It’s the cities that reflect the true pulse of the Rainbow Nation. Here’s a look at the action of revitalized Johannesburg, the beguiling beauty of Cape Town, and the distinct laid-back culture of seaside Durban, along with easy side trips.
Johannesburg is South Africa’s financial hub, and the energy is electric. But the buzz is particularly compelling in the inner city, which is in the throes of a much-needed rejuvenation. Head to the former mining district of Ferreirastown to shop and eat at 1Fox - The Sheds, a series of warehouses converted into a marketplace, brewery, and restaurants. Browse the African art collection of the Wits Art Museum and set out on a street art walk with Past Experiences to get another perspective on the thriving creative scene. Across the Nelson Mandela Bridge in Newtown, you can catch a play at the historic Market Theatre or shop local designers at Work Shop New Town. And in the eternally hip Maboneng Precinct, have tea at the Instagram-worthy Yswara tea room, browse local photography at the I Was Shot in Joburg studio, or eat Ethiopian food at Little Addis.
Side Trip: If Joburg embodies the country’s exciting future, the Cradle of Humankind, an hour and a half away, offers a glimpse at humanity’s past. The UNESCO World Heritage site is where hominid fossils dating back millions of years were discovered. But don’t expect a stuffy anthropological experience — visitors can take horseback rides, go ziplining, explore a sculpture park, or rise above it all on a hot-air balloon ride.
Even before you land you’ll see why Cape Town has earned its reputation as one of the world’s most beautiful destinations: The sight from your airplane window of dramatic Table Mountain and the blue waters of the Atlantic framing the Mother City will leave you breathless. There are countless ways to witness the city’s natural majesty, from a helicopter ride with NAC Helicopters to a vintage motorcycle sidecar tour of the peninsula with Cape Sidecar Adventures. Don’t miss a visit to the stunning new Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, in a historic silo building reimagined by British architect Thomas Heatherwick, or a meal at one of top chef Luke Dale-Roberts’s restaurants: Test Kitchen for decadent tastings menus or the more casual Potluck Club.
Side Trip: An hour east of Cape Town lie the alluring Cape Winelands. Spend a few nights at the Majeka House boutique hotel in Stellenbosch, Franschhoek’s Leeu Estates (where guests get complimentary tastings of the celebrated Mullineaux & Leeu Family Wines), or the idyllic farm resort Babylonstoren, then eat and drink your way through the region. Popular wine farms include Tokara, Boschendal, Haute Cabriére, Spier, La Motte, and Grande Provence, which also hosts art exhibitions. Notable new restaurant additions include Spek & Bone in Stellenbosch and La Petite Colombe in Franschhoek.
Zulu, Indian, and English influences give this seaside city a distinct culture and culinary quirks, while its golden sands and warm Indian Ocean waters ensure that the beach is the heart of the action. Rent wheels from Bike & Bean and cruise down the promenade, with colorful architecture on one side (Durban has one of the most notable collections of art deco buildings, after Miami) and waves churning with swimmers and surfers on the other. Or get your thrills by paragliding over the beautiful Indian Ocean. Stop for chili-laced strips and tjips (chips) at the bright yellow Afro’s Chicken shack and get a taste of local township culture with a shisa nyama (barbecue) at Eyadini or Max Lifestyle. Some of the city’s best restaurants, bars, and galleries are clustered along Florida Road, and you’ll find popular local labels like Jane Sews and the weekly artisanal market Morning Trade in the booming Station Drive precinct. Wherever you explore, don’t skip town without sampling Durban’s beloved bunny chow: a bread bowl filled with perhaps the fieriest curry you’ll ever eat. Loyalties run strong, but Britannia, Oriental, and Patel’s are known for some of the best bunnies.
Side Trip: It’s an hour northwest from Durban to the Midlands Meander, a trail through a lush region whose rolling hills are dotted with farms, artists’ studios, and workshops producing everything from crafts to cheese to chocolate. Popular stops include Ardmore Ceramics, the Nelson Mandela Capture Site, Blueberry Café, and Hartford House, a luxurious retreat with an award-winning restaurant.