I may earn a commission (at NO cost to you) if you buy through links on this page. These help support GiveWell charities and keep lights on at Project Untethered. I only recommend bomb-dot-com products I love. (See full disclosure)
This is a guest post written by Emma, a digital nomad who has been living in South Africa for over three years.
South Africa is one of my favorite countries in the world.
I’ve lived here for over three years as a digital nomad, and it has a special place in my heart.
One thing I’ve noticed is the crazy rumors about South Africa.
Today, I’m going to put some of the misinformation to rest.
What is South Africa famous for really? What is South Africa known for that is actually true?
You’re about to find out! 🙂
Table of Contents
- What is South Africa best known for?
- What is South Africa famous for producing?
- Famous South African food
- Famous South African people
- Famous South African Landmarks and Places
- Bad Things South Africa is known for
What is South Africa best known for?
From controversial diamonds and deliciously affordable wine, the best wildlife on earth to the sprawling mountain ranges and glittering oceans, South Africa is a country with no equal.
Warnings abound for tourists intent on coming to this both magical and dangerous place, but it is so worth a trip.
Let’s dive into what South Africa is famous for – the good, the bad, and the beautiful.
What is South Africa famous for producing?
Gems and precious metals
Gold. Platinum. Diamonds.
While Leonardo Di Caprio’s accent in Blood Diamond might not have been very accurate, the basis of the story certainly was.
South Africa is one of the world’s largest producers of gems and precious metals, owing to the abundance of mineral resources held in the unique and varied landscapes.
More specifically, South Africa is the world’s largest producer of platinum and the world’s fourth-largest producer of diamonds. Botswana, Canada, and Russia lead the way.1
South Africa also holds almost 41% of the world’s gold.
In 2020, South African exports for gems and precious metals totaled over US $20 billion.2
Amazing wildlife and landscapes
South Africa is world-renowned for its incredible landscapes and its unique and abundant wildlife.
Home to 10 UNESCO world heritage sites and over 11 million hectares of protected land, South Africa has too many wild places worth visiting to fit onto a single to-do list.
South Africa is home to a remarkable variety of plant and animal life, ranking it 6th out of the earth’s 17 most megadiverse countries.3 The country has 9 biomes, more than 23,000 distinct plants, almost 300 different species of mammal, and 849 species of bird.4,5
I’ll go into detail about a few of the standout landscapes and places further down in this blog.
Incredible wine – and incredibly cheap (if you’re coming to the country with anything but South African Rand that is).
Let’s compare the prices of two bottles of red wine, with the same vintage, a similar mixture of grapes, and similar taste points, each rated 4.0 on Vivino:
A bottle of Iter Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley costs US $31.99 online in the United States. The comparable wine in South Africa, the Rupert & Rothschild Classique 2017, costs ZAR 195 or the equivalent of US $11.75.
While it isn’t a rule that wine in South African always costs less than its Napa Valley, Bordeaux, or Tuscan equivalent, it really is quite often the case that you can get a far nicer bottle in South African for a much better price overseas.
South Africa has a few standout wine regions that are loved both locally and lauded abroad. And they are all easily reached by car within just one to two hours drive from Cape Town.
From Franschhoek to Stellenbosch, Elgin Valley to Walker Bay, these are some of the most stunning landscapes and wineries you will see. Rolling hills and lush rows of vines, backdropped by expansive mountain ranges that simply don’t look real.
While South African wines might not be as renowned as French, the wine regions from which they grow are arguably the most beautiful in the world.
Figure wise, wine exports in 2020 from South Africa hit 319 million liters. And within the international wine production industry, Italy leads total production, followed closely by France and Spain, with South Africa coming in eighth.6
Reds and whites for any palate can be found in South Africa as can some refreshing rosés, perfect for hot summer day drinking at your Airbnb overlooking Clifton beach. Also perfect for souvenirs!
Nobel Prize winner neighbors
South Africa has borne four Nobel Peace Prize laureates. Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, FW de Klerk, and Albert Luthuli, who all fought to end Apartheid.
Interestingly, both Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela lived on Vilakazi Street in the infamous township of Soweto in Johannesburg. We talk more about this history-rich neighborhood later on.
Famous South African food
I’m writing this section just an hour before dinner time here in Cape Town, and last night’s leftovers are looking sad compared to these delicious South African mainstays.
To the Americans reading this, Biltong is “essentially” beef jerky. Both are dried meat. But the similarities stop there.
