The Ultimate South Africa Bucket List
A trip to South Africa is one you'll never, ever forget.
South Africa is one of most naturally breathtaking places on the planet. I dare you to fly over Cape Town and not weep. The country has it all – spectacular landscapes, unbelievable beaches, diverse cultures, welcoming locals, the world’s best wildlife and game reserves, a thriving cultural scene, and plenty of watering holes and restaurants for you to wet your lips on Springbokkies, the country’s signature creamy shot.
If South Africa isn’t on your bucket list, we’ve got one question: why the hell not?
Let’s get our bearings first. South Africa has three major cities: Cape Town, Durban and Johanesburg. All three cities are extremely different and worth a visit if you’ve got the time. The Garden Route in the Western Cape is another adventure-in-the making that you can’t miss. The route is truly one of the most magnificent, awe-inspiring stretches of land in South Africa, if not the world. Here’s the ultimate bucket list for all four of these areas.
#1 Walking tour of a Township
A walking tour of a township is a great way to see a first-hand snapshot of how the majority of South Africans live. On my visit, we opted for the five-hour walking tour, which included visiting Elephant House (Durban’s oldest standing home); a trip to Ohlange High School, home to the voting station where Nelson Mandela cast his ballot in the historic ’94 elections; Mahatma Gandhi’s home and museum, lunch at a local shebeen (tavern), the Mzinyathi Waterfall and a visit to a family home for a deeper insight into local life. The tours are run by locals and they’re a great opportunity to experience the community rather than just being a eye-witness on a moving bus.
#2 Get your fortune read by a Sangoma
You can do a half-day Zulu culture tour just outside of Durban, which is set in the stunning Valley of 1000 hills. The day will include traditional dance and music (you are encouraged to participate and shake your bon bon), a traditional meal and a chance to learn your fate from a reading by a local tribe’s Sangoma (witch doctor).
#3 Flea Markets
One of the best markets in South Africa is I Heart Market, which is situated in Durban and runs on the first Saturday of every month at Moses Mabhida Stadium. The market is perfect for picking up gifts for loved ones at home while supporting the local artists, fashion designers and foodies of KwaZulu-Natal.
#4 Watch a rugby or soccer game
Rugby and soccer are treated like religions in South Africa. If you get a chance to see either sport played live – do it! Regardless of if you are into the game or not, the real entertainment comes from the supporters. Expect dancing, singing, flares, horns, and a whole bunch of fun.
#5 A horse safari in the iSimangaliso Wetlands
About a 2.5 hour drive from Durban, St Lucia is definitely worth a trip. You can’t get more intimate with nature than a horseback safari through the iSimangaliso Wetlands. Imagine riding past a giraffe or an elephant on horseback. Don’t stress if you’re not a pro, all safaris are adjusted to the rider’s skill sets.
#1 Skydiving over Cape Town
South Africa is an adrenalin junkie’s paradise. If you’ve always wanted to jump out of a plane, there’s no place more beautiful to free-fall through a cloud. Skydiving in South Africa is relatively cheap – a tandem jump will cost you about $181AUD – and Skydive Cape Town is about a 40 minute drive outside of the city, operating seven days a week (weather permitting) between 9am to 4pm. Tandem skydiving is offered on all operating days, but places are limited so booking is essential. Make sure you give the company a buzz before you arrive to ensure the conditions are fine to throw yourself out of a plane.
#2 Swimming with great white sharks
South Africa is one of the only places in the world where you can cage dive with Great White Sharks, and it’s certainly not for the faint-hearted. It’ll just be some metal grates between you and the jaws of the ocean’s fiercest predator – fun, right? A number of tours run daily from Cape Town and will set you back, on average, $150AUD and take up a full day. This is something you definitely want ticked off your bucket list.
#3 Hiking Table Mountain
It doesn’t get more breathtaking than Cape Town’s Table Mountain. Pulling on your hiking boots and climbing to the top is the best way to take it all in. Don’t stress if the sheer height of it scares you, though – trails run the length and breadth of the mountain, offering exceptional hiking for all levels of fitness and experience.
#4 A wine tour in Stellenbosch
South Africa is known for its wines, so it would be a crime to come all this way and not enjoy a local bottle or two. Stellenbosch is a beautiful little town just outside of Cape Town, and Stellenbosch Wine Tours offer a variety of packages to suit all budgets and palettes. You can even do a ‘mystery’ wine tour or a chocolate, cheese and olive tour (you beauty). Transfers can be easily organised from Cape Town.
Stellenbosch is also a trendy little spot in its own right. It’s a university town that has been dubbed the gourmet capital of South Africa, so if you do have a few days spare, we recommend booking yourself a cosy B&B and giving this memorising region some extra attention.
