Cape Town and the Western Cape are refined, developed spots, where you can sip wine and enjoy activities on beaches and mountains. Head north to the Northern Cape and North West Province for rugged wildernesses and wildlife parks.
Surfers, hikers and lovers of African culture will enjoy the Eastern Cape, bordering the mountain kingdom of Lesotho and the Free State. The latter's golden fields and open spaces lead to the Drakensberg range, which stretches into KwaZulu-Natal, where beaches, wildlife parks and Zululand spread north from Durban.
Mpumalanga offers lowveld, the Drakensberg Escarpment and activities, while Gauteng, home of Jo'burg and Pretoria, is South Africa's urban heartbeat. The Big Five's hang-out, mighty Kruger National Park, crowns the country, alongside Limpopo's diverse landscapes and Venda culture.
Its mountainous national park, beaches and ocean make Cape Town a scenic hiking location, with a walk up one of the trails on Table Mountain crowning many to-do lists. Even just strolling along Sea Point promenade is a sheer pleasure beneath the Mother City's towering peaks, and kitesurfing, rock climbing and paragliding are also offered.
Cape Town’s multi-ethnic peoples have bequeathed it a range of cuisines. Enjoy mouth-watering meats and fish from the braai (barbecue), world-class restaurants, Cape Malay curries in the Bo-Kaap neighbourhood, and Xhosa dishes in township restaurants.
The 2014 World Design Capital is bursting with creativity: intricately beaded dolls, contemporary light fixtures made from recycled plastic, stylish buckskin and leather pillows – Cape Town’s emporiums and artisan craft markets have it all.
Food & Drink
The Winelands around Stellenbosch, Franschhoek and Paarl are justifiably famous for their beautiful wine estates. Intrepid tasters should also explore areas such as Wellington, Stanford, Tulbagh and Robertson. Pairing wines with chocolate or cheese adds an extra dimension to tastings.
Longer hikes include the five-day Oystercatcher Trail, De Hoop Nature Reserve's five-day Whale Trail and the Greyton–McGregor Boesmanskloof Trail. Hikes ranging in duration from hours to days lead into the bush around towns such as Swellendam and wildernesses including the Cederberg.
Among the many water sports and activities taking advantage of the Garden Route's beaches and lagoons are surfing, canoeing and diving. Gansbaai is the place to brave shark-cage diving.
Nature & Scenery
In the Garden Route National Park's Tsitsikamma section are the Otter, Dolphin and Tsitsikamma Mountain Trails; overnight routes run the length of the Wild Coast; and the Amathole Trail climbs through waterfall-flecked forests.
The Wild Coast is lined with empty beaches, which come with Xhosa culture at backpacker lodges such as Bulungula, Mdumbi and Buccaneers. The Jeffrey’s Bay sands are dedicated to surfing, and forests overlook the dunes at Nature’s Valley.
Addo Elephant National Park boasts the 'Big Seven', including great white sharks and southern right whales. The nearby private wildlife reserves make the most of the Big Five with diverse programs of activities, while Mountain Zebra National Park offers Karoo panoramas, Cape mountain zebras and cheetah tracking.
The steamy, tropical Elephant Coast in northern KwaZulu-Natal features three of South Africa's great wildlife parks – iSimangaliso Wetland Park, uMkhuze Game Reserve and Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park – offering Big Five sightings with backdrops from savannah grasslands to Lake St Lucia.
Eshowe and Ulundi are capitals of Zulu culture, while Shakaland offers a Disneyfied look at the ethnic group. Three big events take place in Zululand in September and October, including a 'reed dance' akin to the famous Swazi Umhlanga festival. Durban's Campbell Collections hold documents and artworks relating to early Zulu culture.
On the South Coast, Umkomaas and Shelly Beach are diving centres, with the Aliwal Shoal and Protea Banks sites. Water-based activities in beachfront Durban include surfing, diving, fishing and ocean safaris.
Mountains & Foothills
The rugged Eastern Highlands offer views of the Drakensberg and Maluti Mountains. One of South Africa’s most scenic drives crosses this region bordering mountainous Lesotho, taking in Clarens and the Golden Gate Highlands National Park.
Mellow to the province’s safe and rural pace: small towns such as Clarens promote their streets as some of the safest nationwide, and as you travel dusty roads between golden fields and open skies, you will pass old bakkies (pick-up trucks) and tumbledown Sotho houses.
The Rhebok Hiking Trail and others cross the Golden Gate Highlands National Park, with views of the Drakensberg and Maluti Mountains. The nearby Sentinel Hiking Trail, one of South Africa's most impressive day walks, climbs the Drakensberg.
