With more landscapes and terrain than just about another country on Earth, South Africa takes the lead when it comes to diversity. As any country should that boasts hippo sightings on the Limpopo River and penguin sightings on the Cape. An epic country at the tip of an epic continent, wildlife is likely your first draw. But don’t forget about the entertainment, nightlife, dining, and coasts. There are several incredible national parks and equally incredible national dishes (on a completely different scale!). South Africa struggled for decades under apartheid, and the evidence of this can still be felt in places. But the education and welcome you’ll receive will give you hope for the country’s future. Be sure to plan for a long trip, or at the least plan to return again and again, because you’ll need a lifetime to experience and appreciate this magnificent country. Let’s explore the best places to visit in South Africa!
The capital of Free State and one of South Africa’s three national capitals, Bloemfontein is sometimes called “the city of the roses” thanks to the rose festival held here each year. But it’s more than just beautiful to look at; the city has a plethora of cultural, historical, and natural attractions. For a start, try the Oliewenhuis Art Museum, the National Museum, the Free State National Botanical Garden, Vodacom Parkland the Anglo Boer War Museum. For round two, try the digital planetarium, the music scene at die Mystic Boer, and then go fishing at Maselspoort. The lists are endless so plan to stay at least a couple days.
2. Cape Town
The Mother City is a microcosm for the country’s diversity. All major religions peacefully coexist here and provide wonderful religious and cultural influences – despite South Africa’s difficult history. This is where you’ll find the iconic Table Mountain, the spectacular flat topped mountain. There are also nature trails, water sports, fine dining, unbelievable wine estate, and golden beaches. Be sure to head to the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens as well as Green Point Park. If you like an adventure, try abseiling off Table Mountain or tandem-paragliding off Lion’s Head. Cape Town was designated a World Design Capital in 2014 and is full of street art and amazing architecture. End your visit with a trip to one of the historic farms in Constantia for a relaxing wine tasting.
Durban is one of South Africa’s most popular holiday destinations because of its year round near perfect weather. If you want to stay outside, check out the gondola rides, fishing, uShaka Marine World, Gateway Theatre, and every water sport you can imagine. When you want a break from the sun, head downtown and discover the wonderful art deco facades and explore the more urban parts of town. The city feels decidedly Asian, and has a large Indian community. Stroll through the markets and you’ll wonder if you’re still in South Africa.
Jo’burg has it all: fine dining, intoxicating nightlife, headline entertainment, arts, couture shopping, and the Gautrain. This rapidly changing city has a tough history with nearly 20 years of decline. But the economy has seen an influx of business and tourism lately. In Newtown and Braamfontein, the two cultural districts, you’ll find the restaurants, cafes, museums, and theatres. There is so much energy here, it’s infectious. The Inner City is quickly becoming a tourist hot spot. You’ll want to make a stop at Maboneng, a hipster type neighbourhood on the eastern side of the Inner City. It’s a city still struggling with its history, but Johannesburg isn’t pretentious and has a lot to offer. Don’t forget to make a stop at the Apartheid Museum for a sobering reminding of the countries past.
5. East London
If you want a laid back beach scene that doesn’t have the crowds, East London is perfect for you. You’ve got everything you want in a beach, warm ocean, water sports, outdoor adventure, and plenty of sunshine. The heart of the city is an industrial town, and its neighbours generally have more attractions and excursions, if you’re looking for perfect beaches and a chance to escape, you’ll love the bay front location and the huge sand hills.
This heritage city is located in the forests and rolling pastures of the Natal Midlands. It’s considered one of the best preserved Victorian cities on Earth. A tour through town to look at the historic buildings will take you back to another age. Many of these grand buildings have been converted into museums. The city is made up of a large student population as well as a Zulu community which brings a lot of colour to the place. Pietermaritzburg makes the perfect base camp for exploring both the Midlands Meander and Kwa Zulu-Natal.
Another historic city is Kimberley, also known as “the city that sparkles.” Located in the heart of the Diamond Fields region, it’s the home of De Beers and has a rich mining past. The city has capitalized on its history and there are many areas where you feel like you’re in the Old West. Have a drink in an old timey saloon, enjoy a ghost tour to learn about the miners of the past, or take a look at the world’s largest hand dug hole. There’s a lot of history to discover here so be sure to put some of their many museums on your list.
