If you were to compile a bucket list of places in South Africa you have to visit at least once in your life, what would you include? For me they’d need to offer something special in the way of nature, wildlife, beaches, culture and heritage, activities and experiences. Here’s a roundup of 20 of the best South African holiday destinations including a bucket list of places to visit if you haven’t already.
I’ve tried to arrange the destinations in a natural order around the country, starting in the wide spaces of the Northern Cape, down to the Cape and along the Garden Route to the Wild Coast, then through the Karoo heartland to KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga and Limpopo in the far north. This doesn’t mean that the Northern Cape is ‘better’ than Limpopo; it was just a way of organising the destinations and doesn’t imply any qualitative ranking (so please don’t leave rude comments if you’re from Limpopo!). Follow the sequence for a full-on blockbuster road trip or simply pick a few favourites.
For a bit of variety, I asked some of my travel blogger friends to contribute to this post. I wrote about the destinations they didn’t snap up. If there’s no credit at the end of the snippet about a particular place, it’s one I wrote. If there is a credit, it’s from the travel blogger mentioned. There’s either a link to their blog’s homepage with their name at the end or a link in the text to a particular blog post of theirs with more info about the destination.
1. Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, Northern Cape
Vast herds of gemsbok and springbok follow the seasons, camel thorn trees provide shade for black-maned lions and communal apartment blocks for sociable weaver birds. Watch hyperactive meerkats dig and scratch for beetle larvae, scorpions and spiders to eat or cheetahs fly across the veld as they hunt down their lunch. You won’t find the Big Five (there are no rhino, elephants or buffalo) but you will find lots of lions, leopards and cheetahs as well as a multitude of smaller creatures like bat-eared foxes, whistling rats and barking geckoes.
Those who have visited the Kgalagadi know it’s as much a place as a feeling, a place where you’ll discover wildlife, landscapes, cloudscapes, a magical quality of light at sunrise and sunset. You’ll also feel a vast stillness that feeds your soul.
2. Augrabies Falls, Northern Cape
Stroll along the boardwalk to the six viewing decks to hear that great noise. You’ll also get different perspectives of the wonders of the 90m high Augrabies Falls, with a freefall of 56m. See water thunder over the rock lip and rush into the gorge below. Although the average flow is only about 40-60 cumecs (cubic metres per second), during the January 2011 floods it topped out at a whopping 4800 cumecs.
Once you’ve marvelled at the Falls, there are loads of other things to do in the park. Climb Moon Rock, go hiking, visit the viewpoints over the gorge, admire the scenery, see wildlife like klipspringer and Cape clawless otter. Look for Verreaux’s eagles that breed on the cliff tops, listen for the call of African fish-eagles. Search the ground and rocks for Augrabies flat lizards, drab brown females or males of dazzling blue or green, yellow and red.
Admire the kokerboom (quiver tree) used by the San as quivers for their arrows. They survive here only because they’ve adapted to the semi-desert environment where temperatures can reach 50 degrees Celsius in summer and average rainfall is a meager 125mm a year.
3. Namaqualand, Northern Cape
Namaqualand has more than 3000 plant species, nearly half of them endemic, which means they grow nowhere else. Some you might see include Cape rain daisy, Livingstone daisy, spider lily, vygie, bittergousblom and geelkatstert.
To get the most from your flower trip, try to visit on a sunny day because the flowers don’t open on overcast or misty days. The best time is from about 10:00 until 15:00, after the flowers open and before they start to close again.
Don’t miss a visit to the Namaqua National Park west of Kamieskroon where you’ll find a range of habitats from dune, grassland and mountains to ocean, estuary, wetland and river. Enjoy eye-catching vistas of spring flowers, rocky koppies glowing red in the late afternoon sun, walks and mountain drives to see klipspringer, springbok, red hartebeest and gemsbok.
