There are so many incredible places to visit in South Africa, that you may spend a lifetime exploring it.
It’s no secret that South Africa is one of my favorite countries. This is a place that has so much to offer. There are many beautiful places to visit in South Africa. Beautiful cities; gorgeous beaches; the African bush and all its wildlife; the rugged coastline; the mountains and the forests; the vineyards, the canyons: there really is something for everyone, and it is no wonder why it’s been called “the world in one country.”
Add to this the delicious food, the superb wine, and the fact that it is truly great value for money, and it’s easy to see why it’s becoming an increasingly popular holiday destination.
If you are considering a trip to South Africa, you are probably looking for information on the best places to see. You have come to the right place as I have been there many times! This post highlights the best places to visit in South Africa. Keep in mind that this list is by no means exhaustive, but the places listed on top are those you should visit first! At the end of this post, you will also find some useful planning tips for your trip.
The Best Places To Visit In South Africa
If you only have time to visit one place in South Africa, it has to be Cape Town. Known as the Mother City, this is the oldest city in the country (it was founded in 1652) and easily one of the most beautiful cities in the world.
Cape Town has some of the best tourist attractions in South Africa. Make sure to go up Table Mountain (it’s highest peak is Maclear’s Beacon) to enjoy the views of the city from there. I recommend going a couple of hours before sunset and lingering on enough to admire what really is one of the most beautiful sunsets in the world.
The weather in Cape Town is truly unpredictable. At times, it is sunny in the city but Table Mountain and Lion’s Head are covered by clouds. If you can see Table Mountain from town, and if the cable car to the top is open, that’s a good sign: go there, and don’t postpone it to a different day as you never know the weather!
You can get your cable car tickets here.
Cape Town is also packed with easily accessible hiking trails. You can hike Table Mountain (but make sure to join a guided hike such as this one via Platteklip Gorge or this one via India Venster), Devil’s Peak or Lion’s Head, from where you’ll be able to see Table Mountain.
Other places to visit in Cape Town include the colorful Bo-Kaap, the V&A Waterfront, Kirstenbosch Gardens – one of the most beautiful botanical gardens in the world; Groot Constantia – where the first vineyards in the country were established; Signal Hill and Two Oceans Aquarium.
Plan to spend a minimum of 5 days in Cape Town – there is a lot to see in the city itself and it is an excellent starting point to visit all the neighboring smaller towns and natural sites.
Robben Island is a must see. This is where the high security prison where political leaders such as Nelson Mandela were held until the end of Apartheid. You can easily get there on day trips from Cape Town – the ferry takes about 45 minutes (depending on sea conditions) and leaves from the harbor right by the V&A Waterfront.
Purchase your ferry tickets in advance, and opt for the earliest one as sea conditions becomes rougher throughout the day. You can book a tour of Robben Island including the ferry ride here.
Muizenberg and Kalk Bay
Muizenberg is a lovely coastal town close to Cape Town, about 30 minutes drive, and easy to visit on a day trip. It’s one of the loveliest places to visit in the country. Its main attraction is the beautiful white sandy beach, lined with colorful beach huts that are fun to photograph. It’s also one of the best surfing spots in the country.
A short drive from Muizenberg, Kalk Bay is the kind of place you may stop at for a quick coffee when driving around the peninsula, and end up spending a couple of hours browsing through the antique and vintage shops. It’s lovely!
Cape Peninsula and Cape Point National Park
No trip to South Africa is complete without a road trip around Cape Peninsula, part of the Cape Floral Region – so famous for its biodiversity that in 2004 it was inscribed in the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
The drive around Cape Peninsula along the 12 Apostles Coastline and connecting Camps Bay to Hout Bay is among the most scenic ones in the world. The latter a lovely suburb of Cape Town which has a beautiful sandy beach and a nice harbor from where it is possible to go on a boat tour to Duiker Island (typically referred to as Hout Bay Seal Island) to admire marine life (mostly seals).
You can book your tour to Duiker Island here.
Chapman’s Peak, around 15 minutes drive from Hout Bay and connecting it with Noordhoek, is another must. Once in Noordhoeak, the road splits into two roads that go in opposite directions. Driving east, it reaches Fish Hoek and then continues to Simon’s Town (home of Boulder’s Beach Penguin Colony, where more than 20,000 penguins live) and continues to Cape Point National Park. Going west, it goes through Kommetjie and then follows the coast until entering the National Park area.
I have driven both roads and they are both beautiful. The first one stops in small cities and is perfect if you want to visit Cape Point Peninsula and the penguin colony on the same day. The second one is significantly less trafficked, and there are some stunning coastal views along the way.
