You might have noticed that we are keen souvenir shoppers when we travel around the world. This time, we look at the best souvenirs to buy from South Africa.
The Best Souvenirs to Buy in South Africa
Biltong | Carved Stone Sculptures | Painted Ostrich Egg | Rooibos Tea | Wine from the Cape Wine Route | Wooden Mask Carvings | Wooden Wildlife Carvings | Woven Bowls, Bags & Baskets | Zulu Beaded Jewellery
Biltong is the unequivocal South African snack. It’s basically a large stick of unprocessed cured meat that is cut into smaller chewy strips for easy eating. Think of beef jerky from the USA with a more natural flavor, or bakkwa from Southeast Asia, except more salty than sweet.
While biltong can be on the salty side, it uses lean protein so there are a few benefits compared to the more processed kinds of jerky found elsewhere. And as South Africa is home to some delicious game meats, you can find a variety of proteins from the standard beef to the more exotic kudu, springbok, wildebeest, or ostrich. Biltong has a crispier and drier counterpart called droewors, which literally translates to “dry sausage” and is exactly that. Biltong and droewors are not the longest lasting souvenirs from South Africa, as these small pieces of joy are usually gone in one sitting! Yet due to their long shelf life, they still make for a delicious gift for a loved one back home, or for yourself when you’re craving some glorious dried meats.
The best places to purchase biltong are either from a local butchery or a food market. Each local will have their favourite. Some like it dry and others moist, some with barely any salt and others sprinkled with chili powder, so personal preference is key. If you can’t find a local to tell you their best biltong hideaway, try premium food chain Woolworths where the biltong is neither too salty nor too dry. Expect to pay around $15 for 400g, anything cheaper is probably not great.
Carved Stone Sculptures
In all the African countries that we’ve thus far visited for a safari holiday, one of the most ubiquitous and popular souvenir crafts are carved stone sculptures of the wildlife. In South Africa, we found a huge selection in craft markets and souvenir shops across the country.
We bought these intertwined giraffes at Green Point Market in Cape Town. Often listed as a flea market, it’s actually more like a craft and souvenir market, and there is an absolutely huge selection. We really liked the realistic depictions of wildlife, beautifully detailed and usually polished in a dark colour, with lighter detail carved into the surface. We also appreciated the more modern sinuously curved abstract human forms, usually unstained to show of the pale natural colour and markings of the stone.
Stone carvings are most commonly made of soapstone, as the soft stone is easy to carve and colour. However, it’s also relatively fragile, so take care to wrap and protect it well, to get it home in one piece. Serpentine is another stone used for carving in South Africa, which is much harder than soapstone but hard to distinguish visually.
Pricing varies wildlife depending on size, quality and how much the vendor thinks they can persuade you to part with. Do shop around, not only on price but on style and quality of carvings, as many artists copy successful styles but not all are equally skilled.
By Kavita Favelle, author of Kavey Eats. Find me on Instagram.
Painted Ostrich Egg
When I was travelling in South Africa, I noticed that almost all visitors wanted to see the Big Five. This majestic quintet comprises the lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant and African buffalo. The most elusive is the leopard. Having had the privilege of seeing on of these beautiful cats, I can understand why visitors seek this experience. After completing an extensive motorcycle tour through South Africa and neighbouring countries I was seeking a souvenir – not just any souvenir but something special that captured the true beauty and uniqueness of these magnificent creatures
Towards the end of this tour, I spent a few days in Clarens, in the Free State. A beautiful little town with numerous art galleries, cafes and quality souvenir shops, it is one of the ‘must-see’ places in South Africa.
There, in Clarens, at a sidewalk stall, I found my souvenir! A hand-painted ostrich egg featuring the Big Five. I paid 370 Rand for it and it was worth every penny. I loved it, right from the get-go. It sits on my desk, and whenever I glance across at it, it takes me back to that trip; the richness of the experiences and the moments of sheer wonderment.
By Keith Erskine, author of Travellin Lite. Find him on Instagram.
