‘What travel tips do you have for South Africa?’ I would get this question increasingly for the past two years. But not without any legit reason: I have been infected by a South-Africa-loving virus since my studies there in 2015. With loads of curiosity I engaged in the country’s history and the impact it has on today’s (frustrating) political developments. About this I have been reading a lot – both for studies and out of interest – and wrote some pieces here and there for a personal travel blog. But other than this deep and, perhaps more serious fascination, I have been a walking marketing advertisement for the country to all people around me – family, friends and colleagues. Not a week has passed by without some sort of link with the country. As a firm believer of ‘energy attracts energy’, I decided to answer, in a broader sense, the question this blog started with: travel tips for South Africa.
The information provided here is purely based on my personal experience and I do not hold any relation/ benefit regarding that which I recommend. This is a fine selection of mostly tips for the Western Cape (Town), since I lived in Stellenbosch. For Johannesburg I have less tips, I have been there for approx. a week and a half (typing this makes me reminisce and think about when to go back…☺) and the same counts for the Garden route.
Disclaimer: I haven’t done a safari (yet). Mainly for ideological and intuitive reasons. Concerning the former, I am aware that during colonial times indigenous people have been displaced by force to establish game reserve parks, such as the famous Paul Kruger national park. Knowing this and the historical context, I did not want to participate in that circus when I used to live in South Africa. Although I do realise that there are some proper game reserves that are not directly connected to colonialism, the time has not been ripe for me – yet. I would most probably pay a visit to in the nearby future…(or maybe not – I don’t know as of yet). So for tips on this I would suggest you your best friends for any trip: Google and Lonely Planet.
Some (basic) facts to start off with. South Africa has:
- Est. 54 million inhabitants (far majority of which is black).
- 11 official languages, with English as main/ basic language (also in government for instance).
- A rich history. For information about it, colonialism and apartheid read here.
In the Western Cape
With a rich colonial history, the Western Cape has a lot of heritage from it, just by driving through the winelands and viewing the typical Dutch architecture. But also when you simply want to order a coffee in a nice hipster-like place: it’s usually the owner that is white and the workers are black or colored. Even for the most colored-blinded person on this planet, this really does not go unnoticed. This is a systematic issue I could write a book about. So let me not get there and keep it simple and light. Hereby some must experiences in the Western Cape:
Lion’s Head, table mountain and signal hill
The ultimate pride of Cape Town is manifested in the scenic mountains and hills and the surrounding nature reserves.
A must is to take the cable car up to Table Mountain and to hike down towards Kirstenbosch – the beautiful botanical garden. Note: this route takes you about 4 hours, but is absolutely worth it. Each half hour the nature surrounding start to change, absolutely amazing.
Lion’s head is a relatively easy/ doable hike which you can manage in approximately an hour and 15 minutes. On your way up, you can find steps on the right. These steps will take you to Wally’s cave. The top offers an amazing view over the city.
For all activities you must be aware of the context where you are embedded in: doing a full-moon hike up to lion’s head? Great! I did it, it’s absolutely amazing. However, do not ever go (i) by yourself and (ii) do not bring belongings with you that are redundant. There are muggers waiting somewhere at the hike trail to rob people. Just be cautious of this fact.
Sea point, Camps Bay, Clifton (2nd) and Blouberg strand
Sea point is the beach closest to the city centre of Cape Town. It has a lovely promenade famous for jogging and people who have been paragliding from signal hill land here.
For both Camps Bay and Clifton beach I would recommend renting a bicycle or cruising through with a car.
Blouberg strand is a bit more out of the city centre, but with an incredible view of table mountain and lion’s head. Additionally, this beach is famous for watersport such as (kite)surfing.
In the Southern part of the Western Cape
If you want to spend a nice weekend trip out of town, start by driving 20 min out of the heart of the city in the direction of suburb Constantia. Then you will pass Kirstenbosch: the jurassic park of South Africa (with seriously real looking dinosaurs). A part of table mountain is located in it and plenty of beautiful plants, flowers, trees and a moving bridge:
Chapman’s peak drive
After Kirstenbosch, cruise through Hout Bay (do make a pitstop at the food market for lunch or so!). Chappies (as locals refer to it) is one of the most scenic drives in the world. Many car commercials have been recorded here, and not without any legit reason. It’s absolutely mesmerizing. Just make sure to drive slowly, to enjoy the route as much as possible. Also, take some cash with you, cause you have to pay a fee to drive here.
If you have passed chappies, follow your way more down south to Simon’s Town. There you may find the famous colored beach houses in a cute town. There are a few cute bakeries and coffee places for a nice coffee. The first time I was there, I arranged a surprise kayak trip to Bolders beach for Shaima’s birthday (it was this week that she came to visit me).
