Last October I was lucky to return to South Africa after first visiting in 2016. As the country is celebrating Nelson Mandela’s 100th birthday this year it seemed fitting to take on a more historic focus on this visit. Beginning in Johannesburg and ending in Cape Town with a safari squeezed in between, I visited museums and cultural sites along the way. Making multiple stops gave me a deeper understanding of this country’s troubled past, an appreciation for what it has overcome, and an optimistic expectation for its future despite its apartheid legacy.
Below is a list of 20 things to do in South Africa broken into three parts: Johannesburg, Limpopo Province and Cape Town. First up:
In and around Johannesburg…
1. Wander Liliesleaf Farm Museum, Johannesburg
Located in Rivonia, a suburb of northern Johannesburg, the Liliesleaf Farm Museum was once a secret hiding place for African National Congress activists in the 1960s. Nelson Mandela was one of the senior leaders. Disguised as a working farm in the middle of a white middle-class neighborhood, Liliesleaf was a site where liberation underground leadership met and strategized as they worked to fight the apartheid system.
2. Go inside the Apartheid Museum, Johannesburg
Inside the bunker-like, concrete-roofed Apartheid Museum, you’ll find provocative film footage, text panels, dramatic photographs, audio interviews, press clips, and artifacts telling the story of the rise and fall of apartheid, beginning in 1948 with the white National Party government’s imposed policy of apartheid to liberation in 1994 with the election of Nelson Mandela.
A series of 22 individual exhibition areas takes the visitor through a dramatic emotional journey that tells a story of a state-sanctioned system based on racial discrimination and the struggle of the majority to overthrow the white minority government. The museum is a must-visit for anyone interested in understanding this complex story.
3. Visit Lesedi Cultural Village, Lanseria
Take a guided tour through four ethnic homesteads representing the Zulu, Xhosa, Pedi, and Sotho tribes all within one property: Lesedi Cultural Village. It’s a colorful and playful presentation of the country’s diversity.
The village showcases the different tribes of South Africa and their indigenous cultures. A day visit includes a lively and spirited dance and music performance followed by a traditional African feast. Lesedi Cultural Village is about an hour’s drive from Johannesburg.
4. Attend the Joy of Jazz festival in September, Johannesburg
If you’re a jazz enthusiast, you should seriously consider visiting South Africa at the end of September 2019, when the 22nd Joy of Jazz festival will be on. The three-day event (September 26-28, 2019) will be held at the Sandton Convention Center in downtown Johannesburg. This past September’s festival was a blast, with 30 performances over three days on four stages.
Internationally known powerhouse musicians representing the jazz heritages of Africa, Europe, Asia, and North America graced the stages of the convention center. In October, I walked directly from my room at the Sandton Sun Hotel to the adjoining Sandton Convention Center, attending all three nights of the festival.
5. Take a day trip to Soweto, Soweto
Dedicate a day to experience some of the historic sites of Soweto. Our professional driver-guide gave my group a narrated tour of this once politically charged and culturally rich collection of townships. Our first stop was a visit to Nelson Mandela’s home, Mandela House, on Vilakazi Street in Orlando West, the only street in the world where two Nobel Peace laureates lived: Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. A short distance away is the Hector Pieterson Memorial, a site where the first victim of the June 16, 1976, Soweto uprising was shot and killed by apartheid police.
A real treat was a having lunch in Soweto at Chez Alina. Our guide called ahead, ensuring that Alina had her homecooked, buffet-style lunch ready for our stomach-growling arrival. Adding to the experience was a dance and song demonstration by local performers in front of Alina’s. Throughout Soweto, once the epicenter of apartheid resistance, there are colorful murals and sculptures depicting notable activist leaders and celebrating liberation.
A great guide: Like my other days in Johannesburg, my visit to Soweto was customized and facilitated by Travel Lab. Our driver and guide for this day was Solomon, who as a resident of Soweto gave us a knowledgeable and fascinating perspective.
