15 best places to visit in South Africa
From safari parks bigger than some countries, to world-famous mountain ranges….
There aren’t many places in the world as unique as South Africa. It’s a nation we associate with natural beauty and diversity. From Table Mountain’s wispy peaks and game reserves, to the many vineyards prospering in the warm, humid climate – the best places in South Africa are far and many between.
Due to a history of colonialiation and suffocating apartheid policies, it’s a nation we also remember for Nelson Mandela and the battle for unity over discrimination. Though much of the 20th century was fraught with conflict and white supremacy, Mandela began to put policies in place to end apartheid once he was released from prison and voted in as president in 1994. It’s an incredible story and you can learn more at the many historical landmarks and museums across the country.
But that’s not all. From safari parks bigger than some countries and world-famous mountain ranges, here are the best places to visit in South Africa.
Image source:AnnaKate Auten
1. Table Mountain, Cape Town
Number one on our list has to be Table Mountain, the jewel in Cape Town’s landscape and the most photographed landmark across the country. Take the cable car to the top and take in Table Mountain’s bounty of lakes and streams, wild flowers and dramatic cliffside views over Western Cape’s skyline, an absolute must for your South Africa trip.
The Table Mountain Aerial Cableway was built all the way back in 1929 and reaches more than 1,000 meters! If you get spooked by heights, take solace in the fact that literally millions of people have explored the mountains this way. Love hiking? You can reach the top of the mountain after a 1.5 hour walk – though more scenic routes will require a little more navigational prowess! Oh, and there are penguins on the mountain, too. Head to the Boulders and prepare yourself for a cuteness overload.
2. Kruger National Park
There are over 20 national parks and reserves across South Africa, but Kruger is usually the first you’ll hear about. It’s the largest by far, stretching over 19,000 sq kilometres, from sunlit savannah to lush grazing land for the zebras! Game drives to see the Big Five are popular all year round for tourists and locals alike (i.e lions, elephants, African buffalo, rhinos and leopards).
Kruger National Park isn’t too pricey (a day-pass entry is around 440 rand), plus there’s budget accommodation available alongside 5-star hotels and lodges for a taste of luxury. Or for something a little more unique… the Contiki Safari Lodge allows you sleep in luxury tents and chill around the campfire with fellow travellers, under a canopy of stars. Check out this video to see more:
3. The Garden Route
Stretching languorously from the East to West Cape provinces is the Garden Route. Before you ask, the scenery is as pretty as the name sounds. Take a road trip down the 200km coastline and watch South Africa’s beaches, forests, lakes, and meadows pass by like a dream.
On the Garden Route coastline, you can also spot whales, dolphins, sharks and even penguins on a lucky day! Feeling a little hot and sweaty on your drive? I’d hope you have A.C in your vehicle, though the weather here usually stays below 25 C. Stop off for a swim at Nature’s Valley Beach to cool down and grab dinner in view of the sand-stone cliffs of Knysna, one of the best towns to visit in South Africa.
There’s an oyster festival every summer (usually July) to celebrate the peak of harvest, where you can sample the ‘fruit’ of the Indian Ocean. Even if you don’t like seafood, this festival is more of a cultural event instead of a foodie marathon… expect sports, games, and outdoor activities to be run during the 10 days of the festival.
Image source:Martijn Vermeltfoort
4. Mossel Bay
If you were wondering which towns to stop off on The Garden Route, don’t miss out Mossel Bay! This cute coastal town is slap-bang in the middle of South Africa’s most famous road. As the name cheekily hints, it’s also one of the best places to try mussels in the world due to a bountiful supply from the Indian Ocean.
Is it just me or do seals remind you of sea dogs? You can see hundreds by boat, all cosied up on Seal Island (another apt name). For those looking for an adrenaline-pumping experience, shark-cage diving is also available on Mossel Bay, while wine-tasting and the scenic Diaz train route are perfect for relaxing and watching the African sun drop low.
5. Storms River
On the Eastern tip of Garden Route lies Storms River, where the humongous waves crash like clockwork. There’s a suspension bridge you can check out and see the river from a height, as well as Tsitsikamma National Park, Africa’s first national marine park.
Storms River runs through Tsitsikamma, meaning the ‘place of much water’ in Khosian, one of twelve official languages across SA. From boat-rides to scuba and hiking trails, there are loads of things to do by the river mouth that’ll suit the more adventurous types.
Image source:Juhi Sewchurran
Look up in Johannesburg and you’ll see clear blue skies, rows of skyscrapers and perhaps a spotted Eagle Owl swooping by, if you’re lucky! One of South Africa’s main cultural and financial hubs, Johannesburg is only around 150 years old and most of the people living there are aged 19 – 39. The youth of the city and it’s inhabitants is distilled in the striking street art and murals you’ll find all over. Constitution Hill, Jewel City precinct, and Newtown are great for spotting some of the major works, including Dbongz’s tribute to South African jazz musicians.
