Here I use the knowledge I’ve gained over multiple trips to South Africa to highlight the very best things to do in Port Elizabeth. With the experienced eye of a travel writer specializing on the world’s oldest continent, you can be sure my picks are first-hand recommendations of attractions that wowed me.
Although now officially known as Gqeberha, most still know this Indian Ocean city as Port Elizabeth, or PE. It’s location on the broad Algoa Bay makes it an alternative choice to Durban for beach escapes. But there’s also plenty of culture and history to be had for those taking the time to get to know this noble lady of Eastern Cape Province, as we will see.
1. Donkin Reserve
Smack bang in the middle of Port Elizabeth’s Central Business District (CBD), the Donkin Reserve is a publicly-accessible open space combining native flora, historic structures, and fine views over the wider city.
Its lighthouse, dating to 1861, can usually be visited to enhance the views from Donkin’s Reserve further. Next to it is a 10 meter high stone pyramid dedicated to Elizabeth Markham. The wife of then governor Rufane Shaw Donkin, it’s from her the city got its name.
Bringing the Donkin Reserve into the modern era are brightly colored mosaics in part depicting the Portuguese ships which first rounded this part of the South African coast, and metal cutouts of Nelson Mandela, fist raised in celebration.
2. King’s Beach
Proudly flying a Blue Flag for cleanliness, King’s Beach is one of Port Elizabeth’s most popular stretches of sand. Its runs for 1.6 glorious kilometers from the harbor to Humewood, a beachside neighborhood with its own long history.
A good all-round beach, its sand is fine enough to ensure sand castles hold first, while warm Indian ocean waters lure visitors in to swim, bodyboard, and surf. Watched over the lifeguards, there’s also a nursery pool for toddlers, mini-golf, changing facilities, and refreshments. In fact, King’s Beach has all you need to spend a day soaking up Port Elizabeth’s sunny weather. Average daily temperatures don’t drop below 19°C at any time of year.
3. Route 67 walking trail
The city’s Route 67 trail consists of a piece of public art for each of the 67 years Nelson Mandela gave his life to ending racial segregation in South Africa under apartheid.
Starting at the Campanile, the city’s easy to spot clock and bell tower, it passes through Vuyisile Mini Market Square. Continuing onto St Mary’s Terrace and Donkin Reserve, it also takes it what’s reported to be the largest flag on the continent. Each of the artworks come with an information board to provide the wider context.
4. Splash Waterworld
The slides and rides behind King’s Beach belong to Splash Waterworld. Primarily aimed at children, this small waterpark nonetheless does its job of bringing smiles to the faces of those who visit. So prepare for a wet and wild time on attractions including the Super Tube, Lazy River, and Speed Slide, alongside a Kiddies Slide for younger patrons.
As you might expect, there are plenty of kiosks offering up drinks and snacks. More unusually, it’s also possible to take to the slides of Splash Waterworld after dark thanks to floodlights.
5. Fort Frederick
Fort Frederick was constructed in 1799 to avoid a French invasion of this part of Britain’s Cape Colony. Although this may sound like a baffling idea today, at the height of the Napoleonic Wars between the two countries, nothing seems to have been off the table.
Never having fired a shot from any of its guns, the two-story complex is square in form and sits on one bank of the Baakens River, overlooking the modern harbor. Said to be haunted by the ghosts of a Shakespeare play, behind its walls you’ll find a blockhouse, powder magazine, and small museum.
6. Addo Elephant National Park
Roughly 100 kilometers (1.5 hours) north of Port Elizabeth, Addo Elephant National Park makes for an easy day trip from the city. One of South Africa’s largest national parks, there’s no secret to what the big-ticket attractions are here.
There are around 600 elephants within the park, alongside several hundred buffalo, a pride of reintroduced lions, hyenas, Burchell’s zebra, kudu, eland, and bushbuck. Game drives are therefore the favorite past time, with 120 kilometers of track to choose between. Its lions and hyenas are most commonly spotted in the early morning or late evening.
My suggestion is to visit on a hotter day, which brings much of the action down to the waterhole.
7. Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Art Museum
Located within the grounds of Saint George’s Park, this gallery specializes in the art of South Africa’s Eastern Cape. Containing three main rooms, its artworks are regularly rehung to allow as much of its comprehensive collection to be seen as possible.