6. See African art at Wits Art Museum, Johannesburg
Located in Braamfontein, the Wits Art Museum is the only South African museum dedicated entirely to contemporary and classical African art. New pieces of its collection of over 12,000 works are exhibited every three months.
7. Constitution Hill, Johannesburg
Continue your cultural journey with a guided tour through Johannesburg’s infamous first prison and military fort at Constitution Hill, also in Braamfontein. Built in 1893, it housed both white and black prisoners (though separately), including women. Black prisoners received the worst punishment.
Famous prisoners of Constitution Hill include Nelson Mandela, Joseph Slovo and Mahatma Gandhi. It’s a haunting and powerful experience and well worth a visit. Constitution Hill is also home to Constitution Court, South Africa’s highest court.
8. Take a street art tour in Newtown, Johannesburg
Cross over Mandela Bridge and head into Newtown, an area within Johannesburg that has undergone dramatic redevelopment in recent years. An urban art journey awaits.
In Mary Fitzgerald Square, center of Newtown, my group met with Bongani Mathebula, a self-proclaimed “educated street kid” from Jo’burg who works as a walking tour guide in the city. He took us to all the well-known street mural sites as well as the more-backstreet and lesser-known masterpieces in Newtown.
In this neighborhood there’s hardly a wall surface untouched by artistic expression. The murals painted under the M1 Villiers Graaf motorway are the most impressive. Bongani offered interpretations of the art for us, and because he knew many of the artists, he was able to tell us a little bit about the backstories behind some of their works.
For a tour: To schedule a tour with Bongani, reach out to him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
9. Eat, shop and people-watch at Neighbourgoods Market, Johannesburg
Located in Braamfontein, Neighbourgoods Market is the place to go to eat lunch, shop and experience the youthful vibrancy of Johannesburg.
Open only on Saturdays, this bustling market offers seasonal produce, a huge variety of ethnic foods, teas, coffee, beer, and more. There’s also a rooftop bar, music and open views of the city.
10. Grab a drink at the rooftop bar at 12 Decades Hotel, Johannesburg
A short drive from Newtown is the Maboneng art district. Take in the view of this funky neighborhood from the 8th floor rooftop bar at the art-centric and trendy 12 Decades Hotel.
In Limpopo Province…
Before heading to Cape Town, we flew out of Jo’burg’s O.R. Tambo International Airport to Hoedspruit in Limpopo Province. The Raiders of the Lost Ark-like airport in Hoedspruit is seemingly in the middle of nowhere, but it’s a bustling place where guests arrive from all over the world ready to experience a safari in this northern region of the country.
Here are more things to do in South Africa, this time in Limpopo:
11. Glamp at Becks Safari Lodge, Karongwe Private Game Reserve
About an hour’s drive from the Hoedspruit airport via private shuttle, Becks Safari Lodge is glamping at its finest. It has all the amenities of a luxury hotel room with the feel of tenting out in the bush, royalty-style.
Of the five lodge properties in the Karongwe Portfolio, Becks is the most luxurious. It’s a small, intimate operation that offers ten safari suites and a friendly staff committed to making your stay a restful and pampered experience. Views from all tents are either of the watering hole or the Makhutswi River where wildlife visit throughout the day.
Wildlife is free to enter and leave the hotel property through the main gate. At night it’s closed for safety reasons, but often some critters stay overnight to roam the grounds. I recommend drinking a “Karongwe Sangria” (fruit juice, red wine, grenadine, soda) from your porch while watching zebras, impalas and other exotic wildlife drink from a waterhole just outside the fence.
12. Go on a sunrise and sunset game drive, Karongwe Private Game Reserve
The beginning and end of the day are the most active times for animals and so the best opportunities to see the Big Five: lion, elephant, Cape buffalo, leopard, and rhinoceros. And with over 22,ooo acres, the Karongwe Private Game Reserve offers plenty of room to look for them. Our highly trained tracker and guide were both knowledgeable and had a sense of humor. Their expertise led us to every animal we hoped to see—and more.
