10 incredible days in South Africa: Trip highlights
Updated: May 2
How I spent ten days in South Africa
Rolling hills, mountainous terrain, beautiful beaches, affordable eats, hikes and bikes, safaris with wild animal sightings, road trips with left-side driving, spectacular views, endless accommodation options, local treats, small towns, and lots of tea drinking. This is South Africa.
Whether you start or end your trip in Cape Town (the tourist capital), definitely visit. This is where our trip begins.
Once you land, buy a sim card in the airport (Vodacom works well), hire a car, search for your destination on Google Maps, remember to drive on the left side of the road, and get a good sleep… it’s been a bloody long flight after all, regardless of where you’re coming from.
*Destination map: View the maps (on a laptop/iPad/desktop) designed for each major destination and see where we headed, what we did, ate, and drank.
Enlarge the map for details by clicking the icon in the top right corner and you can venture on the same journey.
Visit Table Mountain: Hike it if you can
First things first, if the weather is good, visit Table Mountain.
Table Mountain, one of South Africa's iconic landmarks, is a flat-topped mountain which forms part of Table Mountain National Park. It boasts thousands of species of flora and fauna, has an ariel cableway with views of the city of Cape Town at the top, and sits 1,086 metres (3,563 ft) above sea level.
We hiked the mountain this time but you can take the cable car if hiking isn’t your thing (you’ll be waiting in lines mind you).
There are a few different routes to take but we opted for the Skeleton Gorge trail up and Nursery Ravine back down. Skeleton Gorge starts in Kirstenbosch Gardens (see map).
Pro tip: you’ll pay to get into the gardens and can enter and exit as many times as you want that day. So, either pack a change of clothes and picnic to keep in the car during your hike or (if you are staying nearby) head back home to shower and change and grab a picnic basket of treats for the gardens.
Skeleton Gorge is covered by a tree canopy. This is important to note as Cape Town has pretty fierce and unexpected winds that can (almost) blow you off the mountain. In summer, trails such as Platteklip (most direct route up) and Kasteelspoort (back end of the mountain) have full sun exposure and you’ll likely melt in the heat trying to get to the top of Table Mountain — opt for Skeleton Gorge rather.
You hike alongside a waterfall. It isn’t cascading due to the drought in the Cape but I could still hear water flowing in parts and see glimpses en route.
Don’t be deterred by the path. It’s a gradual incline from the gardens and gets steep quickly.
You’ll climb ladders and see beautiful foliage and fynbos (hardy plants native to the area). You’ll get to an area that looks like a rock fall but you’re essentially climbing up the dry (damp) waterfall. The rocks can be slippery in wetter months (mid-year) so be warned.
At the top, you won’t find a flat tabletop—much to the surprise of many people I've shown my pictures to. The terrain varies from grass and bush to mountain peaks and reservoirs. It’s also covered by some 1,500 species of fynbos.
You might see Proteas (South Africa’s national flower) growing wildly with their thick, woody stems and large leaves or silvery, spiky trees populating the land. It really is a sight to behold.
When you’ve made all the stairs and braved the crosswind near the top, you’ll stumble upon white sand. How unusual. Yes, white sand and what appears to be a beach.
The water is colored like Coca Cola, with tannins from the plants, and you can swim (if you dare — brrr).
Once you’ve wandered around, had a snack, and are ready to head back, you have route options (look out for a stone stand with a sundial and metal map on top).
We picked Nursery Ravine for the view. There’s no cover along this route but you have stunning city views (and steep staircases to scramble down). Your post-hike jelly legs will question your choice but it doesn’t take as long to get back down... and the views are incredible!
How to get up without hiking
If you are unable to hike the mountain, you do have the option of taking the cable car up (for a fee).
Picnic in Kirstenbosch Gardens
Kirstenbosch, a National Botanical Garden, "is acclaimed as one of the great botanic gardens of the world" and sits on the eastern slopes of Cape Town’s Table Mountain. The garden consists of fynbos and forest, explored by trails and pathways.
Find a spot on the lawn, throw out a blanket, and snack to your heart’s content with gorgeous mountain views.
