I use this article to share my love of South Africa’s best places to visit. Having roamed this masterful country from tiny hamets to the biggest cities, I’ve picked out its most unmissable destinations. And having traveled extensively in each and every one of them, you can be sure my picks are worthy of such a list!
With more landscapes and terrain than just about another country on Earth, South Africa takes the lead when it comes to diversity. An epic country at the tip of an epic continent, wildlife is likely your first draw. And why not, when you can boast hippos on the Limpopo River, penguins on the Cape, and Kruger’s Big Five?
But don’t forget about South Africa’s other attractions. There’s over 1800 miles of dramatic everchanging coastline. There are some of Africa’s best museums, an intriguing history, incredible cuisine, and no shortage of nightlife either.
Coming from an country which struggled for decades under the racial segregation of apartheid, this is utterly extraordinary. The legacy of apartheid 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. You’d need a lifetime to experience and appreciate this magnificent country in full.
1. Cape Town
South Africa’s ‘mother city’ – it’s oldest – is a microcosm of the country as a whole. Here you’ll find evidence of Europe’s earliest footprint on the continent at the Company’s Gardens and Castle of Good Hope.
At the same time, attractions including Zeitz MOCAA, the world’s largest gallery dedicated to Africa’s contemporary art scene, show Cape Town still has what it takes to wow.
A myriad of diverse neighborhoods each offer something different, from street art to amazing architectural examples.
Then there’s Table Mountain, cool indie shopping on Long Street, almost endless nature trails, water sports, golden beaches, and fine dining. Plus a literally unique flora, which can be explored at Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens.
The adventurous can abseil from Table Mountain or paraglide off Lion’s Head. The historic farms of nearby Constantia offer relaxing wine tasting, while game reserves promise sightings of Africa’s wildlife.
2. Kruger National Park
When it comes to seeing Africa’s best known species, there’s little argument over the best place in South Africa to head – Kruger National Park. The size of a small European nation, the density and diversity of animals within Kruger National Park makes it one of the world’s greatest.
You’ll find all the iconic safari species here – leopards, lions, cheetahs, rhinos, buffalo, giraffes, elephants, and zebras. Plus about 140 other mammals and 500 varieties of birds. While areas of the park can get busy, Kruger is large enough at 8000 square miles that it’s also possible to be the only game vehicle in sight. The longer you spend here, the more likely this is to be the case.
More than just savanna grassland, Kruger also contains granite hills to its south, the Lebombo Mountains in the east, and sub-tropical forest in the north. It’s no wonder Kruger’s species list is so extensive!
Part of the famous Garden Route, Knysna is known for its oyster festival and incredible views which stretch from Leisure Isle all the way to the Knysna Heads – a difficult passage of water where many ships have been wrecked.
All the same, the reason to include Knysna on your South Africa itinerary is for relaxation with a little added adventure.
Top attractions include Featherbed Nature Reserve for communing with nature, alongside the incredible Knysna Elephant Park and Monkeyland Primate Sanctuary.
Dolphin sightings are pretty regular in Knysna too. There are several dolphin spotting boat trips to choose between. Many include a stop at Plettenberg Bay or the Robberg Peninsula in order to see the noisy seal colonies there.
During the Anglo-Boer War, British soldiers who showed courage and valor on the battlefield where sent to Stellenbosch as a reward. Head there today and it will feel like you’re being rewarded too. Stellenbosch is a beautiful town with restaurants, street cafes, and some of South Africa’s oldest buildings. These days, the town is centred on the university, one of the leading educational institutions in the country. As a result, the atmosphere can be very differnet between term time and the university holidays. There are also some 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. For food, Stellenosch has two of the top ten “Best Restaurants in South Africa”. For something a little different, there’s AmaZink. This restaurant has a night dinner show recounting the history of the neighboring Kayamandi Township with music and dance.
South Africa’s most famous township is undoubedly Soweto, an abbreviation of South West Townships. Created in the 1930s as a means of pushing black communities out of central Johannesburg, Soweto became a vocal centerpoint for protests against apartheid. Nelson Mandela even lived in its Orlando West neighborhood until his imprisonment in the 1960s. His home here is now an important stop on any tour of Soweto.
These tours include places like Walter Sisulu Square, where South Africa’s Freedom Charter was signed in 1955, and the Hector Pieterson Memorial, where the 1976 uprising began. There’s also Vilakazi Street, once home to Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela. It makes it the only street in the world where two Nobel peace prize winners have lived.
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. To get the adrenaline flowing, opt for a bungee jump between the famous painted cooling towers of the decommissioned Orlando power station.
Durban is where South Africans head on vacation, making it one of South Africa’s most popular holiday destinations. Why? Because just a short stroll from the city center you’ll find mile after mile of perfect golden sand. Add to this excellent year-round weather, and you have the beginnings of a great few days. If you somehow tire of the beach, check out the gondola rides, fishing, or uShaka Marine World theme park and aquarium.
When you want a break from the sun, head downtown and discover the wonderful art deco facades amid the more urban parts of town. Its buildings include the Durban Natural Science Museum, which contains one of the most complete dodo skeletons in the world among its artifacts. Stroll through its markets and you’ll wonder if you’re still in South Africa, given the influence of the city’s Indian community. They gifted Durban delights including bunny chow, a vegetable stew packed with flavor.
