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Things to Do & Must-See Attractions in South Africa

One of the largest countries in Africa by area and population, South Africa entices travelers with stunning landscapes, incredible diversity, unique cuisine, and unforgettable experiences. Johannesburg is one of the main international gateways and home to the acclaimed Apartheid Museum, which is not far from Soweto township. You can visit both on guided tours, which include transportation and provide insider information from a guide. Cape Town on the western coast of the country is one of the oldest cities in South Africa. The iconic Table Mountain looms over the city, and the famous winemaking towns of Stellenbosch and Franschhoek are in the nearby Cape Winelands. Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned, sits just off the coast from Cape Town and is reachable by ferry. Durban, on the eastern coast, offers another look at South African life with its Zulu and Indian influences. Garden Route tours during the spring give visitors a chance to see a profusion of local flora in bloom. And safari tours are one of the most popular activities in South Africa, from the enormous Kruger National Park to smaller game reserves all over the country. Choose to visit on a day trip or opt for longer multi-day tours to enjoy game drives in search of Africa's “Big Five.” South Africa is also a common starting point for tours that visit other nearby countries, such as Zimbabwe or Zambia to see the mighty Victoria Falls, or Botswana to explore Chobe National Park or the Okavango Delta.
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Robben Island
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For nearly 300 years, Robben Island was a place of isolation, where political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela, were imprisoned and cut off from the rest of the world. It also served as a voluntary sanctuary for lepers. Despite this unsavory past, Robben Island is an important piece of South Africa's history, as well as a reminder of the difficult road to South African Democracy and the victory over apartheid.

Robben Island was declared a World Heritage Site in 1999, and the Robben Island Museum is dedicated to preserving the memory and contributions of the freedom fighters held within its walls. The museum's exhibitions detail the life, times and struggles of its prisoners, particularly those of Robert Sobukwe and his commitment to Pan Africanism. A multimedia exhibit educates visitors on the history of South Africa's democracy.

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Apartheid Museum
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The injustice, cruelty and day-to-day absurdities of white minority rule are impressively detailed in Johannesburg’s Apartheid Museum. “Apartheid”, meaning “separateness” in Afrikaans, was officially in operation from 1948 to 1994, though segregation had been a cornerstone of South African politics since the birth of the Union in 1910.

Apartheid turned South Africa into a pariah state, shunned by much of the international community and almost torn apart by internal tensions, including the infamous Sharpeville riots of 1960. This excellent museum tells that story through photos, documents and film footage, as well as interactive features which bring the reality of racial classification alive.

South Africa’s belated emancipation following Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in 1990 is celebrated by the seven pillars of the constitution you will see in the courtyard: democracy, equality, reconciliation, diversity, responsibility, respect and freedom.

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Soweto
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Soweto (short for South-West Township) was synonymous with resistance to Apartheid in South Africa, particularly as repression was stepped up in the 1970s and 80s, a time when images of the sprawling district on the edge of Johannesburg were rarely far from television news. The area has traditionally housed black workers who commute to more prosperous white areas of Johannesburg, and overcrowding has always been an issue.

But this is also a place of amazing cultural richness and a trendsetter for the whole country: South Africa’s heart beats to the rhythms of Soweto. Take a guided tour to discover the truth about life in Johannesburg’s most famous district and savor the taste of the township in one of the huge array of restaurants, offering everything from barbecues to modern variations on traditional Zulu dishes.

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Constitution Hill
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Perhaps nowhere is South Africa’s transition to democracy more vividly apparent than on Constitution Hill. For over a hundred years, buildings here functioned as a much-feared prison complex, holding everyone from common criminals to activists Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, even Winston Churchill (briefly) during the Boer War.

Since 2004, this site has been home to South Africa’s Constitutional Court, partially built with bricks from one of the old prison buildings, complemented with lighter contemporary elements. Visitors can see the court in session after a tour which takes in Mandela’s cell as well as a permanent exhibition dedicated to Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violent protest.