4. Cape West Coast, Western Cape
Along the coast the vibe is laid back and seafood is a staple. Take a walk on an unspoilt beach, watch colourful fishing boats go out to sea, admire the ocean views, feel the cool wind in your hair, meet friendly salt-of-the-earth people. Whitewashed cottages in Cape vernacular style dominate villages like Paternoster and Jacosbaai, just two popular weekend getaways for Capetonians.
Don’t miss a visit to the West Coast National Park, especially in spring when the veld is blanketed withcolourful flowers. Look for eland and mountain zebra, as well as passing whales and dolphins along the Atlantic coastline. The park also encompasses the gorgeous Langebaan Lagoon, which is a Ramsar Wetland of international importance so great for bird watching.
Inland there are loads of things to do in the Cederberg including hiking, seeing ancient caves and well-preserved KhoiSan rock art, or just soaking up the clean mountain air.
5. Cape Town, Western Cape
History comes alive at the 350-year-old wine estates of the Constantia Valley, the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Robben Island (where Nelson Mandela and other anti-apartheid activists were imprisoned), The Castle of Good Hope, the District Six and Iziko Bo-Kaap museums.
If you love nature, don’t miss the protected penguin colony at Boulders Beach in Simon’s Town or Cape Point nature reserve for its dramatic landscapes, birds, zebras, antelope and baboons. Swim with locals at one of the 19 tidal pools along the coast, warm and welcoming on the Indian Ocean side or chilly and invigorating on the Atlantic seaboard.
Cape Town is a foodie heaven with top chefs, cooking master classes, street food, markets, and a celebration of local tastes at the new Makers Landing at the V&A Waterfront. There’s also a thriving artisanal craft beer, gin and coffee culture.
Di Brown, The Roaming Giraffe
6. Cape Winelands, Western Cape
Go wine tasting at Tokara on the Helshoogte Pass. At Franschhoek, have lunch at Grand Provence or picnic at Boschendal. There’s hiking, biking and horse-riding across the Winelands, after which you can stop at a wine estate for a tasting.
Stellenbosch’s House of JC le Roux is unmatched for sparkling wine pairings and delicious meals from Cucina Di Giovanni Restaurant. Meander down the valley towards Spier for a Segway ride through the vineyards then on to Mooiberge Farmstall for strawberry picking from October to December.
Other Stellenbosch stops include Stellenrust and Dornier for spectacular locations and superb wines, and the historic Lanzerac estate for a welcome sip of syrah. Up the Jonkershoek road, enjoy lunch at the Postcard Cafe at Stark-Condé, with glorious views out over the gardens towards mountain peaks.
Marlize Stander, www.marlizestander.co.za
7. Route 62, Western Cape
Much-loved Montagu has many places well-established as part of the beaten track, but did you know you can do a historical tour through the town on a bike or learn to rock climb? A milkshake at Diesel & Crème in Barrydale is a must along your journey, and the Karoo Saloon is worth a visit for a cold one and some live music.
Most people don’t take time to explore what’s beyond the main roads of Ladismith and Calitzdorp, but you’d be amazed at what they have to offer if you spend a night or three. From beautifully restored buildings to antique shops, mountain passes, art routes and gin bars, there’s loads to do here other than fill up with fuel.
On the road to Oudtshoorn keep an eye out for the charming Bella de Karoo if you’re feeling peckish. And apart from encountering plenty of ostriches while you’re in and around the ostrich capital, you can take on a 500m zipline, go olive tasting in an olive grove, spot meerkats and even go glamping. There’s plenty to do on Route 62.
Rachel Moncrieff-Robinson, The Typsy Gypsy
8. Cape Whale Coast, Western Cape
The route spans about 200km along the Atlantic Ocean coastline, from Rooiels to Quoin Point, encompassing the main whale-watching towns of Hermanus, Gansbaai, Kleinmond and Stanford, although you can see whales further along the coastline at De Hoop Nature Reserve too.
Hermanus has been recognised by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) as one of the 12 best whale-watching destinations in the world, and you can enjoy this activity from land, water or air while on a scenic flight. The town even has a whale crier who heralds the daily arrival of whales by blowing his kelp horn.
