Exploring South Africa is the vacation of a lifetime with endless beaches, world-class vineyards and safari adventures. We spent ten weeks in the amazing country and share the highlights here.
We never intended to visit South Africa. Yes, this trip of a lifetime was not on our itinerary. We stumbled into our South African vacation with a fair bit of serendipity and several thousand frequent flyer miles. As we quickly learned, there are so many reasons to travel to South Africa.
We originally planned to stay in Europe after spending the month of January eating pizza in Naples Italy, but that would have involved braving cold February temperatures. After mulling over vacation ideas and taking a leap of faith, our plan to fly deep into the Southern Hemisphere coalesced.
Many people spend months if not years planning for South Africa. As for us, we booked our flights on a whim less than four weeks before our departure date.
Yes, after a mere one month’s planning, we jumped on a flight to Cape Town (from London) and, 12 hours later, found ourselves situated at the foot of imposing Table Mountain. We were tired but ready for an adventure that would soon catapult us over sunny Signal Hill, across the devastatingly beautiful Cape Winelands, past sprawling Garden Route beaches and hurtling across the timeless African savannah.
We would drink great wine, eat lots of biltong, dip our toes in both the Atlantic and Indian Oceans and see rhinos, lions, impalas and a leopard (oh my!) along with the rest of the Big Five.
Book a car service in advance to make life easier when you arrive after a long flight. We used Blacklane. Trust us, it was awesome to arrive with a car waiting to drive us to our apartment.
Our thoughts? Go to South Africa and go now.
Flights, while not cheap, are the lowest in price that they’ve been in years. Once you arrive, the incredible value for rooms, meals and transportation will quickly compensate for the cost of the airfare.
If you’re willing to splurge (and even if you can’t), you must add a Kruger Park safari as a very expensive cherry on top of your South African sundae. South Africa is a lot to take in, but, with two to three weeks, this can all be done with no regrets.
→ Read about our safari experience in Sabi Sands.
South Africa Vacation of a Lifetime
For many, South Africa is a once in a lifetime destination. We abhor ‘bucket list’ thinking since we believe that great travel is something people should experience throughout their lives, not just at the end. Bucket list or no bucket list, travel in beautiful, timeless, edge-of-the-world South Africa is about as life-altering as travel gets.
Do you have a couple weeks to get away for a trip to South Africa? Here’s how you do it.
Cape Town – Living the Good Life
Cape Town is one of the first places in South Africa that often comes to mind and rightfully so. This urban paradise, located near the southern tip of Africa, marks one of the first colonial-era trading settlements on the continent and astounds all with its sheer beauty and tumultuous history. Visitors never get bored with all the fun things to do in Cape Town.
→ Discover 25 fun things to do in Cape Town.
And the food! We liked the food so much that we prepared an epic Cape Town Food Guide with all the best spots for eating and drinking in the city.
→ Read our Cape Town food guide.
Cape Town is a world in itself.
Mountains surround the city’s central ‘City Bowl’, the heart of the city’s commercial and art centers, with lively nightlife and cutting-edge dining. Multi-colored homes light up the Bo-Kaap neighborhood. Farmers and craftspeople set up shop along the V&A Waterfront.
Hipsters hold court at various bars and cafes along Bree and Kloof streets. Shoppers look for wares of all shapes and sizes in gentrifying Woodstock. Cape Town coffee drinkers convene in one of the centers of the Third Wave coffee universe with over 100 roasters.
→ Read our Cape Town coffee guide.
Jump past the bowl over Signal Hill, and you’ll find great beaches in Camps Bay, Clifton and Simon’s Town (an awesome location for penguin spotting) along with great surf spots in Muizenberg and Noordhoek. Cape Town sports an endless range of adventure activities.
You can ascend Table Mountain (by cable car or on foot), go cage diving next to great white sharks, wander idyllically through the Company’s Garden or experience the most beautiful sunset of your life from the top of Signal Hill.
You can also experience ‘real’ African culture and history by visiting the fascinating and tragic District 6 Museum, Robben Island or one of the nearby townships. Then again, if you’re like us, you can just relax in the utopic Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden while breathing in the stunning views of Devil’s Peak while catching an outdoor rock concert.
In other words, Cape Town is a happening place.
Cape Winelands – Drinking Our Way Through Wine Country
South African wine surprised us.