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Malay Quarter (Bo-Kaap)
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The brightly colored houses of this lively neighborhood in the Central Cape are perched among the rocky crags of Signal Hill. Cobblestone streets wind through the multicultural township where freed slaves and Muslim immigrants settled. Visitors can follow guided walking tours through Bo-Kaap’s major sites, or delve into the history of the area on their own.

The Bo-Kaap Museum, which examines the contributions made by Muslim settlers, is housed in the quarter’s oldest home. It is the ideal place to start exploring the culture of this colorful neighborhood. Afterwards, check out the historic Mosques that dot the streets of Bo-Kaap, including one built in 1844, before visiting the well-known Karamats. The township is home to three of these burial sites that honor saints of Islam. Travelers can also learn to make famous Malay Curry during a traditional cooking class, or sample local fare and purchase traditional works of art at the food and craft market.

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Hout Bay
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This quaint harbor on the western side of the Cape Peninsula has a seaside charm that attracts both travelers and locals to its sheltered shores. Whether it’s sampling ocean-fresh seafood from one of the restaurants lining its harbor or exploring the shelves of world-class antique shops, Hout Bay has proved itself a worthy destination despite its small size. Visitors love wandering along the bustling docks where commercial fishing boats unload their daily catch, and its close proximity to Seal Island and World of Birds makes it a perfect lunch stop on a tour of the Cape.

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Cape Point
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The Cape Point Nature Reserve sits on Cape Point, at the tip of the Cape Peninsula, and features a great variety of animal and plant life. The reserve occupies more than 19,000 acres of Cape Point, including nearly 25 miles of coastline. The old lighthouse, built in 1859, was replaced in 1911, but it still remains standing and is a popular attraction. The Cape Point Nature Reserve is part of the larger Cape Floral Kingdom, the smallest floral kingdom in the world.

Contrary to popular belief, Cape Point is not the southernmost point of Africa – nor is it the point off which the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet. Still, the point is an absolutely beautiful spot to visit, offering spectacular views, great hiking, and excellent bird-watching.

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Twelve Apostles
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Just beyond the peaks of Table Mountain and Lion’s Head, lies the Twelve Apostles, a range of rocky cliffs that line the coast of the Cape Peninsula. Travelers can enjoy the views during a scenic drive from Cape Town, or while relaxing on the sandy shores of Camps Bay. Grab lunch along the bustling promenade and then head to the trails, since a climb to the top of the Twelve Apostles offers an unmatched view of Clifton and the bay. Afterwards, relax with a sun downer at the Leopard Lounge, known for extensive collection of South African wines and its famous Twelve Apostles cocktail.

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World of Birds Wildlife Sanctuary and Monkey Park
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When people talk about wildlife in Africa, they usually mean the Big Five: Elephants, rhino, buffalo, lions and leopards. But World of Birds, a unique park just outside Cape Town that’s home to more than 400 different species of wild birds, proves there’s more to this diverse continent than just its massive mammals.

More than 3,000 birds and other small animals call this aviary home. Visitors can explore their well-kept habitats, which spread over a generous four hectares of land. The scenic backdrop of Table Mountain, Little Lion’s Head and the Twelve Apostles makes it an ideal spot for photos, too.

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Signal Hill
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Once known as “Lion’s Rump,” Signal Hill is a relatively flat peak next to Lion’s Head and Table Mountain. The summit of this landmark once flew flags to signal changing weather and anchoring directions for ships that came to port. A well-paved road takes visitors to the top of Signal Hill, where spectacular Cape Town views await.

Along the way, travelers can stop at the impressive tombs of several Muslim missionaries or spend the night at Appleton Scout Campsite. Those venturing to Signal Hill for a mid-day trip will likely hear the Noon Gun—two massive cannons signaling the strike of twelve—fire, too. In addition to its incredible views, Signal Hill is home to the last bit of the endangered Peninsula Shale Renosterveld vegetation in Cape Town, which means it is one of the few places nature lovers can find the extremely rare Moraea aristata flower and Medusa’s Head succulents in the wild.