Rooibos (Red Bush) Tea
No visit to South Africa would be complete without enjoying the country’s most popular herbal tea – Rooibos. Rooibos tea, often called Red Bush tea, is harvested from a broom-like plant that grows among South Africa’s fynbos. The tea is indigenous to South Africa and only grows in the lush valleys of the Cederberg mountains in the Western Cape.
Rooibos tea offers a distinct, naturally crisp and earthy flavor and is also caffeine-free and packed with antioxidants. Besides its great taste, drinking rooibos (allegedly) has several excellent health benefits. Not only is it believed to improve skin, bone, and heart health, but to also remove toxins and improve your immune system.
Rooibos is very popular with locals and tourists alike, so it’s effortless to find. There are several brands available, but the two brands that stand out are Freshpak and KhoiSan Organic Rooibos Tea. You can find Freshpak tea in any supermarket, such as Woolworths, Pick ‘n Pay, and Checkers across the country. Prices start as little as R15 for ten tagless teabags, and bigger packets with 20-40 teabags are also on offer. Most organic stores in Cape Town stock Khoisan Rooibos Tea, but the most accessible place to find it is at the airport – both Cape Town International and OR Tambo stock this terrific blend. As it’s organic tea, expect to pay premium prices for this brand. Prices start at R50 for 20 tagless tea bags.
If you’re looking for a uniquely South African souvenir gift to take back home and share with loved ones, Rooibos tea is just the answer.
Wine from the Cape Wine Route
The Cape Wine Route is a popular and well established tourist attraction in the Western Cape region of South Africa. Historic towns originally established by European colonial settlers make new world wines using grapes from transplanted old world varieties as well as newer strains developed in South Africa.
Nearest to Cape Town are the vineyards and wineries of Constantia, but if you have time go further afield it’s well worth exploring towns such as Franschhoek, Helderberg, The Little Karoo and Stellenbosch, to name just a few. There are many, many wineries to visit, from large and well known ones such as Boschendal Wine Estate, Franschhoek Cellars Wine Estate, and Rust en Vrede, to many smaller or lesser known producers.
Most have tasting rooms and shops where you can try the different wines they produce. You can also learn as much as you’d like about the history of each estate, the different varieties of grape they grow, and the wines made from them. Several of the larger wineries also have onsite cafes and restaurants, making them a great place to stop and enjoy not just the wines but a delicious lunch, alongside a glass or two of wine.
Buying a bottle or two to enjoy during your trip is a no-brainer, but if you want to enjoy your favourite discoveries at home, many of the wineries will ship overseas when you buy a box of 12 bottles or more.
By Kavita Favelle, author of Kavey Eats.
Wooden Mask Carvings
My favourite souvenir is a carved African mask wall hanging that has a three-piece wooden chain link, all seemingly made of a single piece of wood. Mindboggling, the skills and craftsmanship it took to design and make!
I bought it in Cape Town, South Africa and to say I went a little overboard whilst souvenir shopping on my very first trip abroad, is an understatement. Completely dazzled by the city, it’s exuberance, diversity and beauty, I ventured into Green Market Square and left with an armful of souvenirs. The bounty included this wooden mask, a carved kneeling man, two carved elephants, two pairs of earrings (that I still wear) and a handful of eye-catching bead necklaces.
A complete novice to haggling, I probably paid more than I should’ve, but the pound ran in my favour and the items were solid and handmade with exquisite detail. As for quality issues, I’m pleased to say 27 years later they are all still in good nick, including earrings and necklaces. The perfect reminders of my first time in Cape Town.
These days the mask will probably cost around R350. Green Market Square is a tourist attraction in its own right, located in the centre of Cape Town, packed with stalls selling an array of crafts and surrounded by historical buildings. It’s ideal for curio shopping, although be sure to have your haggling game-face on!
Wooden Wildlife Carvings
Souvenirs of the Big Five are common throughout Africa. You’ll always find wooden carvings sold by locals at border points and markets throughout main cities, but the quality can vary.
