What Are the Major Cities in South Africa?

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South Africa is a large country with many beautiful places to visit. It has several major cities scattered across its nine provinces. Each major city has unique sights, attractions, culture, and heritage offerings.

The one thing you will find in these major cities in South Africa is large shopping centres where you can find supermarkets and chain stores, small boutique stores, and local speciality stores. 

Planning a trip to South Africa? Click here for the best places to visit and the steps to follow in planning your trip. Here are some tips for your visit to South Africa.

Major cities in South Africa

Map of the major cities in South Africa 

The 3 largest cities in South Africa are Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban. This map shows the location of the major cities in South Africa:

Learn more about the oldest towns in South Africa.

Johannesburg, one of the major cities in South Africa

The Zulu people call Johannesburg the city of gold or Egoli. Locals call it Joburg or Jozi. Johannesburg is the capital city of the Gauteng province and the largest city in South Africa. 

Johannesburg is a modern city with skyscrapers, and everyone is always on the move. It is the most visited city in South Africa. Many tourists fly to South Africa, land at Johannesburg International Airport before going to Kruger National Park or taking a flight to Cape Town

Some of the best-known attractions in Johannesburg include Gold Reef City, an amusement park, the Apartheid Museum and Soweto. Some nearby attractions include the Sterkfontein Caves and the Cradle of Humankind, just outside Johannesburg. 

Johannesburg as one of the major cities in south africa
Image by misio from Pixabay

From here, many foreigners travel to Kruger National Park for its wildlife. Travelling to Sun City, another popular place to view wildlife and have family fun, is also easy from Johannesburg.  

While visiting Johannesburg, you can see the difference between the shacks of the poor in Soweto to the south of Johannesburg and the rich in Sandton. Sandton City is one of the largest shopping centres in Africa and is worth a visit for luxury goods.

Here are some fancy hotels in Johannesburg to stay at.

A brief history of Johannesburg

The area of Johannesburg was established in 1886. It was named after two officials from the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (ZAR), namely, Christiaan Johannes Joubert and Johannes Rissik. In 1886 someone discovered gold in the Witwatersrand, which resulted in an inflow of adventurers and prospectors worldwide. In 1897 the Government approved a town council for Johannesburg. 

Major cities in South Africa: Cape Town

Cape Town is the second-largest and oldest city in South Africa. You can find Cape Town in the Western Cape province of South Africa. Cape Town is an African city with a European feel to it. In Cape Town, you will find some of the most beautiful natural scenery, such as its mountains, Table Mountain, Signal Hill and Devil’s Peak, and its blue-flag sandy beaches

Apart from its natural scenery, Cape Town has many other attractions. You can take a ferry to Robben Island, where former president Nelson Mandela spent many years in captivity. Visit the V&A Waterfront with its variety of shops, restaurants and hotels. 

If you are interested in historical sites, visit the Castle of Good Hope or the museum focusing on Dr Christiaan Barnard, who performed the first heart transplant in Cape Town. You can find artisan markets and world-class restaurants in Cape Town. 

If you love wines, there are a multitude of vineyards in Cape Town and the areas surrounding Cape Town. You can choose from cycle tours through the vineyard to more traditional wine tastings.

Doing the wine tram in Franschhoek is a unique wine-tasting experience.

Cape Town Wheel at the V & A Waterfront in Cape Town
Cape Town Wheel at the V & A Waterfront in Cape Town

For animal lovers, you have many choices of places to visit. The Two Oceans Aquarium at the V&A Waterfront is worth a visit, and you can spend some time with penguins at Boulder’s Beach in Simons’ Town. You can also see whales during whale season.

Cape Town also offers excellent outdoor activities, such as water sports (diving, surfing and sailing), deep-sea fishing, mountain biking, parasailing and kite flying. 

A brief history of Cape Town

Cape Town is South Africa’s Mother City because South Africa’s modern history started there. The earliest evidence of human occupation was found in Fish Hoek at Peers Cave and dates to 15,000 and 12,000 years ago. The Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias arrived in Cape Town in 1488 and called it the “Cape of Storms” because of its stormy nature. John II of Portugal renamed it “Cape of Good Hope” because it created many opportunities by opening a sea route between India and the East. Vasco da Gama came past Cape Town in 1497, looking for a direct route between Europe and Asia. 

