The 13 best places to visit in South Africa
Situated on the southern tip of the African continent, South Africa, nicknamed ‘the rainbow nation’, is unquestionably a destination which is ripe for discovery all throughout the year. It’s a country brimming with areas of natural beauty, of parks and nature reserves filled with wildlife. A country where the feeling of living beyond your wildest dreams takes on its full meaning, at the heart of varied, diverse regions and captivating, spectacular scenery. South Africa is a country of many facets, and each of the country’s regions is different, thus offering travellers a wide range of activities and various things to experience. The country gives travellers the opportunity to participate in cultural experiences with its unique melting pot and poignant history at the heart of the cities of Johannesburg and Cape Town. It’s also possible to experience the best of fine dining by tasting vintage South African wine in Cape Town’s wine estate region, or even to make one of your childhood dreams a reality through discovering incredible wildlife in nature reserves such as the Hluhluwe-Umfolozi game reserve and national parks such as the legendary Kruger Park. A trip to South Africa is also synonymous with nature and its breathtaking sights which you could discover while on a hike, whether that’s in the Cederberg mountains or even the Drakensberg mountains on the opposite side of the country. Having lived for almost a year in South Africa, here are my 13 not to be missed places situated all over the country.
Our selection of must-see places
Blyde River Canyon
To the west of Kruger Park, located in the heart of the Mpumalanga region, is the Blyde River Canyon. At 26 kilometres long, this is the third largest canyon in the world, with imposing geological features called "Giant's Kettles", or "Bourke's Luck Potholes". In addition to offering breathtaking views, this natural site is an ideal place for outdoor activities such as hiking, rafting, climbing, horseback riding and even bungee jumping.
Mountain | Nature | Viewpoint
As the third largest city in the country, Durban is "the capital of the Kwazulu-Natal region" and can be likened to Australian or American cities but with the added bonus of being steeped in Zulu culture. Durban is famous for its long walk on the seafront, its Indian district and beaches conducive to surfing. You can also go scuba diving and come face to face with the "great white shark" as well as other species of sharks. This memorable adrenalin-fuelled activity can be experienced in the waters of Aliwal Shoal, to the south of Durban.
Art & Culture | Nature | Animals
In the heart of Zululand, in the Kwazulu-Natal region, and not far from the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, is the Hluhluwe-Umfolozi reserve, the oldest in the country. Here you can spend one or more days on safari in your own vehicle or alternatively in one of the park’s vehicles accompanied by a guide-ranger. Either way, you can then follow the trails of the "Big 5" and also observe the highest concentration of rhinoceros in the world in the heart of green landscapes and beautiful savannah hills!
Animals | Nature | Safari
Kruger National Park
Do you dream of going on safari in South Africa and tracking the "Big 5" at one of the largest wild sanctuaries in the world? Good news, it’s possible in the north-east of the country at the Kruger National Park, a five-hour drive from Johannesburg and not far from the border with Mozambique. Embark upon a guided or self-drive safari, for one or more days, in the largest reserve in South Africa. With a total area of over 20,000 km2, you’ll get to follow in the footsteps of the thousands of mammals and birds that live there in total freedom.
The best safaris
Animals | Nature | Safari
iSimangaliso Wetland Park and St Lucia
The iSimangaliso Wetland Park, located east of Durban on Santa Lucia’s coastline, in the KwaZulu-Natal province, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The region of Saint Lucia is home to a unique and unspoilt ecosystem of beaches, swamps and mangroves, savannah and forests. The coast is wild with a water temperature of around 77°F. Large marine mammals, such as whales, dolphins, turtles, hippopotamuses and the Nile crocodile, have made it their home (off Sodwana Bay). For a chance to see them, just take a boat cruise on the Saint Lucia estuary.
Nature | Animals | Safari | UNESCO World Heritage | Craftsmanship
It’s in the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site bordering Lesotho, that you really get to explore majestic mountain landscapes and other remarkable natural wonders. The Drakensberg is a mountain range, culminating at about 3,500 meters above sea level, and is home to nearly 300 species of birds and no less than 50 mammals. The area is also ideal for hiking, such as in the Kamberg Nature Reserve and Giants Castle, where you can observe paintings depicting the daily life of the San people and even take a well-deserved dip in the waterfalls and natural pools.
Nature | Mountain | Hiking | Viewpoint
Johannesburg & Soweto
Johannesburg is a modern city with many unusual and fashionable neighbourhoods that are often steeped in history. Between art galleries, shopping malls, museums and exhibitions, markets and trendy restaurants, the city of Johannesburg is home to many must-see areas, such as the cultural district of Newtown (former industrial area) with its theatres, historical museum, the MuseuMAfricA, and the trendy districts of Braamfontein and Maboneng. There is also Soweto, a city in its own right and the historic centre of the anti-apartheid struggle, where you will be able to follow in the footsteps of Ghandi and Nelson Mandela. With a one-day guided visit of the township, on foot and / or by bike, you can visit the Apartheid Museum which traces the history of the country and the struggle for racial equality, and at the same time have lunch in a "shebeen", which was an underground bar during the apartheid period.