I was looking for something more unique than just a carved rhino and was delighted when I came across travel chessboards. Safari-goers’ favourite animals are used instead of the usual pieces and the board folds in half to store the parts. You can buy the chess sets as small boards, travel sets or made into tables. The Lion represents the King; the Leopardess is the queen, the mighty Rhino is the knight, the African buffalo is aptly chosen as the bishop, the elephant with its strength is the rook, and the hippo takes the place of the pawn.
Each of the components is beautifully hand-carved and hand-painted with two different shades. The detail is exquisite, although you do have to check each piece to ensure that sections such as the horn on the rhino are fully intact. It’s also wise to check that all 32 parts are there. On the market stalls, the local people will happily set the board out for you, and they’ll delight in showing you the intricate detail of the pieces.
If you love bargaining, the best place to buy a chess board is at a local market. Offer a low price and see what counteroffer the vendor comes back with, it’s all part of the fun. If the price is still too high, walk away and have a look at the next stall. They’ll quickly follow you and barter some more.
If you prefer to pay a fixed price, community craft centres throughout Southern Africa sell them, or you can buy one at your departure airport, but you’ll pay considerably more.
Woven Bowls, Bags & Baskets
Handwoven items are another popular souvenir, available as a wide variety of items including bowls of all different sizes, as well as bags and baskets for transport and storage.
These items are traditionally made from dried grass straw, with dyes applied in many vivid colours. Beautiful patterns and motifs are created by the weavers, in both traditional and modern designs. Many different tribal people across South Africa make woven bowls and baskets, giving rise to a wide range of shapes and designs to choose from.
A more modern material is also used in weaving – telephone wire, both bare plastic-coated. This came about when Zulu men went to work in the mines of South Africa, and happened upon discarded telephone wiring wrapped in brightly coloured plastic. To make extra money, they began to weave baskets from these scraps of wire during their breaks, and their handicrafts quickly gained appreciation from tourists.
Today, wire is manufactured especially for this craft, in many more bright colours, and many craftsmen and women make Zulu telephone wire crafts to sell in markets and shops.
Straw baskets are available across the country. Telephone wire items tend to be most readily found in regions with Zulu communities, though you can also find them in the craft and souvenir stores of Cape Town and other large cities.
By Kavita Favelle, author of Kavey Eats.
Zulu Beaded Jewellery
The Zulu tribe of Southern Africa are renowned for their intricate and spectacular beadwork. Did you know that in traditional Zulu beadwork, particular colours and geometric shapes are selected and combined in various ways to create messages that are woven into the beaded jewellery? The famous Zulu beaded “love letters” (iincwadi) can be sent to a partner or prospective partner to express a range of emotions, facilitating communication between unrelated men and women without awkward face-to-face discussions about personal feelings.
The earliest Zulu beads were made of bone, ostrich egg shell and seeds. But since glass beads made their way to the southern tip of Africa via Phoenician traders centuries ago, the best quality and most intricate modern Zulu beadwork has been made almost exclusively from tiny, colourful glass beads.
Today, Zulu beadwork is available in a dazzling array of colours and it has largely lost its significance as a means of communication. But every item still has to be made by hand, using the same intricate techniques and craftsmanship handed down over the centuries from mother to daughter.
For the best quality modern jewellery, choose pieces made from very fine glass beads (they are cold to the touch and the piece will be relatively heavy for its size). Zulu beadwork is available at most markets and curio shops in South Africa, but three particularly good markets for beads are Greenmarket Square (Cape Town), Rosebank Sunday market (Johannesburg) and Victoria Street Market (Durban). Pieces by my favourite manufacturers, fair-trade certified Jabulani, are available at Out of Africa in duty-free at the international airports. Expect to pay around ZAR180 (£10) for a bracelet; ZAR360 (£20) for a necklace and more for a statement piece.
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Find more of my posts on the best souvenirs to buy around the world.
With many thanks to my contributors for helping me to compile this guide to the best souvenirs to buy in South Africa. All images are by the authors of the relevant entry, unless captioned otherwise.
Please check the customs restrictions of your home country before your trip, so that you know which food and drink souvenirs you are permitted to import.