South Africa’s stylish cities

Posted on: 23 March 2010 by Mark O'haire

Johannesburg, Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and Durban are four South African cities, each with their own unique attractions and vibrancy.

Together, these cities reflect the full spectrum of contemporary South African life.

Located at the southern tip of Africa, bordered by Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Swaziland and Lesotho (which is completely surrounded by South Africa), it’s a vast country with widely varying landscapes and 11 official languages, as well as an equally diverse population.

South Africa is renowned for its wines and is the world's largest producer of gold. The Rainbow Nation has a strong economy and is an influential player in African politics. In 2010, South Africa will host the first Football World Cup to be held on the African continent and last year welcomed the British & Irish Lions rugby tour.

Johannesburg - The City Of Gold

First established in 1886 when gold was discovered on the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg has been rebuilt four times in the past century. It started as a tent town, worked itself up to a tin-shack settlement, then a four-storey Edwardian settlement and finally graduated as a modern city of glass and concrete skyscrapers.

JohannesburgThey don’t call ‘Joburg’ or ‘Jozi’ the Big Apple of Africa for nothing. Johannesburg is one of the youngest major cities in the world and is quite possibly the most cosmopolitan city on the African continent.

Situated high on the escarpment at just over 2 000m, Johannesburg is a vibrant, energetic and bustling metropolis. As South Africa's largest city and economic hub it's home to 3,2 million people, including the residents of Soweto.

Like New York, this city never sleeps. The young and energetic can dance the night away at one of a myriad of nightclubs (anything from jazz to R&B to kwaito). Cigar lounges, sophisticated eateries and world-class theatre productions are also on offer, or a more authentic South African experience can be enjoyed in the shebeens of Soweto and Alexandra. If Soho-style living is your thing then enjoy the laid-back vibes in villages like Melville, Parkhurst and Norwood

With massive inner-city renewal, the cultural precincts of Newtown and Constitution Hill (the birthplace of democratic South Africa) are high on visitor itineraries.

Johannesburg boasts over 150 heritage sites, and the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site is a mere 30-45 minute drive from the urban centres. Don’t forget to pop into the Rhino and Lion Park en route.

Johannesburg is known for its sprawling mall culture, and if shopping is your thing there are so many options to choose from: Sandton City, Hyde Park, Rosebank or Northgate, Eastgate, Southgate or Westgate – and that’s just for starters. There's also the popular weekend Rosebank Rooftop Market and MichaelMount Organic Market.

Alternately, you could always visit the Apartheid museum, stargaze at the Planetarium, visit the Joburg Zoo or tour Soweto and see Nelson Mandela's home. In Johannesburg, the leisure and entertainment possibilities are endless.

Don't Miss:

  • Gold Reef City - an evocative recreation of the mining era.
  • Soweto - on an organized tour.
  • Shopping in sophisticated malls.
  • Sterkfontein Caves - in the Cradle of Humankind.
  • Dining out - enjoy cuisine from around the globe.
  • The Apartheid Museum
  • Newtown and Fantastic Nightlife

Cape Town – In The Shadow Of A Mountain

Affectionately known as the Mother City, Cape Town is South Africa's oldest city.

Table MountainFounded in 1652 by Jan van Riebeeck and his band of Dutch settlers, Cape Town is rated as one of the most beautiful cities in the world (the backdrop of flat-topped Table Mountain juxtaposed by the sweep of the Atlantic Ocean in the foreground is a sight indeed).

Cape Town has a relaxed atmosphere and offers visitors a host of outdoor leisure activities, as well as all the amenities of a world-class city at the sea.

Top attractions include catching the cable-car up Table Mountain to enjoy a panorama of the city and peninsula; taking a ferry to historic Robben Island; drinking tea at Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens and visiting the Castle of Good Hope.

For outdoor lovers, the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve, adorned in delicate indigenous fynbos, affords spectacular views over two oceans in all directions. There are numerous hikes and trails all around Cape Town for more energetic visitors. Of course if you’re a wine-lover, then taking in a wine route tour through Stellenbosch is an absolute must.

