It’s no surprise that South Africa is a year-round holiday destination. Cape Town, known as the ‘Mother City’, is ranked as one of the most vibrant places to visit in the world, and is a hot spot that should be on every traveller’s bucket list. There is a vast array of chic hotels to stay at, from boutique, to classic traditional styles to modern contemporary hotels. While most of the country is lovely year-round, we recommend heading over during South Africa’s summer, November through January. And don’t just head to Cape Town – as addicting, charming and cosmopolitan as it is – the country is full of beauty and genuinely some of the most friendly, talkative people we’ve ever met.
For the nature enthusiasts, KwaZulu-Natal, a province on the north-east coast (most known for its capital city, Durban), is home to two UNESCO World Heritage sites: uKhahlamba Drakensberg park and iSimangaliso Wetland Park. The Drakensberg, as it is more commonly known, was one of our favourite places of the entire trip. An enormous, beautiful site encompassing Royal Natal National Park, this area is perfect for hiking, camping, wandering and caving. The beautiful basalt mountains and hills offer a snowy look throughout summer, and there’s plenty of wildlife to keep you occupied, from interesting insects to small bush rabbits and a plethora of butterflies. We recommend renting a car and booking accommodation ahead of time, as several festivals are held around this area during the summer, and hikers come from all over the country. We opted to rent a large farm house just an hour’s drive away and cooked for ourselves before embarking on two days of hiking.
The nightly thunderstorms during the summer period tend to strike all over the country, and they’re absolutely breath-taking spectacles of nature’s love of raves. If the city is what you’re after, Durban is the third largest city in South Africa, and is right on the coast, offering tourists a fabulous nightlife as well as plenty of day-time ocean-based activities. A city of 3.5 million people, Durban operates a rail service, heading to both Johannesburg and Cape Town, though most tourists tend to hire a car to get themselves around this large city. For nightlife, we’d recommend jazz café-bar The Jazzy Rainbow, which hosts live jazz acts every weekend and some weeknights.
For tourism, the Durban Botanic Gardens are an awesome place to walk around, and full of activities for kids of all ages. uShaka Seaworld Aquarium has all the wet wildlife you can feast your eyes on, and plenty of educational activity as well, particularly about sharks, dispelling a lot of myths around the regal apex predator. Heading inland to Joburg, as the locals call it, we were a little worried – the city gets a pretty bad rap due to a past history of higher crime levels than South Africa’s other big cities.
That said, while we experienced some nerves at stoplights, Johannesburg is a gorgeous city – one of the greenest populous cities I’ve ever been to, Joburg is home to about 4.4 million people, and is quite a widespread city, so a rental car is non-optional. When touristing here, the must is the Apartheid Museum, which we’d recommend booking in advance online. A well-curated, though-provoking experience, the museum is architecturally interesting, with an unusual layout. The ticketing is either labelled “white” or “non-white” (don’t worry, these aren’t actually given to whites and “non-whites” based on their ethnicity – it’s a randomised selection, and this determines which museum “experience” you go on). We’d definitely recommend both for a full understanding of the history of apartheid.
Also worth a note in the culture section is the Lesedi Cultural Village and the Cradle of Humankind Tour – neither of which we had time to do, but come highly recommended.
For nightlife, we absolutely loved the student area of 7th street on Melville, home to a lot of bars and restaurants, as well as 27 Boxes, a shopping centre made out of storage containers. If you’re in a chill mood, Zoo Lake is the perfect half-day out for singles, groups, couples and families. It’s a great spot to picnic, braii (what South African trip would be complete without the country’s favourite culinary tradition?) walk around or laze in the graze. And if you get peckish, head over to the gorgeous, huge traditionally-decorated Moyo Restaurant, which serves up traditional Safa food alongside a heap of good service and beautiful classic South African music.
After experiencing a bit of city and a bit of nature, we boarded a plane and headed to the place in South Africa that has the best of both: humble Cape Town, the country’s media centre and frankly, a truly awesome city. Cape Town is dotted with private art galleries, niche museums and intimate theatres. The eating, drinking, music and dancing here are really fantastic. We adored a little place just off of Kloof Street called Cause Effect Bar, which specialised in botanical cocktails, a pretty mean snack menu and staff so knowledgeable and friendly, we felt like we were in Disneyland.
