Pretty much this time last year (give or take a week or so), we were in the middle of a family holiday in South Africa – AT’s parents, his sister, and the two of us. It all started with an idea for a safari vacation. AT and I were keen to do a week long safari vacation in Africa, but my in-laws were not so keen about the idea. So after much googling, we narrowed down on South Africa, which seemed to offer a little bit of everything – a city holiday, vineyards and wine tours, safari and also some adventure sports!
We ended up spending about 10 days in South Africa in end-April/early May last year. The weather was pretty much perfect all throughout. Not too hot, not too cold. It was also the shoulder season in South Africa, so while there were enough tourists around, it wasn’t anything crazy.
Here’s a quick South Africa travel guide for you with an itinerary for 10 days, if you ever find yourself planning a trip to this beautiful country.
4 Days in Cape Town
Our first stop in South Africa was Cape Town. We spent most of our holiday in this gorgeous city, and I think four days here was perfect to get a feel for the place and also have an initiation into South African history and culture.
Where to stay?
I’ve had the privilege of travelling to many places around India and the world, and have been fortunate enough to be able to stay at some fabulous hotels. Hand on heart I can tell you that no one, I repeat, no one does service better than the Taj Hotels. You have to stay at a Taj Hotel to believe that. And the Taj Cape Town is a true gem.
The hotel is housed in what was the erstwhile Reserve Bank building in the city, and right opposite the Company’s Gardens and the old Slave Lodge. It preserves its historical past and the luxury is understated. From our room, we had stunning views of the Table Mountain, and most attractions were only a few minutes drive from the hotel. It is located in the CBD, so things do get quiet in the later hours – not that I mind, but just something that I thought you should know.
Some other hotels that looked great: One&Only Cape Town, Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel, The Twelve Apostles Hotel (beautiful, but crazy expensive!), and the Cape Heritage Hotel. A friend of mine who’d been to Cape Town previously also recommended staying at an AirBnB near the beaches, especially if you’re going as a part of a larger group.
Things to do and see:
1| Table Mountain
Table Mountain is the ever ubiquitous sight across Cape Town, and what a beauty at that. We were lucky enough to have some gorgeous views of the Table Mountain from our hotel room, and even the cable car ride up the mountain, did not disappoint. The weather conditions can be rather unpredictable though, and the “table cover” can descend rather quickly.
2| V&A Waterfront
Rather touristy, but a good spot to lounge around, grab a few bites and also shop around. Lots of street performances also happen in this area, and there is a shopping mall as well, featuring some luxury brands as well as local boutiques (Poetry was a favourite!).
3| Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens
A cousin of mine who’d lived in Cape Town previously insisted that this Botanical Gardens should be on our must do list while in the Mother City. And it certainly didn’t disappoint. We spent a leisurely hour wandering around the gardens (which is massive, btw!) and shooting fun time lapse videos. You can see the back of the Table Mountain range, and it certainly looks as imposing as you’d think.
4| Drive down the peninsula
Have you truly been to Cape Town if you haven’t driven down to the Cape of Good Hope, one of the southernmost points in Africa? The drive is magnificent, and there are plenty of pretty places to stop enroute (including some penguin watching at Boulders Beach in Simons Town).
We barely made it to the Cape Point Nature Reserve before closing time though, and almost all the stores, everything had shut down. The Two Oceans restaurant is extremely popular, but it had already shut by the time we got there.
5| Go hiking
Looking at the bodies of most people around Cape Town, I think I’ll safely conclude that hiking and surfing are probably the national sports around these parts. And obviously they are spoiled for choice. There are lots of doable hikes around the city.
The Lion’s Head hike is the easier option, and you could hike up Table Mountain if you’re so inclined. We hiked up Lion’s Head on one of the mornings, and while we didn’t go all the way up to the top, it is largely manageable, and the morning views are breathtaking.
6| Walk around the Company’s Gardens
This was literally across the road from our hotel. The garden was initially created in the 1650s by the city’s earliest European settlers. Around lunch hour, the place is teeming with locals. The Houses of Parliament are also located at the edge of the Gardens, and many city walking tours originate here.
