Complementing its internationally known (and loved) vineyards, South Africa’s new generation of chefs is propelling the country’s culinary scene forward making it a destination to visit not just for wine, but food as well.
Mary Fitzpatrick takes you on a seven-day culinary journey that highlights the coastline, Winelands and fine dining.
For more than two decades, I’ve been traveling around, living in and writing about some of the most beautiful destinations in Africa. Yet the stunning landscapes, abundant wildlife and dynamic cultural mix of the Rainbow Nation hold a special place for me. No matter how often I visit, there’s always something new to discover. And thanks to a good road network and wonderful accommodation options, traveling in South Africa is always a pleasure.
Why you should visit South Africa
South Africa’s attractions include a sublime coastline rimmed by rugged cliffs and beautiful beaches; abundant wildlife accessible at parks and safari lodges; a tortured yet triumphant history; and a vibrant mix of languages, cultures and art. Not as well known, perhaps, is South Africa’s wonderful culinary scene. With a temperate climate and rich soil, the country produces a bounty of fresh fruits and vegetables that complement its high-quality seafood and meats. Over the past decade, a growing number of world-class chefs have been working with this abundance. South Africa now boasts several restaurants on global “best” lists, plus dozens of hidden gems where you can dine on creations that reach deep into the country’s soul for inspiration.
Explore Cape Town’s history and dine at South Africa’s finest restaurants
Together with the nearby Winelands, Cape Town is the heart of South Africa’s culinary scene and the perfect place to start your delicious explorations. Begin the day with a sunrise stroll along the seaside (the Sea Point Promenade is popular with locals) or through the still-quiet city center before sampling the freshly baked bread at Knead or tucking into the all-day breakfast (complete with creamy pasteis de nata) at Hoghouse Bakery & Café.
Then, spend the morning immersing yourself in Cape Town’s history. Today a memorial to Nelson Mandela and other freedom fighters who were once imprisoned there, Robben Island makes for a good half-day excursion, with ferries departing several times daily from the V&A Waterfront. Alternatively, get a better understanding of Cape Town’s past and present by arranging a township tour, ideally including a visit to the moving District Six Museum. Many tours include a sampling of local food (watch for the “smiley,” a barbecued and boiled sheep’s head); we recommend making plans through Siviwe Tours. For something sweet afterward, try a bar of locally produced Afrikoa chocolate from their shop near the V&A Waterfront.
In the afternoon, relax with a stroll amid the flowers at Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, followed by dinner at La Colombe, where you can enjoy local ingredients exquisitely prepared with a French flair. While the set menus (which have vegetarian and seafood options) vary with the season, the tuna “la colombe” and miso-seared scallop are particular favorites.
Climb Table Mountain and take an unforgettable hike at the Cape of Good Hope
Table Mountain National Park sweeps southward from Signal Hill to the Cape of Good Hope. At its center is Cape Town’s iconic Table Mountain, which can be scaled on foot (straightforward or challenging, depending on the route you choose) or via cable car (from about $16 round trip). To see another side of the park, take a rental car or hire a taxi and head south to the Cape of Good Hope, where you can hike along a spectacular nature trail. Nestled between rugged cliffs that plunge steeply downward to the sea, the route winds past rocky outcrops and clusters of wildflowers, with magnificent views over the ocean on both sides. It is absolutely not to be missed. While hiking the full trail generally takes two days, there are plenty of opportunities for shorter hikes, with several parking lots along the Cape of Good Hope access road allowing for short loops: the Kanonkop Loop, Lighthouse Keepers Trail and Cape of Good Hope Day Trail are all good options.
For lunch afterward, relish the assortment of appetizers – the seasonal coal-fired asparagus is wonderful – on the set menu at Chef’s Warehouse at Beau Constantia, while taking in the views over the surrounding wine estate. Spend late afternoon exploring the colorful streets of Cape Town’s Bo-Kaap area, perhaps sampling some bobotie (spiced meat bake) or other Cape Malay cuisine at Biesmiellah, or relaxing on one of the peninsula’s beaches. A favorite among swimmers and surfers, Muizenberg has a chill vibe and a handful of pleasant cafes opposite the main beachfront. To top off your Cape Town visit in style, enjoy the chic-casual ambience and South African–Japanese fusion cuisine at Fyn, where delicacies include such creations as as guinea fowl wonton, abalone braaied in kelp and ostrich-egg chawanmushi.