Out of whale season, the route still has many attractions. With mountains on one side and ocean on the other, this fertile region comprises a collection of small villages and farm towns, each with its own special charm. The abundance of boutique hotels and country-style accommodation make it a popular weekend getaway at any time of the year.
Sara Essop, In Africa and Beyond
9. Cape Agulhas, Western Cape
To see the tip of Africa, you have to venture out of Cape Town and head south-east. It’s a beautiful drive that takes about three hours to reach the wild and dramatic Agulhas National Park, an isolated, unspoilt area. Pass the red-and-white lighthouse (the second oldest in South Africa), perhaps stopping to visit the small museum inside. Up the hill behind the lighthouse, you’ll have the best view of where the two oceans meet and maybe even see an occasional whale. The modest plaque marking the tip of Africa is only a short walk away along a boardwalk.
Cape Agulhas is a beautiful and untouched place. While the scenery isn’t as spectacular as Cape Point, there are fewer people and it really feels like you’re on the tip of a continent. To spend a bit more time in the area, base yourself in nearby Struisbaai, where you can enjoy one of the longest beaches in the southern hemisphere.
Roxanne de Bruyn, Faraway Worlds
10. Garden Route, Western and Eastern Cape
Stand at the Point of Human Origins in the Pinnacle Point caves at Mossel Bay and learn about early humans in the area, or drive the winding gravel Montagu Pass above George for fynbos and views of the Outeniqua Mountains. A short stroll from Sedgefield’s Swartvlei beach, go beach-combing at Gericke’s Point to explore the rockpools at low tide. If food, shopping, history, forest walks or lagoon life are your thing, don’t miss exploring the Knysna area. One of the best activities in Plettenberg Bay further east is the Kayak Camino Paddle on the Bitou River – a nature adventure, escape from the hustle and bustle of city life, a soul experience.
The Garden Route National Park stretches from Wilderness to Storm’s River, taking in lakes, rivers and seascapes as well as forests. Birders will love this area, as will anyone looking for adventures like hiking, biking, canoeing, snorkeling, even scuba diving at Storm’s River Mouth. Go ziplining through the tree canopy in the Tsitsikamma forest or bungy jump from the Bloukrans Bridge.
Rose Greyling Bilbrough, Go Travel Bug
11. Addo National Park, Eastern Cape
Here you’ll find one of the densest elephant populations in Africa, the biggest coastal dunefield in the southern hemisphere, the world’s largest Cape gannet breeding population and a significant breeding colony of African penguins. The park is also rich in archaeological and cultural history, with strandloper middens of shells and stone implements in the Alexandria dunefield and KhoiSan rock art in the Zuurberg mountains.
There’s a bucket-load of things to do in the greater park. Go on a self-drive safari to look for the Big Five as well as bat-eared fox, spotted hyena, eland and Burchell’s zebra. Spend time at the waterholes to watch elephants drink and calves play. Go bird-watching, whale-watching or horse-riding, drive a 4x4 trail, walk in the mountains, spend time in one of the hides, have a picnic, and always look out for the tiny flightless dung beetle which has right of way on Addo’s roads.
12. The Wild Coast, Eastern Cape
It’s dominated by long stretches of white beach where you might spot local cattle, and by traditional rondavels on the rolling green hills of the old Transkei where visitors can stay to lose themselves or connect with the locals. Here a wandering cow bumping against your front door would be your morning wakeup call.
See the Hole in the Wall near Coffee Bay, where the ocean washes through a natural rock arch. Walk from Mbyoti village to the 144m Magwa Falls on a tea plantation. Visit Waterfall Bluff where the water cascades directly into the ocean, or cross the pont that links the old Transkei with the villages of Kei Mouth and Morgans Bay.
Spend time at Wavecrest, where the Inxaxo and Ngqusi Rivers flow together to form a pristine lagoon. Go for an early morning beach walk, barefoot with the sand between your toes, or paddle up one of the rivers through the mangrove-lined estuary with kingfishers dive-bombing into the water around you.