Bolders beach is protected due to the penguins that station there:
Southeastern part of the Western Cape
Hermanus, Gansbaai (Klipgat Cave)
For wale spotting, hermanus is your place to be – especially during the southern hemisphere’s winter months (june-september). Gansbaai is a town, further east from Hermanus. Close to this town, there is a cave which represents the stone age human remains. You can walk through the cave and see a beautiful dramatic ocean view. It’s a historical and cultural extremely important heritage for South Africa. I have been there a few times, chasing the sunset. Absolutely breathtaking:
Chasing Waterfalls: Crystal Pools, Du toitskloof, Ceres and Cederberg
Not much needs to be said about these four hike trails, just that they are worth it to spend a whole day hiking each. As for both Ceres (hiking, no waterfall) and Cederberg I would suggest spending a weekend there and seeking a campsite. Olive Rock is a nice place to stay in Ceres and in Cederberg I would recommend to go hike up the Algeria hike trail (waterfall!) and take a flight over Cederberg mountains:
Paarl and Alpaca Loom
In case you drive back from for instance Ceres, make sure to take a pitstop in Paarl at the Alpaca Loom. This is a nice alpaca farm with good coffee, lovely fresh cakes, lunch and organic products made out of alpaca wool. The first time I went to this place, a good friend Laura joined me – she visited me from the Netherlands back in 2015 when I lived in SA. The farmers of the alpaca loom are incredibly nice and invited us to come back during National Alpaca Day (seriously, this is not a joke) three days after.
We initially had no intention to come back, as we wanted to explore other places, but in the end we actually did go back. Farmer and co-owner Dietmar randomly announced: ‘this morning a brown and beautiful Alpaca baby was born. She will be named after you, Anissa – how do I spell your name? The next one to be born and blonde will be named after Laura.’ This quote inspired me to name the website of this blog, only adding ‘brainy’ to it. In September 2016 I went back and saw gorgeous Anissa slayin’ it in the midst of it all. By this time she probably has her own baby alpacas, Ditmar reassured me. Next time I go to pay a visit I hopefully can cuddle with her babies.
March 2015: baby Anissa on the left
Sept. 2016: reuniting with 1 yo Anissa
Fable mountain vineyards
Horse lover? I was not, necessarily. But I became one after a friend made me ride her horse in Durban. A week later my Cape Town ‘mom’, Louise, planned a weekend trip away with her family for her birthday (this was supposed to be my last weekend in town during a 3-week trip in september 2016). Little did I know that the surprise activity would be horse riding through the winelands. Horsy Bob treated me very well:
Food in Stellies
Stellenbosch is one of the finest and posh towns I have ever been. But it has two sides. If you do not open your eyes to the reality of the inequality in the country, you can live your life here as a French God(ess). With an abundance of fancy restaurants, mesmerizing mountain and wineland views, there is a lot to be ‘distracted’ by. Not to say that it is not absolutely gorgeous, but just be mindful that Stellenbosch is one minority part of the country. So, with that being said I would absolutely recommend the following for food in and around Stellies:
As a devoted muslim I do respect and follow islamic traditions, that is also not to consume alcohol. However, winefarm Spier is the one and only winefarm that serves halal certified wine (basically grapejuice) including specific chocolates to amplify the taste. On top of this, the farm is the oldest in South Africa and surrounded by absolute stunning mountains. So you can imagine I was a regular customer there:
Postcard Café in Jonkershoek
Just 2 min outside of Stellenbosch, in the direction of Jonkershoek mountains (also a very nice hike trail by the way!) the Postcard café is located. It is surrounded by a panorama-like view.
Root 44 market
Plenty of times I would spend my Sunday afternoon on this market, just outside Stellies and in the direction of Somerset West. Freshly squeezed juices and smoothies, (halal) biltong (typically dried meat for on the braai) and basically anything you can think of you can find there.
The Blue crane & The Butterfly
For the best chai latte in Stellies, nice British scones and lovely cakes.
For a lovely light but healthy salad and close to university campus. Beautiful to walk through Victoria street.
For great Lebanese food in a cute street in the middle of town.
Food in the heart of town | Cape Town
Old biscuit mill
For fresh smoothies, juices, food – savory (also vegetarian and vegan) and sweet.
Eastern Food Bazar
I have been addicted to the butter chicken. But I can assure you: all is good out here. It’s savory food paradise in the heart of the city centre.
This is one of the hipster areas in town. With markets, bookstores and many local stores. My favourite place to hang out, have a coffee and read was ‘That Place’ at 76 Lower Main Rd.
A nice place to meet both internationals and locals, plus they have a great Saturday afternoon parties on the rooftop.
Cape Town first
Every first Thursday of the month, all art galleries and cultural events open their doors in town. Great vibes and ambience.
The employees of this lunchroom knew exactly what I came to order: protein flapjack pancakes after a lion’s head hike, Brainiac lentil, onion, curry, banana and yoghurt salad (photo below) and always finishing up with a Coffee Union shake (frozen yoghurt smoothie with vanilla coffee, honey and cinnamon – yes, exactly: divine).
