Culturally diverse and offering a wide range of experiences, South Africa, also known as the Rainbow Nation, is a great winter destination.
Having a rich history and multicultural environment, the Republic of South Africa has so much to offer the discerning traveller, from museums and vibrant neighbourhoods to bustling streets and markets. Further, it’s biodiversity is truly worth exploring on a safari. December marks the start of summer in the Southern Hemisphere, ushering in toasty, pleasant climes – the ideal winter escape. We explore three well-known cities, offering a mix of touristy and off-beat activities and attractions.
South Africa’s fight against apartheid is intricately woven into its rich history. Visit Robben Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which is located about four hours from Cape Town. It’s where Nelson Mandela, the country’s most iconic and inspirational leader, spent many of his prison days. You can easily get a ferry from Nelson Mandela Gateway at Victoria & Alfred Waterfront. While you’re there, tour the prison and visit the island’s museum. You can also enjoy stunning views of Table Mountain and the surrounding ocean from here.
Table Mountain is a major tourist landmark and natural haven, with thousands of plant species. Enjoy breathtaking views of Cape Town while riding a cable car. There are many hiking routes here as well. Make a pit stop at the popular Table Mountain Café before heading to the Cape of Good Hope, which lies within the Table Mountain National Park. It’s known for Boulder Penguin Beach, where you can see the birds flocking together. Cape Point is popular for its beaches. Nestled at the base of Table Mountain is Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, a must-visit for nature lovers. Home to a variety of plants, it’s also a haven for birds. You can spend at least half a day here, leisurely strolling, taking in the mesmerising views from the Tree Canopy Walkway or bridge, stopping by the Tea Room to unwind for a bit… the gardens also host art exhibitions and other events.
Walk the cobbled streets of Bo-Kaap, said to be the oldest surviving residential area of Cape Town, which used to be a slave colony. Today, however, is a vibrant cityscape with brightly coloured houses, which are said to be an expression of freedom.
Located just 3km away from Bo-Kaap is the V&A Waterfront. It offers an urban, touristy experience, replete with shopping, dining and more. However, it’s also a good place to get a taste of the local culture. While attractions such as the Two Oceans Aquarium are more commercial, there are off-beat activities to enjoy such as shopping at Greenmarket Square. It’s dotted with stalls selling souvenirs and crafts – don’t forget to haggle!
You can’t leave South Africa without experiencing a Big Five safari. Big Five refers to the lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and African buffalo, large mammals that were difficult to stalk and hence, considered a feat by trophy hunters.
Thankfully, these days, we’re more about just seeing rather than killing them and Pilanesberg National Park, which is about three hours from Johannesburg, offers one-day right up to five-day safaris. It’s surreal to watch the animals in their natural habitat and if you’re lucky, you may spot one or more of the Big Five! It’s a once-in-a-lifetime adventure where you can cut off from the hustle bustle and connect with the scenic wonder that is South Africa. If you plan to stay overnight, you can use the lodge facilities at the park.
Spend a day walking around Joburg inner city, admiring the street art, visiting the art galleries and unwinding at the many cafes. Striking murals by both international and local artists adorn buildings, creating a vibrant atmosphere around metropolitan areas such as the Maboneng precinct, Jeppestown and Newtown. Johannesburg Art Gallery, the largest on the continent, houses international and local exhibits, including art from as far back as the 17th century.
Apartheid Museum, the first-of-its-kind, is home to carefully curated film footage, photographs, text panels and artefacts. They illustrate the horrific stories from this unfortunate period in history. In addition to the main exhibition, there are temporary displays, as well as one dedicated to Nelson Mandela, a central figure in the fight against apartheid.
A tour of Mandela House or Nelson Mandela National Museum will offer insights into the life of this revered South African leader. Managed by the Apartheid Museum on behalf of Soweto Heritage Trust, it’s a single-story, redbrick building, a testament to Mandela’s humble life during the struggle. A 20-minute tour will take you around the home’s original furnishings, memorabilia and photographs.
You can buy souvenirs such as books, CDs and other items from the shop here.
Those with a penchant for archeology must visit Maropeng Visitors Centre and the Sterkfontein Cave, located an hour from Johannesburg. The former is an exhibition that takes you on an interesting journey about human evolution. The caves contain fossils, including those of Mrs. Ples – our biped ancestor – and Little Foot – an almost complete Australopithecus skeleton dating back more than three million years.
Durban is home to numerous coastal areas where you can swim and enjoy a range of water activities. Golden Mile, a beachfront promenade, is a major attraction. In addition to a long stretch of beaches, you also have many high-rise hotels, restaurants and shopping centres here. New Pier Beach is a popular spot for surfers. A shortish drive from Durban will take you to Umhlanga Rocks, which is also dotted with beautiful beaches. You have plenty of things to do here, including surfing, scuba diving and kiteboarding. There are many restaurants, premium bed-and-breakfast venues and hotels too.
Get your retail therapy at the Indian Quarter – Durban has a thriving South Asian community. You will find the best bargains at Victoria Street Market including spices, incense and trinkets. Florida Road is another must-visit, especially after sunset. Lined with numerous cafes, eateries, boutiques and art galleries, the street comes alive at night. You can also spot preserved Edwardian structures that are more than 100 years old. Don’t forget to try Bunny Chow, a simple yet flavour-packed local dish with Indian influences. It’s basically curry in a bowl, only the bowl is a loaf of bread that’s been hollowed out.
Extend your tryst with nature at Durban Botanic Gardens. Said to be the oldest surviving botanical garden in Africa, it is home to numerous indigenous plant species, some of which are more than 100 years old. Don’t miss the Trail of Lights event, a charitable happening with food, shopping and festive lights, which will run through to January 2, In addition to flora, you can also find many bird species residing here.
Umgeni River Bird Park is another attraction. The park is spread across eight acres of lush tropical landscaping, with several natural waterfalls. You will find more than 800 birds from as many as 200 species here. The park works toward conserving many endangered species; there’s a nursery where you can see how birds are hatched and raised. There are aviaries and open exhibits too, as well as a free-flight bird show that you must not miss. ✤