8 ways to immerse yourself in South Africa’s lifestyle and culture

The beauty of South Africa is there are so many ways to dive into its culture – it’s never boring here. Here are just eight for starters…

Team Wanderlust
03 January 2023
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South Africa

South Africa’s diverse melting pot of cultures has earned it the nickname the ‘Rainbow Nation’, a moniker that mirrors the country’s colourful local life. The beauty of South Africa is there are so many ways to dive into its culture – it’s never boring here. Here are just eight for starters…

1. Enjoy a walking tour in Cape Town

Long Street in Cape Town (Shutterstock)

With its rich heritage and a compact core, a walking tour in Cape Town doesn’t just help you get your bearings but goes some way to understanding the many layers that make up this city. There’s a guided stroll (many of which are free) for every facet of Cape Town’s culture, whether it’s steering your stomach through its cuisine or understanding its journey from apartheid to freedom. There are walking tours to help you delve deeper into familiar icons, like atop Table Mountain, and others unveil parts of Cape Town you probably didn’t even know existed, like going underground to wander a network of subterranean canals first built by the Dutch.

2. Attend gay pride and other festivals

Cape Town’s gay pride (Shutterstock)

South Africa’s complex heritage has meant it embraced the LGBT community earlier than most by becoming the first country in Africa to legalise same-sex marriage, something that’s celebrated annually with vibrant Gay Pride festivals taking place across the country – particularly in Johannesburg (October) and Cape Town (February to March). South Africa loves a good party and no matter when you go your visit will coincide with a carnival atmosphere. You can join in the colourful 200-year-old street parades of the Cape Town Minstrel Carnival (January), watch opera, cabaret and more at the Grahamstown National Arts Festival (June-July) or celebrate seafood at the Knysna Oyster Festival (July).

3. Admire the vibrant murals

A bright mural in Cape Town (Shutterstock)

Graffiti may have been born in New York City but today South Africa boasts one of the most vibrant street art scenes on the planet. During apartheid it was a vital way for locals to express themselves and now it’s a vivid outdoor gallery for budding artists. Cape Town has one of the country’s most striking displays, with street art streaked across neighbourhoods like Woodstock and District Six depicting everything from Nelson Mandela to marking independence. Johannesburg is another hotbed for alfresco artistry, with Soweto’s cooling towers bearing an iconic mural charting the township’s story and wildlife like zebras, elephants and peregrine falcons splashed across the city.

4. Eat the local cuisine

Bunny chow (Shutterstock)

Food isn’t just something to be enjoyed in South Africa, it’s a way of life. To really get a flavour for its cuisine, you need to learn from the locals themselves. The colourful Bo-Kaap neighbourhood in Cape Town is a good place to start, where you can step inside the home of a Cape Malay ‘auntie’ and conjure up authentic curries or visit a shisa nyama in Soweto, where you can pick your own meat from the butchers and have it cooked on a braai right in front of you. Like its culture South African cuisine knows no bounds, whether it’s tasting your way through Paarl’s Spice Route or sampling bunny chow in Durban.

5. Sample the world-famous wines

Vineyards of the Cape Winelands in the Franschhoek Valley (Shutterstock)

When the Dutch first settled in the Cape Winelands in the 17th century, they knew they were onto a good thing. For the mountain ranges that hem in heritage towns like Franschhoek, Paarl and Stellenbosch provide the ideal microclimate for its world-famous grapes to grow. Guided tours are a great way to learn about the history of the region with plenty of wine tastings at boutique wineries and historic estates, which you can twin with its renowned farm-to-fork cuisine at its farmhouses and restaurants. The Franschhoek Wine Tram has become something of an institution, rolling through the sun-drenched scenery and dropping you off to explore a dozen or so wineries throughout the day.

6. Visit eclectic neighbourhoods

Maboneng Precinct of Johannesburg (Shutterstock)

South Africa’s rich mix of cultures means its cities have a kaleidoscope of neighbourhoods to wander. Cape Town has the rainbow-hued houses of the Bo-Kaap and the trendy bars and cafés of Gardens, while in Johannesburg you can wander the artsy vibes of Maboneng or taste your way around the hip eateries of Braamfontein. In Soweto, make time for the history of Vilakazi Street – the only place in the world where two Nobel Prize winners (Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela) have lived. If you’re exploring Durban, reborn Station Drive Precinct now has a fashionable café culture, while the restored Victorian and Edwardian architecture of Morningside are home to buzzing restaurants and art galleries.

7. Discover small towns

Charming Clarens (Shutterstock)

It’s not just the capital that is home to pockets of unique culture, with small towns all over the country hiding a wealth of cultural experiences such as local crafts, food and ways of life. In the foothills of the Maluti Mountains on the western fringes of the Drakensberg, visiting the town of Clarens is like going back in time. Known as the ‘Jewel of the Free State’, the chocolate-box Dutch sandstone architecture feels as if it’s not been touched since the village was first built in 1912 and its quaint high street is a joy to wander in search of pottery, leatherwork and other curios. Similarly, Cradock is another place still keeping old traditions alive. Originally founded in 1813 for migratory farmers, cattle farmers still live and work at this town on the Great Fish River today.

Wildlife lovers should head to Hermanus, known as one of the finest whale-watching hotspots on the planet. You can spot the likes of southern right whales from the shore. Head into the town to discover charming boutique shops and cafes where you can meet the locals and feast on fresh produce.

8. Visit a Zulu village to learn more about their culture

Ghost Mountain Zulu Warriors

Even with South Africa’s progressive outlook post-apartheid, there’s still plenty of room for traditional culture to thrive. Nowhere does it burn brighter than in KwaZulu-Natal, the spiritual homeland of the Zulu – South Africa’s largest ethnic group. A visit to a Zulu village in Zululand takes you straight to the heart of daily life, where you can unpick their fiercely proud customs and beliefs. Absorb details about their family structures and patriarchal responsibilities, understand why cattle are so highly prized by the Zulu and learn how their homes are made. You might even have the chance to meet a sangoma, a spiritual healer, who will shed light on their sacred lands and rites.

Feeling inspired?

Start planning your dream visit to South Africa now by heading over to the official website.

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