South Africa has been called “A world in one country”, and there is no better way to describe all that it has to offer. It is undoubtedly one of the most culturally and geographically diverse places on earth. This vast country, at the southern tip of the continent, has an incredible variety of people, places, cuisine, activities, scenery, historical sites, and wildlife. This is why it has become the most popular destination in Africa. South Africa really does have it all.
Whether you’re an adventurer, birder, photographer, nature-lover, climber, city stroller, amateur historian, shopper, sightseer, beach goer, nightlife enthusiast… a solo traveler, couple looking for romance or a family on vacation, South Africa is for you! There is something for everyone here – cosmopolitan Cape Town with world-class gourmet restaurants, art galleries, shopping, nightlife and the nearby beautiful countryside and fine wine in the Cape Winelands; the spectacular scenery of the Garden Route; magnificent whales breaching on the Hermanus Coast; the sunny beaches of Durban; and fascinating historical and cultural sites including Bushman villages, the Zululand battlefields, and sites related to the country’s dark past as well as its new freedom, including Soweto, Robben Island and the new Apartheid Museum. There is also a myriad of activities you can add if you are a bit more active and adventurous – mountain hiking and biking, abseiling, white-water rafting, paragliding, dune boarding, surfing, bungee jumping, skydiving, off-roading, horseback riding, and, what is often on the thrill-seekers bucket list- shark cage diving. The list of things to do in South Africa really does seem limitless!
Last, but certainly not least is a wildlife safari, which is available in all styles and budgets, from self-drive camping to opulent luxury. You can see a large diversity of animals, including the “Big Five” – lion, elephant, buffalo, rhino and leopard – as well many other species which are also incredible to see in the wild – giraffe, crocodile, hippo, zebra, hyena, wild dog, cheetah, bushbuck, impala, baboon, jackal, warthog, waterbuck, wildebeest, vervet monkey, and hundreds of species of birds…to name just a few! There are numerous wonderful parks and reserves to choose from, although first-time visitors often head to Kruger, or one of the private reserves in the area, such as Sabi Sands, to get away from mass tourism.
Going on a thrilling safari, to see animals in the wild, is the reason most Americans go to South Africa. The rest is just icing on the cake.
Regions of South Africa
Addo Elephant Park
If you want to see elephants – and who doesn’t – make your way to Addo Elephant Park, in the Eastern Cape. It’s easy to get to, just an hour’s drive from Port Elizabeth, and it’s also malaria-free, which can be important to the elderly, families with children, and those who don’t want to or can’t take medications.
Addo does have a lot of elephants – about 600 – the last remaining wild elephants in the Eastern Cape. It is also the only park in the world that is home to Africa’s ‘Big 7 ‘, which is the Big 5 (elephant, rhino, lion, buffalo, and leopard) as well as the southern right whale and great white shark. Addo is also home to a Cape fur seal colony and a large population of penguins – though not part of the Big 5, what they lack in size they make up in numbers, about 22,000 of them, the largest African penguin colony in the world. There are also many other species, and due to its large size, an incredible diversity of habitats: semi-desert in the far north, forested mountains, subtropical thickets, coastal dune forests and beaches along the coast, as well as a group of offshore islands in a protected marine reserve.
Activities include game drives (you shouldn’t have to drive too far to find elephants), visiting archaeological sites with Bushman rock art, hiking, horseback riding, birding, scenic mountain drives, and swimming. Some of the lodges also have special kids programs.
Cape Town is undeniably one of the most beautiful cities in the world. No matter what you do here – and there is a lot to choose from – you will leave with that iconic image in your memory of its spectacular natural skyscraper – Table Mountain – towering over a city nestled between the mountains and the sea. A journey to the top of the mountain by cable car, or on foot, is something not to be missed. The view from the top of breathtaking.
Other attractions are seemingly unlimited. It is a large, cosmopolitan, modern city, while at the same time, it has an abundance of nature to explore – a great combination that only adds to its appeal. Top attractions include: The bustling V&A waterfront with a myriad of shops and restaurants; Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was once held captive for 18 years; a breeding colony of African penguins on Boulders Beach; the brightly colored houses of the Bo-Kaap community; and, after tiring yourself out trying to fit it all in, relax and soak up the sun on the soft sands of the beaches in Camps Bay. Longer excursions include the picturesque Winelands with world-class wine “tastings”, Chapman’s Peak Drive, with stunning panoramic views along the coast, and Cape Point, a rugged landscape with sheer cliffs where you will feel as if you are standing at the edge of the world.
