Deciding on destinations to visit in South Africa may be challenging, especially if it is your first visit to this beautiful country. Whether you love seeing wild animals in their natural habitat, doing adventure activities or just spending time in nature, South Africa offers you diverse options. Let’s find out what the best places in South Africa to visit are!
Must-See South Africa vs Off the Beaten Path South Africa
If you’ve never been to South Africa before, you probably have a long list of bucket list items to visit. Most people want to see the popular destinations of Johannesburg, Kruger National Park and Cape Town, but there are many other beautiful destinations you can visit while in South Africa.
Some of the best places in South Africa are lesser-known but still exciting. These sights include the Panorama Route with its numerous waterfalls, the Garden Route with its lush forests or the Drakensberg with its majestic mountain range.
Best places in South Africa to visit!
This guide offers the best places in South Africa for whale watching, seeing wildlife and road trips! We start with some of the major cities in South Africa before moving to more unknown destinations in the various provinces of South Africa.
If you love historical cities, read about the oldest towns in South Africa!
For most visitors to South Africa, a visit to Cape Town is first on their travel bucket list. It is one of the most recognisable cities in the world with the iconic Table Mountain. In Cape Town, you can find places like Lions’ Head, Robben Island, the V&A Waterfront or sample wines at various vineyards in and around Cape Town. Other sights to visit are Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden and Green Point Park. Cape Town has a number of historical places, such as the Castle of Good Hope, that history buffs would love to see! A visit to the colourful Bo Kaap with its flavourful Cape Malay food is another must!
Cape Town’s suburbs offer a variety of unique experiences. Be sure to visit Kalk Bay for the best fish and chips or Simon’s Town to see the naval museum, or visit the penguins at Boulder’s Beach or at Stony Point (a perfect day trip from Cape Town). Cape Town has many shopping malls and markets, including Canal Walk and the Victoria Wharf Shopping centre.
A visit to Cape Town is a must for any trip to South Africa as there is an array of activities to do and places to see. Cape Town offers something for every type of traveller.
Johannesburg is the largest and most visited city in South Africa. If you love fine dining, exciting nightlife or couture shopping, you can find it all in Johannesburg. Visit the Collector’s Treasury, the largest rare and second-hand book dealer in Africa. For shopping, the Neighbourgoods Market is perfect.
If you want to learn about the modern history of South Africa, Johannesburg is the place to visit. Some unique areas to learn about South African history include the Apartheid Museum, Constitution Hill and Soweto. Another site to visit in Johannesburg is Satyagraha House, where Mahatma Gandhi spent his time in South Africa. Animal lovers have many options for places to visit, such as the Johannesburg Zoo or the Croc City Crocodile and Reptile Park.
Soweto played a prominent role in the apartheid struggle, and you can find several historical sights here. Some places worth visiting include the Walter Sisulu Square, where South Africa’s Freedom Charter was signed in 1955 and the Hector Pieterson Memorial, where the 1976 uprising started. You can visit Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu’s houses in Vilakazi Street or bungee jump from the Orlando Towers in Soweto.
To the northwest of Johannesburg is Maropeng, or the Cradle of Humankind, the only World Heritage Site in Gauteng. Near Maropeng is the Sterkfontein Caves, one of the oldest palaeontological digs in the world.
Durban has beautiful beaches in its Golden Mile, and with its perfect weather throughout the year, it is a popular destination in South Africa. A visit to the uShaka Marine World is a must for people interested in dolphins, seals and other sea creatures.
Visit Durban’s downtown to find art deco buildings. Durban has the largest Indian community outside of India, and the city is a blend of Asian and European societies. The Durban Botanical Garden is the home to the world’s loneliest plan, the Wood’s Cycad.
Durban is the curry capital of South Africa and a popular destination for food-lovers. We know Durban for the Bunny Chow, a hollowed-out bread filled with curry. Other dishes to taste include Bombay Crush, Shisha Nyama and other traditional Zulu dishes.
Bloemfontein is the capital city of the Free State Province, and it is called “the city of the roses” because of its annual rose festival. There are many other cultural, natural, and historical attractions in Bloemfontein. Attractions to visit are the National Museum, the Oliewenhuis Art Museum, the Anglo Boer War Museum and the Free State National Botanical Garden. You can easily spend a few days in Bloemfontein to explore its attractions.