Don’t forget to explore and walk along the Boomslang — it’s Afrikaans for ‘tree snake’ and is a bridge (or raised open walkway) through the trees. What fun.
Go wine tasting in Constantia
Cape Town has a fair amount of wine tasting with vineyards nestled around the mountain. One of my favorites is Constantia Glen (see on map).
Where to go
Constantia Glen is a boutique wine estate, located below Constantia Nek in the Cape. The estate has been producing cool climate wines in a region that dates back to 1685. They must be doing something right!
Their "classically expressed wines" are a result of late-afternoon sun exposure, allowing the grapes to ripen slowly, in addition to other factors such as dry cultivation, soil quality, and the Atlantic breeze. If you've been to Cape Town, you know about that breeze.
The late afternoon sun hits the estate's back, windowed room and lights up the space with warmth. I enjoy their flagship wines and have found each glass pleasurable to drink.
Relax on a beanbag with vineyard views or on a zebra-striped couch while you taste your way through the afternoon.
Cape Town city by night
Even tourists have heard of popular Long- and Bree Street for their nightlife but another favorite of mine is Kloof Street. The top of the street houses popular restaurants, such as Black Sheep (see on map).
Where to eat
Dine in style at this popular spot but be sure to make a reservation. The menu changes constantly so look online to catch the latest. We ordered braised Spring Bok (a succulent meat that was flavorful without that ‘gamey’ taste that I had expected) on a bed of creamy mashed potatoes and braised carrots along with Steak Salad featuring a generous portion of beautifully cooked beef topped with watercress, cremini mushrooms, and a tahini dressing, served with thick-cut potatoes. Delicious.
After dinner, we headed down the street – I recommend driving at night — to a minimalist storefront called Unframed (see on map). It serves delectable ice cream in ever-changing flavors. Past favorites have included Muscovado, Vegan Matcha, and Raspberry Sorbet.
Go wine tasting in Stellenbosch
40 minutes out of Cape Town by car leads you to ‘wine country’.
The wine route seems endless and the region is frequented by students from the University of Stellenbosch, retired folk living their best lives amongst the vineyards, locals from the 'big city', and tourists. It is so spectacular that anyone and everyone will enjoy it. I was going ‘wine tasting’ before I appreciated wine… just for the views and the experience.
On our recent trip, we discovered that my favorite distilled spirit, gin, has taken over the Cape. Gin tastings are now popping up everywhere and so, in addition to wine tasting, we sipped on varieties of gin that I’d go back for if I lived there.
I’ve been to Stellenbosch numerous times to visit family who studied there, so I’ve visited my fair share of vineyards. On this trip, we went to Vredenheim (for gin tasting), Delaire Graff Estate, JC Le Roux (sparkling wine), and Neethlingshof.
All the locations were exceptional.
Delaire Graff Estate
Delaire Graff was classy—you know this when the driveway is long, lined with imported trees, and people are taking photos against the mountain backdrop in the parking lot (as did we).
The décor exuded opulence and even sported an indoor waterway. The tasting room was filled with people from all over — there were a variety of languages and accents within earshot.
A man sat at a grand piano in the corner of the room and when he began to play, the music filled with room and transported you to another place entirely.
And the wine? We savored every sip.
Classic Cats Craft Gin Bar at Vredenheim
Vredenheim is another beautiful wine farm with wild animals to view and, more recently, gin to sample.
On a previous trip, I went wine tasting at Vredenheim on a bike tour through the vineyards and loved it. This time, we came for the gin.
Gin tastings are often an opportunity for you to sample variations of a particular brand of gin. To our surprise, the Classic Cats Craft Gin Bar at Vredenheim (see on map) was stocked with plentiful (surely over one hundred… or is that the wine talking?) bottles of the local and international distilled spirit.
We were guided when choosing from flavor categories such as citrus, spice, Rooibos (South African herbal tea), fynbos (South African botanicals), London Dry, and pink gin. There were more but they weren’t our taste so we honed in our selections and sampled new gins, popular gins, and Cape gins from the categories that appealed to us.
Each person can choose three gins to sample, selects a Fitch & Leeds tonic water variety, and tastes the gin in three steps.