Jonker Fourie, Firefly the Travel Guy
13. The Karoo, Northern/Western/Eastern Cape
The Karoo’s history goes back millions of years and the veld is still littered with fossilised bones of creatures that no longer exist. Its geology is fascinating too. In prehistoric times a large sea it’s now a festival of Karoo koppies and valleys, of dolerite sills and dykes, mudstone and sandstone – definitely neither flat nor boring.
Pay attention and you’ll see beyond scabbed veld and scrubland to hosts of colourful succulents that have adapted to the extreme conditions. Look for plains where hardy sheep graze, for iconic wind pumps that bring water to the dry land. Sample pomegranates, prickly pears and Karoo lamb. In towns where time seems to stand still, find Karoo-Victorian architecture and museums documenting local life. Learn about corbelled houses that date back to the mid-1800s near Carnarvon and Fraserburg.
Chat with shopkeepers, guesthouse owners and locals you bump into on the street. They’ll beguile you with stories about their town and its quirks, even a ghost tale or two.
14. Ukhahlamba-Drakensberg Park, KwaZulu-Natal
Its tallest peak, Thabana Ntlenyana, stands at 3482m in Lesotho, while the 2450m Mafadi is the highest point in South Africa. With over 1000km to explore, the area is a haven for hikers. One of the most sought after experiences? Climbing up the Amphitheatre and camping on top of the second-highest waterfall in the world – Tugela Falls.
But breathtaking hiking trails aren’t the only thing that makes this part of South Africa special. The Drakensberg is also home to 35 000 to 40 000 ancient KhoiSan rock paintings.
In December, you can attend the famous Smoking Dragon New Year’s Eve Festival. Held at Amphitheatre Backpackers with the Amphitheatre cliff face as a backdrop, it’s a great base for exploring the scenery and organising trips into neighbouring Lesotho.
For wine lovers, the Drakensberg (also known as uKhahlamba in Zulu, which means ‘the barrier of spears’) has a wine estate deep in the mountains. Visit Cathedral Peak Wine Estate to sip on cabernet sauvignon, pinotage, merlot, petit verdot and sauvignon blanc.
Lauren Melnick, Wanderlust Movement
15. Durban and KwaZulu-Natal Coast
Head to Moses Mabhida Stadium and marvel at the architecture. This stadium has played host to many a soccer game, including during the World Cup in South Africa in 2010. From here you can hire a Segway to drift along to the Durban Promenade. There’s much to see including piers, beautiful beaches and the Suncoast Casino which is always a hive of activity.
Go back along the beachfront and stop for a delicious meal at Circus Circus, a meeting point for many locals in the area. Don’t miss trying a Bunny Chow before you leave Durban. You’ll get a hollowed-out half loaf of bread filled with curry, a dish that originated among Durban’s Indian population.
From Durban, travel up the North Coast to see dolphins, sugar cane fields and beaches or visit popular seaside towns like Umhlanga Rocks and Ballito. South of Durban, the South Coast stretches from Amanzimtoti to Port Edward on the Eastern Cape border. Here it’s all about sunny beaches and the warm ocean. Visit Margate and the Beaver Creek Coffee Estate in Port Edward for a coffee tour.
Fred Felton, Umhlanga Life
16. iSimangaliso Wetland Park, KwaZulu-Natal
- The Coastal Forest
- Eastern Shores & Cape Vidal
- False Bay
- Kosi Bay
- Lake Sibaya
- Lake St Lucia
- Sodwana Bay
- uMkhuze Game Reserve
- Western Shores & Charters Creek
As a World Heritage Site, iSimangaliso is unparalleled in its natural beauty and biodiversity. Its centrepiece, Lake St Lucia, is home to the highest concentration of crocodiles in the country and you can get up close to large bloats of hippos on an estuary cruise that leaves from the nearby town of St Lucia. (Read about the top things to do in St Lucia.)
