With so much to see and do, South Africa is an amazing place to visit. In fact, you’ll probably find that the biggest challenge is choosing where to stay. For most visitors to the country, the two main contenders are Johannesburg or Cape Town. Read on to discover where to visit in both of these spectacular destinations, and find some inspiration for things to see and do in the top two most populous cities in South Africa.
Don’t know what to take on your South African adventure? Discover our South African packing list to prepare yourself for your next big adventure.
Why Visit Johannesburg?
As the largest city in South Africa and the biggest economic powerhouse on the African continent– Johannesburg is a place worth visiting. A lively city with a population of 4.4 million people in the central city district alone, there is much to see and do both in the city and its surrounding townships.
Explore the city of Johannesburg
Being such a diverse, lively city, there are plenty of cultural things to do in Johannesburg. If you decide to stay in the city, it is definitely a place worth spending a day or two to absorb the culture and the sights it has to offer. Accommodation close to the Newtown Cultural Precinct is often popular with tourists due to its varied offering when it comes to sight-seeing. A culture heavy area that is home to many of the city’s museums and art galleries, you’ll be spoilt for choice in the Newtown precinct.
Top on our list of places to visit on Johannesburg is Liliesleaf Farm. This used to be the secret headquarters of the African National Congress until it was raided in 1963, during which Nelson Mandela and many other members of the organisation were captured. Now free tours and interactive exhibits are available that give you the entire backstory, helping visitors really get to know South African history.
Ready to relax the pace? Take a moment to reflect at Zoo Lake – a beautiful park full of trees and lakes that’s perfect to stroll through after a long day of exploring Johannesburg. And of course, take some time to view the monument of Nelson Mandela.
Discover historical landmarks on the outskirts
The surrounding area of Johannesburg also provides travellers with an array of things to do and sights to see. Situated not too far to the north of the city is the wonderful Cradle of Humankind, a world heritage site that attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors a year. The Cradle of Humankind was named due to the area producing such a large amount of hominin fossils – some being the oldest of their kind. The area offers a museum and a selection of restaurants, along with the brilliant Sterkfontein caves – a dramatic tunnel system full of artefacts and fossils, and one of our favourite things to do in Johannesburg – make sure you add this spot to your itinerary.
Although quite a distance, the Tswaing crater is also worth a visit for those willing to explore a little further. The huge impact crater was caused by a meteorite, and is estimated to be roughly 220,000 years old. Accompanied by a museum and even a walking trail if you’re feeling up to the challenge, the Tswaing crater is a must if travelling through Johannesburg.
Get back to nature with Game Reserves and Walking Trails
As well as these spectacular historic locations, the area surrounding Johannesburg is dotted with a number of nature reserves and safari trails. One of the best for first-time visitors to South Africa? Take a trip to the Pretoria Dinokeng Game reserve. The nature reserve offers a relaxed self-drive trail that allows you and your fellow travellers to make your own way around the park, getting great views of wonderful native animals including lions, rhinos, elephants, buffalos and leopards.
There are a significant number of game reserves in Johannesburg and Pretoria including Roodeplaat, Groenkloof and Rietvlei – all of which offer walking and driving routes with exceptional views of an array of animals, from impalas to baboons, hippos to wildebeest.
Walking trails in Johannesburg
If you’re looking for walking trails instead, Johannesburg has several to offer. The Suikerbosrand nature reserve offers 41 miles worth of easy day trails to wander, with brilliant views of plains, lakes and woodland. For the avid trekkers who are heading to South Africa for a hiking adventure, the Suikerbosrand nature reserve also offers a two or three day back-packing expedition, where you will travel through Acacia woods, grasslands and marshlands alongside lakes and mountains.
Other hiking trails in Johannesburg worth exploring include Klipriviersberg nature reserve, the Uitkyk trail, and the Hennops trail – all of which offer wonderful walks with exceptional views of native animals like zebra, gnu, and kudus.
Why Visit Cape Town?
A big contender for Johannesburg is the thriving, cultural city of Cape Town. Although it’s technically a city, Cape Town offers a haven for those who love the great outdoors, as the surrounding landscapes offer views of mountain ranges that can be seen from almost anywhere in the city.
Sights to see in the city of Cape Town
Cape Town is a beautiful place, situated on the southwest coast of South Africa. A wander around the city will present you with insight into South African culture and brilliant views of the surrounding natural landscape, the towering Table mountain is visible from almost everywhere in Cape Town.
Compared to Johannesburg, the central city of Cape Town has less to offer in terms of tourist attractions, but offers natural wonders for the avid photographer or travellers who enjoy taking in the sights. One of our favourite places to see in Cape Town is Victoria & Alfred Waterfront – it’s a beautiful harbour that’s perfect for dining and shopping. Facing the Atlantic ocean and with great views of Table mountain, it’s a great location to relax for a spot of lunch. Paying a visit to the Kirstenbosch botanical gardens is also highly recommended, where you can see hundreds of species of native trees, plants, and flowers while enjoying a relaxing day under the sun.
Find amazing things to do in Cape Town’s surroundings
Though Cape Town is a wonderful place, it is the surrounding area that really makes the trip so unforgettable. Not far out of Cape Town are Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope. Here, you can walk a trail down the rocky peninsula of Cape Point, with a stop off at a number of viewpoints to see the vast, sprawling landscape. When you approach the end of the peninsula, you’re presented with the breath-taking view of the meeting of two oceans, the Atlantic and the Indian.
Delve into Cape Town’s history
Just a boat ride away from Cape Town is the historic Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for eighteen years. Discover the island’s 500-year old history with a guided tour of the prison facilities and other locations on the island, including Robert Sobukwe’s solitary confinement house cell and the wreckages of four grounded boats.
Trek table mountain
And of course, no trip to Cape Town would be complete without visiting the towering flat-topped mountain known as Table Mountain. It can be accessed via a cable car, or one of the many available walking routes. If you plan on travelling up Table Mountain, make sure you’re prepared, as even the shortest route is a strenuous ascent up a winding path, lasting around two hours. Whatever route you decide to take, beautiful views of Cape Town and the surrounding ocean will await.
Cape Town vs Johannesburg?
Cape Town or Johannesburg? The choice is up to you. It would be impossible to say one location is better than the other. Both destinations have a lot to offer –a visit to Cape Town or Johannesburg will give you a clear view into South Africa’s culture, and open your eyes to the beauty of the African landscape. Johannesburg offers more when it comes to game reserves and inner city entertainment, whereas Cape Town offers wondrous coastal walks and mountain treks that are impossible to experience anywhere else.
Be Prepared For Your Trip To South Africa
Africa can be a harsh environment, so it’s important to be fully prepared for your expedition. Before you head off, make sure you’ve packed suitable protective outdoor clothing and gear. Ensure you’ve had all of your required vaccinations, and don’t forget your malaria tablets. Discover our South Africa packing list above to ensure you have everything you could need for an adventure in South Africa.
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