That said, Kloof Street and Long Street are home to any kind of bar and restaurant you’d want, from dimly-lit pubs that need a wash to swanky city high-stool bars full of young professionals in good shoes and bad hair. And who can forget Bree Street? Barely a day goes by here without a trendy new restaurant opening up. Check out Jason’s Bakery, Chef’s Warehouse, Clarke’s Burger Bar, Charango and Arcade.
For the culture lovers among you, we recommend visits to the Fugard Theatre, National Gallery in the Company Gardens, Theatre on the Bay, District 6 Museum, Artscape, Baxter Theatre and Zeitz MOCAA. A visit to Robben Island to see the cell where Nobel Prize winner and national hero Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison. Tours depart three times a day from Cape Town waterfront, and the tour timing is about three hours.
Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens displays a wide variety of the unique plant life of the Cape known as fynbos. There are more than 7,000 species in cultivation at Kirstenbosch, including many rare and threatened species. The Gardens border the Table Mountain National Park and merges seamlessly with the natural fynbos and forest of the mountain. In 2004, Kirstenbosch was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are quite often outdoor concerts here and the New Year’s Eve offerings every year are particularly riotous fun. Boulders Beach, full of adorable penguins in their hundreds and thousands, is a great afternoon out.
We had a brilliant time walking along the path, enjoying nature and watching the penguins in their natural habitat. And who can forget Table Mountain? Almost constantly covered in clouds at the top (we won’t spoil for you the local legend behind this cloud cover), Table Mountain is just as beautiful as everyone says it is. For the brave amongst you, follow our path: we took the most direct hike up – if you’re a fitness freak, this will take you about an hour and fifteen minutes, or if you’re a little lazy like us, two hours is enough time. For those unable to walk, the cable car is a nice way to the top. Once up there, we’d recommend skipping the overpriced abseiling experience and just recommend walking around and taking in the view. Bear in mind that the line for the cable cars is always a bit rammed during weekends and high seasons, so leave at least an hour or two to get down the mountain.
Four Seasons Hotel the Westcliff Johannesburg If you’ve stayed at Four Seasons Hotel Abu Dhabi at Al Maryah, you’ll understand the sheer grace and splendour that this hotel has to offer. The stylish resort is only a few hours from Cape Town. It’s raised on a hillside with striking panoramic views across the Johannesburg Zoo. The design resembles a hillside village woven with courtyards, fountains, gardens, a new destination spa, with two swimming pools, and a surrounding golf course. It also has a vibrant social scene with restaurants like Flames, View and The Cellar Door. Experience the cuisine of Chef Dirk Gieselmann, former executive chef of three-Michelin-starred French restaurant L’Auberge de l’Ill, who creates a South African culinary journey focused on seasonality and local provenance. The grand hotel has recently been renovated with 117 extra-spacious guest rooms and suites featuring cool, contemporary décor inspired by modern Africa.
Part of The Royal Portfolio group of properties, this hotel is so lush, it even makes some Dubai hotels look a little lax. First things first: that pool. It’s pretty much straight out of a rap video: located on the rooftop, this enormous pool overlooks the harbour, and is big enough for several parties to enjoy without once bumping into each other. You can eat and drink in between laps and sunbathing at the 11th level bar and restaurant. Created by famed designer Thomas Heatherwick, the rustic charm of this hotel, with its concrete structures and industrial touches amidst modern elegance, makes it truly South African. The Silo Spa is an integral part of the experience here, especially good after a day hiking Table Mountain. If you’re into beautiful surroundings, don’t miss this place out: it was listed in Architectural Digest’s Top Design Destinations of 2017.
The Test Kitchen, Cape Town The Test Kitchen by Luke Dale-Roberts launched in Cape Town in 2010, has just completed a massive refurbishment late last year. There are two main areas that are split by a charred wood wall. On one side a dark lounge, on the other a contemporary, spacious 40-seater dining space.
It’s no secret that South African meat is some of the best in the world, from beef to chicken to lamb and even the more exotic meats. Butcher Boys has been open since 1999, and is still a firm favourite with locals and tourists alike. You can order your beef here either dry or wet aged, in almost any cut you want. But even with that level of carnivore catering, the dining experience here is distinctly South African – and by that, we mean very chilled and down-to-earth.