The world-class Cabernets, Pinotages and Chenin Blancs that are produced in the Cape Winelands are shockingly excellent in both quality and value. We’ve been to some of the most beautiful wine regions in the world including Napa and Sonoma in Northern California, Burgundy, Beaujolais and Alsace in France, Willamette Valley in Oregon, the Rhineland in Germany, the Finger Lakes in New York and Emporda in Catalunya, Spain.
In our opinion, the ethereal beauty of the vineyards in Stellenbosch, Franschhoek, Paarl and Durbanville equal or outshine them all.
→ Discover the best Stellenbosch wineries to visit.
In timeless Stellenbosch and nearby Franschhoek, it’s entirely possible to purchase a world class bottle of Cabernet for the equivalent of $10-12, twist open the bottle and then sit back at a stylish picnic table to enjoy a romantic sunset view of misted craggy peaks that exist as if in a painting.
You can also experience some of the best dining in South Africa with fine Stellenbosch restaurants in the fashionable downtown or at the area’s amazing wine estates. We loved our time in the Cape Winelands so much that we may head there directly when we next journey to South Africa.
→ Read our Stellenbosch food guide.
The Garden Route – Relaxing on Beautiful Beaches
The Garden Route provided us with a wonderful break from our busy South Africa itinerary with pristine beaches in Plettenberg and quiet bayside resorts in Knysna. This was the chill part of our itinerary where we basked in purple-hued sunsets and took barefoot jaunts across mile wide beaches.
The Garden Route also has great roadside markets with local food, both raw and cooked, and an abundance of affordable roadside seafood including some of the best oysters we’ve ever eaten. Though we’re not avid surfers, we still enjoyed checking out classic beach towns like Jeffrey’s Bay and Mossel Bay.
→ Read about our trip along the South Africa’s Garden Route.
The Garden Route even has wineries that offer tastings and game reserves where you can go on mini-safaris. If you have time, you don’t want to miss this scenic part of South Africa.
South Africa Safaris – Chasing the Big Five
Going on a safari can be the ultimate luxury travel experience with appointed rooms and food prepared by seasoned chefs.
Many bucket listers who travel to South Africa choose to head directly from the airport straight to a luxury safari lodge. Once there, Rangers whisk guests through a private game reserve twice daily; once in the early morning (most drives begin at about 6 am) and once in the late afternoon into dusk.
Even though these excursions through the wild are called game drives, in most cases, there is no hunting involved. The animals are in a protected, preserved habitat and, on the really great safaris, guests get to observe these incredible creatures up close. Safaris are also a great way to commune with the timeless and classic African savannah.
→ Read what it’s to experience a safari in South Africa.
So what are the ‘Big Five?’ We’re so glad you asked.
In no particular order, the big five consist of African Lions, African Leopards, African Elephants, Rhinoceros and… Cape Water Buffalo. (We’re still trying to understand how Water Buffalo got on the list higher than Giraffes and Zebras, but that’s a different discussion for a different article.)
Some game lodges are privately held with animals specially shipped onto the property while others adjoin public nature reserves like Kruger National Park. Whatever your preference or budget, a safari can be a fun way see many of these grand species in their natural habitat and live like royalty at the same time.
Johannesburg and Soweto – Connecting with The Real Africa
Our final stop in South Africa was the capital city of Johannesburg and the surrounding township of Soweto. Many tourists skip Johannesburg, choosing to bypass the South African metropolis and spend all of their time in more scenic locales like Cape Town and Kruger National Park.
But Johannesburg, a burgeoning center of art and culture and place to touch South Africa’s recent historic and racial struggle, shouldn’t be missed.
Johannesburg is South Africa’s most racially progressive city and the closest example of a modern, vital African city with hip neighborhoods and progressive attitudes. And, yes, you can eat and drink well in Johannesburg too.
→ Read more about visiting Johannesburg.
A side trip to Soweto inspires and educates.
This is a township that has emerged from the depths of Apartheid and now stands as a symbol of how Black South Africans ‘rose up’ against oppression to create a great new society. Here you can visit the significant Regina Mundi church where Nobel Prize winner Bishop Desmond Tutu preached against the forces of Apartheid.
You can also tour Nelson Mandela’s home and see the new ‘ritzy’ Soweto – a symbol of South Africa’s modern Black prosperity.
→ Read more about visiting Soweto.
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About the Authors
Daryl & Mindi Hirsch
Saveur Magazine’s BEST TRAVEL BLOG award winners Daryl and Mindi Hirsch share their culinary travel experiences and recipes on the 2foodtrippers website and YouTube. The married Food and Travel content creators live in Lisbon, Portugal.