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Unlike the rest of the African Continent, South Africa is worlds apart when it comes to being classed as an LGBTQ+ welcoming destination. In fact, LGBTQ+ people hold rights equal to non-LGBTQ+ people. South Africa was the first country in the world to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation in its constitution, back in 1996. Ten years later, in November 2006, South Africa became the fifth country globally to legalise same-sex marriage; the first and to-date, only, country in the entirety of Africa.
Age of consent was legalised in 2007; same-sex couples are legally allowed to adopt; the right to change legal gender has been in place since 2003; and openly LGBTQ+ people are allowed to serve in the military. Overall, the legal rights, laws and protections are very much in favor of LGBTQ+ people.
The larger cities such as Cape Town and Johannesburg offer a full-scale LGBTQ+ scene, including their own annual Prides. However even some of the smaller cities and towns such as Port Elizabeth, and Stellenbosch in the Western Cape now have bars that have become known as the local LGBTQ+ hangout.
Laws and constitution aside, South Africa as a destination offers something to suit any traveler. The landscape is beautiful, ranging from oceans to mountains to deserts. There is an abundance of outdoor activities to suit active travelers, many beaches along the Garden Route have made it into the Forbes list of the World’s Best Beaches, and for the animal lovers, there are countless safaris available with wildlife that cannot be found anywhere else in the world.
Being a large country, climate conditions within any one season can vary depending on the region. The summer months in the Cape are hot and dry, while summer in Pretoria and Kwazulu Natal means hot, humid days with a lot of rainfall.
However, the seasons in South Africa can be categorized as follows:
The benefit of such a varied climate is that South Africa is classed as a year-round destination, with different activities available at different times of the year, depending on the region.
The most popular times of the year to visit are:
September: Weather in September is the most consistent across all regions, making this a popular month for visits combining multiple provinces. September also offers great beach weather in the Cape, before the temperatures get too hot.
June – October: Whale-watching season in South Africa runs from June to October. Southern right whales can be seen off the coast along the Garden Route, in particular the coastal towns of Knysna and Hermanus.
Winter: The winter months of June and July are the most popular for game-viewing, especially in Kruger National Park. The temperature is not as hot as during the summer months, and rainfall is minimal. Animals are easier to spot as they are not avoiding the heat.
Cape Town has probably the largest and most diverse LGBTQ+ scene found in South Africa, albeit still small compared to other capital cities. The highest concentration of nightlife is found in the Waterkant area. There is a mixture of LGBTQ+ nightlife in Cape Town, from smaller bars, where locals meet for a casual drink, to the two popular dance clubs, Pink Panther and Crew Bar.
Cape Town’s most popular tourist attractions include the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, a large shopping and dining venue; the iconic Table Mountain—the top of which can be reached either by hiking or cable car; and the beautiful Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens.
Cape Town also has an annual Pride, which takes place around the end of February. This is a very diverse event, with all subsections of the LGBTQ+ community being very well represented.
Johannesburg is the largest city in South Africa, and has a large LGBTQ+ community. While Cape Town takes the crown as the ‘gay-capital’ of South Africa, Johannesburg does still offer a vibrant and diverse LGBTQ+ scene. The scene here is quite spread out, with no ‘gay-village’ to speak of, like the Waterkant in Cape Town. Gay bars and clubs are found in the suburbs of Sandton, Melville, Parkhurst and Illovo.
Popular tourist attractions in Johannesburg are the Apartheid Museum, explaining South Africa’s troubled past in great detail, and Soweto, one of South Africa’s largest townships, where you can also visit Nelson Mandela’s former house. Johannesburg also serves as the gateway to Kruger National Park, which offers a huge range of safari options.
Johannesburg Pride is held annually in October, and is four days packed full of queer celebrations.
Stellenbosch is a university town located 50km (31 miles) east of Cape Town. Stellenbosch is located right in the heart of the Cape Winelands, and forms part of the largest wine-producing region in South Africa. Naturally wine-tasting and vineyard tours are among the popular tourist attractions here.
While there is no exclusive LGBTQ+ scene here, being a university town, a lot of the nightlife options attract a diverse, student crowd. One bar in particular, Die Mystic Boer, has become a popular LGBTQ+ hangout.
Knysna is a very picturesque coastal town found on the popular Garden Route of South Africa. It is the perfect base for travellers wanting to take part in many of the outdoor activities the surrounding region offers, including hiking in the forest, whale and dolphin watching, cycling and paragliding.
Being such a small town, there are limited nightlife options in Knysna. However, recent years have seen an influx of LGBTQ+ owned/friendly boutique hotels and guesthouses opening both in Knysna, and the neighbouring town of Sedgefield.
Each year, usually at the end of April/beginning of May, Knysna holds the Pink Loerie Mardi Gras and Arts Festival. This is an event similar to Pride, a festival and a celebration in recognition of the region’s local LGBTQ+ community, as well as their cultural contributions.
Table Mountain was voted as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in 2011, and is one of the most popular attractions in Cape Town, for both locals and visitors.
Easily recognisable by its iconic flat top, Table Mountain is home to almost 1,500 floral species, many of which are endemic to the area. Many species of wildlife also call the mountain home, including rock dassies, caracal, porcupines and the elusive Table Mountain Ghost Frog.
The top of Table Mountain is easily reached by cable car, which takes approximately five minutes. Alternatively, you can opt to hike, which can take anywhere between 90 minutes to three hours, depending on your fitness levels and the route you choose to take.
The whale-watching season in South Africa runs from June through October, when the southern right whales migrate from Antarctica to calve in the warmer waters surrounding the Cape.
