How to visit South Africa

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Experiencing South Africa in a way you'll never forget

South Africa is blessed with spectacular natural landscapes—soaring mountain peaks and passes, dense and ancient forests, miles of unspoiled coastline, rivers to sooth or thrill you, and rolling flower fields and grasslands of every hue. It’s also home to amazing wildlife safaris, vibrant cities and villages, extraordinary cultural history, uplifting urban rhythms, exotic culinary experiences, and endless discoveries.

Maboneng Precinct, Johannesburg

With so many different experiences, it can be a challenge to decide what to do and where to do it. Here are some suggestions to help you create and plan an unforgettable visit.

Amazing Adventures

Shark cage-diving

If you’re looking for a safari adventure on the open water, there’s no better place than the famous and fearsome Shark Alley. Shark Alley is home to one of the largest populations of Great White Shark and is famous for being one of the top cage-diving destinations in the world. A cage-diving experience gets you up-close and personal with one of nature’s most awe-inspiring creatures, allowing you to safely observe it in its natural habitat. It’s not only sharks you’ll find stalking these waters—it’s also a hotbed of Cape Fur Seals and sea birds.

Are you ready to take the plunge? As far as adrenaline rushes go, you don’t get much better than a supervised bungee jump off Blourkrans Bridge. When you’re about to leap off the Bloukrans Bridge, you’re about to safely plunge 216m into the gorge below. And the beautiful surrounds are a sight to behold. While bungee jumping is the most popular adventure activity at the bridge, there are plenty of other rides, jumps and swings to try, including the thrilling 200m Flying Fox cable slide (known as a foofie slide in South Africa).

On a Vintage Sidecar Motorcycle Tour, you’ll discover the gems of South Africa’s spectacular southwest coast on a breezy three-wheeled adventure. Choose to either get behind the wheel or ride along in a vintage sidecar as you follow a guide along the coastline, finding amazing scenery, native marine life, and tasty local flavors along the way. Once you reach the Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve, stop off to visit the Harold Porter National Botanical Garden.

Go on Safari

Addo Elephant National Park

Leave the city behind and discover the diverse flora and fauna for which Africa is famous while you observe some of Mother Nature’s most majestic creations. Big Five safaris in South Africa are a must-do for anyone fascinated by wildlife. Big Five refers to buffalo, elephant, lion, leopard, and rhino and the term comes from the animals considered most dangerous to hunt. Now the thrill comes from photographing them in their natural habitat.

To see the Big Five, your best bet is to head for the Kruger National Park and its environs in Mpumalanga or Limpopo, where many five-star lodges are located. Keep your eyes peeled to spot each of the “Big 5″—lions, elephants, rhinos, buffalo, and even elusive leopards. Marvel at the diversity of other animal life, like zebras, giraffes, hippos, and springboks, as they all wander across the region. Local wetlands also provide a home to 172 species of birds, including the endangered black eagle.

Boulders Beach Penguins

Boulders Beach remains the only place in the world where one can get up close to the absolutely irresistible African Penguins. Every year over 60,000 visitors flock to Simon’s Town to photograph and watch the famous Boulders Beach Penguins. To provide a safe breeding environment, Boulders Coastal Park management has introduced artificial nesting boxes, which you will see when you walk through the area.

Cultural Encounters

Whether you spend a day in a Zulu village or a vibrant city—a week in a Xhosa household or escape to a typical South African farm—in South Africa, you’ll experience fascinating cultural interactions that are real and inspiring. You’ll find that South Africans are friendly and accessible—and their day-to-day lifestyles and customs will welcome you in.

Vibrant public art captures the color and excitement of Soweto

Follow in the footsteps of some of the greatest freedom icons in modern history, including  Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, and Mahatma Gandhi, among many others. There are numerous museums and sites of interest located around Johannesburg and in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape. Spend some time in Soweto or visit a Zulu village. Admire the intricate beadwork, metal neck rings and unique geometric mural art of the Ndebele people. Enjoy the hospitality of a South African farm. Marvel at the South African rock art—some of the best in the world.