Nature | Vineyards | Mountain | Hiking
The Cederberg region is north of Cape Town with breathtaking scenery and many outdoor activities such as mountain biking, hiking, canoeing, etc. Cederberg can be discovered through its many hiking trails, rooibos farms and tea factories and even historical sites on the trail of Bushmen rock art sites. It’s also a region that invites you to take it easy and have a good time in a sublime natural mountainous setting, spending days in the great outdoors and seeing the day out under unforgettable starry skies.
Nature | Vineyards | Mountain | Hiking
The Cape wine route
Just an hour’s drive from the city of Cape Town, you will find the wine growing region in the heart of the beautiful countryside with the towns of Stellenbosch and Franschhoek, known as ‘the French corner’, where the first Huguenots settled in the 18th century. Among the Constantia, Stellenbosch, Franschhoek and Paarl vineyards, don’t miss the chance to visit one of the many renowned wine growing estates where you will taste excellent South African wines. You’ll enjoy fine dining at one of the wine estates’ restaurant tables or go for a picnic on the vineyard lawns. In addition to its beautiful, mountainous countryside, its valleys and wine estates, the region is also home to historic ‘Cape Dutch’ architectural monuments which are a trademark feature of this region.
Vineyards | Nature | Art & Culture | Gastronomy
Addo Elephant National Park
Located east of Cape Town and Port Elizabeth, this is the third largest park in the country. Addo National Park was created in 1931 to protect the last of the region’s elephants from extinction. Today there are about 400 elephants, as well as other mammals such as black rhinos, buffaloes, various species of antelopes, a wide variety of birds and, for some years now, a number of lions. The National Park is also home to a marine reserve where you can see the “Big 7” including the Southern Right Whale and the Great White Shark.
Animals | Nature | Safari
The Garden Route
The Garden Route is a symbolic road, also known as the legendary Route 62. It runs along the coast and crosses beautiful sea, mountain pass and countryside landscapes, from the city of Cape Town to Port Elizabeth. About 850 km long, the Garden route offers many charming sites to discover, including the world ostrich capital, Oudtshoorn, where you can meet the biggest bird in the world. There are also the Cango caves, the seaside towns of Mossel Bay and Knysna, with its beautiful lagoon and Featherbed Nature Reserve, the bay of Plettenberg, with mile upon mile of sandy beaches, and the Robberg Nature Reserve that will not disappoint with its beautiful hikes, views of the ocean and sometimes even sea lions.
Nature | Viewpoint | Vineyards | Countryside
From the city of Cape Town (approximately 2 hours’ drive), you will take one of the region’s most beautiful, scenic roads, the R44 (Clarence Drive), which leads to the whale capital, the town of Hermanus. It is here, and more specifically in Walker Bay, that whales come to reproduce and give birth between June and November. During this time, you will be able to watch them from the seafront, or from on board a boat for a stunning and unforgettable experience. If you’re a thrill seeker, head over to Gansbaai (a 30 minute drive from Hermanus) where you can go cage diving with white sharks in the shallow channel of Shark Alley (between Diver Island and Geyser Rock) which is an area frequently visited by sharks. What’s more, further inland lie several wine estates, where you will be able to enjoy a wine tasting experience and find out even more about South African wines.
Animals | Viewpoint | Vineyards | Nature | Diving
Head towards the other side of the world with the spectacular city of Cape Town, known as the ‘mother city’, which is still a must-see place to explore in South Africa. A city of multiple natural attractions, such as the Table Mountain which overlooks the city, or even the Cape Peninsula and the Cape of Good Hope, which are both listed as UNESCO world heritage sites. Culture is also a part of Cape Town, with the Robben Island prison where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for almost 27 years, or the very latest Zeitz MOCAA museum, which is the largest contemporary art museum on the African continent. Cape Town is also brimming with areas which are well worth a visit, such as the colourful Malay quarter of Bo-Kaap, the unmissable Waterfront – a big hit with tourists, or the creative suburb of Woodstock with its works of street art, trendy market and its art galleries. Among the sea, mountains, urban and rural landscapes, the Cape Town region offers other getaway opportunities, like Simon’s Town with its Boulders Beach, where colonies of African penguins have chosen to settle, or even the Muizenberg beach where you can take up surfing and discover the famous colourful houses overlooking the seaside.
Art & Culture | Natural wonders | Hiking | Viewpoint | Nature
Travel writer and photographer
Desmond Tutu described South Africa as "a whole world in one country" and I can only agree with him. Because this really is a true reflection of everything South Africa is: a country with varying landscapes and a land of contrasts, with large natural spaces and scenery like nowhere else. South Africa is also a melting pot of different cultures and influences. I loved my experiences living with locals, like cooking in the Bo-Kaap area or visiting the township of Kalyetisha in Cape Town. I love the multitude of landscapes that one can discover during a trip to South Africa, whether on foot, by car or in the air. The Kwazulu-Natal region is, in my opinion, one of the most surprising regions of the country and one which has a lot of unexpected bonuses in terms of landscapes and wildlife. There is something for everyone when traveling to South Africa, and you are guaranteed of a different experience every time. I particularly like the city of Cape Town and its region with its unmissable sites that reflect both the country and its history, and which will never fail to surprise nature-seeking travellers as well as those looking for culture, art and gastronomy. One thing is certain, you’ll need more than one trip to experience the true extent of what this country has to offer.