The major difference is that with Biltong, the cut of meat is dried first as a whole, and then cut into slices. This allows you to choose your Biltong as you would choose your steak – rare, medium, or well done. Jerky, on the other hand, is cut first and then dried, producing a more ‘cooked’ and much drier product.
Drying and curing meat have long been used by indigenous cultures the world over.
The tribes of South Africa certainly had a variety of meat to choose from too. Back then and still today, you can get Biltong made from springbok, ostrich, kudu, wild boar, and even fish (no, thank you) in addition to the traditional beef.
Typically marinated in vinegar and spices, then dry spiced after being cut, the soft fluffy chewiness of Bilton will leave the tough tasteless beef jerky of your childhood in its dust.
Cape Malay curry
When the Dutch and French settled in Cape Town, they brought slaves from India, Malaysia, and Indonesia.
And with them came their distinctively delicious cooking methods and spices. As you know, India is famous for its mouth-watering curry, and in South Africans add in their own unique twist to the dish.
Cape Malay curries are sweet and savory. Cinnamon, dried fruit, and ginger combine with garlic, onions, and turmeric for an aromatic and satisfying curry with your choice of meat and local produce served over rice.
Amarula Dom Pedro
The Irish have Bailey’s – and the South Africans have Amarula.
A cream liqueur made from the indigenous African Marula fruit. Hand-harvested only once a year, this smooth drink tastes of caramel and fruit.
It is easily enjoyed on its own over a few cubes of ice or dashed into an evening hot chocolate or coffee.
But the best way to indulge with this local liqueur is through the Dom Pedro, South Africa’s adult milkshake.
Simply mix Amarula, vanilla ice cream, and double cream into a blender until smooth, serve with grated chocolate, or drizzle with chocolate sauce, and sip away.
The national dish of South Africa, Bobotie is a hearty, warming, and rather filling meal.
Curried mincemeat (often beef or lamb) is blended and cooked slowly with ginger, cumin, dried herbs, turmeric, and curry powder as well as fruits such as apricots or sultanas.
It is then topped with an egg, breading, and milk mixture that cooks into a creamy crust.
Dig in but make sure you’ve got time for a nap after. This dish always makes me sleepy.
For an even better idea of the yummy types of foods in South Africa, check out this mouth-watering video:
Famous South African people
The first Black President of South Africa, from 1994 to 1999, in what is thought as the first truly representative democratic election of the country.
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, or more affectionately known as “Madiba”, was an anti-apartheid revolutionary and peaceful political activist.
His nonviolent campaigns against the South African government’s racist policies, landed him in prison, serving 27 years, mostly at the now-famous detention center on Robben Island.
“In my country, we go to prison first and then become President.”
While he spent most of his life in England, John Ronald Reuel (JRR) Tolkien was actually born in Bloemfontein, South Africa.
He moved over the pond with his mother and brother as a very young child.
J.R.R. Tolkien is renowned for his novels, Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit.
Now a household comedic name in the United States, Trevor Noah has long been a favorite TV show host and comedian in his native South Africa.
Born in Johannesburg (Soweto), his mom is a South African of the Xhosa people, and his dad a European of Swiss-German ancestry.
At the time of his birth in 1984 during Apartheid, his mother and father’s relationship was illegal.
Listed on the Forbes top-earning models list for many years in a row, Candice Susan Swanepoel was born and raised in Kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa.
Swanepoel’s CV is vast and impressive, with a career in modeling spanning almost two decades.
Her most notable claim to fame is as a Victoria’s Secret Angel.
And of course, we can’t forget good ol’ Elon.
Elon was born and raised in Pretoria, South Africa to a Canadian mother and South African father.
It wasn’t until age 17 that he moved to Canada (and later the U.S.) to earn his bachelor’s degree.
Famous South African Landmarks and Places
Table Mountain National Park
As an expat living in Cape Town for the last 3 years, I can without a doubt say that it is this spectacular spine of mountains that drew me here – and has kept me here.
The mountains surrounding the ocean-side city of Cape Town are simply awe-inspiring.
Whether driving in the congestion-logged city center, winding along the two-lane highway perched high above the ocean along the coast, or driving on the eastern side through the leafy southern suburbs – the stretch of mountains creates a commute that feels like a privilege.
This World Heritage site encompasses several of South Africa’s most prominent landmarks and tourist draws.