Robben Island

A trip to Robben Island is a bittersweet experience but a must-do for anyone visiting Cape Town. Once a leper colony, a mental hospital and defense training base, this World Heritage Site is most famed as the prison for anti-apartheid activists like former president, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. Tours are often led by former political prisoners who draw a vivid picture of life in prison. Robben Island is one of the world’s greatest cultural heritage destinations both for its tragedy and its triumph. It is a testimony to the true spirit of the South African people and history, and will never fail to humble you.

Cradle of Humankind

Have you ever wondered where we human beings came from? What led to this evolutionary revolution on Planet Earth? All of the answers can be found in one place: the Cradle of Humankind with its rich fossil record of human evolution. Here is where you’ll see firsthand the findings that have led to the “Out of Africa” theory that most human ancestors originated from one general spot: Africa. At Maropeng Visitor Centre you’ll journey back in time from the start of our universe, some 14 billion years ago, to the present and beyond.

Maropeng Visitor Centre, Cradle of Humankind, Gauteng

On a Soweto street, where two Nobel laureates once lived, stands the Mandela House where, audio-visuals, photographic galleries and guided tours give visitors a glimpse of the Mandela family’s life during the oppressive years of apartheid. It is the house where former South African President Nelson Mandela lived, on and off, for more than 14 years. President Mandela called it “the centre point of my world.”

The Mandela House, Soweto

At the Lesedi African Lodge and Cultural Village you can experience the colorful sights and sounds of authentic African villages and learn about the ways of the Zulu, Xhosa, Pedi, Basotho, Nguni, and Ndebele people. Traditional song and dance and a feast fit for a king top off an unforgettable day and night.

City Lifestyle Experiences

Food markets in South Africa

Apart from its more traditional tourism offerings of wildlife, cultural life, sun and sea, South Africa is gaining an impressive reputation for its food culture and vibrant art scene.

Its many food markets are testament to this. South Africa is internationally recognized for its cuisine—a number of restaurants are ranked globally on annual world-best-of restaurant lists. This is underpinned by a strong food culture that finds expression in a wide array of food markets around the country offering the best in fresh local and artisanal produce.

In Johannesburg, try the Neighbourgoods Market in Braamfontein; Market on Main in Maboneng; the Jozi Food Market; the Sheds@1Fox; the Blubird Wholefood Market; and the Bryanston Organic Market. You can even savor it all by going on a Private Full-Day Culinary Adventure.

In Cape Town, try the Neighbourgoods Market, the Bay Harbour Market in Hout Bay, the Bluebird Garage Food and Goods Market, and the Oranjezicht City Farm Market.

Don’t miss a delicious bite of Durban’s famous bunny chow

Check out the Durban Food Market and be sure to sample the incredible bunny chow Durban is famous for. Bunny chow is a South African fast food dish consisting of a hollowed-out loaf of bread filled with curry-flavored deliciousness. Other foodie destinations include Pretoria Boeremark (farmers’ market), Hazel Food Market (Pretoria), I ❤ Market (Durban), Slow Market (Stellenbosch); and the Shongweni Farmers’ and Craft Market (Shongweni).

For art lovers, Johannesburg’s Maboneng Precinct is an absolute must—and the perfect place for a walking tour of the cultural heart of the city. The scene is filled with studios, galleries, exhibits, theaters, boutique shops, restaurants and coffee bars that are fuelling an inner-city lifestyle with creativity. Johannesburg’s Arts on Main is an important feature on the South African arts and crafts landscape, providing a stimulating space for artists from many disciplines.

Arts on Main, Johannesburg

A hop-on hop-off bus tour around Johannesburg is a fun and leisurely way to explore the  museums, historical sites and cultural  experiences of the city and its surroundings. You can also choose an Unlimited Attractions Pass to get discounts on museums, tours, activities and attractions that appeal to your interests.

