I’m fresh off a trip to South Africa–okay so I’m not so fresh anymore–but I’ve been hard at work with tons of other writing assignments for my freelance gigs with Fox, Fodor’s and The Huffington Post–and soon to be U.S. News & World Report (eeehhhh!). Anyway, I know I’m a bit tardy but I compiled a list of my top ten things to do in South Africa. Now while of course I was only there for a short time, I did my research. I’ve included a couple of the things I do hope to do upon my return but the rest I’ve tested out personally. South Africa is a stunning country and I can’t wait to return. There are so many things though to do, and with such limited vacation time these days, I picked out what I consider to be the best things to see and do while you’re in South Africa.
My regular readers know that I am anything but an outdoorsy person, which is why no one was more surprised than I was at how much I loved safari. It was magical. It was the first time in my life that I ever felt so connected to nature and the earth–it sounds cheesy but I promise you that everyone who has been to the particular lodges I have is nodding along with me. The other surprising thing about safari is how luxurious it was. I guess I shouldn’t have been so surprised–past guests to check in to these hotels include Elton John, Bono and even the Biebs–but you don’t expect such over-the-top luxury in the middle of nowhere! Each hotel I visited blew me away. They were honestly some of the best hotels I’ve ever been to. You can read my reviews and see photos from Royal Malewane (where Elton spent his honeymoon), Singita Lebombo (rumored to be a royal favorite), and Tintswalo Safari Lodge (a more affordable luxury experience that’s still Five Star all the way).
2. The Cape Winelands
The Cape Winelands are one of my favorite places I visited in South Africa. The vineyards are never-ending and the views are captivating. Tastings are of course in order when you’re in wine country. My favorite region was Franschhoek–it’s a quaint little town with lots of family-owned vineyards and French influences. My favorites that we visited were Môreson, La Petite Ferme, and Haute Cabrière. I used Escape to the Cape Tours, which arranged all of our tastings and transportation, making everything even more relaxing. We met several other couples who were doing the The Franschhoek Wine Tram, a hop-on/hop-off tram that will take you to various wine vineyards. It seemed fun, just not quite a luxury experience. We also met another couple who chose to bike between tastings but that’s just asking for trouble if you ask me. I can barely walk a straight line sober!
While in Franschhoek I stayed at La Residence, which has been voted by Conde Nast Traveler as the best hotel in the world–so yeah, you can only imagine how amazing it is! And don’t worry, I’ll get my review online soon! You also must check out The Tasting Room in Le Quartier Francais–another stunning hotel. It’s quite a unique restaurant experience–there are no menus, it’s a surprise tasting menu–and let me tell you, there are plenty of fun treats! Stellenbosch, the most well-traveled region is also worth checking out. It’s a little busier than sleepy Franshhoek but it’s loads of fun. While here I stayed at the uber luxurious Delaire Graff Estate, which I highly recommend–Mr. Graff, the diamond mogul handpicks the art here from his own private collection. It’s stunning. Again, I promise to write it up soon!
Oh and PS, the Cape Winelands are only about an hour’s drive from Cape Town, so if you’re short on time, it’s do-able as a day trip as well. Be sure to check out my piece I wrote for Fodor’s about a guide to South Africa’s Wine Country for more details.
3. Beach, Please!
Believe it or not, Cape Town has some of the world’s most breathtaking beaches. Two of my favorites are in Camp’s Bay and Hout Bay. Camp’s Bay is a trendy beach town with loads of fabulous upscale restaurants that overlook the bay. Top picks: Umi and Paranga. Hout Bay on the other hand is a quiet and picturesque old fishing village-turned exclusive Cape Town getaway–perfect for a romantic getaway. Sundowners–South Africa’s version of Happy Hour that involves cocktails at sunset–are a must here! Sip on something sweet as you kiss the day goodbye! Coming soon are my hotel reviews of two amazing Beach hotels–The Marly (Camp’s Bay) and Tintswalo Atlantic (Hout Bay).
4. The Townships
To gain true insight into post-apartheid South Africa you need to visit the townships–home to a large percentage of the country’s population. I highly recommend booking a tour through Uthando, which will take you to the townships right outside of Cape Town. Another interesting township to visit is Soweto, where Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu both lived. To learn about this and other unique finds in Cape Town, be sure to check out my piece I wrote for Fox News about Unique Things to Do in Cape Town to Make You Feel Like a Local.