East London is the most laid back of the cities in South Africa, and it offers beautiful beaches, outdoor adventures and a warm ocean.
Pietermaritzburg is the capital city of the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa. It is a heritage city in the rolling pastures and forests of the Natal Midlands. Pietermaritzburg is one of only a few well-preserved Victorian cities globally Take a tour to see its historic buildings, many of which are now museums. The city is a good base for exploring the province and the Midlands Meander.
Kimberley is known as “the city that sparkles”. It is a historical city in the Diamond Fields region of South Africa. The De Beers mining company is here, and the town has a long mining history. There are several mining museums in the city, and you can have a beer in an old saloon. Take a ghost tour or learn about the city’s mining past at the mining museum. You can also find the world’s largest hand-dug hole in Kimberley.
Pretoria is the “Jacaranda City” because of its many purple Jacaranda trees. Although similar to Johannesburg, Pretoria is more relaxed, and it offers a range of museums and historic buildings. Many foreign countries have established their foreign embassies in Pretoria.
Port Elizabeth is the “friendly city” or the “windy city. You can find several beaches here, including Wells Estate Bridge, Humewood Beach or Kings Beach. There are lovely markets, bars and restaurants in Port Elizabeth. The Addo Elephant National park, the Kagga Kamma Game Reserve and the Cape Recife Nature Reserve are excellent for seeing wildlife.
Hermanus is a small town in the Western Cape Province. It is considered the Whale Capital of South Africa, and tourists flock here to view dolphins and whales. To see the whales, visit Hermanus from June to December. Hermanus hosts an annual Whale Festival in September to celebrate these giant sea creatures.
Another unique attraction in Hermanus is its 10 km (6 miles) cliff-side walk with benches and telescopes to view the whales as they get near the coast. Apart from its beautiful beaches, the Hemel en Aarde Wine Valley near Hermanus offers rich wine-tasting experiences. You can also hike to waterfalls, fish in the ocean or lagoons or try horseriding on the beach in Hermanus.
Best places in South Africa: Drive the Garden Route
The Garden Route is a popular driving route in South Africa. It starts in Mossel Bay and is about 300 km long. The route covers diverse vegetation and multiple lagoons, forests and beaches. Along the way, you can find several nature reserves, ideal for hiking and cave exploration. There are several spots for whale watching and isolated sandy beaches to enjoy. Towns on the route include Mossel Bay, Plettenberg Bay, Nature’s Valley, Knysna and Storms River.
Although you can quickly complete the route in one day, spending a few days exploring all this route offers is a good idea. Plan to spend at least two to five days doing the Garden Route for more in-depth experiences.
Mossel Bay has a moderate climate and some of the best South African beaches, including Santos beach. Try a variety of water sports, shark cage dives or skydiving here. If you are into history, visit the Bartolomeu Dias Museum and the Post Office Tree. Other favourite spots include the Cape St Blaize Lighthouse Complex and the Point of Human Origin.
The town of Knysna hosts an annual oyster festival. Taking a cruise on the Knysna Lagoon to see the Knysna Heads is a must-do activity. The Featherbed Nature Reserve and Knysna Elephant Park are worth visiting. You may spot a dolphin from Knysna while on a boat trip.
Plettenberg Bay provides many wildlife watching opportunities and hiking trails in the sea-facing Robberg Nature Reserve. You can learn about tropical birds in one of the world’s largest free-flying aviaries at Birds of Eden or walk through the forest while being surrounded by squirrel monkeys and capuchins at Monkeyland.
Oudtshoorn is the world’s ostrich capital, and the town offers many outdoor activities. The mountains near Oudtshoorn are a Cape Floral World Heritage Site, and you will find beautiful vistas to explore. You can visit the Cango Caves and De Rust, a historic village. Around Easter, you can have fun at the largest language art festival in South Africa, the Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees. To learn more about ostriches, a visit to one of the ostrich farms near Oudtshoorn is a must-do!
The Cape Winelands are 45-minutes from Cape Town. The vineyards are generally nestled between large mountain ranges, and you will enjoy spectacular mountain views while tasting different wines. Two of the best places to visit in the Cape Winelands include Franschhoek and Stellenbosch. There are a variety of wine estates offering not only wines but also cheese and biltong platters near these towns. You may prefer an outdoor picnic – all possible in the Cape Winelands.