Party on a Sunday afternoon with a typical South African braai (basically BBQ) in the middle of Cape Town’s townships. And a huge tip: it has become a tourist attraction, just blend in with the locals and have a drink, dance and fun with them. And as for the vegetarians and halal-eating people: make sure you have had lunch before…There is mostly meat (non-halal). Some pictures I took while walking and chatting with its locals:
It’s a long trip by boat, if you’re lucky you can spot some whales on your way to the island. But it’s absolutely worth it. Most South Africans I spoke with would argue not to go because ‘it’s nothing special, just an old prison’. However, it’s worth a visit – and it is confronting. Read my experience here.
Other visits worth paying a visit:
- District Six Museum
- Bokaap museum
- Slave museum
The garden route | West to the East coast
One of the most famous road trip routes in the world. Very safe to travel through along the coast and many options to do this by yourself or with others. You can easily rent a car or use the Baz bus to travel from one location to the next (depending on your schedule). Over the course of a week I travelled around there and these accommodations and activities are worth considering:
This area has a lagoon-like atmosphere. And the photos below explain why. A recommendation would be to take an early morning tour through an island. During the morning it can be very clouded and fo ggy, as soon as you cross a river and it becomes later in the morning the fog would disappear and exhibit the beautiful lagoon views. For those who enjoy sailing, Knysna serves as a walhalla. Also for those, such as myself, who take a bit more tranquilo and like to go kayaking.
Two words: Wild Spirit. This place is an absolute must accommodation. When a good friend of mine, Ikram, and I were here we decided to rearrange our garden route plan and cancelled our continuation. We decided to stay here for a little while longer. Why? The atmosphere, the nature (close to Tsitsikamma forest, with the largest tree in South Africa – according to locals ;)), the extremely warm people. They also offer loads of activities for their guests: yoga, making your own jewellery with crystals, a 10-minute hike to a mysterious waterfall in their backyard (which basically is an entire forest), music around campfire, dancing in a giant treehouse above the forest and close to the Wild Spirit you can bungee jump on one of the highest bridges in the world. What impressed me most was that I witnessed a strawberry moon while dancing at night. I thought my mind was messing around with me, but I actually saw a completely pink and reddish moon in a clear dark blue sky. Absolutely magical, that Wild Spirit place. Go visit.
Paragliding in the mothercity
This is how the garden route trip came to an end: paragliding over magnificent Cape Town. No words are needed, just watch the video below:
The largest city in SA: Johannesburg
What a vibrant place. I know mixed stories of people who have been there. As a tourist there is no way that you can enjoy the city to the fullest without a local guiding you to the safe and authentic places. I have had the advantage that I could stay with one of our BB&B bloggers and her family: Shaazia Ebrahim. She is staying in Marlboro, a middle-class and predominantly colored/ Indian neighborhood precisely next to township Alexandra. That’s right: the urban construction of the city is a bit unusual compared to other cities, with rich areas next to townships for instance. This is due to the fact that the city has grown so much in the late 1800s because of the gold mining industry that developed in a rapid and unorganised way. The history of Johannesburg is very visible and has the tendency to tickle up your curiosity a bit. For a proper Jozi (how it’s called by the locals) tour, you should try to get in contact with locals to spend time with. A few suggestions to pay a visit to:
In the biggest township in South Africa, you can visit the old house of Nelson Mandela (which has become a museum now), the Hector Pieterson Memorial and get in contact with locals living there.
There is proper nature in Joburg, but perhaps a bit more dry than elsewhere. This park and dam for instance is a bit out of the heart of the city, but a nice way to get out of the busy and ‘hectic’ vibes in town.
Food in Joburg
If you love proper Indian curries, also the milder ones without spice, you must visit this place. Hectic at times, because it could feel you ended up in a Bollywood movie. But also this, believe it or not, is part of South Africa. And it’s a rich diversity impression you get.
What a place. By far the best (!) omelettes with avo’s and grilled veggies I had in my life. It started out as a joke with Shaazia when we walked passed this place. But the food is absolutely yummy. And a big plus is that it is located in a nice and safe area in Joburg.
A perfect Saturday or Sunday afternoon activity: vibes, great diverse ambience, music and sunshine.
Museums in Joburg
This museum does not need an introduction, as the name introduces itself. If it were for me, I would say every single person visiting Joburg (or South Africa for that matter) should go to this museum.
The past dehumanizing apartheid system in prisons is visible here, incl. cells. This is a confronting sight. However, it meets justice in South Africa’s constitutional court.
And plenty more…
Yes, but that is mostly the case when you do open up to speak with the variety and diverse people living on this beautiful, but fragile, piece of land. My next goal is to spend a new year’s eve and carnaval in Cape Town. And visit Drakensberg, Lesotho, Swaziland. But also Mozambique, Martinique, Botswana and Zambia’s Victory Falls. Ah well, I can go on and on and on.
I wish you a happy and healthy (South) Africa-travel-virus-infection. 🙂