Cape Town is truly a city you will never forget.
Just a short distance from Cape Town, about an hour’s drive, are the Cape Winelands, the center of South Africa’s award-winning wine industry. It is an hour well spent, whether you like wine or not – the scenery is spectacular, the accommodations are some of the most luxurious in the country. The towns are quaint, the history fascinating, the scenery is incredible, and the cuisine is out of this world.
When you aren’t tasting either food or drink, there are many other activities to enjoy – art galleries, spas and wellness centers, biking, visiting nature and game reserves, carriage and tram rides, biking, hiking, touring a wine cellar, horseback riding and taking a dip in natural hot mineral springs. But one of the most popular activities is simply taking a scenic drive on one of the many “wine routes”, with picturesque mountains and colorful vineyards along the way, then stopping at different estates for wine tastings, adding cheese or chocolate as you desire.
There are also some lovely towns to stroll down tree-lined avenues. Two of the most popular are Stellenbosch, with lovely Cape Dutch and Victorian architecture, art galleries, craft shops, clothing boutiques and chic restaurants and Franschhoek, known as the food and wine capitol of South Africa, so you get two for one here, with some of the finest restaurants in the world.
Don’t forget a designated driver!
South Africa’s Garden Route is one of the most scenic drives in the world – a stunning stretch of coastline on the Western Cape, winding along the edge of the continent, between lush mountains and the emerald waters of the Indian Ocean.
The name itself may be a bit misleading-there aren’t “gardens” along the way, but an abundance of vegetation, a naturally beautiful and picturesque landscape of forests and plants in every color of the rainbow. But there is much more to this region besides fauna!
The spectacular Garden Route is 125 miles of mountains, rocky coves, sandy beaches, lakes, lagoons, gorges, wildlife parks, ancient forests, quaint hamlets, golf courses, winelands and whales. Activities along the way include: wildlife game drives and whale watching, hiking, biking, bungee jumping, ziplining, scuba diving, surfing, snorkeling, kayaking, canoeing, rafting, hang-gliding, paragliding, ballooning and parachuting, as well as a myriad of kid-friendly options.
Another great “attraction” is that it is easy to “self-drive” this route, allowing you to choose your own itinerary, seeing what, when, and where you want, stopping any time you find something you want to explore around the next bend. The distance, as well as the diversity of scenery and activities requires at least a few days on this magnificent road trip!
Johannesburg is the largest city in South Africa and one of the biggest on the continent, with a population of about 11 million. Many people just use ‘JoBurg’ as their arrival and departure city for South Africa, as well as other countries in Southern Africa – it’s a very busy international airport!
But this diverse and vibrant city actually has a lot to offer – a myriad of cuisines to choose from in restaurants, from budget to fine dining, sidewalk cafes, shopping malls (people do love to shop here), nice parks and a botanical garden, museums and monuments, casinos, art galleries, amusement park rides, and gold mine tours.
But, with all that it has to see and do, the city’s most popular tourist attraction is actually the nearby township of Soweto, taking a guided tour to learn more about the city’s turbulent but fascinating history, heritage, culture and struggles. The Apartheid Museum and Liliesleaf Farm are also worth some time, offering insights into a dark time in the country, as well as its new era of freedom. Visits can be very moving, and are always educational, enlightening, and inspirational.
So, if you find yourself with some time in Johannesburg, don’t think of it as a “wasted” day waiting for your flight- there is a lot to see, do, taste and experience in South Africa’s capital.
Kruger National Park
Kruger National Park is one of the world’s largest game reserves – more than 7,500 square miles – that’s the same size as the entire state of New Jersey! World renown as one of the best wildlife sanctuaries on earth, Kruger offers exceptional safaris – it’s actually possible to see all the Big Five in one day. But, even if you spot all five, one day is never enough for Kruger, because it is also home to an exceptional diversity of animals, more than other natural sanctuary in Africa – 147 species of mammals -including cheetah, wild dog, hyena, zebra, giraffe, hippo, warthog, 21 antelope species, all 5 primate species found in the country, crocodile, 114 species of reptiles, 49 fish species, 34 species of reptile, and an incredible 500 species of birds. No matter which way you turn there is a new animal photograph. The landscape in the park is also quite diverse, from the grassy plains of the south to the thick mopane thickets and baobab trees of the north.
