Nothing is more evocative of this continent than the vision of a cluster of African tribal huts baking in the blazing sun against a backdrop of scraggly thorn trees. In fact, many visitors to South Africa express their surprise at their arrival in gleaming cities filled with high-rise buildings.

Did you know?

British Airways featured a traditional Ndebele-inspired design by Martha Masanabo, on the tail fin of some of their planes.

You can view traditional African architecture everywhere in roadside villages as you drive around the country, but you have to know what you're looking for as each tribe has its own distinctive style.

Zululand is located along the eastern coast of South Africa. Here you will find the traditional 'beehive' dwellings of this tribe − layers of grass covering a wooden framework. These huts are laid out in a circle around a central cattle kraal, a similar layout to the Xhosa huts in the south-east of the country, although Xhosa huts tend to be made of painted mud.

In the 1800s, Shaka Zulu sent a warrior, Soshangana, to conquer the Tsonga people to the north. Instead, the warrior was very taken with these peace-loving people and their round, patterned huts with thatched roofs, so he made his home with them, and they took his name to become known as the Shangaan.

The Venda people live to the South of the Limpopo. Their houses are traditionally circular, surrounded by deep verandahs. These are similar to those built by the Tswana, Pedi and Tsonga, but their plastered ceilings are painted on the inside with concentric patterns known as 'the eye of the lion'.

Visit Sotho villages in the southern Highveld and in Lesotho − although these days you'd be hard-pressed to find the traditional snout-like entrance to the dwellings.

Any round-up of South African tribal architecture would be incomplete without a visit to an Ndebele village − north-east of Pretoria − with their unique polychromatic wall art.

If you don't have the time to visit all the different regions, at the Lesedi cultural village, just north of Johannesburg, you can take a tour of representations of Ndebele, Zulu, Basotho, Xhosa and Pedi villages.

Travel tips & Planning info

Who to contact

Shangana Cultural Village Mpumalanga
Tel: +27 (0)13 737 5805
Email: chief@shangana.co.za

Shakaland KwaZulu-Natal
Tel: +27 (0)35 460 0912
Email: res@shakaland.com

Lesedi Cultural Village Gauteng
Tel: +27 (0)87 940 9933
Email: enquiries@lesedi.com

How to get here

All major cities are accessible by airports, and smaller destinations are serviced by an effective road network.

Best time to visit

The summer months – September to April – are more pleasant and picturesque.

Tours to do

Contact the cultural villages or any of the local tour companies to find out about tours.

Get around

Hire a car or take a tour to visit the villages of your choice.

What will it cost

Day entry into cultural villages ranges from approximately R300 upwards, depending on location and what additional options like (dinner and dance) you want to add to the trip.

Length of stay

A visit to a cultural village usually takes up half a day.

What to pack

Sunscreen and hats for day visits. Mosquito repellent and a warm jersey for the cooler evenings.

Where to stay

Some cultural villages have accommodation so that visitors can have a more complete experience

What to eat

You should definitely make a point of sampling the delicious local cuisine, but if you’re squeamish, always ask what you’re being served – offal, mopane worms and grasshoppers sometimes feature on the menu. And sorghum beer packs a punch.

Best buys

Beadwork, leatherwork, pottery, ostrich eggs, jewellery.