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. Bonus for budget crunchers: the value of the South Africa rand, the national currency, has been steadily free-falling against the dollar, making a trip there incredibly value-friendly for 2016.
Here’s what we found:
South Africa's "Mother 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's small-group, two-hour cycling tours in Langa, one of Cape Town's oldest (and safest) 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, where the evident poverty does little to overshadow the fascinating tribal culture and strong community ties here. Recommended for ages 10 and up; $23 per person, including bike rental
What baseball is to America, rugby is to South Africa. Catching a game in Cape Town is a rite of passage for any visitor looking to gain insight into this revered national pastime, and the pros at PG Tops Travel and Tours will have you doing so like an in-the-know local. They'll guide you to a game at the city's iconic Newlands Stadium, where matches are held for some 10 months of the year. Root for the home team amongst jovial Capetonians on this approximately six-hour guided tour, but first, enjoy a traditional pre-game tailgating party -- complete with a braai (a South African-style barbecue) and beers -- in the fields adjacent to the stadium. All the while, you'll gain insight into the sport and its unique accompanying culture -- a perk of having a local sports enthusiast as your guide. $42 per person, including match ticket, transport, food, and drinks
The second oldest city in South Africa, Port Elizabeth, or PE, is often viewed as little more than a safari springboard to the nearby Addo Elephant National Park. However, PE is well worth a closer look, as it is 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 three- to three-and-a-half-hour tour that delves into the historical context of PE (and of South Africa as a whole) at a series of history-rich sites, with a nod to the contemporary arts scene at the recently created Art Route 67. You'll cover diverse quarters of town that range from old Xhosa townships to the vibrant city center to affluent beachfront suburbs, stopping for architectural and cultural highlights along the way. $35 per person, including transport
Though it’s known for being one of South Africa's most popular beach retreats, dig a little deeper, and you'll find that Durban is much more than sunny skies and sandy shores. Enter Street Scene tours, which take you to sample one of the most culturally diverse cities in the nation, with itineraries that span townships to hip gentrified 'hoods, and Indian shrines to traditional Zulu medicine markets. They offer several urban-minded, beyond-the-guidebook tours, but we're especially keen on the four- to five-hour graffiti tour; led by one of Durban's leading graffiti artists, the tour offers insights into the marks, tags, and murals that define the city’s unique underground street culture. A gastro-pub burger and craft beer round out the excursion. $37 per person, including transport; note the tour requires an eight-person minimum to go out