One of the major attractions of Kruger, a public game park, is that visitors can drive themselves on safari. This ability to head off into the bush on your own, only a few hours from Johannesburg, as well as the wildlife, attracts a lot of tourists, about 1.4 million visitors a year. Unfortunately, sometimes there are a lot of people, many vehicles, and even traffic jams around popular animals. This popularity, combined with the lack of a guide, result in an experience which can’t compare to a safari in one of South Africa’s private reserves and concessions.
Although Kruger is very popular, we typically suggest camps and lodges in these private reserves within the Greater Kruger area, such as Sabi Sands, Timbavati, Kapama, and Thornybush. With fewer tourists, and a highly-trained guide who can provide fascinating insight about the animals, and also find them in the bush, they provide more intimate, exclusive and authentic safari, the best the country has to offer.
Madikwe Game Reserve
Madikwe Game Reserve, located in a beautiful region of South Africa, near the Botswana border, is one of South Africa’s newest parks. It was created in a very unusual way, by relocating more than 8,000 animals, of 27 different species, in just 6 years – one of the largest wildlife relocation programs in the world. It is this incredible history which has made Madikwe a prime game-viewing destination today.
The region was chosen because it is so diverse – mountains, rocky hills, perennial rivers, seasonal wetlands, acacia bushveld, savanna grassland and Kalahari’s desert-like sandveld- which could therefore support a great abundance and diversity of species. Today it is home to the Big 5, including the second-largest elephant population in the country, as well as cheetahs, hippos, lions, zebras, wildebeests, many species of antelope and more than 350 birds. It also offers probably the best chance in South Africa to see wild dogs.
Madikwe is also malaria-free, which is an important consideration for families with small children, and the elderly. With that in mind, the park is very child-friendly, and many lodges offer activities for kids, including shorter safaris, playrooms, crafts, educational walks, swimming, kid clubs, “kid-food”, treasure hunts, and even baby-sitting services and facilities. For the adults, there are game drives – both day and night, bush walks, birding, pools and spas.
Like Kruger, Madikwe is located only a few hours from Johannesburg, but unlike Kruger, which is a public park and a bit “touristy” with day trippers and self-drive safaris, it offers a private safari experience, with fewer visitors, and well-trained guides. So, whether you have children or not, or require malaria-free, Madikwe is a great choice for a safari, a successful “man-made” animal population that has grown to more than 10,000, of all shapes and sizes.
Sabi Sands Game Reserve
The Sabi Sands Game Reserve offers what some would say is the best game viewing experience in South Africa. It is part of the Greater Kruger National Park, an enormous area, including Kruger, without any fences, allowing wildlife to move freely. But unlike Kruger, which allows self-drive safaris, it is a private reserve – you can’t drive around on your own. Safaris are led by highly-trained guides – perhaps the quintessential advantage of staying here. You aren’t just looking at animals and taking photos, you are learning about their behavior, adaptations, conservation efforts, etc. They also know how to find wildlife, often tracking paw prints, droppings, and animal trails on foot, and are also allowed to drive off road, which is prohibited in Kruger, following game into the bush instead of being confined to what you can see from a distance.
Although there are affordable accommodations in Sabi Sands, it is well-known for luxury lodges that you could never have imagined exist in the wild. You can be driving into the hot and dusty bush for hours, come back for a 3-course lunch, take a nap in your air-conditioned chalet, and perhaps take a dip in your private plunge pool. Then, take an afternoon game drive, with cocktails at sunset, followed by a spa treatment and gourmet dinner with chardonnay from the wine cellar, before getting a great night’s sleep in your comfy king-size bed…then happily waking up before the sunrise to do it all again the next day.
Exceptional wildlife viewing, comfort, food, guiding, and service … We definitely recommend including Sabi Sands in your South Africa itinerary!