The (Very) Best Things To Do In South Africa
South Africa regularly pops up as one of the must-visit destinations on bucket lists. Hardly surprising given its stunning natural scenery, amazing wildlife, rich cultural history and delicious food and wine. But in a country that’s as vast and varied as this one, how do you narrow your bucket list down to the absolute must-sees? To ensure your trip comes as good as it gets, read on to discover the very best things to do in South Africa.
Clock up the Big Five
For many people, the prime reason to visit South Africa comes in its fauna. The country, famous for safaris in national parks and private game reserves, ticks a lot of boxes as far as wildlife is concerned. Home to the Big Five (lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo), South Africa also boasts a long, long list of animals and birds.
One of the best places to see all this wildlife is on safari in national parks. South Africa has no fewer than 19 national parks dotted around the country, each with its own unique scenery and resident animals.
Kruger National Park ranks among the most famous to visit in South Africa and offers some of the best opportunities to catch the Big Five as well as soak up traditional South African landscapes. Pilanesberg Wildlife Park is another favourite, the country’s fourth largest with more than 7,000 animals within its 550 square kilometres.
As well as a big choice of national parks, you can take a wildlife safari in a nature reserve. Wherever you choose to go animal spotting, you can be sure of lodge accommodation, some great game drives and never ending photo opportunities.
Get some inspiration for a wildlife safari and then add it to your must-do list of things to do in South Africa.
Did you know? South Africa does a lot of animal superlatives: the largest bird (ostrich) lives here as do the fastest (cheetah) and tallest (giraffe) animals. Take a wildlife safari and you’ll also discover the world’s largest mammal (elephant) and its smallest (dwarf shrew), although you’ll have to skin your eyes to spot this tiny creature.
Dive with sharks
Our bucket list for South Africa continues its animal theme, but this time we go underwater to swim with sharks. The long coastline of South Africa comes rich in marine life with sharks one of the most prolific big fish in the sea.
If you fancy shark cage diving and getting up close to and possibly even diving with a great white, head for Mossel Bay on the Garden Route in South Africa. This section of the coast may look quiet, but don’t let appearances deceive you because more than 200 great white sharks patrol these waters at any one time.
If cage diving isn’t your thing but you still want to see a biggie, Cape Town is your destination. The best time to visit nearby False Bay is between mid-April and August when you’ll spot the great white sharks leaping from the water through the air. Watching these ‘Air Jaws’ jump so high has to be one of the most amazing things to do in South Africa.
Drive the Garden Route
After all this wildlife, it’s time to turn to the scenery and one of the best places to see South Africa’s finest is on the Garden Route. The 300km that run from Mossel Bay to Stormsrivier (Storms River) count as one of the best road trips in southern Africa, taking in one stunning vista after another.
The Garden Route offers an amazing variety of landscapes from golden beaches to plunging gorges, via towering mountains and gushing rivers, dotted with lush forests and pretty towns and villages along the way. Absolute must-sees on this road trip include the gorges at Kelin Karoo, the Cango Caves and the private game reserves and natural parks. Spring and summer (October to April) make the best time to visit the area to ensure the best weather.
Did you know? South Africa has 2,850km of coastline bordering two oceans with some of the world’s wildest winds at the Cape of Good Hope. Unsurprisingly, more than 2,500 shipwrecks lie off the coast including the Waratah, known as the Australian Titanic, that vanished without trace in 1909 and the Kakapo, grounded on Noordhoek Beach near Cape Town in 1900.
Ride South Africa’s surf
With so much coastline, it’s hardly a surprise to discover that South Africa ranks as one of the world’s top surfing destinations. If you’re a keen surfer, you may have to make several trips to South Africa to sample the best of the country’s waves. But as a starter, here’s our round-up of the best places to surf in South Africa and ride that white stuff:
- Elands Bay – one for surfers looking for some wild coast, away from the crowds surfing in Cape Town. On South Africa’s west coast, this bay gets some great Atlantic rollers – the summer is the best time to visit when the southeasterlies kick up the surf.
- Muizenberg – nearer Cape Town and much more popular, this beach is known as Surfer’s Corner. Suitable for short and long boards, this surfing spot provides suitable waves all year round.
- Durban – the Bay of Plenty has perhaps the best year-round surfing in South Africa. Waves rise 24/7 and best of all, there’s surf for all levels. From little waves for those just getting their balance on the board to breakers that challenge even the pros, Durban ticks all the boxes.
- Dungeons – definitely not a surfing spot for the faint hearted, the giant breakers at Hout Bay rank among the world’s ‘big waves’. Rising up to 10 metres and only during winter storms, the waves at Dungeons are home to lots of big fins meaning you can add swimming with sharks to your ride, if you dare.
Go wine tasting
Just like its national parks, South Africa comes big on wine routes: the country has 20 in total, all with different history, traditions and kinds of wine. Driving one of them when you visit South Africa is a must if you enjoy fine wining and dining and want to take in some of the spectacular vineyard scenery in the country.
Among the best wine routes, two stand out as must-drives on your list of things to do in South Africa. For a truly epic combo of wine tours and road trip, drive Route 62 – its 840km give you more than enough opportunity to learn about grape production and get in some South African wine tasting.