These works are enhanced by temporary exhibitions spanning from sculpture to quilting. In addition to artworks by colonial artists such as Thomas Baines and Frederick Timpson I’Ons, there’s a fascinating collection of beadworks by the Southern Nguni people, and a smattering of contemporary pieces too.
Opened in time for the new millennium, Bayworld is part natural history museum, part oceanarium, and part vivarium. Its museum exhibits are thoroughly modern, with plenty of interest for all ages.
Meanwhile, its outside areas include a dinosaur exhibit and oceanarium with live animal exhibits incorporating rescued turtles, seals, and penguins. Last but certainly not least, Bayworld has South Africa’s oldest snake park. Here visitors can get the lowdown on a myriad of local snakes, as well as crocs and tortoises.
9. Cape Recife Lighthouse
Cape Recife is the name given to Port Elizabeth’s southeasternmost point. The obvious location for an aid to navigation, its lighthouse was established in 1849 to guide ships around Thunderbolt reef, named after a British frigate which wasn’t so lucky.
Rising 24 meters and banded with black and white stripes, Cape Recife Lighthouse sits within a nature reserve offering hiking opportunities for all levels of fitness. Paths cut through the semi-tropical vegetation and over rocky outcrops to rockpools home to an impressive number of marine creatures.
10. Horse Memorial
Back in the center of Port Elizabeth lies its Horse Memorial. In approximate life size, it depicts a British solider kneeling in front of a horse and offering it a bucket of water. Designed by English sculpture Joseph Whitehead, it was unveiled in 1905 to honor the estimated 300,000 horses brought to South Africa during the Anglo Boer wars of 1899-1902. Most were brought to shore at Port Elizabeth.
Paid for by the public, it cost £800, equivalent to around £120,000 ($150,000) in today’s money, and was shipped all the way from London where the bronze was cast.
11. Amakhala Game Reserve
A private game reserve approximately 1.5 hours from Port Elizabeth by road, Amakhala has an area of 18,000 acres. Joining morning or evening game drives to explore them, visitors to Amakhala have a good chance of encountering all the Big Five species – lions, leopards, elephants, rhinos, and Cape buffalo.
Amakhala ranges from bushveld to savanna, with areas covering five of South Africa’s seven biomes. This means other species to look out for on day trips from Port Elizabeth include giraffe, cheetah, zebra, wildebeest, antelope, and monkeys.
12. South End Museum
This museum is one of just a few attractions in Port Elizabeth which directly tackle the apartheid period. The South End neighborhood had been a multiracial one known for its cosmopolitan atmosphere, good schools, and host of successful local businesses.
But that all ended when its non-white tenants were forcibly relocated, an event which took place between 1965 and 1975. Its this history which South End Museum seeks to share. It does this through its blend of displays, historic photographs, and a walk-on map of the area.
13. The Campanile
This stand-alone clock and bell tower has a passing resemblance to its more famous cousin in Saint Mark’s Square, Venice, Italy. Built for the most part from red brick, it rises to a height of 50 meters.
Constructed to mark one hundred years since the first settlers arrived into what became Port Elizabeth, workmen remained on the site between 1920 and 1922. Their efforts included completing the 204 steps which reach up to the observation room at the Campanile’s top. That said, there’s now an elevator too, providing easier access to the 23 bells which make up one of the largest carillons (bells played like a piano) in South Africa.
14. Whale watching
Port Elizabeth’s coastal waters aren’t only of interest to beach goers. They’re also a draw to whales to such an extent that Algoa Bay has been declared the World Cetacean Alliance’s fifth Whale Heritage Site.
Joining a licensed whale watching tour from Port Elizabeth gives the opportunity to watch the antics of southern right and humpback whales. Both are known for breaching the water. Other whale species which can be encountered are minke and Bryde’s whales. Known as the ‘bottlenose dolphin capital of the world,’ taking to the waters of Algoa Bay promises plenty of action from these intelligent creatures as an added bonus.
15. South African Air Force Museum
One of Port Elizabeth’s smaller museum spaces, the South African Air Force Museum is located within the perimeter of the city’s airport. Its collection currently contains nine aircraft, including South Africa’s oldest jet, a supersonic fighter, and two helicopters.
Access to a restored World War Two era hangar allows visitors to see restoration work as it happens, while the walls of the main museum are packed with cabinets and imagery linked to the force, founded in 1920. However, the highlight has to be the onsite flight simulator.