Gin tasting steps
First, we took a sip of the gin neat. By sip, I mean, a tiny sip. I’ve since read that you’re meant to take two sips and swirl the gin all around your mouth to get a taste for the subtle botanicals. I didn’t do that then.
Second, fruit and herbs are paired with each gin.
Hot tip: when adding citrus to gin, just add the peel/zest (the pith makes it bitter). A curl of lemon zest was added to the Muti and Still 33 gin and fresh raspberries were added to the Six Dogs Blue glass. Swirl to infuse, sip, repeat.
Third, add the tonic water. I, personally, prefer an unflavored tonic. I like to taste my gin and the added sugar and flavorants detract from the pure spirit. But, having said that, hibiscus, elderflower, Mediterranean and the like are all popular flavor options in the Fitch & Leeds tonic and you can experiment with them how you’d like.
We walked away with all three bottles of gin—I'm a sucker for fantastic experiences and a memento to cherish (if not a photograph, something perishable).
Dine in the quaint town of Stellenbosch
Head into the heart of Stellenbosch. You’ll find a slew of student housing and local businesses in Cape Dutch-style buildings. Oak trees and lush grass appear on every corner and the narrow streets are peppered with coffee shops.
Pick somewhere in town that has a buzz—whether you're in the mood for coffee, drinks, or something to eat.
Where to eat
We dined at Man'ouche (see on map) for dinner. The Mediterranean cuisine is generously portioned — seriously, share something. I opted for the manouche flatbread stuffed with halloumi and bacon but the hummus and kebabs were delicious.
Continue the alcohol tasting
You're in 'wine country'—embrace, embrace, embrace.
JC Le Roux
JC Le Roux is one of my all-time favorites stops. I have visited it every time I have been to Stellenbosch and watched the company evolve over the years.
I was there when they only served their Méthode Cap Classique (MCC) range and paired it with olives or nougat. I was there when they launched their vibrasio range and bought the vibrasio glasses because I was so impressed. I tasted one of their first sparkling ice lollies, and on our most recent visit, discovered that they are moving towards sparkling wines and will discontinue their MCC range.
I bought two of the last bottles of MCC I will ever drink — their La Valleé (ah the best) and La Valleé Rosé (sparkling pink drink with a hint of sweetness).
Anyway, why not start the day with bubbly… that’s what mimosas are for, right? We always seem to drink too much at JC, feel classy, giggle a lot, and then walk it off.
I have visited Neethlingshof a few times prior to this trip but let me tell you, the person attending to you at a wine farm (as the locals call it) can alter your entire experience.
Jean Pierre sought us out and once he started talking about wine, we were sucked in. This Frenchman had fallen in love with South Africa, and the wines, and was never looking back.
Jean Pierre shared stories, gave pairing ideas, and poured with a heavy hand—I have to laugh at this, as Chris was the one sampling all the wine here (I was the driver), and he was giddy by the end of it.
What an unforgettable experience. I’ll always remember it (and the fact that we left purchasing four bottles for our luggage).
Drive along the scenic Chapman's Peak
After the bubbles and the wine, leave Stellenbosch and head back to Cape Town via Chapman’s Peak. We took the R310 out of Stellies, aimed for Noordhoek, drove along the coast to Hout Bay for fish and chips and then along the M6 to Cape Town. The views were incredible!
If you’re the driver, you aren’t missing out on the views—there are many pullouts off the road that allow you to see the scenic views. Drive slowly, keep your eyes on the road, watch for tumbling rocks (have yet to hear of a tragedy), and be safe when pulling off and back on to the road.
It’s always windy. It’s always breathtaking. People are always taking selfies. You might see someone cycling the route (you'll definitely think they’re crazy for doing so).
Get fish and chips
Stop at Hout Bay Harbour (see on map) and/or at nearby Fish on the Rocks (also on map) for fried fish and chips. You must — it’s a rite of passage. I'd go to the harbour for the seal viewing and Fish on the Rocks for the meal and scenery. You'll thank me later.
Both spots are tasty, entertaining, and some of the most scenic viewing destinations in the Cape. You’ll spot gulls and seals, canons, and dip your feet in the water shrieking at the cold.