The iSimangaliso Wetland Park offers unbeatable nature experiences including turtle nest tours and whale-watching boat trips along its coastline (both in season), as well as birding and game viewing in the Eastern and Western Shores and uMkhuze Game Reserve.
Outdoor enthusiasts will find no end of adventure with highlights like horse riding, snorkeling, scuba diving, fishing, beach hiking and guided game walks.
Bevan Langley, Stray along the Way
17. Cradle of Humankind, Gauteng
The area, recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is divided into two parts: the Sterkfontein Caves and the Maropeng Visitors Centre. At Sterkfontein Caves, you can descend into the caves to see where the fossil hominids were discovered. These fossil ancestors from the Pleistocene era domesticated fire, used tools, and give us insights into both our biological and cultural history. Within the primitive caves active research and archaeological excavations are still taking place.
At the other end of the spectrum, the Maropeng Visitors Centre is modern and sophisticated. In a country with a deep history of racism and apartheid, the centre places the fossils from the Cradle of Humankind in their important context, but also educates visitors (especially school children) on our collective humanity. There is far more that unites us as a species than divides us – an important lesson. Read more about the Maropeng experience.
Lance and Laura Longwell, Travel Addicts
18. The Panorama Route, Mpumalanga
The most famous stops along the route are God’s Window, Lisbon Falls, Bourke’s Luck Potholes, and the Three Rondavels. If you only have time for one stop, make it the Three Rondavels. With a spectacular view over the Blyde River Canyon, the second largest canyon in Africa, the Three Rondavels are rounded mountain tops that have been carved by the elements to resemble little huts. Visit in the afternoon for glorious lighting for photography.
The small town of Graskop, only a short drive from God’s Window, is the perfect base for exploring the route as there are plenty of welcoming guesthouses. Don’t miss visiting the old gold-rush town of Pilgrim’s Rest – a living monument – nearby.
If you plan to visit Kruger afterwards, leave the Three Rondavels viewpoint for last. From there it’s only 110km to the park entrance at Orpen Gate, so you can avoid the busy south end of the park.
Cristina Garcia, Travel 4 Wildlife
19. Kruger National Park, Mpumalanga/Limpopo
Thanks to its excellent infrastructure, you can easily visit the park as part of a self-drive safari, which makes it appealing when travelling with small kids. You can also book a trip with a safari guide who will show you the best of the park on a morning or night drive in a custom safari vehicle.
The southern part of the park is the most visited and where you’ll often have more wildlife sightings of lions, leopards and wild dogs. The northern part of the park is less busy, which makes it much loved by self-drivers not visiting for the first time. The nature is more diverse, but it’s slightly more challenging to spot wildlife on a self-drive in the north.
Stay over at one of the many lodges or campsites in the park, which you can book directly on the SANParks website. Here you can listen to the sounds of nature like lions roaring early in the morning, hyenas laughing or owls hooting night.
Sabine De Gaspari, The Travelling Chilli
20. Mapungubwe National Park, Limpopo
Mapungubwe predates Great Zimbabwe further north. Between 1220 and 1290 about 5000 people lived here, with the top of Mapungubwe Hill being home to the royal family. Artifacts discovered in the royal graves – including a famous golden rhino made from wood covered with thin sheets of gold – show that the people traded with other parts of the world like Egypt, India and China.
Don’t miss a guided walk up a series of steep steps to the top of Mapungubwe Hill to hear about the people who lived here in the 13th century. Go on a game drive to see wildlife like elephant, giraffe, zebra, eland and klipspringer. Wander the raised treetop walkway and a series of sunset decks with superb views over the Limpopo River into Botswana and Zimbabwe. Other things to do at Mapungubwe include a hiking trail, 4x4 routes and visiting the interpretive centre to learn more about the significance of the area’s cultural history.
We’ve included 20 must-visit places or fabulous holiday destinations in South Africa but that’s by no means all the country has to offer. If you have a favourite place we haven’t covered, let us know in the comments where it is and why you love it.
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