Magnificent beaches line the Atlantic seaboard - Clifton, Camps Bay and Llandudno to name just a few, and warmer waters can be found at Muizenberg, Fish Hoek, St James and Strand.

Shopping possibilities are abundant at the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, Cavendish Square and Canal Walk, while quirky fleamarkets can be found at Greenmarket Square, Green Point and Hout Bay. If it's pulsating nightlife you're after, go directly to Long Street and enjoy trendy dining (and partying) at its absolute best.

Cape Town is everyone's city, offering the best life has to offer - all at the foot of the mountain.

Don't Miss:

  • Going up Table Mountain by cable-car.
  • Robben Island – South Africa’s Alcatraz.
  • Sundowners on the Atlantic seaboard.
  • Seafood at the three harbours and the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront.
  • Standing on the end of the peninsula at Cape Point.
  • The photogenic historic Malay Quarter of the Bo-Kaap.
  • A day spent at the District Six Museum.
  • A winelands tour.

Port Elizabeth – Friendly City On The Coast

There's a sense of antiquity and history about Port Elizabeth (PE). This is 1820 British Settler country and numerous monuments pay tribute to its English heritage. Restored Settler houses are now beautiful homes, and the Sir Rufane Donkin lighthouse still stands proud on a hilltop overlooking the city - named after his wife Lady Elizabeth.

Port ElizabethPort Elizabeth's attractions are both numerous and diverse, with an emphasis on outdoor and nature activities. The city's trump card is its beautiful beaches and warm ocean. With calm waters and fair breezes, the coast is perfect for swimming and watersports.

At Bayworld on the beachfront, visitors can view performing dolphins and seals. A snake park and a museum, depicting cultural and natural history, is also in the Bayworld complex. No 7 Castle Hill, one of the oldest surviving Settler cottages in the area, is nearby, as is the perfectly intact stronghold - Fort Frederick.

Moving offshore, Port Elizabeth offers excellent fishing and scuba-diving possibilities and game-fishing from deep-sea boats.

PE shopping hotspots include Greenacres and The Bridge as well as Walmer Park. The liveliest nightlife can be found at The Boardwalk Casino and Entertainment World, right on the beachfront. This extensive complex includes entertainment, shopping, dining and gaming.

If you need to get in touch with your wild side, Addo Elephant National Park is not too far away from the city lights. This park is considered to be the most biologically-diverse park in the world. Addo is home to the Big Seven, which includes the terrestrial Big Five of lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and buffalo as well as whales and great white sharks.

Don't Miss:

  • Bayworld and the dolphin display.
  • Swimming at Kings Beach or Hobie Beach.
  • The view from Shark Pier.
  • Playing a few of the 700 slot machines at the Boardwalk Casino.
  • Getting up close to elephants at Addo Elephant National Park.
  • Exploring the fascinating history and heritage of this unique city.

Durban – The Balmy Holiday City

South Africa's favourite playground and the busiest port in Africa, Durban began life as a remote trading outpost. Today, the sunny city is a popular year-round holiday destination, prized for its balmy climate and superb surfing and swimming beaches.

Durban beachfrontAlthough shopping, restaurants and nightlife are geared for the holidaymaker, Durban is now positioning itself as the conference capital of South Africa - with the International Conference Centre (ICC) ranking amongst the top conferencing facilities in the world.

Never mind big business, this subtropical city is synonymous with the sea and many of Durban’s key attractions follow an oceanic theme. UShaka, the southern hemisphere's greatest marine theme park, is a must on any tourist agenda. The theme park follows a shipwreck theme and there is something for everyone. However, if you'd like to get really personal with marine life, The Natal Sharks Board (in nearby Umhlanga) runs weekday boat tours for visitors to watch shark-nets being cleared. The Sharks Board also runs whale and dolphin-watching tours – not to be missed.