The main attractions inside Cape Point National Park are the Cape of Good Hope – which, despite being one of the most famous places to visit in South Africa, actually isn’t the southernmost point in Africa (that’s Cape Agulhas, around 230 km – 143 miles – from Cape Town); Cape Point Lighthouse (the two are connected by the Cape of Good Hope trail); and Diaz Beach.
Cape Point National Park is open from 8:00 am to 4:00 pm. Admission is R360 (around $24 USD).
As in many other places in South Africa, baboons are an issue in Cape Point National Park: they are vicious and known to bite humans for food. Don’t carry any food in your bags or pockets once you get out of the car.
The Wine Region – Stellenbosch and Franshhoek
The wine region – comprising Stellenbosch, Franshhoek and Paarl – is one of the nicest places to visit in South Africa.
Famous for the incredible wines, Stellenbosch is packed with history and small interesting museums and art galleries. The vineyards are great places to visit for wine tasting. They all have something special – some have a strong focus on conservation; others are truly historical and vintage; there even are some where you can blend your own wine!
Stellenbosch is close enough to Cape Town that you can easily visit on a day trip. However, it’s such a pleasant place that I recommend staying a bit longer. If you do, you should also make it a point to go to Franshhoek – which is a bit smaller, but totally charming; and Kayamandi Township, whose name means “sweet home,” and which was founded in the 1950s during the Apartheid regime.
West Coast National Park
One hour North of Cape Town, West Coast National Park is a locals’ favorite. You can go there to make the most of the breathtaking landscape, the many hiking trails, the wildlife, the flowers (especially colorful in spring, between August and September) and the tranquility. There aren’t many facilities, so you may need to bring whatever you need for the day.
Namaqua National Park, close to the border with Namibia and at more than 5 hours drive from Cape Town, is one of the lesser known places to visit in South Africa. It’s more of a desert area, but if you visit in the spring month the landscape is absolutely breathtaking.
Kgalagadi (Kalahari) Transfrontier Park
This transfrontier park was established in 2000 and merges Kalahari Gemsbok National Park in South Africa, and Gemsbok National Park in Botswana. The beautiful landscape and the abundance of wildlife make it a top photography destination and one of the best places to visit in the Northern Cape.
Animals you may be able to spot include the black-maned Kalahari lion; leopards; hyenas; cheetahs, gemsboks and meerkats. You need a 4-wheel drive to explore – and it’s best to find a guided tour.
About 1 and a half hour drive from Cape Town, in the Western Cape Province, Hermanus is a fabulous whale watching destination. Several boat tours depart daily from the harbor, and if you are lucky you can even spot southern right whales from the shore (there are various whale-watching points along the waterfront). Hermanus is also packed with gorgeous beaches.
The best time to see whales in Hermanus is between the end of June and November. Make sure to book your whale watching tour in advance and to check online reviews for companies that run tours in a responsible way. You can book your tour departing from Cape Town here.
About half way between Cape Town and Hermanus, Pringle Bay has a nice beach and is a relaxing place to stop for a day or just a few hours.
Another place for whale watching is Gansbaai, which is significantly lesser visited than Hermanus but just as stunning. It’s a bit further away from Cape Town and famous as a destination where you can do the “Big 5 Marine Safari” during which you have a chance to spot whales, great white sharks, dolphins, penguins and seals.
Another thing people to in Gansbaai is cage-diving with sharks. If you want to do it, make sure to check the company you are booking with is fully ethical. Things such as baiting the sharks with fish are not ethical.
Although you will hear over and over again that Cape of Good Hope is the southernmost tip of Africa, that’s actually wrong. The tip of Africa is in Cape Agulhas, and that’s where the two oceans meet! This really is one of the most beautiful places to visit in the country, a bit far off from everything else and as such not getting nearly as many visitors.
Cape Agulhas can be seen on the way to the Garden Route. It’s about 2 hours drive from Hermanus, and it’s a further 3 to Mossel Bay. You will be better off spending the night in Hermanus and driving there early in the morning before making your way to the Garden Route.
Wilderness is small town in the Western Cape Province and one of the stops along South Africa’s Garden Route, a stretch of more than 200 km that goes from Mossel Bay to Stormsrivier. The area is packed with beautiful, long, sandy beaches. It’s also home to the Map of Africa, a stunning lookout point with views of the Indian Ocean, of the Outeniua Moutains and the Kaaimans River.
Wilderness Natural Park is a perfect place to hike: the Giant Kingfisher Trail (also known as the Waterfall Trail) is an easy walk that goes to some beautiful waterfalls.