António de Saldanha, a Portuguese admiral and explorer, named Table Mountain in 1503 when he called it the “table of the Cape”.

In 1652, the Dutch East India Company sent Jan van Riebeeck to set up a halfway station in Cape Town as a stop for its traders en route to the Far East, and this was how Cape Town was founded. 

Not sure whether to visit Cape Town or Johannesburg – here’s how to choose!

Durban, the third largest of the major cities in South Africa

The Zulu people call Durban eThekwini or “the place of the lagoon”. Durban has various beaches along its “golden mile” beachfront, the Hibiscus Coast, sugar coast, Dolphin Coast and Strelitzia Coast. Durban’s climate is tropical and humid. Culturally, it is different from the other major cities in South Africa due to its Afro-Asian atmosphere. 

Durban is a significant gateway into Africa and possesses the most prominent and busiest port in both Southern Africa and the African continent. Durban is the KwaZulu-Natal province’s largest city.

KZN offers a variety of attractions. You can visit two world heritage sites from Durban: the Ukhahlamba Drakensberg Park and the iSimangaliso Wetlands Park. There are several game reserves to see, and the historical battlefields are a must-see if you are interested in history. Another popular attraction is the Valley of a Thousand Hills

Learn about Durban’s weather and what to wear when you visit this city.

A brief history of Durban

Portuguese seafarers discovered the harbour in Durban on Christmas day in 1497. They called it “Rio de Natal” (the River of Christmas). 

In 1823, Lieutenant James King and Lieutenant Francis George Farewell were on a return trip to Cape Town when they were caught in a storm. They decided to anchor in the Bay of Natal. Lt. King mapped the Bay and called it the “Salisbury and Farewell Islands”. In 1824, they started trading with Shaka, the Zulu King. They established a trading station at the Bay. 

The golden mile in Durban - capital of KwaZulu-Natal
Image by Liesel Muhl from Pixabay

Henry Francis Fynn befriended the King when he helped him recover from a stab wound. The King granted him a strip of coastal land where they established a settlement. 

During a meeting of the residents in 1835, they decided to build a capital town and called it “D’Urban” after Sir Benjamin D’Urban, the governor of the Cape Colony at the time. Durban was created as a city in 1935. 

The Zulus felt threatened by the presence of the European settlement, and when the Voortrekkers arrived, several battles took place. The British Government annexed the area, and in 1844 it became the new province of Natal. The British brought Indians as labourers to work on the sugar plantations. After their contracts ended, they could stay in South Africa. Many of their families came to South Africa afterwards.

To get to Durban, you can fly to the King Shaka International Airport or take the bus from Johannesburg to Durban. Don’t miss visiting the uShaka Marine World in Durban!


Another of the cities on the list of cities in South Africa is Pretoria. Pretoria is also called the “Jacaranda City” due to the many jacaranda trees with purple blossoms during October and November. It is the capital city of South Africa and also where the Government is seated. Pretoria has a much slower pace than some other major cities in South Africa.

Pretoria is near Johannesburg International Airport. Getting to Kruger National Park, Sun City, or the Pilanesberg Game Reserve from Pretoria is easy. 

Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria - one of the major cities in South Africa
Image by Lynn Greyling from Pixabay

Over 35 museums in Pretoria display many aspects of South Africa’s heritage. A famous sight in Pretoria is the Union Buildings, with a beautiful view of Pretoria’s city centre. Some historical places are the Voortrekker Monument, Melrose House and Freedom Park

A brief history of Pretoria

The Sotho tribes lived in the area that is now called Pretoria or the City of Tshwane. The Apies River’s name is from Tshwane and means “little monkeys.

The Voortrekkers settled near the Apies River in the 19th century. They were farmers who wanted to be independent of British rule in the Cape Colony. They found Pretoria in 1855 on the banks of the Apies River. Pretoria was named after one of the Voortrekker leaders, Andries Pretorius. Pretoria became the capital city of the Transvaal Republic in 1860. 