Lion’s Head, frequented by hikers and paragliders alike. The slopes of Devil’s Peak, along which wild Zebra and Wildebeest can be spotted. And of course, Table Mountain herself, aptly named for the long flat top and ever-present layering of clouds resembling a table cloth.
There is no end to the magic and secret spots that can be found within Table Mountain.
The City of Cape Town is a cosmopolitan town, filled with everything a traveler would expect in a large European city.
Visit the colorful homes in the Cape Town neighborhood Bo-Kaap. Dating back to the 1760s, this hillside enclave on cobbled streets was originally the settlement of the Cape Malay culture.
Head west to the Atlantic coast and take your pick of postcard-worthy beaches all within 10 minutes of the city. The four famous beaches of Clifton, each well-protected from the summer winds with perimeters of picturesque boulders and mountainous backdrops. The long strip at Camps Bay beach, where you can grab a cold drink along the strip after a day in the sun.
Head south down the peninsula and visit the small penguins at Boulders Beach, watching as they make their daily pilgrimages to and from the ocean.
The ocean in Cape Town is not for the faint-hearted, with icy temperatures most of the year (cryotherapy, anyone?) and certain sections deemed unsafe for most swimmers due to swells and undercurrents. Also . . . sharks.
South Africa, while filled with towns and cities, is also home to many easily accessible and world-famous wildlife reserves.
The most famous South African wildlife area is Kruger National Park. Covering nearly 2 million hectares, it is home to a remarkable variety of wildlife including the ‘Big 5’ – Elephant, Rhino, Lion, Leopard, and Buffalo. Certain sections of this park can be very busy and it takes a bit of research to find a more secluded corner with fewer tourists to compete with for ultimate wildlife viewing opportunities.
Several other game reserves should be on your list in South Africa if the heavily-trafficked Kruger is not your style.
The exclusive Madikwe Game Reserve sits in the northwest of South Africa, bordering Botswana. With a limited number of luxury lodges, this conservation area is a hidden treasure where you’ll also find the rare Wild Dog along with the Big 5.
Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park boasts a different landscape, deep within the Kalahari desert, while the Addo Elephant National Park offers incredible elephant viewing and easy self-drives along paved roads.
Yet another impressive mountain range on the other side of South Africa, the peaks and rock formations as well as natural amphitheaters of the ‘Dragon Mountains’, are not to be missed especially by the avid hiker.
Bad Things South Africa is known for
In South Africa, it can be easy to forget that you are in a country mostly classified as “third world”.”
But even in the (mostly) polished city of Cape Town, reminders are everywhere.
High crime and income inequality
Income inequality is rampant in South Africa.
Drive through the city center or along Beach Road in the affluent Cape Town suburb of Sea Point, and you’ll find a person (or three) at most stoplights asking for change.
This disparity between the well-off and the disadvantaged leaves a gaping hole that is sometimes filled with crime.
Petty theft, carjackings, and home invasions are common occurrences and often carried out in a manner more violent than you’d encounter in your home country. Think knives, firearms, and other “unique” weapons intent on harming.
This reality of crime is something that has never left my mind. It’s there in the forefront when safely getting home at night or avoiding certain areas altogether.
And it’s there at the back of my mind too. Daily. Leaving windows or doors open and unlocked always carries a risk, as does getting out of your car at dusk with an armful of groceries and a search for your keys. Even leaving a phone charger in your car can mean a broken window and a call to the insurance company.
But as a woman who has traveled alone for many years, these things to be more vigilant about have long been a part of my life. Be safe and mindful of where you’re going and when, and you’re not likely to be a victim of crime here.
And of course, never leave home without a trusty long-term travel insurance plan!
Emma is a veteran digital nomad who has spent the past three years living in South Africa.
Mitch's Travel Recommendations:
Travel Planning Resources - Everything you need to plan your trip on one convenient page.
Safetywing Insurance - This cheap travel insurance has saved me over $15,000 in medical bills.
Booking.com - Book accommodation without adding your credit card (in case you need to cancel).
Skyscanner - Find cheap flights.
Trusted House Sitters - Take care of pets in exchange for free (sometimes luxury) accommodation.
Flexjobs - Find remote jobs without having to sift through crappy ones.
Skillshare - Free trial to take unlimited classes that teach digital nomad skills.
Anytime Mailbox - Virtual mail service that can handle your mail while you’re away.
Wise - Send and receive money abroad cheaply (great for freelancers).