Along the Garden Route Knysna is one of the top places to visit in South Africa. This small town is perfect for nature, wildlife and adventure lovers, and it has a nice, easygoing and holiday vibe that makes it a wonderful place to stop for a few days.
The most famous attraction is the Knysna Heads, two sandstone cliffs that separate Knysna Lagoon from the ocean. This is actually the world’s most dangerous ocean mouth.You can see Knysna Heads from the lagoon and from the hills facing the ocean. It’s also nice to go all the way to the viewpoints to admire the ocean below (some beaches are truly stunning).
Plan to spend a few days in Knysna, especially if you are interested in going on a boat tour around the lagoon. The wind can be quite strong and oftentimes tours are cancelled or postponed till the day after, so give yourself plenty of time to increase your chances of good weather and calm waters.
Make sure to read my posts A Guide To The Things To Do In Knysna And On The Garden Route and Six Areas Where To Find Accommodation In Knysna.
Plettenberg Bay and Tsitsikamma
Plettenberg Bay is one of the last stops along the Garden Route, and one of the top places to visit in South Africa. It has some gorgeous beaches, a fun vibe and offers easy access to the nearby Tsitsikamma National Park and Nature’s Valley, where there are plenty of hiking trails (the most famous one is the Tsitsikamma Mountain Trail, a fantastic 6-day hike).
Plettenberg is an excellent place to admire wildlife (whale watching and dolphin watching are quite popular here). It’s also close to Bloukrans Bridge, where the 216 meters (708 feet) high bridge is a famous spot for bungee jumping. And if bungee jumping is not your thing, you can go zip lining in Tsitsikamma instead.
Jukani and Monkeyland Sanctuary and Birds of Eden
Unfortunately, some places in South Africa still offer animal encounters that are anything but responsible – think of lion walks or “elephant experiences.” If you are keen on getting close to animals in a responsible way, Jukani and Monkeyland are two of the nicest places to visit in South Africa. These animal sanctuaries, which won the World Responsible Tourism Award, are easily reached from Plettenberg Bay, on the Garden Route.
Jukani, located around 14 km (8.7 miles) from Plettenberg Bay, houses around 70 carnivores from Africa and beyond, all injured, orphaned or rescued from zoos or from people that kept them as pets (obviously illegally). They are now kept in large enclosures mimicking their natural environment as much as possible.
At Jukani animals aren’t bred (in fact, they are closely monitored so as not to reproduce, as this would jeopardize the already delicate ecosystem they live in) and there is interaction or walks with animals. All tours are guided.
A further 7 km (4.3 miles) up the road there is Monkeyland, another sanctuary dedicated to primates rescued from zoos or kept as pets. You can spot squirrel monkeys as well as vervet monkeys; gibbons; lemurs and much more. Guided tours depart every 20 minutes and last around one hour, with plenty of chances to take photos.
Next to it, Birds of Eden is a bird sanctuary and the world’s largest free-flying aviary. It’s divided into various ecosystems, so there is a wetland as well as a misty forest inside, and birds are rehabilitated before being released inside.
The combo ticket for the 3 sanctuaries costs R640 (less than $43 USD) for adults.
Addo Elephant National Park
Not far from Port Elizabeth (the “Friendly City” at the very end of the Garden Route famous for its beautiful beaches) in the Eastern Cape and a few hours from the Garden Route, this is South Africa’s third largest national park and a great spot to admire wildlife – especially (but not only) wild elephants.
The park is easy enough to visit independently if you have your own car, but for better chances of spotting animals, you may want to join a guided tour such as this one.
Durban and surroundings
Durban, the main city in Kwazulu Natal, lacks the dramatic beauty of Cape Town, but it has a laidback vibe and amazing beaches with truly warm waters where you can swim year round. Some of i’s best attractions are the Golden Mile, the UShaka Marine World and Durban Botanic Gardens.
Not far from Durban, Umhlanga is an upscale suburb with a beautiful beach perfect for an early morning walk, a lighthouse and a jetty for perfect views.
Less than one hour drive in the Natal Midlands, Pietermaritzburg is a lovely Victorian city packed with nice museums. A student town, it has a very easy going vibe.
Make sure to read my post 20 Fun Things To Do In Durban.
Phinda Private Game Reserve
Many places to visit in South Africa offer incredible safari experiences.
Phinda, a private game reserve managed by And Beyond about 3 hours drive from Durban, has the perfect combination of excellent lodging with the best wildlife experiences you may hope for. You will be able to spot the Big Five, but also zebras, hippos, giraffes and a lot of cheetahs and hyenas. The reserve is huge, and the landscape changes from one area to the other, which implies that different animal species will be more easily spotted in some areas.
