The variety to be found in South Africa is nowhere more apparent than in its two biggest cities. Cape Town has a scenic coastal beauty that brings the Mediterranean to the mind of many first time visitors. By contrast, Johannesburg is landlocked amid the vast plain of the Highveld, but its charms, while hidden deeper, as just as rich – like the mines that made it the “City of Gold”.
Cape Town and Johannesburg lie 1,400km or two hours’ flying time apart, and their differences reflect that distance as well as their geographic settings. Johannesburg is South Africa’s business hub, with a reputation for confronting issues head-on, while Cape Town has a more laid-back attitude, encouraged by its outdoor lifestyle.
This cobbled square at the centre of Cape Town, dating to 1696 and lined with historic buildings, is an essential first stop on any visit. As well as soaking up the sights and sounds from market traders, buskers and street entertainers, it’s also a great place to grab a bite to eat.
You’ll find local, South and Southern African art – including bright batiks, oil paintings of such Cape landmarks as Table Mountain and intricate, hand-crafted, Afrocentric jewellery. Bargaining is all part of the fun, so haggle away if anything catches your eye.
Once you’ve bought your souvenirs, take some time to soak up the vibe from one of the many cafés and restaurants.
You might notice that few of the vendors are actually from Cape Town, or even South Africa. However, their stories are as fascinating and as worthy of attention as the artworks they sell. Many are economic migrants from other nearby countries and their presence in Greenmarket Square is a taste of the huge influx that South Africa has faced (admittedly not without problems) since the end of apartheid in 1994.
MUST-DO: The Iziko Social History Centre in Church Square has some fascinating artefacts from South Africa’s history, including beadwork and basketry, prints of early Cape Town and South Africa, and colonial furniture.
Just outside the city centre, the fast gentrification of the suburbs of Woodstock and Salt River has made them the focus of several street art and graffiti walking tours. Learning about the city’s history through the changes in this neighbourhood, now full of hipster coffee shops and artists’ studios, is fascinating.
The murals, many with positive messages (often dealing with social change), are by both local and international artists. The quirky and highly informative tours catapult this energetic art form to centre stage, showing how the city is changing while also recognizing the importance of street art for the local community.
MUST-DO: Clark’s Bookshop on Long Street has an astonishing new and second-hand book collection covering all aspects of Cape Town and South Africa, as well as stocking classics, literature and military history.
This informal BBQ joint and butchery is now the stuff of legend. Both the quality of the food and the friendly, buzzing and safe vibe have made Mzoli’s a city-wide institution with an international reputation – Jamie Oliver has even come by to check out the recipes.
The powerful smell of sizzling chops, well-seasoned steak and chicken hits you as soon as you park up in Guguletu, a township 20 minutes from the city centre. A huge platter of braai (BBQ) meat costs next to nothing, and DJs pump out music to entertain the crowd. Wash your meal down with a bottle of local beer as your body shudders to the thumping bass of kwaito and house music.
Weekends are best for an unashamed party vibe, with a mixed crowd of both locals and visitors keen to experience African cuisine with some good music thrown in.
MUST-DO: Monkeybiz in Bo-Kaap brings traditional African beadwork skills to contemporary artworks such as colourful animals, coasters and mats.
Uthando runs philanthropic, cultural-enriching township tours, taking in ethical, community-based (and often eco-friendly) projects in places like Khayelitsha, Langa and Guguletu. You might visit an allotment - an oasis of much-needed greenery amid the corrugated shacks of Khayelitsha (the largest African township on the Cape Flats, with well over a million people); or Guguletu’s Amy Biehl Foundation, which focuses on the needs of young learners.
Educational as well as highly inspirational, you’ll meet local people trying to make a real difference to their communities – often against great odds. It’s a very humbling, thought-provoking but also uplifting way to spend a day in the Mother City.
MUST-DO: Milnerton Flea Market is the place to find an A–Z of secondhand goods, from an abacus to a toy zebra. Enjoy awesome views of the ocean while you browse for the books, bric-à-brac and other bargains.
The former United Safety Deposit bank vault is a fantastic space, lined with hundreds of old safety deposit boxes, and now transformed into a cosy underground dining experience. With a changing seasonal set menu, Zwipi is open every Friday and Saturday night until late. Bookings are a must. Look out for the Storytelling Dinners, run by JoburgPlaces on selected nights.
Zwipi is only one of the businesses that have taken over Somerset House, one of the oldest buildings in downtown Joburg. Built in 1906, it stands on Gandhi Square, a busy transport and retail hub.