7| Take in the colorful houses of Bo-KaaP
Bo-kaap is Cape Town’s Malay center, and you’d recognize it from the rows and rows of colorful houses. It happens to be one of the oldest neighbourhoods in Cape Town and is perfect for a bit of a history and culture fix. For the foodies out there, there are also plenty of options for traditional Malay foods.
8| ROBBEN ISLAND TOUR
This island (and erstwhile prison) is where Nelson Mandela spent most of his years in captivity. The island has long housed political prisoners since the 1700s and at various points in its history, it was also used as a leper colony and a military base. The tour is about 3.5 hours long (and I’ll be honest, when you’ve got loads of other places to see, that 3.5 hours seems like a long, long time) and is conducted by ex-prisoners, so you do get to hear some insider tidbits too.
A couple of other places/things that we wanted to go to but sadly didn’t find the time for, were: Woodstock area (especially the Old Biscuit Mill there), the beaches, shark cage diving (we’d made the bookings much in advance, but unfortunately the day before we were scheduled to go for the tour, we were informed that the tour was cancelled because they’d been unable to see any sharks for the previous two days since the orcas had suddenly surfaced and had driven away the sharks).
Food & Drinks:
Since we were traveling with parents, and they were most comfortable with Indian food and vegetarian food, we ended up eating at a fair share of Indian restaurants, all of which were quite fantastic by the way.
This is more of a cultural experience rather than just another restaurant. A family run restaurant, Mzansi offers an unique opportunity to enjoy a local African meal in a local home setting. The restaurant is based in a township (about 20 minutes drive from central Cape Town – we took an Uber and had no issues getting there and back) and you must call ahead and make a reservation.
The food is absolutely delicious and there were enough vegetarian options as well, but what really sets this place apart is the warmth and the ambience provided by the hostess, Nomonde. Before the meal begins, she takes you through the journey of the restaurant from its very humble beginnings to the phenomenon it has become today.
This was probably my most favourite food experience in South Africa – I’d highly recommend it. Oh, and did I mention that there’s some dancing at the end of the meal too? (note: you definitely need to make a reservation well ahead in time)
2| El Burro
Crazy good Mexican food. The interiors are colorfully done, with lots of Mexican artifacts artfully placed around the entire restaurant.
3| Clarke’s Bar & Dining Room
Superb breakfast/brunch place. Awesome smoothie bowls and that avocado toast was to die for!
4| Bombay Brasserie
Delicious Indian food restaurant at the Taj Cape Town. Wouldn’t have expected them to screw this up, but even then it surpassed my expectations. Also, it was a whole lot cheaper than Indian food at the Taj restaurants back here in Bombay.
This was our first meal in Cape Town, and the restaurant specializes in North Indian food. The food certainly did not disappoint. It also seemed popular with locals and tourists as well.
Indian style tapas place with good, tasty food. I’d recommend this more for Westerners rather than Indians. The one weird thing was that the desserts were served before what I would call the mains – the sequence seemed off to me. Also, the wait between courses was rather long. Better to book ahead.
7| V&A Food Market
Lots and lots of variety in this food market. There are stalls serving Middle Eastern / Asian / Indian / South African / health food, and of course there’s drinks too. You’ll find something for all kinds of eaters.
Some other places that came highly recommended, but we didn’t end up going (either because the menu wasn’t vegetarian friendly, or we didn’t get reservations, or we didn’t have the time):
- Chef’s Warehouse
- Pot Luck Club
- Test Kitchen
- Tjing Tjing Torii (for drinks and Asian inspired food)
- Publik Wine Bar
Where to Shop?
We didn’t have a whole lot of time to shop around, but we did make a quick 1 hour trip around the mall at the V&A Waterfront on one of the evenings. Like I mentioned earlier, lots of local, high street and luxury stores are housed in that mall, so you get a fair bit of variety.