“Jacaranda City” is swimming in a sea of purple Jacaranda trees. A similar city to Johannesburg, but much more laid back, Pretoria has great museums, historical buildings, and natural attractions for your enjoyment. Once the heart of apartheid South Africa a new energy is infusing the city and foreign embassies, businesses, and tourism reach Pretoria. When you want a relaxing stopover as you travel the country, Pretoria is definitely worth a visit.
9. Port Elizabeth
Most South African cities seem to have a nickname, and Port Elizabeth’s is the “Friendly City.” At the end of the Garden Route, it lies along Algoa Bay at the western end of the Sunshine Coast. You’ll find blue-flag beaches, water sports, and a surprising amount of history here. Port Elizabeth, along with the satellite towns of Despatch and Uitenhage, are collectively known as Nelson Mandela Bay. Head to the suburban centres for some up-market shopping, bars, and restaurants.
Some say the real South Africa can be found in townships like Soweto. Famous for the part it played in the apartheid struggle, you can discover many historically significant sites here. There are official township tours and these are a great way to explore. The tours include places like Walter Sisulu Square where South Africa’s Freedom Charter was signed in 1955, or the Hector Pieterson Memorial, where the 1976 uprising began. There’s also Vilakazi Street, once home to Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu. For some fun, take a look at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital. It’s listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest hospital in the world.
Part of the famous Garden Route, Knysna is famous for the oyster festival and incredible views that stretch from Leisure Isle all the way to the Knysna Heads. The Heads are a difficult passage in the water – many vessels have been shipwrecked here. Check out the Featherbed Nature Reserve as well as the incredible Knysna Elephant Park and Monkeyland Primate Sanctuary. Dolphin sightings are pretty regular in Knysna and there are several dolphin spotting boat trips that include a stop at Plettenberg Bay or Robberg Peninsula to see the noisy seal colonies. For those looking for a little bit of relaxing, combined with a little bit of adventure, this is your place.
Welcome to the ostrich capital of the world. Oudtshoorn is located between the Swartberg and Outeniqua mountains and is ideal for outdoor and nature lovers. You have to travel through Klein Karoo to get there; a beautiful semi-desert area. The mountain range has been declared a Cape Floral World Heritage Site and you’ll see some stunning vistas as you explore the area. Nearby are the Cango Caves and the historical village of De Rust. If you’re in the mood for a road trip, consider crossing the Swartberg Pass or driving down the 25km Meiringspoort. If you’re there around Easter time, don’t miss the Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees – the largest language arts festival in the country.
During the Anglo-Boer War, British soldiers who showed courage and valour on the battlefield where sent to Stellenbosch as a reward. It’s a beautiful town with restaurants, street cafes, vineyards, historic buildings, and a famous university. These days, the town is centred on the university, one of the leading educational institutions in the country. There are also some of the most fantastic wine estates here – check out Spier (established in the 17th century) to enjoy Segway tours, picnics, Eagle Encounters, and an amphitheatre for entertainment. Other top picks include Thelema, Tokaa, and Blaauwklippen. Two of the top ten “Best Restaurants in South Africa” are in Stellenbosch as well as Ama Zink, a restaurant that has a night dinner show recounting the history of the Kayamandi Township with music and dance.
Though it’s a very small province, Mpumalanga is truly exciting. Mountain vistas, cooler climates, and green valleys make the region a magnet for outdoor lovers. Abseil down waterfalls, river raft, canoe, inner tube, trek, mountain bike, or throw yourself off a cliff! The main attraction here is definitely Blyde River Canyon, which has been carving its way through the Drakensberg Escarpment for centuries; truly one of South Africa’s iconic sites. Right next door is Kruger National Park which is a great place to have as your base camp while you spend plenty of time exploring this magnificent area.
15. Kruger National Park
The density of diversity and volume of animals within Kruger National Park makes it one of the world’s greatest parks. You’ll find all the iconic safari species here – leopards, lions, cheetahs, rhinos, buffalo, giraffes, elephants, and zebra. Plus about 140 other mammals and 500 varieties of birds. Covering almost 20,000 square miles, this is a powerfully beautiful place. Granite hills cover the south; the Lebombo Mountains border the savannah in the east, while the tropical forests can be found in the north.