Johannesburg got a bad rep in the past for crime, but this has calmed down in recent years. Travelling with an experienced guide is perhaps the best way to see South Africa as there is so much history to soak in and you won’t want to miss anything… like the town of Soweto, for instance. This is where you can see Mandela House, the beloved leaders home at one time (and a National Heritage site, to boot).
Image source:Keenan Constance
7. Robben Island
The site where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for many years, Robben Island is a place of historical significance for South Africans and the world. In the 17th and 20th century, this beautiful island was a military base, a hospital for disadvantaged groups and a prison. After the end of apartheid, it’s developed into a haven for locals and tourists alike, though the sombre history of the island remains.
A guided tour is probably the best way to experience Robben Island’s wealth of rare plants and fauna, as well as learning more about Nelson Mandela’s secret activism while he was imprisoned. Don’t forget to look out for penguins colonies on the beach!
Image source:Emmanuel Wabwire
8. Cango Caves
Ever walked through caves more than 20-million years old? Exploring Cango Caves is a great way to connect with indigenous history and it’s a suitable hike for all levels of fitness (though if you get claustrophobic, you might want to skip this one out).
It’s eerily beautiful in Cango Caves, with awesome stalactites, glittering ceilings, and unusual rock formations. Take the Adventure Tour and you’ll get crawl through narrow passageways with only small lights to guide you… fancy the challenge?
Image source:Dirk Toerien
9. Golden Gate Highlands National Park
Situated on the tip of the Lesotho border, Golden Gate Highlands National Park is a bit of a mouthful to say… But it’s one of the best places to visit in South Africa for nature lovers! You can watch zebra and wildebeest graze on the park’s foothills, while the kaleidoscope of wild flowers will keep your Instagram feed nicely topped up.
Image source:Thomas Bennie
10. KwaZulu-Natal (KZN)
KwaZulu-Natal wasn’t recognised as an official province during the apartheid. Now, the area is celebrated as ‘place of the Zulus’, which are people who have lived on the land for centuries. Zulu culture is distinct for it’s vibrant art, weave work, and pottery, which have become well-known across the world. There are traditional Zulu homesteads across the region, where you can experience a taste of what life is like for locals here. Hike the Drakensberg Mountains or take a cruise off the sprawling coastline… you might even spot a hippo!
11. Addo Elephant Park
I know what you’re about to say… why wasn’t a national park with 600 elephants no.1 on our list? That maybe goes to show how many amazing places to visit there are in South Africa. Nevertheless, Addo Elephant Park is a must-see. A drive through the 200+ sq mile reserve will offer countless photo opportunities of the Big Five, with lions recently reintroduced to the habitat.
Image source:Patrick Baum
12. Blyde River Canyon
If you didn’t get time to visit the Grand Canyon on your travel bucket list, Blyde River Canyon is almost as epic – it’s thought to be the third largest canyon in the world. Outdoor activities are aplenty in this area, with opportunities to for horse riding, fishing, hikes, and even helicopter or hot air balloon rides! The view from 750 metres is unmissable, trust.
Image source:Arthur Hickinbotham
13. Plettenberg Bay
If Blyde River is the place to get down and dirty with nature, Plettenberg Bay is perhaps the Beverly Hills of South Africa. The rich and wealthy come every summer for holidays and cruises off the coastline. So, expect food and drinks to be a little more pricey here… though sunset whale-watching in the Bay will make you forget your bank balance ever existed!
Image source:Thomas Bennie
14. Drakensberg Region
Of course the Drakensberg Mountains are the main sight to see here, with hiking trails and streams tracing the rocky terrain up to Cathedral’s Peak (3,004 metres). These mountains are known as Mponjwana by the native Amangwane people. If you want to learn more about the indigenous history of the land, look out for rock art sketches and frescos in the mountains, painted thousands of years ago by local tribes. There are over 3000 of them in this area… one of the main reasons Drakensberg achieved World Heritage Status in 1997!
Image source:Mark Potterton
15. South Africa wine regions
White, red, or rose? You might find you have a little more choice than your standard bar order in South Africa, where there are over 500 wineries. People from all over come to sample wine in the many vineyards across Cape Town, most notably Western Cape. The region boasts some of the best vintages in the world.
Head to Stellenbosch, Paarl, Worcester, and Franschhoek to begin your wine tour of South Africa. Then hit up some of the smaller local wineries, like Spier. The winemakers here throw epic food and wine parties, but are also part of a select group of winemakers known as WWF Conservation Champions. This is a title reserved only for winemakers who are committed to conserving Cape Town’s unique biodiversity and ‘spearheading innovations in water and energy efficiency.’ Just one example of this is how Spier recycle 100% of their waste water. Pretty awesome, all in all.
Now you’ve seen the best places to visit in South Africa, it’s time to check it out for yourself. Head to Contiki and book your next travel adventure today!