Most folks set out to South Africa with safari, nature, and perhaps even wine country in mind, but the nation has some fascinating urban settings that are well worth diving into, too. On our recent trip, we vetted several tour operators in a trio of South African coastal cities — Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, and Durban — that are turning out some truly inventive ways of presenting visitors with insights into the local culture and city scenes.
Here are three cool urban tours to try when in South Africa.
1. Take a cycling tour of Cape Town. South Africa's capital city, Cape Town, reveals several different faces, and anybody who wants to get a grasp on its multicultural tapestry and profoundly complicated history must set out to explore one of its urban townships. While several Cape Town tour operators propose township walking tours, it's more of a rarity to find one going out on two wheels. That's why we like well-reputed Vamos' small-group cycling tours in Langa, one of Cape Town's oldest townships. The outings are run at a leisurely pace and are led by a local Xhosa guide, who dispenses commentary and insights about township life. $31 per person; all participants must be 10 years or older.
2. Explore Port Elizabeth. The second oldest city in South Africa, Port Elizabeth (also known as PE), is often viewed as a safari springboard to the nearby Addo Elephant National Park. However, PE is well worth a closer look, as it's laden with historic architectural gems, pristine beaches, and a surprisingly vibrant public art program. The guides at Alan Tours know just where to uncover the city’s hidden gems. They offer an insightful tour that delves deep into PE's history (and the South Africa's history as a whole) at a series of culturally enriching sites, with a nod to the contemporary arts scene at Route 67. You'll cover diverse quarters of town that range from old Xhosa townships to the vibrant city center, to affluent beachfront suburbs, all while stopping to admire architectural and cultural highlights along the way. $48 per person, includes bottled water.
3. Learn more about the street art. Though it’s known for being one of South Africa's most popular beach retreats, if you dig a little deeper, you'll find that Durban is much more than sunny skies and sandy shores. Enter Street Scene Tours. The tour operator will take you around one of the most culturally diverse cities in the nation, and offer itineraries that span from townships to hip neighborhoods to Indian shrines, to traditional Zulu medicine markets. They offer several urban-minded, beyond-the-guidebook tours, but we're especially fond of the four- to five-hour long Durban Graffiti Tour, which offers insights into the marks, tags, and murals that define the city’s unique underground street culture. At the end of the tour, you'll wrap up the action-packed day with a burger and beer. $40 per person; note that the tour requires an eight-person minimum.