Epic Coastal Beaches

The Cape Whale Route

Imagine looking out across the Atlantic Ocean from the boardwalk and spotting a pod of Southern Right whales that have come into the Cape to give birth. The Cape Whale Route is the perfect outdoor family adventure with some of the best land-based whale watching spots on the planet. To see them up close, treat yourselves to a whale-watching tour.

You can also admire beautiful coastal scenery, enjoy opportunities to spot whales, wander among shops and restaurants with a visit to the seaside town of Hermanus.  On this full-day excursion from Cape Town, you can even pay a visit to the nearby penguin colony at Boulders Beach.

Feeling adventurous? Hitch a ride on the “supertube” waves at Jeffreys Bay—one of the world’s best surfing spots. Or speed down the dunes on a thrilling sandboarding experience.

Durban’s Beaches

They don’t call Durban “South Africa’s Playground” for nothing. It is South Africa’s very own seaside paradise, famous for its beaches and the warm Indian Ocean. Durban’s beaches lie along a stretch of golden sand, known locally as the Golden Mile. From Blue Lagoon’s fishing spot to the sunken Vetch’s Pier, a host of flat, sandy beaches invite you to set down an umbrella and towel, dig your toes in the sand and while away hours in the sun.

If you’re looking to venture out on the road less travelled to find alluring coastlines and rugged views that speak of romance, the Diamond Coast is the place for you. This piece of coastline is definitely off the beaten track, a perfect opportunity to rekindle a romance—be it with your partner or simply with nature.

Explore the Scenic Outdoors

Maloti-Drakensberg Heritage Route

The largest mountain range in South Africa is a truly magical place. It’s no wonder that J.R.R. Tolkien saw the magnificent landscapes of uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park as inspiration for the part of Middle Earth called the Misty Mountains.

Table Mountain is South Africa’s best-known landmark, but what many don’t know is that it is also a hiker’s paradise with numerous trails, amazing views and plenty of interesting facts to learn. From the summit, you can see nearly all of Cape Town stretching out toward the coast and the horizon in the distance. Explore the world-famous Table Mountain by foot and witness extraordinary sights of nature during a guided hike.

Don’t resist a chance to get above it all with a helicopter sightseeing tour. An aerial tour of the Cape Peninsula offers an outstanding look at the mountains, beaches, and communities along this stretch of South African coast. Your helicopter flight takes you from Cape Town all the way to the Cape of Good Hope for a unique perspective of the spectacular region.

 For a scenic offshore experience, take to the seas and cruise out to Duiker Island, a rocky outcrop just off the Cape Peninsula where a vast colony of fur seals bask in the sun just out of the waves. Marvel at the array of life that flocks to the waters, such as feeding sharks, migrating whales, dolphins and a great variety of bird species.

Stellenbosch & Franschhoek. The wonderful winelands

A guided tour of wine country is a wonderful way to enjoy the scenery and sample the goodies. South Africa wines are world-renowned for their richness and quality. Cape Town, iconic Table Mountain, Robben Island, Stellenbosh & Franchhoek and the Cape Winelands are a must on any itinerary.

Are you feeling it yet? This only scratches the surface. There’s no doubt a visit to South Africa will be an experience you’ll never forget. There’s lots more to explore, though, including deals on where to stay, things to do and flights to catch. Start planning your South Africa trip and don’t waste a minute of it!

What would you love to do in South Africa?

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This is the guest author of the Expedia Viewfinder blog. Here you’ll find travel tips, in-destination features, the latest on new products from Expedia and more – all from an eclectic group of travel industry insiders and influencers. Are you an avid traveler with something to share? If so, we’d love to hear from you. If you’re interested in being a guest author send us an email at viewfinder@expedia.com and tell us a little bit more about yourself and what you’re interested in writing about. If we think there’s a good fit, we’ll reply back with more information. Thank you and safe travels!

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  • Conrad Mouton

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