Stellenbosch is South Africa’s second-oldest town. During the Anglo-Boer War, the British Army rewarded its soldiers by sending them to Stellenbosch after showing courage on the battlefields. This village has oak-lined streets with Cape Dutch houses and offers a variety of nightclubs, cafes and art galleries.
Stellenbosch is a beautiful university town with many restaurants, street cafes, vineyards and historic buildings. You can learn more about the town’s history in the Village and Stellenyrk Museums. One of the best-known vineyards is Spier, established in the 17th century, where you can enjoy tours, picnics, an amphitheatre and Eagle Encounters. Some of the other top vineyards in the area include Tokai, Thelema and Blaauwklippen.
Franschhoek is another beautiful village in the Cape Winelands, named by the French Settlers. It is a lovely town with many street cafes, a motor museum and the Franschhoek Wine Tram. It is known as the food capital of South Africa, and you can try delicious foods in the village.
Paarl is a small town on the crest of the Paarl Mountains. It has a rich historical and cultural heritage. There are many Georgian, Victorian, Cape Dutch and Edwardian buildings throughout the town. The Drakenstein Prison, where Nelson Mandela spent some time, is on the outskirts of the town. The Paarl hosts the Goat Tower of Fairview Cheese & Wine Farm, the Afrikaans Language Monument and several wine estates.
The Drakensberg is known as the Dragon Mountains, and it has the highest mountain peak in South Africa. The Drakensberg Mountain extends from Lesotho to KwaZulu-Natal and is about 200 km long. You can find waterfalls, caves, rock art and mountain streams in these mountains. You can find multiple trails for hiking, biking and river rafting in the Drakensberg.
Explore the Panorama Route – one of the best places in South Africa
The Panorama Route‘s name captures the excitement of this route. You can find beautiful mountain vistas and green valleys with waterfalls along the way. The main attraction of the route is the Blyde River Canyon, the largest green canyon in the world. Another attraction is Bourke’s Luck Potholes, giant potholes created by swirling water. Other must-see items include the Three Rondavels and God’s Window.
More of the best places in South Africa: South Africa’s National Parks
South Africa has several national parks worthy of a visit. Let’s explore them here!
Kgalagadi Transnational Park
The Kgalagadi Transnational Park is an off-the-beaten-path destination. You can find it in the northern part of South Africa, where it hosts South Africa’s national animal, namely the springbok, and other animals, such as the gemsbok. You can also find predators, such as lions, cheetahs and hyenas, in the Park. The desert wilderness of the Park is unique and features salt pans, bushveld and red dunes. For large parts of the Park, you need a four-wheel vehicle – using such a vehicle in the Park can be quite an adventure.
iSimangaliso Wetland Park
The iSimangaliso Wetland Park is one of South Africa’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites on the northern coast of the KwaZulu-Natal province. You can find over 526 species of birds and other animals in this Park. This wetland park is a paradise for water-loving animals, such as hippos, crocodiles and turtles, but you will also find zebras, baboons, rhinos and buffalos here.
Addo Elephant National Park
The Addo Elephant National Park is near Port Elizabeth. It started with 11 reddish-coloured Addo elephants in the 1930s, but it is now one of the largest national parks in South Africa. The Park comprises five different sections, each with a unique offering. You can spot the Big Seven (the Big Five, southern right whales and great white sharks from this Park.
Kruger National Park
The Kruger National Park is the best-known destination in South Africa for an African safari. If you want to see lions, elephants, leopards, rhinos, cheetahs, buffalo, giraffes, hippo and zebra, the Kruger National Park is the perfect place. The Park is huge and covers over 2,000,000 hectares of area. Plan to spend at least three to four days at the Park to experience the different game drives and safaris on offer.
Pilanesberg National Park
You can easily access the Pilanesberg National Park from Johannesburg. The Park features expansive grasslands and the artificial lake Mankwe Dam with a variety of wildlife. The Pilanesberg National Park hosts zebras, antelopes, African wild dogs, giraffes, and hundreds of birds. To explore the Pilanesberg National Park, consider staying at the Sun City Resort, a popular destination for families. It offers a range of activities to choose from, and there are several accommodation options available if you don’t want to stay at Sun City itself.