5. Victoria & Albert Waterfront
Say what you want–it’s been criticized as being overly touristy but I found it lovely. Besides, Times Square is touristy–you still can’t come to New York and miss it! The V&A Waterfront is a shopping and entertainment destination located along a lovely downtown wharf. There are tons of shops, perfect for picking up souvenirs (I recommend Made in SA–it’s offerings are actually made in South Africa unlike many other stores whose products actually come from China). There are great restaurants, too but my favorite spot we found was the V&A Market on the Wharf. You can sample cuisine from lots of different food booths–it’s kind of like New York’s Smorgasburg of Cape Town. Amazing burritos, Indian and Thai cuisine.
6. Robben Island
When people come to Cape Town and don’t take a day to learn about the city’s past I just don’t get it. Yes, I love my luxury accommodations, champagne toasts and all of the finer things in life while I’m vacationing, but I can’t come somewhere and not learn something about the culture and it’s history–to me that’s just a waste. A trip to Robben Island to see where Nelson Mandela was held as a political prisoner for nearly 20 years (along with many other prisoners) is a somber experience but hearing firsthand accounts from former inmates is inspiring. If you’re a history buff like my husband you should also do a tour with Coffee Beans Routes, which offers a tour called the Revolution Route where you can learn about the lesser-known players in the South African revolution. Be sure to ask for Gael to be your tour guide. She was so incredibly knowledgeable and passionate–she made the tour very special.
7. The Cape Peninsula
It’s quite incredible just how stunningly beautiful Cape Town is. Not many major metropolitan cities have a giant mountain at its center, beautiful beaches on its edges, or a penguin colony just a few minutes outside of the main drag! Yeah, you absolutely must spend a day checking out all of the natural wonders that Cape Town’s Table Mountain National Park offer. Must sees are the Cape of Good Hope, Cape Point and Boulder’s Beach, home to the African Penguin colony.
8. Apartheid Museum
Although I didn’t have a chance to visit Johannesburg on this trip. I have heard wonderful things about it from friends who have gone. I hear that it’s becoming safer and my hopes are that next time I return to South Africa that it won’t be as much of an issue. Now, unfortunately tourists do still need to be careful. That said though, with proper planning and precautions I hear that it is absolutely worthy of a visit.
9. Chow Down
I was pleasantly surprised at the level of culinary sophistication while in South Africa. Not only was the food incredible in Cape Town but the presentation and service rivaled that of any other modern city–I don’t think that everyone realizes this. My absolute favorite restaurant was Pot Luck Club–a tapas-style restaurant located in the Biscuit Mill that offers unique combinations, expertly mixed cocktails and killer views of the city. The city’s hottest restaurant– The Test Kitchen–recently awarded by San Pellegrino the honor of being one of the World’s Best restaurants–explaining why it’s nearly impossible to snag a reservation! I also loved Bistro Bizerca and Signal for dinners. My favorite bakery ever is Charly’s Bakery. In wine country, as I mentioned above, The Tasting Room is a must-see, as is its sister restaurant, Bread & Wine.
10. Drive the Garden Route
Yet one more reason for me to plan my return to South Africa is because I didn’t have a chance to explore the Garden Route, a stretch of road on the southeastern coast famous for being the perfect road trip destination. The drive takes you to some amazing places along the way–various bays, nature reserves and cities. I’m coming back for this soon!
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Disclosure: As is common in the travel industry I received media rates or complimentary services for purposes of my review for my blog. As you know, my opinions on the blog are always my own. Obviously I did a lot more things than what is on this list during my trip–I also stayed at many other hotels that aren’t mentioned. While I don’t have bad things to say about them, they do not receive the Travelingpanties endorsement. I also do not have any sort of financial relationship with any of the aforementioned experiences or properties and have not been paid for my opinions. If you ever have specific questions about the rates I receive I am more than willing to discuss. I believe that my readers trust my opinions because of my honesty and I hope to keep it that way. You can’t buy my love–not here or in real life–just ask my husband!