Taste wines and spot whales in the Western Cape
From Cape Town, rent a car to explore the beautiful Western Cape. About one hour to 90 minutes by car east and northeast of Cape Town, you’ll find the delightful towns of Stellenbosch and Franschhoek, both notable for their Cape Dutch architecture. This area forms the heart of the Western Cape Winelands and the landscapes – marked by jagged mountain peaks and spectacular green valleys – are simply stunning. This is also one of South Africa’s culinary hot spots, and it would be easy to stay for days, dining at one superb restaurant after another. About 12.5 miles (20km) north of Stellenbosch, Glen Carlou is one of our favorites. Its menu features locally sourced, organic produce – the grilled aubergine (eggplant) is delicious – all complemented by an extensive selection of wines. La Motte, on the western edge of Franschhoek, offers a fine base for a day of wine tasting and walking amid the hills and vineyards.
In the other direction, heading southeast and about a two-hour drive from Cape Town, is Hermanus. The town is famous for its holiday vibe and for the large numbers of southern right whales that frequent its waters between June and December. Nearby is Cape Agulhas, the southernmost point of the African continent, where the Atlantic and Indian oceans meet: don’t miss the views from the lighthouse here. Nestled in the hills overlooking Hermanus and making for a lovely midday stop, Creation Wines offers a delectable wine-canapé pairing menu. Try the sauvignon blanc with the seared hake and Cape gooseberry.
It’s game time in and around Kruger National Park
From Cape Town, fly (two-and-a-half to four hours, depending on the connection) to Kruger National Park. Together with the adjacent, private Sabi Sands Game Reserve, Kruger offers the opportunity for a classic wildlife safari. The park has a network of good-value rest camps with bungalow-style accommodation and camping, many with restaurants offering braai (barbecue) and self-catering facilities. Alternatively, treat yourself to a few nights at a luxury lodge in one of the adjoining private game reserves, an experience with first-class accommodation as well as wildlife watching.
Fine dining is part of the experience, too, with excellent cuisine waiting for you after your wildlife viewing. Whether you’re enjoying grilled meat or fresh salad, everything seems to taste even better while watching the sun set over the grasslands and listening to the sounds of the bush. Singita Lebombo Lodge, set on a private concession within central Kruger, and with an in-house culinary school, is a fine top-end choice, while Satara and Skukuza are both reliable bets among the park-run rest camps.
Johannesburg’s excitements await
From Kruger, it’s a straightforward five-hour drive or short, one-hour flight to Johannesburg, South Africa’s down-to-earth commercial capital and a foodie hub in its own right. Spend the first day settling in, and taking for-hire taxis or Ubers to visit the Apartheid Museum, with its sobering insights into Apartheid and the freedom struggle; Constitution Hill, which chronicles South Africa’s journey to democracy; and Freedom Park, which honors those who fought for the rights of all South Africans. The no-frills Nice on 4th is a good bet for a cozy brunch, with its signature egg baskets (it’s the toast that forms the “basket”) and tasty variations on the theme. For a late-afternoon treat, try Cheese Gourmet, with a wide selection of South African cheeses (the locally made Gouda and feta are delicious, and you can taste before you buy), alongside homemade bread, olives and more. There’s also an on-site cafe offering fondue, cheese platters and other light fare. To round things off, savor a gourmet ice cream from Paul’s Homemade, which has several locations around the city and flavors ranging from Madagascan vanilla to pomegranate-honey, plus an ever-changing scoop of the month.
Get in touch with your ancestors at Sterkfontein Caves
About an hour’s drive northwest of Johannesburg is the Cradle of Humankind world heritage site, which encompasses the Sterkfontein Caves and fossil fields. One the world’s most significant paleo-anthropological sites, it certainly merits exploration. Before setting off, head to Johannesburg’s lively Maboneng district and stop into Home of the Bean, where the coffee is great, the vibe amenable and a light menu of tasty breakfasts, burgers and more tasty.
After visiting Sterkfontein, don’t miss dinner back in town at Marble, an elegant restaurant known for its views over the city, lively pub and top-notch cuisine, which takes the traditional South African braai to superlative levels. In addition to fine cuts of beef, there is a wide range of other grilled choices, including seafood and vegetarian dishes.
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