Enjoy sundowners with ocean views
We ended our day with sundowners and ocean views. There are so many places to catch one of the spectacular sunsets the Cape has to offer. We found a secret spot off the pipe track to view the 12 Apostles (mountain peaks) and Bay of Plenty.
Where to go
I’d recommend a bottle of wine on the rocks at Green Point beach or a cocktail in Camp’s Bay though — oodles of choices along the beachfront (see on map).
Hit up a hot spot in town
Cape Town, if you haven’t realized by now, is always buzzing. Google the hottest spot in town at the time of your trip, make a reservation, and try it out.
We stopped for a pre-dinner drink at a gin bar (because… gin). My favorites are Mother’s Ruin, The Gin Bar, and Botanical Bar (see on map). This trip, we chose The Botanical Bar — definitely worthy.
The sweet spot for dinner right now is Bao Down. With two seating times in the tiniest little room/restaurant, you squeeze in and order from their changing menu of small plates designed for sharing.
The focus was on bao (steamed buns) and most dishes were designed to show-off the buns. We ordered nearly everything on the menu. It was fantastic. Dishes with shrimp, rib, kimchi, tofu… all expertly prepared and served on these soft, freshly made buns. Take me back!
Fly to the East Coast: Durban
If you’re interested in a road trip east, you won’t regret it, see how we did it here.
If you’re interested in visiting other provinces, fly to Durban in KwaZulu-Natal province on the east coast. It’s a totally different vibe from Cape Town and I’m going to be upfront here, it’s my hometown and has my heart.
Everyone in the world (who has visited the Cape) is obsessed with Cape Town, and I love it as well, but Durban has something you want to be part of.
In Durban, you can swim in the ocean, happily, without a wetsuit… I’m talking surf, SUP, body surf, canoe, as well as tan on the sand, and most importantly, find a parking spot for a beach day. ;)
Explore like a local
New spots to eat and drink are constantly opening and closing as in any city but you must, I mean MUST, check out Afro’s Chicken Shack. It’s local and local’s love it.
There are cute spots for coffee, breakfast (Durbanites are early risers) and brunch, such as Love Coffee, Antique Café, Circus Circus, parc.cafe or Glenwood Bakery, and Spoonful (see all on map).
Check out the spots to eat/drink in Durban here.
Looking for activities?
Here are weekend guides filled activities in Durban for families, for active people, for those of you interested in culture, for couples on a date, for those of you who are chilled/without an agenda, and for those of you on a budget.
Day 5 - 6
Road trip to the Free State
We took a four-day family road trip to visit the Golden Gate National Park and Clarens in the Free State province.
Five hours inland of Durban lies a mountainous landscape dotted with tiny towns and farms. It’s stunning. Clarens is a klein dorpie (Afrikaans for 'small town') with breweries, restaurants, art galleries, views on views, and market-style shopping.
Go beer tasting at Clarens Brewery (see on map), visit the gin room next door for a tasting (not as guided and varied as Vredenheim but still good choices) at Red Stone Craft Gin (see on map), eat at German restaurant Roter Hahn (on map), and stock up on many tasty goodies from the Purple Onion Deli (also on map).
Pro-tip: You'll want to try/buy the South African biltong (dried and cured meat), nougat, licorice (if you like the taste), rusks (slow-dried biscotti-like treat), and Rooibos tea (herbal tea similar to honey bush found globally, but it is only grown in South Africa).
Stay in the Golden Gate National Park
There was a consensus: Golden Gate Highlands Retreat (see on map) is the most breath-taking place we have ever stayed at. And I mean ever.
You travel off road for about 6km to get to a handful of log cabins buried into the hillside. On this 6-km drive, you’ll see zebras grazing, wildebeest, herds of buck (South African version of antelope), and perhaps a secretary bird (if you’re looking closely).
The hills just roll; the sunsets, the pastel skies and morning sun, long grass blowing in the wind, and nightly fires are indescribable.
Hiking Sentinel Peak aka The Chain Ladder
This hike is famous (and dangerous)—it takes you to the source of the second highest waterfall in the world (Tugela Falls), accessible only if you're able to climb up (and down!) two chain ladders hanging off the side of a cliff.
