JOHANNESBURG – World Cup soccer matches will be held for a month beginning June 11 in South Africa. Foreign ticket sales, particularly in Europe, have been disappointing, but organizers still expect up to 350,000 people to travel here for the continent's first World Cup.
Nine South African cities will host matches starting June 11, and many visitors will want to see local attractions in addition to the games. Here is a glimpse of the cities and some local highlights.
Both the now defunct National Party — the party of apartheid — and the African National Congress were founded in this university town in South Africa's agricultural heartland.
The nearby Soetdoring Nature Reserve is a birders' mecca, military buffs will be drawn to Bloemfontein's Anglo-Boer War cemetery, and sports fans can take time out from football to visit this rugby-loving city's Choet Visser Rugby Museum.
Bloemfontein is about an hour's drive from Maseru, capital of the landlocked kingdom of Lesotho, with its spectacular, high-altitude vistas and pony treks.
A curious footnote: "Lord of the Rings" author JRR Tolkien was born in Bloemfontein in 1892, moving to England when he was 3.
Known as the Mother City, this cosmopolitan port city grew from a settlement founded by the Dutch East India Company in 1652. Cape Town is famous around the world for its dramatically beautiful setting, beneath Table Mountain and at the confluence of the Atlantic and Indian oceans. It's also near South Africa's winelands.
Nelson Mandela spent most of his 27 years in prison off Cape Town on Robben Island, now a museum accessible by ferry.
Cape Town winters can be wet and blustery — the ferry to Robben Island doesn't run when seas are too choppy. When fans aren't at Cape Town's new World Cup stadium, they might want to consider some indoor tourism.
If you can't get out on the water, substitute the Two Oceans Aquarium at the V&A Waterfront shopping center. The aquarium offers puppet shows and other activities for children, and is home to some 3,000 animals in exhibits focusing on everything from frogs to sharks.
Nearby Pollsmoor Prison, where Mandela was held from 1982-88, welcomes visitors for meals at the Pollsmoor Mess, a full-service restaurant run by prisoners being prepared for jobs upon their release.
A museum within Groote Schuur Hospital includes a visit to the operating rooms where the world's first heart transplant was performed in 1967.
Several galleries have set up in an old textile factory, Fairweather House, in Cape Town's Woodstock neighborhood. In one stop, contemporary art lovers can get an overview of South Africans with international reputations.
The main city in KwaZulu-Natal is Africa's busiest port. The area gave South Africa King Shaka, considered the 19th century founder of the Zulu nation, as well as its current president, Jacob Zuma. World Cup visitors will find some of South Africa's best winter weather here, with water temperatures warm enough for swimming in the Indian Ocean.
History buffs should visit nearby battlefields where British, Zulu and Afrikaner soldiers clashed in the 19th century. Foodies can taste local Indian cuisine, developed by South Africans descended from indentured workers brought from India in the 19th century to work on KwaZulu-Natal's sugar plantations. Durbanites claim to have invented bunny chow (curry served in a hollowed-out loaf of bread) and argue endlessly about which fast food joint serves the best version of this dish, now found all over South Africa.
South Africa's economic hub dates to the gold rush of the late 1800s. It is home to headquarters of the nation's banks and its mining companies, and to the mansions of its gold and platinum magnates. Johannesburg has two World Cup stadiums, and is within easy driving distance of two other host cities, Pretoria and Rustenburg. Fans can do a lot of football-watching from Johannesburg, but they should make time for the city's restaurants and contemporary African art galleries, markets for curio lovers, and clubs where you can hear the latest kwaito, sometimes known as South African hip hop.
A row of mine dumps — mesas of pale yellow sand left over when gold was dug from some of the world's deepest shafts — separate downtown from Soweto. Once a dormitory community the apartheid government built for blacks, Soweto now is a vibrant urban center that is part of greater Johannesburg. Soweto's Vilakazi Street boasts of having been the address of two Nobel peace laureates — retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who still occasionally visits his Vilakazi Street home, and Mandela.