I recommend a minimum of 3 nights in Phinda Game Reserve.
For a more complete post about Phinda, click here.
iSimangaliso Wetland Park
Home to the largest estuarine system in Africa and a World Heritage Area, iSimangaliso is located north of Phinda, in Kwazulu Natal. Its name means “miracle and wonder.” The area, which has a whopping eight ecosystems, is a fantastic place to admire wildlife. You will be able to spot hippos and crocodiles, an incredible variety of birds, leopards and rhinos.
As it is on the coast, you will also see stunning sand dunes and a coral reef. It’s a great place for a safari and for activities such as diving, snorkeling, kayaking and fishing.
Not far from St. Lucia, Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park is another great place to spot wildlife that is not nearly as known as Kruger and other national parks, yet it is home to the Big 5. You can go there on a day trip from Durban such as this one.
If you care to visit a rural community and get a better idea of the every day struggles of rural South Africa, make sure to add Nkomo Village to your South Africa itinerary. I visited as part of a half-day trip from Phinda, on an Africa Foundation tour. Africa Foundation is an NGO that serves to empower local rural communities living nearby core conservation areas in Africa, with the idea that furthering education and empowerment they will recognize the importance of preserving the environment and its wildlife and contribute in the effort.
A guided tour usually includes a visit to Nkomo Primary School, the kindergarten and the local crafts market, where women can sell their work in a safe environment; and finally at the local clinic, which does both prevention work as well as administering cures for the most common illnesses.
Drakensberg, which means “Dragon Mountains,” is located in KwaZulu-Natal and is one of the best tourist attractions in South Africa, home to the highest peaks in the country. This is where you will find the World Heritage-listed uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park, as well as the Royal Natal National Park.
The landscape in Drakensberg varies with the season. Visit in the summer and you’ll find lush forests, waterfalls and flowing rivers. Go in the winter, and it will be very cold and even covered in snow at times.
You may visit Drakensberg on a day trip such as this one, but if you want to make the most of all that it has to offer (hiking, rock climbing, rafting, biking and more) you should spend at least a couple of days there.
3 hours from Durban on the way to Lesotho, Sani Pass is a truly unique place. Getting there is not the easiest thing to do, and you do need a 4×4 vehicle, so consider joining a guided tour such as this one.
Golden Gate Highlands National Park
For more impressive landscape, you may want to head to Golden Gate Highlands National Park, a land of sandstone rocks whose colors vary depending on the time of day and the light. It’s a good place to spot wildlife too.
Kruger National Park
Kruger National Park is one of the most famous places to visit in South Africa. It’s huge, and the landscape changes from one place to the other, with mountains, bush plains and even tropical forests. This is one of the largest game reserves in Africa and an incredible place to see animals – including the Big Five and wild dogs (Africa’s most endangered carnivore) – in their natural environment.
The good thing about Kruger is that it is easily accessible. Much like Etosha, in Namibia, you can self drive (though it takes quite a trained eye to spot wildlife!) and there is a variety of accommodation options that go from camping sites to luxury lodges, so it is really suitable for all budgets.
Not far from Kruger National Park, Tshukudu Game Reserve and Sabi Sands Game Reserve are both excellent places for a safari.
Blyde River Canyon and Panorama Route
Blyde River Canyon, in the Mpumalanga province, is one of the most popular tourist destinations in South Africa – the second largest canyon in Africa and the third largest in the world. Located on the Panorama Route, on the way from Johannesburg to Kruger National Park, it’s characterized by diverse wildlife (you can spot hippos, crocodiles as well as primates) and an environment that comprises waterfalls, rivers and beautiful rock formations.
The best stops along the Panorama Route include Pinnacle, God’s Window, Wonder View, Lisbon Falls and Berlin Falls and Three Rondavels Viewpoint.
To make the most of the area, you may want to go on a boat trip such as this one or have a go at whitewater rafting.
Pilanesberg National Park
Just 2-5 hours from Johannesburg, and close to Sun City (South Africa’s nature immersed version of Las Vegas) Pilanesberg National Park is an easy to reach place if you want to see wildlife – and since it is much smaller than Kruger, it’s also infinitely easier to explore (not to mention, the chances of spotting wildlife are higher).
The park – which is malaria free – is located in an extinct volcano crater, between the Kalahari Desert and a wetter kind of environment, which means that the wildlife is very varied there. Other than the Big Five, you should be able to spot zebra, giraffes, antelopes and even wild dogs.