On one of the mornings, where we had about an hour or so of free time, we walked around Long Street and Church Street and I think there are some lovely little shops there. Two in particular that I ventured into and couldn’t resist picking up stuff from were Rialheim and Chandler House. Both stores sell home goods, with Rialheim particularly specialising in ceramics. And if it had a bookstore, I think Chandler House would be exactly the kind of store I’d open in my dreams. :)
2 Days in Franschhoek
On our last day in Cape Town, we went on the Robben Island tour in the morning and once we got back on land, we grabbed some lunch at the V&A Food Market before heading out of the city to the wine country of Franschhoek. It’s about a 2 hour drive from Cape Town, and has a long history of French and Dutch settlers.
Where to Stay?
The two places that really had my heart were Babylonstoren and Mont Rochelle Nature Reserve. Both properties were beautiful, but different. Babylonstoren had a rustic appeal while Mont Rochelle seemed more lush and vibrant. Ultimately, on the recommendation of a friend who’d stayed there previously, we decided to go with Mont Rochelle and were very happy with the choice me made. The rooms were massive and beautifully done up and the property itself was gorgeous beyond words.
Things to do and see
Frankly, Franschhoek is one of those places where you can just sit back, relax and soak in the surroundings. Obviously there is wine tasting, and you could hop on the Franschhoek Wine Tram and explore more than one wineyard.
The town itself is rather small, and most shops and restaurants are primarily along one main street. Interesting story – modern day Franschhoek has quite an Indian connection with entrepreneur Analjit Singh having bought many properties and hotels in the area in the last few years.
Where to Eat?
We enjoyed some wonderful meals at Mont Rochelle itself, and staff was extremely nice and helpful. The day that we were checking out, we had to leave super early in the morning, they packed breakfast for us to take along, and were ever willing to cook up yummy vegetarian dishes as well.
On one of the afternoons, we drove down to Babylonstoren, primarily to check what the fuss was all about :). Babel was completely full, so we instead opted to have a light lunch at the Greenhouse. It was extremely hot the day that we visited, so it was a tad uncomfortable to sit outside. We ended up having some sandwiches and salads and finished off the meal with iced fruit popsicles.
We also had one meal at Tuk Tuk Taqueria, which is a good Mexican place about town. Oh, and it’s also a brew pub.
Oh, and we had a hearty laugh to see that there was an Indian restaurant in town as well (aptly named, Marigold). The whole thing makes sense in the context of Analjit Singh owning so many properties in the town, but if not for his angle, Franschhoek would hardly have been a place where I would expect to find an Indian restaurant.
2 Days in Kruger National Park
What do they say about saving the best for the last? Seriously you guys, my first safari experience was just something else. Here’s something I wrote in my journal on the day we were leaving from Kruger:
I’ve left a piece of my heart in almost every city that I’ve visited. But today, as I leave from Kruger National Park, I think I have forever left a piece of my heart and my soul in the forests. There is something about the magic and the beauty and the primal-ness of the animals.
At the center of it all, they are all about innocence. The only thing they know is survival. And love, for their own. It feels like an honour to be invited into their homes for a chance to see them in their natural best. And it’s an honour I don’t take lightly.
Thank you for the privilege, dear African bush and you gorgeous animals. I’ll be back soon.
If you start researching on Kruger National Park, there is just so much information out here in terms of where to stay and how to go about doing the safari rides. I mean, you could choose to stay in the actual Kruger National Park, or in one of the surrounding concessions, which together are called Greater Kruger National Park. This thread on Tripadvisor was a worthwhile read when we were trying to figure out about where to stay and how to go about our safari planning.
We decided to stay at the Lion Sands Narina Lodge, which is a private game concession right off the Kruger National Park. Whether you choose to stay within the Kruger National Park or in one of the private game concessions, I’d highly recommend that you choose a camp/resort which is close to a water body, because you’re bound to see some animals come by to drink water.
Also, a word of advice about making your reservations. The safari lodges fill up fast and can become mighty expensive real soon, so I’d seriously recommend that you get your safari bookings done sooner rather than later. Even for perpetual late bookers like AT and I, we made it a point to get our safari bookings done at least four months out.
We ended up going on four game drives, and had the good fortune of being able to spot the Big 5 – lion, leopard, water buffalo, rhinoceros, and African elephant. Admittedly the lions were far off in the distance, and we had a bit of thrilling chase in get to them, which was fun. Our rangers were incredibly knowledgeable and clued in to the behaviour of the animals.
