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This is why I came to South Africa, I thought, gazing at 10 adolescent lions sauntering like the powerful beasts they are toward my open-top safari vehicle. I’d been up since just before dawn, watching my guides at Thanda Safari Private Game Reserve track the maned cats’ distinctive paw prints in the dust as we zoomed around the park. They were determined to find the resident pack of lions -- but there was no guarantee that I’d see them in the wild.

So when the giant golden cats finally appeared, my heart skipped a beat. The lions were more majestic (and fiercer) than I ever could have imagined. Some carried sticks in their mouths like playful house cats. Others silently crouched and became nearly invisible in the tall grass, showing off their predatory skills just a few feet away.

It was just one of dozens of experiences in South Africa that would leave me awestruck and humbled. While it was barely enough time to scratch the surface, my two weeks in the country convinced me that South Africa belongs on every traveler’s bucket list. Here’s why.

Tourists observing an African elephant.

Wow-Worthy Wildlife Encounters

If I had to choose just one reason why South Africa should top your bucket list, it would be the wildlife. The country is one of the best safari destinations in the world, offering travelers relatively easy access to parks and reserves with the famed “Big Five” game animals: lions, leopards, Cape buffalo, African elephants, and rhinos. You will never forget the first time you saw these magnificent animals, some of which are critically endangered.

Where’s the best place to go on a safari in South Africa? That depends. Many travelers make a beeline for Kruger National Park after landing in Johannesburg. Others prefer to go off the beaten path to safari camps scattered throughout the country that range from rugged to luxurious. The few days I spent at Thanda Safari, a 34,600-acre reserve in KwaZulu-Natal, were unforgettable. The gorgeous, glamping-style tents had just the right number of creature comforts (think: big beds layered with plush blankets, soft lighting, indoor plumbing, and even places to charge phones and cameras) to help me sleep well without disconnecting me from the purpose of my visit: the animals. At Thanda, I would walk next to impala on my way to the tent, and see them graze up close from the comfort of my bed. The expansive property made it feel like I was alone with the animals. Blissful solitude!

Wildlife encounters in South Africa aren’t confined to game drives, though. Travelers can see hippos and crocodiles on Lake Saint Lucia in iSimangaliso Wetland Park, African penguins at Boulders Beach in Cape Town, monkeys in the trees around Durban, and whales along the Cape South Coast year-round. The toughest part is finding enough time to see it all -- but hey, that’s what return visits are for.

A kick-dancing performance by a Zulu tribe.

Immersions In Local Culture

Four-legged creatures initially drew me to South Africa, but the country’s two-legged residents -- the people -- made me fall deeply in love with the destination. South African hospitality is real. South Africans genuinely care about their guests’ well-being and are willing to go above and beyond to ensure travelers are comfortable and happy. Don’t be surprised when restaurant servers and chefs happily accommodate your dietary needs (even when they offer a pre-set menu), friendly drivers entertain you with stories about their childhoods and teach you a few words in their native language, safari guides learn your favorite cocktail and mix it up for you at sunset on your game drive, and hotel staff members keep your room pristine (they even cleaned my safari tent on the morning of the day I checked out!).

In South Africa, it’s worth making an effort to immerse yourself in the local culture and connect with the people who call the country home. Consider visiting Isithumba, an authentic Zulu village in the Valley of a Thousand Hills outside of Durban. You’ll see how South Africa’s Zulu people spend their daily lives, learn about the Sangoma (a mystical healer), and feast on a traditional lunch of meats and chakalaka (a spicy vegetable relish). Village performers will sing welcome songs that seep into your soul and showcase their kick-dancing skills -- you might even be invited to join them!

The Zulus are among dozens of ethnic groups that live in South Africa. Look for ways to connect with some of the other cultures, such as the Xhosa, Ndebele, and the Basotho, to fully appreciate the diversity of this fascinating country.

Aerial view of Cape Town, South Africa.