The capital of Free State and one of South Africa’s three national capitals, Bloemfontein is one of South Africa’s most attractive cities. Meaning ‘fountain of flowers’ in Afrikaans, ‘Bloem’ is often called ‘the city of the roses.’ Flower beds line many of its broadest streets, while a rose festival is 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, or the Anglo Boer War Museum. For round two, try the digital planetarium, the music scene at Die Mystic Boer, or go fishing at Maselspoort. For something a little different, head up to Naval Hill’s Franklin Game Reserve. Popular with joggers and cyclists, this hilltop reserve contains zebras, giraffes, and wildebeests, in addition to a plethora of bird species.
8. Blyde River Canyon
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! All are possible.
The main attraction is definitely Blyde River Canyon, which has been carving its way through the Drakensberg Escarpment for centuries. It’s truly one of South Africa’s iconic sites. Although less than 17 miles long, it’s the perfect destination for nature and walking lovers. A rich dense carpet of green provides habitats for a huge number of species, from monkeys to birds.
Plus, the canyon is right next door is Kruger National Park. Its surrounding towns form a great base camp while you spend time exploring this magnificent area. Expect the best treks to last between three and five days.
The ‘city of gold’, Jo’burg has it all – if you know where to look. It’s true to say that downtown Johannesburg has seen better days. The last 20 years haven’t been kind to South Africa’s most populous city. However, things are rapidly changing for the better in Newtown and Braamfontein, the two cultural districts. Here you’ll find the restaurants, cafes, museums, and theatres you’d expect from a city the size of Jo’burg. Indeed, the energy here is almost infectious.
Even the inner city is quickly becoming a tourist hotspot. You’ll want to make a stop at Maboneng, a hipster type neighbourhood on the eastern side of downtown. While in the area, try and pay a visit to Johannesburg Art Gallery in Joubert Park. With 15 galleries and a sculpture garden, its collection includes a mix of classical European works and modern home-grown art.
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 on its outskirts for a sobering reminder of just what Johannesburg has gone through.
Another historic city is Kimberley, also known as ‘the city that sparkles’ because of its link to South Africa’s diamond industry. Located in the heart of the Diamond Fields region, it’s the home of De Beers and has a rich mining past. The billion dollar company’s first headquarters, a tiny tin shack, still exists beyond the train station.
Not to be missed is the Big Hole and Mine Museum. It’s surrounded by a series of old buildings relocated to the site, including a functioning old time saloon. Inside, visitors first get to watch an enjoyable documentary into just how Kimberley became the center of diamond mining. You’ll then get to see the Big Hole – the world’s largest hand dug pit.
Reaching a depth of 240 meters, and covering 170,000 square meters, the Big Hole miners discovered 3000 kg of raw diamonds before it was closed in 1914.
11. East London
If you want a laid back beach scene that doesn’t have the crowds, East London is perfect for you. Flying somewhat under the radar, it’s got everything you would want in a beach getaway. Its coast is lined with sandy beaches, its Indian Ocean waves are warm, there’s wall to wall sunshine, and loads of water sports and other outdoor adventures to consider.
East London Museum contains two examples of the coelacanth too. Often called a ‘living fossil,’ it’s a large scaly fish that was thought to have been extinct for millions of years before one was caught in a fishing net in the 1930s nearby.
Meanwhile, Potters Pass Nature Reserve protects rare coastal grasslands which burst into life during the spring months. It’s here you’ll also discover the historic Hood Point Lighthouse.
Welcome to the ostrich capital of the world, where a trip to an ostrich farm is a must. Located between the Swartberg and Outeniqua mountains, Oudtshoorn is another ideal destination for outdoor and nature lovers. You have to travel through Klein Karoo to get there, but that’s no trouble given the beauty of this 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.
This heritage city is located in the forests and rolling pastures of the Natal Midlands. The provincial capital of kwaZulu-Natal, 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. They include the magnificent City Hall building.
Pietermaritzburg’s treasures extend to the Msunduzi Museum and Tatham Art Gallery. Once known as the Voortrekker Museum, the Msunduzi Museum contains a complex of historic buildings including the humble home of Andries Pretorius, a major Boer leader.
The Tatham Art Gallery has a fine collection of 19th and 20th century artworks, all housed in the Old Supreme Court building.
‘Jacaranda City’ is swimming in a sea of purple Jacaranda trees. The sister 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 as foreign embassies, businesses, and tourism reach Pretoria. When you want a relaxing stopover as you travel the country, Pretoria is definitely worth a visit.
Named after our old friend Andries Pretorius, any tour of the city should start at Church Square. From here, head the short distance to the Union Buildings on Meintjieskop hill – the home of South Africa’s presidency. On another hill, Salvokop, Freedom Park contains a monument to all the South Africans who lost their lives during wars and the apartheid era.
15. Port Elizabeth
Most South African cities seem to have a nickname, and Port Elizabeth’s is the ‘friendly city.’ It’s located at the eastern end of the Garden Route, and the western end of the Sunshine Coast, on Algoa Bay.
As you might expect from such a location, there are blue-flag beaches and water sports offerings. Summerstrand’s beaches are particularly popular with surfers. Yet there’s a surprising amount of history here too.
Now officially known as Gqeberha, the city was founded in 1820. There are therefore plenty of grand Victorian buildings at its heart.
However, my personal favorite thing to do in Port Elizabeth is stroll across Donkin Reserve. Blending a historic lighthouse and memorial pyramid with modern sculpture and art, its a wonderful place to wander.