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More Things to Do in South Africa

Lion's Head

Lion's Head

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This iconic peak in Table Mountain National Park stretches some 2,000 feet above sea level and its Lion-shaped apex is visible from almost anywhere in Cape Town. Visitors can make the challenging hour-long climb to the top and enjoy epic views of Table Mountain and the city skyline, and those seeking a high adventure can use the slopes of Lion’s Head as a launching point for paragliding.

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Rhodes Memorial

Rhodes Memorial

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Cecil Rhodes' wealth, influence and fervent championing of the British Empire were integral in the formation of modern-day South Africa. He died in 1902, and a decade later, the Rhodes Memorial was built and dedicated at the start of the Cape-to-Cairo road he envisioned would unify British influence across Africa. Modeled after the Greek temple at Segesta, the memorial features 49 massive granite steps, quarried at nearby Table Mountain. Flanking them are eight bronze lions, and at the bottom of the stairs is the world-famous equestrian statue, Energy, dedicated to his memory.

Found within the Table Mountain National Park, the Rhodes Memorial offers sightseers breathtaking panoramic views of Cape Town, Cape Flats and Helderberg and Hottentots Holland Mountain range. Hikers can reach it on a 3-hour walk from Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. It is also accessible by car.

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District Six Museum

District Six Museum

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A former Cape Town neighborhood is remembered in the District Six Museum, built in the neighborhood itself.

District Six was created in the 1860s, but by the mid-1960s the government began forcibly removing the non-white residents to a slum-like township miles away in order to make the neighborhood whites-only. In all, some 60,000 people were relocated, and their homes destroyed. Very little development was ever started in the area, however, and post-apartheid the government said they would recognize property rights of former residents. The District Six Museum was founded in 1994 to honor those who were forcibly removed from their homes. Some fragments of the former neighborhood are on display, and there is a district map on the floor where former residents have noted where their houses once were. The museum and District Six Foundation also exist to help people moving back to the neighborhood develop the area into a thriving community again.

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Clifton

Clifton

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The exclusive coastal town of Clifton lies on the northwest tip of the Cape Peninsula. Elaborate homes of some of South Africa’s most famous celebrities and wealthiest entrepreneurs line the rocky hills of this affluent suburb. The impressive architecture makes for a uniquely scenic drive, but it’s the beautiful beaches that draw visitors away from Cape Town to the picturesque shores of the Atlantic.

Four distinct beaches make up Clifton Beach, which attracts a ritzier crowd full of scenesters eager to see and be seen. Year-round rigid water temps keep sunbathers firmly on the shores, but rented chairs, multi-million dollar yachts and tasty cafes along the main drag offer plenty of opportunities for people watching, as well as a chance to brush elbows with Cape Town’s most elite.

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Table Mountain and Cableway

Table Mountain and Cableway

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If you're visiting Cape Town, Table Mountain is a must-see. Whether you choose to hike or drive to its flat-topped summit (hence the name) or take the Aerial Cable Way, you'll be treated to spectacular views of the city, Devil's Peak and Lion's Head.

Once you're at the top, there a 3 different walking paths to take: the 15-minute Dassie Walk, the 30-minute Agama Walk (providing you with a panomramic view of Cape Town and the peninsula), and the Klipspringer Walk, which ends above Platteklip Gorge. All of these provide you with plenty of photo opportunities, especially if you are into animals; rock hyrax, porcupines, mongooses and more live on the mountain, as well as some poisonous snakes (don't be afraid, just be careful).

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Two Oceans Aquarium

Two Oceans Aquarium

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Located on the Victoria & Albert Waterfront in Cape Town, the Two Oceans Aquarium is - as the name suggests - a celebration of the unique collection of marine life that lives off the coasts of South Africa. The Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet off the country's southern shore at Cape Agulhas, 138 miles from Cape Town.

