From the sun-drenched, Indian Ocean beaches of Durban, to the go-go-go of Johannesburg to the spectacular Table Mountain and the city of Cape Town beneath it, South Africa’s three main cities, Durban Johannesburg and Cape Town are perhaps the areas of the country that most define us a nation. Here is where the artistic, architectural and political movements have their roots and naissance and here is where the latest generation of South Africans, the ‘born-frees’, i.e. those born after 1994, are starting to make their mark as the nation-builders and leaders of tomorrow. Nowhere in the country are the contradictions, challenges and potential of this new nation more keenly visible. Each city needs a minimum of three days to even scratch the surface, Cape Town more like five: please click on each city below to read more about what they have to offer or view our suggested itinerary for each one.
Founded during the gold rush years of the late 19th century, Joburg (as locals call it) was always a hard, fast, money-making town. Tales of prospectors making it big and then being swiftly relieved of their gold by highwaymen on the way back to the Cape remain apocryphal but nonetheless credible. After many years of making news headlines as one of the most crime-ridden cities in the world, Johannesburg has emerged very much revived and resilient in the new South Africa.
The inner city went through a period of around twenty years of decay, with even the stock exchange moving out of the city to the suburbs in the north. These days, the city is perhaps South Africa’s most integrated city: whilst wealth and privilege does still follow the colour line, generally speaking there are more opportunities which better spread among the population. Nowhere is this more visible than on the and on the streets of Maboneng and the university campuses of Wits and UJ (University of Johannesburg) where the new South Africa is receiving its education.
Joburg brims with politicial history and maybe because of this, it’s also a city where one finds a great deal of public art, both formal and informal. The hot bed of dissent against the apartheid regime was really Soweto, and it’s no coincidence that Vilakazi Street (where both Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela lived) and the Hector Petersen Memorial (which commemorates the student uprising of 1976) are both located there. You can take artist-lead tours of the public art in Joburg which take visitors through Maboneng, Newtown, Braamfontein and Troyeville which will inspire and amaze you. We also highly recommend arguably South Africa’s best museum, the Apartheid Museum, located just to the south of the centre.
We really recommend open bus tour run by City Sightseeing as a way to get to the major sites in the city. It also has an extension which runs through Soweto which makes it very easy to see a lot in a short period of time.
The anthropological history of Gauteng (the province in which Joburg is located) is also fascinating and we’d go far as to say that a visit to the city without including the Cradle of Humankind would be a mistake. This place celebrates the discovery at the Sterkfontein Caves in 1947 of Mrs. Ples, a hominid skeleton that is believed to be around 2.1 million years old but much more has been discovered in the area since. The entire experience of visiting Maropeng (where the Crade of Humankind is located) is one that leaves you very much changed and humbled but can be seen in a day trip from the city itself.
Cape Town, South Africa’s first city, is its oldest but smallest. It has such a wealth of attractions that it’s actually quite hard to make the most of them, even when you live here all year. There’s a saying in South Africa; ‘You don’t need a holiday, you need Cape Town’, meaning that the place has the ability to both relax and stimulate you at the same time, all the time. Almost everybody who visits this place with less than five days to spare vows to come back and is very sorry to leave!
Here is a very short (yes, this is the short version) of the things you can see, do and experience in Cape Town.
We’re fiercely proud of our cultural roots here. You’ll find art galleries, art projects, countless book shops (of all types), three universities with summer and winter schools, antique shops, auction warehouses and art museums, all competing for your attention.
We’ve a staggering array of architectural examples from our castle to 17th century Cape Dutch manor houses to 1930s Art Deco masterpieces. Just walk around and marvel. Many of our buildings feature in films and advertisements from all over the world.
Cape Town abounds in beaches with many different purposes. Catch the ‘look at me’ crowd on Clifton or Camps Bay, go watersporting off Blauwbergstrand or just go for a beach walk at Mouille Point beach. The wild animals on the beaches of the Peninsula Park are amazing. When was the last time you shared a beach with a zebra? You can in Cape Town!
Cape Town boasts the oldest brewery in Africa, the SAB Miller brewery and now many artisanal brewers all over town. The wine we produce here is world famous, world class and there are now more than 900 estates and vinters less than an hour’s drive from the city centre. The value for money of our local wines is the most special thing about them. And don’t forget our port and brandy: South African ports and brandies have been world champions many years in a row, beating even the Portuguese at their own game.