According to the Drakensberg Tourist Map website, "Sentinel peak offer[s] the easiest access to the top of the Drakensberg escarpment." In addition, it mentions that "the Sentinel Peak is one of the icons of the northern section of the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg. Standing at 3166 m, it stands guard at the western end of the famous Amphitheatre."
^^More reinforcement by someone other than me that this is a sweet hike to some epic views, iconic, pretty badass even... not their words, but I saw "famous" in there, so there you go.
How to get there
To get there, you leave Clarens and the Golden Gate Region (use Google Maps), pass through a town called Phuthaditjhaba (Poo-tah-dee-chah-buh).
Fun fact: Phuthaditjhaba is my dad's favorite place in all the world. But why? Well, he likes the roll of the name on his tongue AND no one in our family can spell it correctly, aside from him (and me, thanks Google).
Anyway, you pass through the city, head to Sentinel Peak car park and... begin.
Important to note But wait, let's backtrack. Nearing the top of a long and winding road that passes through Phuthaditjhaba, you'll encounter a fork in the road.
The left path takes you to the Witsieshoek Mountain Resort —an absolute must post-hike dine-and-relax experience (and you can stay there, obviously, it's a resort).
Keeping right at the fork means that you have a 4x4. Yes, you need one—unless you're renting a car with a powerful engine. If anyone says that you don't need a 4x4 to get to the Sentinel Peak parking lot, they're flat-out lying and you will pay the price by walking an extra 6 km along a weathered road (with an incline) to the parking lot BEFORE starting the actual hike.
Don't believe me? Well, I walked that extra 6km (and caught a ride back) — laughs.
Length of hike (in hours, because my American friends don't relate to km)
Once you get to the parking lot, there's a well-marked (and paved for the first part) trail to the top. You'll be back within 5 hours (and can do it in a shorter time if you are faster/fitter than most), even if you stop to take photographs and marvel at the view (every 10 minutes).
You might encounter baboons along the way but just ignore them and wait for them to move off the path.
Pro tip: Make sure the weather is good when you leave for the hike (and check the forecast for the day in advance). Bad weather, cloud cover and storms, can be fatal. In many parts along the way, the path is narrow and sandy.
You walk across/over a wet rock face at one point and most importantly, you climb up and down the cliff face on ladders. Weather must be good.
About the chain ladders
If you have a fear of heights, this part is not for you. Still hike it though, but know that you can turn back at any time.
I love the thrill, however, and don't mind hanging off the chains to turn around and look at the view.
There are two ladders hanging vertically off the rock face but they are securely attached to the rock. They move when you climb them... don't let this freak you out, just hold on tight and take it slow.
Please don't be one of those tourists that tries to be clever getting a good photo angle and fall... this is future 'mom-Kate' talking ;). Be safe, okay.
Making it to the end
Moving along. Once you get up the chain ladders, you'll see the Tugela Falls. We even witnessed a waterfall gleaming in the sun and did a few fist pumps in excitement.
Then it gets flatter. You'll walk beside a river from one side of the mountain to the other, taking photos and hope that the clouds clear on the opposite end. Even if they don't, it's beautiful up there.
I'd recommend saving your snacks for the endpoint. Sit beside the waterfall on the other end, eat your snacks, make some friends, and relax before heading down.
What to bring
Take a lot of water, sunscreen, a hat, sunglasses (because the weather is good and you're only hiking on a sunny/non-stormy day), a backpack with snacks, and some comfortable walking shoes.
An uninvited 'guest'
On our last morning, before heading back to Durban, we brought all of our breakfast ingredients over to one of the cabins (we rented two) and cooked up a mean feast for the whole family. Tea and rusks, avocado, eggs, bacon, tomatoes, toast, cereal, and fresh-cut fruit… all there.
After gobbling down to refuel for our return trip home, we cleaned up the space and suddenly heard a gasp. My sister-in-law was standing beside me with a look of terror on her face.
Yes, this really happened
I turned and noticed that a large (and I mean LARGE) male baboon had waltzed into our cabin.