For a smaller wine route, but just as big on scenery and taste, consider the Stellenbosch Wine Route. Just east of Cape Town, this wine producing region offers an enchanting mix of old world charm in its provincial European feel due to its Dutch past and a vibrant foodie scene, perfect for pairing with local wines. Don’t leave without taking a winery tour and time to relax in the stunning vineyards. Sampling a few bottles of delicious local chenin blanc is one of the most delicious things to do in South Africa.
Wander South Africa’s hiking trails
Name a type of landscape and the chances are that South Africa has it. Across this vast country, you’ll discover deserts, grasslands, bush, wetlands and sub-tropical forests as well as mighty rivers and waterfalls and magnificent mountain ranges and gorges. Taking in at least some of this glorious scenery ranks among one of the top things to do in South Africa.
And the best ways to see it are on road trips or from one of the hundreds of hiking trails that crisscross the landscape. You can choose from easy strolls to hikes to test your endurance and from short walks to multi-day excursions. But whatever your selection, jaw-dropping scenery comes guaranteed. Among our favourite hiking trails in South Africa are:
- Drakensberg – mountains galore await you at one of the most popular walking destinations in South Africa.
- The Otter Trail – the country’s oldest hiking trail takes a coastal route in its search for these shy water mammals.
- Table Mountain – top ranking on the best things to do in South Africa, who can resist a hike up to Cape Town’s iconic sight?
- Kruger National Park – a wildlife safari that brings you the animals from ground level as you walk the trails to find them.
Did you know? One of the best views of South African scenery comes from a hot air balloon and you can say you’ve travelled South Africa with a bird’s eye view too. Include a flight on your wildlife safari and spot the Big Five plus all the other animals in the game reserves from high up in your balloon.
Finesse your game on South Africa’s golf courses
With a sunny climate and stunning panoramic views, South Africa has plenty of golf courses, some of which rank among the best in the world. If you’re a keen golfer, make sure you add a round or two to your must-try list of things to do in South Africa. For the very best in the country, check out the top 100 golf courses in South Africa. At the time of writing the top three are:
- Fancourt Links – just celebrating its 25th anniversary, Fancourt on the Garden Route offers three golf courses, designed by Gary Player. Catch a game here when you’re exploring the delights of a road trip along the Garden Route.
- Durban Country Club – one of the oldest in the country and a regular host of the South African Open, this golf course is also home to the best 3rd hole in the world. Try it out as you relax in the cosmopolitan city after a spot of surfing or a swim with sharks.
- Leopard Creek – Gary Player is also behind the design at this iconic course that borders Kruger National Park. Water features reign supreme as do their inhabitants, crocodiles, and golfers will also see hippos, antelope, buffalo and elephants as they aim for a birdie.
Discover South African history
You couldn’t visit South Africa without getting a glimpse of the country’s history and one of the best ways to do this is at the Apartheid Museum. Located in Ormonde, in the south of Johannesburg, the museum covers the events and human stories behind the rise and fall of apartheid in South Africa. Complement your visit with a trip to Robben Island, one of the great historic sites, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned, now a national symbol of hope and unity.
Another must-see to get a real insight into South African history comes at the Zulu War Memorial. Set in the Isandlwana battlefields, that have changed little since the first encounter in the British invasion of Zululand in 1879, the Memorial provides a poignant reminder of the Anglo-Zulu wars during Victorian times.
To discover traditional South African culture, you might want to visit one of the townships. Soweto is the most famous, home to Mandela, Desmond Tutu and other anti-apartheid leaders as well as being one of South Africa’s main cultural hubs. If you prefer something more rural, join a tour to a bush village where you can learn about the traditional way of life.
See some heritage
Our final cultural pick for things to do in South Africa takes in a UNESCO World Heritage site or few as its theme. South Africa boasts 10 sites with the accolade: 5 cultural, 4 natural and 1 mixed with several others waiting in the wings. The 10 sites take in the best of the country’s natural and manmade history and highlights include:
Cape Floral region – one of the six UNESCO floral kingdoms in the world, the Cape Floral is the smallest but more than makes up for that in variety. More than 9,000 plant species grow here and the best time to visit is spring.
Fossil Hominid Sites – the limestone caves to the northwest of Johannesburg are one of the world’s top paleoanthropological sites. Key finds include ‘Mrs Ples’, a 2.3 million-year-old fossil and the Australopithecus africanus Taung Skull.
Mapungubwe Cultural Landscapes – on the northern border with Botswana and Zimbabwe, these vast plains were home to the Mapungubwe in the 14th century, one of the largest kingdoms in Africa. Ruins of their palace and settlements remain today.
Kick back and relax
All this activity can be tiring and when you visit South Africa, you may well be in need of some downtime. Just outside Pilanesberg, in a tranquil basin of an extinct volcano is Sun City. Known as a playground for children and adults alike, this luxury resort and casino is also a tourist attraction where people from all over the country come to relax and unwind.
An award-winning golf course, casino, a man-made beach simulating waves every 90 seconds and the enormous ‘Amazing Maze’ draw crowds of pleasure seekers. Take some time out before plunging further into South Africa.
Visit the best things to see in South Africa
Whether you add these travel tips to one of our wildlife safari packages or you throw yourselves wholeheartedly into our two-week platinum offering combining safari and travelling around South Africa, you won’t be disappointed. Explore our itineraries and get started on your South Africa travel plans.