Johannesburg & Gauteng
The Apartheid Museum powerfully evokes the dark era ended by Nelson Mandela et al. Also in Jo’burg, Constitution Hill covers both apartheid and today's democracy. Soweto is a hotbed of social history, and Pretoria’s Freedom Park sits opposite the Voortrekker Monument.
Jo'burg's inventive tours scratch the concrete surface of what can be a grimy Afro-Gotham. Inner-city walking tours showcase the urban regeneration transforming former no-go zones. In Soweto, meet the township locals on foot, bike or tuk-tuk.
Art & Design
Pick up local artwork and cool threads at galleries and shops in Jo'burg's Maboneng precinct, Braamfontein and Newtown. Head to Maboneng's Market on Main (Sunday) for design and decor, and to 44 Stanley for local fashion labels. Out of town is the Cradle of Humankind's Nirox Foundation sculpture park.
This province between Jo’burg and Mozambique covers both lowveld and the Drakensberg Escarpment. At the dramatic meeting of the two regions is the Blyde River Canyon, the world's third-largest canyon, with viewpoints, rock formations and waterfalls.
Graskop has one of the world’s highest cable gorge swings. Sabie offers kloofing (canyoning), candlelight caving, tubing, swimming holes and waterfall abseiling. There's more of the latter in climbing centre Waterval Boven (Emgwenya), while Barberton offers 4WD adventures and a geology trail. Head to Hazyview for river rafting, zip lining and more.
Pilgrim’s Rest is a well-preserved gold-rush town. Across the Long Tom Pass (which commemorates Anglo-Boer War history), sleepy Lydenburg (Mashishing) has a fascinating museum. Barberton, another gold-rush town, was home to South Africa’s first stock exchange.
Kruger National Park
With around 148 mammal species, including more than 1600 lions, 13,000 elephants, 37,000 buffaloes, 1000 leopards and endangered rhinos, Kruger is one of Africa’s most epic places to see the Big Five acting out the daily drama of life and death.
Kruger is about the size of Belgium or Wales, with landscapes ranging from tropical riverine forest to mopaneveld. If you visit at a quiet time (such as mid-January to March) or go on a bush walk, nature will ring in your ears.
To access parts of the bush not glimpsed from a vehicle, strike out with gun-toting rangers on a three-hour bush walk, or disappear into the wild on a four-day wilderness trail.
Arts & Crafts
The Venda region’s artists, from woodcarvers to potters, are famous far and wide; tour their studios and pick up some distinctive work. Further south are Kaross, producing Shangaan embroidery, and the Mapusha Weavers Cooperative, where women make carpets and tapestries in Acornhoek township.
Escape the heat by climbing to Haenertsburg and the Magoebaskloof Pass, where the pine plantations and waterfalls make a refreshing change from the steamy surrounds. In the Modjadji Nature Reserve, summer mists wrap around cycads and the Bolobedu Mountains.
Mapungubwe National Park, which is World Heritage listed for its cultural significance, contains an important Iron Age site. There’s vivid African culture in the Modjadji area, mystic home of rain-summoning queens, and the Venda region.
North West Province
Collectively covering more than 1000 sq km of Big Five–inhabited bushveld, Pilanesberg National Park has tarred roads near the Sun City casino complex, and Madikwe Game Reserve's exclusive lodges offer guided drives.
Sun City’s hotels, particularly the Palace of the Lost City, are South Africa’s last, Vegas-style word in glitz. Madikwe’s five-star lodges offer wildlife watching in the lap of luxury, with features such as spas and private decks.
The kitschy Sun City's endless swimming pools, wave pools, slides and flumes keep children happy on hot bushveld days. The outlandish theme of a lost African civilisation, with simulated volcanic eruptions and life-size fake elephants, entertains everyone, and the more active can explore neighbouring Pilanesberg. The Magaliesberg has an aerial cableway and zip-line canopy tours.
This most epic province covers all of South Africa’s cracked, arid wildernesses. Like a tumbleweed along a back road, the Karoo sweeps past attractive towns such as Sutherland and Calvinia. Further north, nature is an untrammelled, awe-inspiring force in the sandy Kalahari and rocky Namakwa, respectively home to the vast transfrontier parks of Kgalagadi and |Ai-|Ais/Richtersveld.
Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is one of the world’s best places to spot big cats, including cheetahs, lions and leopards. You might spy a black-maned lion snoozing under a thorn tree or purring down the road.
Raft and canoe down the Orange River, 4WD around Riemvasmaak and the transfrontier parks, go on wildlife drives and walks, and sandboard and mountain bike in Witsand Nature Reserve.