Simply enjoying the views of the majestic Drakensberg mountain range in the background and a rising or setting sun from an open jeep (a surprisingly smooth ride over rugged terrain) would’ve been satisfying enough, but the excitement of pursuing and finding animals in their natural habitats was our ultimate goal. Aside from coming upon a lion family feeding on a giraffe, my game drive highlight was finding a family of three cheetah brothers and watching them play up close. We even got out of the jeep and approached them on foot. I don’t know if that was just plain stupid or thrilling beyond belief, but our guide assured us that it was completely safe.
13. Eat, drink and relax between game drives (and watch animals from the pool), Karongwe Private Game Reserve
The high heat of midday is best spent reading a book under the shade or chilling in the pool sipping a fruit cocktail. But that doesn’t mean you can’t still sight an animal from Becks. While floating in the infinity pool, you can view wildlife cooling off in the Makhutswi River.
At Becks Safari Lodge, you can expect a full breakfast spread to greet you upon your return from your three-hour morning sunrise game drive. Afterward, you can enjoy peace and tranquility and escape the hot midday sun by reading a book in the cool shade of the open lounge by the pool. And when you’ve returned from your successful sunset safari, enjoy a barbecue meat buffet, Boma-style. A traditional Boma dinner is served outdoors under the starts, within an enclosure.
14. Take a bush walk, Karongwe Private Game Reserve
If you’re really ambitious and a bit brave, take a guided walk in the bush and learn about the medicinal properties of native plants and insects (Becks offers this). Perhaps you might eat a live termite straight out of its mound as I did (crunchy and a little salty). You’ll also learn to identify animal tracks and poop. Bethuel, our highly trained guide and wildlife interpreter, showed us lion tracks that were made the night before just outside of our lodge!
In and around Cape Town…
My two-day dream safari in Limpopo gave me a lifetime’s worth of memories and an intention to return. But no trip South Africa is complete without a stop in Cape Town, the next and final stop on my South Africa trip.
After a just-under-three-hour flight from Hoedspruit to Cape Town International Airport, my group was met by Thabo, our guide from Travel Lab. He brought us to the luxurious Taj Cape Town, a 134-room hotel located within the historic Reserve Bank building in the city’s oldest precinct. My spacious suite was plush and elegant and offered views of the Company’s Garden across the street as well as mountains in the distance.
Here are five more things to do in South Africa, this time in Cape Town:
15. Enjoy dinner and the show at Gold, Cape Town
Touristy? Who cares. Gold is a blast. A 14-course African feast is festively presented, there’s a stage show with heart-pounding drumming and singing, there’s dancing in the aisles, it’s festive and noisy, and there’s even an artist who comes by and paints your face. What’s not to like? It’s an African party like no other.
16. Stroll the Company’s Garden and visit the museums within, Cape Town
At some point while in Cape Town, you should take a leisurely walk through the meandering paths that thread through the public park and botanical garden known as the Company’s Garden, established in 1652. The tree-lined avenue that cuts through the park is a favorite for locals and visitors seeking fresh air and open space in the middle of the city.
Several prominent buildings are housed within the park: the South African Museum, the National Gallery, Parliament, a planetarium, and the Holocaust Museum. The entrance to this cultural oasis is literally across the street from the Taj Cape Town.
17. Reflect at the Slave Lodge, Cape Town
The Slave Lodge is considered part of the Company’s Garden property, but it’s technically outside the entrance, so it gets its own item. Built in 1660, it’s one of the oldest buildings in the city. Until 1811, within its walls slaves were kept in crowded and inhumane conditions. In later years it was a brothel, a post office, an insane asylum, and the Cape Supreme Court. In 1998 it became the Slave Lodge, a museum that tells the story of the lodge’s role in the slave trade and the slave experience. To tour the site is a haunting and powerful reflection on the legacy of slavery in South Africa.