There are two galleries in the aquarium, one for each of the two oceans in the name, among seven total galleries with large windows to see the sea life. Among the creatures in the Atlantic Ocean Gallery, there are rare Knysna seahorses, and in the Indian Ocean Gallery you'll see clownfish. There is also a penguin exhibit, an activity center for kids, and a predator exhibit with sharks and stingrays. Certified divers can even dive in the tank with the sharks.

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Voortrekker Monument

Voortrekker Monument

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Victoria and Alfred Waterfront (V&A Waterfront)

Victoria and Alfred Waterfront (V&A Waterfront)

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Originally a jetty built in 1654 to refresh sailors for the Dutch East India Company, the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront is now one of the most-visited attractions for foreigners in South Africa. The area is a development consisting of two harbors, retail shops and museums, seascapes and mountain views, and plenty of places to bed down, drink up or eat away.

The V&A Waterfront describes itself as a "Haven for Sailing Enthusiasts" and offers full amenities alongside historical charm. Walking and bus tours, sports and mind-blowing boats are sure to cast a hook for visitors of all types.

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Company's Garden

Company's Garden

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When the Dutch East India Company arrived in the area of what is now Cape Town in 1652, one of the first things they did was create a garden to help feed the settlers. The Company's Garden still exists, today as a public park.

Company's Garden covers a whopping 19.76 acres in the middle of Cape Town, near the parliament building, and includes a fish pond, rose garden and multiple statues and monuments. There's a tea room restaurant on the grounds, and an 18th-century sundial. Attractions near the garden include the Iziko South African Museum, St. George's Cathedral and South Africa's National Library. Of particular note among the many historic trees is the oldest cultivated pear tree in South Africa, planted around 1652.

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Castle of Good Hope

Castle of Good Hope

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In the late 1600s, the Dutch East India Company constructed the Castle of Good Hope as a maritime resupply station, and over the years, it became the seat of administrative and military power in the cape until the settlement grew and the civilian functions moved into town. Today, the castle is the oldest remaining building of the colonial era as well as the military's hub. Open to visitors, it houses the Castle Military Museum and the Iziko Museums of Cape Town. The latter is a fascinating collection of paintings, furnishings and ceramics dating back to the colonial period. Nearby the Castle and throughout Cape Town are the other Iziko museums, which include the South African Museum (dinosaurs, natural history and African artifacts), the Planetarium, the South African National Gallery and more. Also nearby are Green Point Common, an inner-city greenbelt, entertainment district and site of the new FIFA World Cup Stadium.
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Union Buildings

Union Buildings

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Carlton Centre

Carlton Centre

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Johannesburg has most of Africa's tallest buildings, and the building that's held the title of Africa's tallest office building for nearly four decades is the Carlton Centre.

The Carlton Centre is a combination office building and shopping center. The 50-storey building stands at 732 feet, but almost half of its floor area is below the ground level – that's where the majority of the shopping is located, in an underground shopping mall that's one of the city's top shopping destinations. Until 1997, the Carlton Centre was connected via this underground mall to the luxury Carlton Hotel. The top floor of the Carlton Centre is known as the “Top of Africa,” and offers some of the best views overlooking Johannesburg.

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Delaire Graff Estate

Delaire Graff Estate

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The Delaire Graff Wine Estate, near Stellenbosch, is a beautiful winery destination in the Cape Winelands region. Laurence Graff, a diamond dealer of many years, bought the Delaire Estate in the early 2000s. The estate was re-opened as Delaire Graff in 2009, and now features not only the winery but also world-class dining, luxury lodges, a spa, an excellent art collection, a diamond boutique, and picturesque botanic gardens.

Delaire Graff Estate is a luxury destination where you're tempted to stay for a few days, but you can also visit for a day to sample the estate's wines. Sip Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, rose and sparkling wines, and both white and red blends

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