries like the U.S. or Australia. There is an excellent transportation system in the developed areas, good roads, increasing numbers of fine guesthouses and B&Bs, as well as backpacker hostels, making it an ideal place to visit for all types of tourists.
Cape Town International and Johannesburg International Airport are the major airport hubs in the nation, but it’s best to fly into Cape Town since the airport is smaller and much more manageable. A short stay here will allow you to recover from jet lag as well as experience this diverse, spectacularly beautiful city. Cape Town is the second-largest city in South Africa, and has a look and feel that’s different from the rest of the country. It attracts many travelers with its vibrant multiculturalism, offering opportunities to shop and dine at the popular V&A Waterfront, watch Zulu groups sing and dance, or take part in the exciting nightlife at numerous European-style clubs around Greenpoint.
Just 45 minutes from the city you’ll find one of the few places on the entire planet where you can get up close to penguins in the wild. Boulders Beach in Table Mountain National Park is the home of a colony of 3,000 penguins. Here, the water is ideal for swimming, and you can even take a dip right along with these captivating creatures. Seals, sharks, dolphins and whales can sometimes be spotted in the bay, and you’ll frequently see baboons and the Cape Mountain zebra in the park.
Visiting the wine country of Cape Town is a highlight for many visitors. Not only will you see some breathtaking scenery, but both the richness and diversity of the soil tend to produce some of the most exceptional wines.
Since many people consider wildlife viewing and interaction the top reason to go to South Africa, you’ll probably want to head to Kruger National Park, as most of the wildlife reserves are concentrated in this area. Daily flights to the park take off from Cape Town and Johannesburg. Here you’ll find a wide array of safari and guest lodges in the Greater Kruger Area that have wildlife right on site. Many offer excursions and activities such as private bush walks and game drives, as well as guided game drives into the park for a more personal, in-depth experience.
The four-day Kruger Family Elephant Encounter is a self-drive safari that offers the chance for active families to take part in a unique experience that everyone will want to write home about, including interacting with elephants and exchanging trunk greetings. It also includes a number of activities, such as flying through the air on a zip line.
Botswana, northwest of Kruger National Park, is considered to be the last untouched wilderness in Africa, and the home of Chobe National Park. Here you’ll find the best place on earth to spot African elephants in the wild. Near the northern town of Kasane, overlooking the Chobe River, you can join a guided day trip to world-famous Victoria Falls, known as the greatest curtain of falling water in the world. This spectacular sight can be seen from miles away, with more than 500 million cubic meters of water plummeting over its edge at the height of the rainy season.
The North Coast, sometimes referred to as the Dolphin Coast, is home to magnificent stretches of endless beaches and rolling fields of sugar cane. It’s also the playground of bottlenose dolphins, which are spotted just offshore in the warm waters year-round. Come here to relax or to play — numerous outdoor activities, including horseback riding on the beach, searching for sea life at low tide, fishing, golfing, surfing, swimming and diving allow for a variety of interests and abilities.
Addo Elephant National Park, northeast of Port Elizabeth, is also well worth a visit. It’s famed for its elephant population that has a unique brownish skin color due to the red soil. Other animals, including zebras, ostriches, buffalos, antelope, warthogs, spotted hyenas and lions can also be seen. Occasionally a rhino or leopard may be spotted. In the park’s Colchester section, the wildlife can often be viewed from your vehicle while driving on scenic loops through the park.
If you get a chance, Johannesburg also deserves some time exploring as well. This former gold town is South Africa’s largest city, and although spectacular scenery is absent, it is a cosmopolitan delight. Don’t miss taking in the view over the city by going to the top of the Carlton Centre, the tallest building on the continent. Few other places have better street fashion, and in Maboneng, a warehouse district turned artists’ hub, sidewalks are like runways and you’ll find charming rooftop cafes as well as numerous galleries. The Apartheid Museum is also a must, tracing the rise and fall of apartheid through multimedia exhibits that reveal deeply moving political and personal aspects of apartheid.
There is so much to see and do in this massive and magnificent country, once you visit, you may find yourself planning a return trip even before it’s time to depart. It offers so much rich cultural and natural beauty that may take several trips to fully capture.