A quick word regarding the food – we were carrying some food stuff as a backup in case vegetarian food was not available (primarily for my parents-in-law). However, the staff at Lion Sands was accommodating enough to provide vegetarian options for our meals, and tasty food at that. We didn’t even end up using the bulk of the food packets that we’d carried along with ourselves.
With regards to dressing for the safari, most hotels advise you to wear neutral coloured clothing as much as possible, or what I’d like to call dressing in colours as close to the earth as possible – think greens, browns, khaki. And be sure to carry options for layering. The temperature varies a fair bit over the course of the day.
Our stay at the Kruger National Park was probably my favourite part of our whole South Africa travel. There is something completely magical about seeing animals in the wild and being immersed in a place so completely different from our city lives.
Now, obviously Kruger National Park is not the only place to experience wildlife while in South Africa. However, it is one of the largest game reserves in Africa, and you increase your chances of spotting certain kinds of animals (especially the Big 5). If you have the time, I’d highly recommend that you make it a part of your South Africa travel plan.
A few more pictures of gorgeous South Africa:
View from our room in Cape Town.
Playing tourists around the V&A Waterfront.
How could I resist taking pictures of all this gorgeousness!
Cannot get enough of the greenery and flowers at the Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden.
I am the queen of awkward poses.
Morning hike views.
Parliament House, off the Company’s Gardens.
Colourful huts on the Muizenberg beach.
In love with the landscape.
The tiniest airport I’ve ever seen.
What a beauty.
Impalas were here, there and everywhere in the Kruger National Park.
If it helps, I’ve put down our broad day by day itinerary for you guys to help you with your South Africa travel plan.
Day 1: Long travel day. Reached Cape Town via Dubai by late evening. Checked in at Taj Cape Town (highly recommended). Dinner at an Indian restaurant near the hotel – Bukhara.
Day 2: Table Mountain; roamed around and had lunch at the V&A Waterfront; Bo Kaap by evening; dinner at Mzansi.
Day 3: Breakfast at Clarke’s; Drive down the peninsula; Boulder’s Beach; reach Cape of Good Hope; dinner at Thali.
Day 4: Early morning hike up to Lion’s Head; breakfast at the hotel; window shopping around Long Street and Church Street; afternoon walks around the Company’s Garden; lunch at El Burro; Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens; some shopping at V&A Waterfront; Dinner at Bombay Brasserie at the Taj
Day 5: Robben Island Tour; lunch at V&A Food Market; drive to Franschhoek; check-in at Mont Rochelle; dinner at hotel
Day 6: Breakfast at the hotel; Lunch at Babylonstoren; spa massages at the hotel; dinner at Tuk Tuk
Day 7: Depart early morning back to Cape Town to take flight to Johannesburg and then take the transfer flight to Skukuza Airport; check in at Lions Sands Narina Lodge; afternoon game drive; dinner at the hotel
Day 8: Morning game drive; spa massage; lounge around the hotel; afternoon game drive; dinner at the hotel
Day 9: Morning game drive; check out of hotel; flight to Johannesburg; Commence long day of travel via Dubai
Day 10: Back in Bombay by late afternoon
When we were planning on the itinerary for our 10 days in South Africa, we had a choice between doing Cape Town + wine country + safari, or Cape Town + drive down the Garden Route. I’ve heard that the Garden Route is absolutely one of the best drives in the world, but keeping in mind the interests of everyone, the first option made more sense for us. Had we had more time, we would have definitely added the Garden Route to our itinerary as well.
So there you have it. A recap of our 10 days in South Africa and a quick guide for your South Africa travel. Before I end this post, I’d be committing a serious crime if I didn’t you how incredibly nice and friendly the people in South Africa were. I mean, in all my travels, I don’t think I have come across friendlier people ever. We were floored by their hospitality, and honestly, so very touched. For me, South Africa makes for a perfect family vacation – there is a little something to satisfy all sorts of travelers, old and young alike!
Have you traveled to South Africa? What was your favourite bit about the country? What did you enjoy the most? And if you haven’t been yet, does it figure in your travel bucket list?