Bloemfontein, or Bloem in short, is the capital city of the Free State Province of South Africa. It became the judicial capital of South Africa in 1910. The Sesotho name for Bloemfontein is Mangaung, meaning “place of cheetahs”. Bloemfontein is also called the “fountain of flowers” or the “city of roses”. It hosts an annual rose festival. 

The Free State province is known for its wheat and maize farms, and you can also find farms with grazing sheep and cattle. Since Bloemfontein is located in the middle of South Africa, it is often used as a road, rail and air travel stopover. 

Bloemfontein offers a variety of attractions. There is the cheetah experience and the Bagamoyo Wildlife Estate for animal lovers. If you like art, you can visit the Oliewenhuis Art Gallery. To spend time in nature, the Free State National Botanical Garden is a lovely place to spend time. For history buffins, visiting The National Museum and the Anglo-Boer War Museum may be interesting. 

Here are the attractions of the Free State Province.

A brief history of Bloemfontein

The British army major Henry Douglas Warden founded Bloemfontein in 1846 as a fort. The region became the Orange Free State Republic (and the capital of the Orange River Colony. Since then, it has been the provincial capital of the Free State.

Kimberley, one of the major cities in South Africa

Kimberley is the capital city of the Northern Cape Province of South Africa. This city is often called the “Diamond Capital of the World”. 

When you visit Kimberley today, you can see the Big Hole and the mining museum to discover more about the history of Kimberley. You can also visit the Magersfontein Battlefield and the McGregor Museum to learn more about Kimberley’s history. To view animals, a visit to the Mokala National Park is worthwhile. Here is a good place to stay when visiting Kimberley.

A brief history of Kimberley

In 1866 on a farm “De Kalk”, Erasmus Jacobs picked up a pretty white rock. This rock became known as “Eureka” as it turned out to be a diamond of 21,25 carats. Another stone was picked up in 1871 on the farm “Vooruizicht”, owned by the de Beer brothers. This rock became the 83,50 carat “Star of Africa”.

These rocks sparked a diamond rush, the largest in the world. Diggers from around the globe swarmed to the Colesberg koppie, where the diamond had been discovered. Eventually, they flattened the koppie and left the deepest handmade hole in the world. This hole is now known as the “Big Hole“. 

The Occidental Bar near the Big Hole and Mining Museum in Kimberley
The Occidental Bar near the Big Hole and Mining Museum in Kimberley

During this time, a town started and was called “New Rush”. The name changed in 1873 to Kimberley, after the Earl of Kimberley, the British Secretary of State for the colonies. 

Cecil Rhodes established the “De Beers Mining Company Ltd.” in 1888.

Read more about the attractions of the Northern Cape Province.

Port Elizabeth

Port Elizabeth or Gqeberha, PE in short, is also known as “the friendly city” or “the windy city”. The people are friendly and hospitable, but the city sometimes has strong winds. The weather in Port Elizabeth is fantastic most of the time. Port Elizabeth is the largest city in the Eastern Cape Province.

Route 67 in Port Elizabeth - one of the major cities in South Africa
Image by harubaba from Pixabay

Some of Port Elizabeth’s best attractions include Addo Elephant Park and the Kagga Kamma Game Park. Apart from its beaches, Port Elizabeth’s boardwalk is a lovely place to walk as the sun sets. Route 67 is an art and heritage trail highlighting 67 artworks from artists in the Eastern Cape Province. Each piece represents one year of former President Nelson Mandela’s public life. 

Read more about the Eastern Cape’s attractions.

A brief history of Port Elizabeth

Major cities in south africa

The Portuguese explorer, Bartholomeu Diaz, arrived in Port Elizabeth (Gqeberha) after passing Cape Town in March 1488. The explorer Manuel de Perestrelo changed the name to Bahia de Lagoa” or Algoa Bay, in 1576. For many years Port Elizabeth was a small settlement only.

The British settlers arrived here in 1820. The governor of the time called the settlement Port Elizabeth after his wife.


Sabs | South Africa Travel Blog

By Sunelle

Editor of the South Africa Travel Blog that focuses on travel to South Africa, including destinations, attractions, accommodation, food & drink.