Cape Town boasts a great number of coffee roasters and bean importers from the African continent and the town’s coffee culture is so ingrained that many yuppies now no longer rent offices: they have ‘coffices’ (they work from coffee shops all day).
Three verdant and shady parks in the City Bowl alone, one with its own botanical garden. You can spend hours just sitting and talking to the locals and watching the cloud roll off the mountain. We do.
The Cape Floral Kingdom is not only the smallest floral kingdom in the world, it’s also the most diverse. Read that again: yes, there are more varieties of endemic plants in the Cape than in the whole of the Amazon! The massive variety of fynbos (our local ‘bush’) that you find here inspired the creation of the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, certainly the botanical garden with the most magnificent setting in the world, but you don’t have to go there to see it. It’s all over the place, on the mountain, Signal Hill, even the flower vases at Parker Cottage. Probably the most famous is the Protea, whose flowering season at Kirstenbosch is a world event.
Cape Town is a destination on its own both for training (there are five chef and hotel schools in the City Bowl) and food culture. There are over 300 restaurants and eateries you can access on foot (and this doesn’t include the amazing food in the winelands and Constantia) serving probably the widest range (both in terms of style of food and standard) at the most competitive prices you will find anywhere in the world. Constantia alone boasts two of the top 50 restaurants in the world.
Cape Town is ‘the Mother City’, where modern South Africa began. We have colonial history, pre-apartheid, apartheid and post apartheid history here. And our history is both social, political and cultural (not to mention artistic). The museums of the Bo Kaap, the District Six museum and Robben Island, now a World Heritage Site, are world famous and stand testament to the triumph of the human condition over adversity.
Cape Town sits at the meeting point of the Benguela and Agulhas currents: one warm, the other cold, these currents mean that the marine wildlife around our Peninsula is not only wonderfully varied but the difficult sailing conditions mean that the coastline is littered with wrecks that support a wealth of other wildlife. You can access the ocean by sailing boat on half day trips, through several excellent diving companies and by surfing or paddle-skiing across the surface. False Bay is the largest breeding ground for Great White sharks in the world and we are also blessed with...
The biggest asset of them all. Capetonians are such an amiable bunch (well, it’s hard not to be when you live in such a beautiful place) and go out of their way to be accommodating. And this isn’t just because you’re a tourist: people really are this nice here. There’s a saying: ‘Slow down, it’s Cape Town’. People here put their families first and see the town as a big village where all are welcome. See also ‘Townships’ further down.
We boast three classical orchestras of our own, host the spectacular Kirstenbosch Summer Concert Series (where musicians from opposing disciplines unite to put on a show together), have our own opera company and ballet company, and now host an annual electronic music festival too. And let’s not forget the enormous legacy to world through jazz: Cape Town even has it’s own style of it, which has given birth to other musical styles like kwaito and so on.
Unlike many cities where nightlife is for the young and 20 something, Cape Town has a nightlife for any age. We have our own comedy clubs, real cabarets, salsa clubs and tango bars along with the usual discos and electronic music joints. And that doesn’t even get us started on the bars, full of models and pretty people looking to get spotted.
We’ve had strong Muslim, Jewish and Christian communities here since the 17th century and Capetonians celebrate their diversity through their religions at every chance. But don’t stop at religions also found on other continents: traditional African religious groups and worship are to be found all over town too. You can worship at any of our numerous mosques, cathedrals and synagogues. Just ask us where they are.
Not just the iconic Table Mountain, now one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, but Lion’s Head and the Twelve Apostles, as well as the walk from Kirstenbosch over Skeleton Gorge. And let’s not even get started on the most spectacular drive in the world around Cape Point and back along Chapman’s Peak. It’s jaw dropping, even for locals.
It’s not common that you can go diving with the largest collection of the world’s largest shark, the Great White, abseil from an iconic mountain face and go mountain biking and sand-boarding on some of the biggest dunes in the world all in one day, but it’s possible here. You can even go surfing in the small waves off Muizenberg if you’re a total beginner. And let’s not forget: Newlands is the home of the country’s biggest religion: rugby.
