Two South African Cities that Should be at the Top of Your Bucket-List

south african cities

The new Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art has put Cape Town on the map again – but don’t overlook Johannesburg. These South African cities are ones to add to the bucket-list

Words Hannah Hopkins

We explore two enchanting South African cities on a once-in-a-lifetime trip

You really can’t overstate the case for visiting Cape Town. It has everything, from jaw-dropping mountain backdrops and stunning stretches of coastline, to centuries-old architecture and a cool urban edge. Factor in world-rated restaurants, hip bars, design-savvy shops and, of course, exceptional wine, and this singularly beautiful city encompasses everything you could want in a holiday.

Cape Town is a perennial favourite, but the opening of the Zeitz MOCAA (Museum of Contemporary Art Africa) has put it firmly back on the tourist map. Based in a converted grain silo overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, the museum has been designed by British architect Thomas Heatherwick and is one of the most striking buildings to have been constructed in Africa, housing an extensive collection of artworks. Also, towering above the vaulted cathedral of the museum, is the new Silo Hotel, a bulging building of faceted windows with 28 bedrooms and the jaunty Willaston bar, which accepts walk-ins if you’re thirsty after all that artwork.   

For first-time visitors to Cape Town, the Mountain Aerial Cableway, which zooms you up to the top of Table Mountain, is an absolute must. The views are best at sunset, but as the saying goes, you can go through all four seasons in one day in Cape Town, so if the weather looks good, get up there. Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years before the fall of apartheid, should also be on your must-see list.  


We visited these on our first day in Cape Town, feeling fresh due to minimal time difference from London (see you later jet lag), and an excellent night’s sleep at Ellerman House – an elegant Cape Edwardian mansion hotel with beautiful ocean views, once the home of shipping magnates. As well as elegant boutique rooms, the hotel also boasts a library, dining room, spa, brandy lounge, wine gallery, contemporary art gallery, champagne cellar and three dining terraces – one of which we dined on as the sunset. There’s so much to see, and that’s just on the hotel grounds.Later into the holiday we went on a full-day peninsula tour – a great way to get your bearings and see some of SA’s most picturesque spots. Following Chapman’s Peak Drive, you pass the urban areas of Camps Bay and Clifton and venture out to the Cape of Good Hope, Cape Point National Park and Boulders Beach – home to a vast colony of African penguins. That evening we ate at Nobu in the Only&Only hotel. Luckily we’d developed one hell of an appetite, because their tasting menu of Japanese-Peruvian cuisine, with accompanying wines, was dazzling.


If big hotels and urban chic are your bag, then One&Only will be right up your street. Nestled within a natural amphitheatre shaped by the vertical cliffs of Devil’s Peak and Lion’s Head, rooms have jaw-dropping views.  Its location on the fashionable Victoria & Alfred Waterfront makes it ideal for visiting wellness hub The Watershed, as well as some of the city’s other oh-so-trendy restaurants, including Test Kitchen (book well in advance) and Pot Luck Club. We recommend a Marine Mountain suite, and make sure you get breakfast delivered to your room to really take in the vista.


After a few days exploring central Cape Town, we drove 30 minutes to Steenberg Estate, based in idyllic Constantia. Established in 1682, it has come a long way from its humble beginnings and is now home to an 18-hole championship golf course, an understated hotel and spa and two exceptional restaurants. The contemporary Catharina’s cooks food beautifully, but it was the more casual Bistro Sixteen82, headed up by chef Kerry Kilpin, that really blew us away. We went back twice the food was so good – we’re still dreaming of the tempura prawns with red cabbage, coriander and peanut noodle salad. Then of course, there’s Steenberg Wine Estate, where you can while away a sunny afternoon tasting some of the finest Sauvignon Blanc and Méthode Cap Classique in South Africa – it doesn’t get much better than that.


From Cape Town we flew to Johannesburg, South Africa’s biggest city, which has a completely different rhythm. Hop on the Gautrain (£26 for a return journey) to get from the airport to the centre of town in just 15 minutes. Our destination was The Saxon Hotel, Villas & Spa. Renowned for its world-class service and strong sense of place, it’s nestled in a peaceful tree-lined corner of Johannesburg’s Sandhurst neighbourhood, a stone’s throw from the city’s shopping and business districts. It has played a key role in South African history, having hosted many high profile guests over the years, including Nelson Mandela, who completed his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom there. As well as a spa which was featured in Conde Nast Traveller (we rate the intensive anti-ageing La Prairie facial and Margaret Dabbs pedicure) and a beautiful pool, it also has several restaurants – our favourite was Qunu for traditional South African dishes. The sumptuous suites, which come with your own personal butler, are an oasis of calm and an excellent base from which to explore sprawling Johannesburg. For getting around the city, the red tour bus is your best bet. It takes in Nelson Mandela Square, Carlton Centre, Constitution Hill and the Apartheid Museum, which takes a good two to three hours to get around. Arty types should take a detour to street food and creative hub, Joziburg Lane, and foodies shouldn’t miss Marble – a hip, grill-centric restaurant with an outdoor drinking terrace – ideal for taking in the city’s rapid urban renaissance.

Though Cape Town is frequently cited as the most scenic of South African cities, Johannesburg has been named by Rough Guides as the number one city in the world to visit, with good reason. Its trending hubs of Braamfontein and Maboneng are friendly and unstuffy with heaps to see. So, if you’re planning to delve into South Africa, make sure you experience the buzz of a city undergoing an incredible rebirth, as well as one that already has it all.


Ellerman House
Rooms at Ellerman House start from £305 per night;

One&Only Cape Town
An ‘Artfully Luxurious’ package includes a private tour of the Zeitz Museum, cocktail mixology lessons, an art kit, the art of power excursion to the Lalela Project, and an exclusive meal at Nobu. Minimum two nights’ accommodation in a Marina Harbour room including breakfast, from £705 per night;

Steenberg Farm
Rooms start from £158 per night, including breakfast in Catharina’s Restaurant and a wine-tasting and cellar tour at Steenberg Vineyards;


The Saxon Villas and Spa
Rooms start from R7,400 (approximately £442) based on two people sharing a luxury suite including breakfast, complimentary minibar, WiFi and sparkling wine on arrival;


Return flights to Johannesburg from London start from £599, including all taxes and fees. With double daily overnight flights from Heathrow to Johannesburg, South African Airways offers flights to the largest route network within Southern Africa. Book now on or call 0844 375 9680.

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