MUST-DO: The Fashion District is packed with garment makers and high-end designers, with a strong emphasis on African design. If nothing else, you’ll come away with some traditional South African "shweshwe" prints.
Soweto (originally short for “SOuth WEstern TOwnship”) is packed with history and a tour of the area is essential to understand both South Africa’s troubled past and its exciting present. Highlights include the Soccer City Stadium, which you’ll recognise from the 2010 World Cup, the Hector Pieterson Museum and Memorial, Vilakazi Street and Kliptown Squatter Camp. Hector Pieterson was the subject of a famous photo by Sam Nzima, showing the boy’s dead body being carried by Mbuyisa Makhubo. The interactive modern museum in the township of Orlando details the background to Pieterson’s shooting during student protests of 1976.
Orlando West’s Vilakazi Street is notable as once being home to two Nobel Prize winners: Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. The Mandela House and Visitors Centre, usually called Mandela House, is where the last president lived between 1946 and 1962 and still bears the marks of arson attacks.
As well as these major sights, most tours will take in Baragwanath, where the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital saw the world’s first heart transplant in 1967. It’s one of the world’s biggest hospitals, with more than 400 buildings.
MUST-DO: Soweto’s Regina Mundi is the largest Catholic Church in South Africa and was a centre for anti-Apartheid protests. It holds the “Black Madonna” (more formally, “The Madonna and Child of Soweto”) by artist Larry Scully.
The Ponte Tower is a major Johannesburg landmark, seen in any painting or photo of the city’s distinctive skyline. Once a prestigious address, the 54-storey block of apartments fell on hard times, but has risen again in recent years as artists and young professionals who saw its potential moved back in.
It stands in the middle of Hillbrow, a neighbourhood that has always embraced an alternative lifestyle. Once a magnet for the city’s gay and artistic community, and then for migrants, its history is a fascinating but troubled one.
Take a tour with Dlala Nje, a local group based in Ponte, to learn more about both the bad and good days. Run by guides who have lived their whole lives in Hillbrow, all profits are ploughed back into the community with a strong emphasis on supporting children. Tours end with a drink or meal on the 51st floor of the tower, from which the view will illustrate why so many residents love the Ponte. The FNB Stadium, where the World Cup opening games were held, is only one of the landmarks to see.
Other JHB neighbourhoods have seen similar development, including Braamfontein, Newtown and the Maboneng Precinct. Former workshops and industrial buildings have become art galleries, cafés, apartments and busy markets for everything from crafts to organic food. Walking tours in any of these areas are a great way to see the new South Africa with all its complexity and optimism.
MUST-DO: The Apartheid Museum tells the story of apartheid in the context of South Africa’s history. Choosing a race when you enter, you are taken through a moving journey that shows the restrictions you would have had to endure.
Soweto is not necessarily a place you’d associate with adventure experiences. But there are adrenaline highs on offer for those brave enough to try them. The epicentre for such thrills is the Soweto Towers, near where the Soweto Outdoor Adventure (SOAC) has its base.
These giant cooling towers are the remnants of the former Orlando coal-powered power station and dominate the view from many parts of Soweto. Now covered in colourful artwork, they offer an artificial high for activities such as bungee jumping, abseiling, ziplining or a SCAD Freefall into a net (guided by a safety wire). Other energy outlets include paintballing, go-karting and indoor climbing. SOAC is also a base for the Soweto Canoe Club (yes, really).
For something slightly more sedate, but still pretty exciting, quad bikes tours are the way to go. Led by SOAC, visitors are guided down dirt roads into areas other tours can’t reach. It’s a great way to see another side of Soweto away from the usual tourist highlights. Stops include the upmarket Maponya Mall, as well as interesting local businesses, shops and restaurants where you can sample some unfamiliar dishes. Without the isolation of a closed-in vehicle, you can also interact with passers-by – the most memorable part of the tour – and use all your senses, heightened by the rush that comes free with any quad-bike ride. Safety is a priority, with motorbike outriders to stop traffic at junctions and shepherd any stragglers who stop for photos back into the group. Even if you can’t drive, don’t worry. A quick briefing, on a bike with automatic gears, is all you need to join the tour.
If you do nothing else, the viewing platform atop the Soweto Towers gives a great view of life in the streets around.
DON’T MISS: The Cradle of Humankind site, 50km outside Johannesburg, is where around forty percent of human ancestor fossils have been found, making it the richest of these sites in the world.