Tourism is South Africa's fastest-growing industry, thanks to safaris, white-water rafting and beautiful beaches. But a decade after democratic elections consigned apartheid to the dustbin of history, visitors have also begun to appreciate the country's urban buzz, particularly the pleasures and intrigue of Johannesburg and Cape Town.
Soweto, a few miles from central Johannesburg, is one of South Africa's most notorious townships--the congested, occasionally chaotic home to millions of the country's poorest citizens. A tour is now practically mandatory for anyone visiting South Africa, to see how much the country has changed and how far it still has to go. Both Jimmy's Face to Face Tours (www.face2face.co.za) and Max Maximum Tours www.backpackafrica.com offer quality guided visits. Nearby is the Apartheid Museum www.apartheidmuseum.org) at which visitors are randomly assigned a racial classification and then enter the raw concrete-and-steel structure through one of two doors--white or nonwhite. Inside are exhibits, photos, video and posters chronicling apartheid's repression as well as the optimism of the 1994 elections. The newly opened Constitutional Court, a spectacular glass-and-concrete structure that houses one of the country's best collections of contemporary art, was built next to a prison that now serves as a museum.
After that sobering experience, you can enjoy the lighter side of the new South Africa by lodging at the Grace Hotel (www .grace.co.za/the_grace) in the leafy Johannesburg suburb of Rosebank. The hotel, built in 1997, captures the romance of Africa's colonial past, with its country-style bedrooms and a menu featuring traditional favorites such as ostrich. For an edgier feel, you can head to the ultramodern Melrose Arch Hotel www.africanpridehotels.com)
Cape Town offers its own glimpses into South Africa's history. On the Rainbow Curtain township tour run by Grassroute Tours (www.grassroutetours.co.za), you visit District Six, once a mixed-race suburb from which all residents were forcibly removed in the 1960s. In Cape Town's harbor sits Robben Island, site of the prison turned museum where Nelson Mandela spent most of his 27 years behind bars. The windswept island seems a lifetime removed from the vibrant multicultural city across the water. Stay at the Africa Studio www.sa-venues.com/wc/africastudio.htm) a loft-style complex close to Cape Town's liveliest restaurants and the bohemian neighborhood of Bo Kaap, or the Metropole Hotel (www.metropolehotel.co.za), which fuses Victorian architecture with one of South Africa's most modern interiors. Both hotels are close to Ginja, a modern take on a traditional French brasserie. After dinner, head upstairs to Shoga, a bar where the color of your skin matters less than what clothes you wear or what car you drive. In so many ways, South Africa is a new world.