Hermanus, a coastal town on the Garden Route, has been named one of the best whale-watching locations in the world by the WWF, in particular as it offers many land-based whale-watching spots. However, there are many other coastal towns from which whales can be seen, including False Bay, Knysna and Cape Agulhas.
Other species that can be found in South African waters are humpback whales from May to November, bottlenose dolphins, humpback dolphins, and the occasional orca.
Going on a safari and seeing native African wildlife in its natural habitat and not through glass walls and cage bars is high on many visitors’ lists. Many private reserves, a lot of which are Big 5 reserves, can be found in almost all of the regions of South Africa, in particular the Eastern Cape (where Port Elizabeth serves as the gateway) and Kwazulu-Natal (where Durban would be your entry point).
As well as traditional game drives, many private reserves now also offer alternatives, such as horseback safaris, quad biking safaris and even walking safaris. And for visitors who are short on time and cannot take part in an overnight safari, many reserves now offer daytrip packages.
For a truly authentic Big 5 safari, many visitors opt to visit Kruger National Park rather than a private reserve. Kruger was South Africa’s first national park, and to date is one of South Africa’s largest reserves, covering over 7,500 square miles. All the Big 5 mammals are found in Kruger, which in total contains more species of animal than any other reserve in Africa.
Boulders Beach, Simons Town is located a 30-40 minute drive from Cape Town. Boulders Beach is a beautiful beach, but it is also home to a land-based colony of African penguins. These penguins are also known as jackass penguins—when you hear their noisy cry you will understand why.
The penguin colony at Boulders Beach can be seen by taking a stroll along raised walkways, which ends at a large platform overlooking the main colony nesting on the beach. African penguins are unfortunately becoming endangered, but the colony here is protected, and the fee to visit goes back into the conservation of the colony.
Compared to other cities in the world that offer the same activity, such as New York or Las Vegas, taking a helicopter ride within South Africa is a very affordable experience.
Helicopter flights are incredibly popular in Cape Town, and there are a number of different operators offering a variety of different flights, such as around Table Mountain, out to the bay, and over to Robben Island. Many of these operators can be found at the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront.
Helicopter flights are also available from Johannesburg, and can include sights such as Nelson Mandela Bridge and the township Soweto.
One of the most popular day tours from Cape Town is a full day Cape Peninsula tour. There are a number of companies offering this tour, most of which will take visitors to Cape Point, South Africa’s most southwestern point. This is an area of natural beauty, with some spectacular views. The drive to Cape Point passes mountains, beaches, small villages, fishing towns, national parks, and stretches of coast with endless views of the ocean.
Other highlights of the tour include visiting a fur seal colony and a visit to Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens.
South African cuisine is exceptional. Almost everywhere you travel, you will come across a variety of meat dishes on the menu. This ranges far beyond the typical chicken, beef and pork that you may be used to. Most restaurants serve a wide range of venison, including almost every type of antelope. Common steaks found on menus are springbok, kudu, impala, warthog, ostrich, and even zebra.
South African cuisine also has a strong Cape Malay influence, with many similarities to Indonesian and Malaysian cuisine. A popular dish is bobotie, which is spiced mincemeat topped with scrambled egg and baked.
The drink of choice in South Africa is most definitely wine, considering the vast number of wine estates, in particular around the Stellenbosch, Paarl and Franschoek areas of the Cape.
South Africa is considered to be an LGBTQ+ welcoming destination, especially compared to the rest of Africa. South African law is now completely in favour of LGBTQ+ rights, including legalizing same-sex marriage, allowing people to change their gender identity, and including clear anti-discrimination protections in their constitution.
As a tourist visiting South Africa, staying within the main cities and the tourist attractions, you will be welcomed with open arms.
However, when it comes to the smaller towns, rural communities and townships, there is a clear difference between the local attitudes towards LGBTQ+ people, and the laws and protection found within the constitution. South Africans can be conservative, and can also be very religious and god-fearing. Homosexuality is frowned upon by many, particularly within the township communities. As such, LGBTQ+ South Africans can and often do face discrimination and homophobia. Violence towards LGBTQ+ people is not unheard of, although this is most often limited to the local township communities. This is not at all likely to impact a tourist’s visit, unless they are to venture into a local community being openly affectionate, which is not recommended. Townships are interesting to visit, to get a sense of how the locals live, but it’s recommended to take a guided tour.
Other practical tips to bear in mind when visiting South Africa are:
Cape Town definitely holds the LGBTQ+ crown for South Africa. It holds an annual pride, usually at the end of February, which attracts on average 9,000 visitors. Cape Town Pride is a week of festivals, parties and other events, ending with a parade through the streets of Cape Town. Interesting to note, despite the size difference between Cape Town and other cities, Cape Town Pride is now the largest in South Africa.
Cape Town also celebrates the MCQP, or Mother City Queer Project carnival in December. This is an extremely popular event for both locals and visitors to Cape Town, all wanting to dress up and party alongside live bands and DJs.
Johannesburg Pride is usually held in October, and now spans four days. While Cape Town Pride is the largest Pride in South Africa, Johannesburg holds the biggest parade, attracting over 22,000 people in 2018.
Other notable LGBTQ+ events include the Pink Loerie Mardi Gras in Knysna, held in May; Durban Pride, held in June; the Mr Gay South Africa event, held in November; and the Out in Africa Film Festival, which occurs in both Johannesburg and Cape Town, usually in September or October.
We are Ben and Sion, a married couple originally from Manchester. We packed our bags and left the UK in January 2018 and set up our gay travel blog, The Globetrotter Guys. We are currently travelling the globe, documenting the best in luxury gay travel, adventure and lifestyle.
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