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The 10 best places to visit and things to do in South Africa

South Africa has something for everyone - the Big 5 animals on safari, fantastic museums and amazing scenery. Here's the list of things you won't want to miss:

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1. Safari in Kruger National Park

The Kruger National Park is, for a variety of reasons, easily one of the best natural parks in the world. First and foremost it has the iconic Big Five – elephants, rhinoceros, lions, leopards, and buffalo. There’s also hippos, zebra, giraffe, 500 species of bird, African wild dog and impala. In fact, it has more large mammal species than any other national park in Africa. You can drive round parts of the park yourself or take an organized Kruger National Park safari tour (there’s lots to choose from depending on what you want to see/who you’re traveling with). It’s only about an hours’ flight from Johannesburg (to Hoedspruit Airport), and 2.5 hours from Cape Town (to Nelspruit Airport) which is great, but means it has a tendency to get busy.

Best things to do in South Africa: Kruger National Park safari

2. Visit Robben Island

There are few more politically significant places in South Africa than Robben Island, so it should definitely be near the top of your must-see list. The former South African President Nelson Mandela was imprisoned here for 18 years. Tours run three times each day (if the weather permits) and last anything up to 5 hours depending on how much detail you’d like. The whole island is a South African National Heritage Site and much of the prison itself has been preserved. You’ll be able to visit the leprosy graveyard, Maximum Security Prison and even Nelson Mandela’s cell. What makes the Robben Island tours extra special is the guides are all former political prisoners and there’s very little they don’t know.

Opening times: Ferries depart from Nelson Mandela Gateway at the Victoria and Albert Waterfront at 9am, 11am and 1pm. Get more information here

Entry: Tours cost R340 (Dh97) for adults and R190 (Dh54) for children under 18, including the ferry trip

3. Ride a cable car up Table Mountain

You’d be forgiven for not wanting to hike to the top of the flat-topped 3,550ft mountain in Cape Town. Instead, hop on the Table Mountain Aerial Cableway and take the scenic route. You’ll get fantastic view of Table Bay, Signal Hill and Robben Island. It’s a 1.2km journey each way so you’ll feel like you’re getting your money’s worth. The weather is best between around October and February.

Opening times: First cablecar leaves at 8am/8.30am depending on the time of year. The last cablecar down leaves between 6pm and 9.30pm depending on the season

Tickets: A return ticket costs R255 (Dh73) for adults and R125 (Dh36) for children. Check here for more ticket information

Best things to do in South Africa: Cable car up Table Mountain

4. Explore South Africa’s past

There are two particularly excellent museums in South Africa that tell the story of the country’s race relations. The Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg has film, newspaper articles, voice recordings and audio that demonstrate how the apartheid system was introduced and enforced, and can be quite haunting at times. District Six Museum in Cape Town is another incredible place. The Sixth Municipal District of Cape Town was a neighborhood in Cape Town that was once home to freed slaves and immigrants but later saw the forced removal of more than 60,000 people when it was declared a “white area”. You can hear talks and take tours of the area with former District Six residents, who can explain first-hand the damage done.

Address: Apartheid Museum, Northern Park Way and Gold Reef Rd, Johannesburg, 2001. District Six Museum, 25A Buitenkant Street, Cape Town, 8000

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5. Ride on the Blue Train

If you’d like to see South Africa in style, do it on this five-star “hotel on wheels”. It’s a 27-hour journey from Pretoria to Cape Town (and the same on the return leg), and your day begins at 6.30am with pre-departure drinks at the station lounge, followed by boarding at 7.30am where a butler will escort you to your suite. The train stops off at Kimberley Station in the afternoon, where guests can visit the Kimberley Open Mine Museum. The evening meal on the Blue Train requires “elegant evening wear”, so don’t forget your ballgown or suit! Reserve your trip on the train here.

6. Picnic in Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden

This 36-hectare national garden is the pièce de résistance of South African gardens. It is on the side of Table Mountain and has more than 7,000 species of flora and fauna, much of which is endangered or rare. It’s the perfect place in Cape Town to enjoy a relaxing picnic and kids will love it. There’s also sculptures dotted around the park, including a bust of Nelson Mandela, as well as a cafe and gift shop. Make sure you don’t miss the Fragrance Garden; follow your nose to find it!

Address: Rhodes Drive, Newlands, Cape Town, 7735, South Africa

Opening times: 8am – 5pm April through August. 8am – 6pm September through March. The best time to visit is from around August to November

Read more: Top 10 things to see and do in Cape Town

7. Tour a diamond mine

The world’s largest gem-quality diamond ever discovered was mined in Pretoria in 1905. The 3106 ct Cullinan diamond was later given to the King Edward VII as a 66th birthday gift – reportedly sent to him via regular air mail! Today you can take a surface tour of the Cullinan mining village, taking in various points of interest throughout the mine. There’s also a diamond shop and museum, as well replicas of the world’s most famous gems including the Cullinan diamond. Book the tour here. You might also be surprised how underwhelming the diamonds are when they’re first mined!

8. Swim with Great White Sharks

You won’t be swimming alongside the sharks (which is probably a good thing) but suspended in a metal cage and dropped into the ocean to see them up close. There are lots of tour companies offering very similar experience at “Shark Alley” in Gansbaai, Western Cape, so do lots of research before you book and check your insurance before you book – diving with Great White Sharks might be classed as an extreme sport!

Best things to do in South Africa: Dive with Great White Sharks

9. Whale watch at the Cape of Good Hope

If you’re staying in Cape Town between June and November, rent a car and drive north down the coast to Cape of Good Hope. People often report seeing whales in the water during these months, and also the wild zebra that move through the area. The Cape is about 70km north of Table Mountain but still falls within the Table Mountain National Park and offers some fantastic hiking and running trails, as well pristine beaches. To reach the very top, climb aboard the Flying Dutchman Funicular which leaves from the Cape Point car park and climbs up around 585m to the summit.

Opening times: 6am – 6pm, October through March. 7am – 5pm, April through September. The Flying Dutchman Funicular is open 9am – 5.30pm October through March, and 9am – 5pm April through September.

Tickets: Cape of Good Hope tickets are R135 for adults (Dh38) and R70 (Dh20) for children. A return ticket for the Flying Dutchman Funicular costs R65 (Dh18) for adults and R25 (Dh7) for children

10. Wine tour in Stellenbosch

Wine tasting in the Western Cape is by far one of the most popular things to do in South Africa because the quality of the drink. The fertile valleys of Stellenbosch, the “capital” of the Winelands are home to more than 550 wineries, and many of these offer tours. You can book tours of individual vineyards or book through a company that will take to you to more than one.

Best things to do in South Africa: Wine tour in Stellenbosch

Published November 2017. Information correct at the time of publication but may be subject to change and/or availability.

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