18. Soak up the Woodstock area, Cape Town
Spend an afternoon in the hippest suburb in Cape Town. What used to be a dodgy area underwent an urban renewal and is now a thriving home to artisans and crafters, hipster coffee houses and bars, furniture showrooms, and boutiques selling vintage treasures.
All under essentially one roof, the Old Biscuit Mill has a little village feel, with stores and galleries selling locally crafted art and wares, a couple top restaurants, food stalls, and on Saturdays the Cape Town version of the hugely popular Neighbourgoods Market. It’s also a site for popular festivals and events.
While exploring Salt Circle Arcade, an alleyway and courtyard filled with designer shops and boutiques, I found a group of women making jewelry. It turns out they were intently working on a last-minute custom work order: hundreds of beaded lanyards for an upcoming Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation conference. This workshop space is home to Kidz Positive, an income-generation project for mothers and caregivers of children living with HIV/AIDS. They’re given raw materials to produce a small amount of beadwork at home, enabling them to care for their children as they earn their regular weekly income.
Even if you don’t take an official tour of Woodstock, you can’t help but encounter street art almost everywhere you go in Woodstock. The graffiti has been an important part of making this a safer, more appealing place to visit and explore.
For a tour: If you would prefer an educated experience and access to some of the more backstreet art gems, Juma Mkwela’s Woodstock Street Art walking tour is great. Contact him directly at email@example.com.
19. Head for the peninsula, Cape Peninsula
The trip from Cape Town to Cape Peninsula is one of the most scenic coastal drives in the world. Even though the total trip takes less than two hours, you should give yourself lots of time because you’re going to want to stop along the way to take in the drop-dead views along the route.
Just outside of Cape Town heading south is Camp’s Bay, a wealthy beach community that’s home to celebrities and the president himself (Cyril Ramaphosa), who owns property there. Views of the bay and the sandy mountain range known as the Twelve Apostles are impressive. Continuing on the M6 coastal road leads to Chapman’s Peak Drive, a winding, six-mile cliff-side road that offers awesome panoramic views of the Atlantic.
Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope mark the southernmost points of Table Mountain National Park. A three-minute tram ride spared my group the steepest part of the climb to the lighthouse at Cape Point, but it left us some steps to make it to the top on our own. After all that tough climbing, we rewarded ourselves with a spectacular seafood lunch and awesome views of False Bay from the outdoor dining deck at Two Oceans restaurant. We could’ve opted for a picnic lunch but apparently the local baboons are a bit of a problem. So we played it safe and ate first class.
The very tip of the peninsula is the Cape of Good Hope, the most southwestern point of the African continent and another place to get out and explore. On the swing back toward Cape Town is Boulders Beach, home of the jackass penguin colony, more nicely known as the African penguin, a species known to southern African waters. The “jackass” part refers to their loud braying. They penguins are completely accessible and viewable from an elevated wooden walkway. Their presence has made the old seaside village of Simon’s Town a very popular destination for tourists.
20. See and shop around the colors of Bo Kaap, Cape Town
With an early rise on my last day in South Africa, I made the most of my remaining hours in Cape Town and explored the blocks just beyond the Taj Cape Town.
My first stop was Bo Kaap, the hyper-colorful, cobblestoned neighborhood formally known as the Malay Quarter. This suburb, established in the early 18th century, was the home designated by the government for slaves brought over from Malaysia, India, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia. Those descendants are believed to have later painted their homes vibrant colors as an expression of celebration when slavery ended. Today, it’s an Instagram mecca and probably the most photographed spot in all of Cape Town.
Around the corner was the pedestrian courtyard known as St. Georges Mall, where street vendors sell handmade arts and crafts. With my bags packed and waiting at the concierge desk and an hour to kill before leaving for the airport, this is exactly where I needed to be: getting the last of my gifts to bring home to friends and family along with a boatload of memories made over ten days in this sweet country.
For more on travel to South Africa, visit southafrica.net.