No. 8115 Vilakazi Street, the humble brick home to which Mandela returned after being freed from 27 years in prison, is a museum. South Africans are proud of having made a peaceful transition from white minority rule to democracy, and several sites in Johannesburg trace the difficult and inspiring journey: Soweto's Hector Pieterson Museum; the Apartheid Museum, set rather incongruously on the grounds of an amusement park and casino in southern Johannesburg; and the home of the Constitutional Court, where tour guides take visitors through the remnants of a hilltop Johannesburg prison that once held both Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi, to the court that now protects a fledgling democracy.
A fruit-farming hub that competes with Durban for balmiest winter weather. Instead of Indian Ocean beaches, Nelspruit has Kruger National Park, South Africa's flagship state park. Kruger accommodations range from luxury lodges with rooms with private plunge pools to sites where you can put up your own tent.
Malelane and Numbi gates, southern entrances to Kruger, are less than 60 kilometers (about 40 miles) from Nelspruit. A slightly longer drive will get you to neighboring Mozambique's seaside capital, Maputo, and Mbabane, capital of Swaziland, Africa's last absolute monarchy. The Crocodile and Nels rivers converge in the Nelspruit's Lowveld National Botanical Garden, where a suspension bridge offers a view of spectacular falls.
This agricultural, mining and manufacturing center is a major stop on the busy route from Johannesburg to Zimbabwe. Its corner of South Africa is eerily beautiful, with stretches of flat, dry landscape broken by statuesque baobabs and dramatic boulder formations. Attractions in the area include the Modjadji Nature Reserve, a forest of cycads, a protected species native to southern Africa.
The homeland of the Balobedu is near the reserve. The tribe is one of the few in Africa to have a leader who comes from a female line of succession. Balobedu legend holds that magical powers are passed from queen to queen, allowing her to transform clouds and create rain. The legend was respected by other tribes, and in times of drought, caravans of gifts were sent to the Balobedu.
This Indian Ocean port city is known for its beaches, a wealth of examples of Art Nouveau architecture and the elephants of nearby Ado National Park.
Nelson Mandela's home village, Qunu, is a day drive from Port Elizabeth. Mandela, who lives in Johannesburg, often spends holidays and his July 18 birthday in Qunu, which also has a Nelson Mandela Museum.
The University of Fort Hare also is a day trip from Port Elizabeth. Mandela writes in his autobiography that at the time he attended Fort Hare, "for young black South Africans like myself, it was Oxford and Cambridge, Harvard and Yale, all rolled into one."
South Africa's executive capital is known as the Jacaranda City. Pretoria won't be in full, purple bloom in June, but its hilltop Union Buildings, seat of the presidency, will be stately as ever.
In 1956, women of all races from across South Africa singing, "Strike the woman, strike the rock," marched peacefully on the Union Buildings to protest the extension to women of pass laws restricting blacks' movement. After apartheid ended, the words of their protest letter were inscribed in the steps sweeping up to the presidential offices as part of a memorial to the women marchers.
In 1994, Mandela took the presidential oath of office on the steps of the Union Buildings. Pretoria also is home to the mammoth Voortrekker Monument, honoring 19th-century pioneers who battled Zulu warriors to settle South Africa's interior.
Rustenburg's World Cup matches are being played in a stadium owned by the Bafokeng-Bakwena, or "People of the Crocodile," a South African clan proud of its history. In the late 19th century, the clan's king, Kgosi Mokgatle Mokgatle, sent his men to the nearby Kimberly diamond mines to earn cash to secure title to traditional Bafokeng land. The kgosi's foresight helped the Bafokeng maintain a sense of identity and a measure of independence during the apartheid years.
Platinum was discovered deep under Bafokeng territory in the 1920s, but the tribe did not fully realize the benefits until after apartheid ended in 1994.
Nearby attractions include the Sun City resort, the Pilanesburg National Park and Hartbeespoort Dam.