Cape Town knows how good it is at design of all types: there is a huge choice of clothing, craft, interiors and antique boutiques all across the city and many international designers have made Cape Town their home. Many international designers now shop in Cape Town both for goods and inspiration on a regular basis.
Cape Town’s City Bowl alone has five daily markets and that doesn’t include the weekly markets at The Old Biscuit Mill (gourmet food and cuisine) and the numerous flea markets and craft markets of the Winelands and smaller towns. You can go to a different market every day of the week in Cape Town, no joke.
Within city centre, you have two theaters, three cinemas, an opera house, and over 100 bars, nightclubs and cabarets. This doesn’t include the theaters in Muizenberg, Camps Bay and Kalk Bay even. You can go to at least four live theater shows every night of the week in Cape Town. Not bad for a city of only 3 million.
In some ways even more culturally rich than the wealthy side of Cape Town, the less affluent suburbs of the Cape are a must: you can explore them safely by day and by night, preferably with a guide if you don’t know the areas well. We can arrange all sorts of ways to visit. From a traditional home visit, which includes a visit to a school and a church too to more adventurous activities like a Reggae, Hip Hop, Kitchen Garden, School tour. All the guides we use are either resident in the areas they take you to (very important) or have strong community links with the people you visit. Do this: it’s unforgettable and important.
A reason to visit the Cape on its own. The Southern Right whale is our most famous but we also have Pilot whales and many other species. There are excellent boat trips for sea based watching and the cliffs at Hermanus and De Hoop provide great viewing platforms too.
We have a wealth of marine wildlife here, much of which you can access from dry land at the aquarium. But from boats, beaches and surfboards, you can see our seals, Great White sharks, whales and whole host of other marine wildlife. On land, Table Mountain’s very own dassie will amaze and amuse you and then, at the Cape Point Park, you’ll find zebra, ostrich and our wonderful baboon troops.
Durban is the most modern of the three major cities in South Africa: it was founded as late as 1824 which is almost two hundred years after Cape Town. Initially, like with Cape Town, the only real interest in the area was for the port but as the local economy grew, and more and people from all over the world were brought to work in the area as slaves or indentured workers, the city began to take shape.
Durban is blessed with one of the most perfect climates anywhere in the world. It is probably best described as sub-tropical: there are extensive rains (which lead to flooding) most summers and relatively high humidity compared to most of South Africa. Winters are very mild, so mild in fact that the change of seasons isn’t really noticeable. Cap this off with mile upon mile of golden sand on Durban’s beach front and the perennially warm and gentle surf of the Indian Ocean, you can easily see why this city was ranked alongside Beirut, Doha, Kuala Lumpur and Havana as one of the Seven Wonder Cities of the World in 2015.
The city’s population is mainly comprised of two ethnic groups: Indians and Zulus. There are in fact more Indians in Durban than in any other city in the world (outside of India itself, obviously!) and the social, cultural, political and culinary identity of Durban is largely defined by these two groups. Whites form less than 15% of the population here but English is still the most commonly spoken language amongst educated people.
Because Durban is such an obvious choice as a holiday destination for locals across the whole of Southern Africa, it’s perhaps not surprising that it’s the beach front from the harbour northwards is the most geared up for mass-market tourism: the uShaka Marine World, Suncoast Entertainment World, Durban Beach’s Golden Mile and the convention centre are all things worth seeing and doing but the ‘real’ Durban lies behind the sea front.
In the city itself, it’s very much worth the effort to visit is Durban’s Botanical Garden. We also really like the Muthi Market where you can learn about traditional healing and medicine in Zulu culture. There are also numerous small museums in the city centre, like The Pinetown Museum and the Campbell Collections.
We recommend spending some time in the Valley of 1000 Hills, which is the area that lies to the north east of Durban. This beautiful and verdant valley, filled with rolling hills as the name suggests, offers a great range of dining, farmer’s markets, small-scale breweries, public gardens and many unusual plant nurseries. On the way there you might like to combine this with the Mariaanhill Monastery which is a tranquil oasis that really restores the soul. Couple this with a visit to the less well-known Makaranga Botanical Garden in Kloof (to the west of Durban) and you have a truly magical combination.
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