Dynamic Cities

South Africa’s cities have an unmistakable energy that pulsates through the streets, and few other urban hot spots in the world are as lovable as Cape Town. The easygoing city is absolutely stunning, with its iconic Table Mountain blanketed by cascading clouds, candy-colored houses lining the streets of Bo-Kaap, and golden beaches. Spend some time eating, drinking, and shopping your way through the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront district. It has a shopping center filled with high-end artisan souvenirs that will remind you of your trip to South Africa when you’re home, plus a culinary market that serves up street food from around the globe. Discover the culture of Cape Town at Zeitz MOCAA, a contemporary art museum that displays vibrant pieces of 21st-century African art inside a repurposed grain silo. The Old Biscuit Mill is the place to be on a Saturday afternoon: It buzzes with activity as people shop for jewelry, clothes, and accessories from indie artisans; chow down on everything from curry to pizza; and sip wine while watching local bands. Speaking of wine, Cape Town is a great place to get familiar with South Africa’s renowned vineyards.

Other big cities in South Africa are home to just as much to love -- if you know where to look. People used to avoid Johannesburg, but the country’s largest city has been undergoing a revival, and there’s no better place to experience it than Maboneng. Dubbed “the coolest neighborhood in Johannesburg” by Vogue, Maboneng is a thriving downtown hot spot packed with galleries, flea markets, trendy restaurants, and live music performances.

If your trip to South Africa takes you to Durban, spend an afternoon shopping for custom spice blends and handcrafted souvenirs from the welcoming shopkeepers at Victoria Street Market, the oldest market in the city. Then make your way to The Oyster Box, a charming boutique hotel filled with art from around the world and home to a world-class spa. A visit to Durban also gives you the opportunity to try a beloved South African treat: bunny chow, or veggie, chicken, or mutton curry poured into a quarter-loaf of bread. It’s a staple in Durban, with roots in the seaside city’s large Indian population. It’s available at many restaurants around town.

Abigail Mbalo, owner of 4Roomed Ekasi Culture.

Transformative Township Tourism

Traveling can sometimes feel like a self-centered act. We jetsetters galavant around the world, soaking up the sights, snapping endless photos, and dipping our toes into other cultures. But what’s it all for? My visit to South Africa reminded me that exploring the world doesn’t have to be a completely indulgent experience -- you can make a difference in communities by the way you spend your time and (most importantly) your money.

There’s no better place to see the impact of your travel dollars than through township tourism ventures in South Africa. Socially conscious business owners have set up traveler-friendly experiences to draw tourists into some of the country’s poorest areas safely. These are real neighborhoods with a troubled history, and what’s there may not always be pretty. But witnessing the other side of South Africa gives you a deeper perspective on the country, and you’ll have the opportunity to connect with locals you wouldn’t otherwise meet.

When in Cape Town, make a reservation at 4Roomed Ekasi Culture. Owner Abigail Mbalo, a self-taught cook who competed on South Africa’s MasterChef, decided to open the restaurant in Khayelitsha, the township she grew up in, as a way to help elevate the standard of life in the community and provide opportunities for residents. A multicourse lunch at 4Roomed was one of the best meals I had in South Africa. Cooked in a food truck just outside the restaurant and garnished with fresh herbs growing from bathtubs-turned-garden beds in the dining room, each dish -- from the veggie skewers to the marinated meats -- burst with color and flavor. But while Mbalo’s food satiated my belly, it was her heartfelt desire to help others that filled my soul.

Want to see the creative side of a township in South Africa? Make some time in your itinerary for the Maboneng Township Arts Experience. The national public arts initiative in Langa, a township suburb of Cape Town, has partnered with residents to use their homes as gallery space for local artists. You’ll tour a few of the more than 50 participating gallery-homes; see the art in their kitchens and living rooms and on their porches; and meet the artists behind the creations.

South Africa has a million different sides to discover. Whether you seek nature, crave culture, or love exploring cities, this destination is right for you -- and will inspire you to come back again and again.

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