Shopping is high on Durban's list of priorities and there's plenty to choose from. The Gateway Theatre of Shopping offers a grand combination of shopping and entertainment. The Pavilion also offers an exceptional shopping experience in a Victorian-style building, and The Workshop complex is another great shopping spot (created in the shell of Durban's original railway workshop).

For a taste of ‘real Durban’, there's the Victoria Street Market, offering African and Indian wares. The Warwick Avenue Triangle is where herbalists and street vendors sell anything from traditional medicines and food to Zulu artwork, and Grey Street is a fabric buyer's mecca.

No visit to this sunshine city is complete without exploring the Golden Mile. This beachfront stretch is where you can catch a rickshaw ride, buy curios or enjoy a seafood meal with a view of the sea.

Durban is heaven for hedonists, where all year is holiday season.

Don't Miss:

  • UShaka - the 16 hectare marine theme park.
  • Whale, dolphin and shark-watching.
  • Tasting bunny chow and many other Indian-flavoured dishes.
  • Great seafood along the Golden Mile.
  • Deep-sea fishing for game fish.
  • Fantastic beaches
  • Laid-back vibes
  • Authentic Zulu culture

Must See South African Specials

Table Mountain

No visit to Cape Town is complete without a trip up Table Mountain, from where you will see some of South Africa's most breathtaking views. Take a guided walk on one of the many routes or simply ride the cable car to the top - it will be one of your lasting memories of SA.

Robben Island

A short cruise from Cape Town's V&A Waterfront by ferry, this legendary island is a standard must-see on any newcomer's itinerary. This is where Nelson Mandela and his comrades were imprisoned for decades during the Apartheid era. Former inmates take you on an insightful tour of the prison grounds. This historical island is now a world heritage site and also a proclaimed nature conservation area.

The Garden Route

From Cape Town along the coast to the Tsitsikamma Forest, this 600-kilometre stretch of small towns, wineries, farms and sea villages has been a traveller's joy for more than a century. Take your time, soak in the scenery, stay over in a guest-house, enjoy the cuisine and let South African hospitality take over.


From KwaZulu-Natal to the Wild Coast, from the Eastern Cape to the West Coast, South Africa boasts more than 3 000km of coastline. Pristine beaches, fishing communities, golf estates, luxury hotels and guest houses dot the landscape as you explore the marine side of South Africa.

The Gold

In the late 19th Century, gold was discovered at various places in the northern reaches of South Africa, leading to a gold rush from all points of the globe. A tussle for the goldfields was one of the contributing factors leading to the Anglo Boer War and the industry - which claims the deepest underground mines in the world - is still one of the pillars of the South African economy.

Cradle of Humankind

Declared a World Heritage Site, the Cradle of Humankind west of Johannesburg includes, among its numerous sites, the Sterkfontein Caves, where anthropologist Dr Robert Broom discovered the skull of Mrs Ples, a three-million year-old hominid, in 1936. At the time she was thought to be the closest evidence the "missing link" to be found.

Kruger National Park

About the size of Israel, the Kruger Park is the greatest of South Africa's many national parks which attract a great number of visitors intent on drinking in the wilderness. On guided walks, drives or self-drive, visitors have the best chance of spotting the Big Five (elephant, lion, leopard, rhino and buffalo) in this park.

The Drakensberg Mountains

A thousand kilometres of mountain majesty, the Drakensberg (Dragon Mountains) range is the adventure tourist's playground. It is also perfect for nature photography, easy walking and simple relaxation. Full of game sanctuaries, Bushman rock art sites, challenging peaks and cascading waterfalls, the views in the Drakensberg will compete with anything the rest of the world has to offer.


Just south of Johannesburg lies Soweto - the largest of South Africa's 'townships' (designated residential areas for blacks during the Apartheid years). This vibrant city is home to some 2 million people and a number of historical sights. A typical visit to Soweto includes a stop at a traditional shebeen (drinking hall), where you can savour local beer, food and hospitality.

Are you travelling to South Africa this year? Will you going to the World Cup in 2010? Do you have any travel tips you can pass on?

If so, let us know by leaving a comment in the box below or share your thoughts with other readers in the 50connect forums.

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