#5 Have a drink on Long Street
Need a drink or want to dance ’til sunrise? Look no further than Long Street. It’s the main street of downtown Cape Town and the cultural mecca of the city for travellers and locals alike. Laced with hundreds of restaurants, shops, cafes, bars, and live music venues, a trip down Long Street will cater for everyone. A few to check out: Zula Sound Bar and Cafe, Purple Turtle and 169 On Long. Also, if you are looking for a party-rocking hostel, Carnival Court Backpackers is the place for you.
#6 Try game meat
Eating game meat in South Africa feels like one of those things you’ve got to do (if you’re a carnivore, of course). If you do decide to try something a little different, treat yourself to lunch or dinner at the iconic Mama Africa which is situated on Long Street and specialises in typical South African dishes including springbok, warthog, kudu, ostrich and, for the adventurous, a crocodile kebab. The restaurant is decorated with African masks, wooden carvings, paintings and drums and a live traditional band will be the soundtrack to your evening in the heart of Africa. Pro tip: dress down. Mama likes it when you’re cosy in her house.
#7 The Bo-Kaap District
One of the most beautiful and vibrant parts of South Africa is Cape Town’s Bo-Kaap district in Signal Hill. Known for its colourful houses Bo-Kaap is the spiritual home of the Cape’s Muslim community. The district has a long history, with many of the residents being descendants of slaves from Malaysia, Indonesia and various African countries, who were imported to the Cape by the Dutch during the 16th and 17th centuries. If you are interested in learning a little more about the district, the Bo-Kaap Museum is well worth a visit. Make sure you treat yourself to a traditional Cape Malay meal at one of the many restaurants in the area and skip over to De Waterkant, one of the trendiest and most sought-after postcodes in Cape Town.
#8 Robben Island
Visiting Robben Island will be one of the most moving experiences of your life. Robben Island is now a world heritage site, but it was where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years of his life. Tours of Robben Island are conducted by former prisoners who offer incredible insight into the history of the place. Make sure you book tours to the Island well before you hit Cape Town as, rightly so, Robben Island is one of the most popular destinations for tourists in South Africa.
#1 The Apartheid Museum
The Apartheid Museum, close to downtown Johannesburg, is a must for all tourists visiting South Africa. The museum shines a spotlight on the system of racial discrimination that became synonymous with South Africa from 1948 until 1994, when the country implemented Apartheid and white minority rule, as well as South Africa’s peaceful transition to a non-racial democratic society. Visitors to the museum are greeted with a very real reflection of what it was like to live in pre-apartheid South Africa. The museum has two entrances labelled ‘White’ and ‘Non-white’, and depending on which ticket you are issued, you will be ushered through one of the two doors.
Home to over a million locals, Soweto is the most cosmopolitan township in the country and the most populous urban residential area. Soweto is home to a number of incredible restaurants, shebeens and budget accommodation options for those visitors keen to experience a true piece of Africa. You’d be a fool to leave South Africa without having a bev at a sheeben; our top picks in Soweto are Tyson’s in Pimville, Vardos in Mapetla, The Rock in Rockville, Boyce in Diepkloof, and Cornish in White City.
#3 Constitution Hill
Coined as the Johannesburg’s Robben Island, Constitution Hill is where Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi were detained whilst in Joburg. Constitution Hill is both the site of South Africa’s constitutional court and a museum, which highlights the nation’s turbulent past and its transition to democracy. Through interactive tours and exhibitions that run daily, visitors witness Nelson Mandela’s cell in the Old Fort, a women’s jail where Winne Mandela was detained and a permanent exhibition celebrating the years that Gandhi spent in South Africa. The museum is a perfect place to truly get your head around South Africa’s past while observing the process by which the country’s freedom was won and is now protected.
The Garden Route
#1 Knysna Elephant Park
Located between Knysa and Plttenberg Bay, Knysna Elephant Park was the first ever facility in South Africa to house and care for orphaned African elephants. The park gives travellers the chance to get hot and heavy with their elephants, on the elephant’s terms. There are no fences to spoil the encounter and the park offers a variety of daily tours. You can also have a slumber party with the majestic creatures at the Elephant Lodge for as little as $72AUD a night.
#2 Plettenberg Bay
Nicknamed Plet by locals, Plettenberg Bay lies on the boarder of the Western and Eastern Cape. Known as a pleasure seeker’s hot spot, Plet is a perfect place for a spot of polo or a day yachting on the Keurbooms River. If you’re more into activities that don’t require a buttoned up polo shirt and loafers, how about a charted boat cruise, a hike or abseiling? Monkeyland Primate Sanctuary, the only multi-species, free roaming sanctuary of its kind in the world, is also well worth a visit.
While your in Plettenberg Bay (you’ve come this far already), how about bungee jumping off the highest commercial jump in the whole world? Just a short trip towards Port Elizabeth you’ll arrive at Bloukrans Bridge. At 216 metres high, this is definitely a leap of faith. Good luck.
(Lead image: Frontier Official/Flickr)