Food and wine, art, football, and more: South Africa’s stock has skyrocketed over the past decade, thanks to the 2010 World Cup, a burgeoning economy, and an arts and museum scene that rivals those of the biggest American and European metropolises. Subject to Hollywood portrayals of sports glory (as in Clint Eastwood’s Invictus) and the flourishing presence of its native wines and foods around the world, South Africa’s public profile is rising.
That publicity, of course, bears some of the lingering weight of the country’s history with apartheid. Since 1994, though, the work of Nelson Mandela, the current president, Jacob Zuma, and other leaders has gone far in helping the country to separate itself from that harsh legacy. The days of boycotting Sun City are long gone, and while the country strives to alleviate poverty, it also supports ever growing industries and attractions for travelers and studen
ts who are looking for leisure-time diversions or are socially conscious—or both.
Take it from us: South Africa’s amazing mixture of culture and natural beauty is not to be missed. We never leave the country without having taken some sips of the local pinotage and made a trip to a new museum or festival.
The Top 10: What to Do in South Africa
1. Apartheid Museum:The motto of this Johannesburg-based museum is “A history forgotten is a future lost,” and the Apartheid Museum works to keep that loss from happening. Devoted to the 20th-century history of South Africa, the exhibits include celebrations of both male and female political activists through photography and film, as well as representations of apartheid—among them a series of cages in which hang blown-up pictures of the “pass books” that blacks had to carry before traveling out of segregated areas.
2. Kruger National Park: Located in the far northeast corner of South Africa, Kruger National Park covers over 7,000 square miles and is home to over 1,000 different species of plants and animals. It is also one of the oldest parks in Africa, dating back, under various names, to 1898. The extensive tourism facilities available at Kruger offer visitors the chance to experience the Park by foot, by bike, or by vehicle, and there are almost 40 camps or lodges available for travelers who wish to spend the night.
3. Table Mountain: Cable cars, check. Amazing views, check. From the top of Table Mountain, many of Cape Town’s most celebrated landmarks can be seen, including Robben Island, Lion’s Head, and Signal Hill. Flora and fauna flourish in this area, and people with an outdoorsy inclination can go hiking and cave exploring, too. Just be sure to bring layers of clothing, as the weather can change quickly. Travel with a guide or a group if possible.
4. Robben Island: Located off the coast of Cape Town, Robben Island is perhaps best known as the imprisonment site of Nelson Mandela, Jacob Zuma, and many other political leaders during the apartheid era.
5. Western Cape Winelands: You like wine? As far as new-world wines go, South Africa is topping many lists these days as a destination for wine lovers who wish to retreat and sip something good. Plenty of vineyards on the Cape offer or are located near accommodations worthy of a memorable holiday escape. Some local vineyards are in Cape Town, Wellington, Constantia, Franschhoek, Stellenbosch, and Paarl.
6. Soweto and the Hector Pieterson Museum: Located in Gauteng, the urban area of Soweto has historically been, and still is, a predominantly black community. The area is best known in recent times as the site of the tragic Soweto Uprising of 1976, during which protesters were killed while speaking against an educational policy that required classes to be taught in Afrikaans, the language associated with apartheid, rather than in individual groups’ own languages. On June 16, the first day of the riots, a 12-year-old boy named Hector Pieterson was shot, and a photograph of his body being carried by an older teenager hit newspapers and magazines. In 2002 the Hector Pieterson Museum was established in Orlando West, honoring Pierson's passing and the work of the protesters and the Soweto community during those riots.
7. Garden Route: The Garden Route is a 200-kilometer long stretch of South Africa's southeastern coast, named for its incredible diversity of flora and fauna. The Route provides easy access to golf courses and national parks as well as some more extreme activities like bungee jumping and cage diving with great white sharks.
8. District Six: Apartheid had an extremely strong hold on this section of Cape Town; it was the site of the forced removal of tens of thousands of black and immigrant residents during the 1970s. The area was long prohibited from undergoing any new development after the forced removals, until the fall of apartheid in 1994. The District Six Museum opened in December of 1994 as a memorial to this demolished, and now rebuilding, community.
9. Cape Point: Within the Table Mountain National Park sits Cape Point, located directly east of the Cape of Good Hope and overlooking the spectacular views of the junction between the Atlantic Ocean and False Bay. A cable car takes visitors to a lighthouse where the views can best be savored; whale- and bird-watching are also popular pastimes here.
10. Umhlanga Rocks: Don't let the harsh name fool you; Umhlanga Rocks is a sandy and welcoming seaside town located north of Durban on the Indian Ocean. As one of the most popular resort cities in southern Africa, Umhlanga Rocks offers up a huge variety of tourist-friendly activities and accomodations. There are luxurious hotels and golf courses as well as opportunities for surfing, SCUBA diving, deep-sea fishing, and whale watching.
When to Go
South Africa is a country of many climates, and the weather varies according to an area’s proximity to coasts or elevated lands. Generally speaking, the winter season in Gauteng lasts from June to September; summer lasts from October to May. In Cape Town, summer begins later, usually around November or December. Heavy rains arrive during the summertime in Johannesburg, and temperatures can fluctuate in the winter between autumnal and freezing. Cape Town, on the other hand, enjoys a Mediterranean climate with winter rains and dry summers. Keep an eye on the forecasts a week before you leave, and pack appropriately.
If you’re looking to enjoy food, music, or other arts in group settings, then checking out a calendar of festivals is an excellent way to plan an itinerary. South Africa Tourism has an interactive list of festivals; those of note include the Cape Town International Jazz Festival, in March, the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape, in the summer, and the Oppikoppi Bushveld music festival in the province of North West, in August.