Johannesburg and Soweto
Johannesburg may not be as beautiful as Cape Town, but it still is one of the most interesting places to visit in South Africa. The main international hub in Southern Africa, Jozi, as locals affectionately call it, has a lot more to offer than meets the eye. South Africa’s largest city has a few superb museums; the street art scene is rocking; and its culturally lively.
The highlights of Johannesburg are the Apartheid Museum, where you can learn more about the difficult past of the country; and Maboneng, the best part of the city to admire street art. If you have enough time to get out of the city, the Cradle of Humankind and the Sterkfontein Caves are other also interesting places to visit.
You should also make it a point to go to Soweto, a massive township (the largest in the country, with 1.3 million people living there) that became famous during the Apartheid regime, as it was where protests and civil unrest started. Vilakazi street, in Soweto, is where Nelson Mandela and his family used to live. Nowadays the house is a small but very interesting museum.
To make the most of Johannesburg and Soweto, consider joining a guided tour. You can book it here.
Head over to my post The Best Things To Do In Johannesburg.
Once the heart of the Apartheid Regime, Pretoria is less than one hour drive from Johannesburg but a million miles away in terms of vibe. If you visit in the late spring, the colors of the jacaranda will be quite a sight. The administrative capital of South Africa has many parks and gardens, and is home to the Voortrekker Monument and Heritage Site and Freedom Park.
Other interesting places to visit
Cities like Bloemfontein – known as the “City of Roses” and one of South Africa’s three capitals; or Kimberley – in the diamonds field region, are generally out of the main tourist route, but also very interesting to visit. Bloemfontein is home to several good museums, such as Oliewenhuis Art Museum, the National Museum and the Anglo Boer War Museum. In Kimberley, a guided tour to the ghost town will give you insights into its mining past.
What You Need To Know Before Your Trip To South Africa
When to visit South Africa
Any time is good to visit South Africa. I have visited in both early winter and late spring, and enjoyed it both times. Some of the places mentioned in this post are better enjoyed in the spring and summer months. If you plan to go hiking, keep in mind that winter can be rainy in the Western Cape, but summer may be too hot.
Traveling around South Africa
One of the most fun ways to experience South Africa is on a road trip. In order to rent a car in South Africa you’ll need a valid driving license and a credit card. A deposit will be blocked from your card when you pick it up, but will be released a week after you return it.
You can check out the prices of car rental in South Africa here.
Make sure to read my post The Best Road Trips In South Africa.
Have a GPS (but use it with caution): a car with a GPS system is a good idea, but Google Maps is more reliable. However, Google Maps regularly underestimates driving time.
Don’t drive at night: roads in South Africa are poorly lit, and often unfenced. Stray animals and at times even people cross the road and you may not see them!
Keep within the speed limits: speed cameras are scattered around the country. A good GPS will warn you about the presence of a camera and will update you on the speed limit.
Beware of the road conditions: the road conditions are good in the Western Cape and all the way to Port Elizabeth. 4-lane roads are common only in the vicinity of major cities, with 2 to 3 lanes being the most common.
Passing etiquette: even when there only are 2 or 3 lanes at most, it’s easy to pass. You’ll notice that South African drivers, especially truck drivers, are very polite and will pull onto the shoulder to let you pass. Once you are done, flash your emergency lights shortly as a thank you.
Roadworks: road works, road blocks, accidents are common. Give yourself plenty of time to get from one place to the other.
Have your documents in order: it’s not uncommon to be stopped for a police check in South Africa. Have your driving license ready and all your car documents in one place.
Parking guards: you’ll have to pay to park your car in most places. Once you park, a person working for the municipality (and which you can easily identify) will mark down your arrival time. You will pay once you are ready to go. The official parking personnel is not to be confused with the “car guards” who will often try to help you park your car. Tipping them is not mandatory.
Safety in South Africa
South Africa has the reputation of being an unsafe place. Cape Town certainly has some dodgy areas that you are better off avoiding. Keep your eyes open and follow the advice of locals when it comes to safety. If a hotel receptionist advises you not to walk around alone at night, there must be a good reason for that!
A good thing to do is getting a local sim card with enough data for the duration of your trip, so that you can easily access Google Maps to find your way home, or Uber if you need transportation. There is a Vodacom shop right outside the terminal in Cape Town airport.
Remember to always get a good travel insurance. You can find a good one here.
Legal Disclaimer: I wish to thank Turkish Airlines for offering us an upgrade on our intercontinental flights. I would also like to thank Around About Cars for offering us a discounted rate on our car rental, and And Beyond for giving us a discount on our safari in Phinda. Needless to say, no sponsorship or cooperation influenced my opinions. I loved my time in South Africa and I can’t wait to go back.