It was evident that he didn’t expect us all in there and in a panic, jumped onto the kitchen table, gripped a brick of butter and took a large bite out of it. He then grabbed the bag of rusks and muesli and, in his haste, left stinky surprises on his way out. We were frozen.
Well, I was shaking. No one moved. It happened so fast. Now, remember, male baboons have sizable fangs and are labeled dangerous creatures if threatened. So... frozen.
Once he left, we all let out the breath we’d been holding and whipped outside to see where he’d gone.
One cabin back, he planted himself on the roof and proceeded to dig his fists into the bag of cereal and eat the contents. When he felt we were staring too long, he picked himself up and moved a metre over.
I’m still shocked as I type this (that such an event occurred). The humorous part is that the thief made his way into the other cabins to steal food from them as well.
Chris, my husband, observed a loaf of bread making its way out the door clutched tightly in the baboon's fist and watched slice by slice being eaten — the cheeky bugger — all while keeping eye contact.
Note to self: When staying in mountain cabins, keep the doors and windows closed. ;)
Stop at The Phatt Chef
A halfway mark (Durban to Golden Gate; GG to Durban) for refueling (the passengers, not the car) is at The Phatt Chef (see on map). From the chicken mayonnaise toasted sandwiches to the boboetie (Cape Malay-spiced meat and rice dish), the food options are tasty.
The highlight? Their freshly baked scones—with chunky strawberry jam and freshly whipped cream. We stopped on the way to the National Park (and on the way back as well). Chuckle—it was the scones, I blame the freshly baked treats.
The Midlands: Stay awhile
The Midlands, a wedding destination and foodie experience, is an hour and a half outside of Durban. You can stop there on the way back from the Free State or make a separate trip. We did both.
There’s a famous route called the Midlands Meander that maps out all the activities, eateries, and accommodation hotspots on this route. My wedding was in the Midlands for a good reason – the scenery, fresh air, and country vibe is awe-inspiring.
Where to stop along the Midlands Meander
An absolute favorite stop of mine is Terbodore Coffee Roasters (see on map). This Great Dane-themed coffee shop and restaurant has top-notch meals and coffee beans worth purchasing to drink at home.
We love the blend “This is Africa” (medium roast) and have enjoyed many cappuccinos with their house blend and iconic bone-shaped biscuits (cookies).
A recent addition, infused cold brew, takes things to the next level. This iced drink comes in three flavors and the sparkling lemonade steals the show.
Another spot to stop at for lunch (or dessert) is Blueberry Cafe. On the top of a hill, this rustic farm-style restaurant serves exceptional plates of food and slices of cheesecake (I always get the cheesecake).
And, guess what? They recently launched their own blueberry-infused gin!
Pro tip: go to the toilet when you're there. I'm holding in a laugh, but seriously, the wall in front of your 'throne' is a pane of glass and on the other side are grazing cows... it's just you and the cows in an open field (well, not really, but it looks that way from your end). It's really cool.
Other places worth stopping at in the Midlands region include Piggly Wiggly, Dirt Road Traders, and Groundcover Leather (all on map).
Durban as a base for nearby travel
Other options for a day trip (or few days, making it a two-week trip in total) from Durban include Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve (see on map) and/or The Dolphin Coast. We’ve done both.
Squeeze in a safari
On this recent trip, we headed to Hluhluwe-Imfolozi (again). We can’t resist a safari and love to seek out animals in the wild. We stayed the night at Ubizane Game Reserve (see on map) and did self-drives into the Hluhluwe Game Reserve (Northern section of the park).
We had splendid animal sightings. Our favorite encounters are with elephants and we saw three different bachelor African elephants, four rhino, four giraffes, myriad Nyala and Impala antelope, warthogs, wildebeest, zebras, baboons and vervet monkeys on the trip. What a treat!
We always have a fantastic experience in South Africa, picking different activities on each visit, and are thoroughly entertained. The weather is spectacular and the people, warm.
We’ll be back (stay tuned) but for now, hambakahle — "goodbye" or "go well" in isiZulu.
Let me know in the comments if you're planning a trip or have been to any of my favorite places. :)