Top 10 Destinations in South Africa You Simply Must Visit

by Emma Hackwood
a lone traveller sits on a cliff and admires the ocean views

Mzansi (the Xhosa name for South Africa) just has so much to offer: beautiful and interesting cities; glorious beaches; rugged, wild coastline; kaleidoscopic mountains and indigenous forests; vibrant vineyards and deep canyons. There really is something for all kinds of travellers and it is no wonder why it’s been coined “the world in one country.”

There are so many incredible places to visit in South Africa. To explore them all, could take an entire lifetime.   

It’s one of the places on the planet that has it all! Sun and sea, mountains and snow, the best wines in the world, a culmination of cooking specialties and not to mention unique wildlife!

There’s nowhere we haven’t been, so go on, read all about our very favourite South African spots to visit (or revisit) soon.

1. Cape Town

International travellers agree, if you only have time to visit one place in South Africa, it has to be Cape Town. Known as the Mother City, it’s the oldest city in the country and easily one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Cape Town boasts some of the best tourist attractions in South Africa. To get the best view of the city, take a trip up Table Mountain, we highly recommend going a couple of hours before dusk and staying just in time to admire the world’s most spectacular sunset.

Did you know?

The highest point on Table Mountain is Maclear’s Beacon.

The weather in Cape Town is really unpredictable. It will start off sunny in the city while 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 what the weather will bring.

Cape Town is not just a city, but nature’s paradise with easily accessible hiking trails dotted throughout the area. You can hike Table Mountain (with guided hiking trails via Platteklip Gorge or the easy-going Pipe Track and Woodstock Caves).

There are so many places to see and explore. Picnic in Kirstenbosch Gardens – one of the most beautiful botanical gardens in the world – walk the colourful streets of the Bo-Kaap area and tuck into some Cape Malay cuisine, window shop the V&A Waterfront, and get up close to the marine world at Two Oceans Aquarium.

Cape Town is a great base to explore more of the smaller towns, so if you can, try to spend at least 5 nights here to fully experience what this region has on offer.

Some great sights to visit include:

  • Robben Island – where Nelson Mandela spent years incarcerated.
  • Muizenberg – a lovely coastal town 30 minutes from Cape Town.
  • Kalk Bay – antique and vintage haven.
  • Cape Peninsula – part of the Cape Floral Region famous for its biodiversity and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
  • West Coast National Park – an hour from the city and a popular retreat for Capetonians because of its wildlife and nature.

2. The Winelands

Stellenbosch is close enough to Cape Town that you can easily visit on a day trip. Famous for the incredible wines, Stellenbosch is a university town packed with history and dotted with intimate and interesting museums and art galleries. But to truly enjoy the magic of the Winelands, we recommend staying a few nights. And if you do, be sure to visit Franschhoek – which is a bit smaller, but incredibly charming.

Of course, the reason you should visit is obviously to sample some of the world’s best wines. Each wine farm has something special to offer; some have a strong focus on educating, some will want you to be part of conservation; while others are all about history. The one thing that they all have in common though, is the exceptional wine.

Did you know? Grapes make another great tipple to enjoy -brandy! The Brandy Route stretches from Stellenbosch, through Paarl and Franschhoek to the Breede River Valley town of Worcester.

Top Tip: Rather take a guided tour to see the various vineyards and distilleries. You won’t have to worry about drinking and driving and can fully relax and savour each visit.

Did you know?

5 hours’ drive will see you at Namaqua National Park, close to the border with Namibia. If you get there in Spring this is a must-stop if you plan to visit Cape Town again. Nothing exists like this on earth. A carpet of flowers comes alive in Spring and it’s an Instagram-worthy experience to photograph. There are also many hiking trails and wildlife.

3. Kgalagadi (Kalahari) Transfrontier Park

The park was established in 2000 and joins the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park in South Africa with the Gemsbok National Park in Botswana. The red sand dunes, sparse vegetation, and dry riverbeds of the Nossob and Auob Rivers are crowded by wildlife, making it an exceptional place to view the game. The desolate landscape makes for an excellent opportunity to view predators on the prowl, particularly big cats like; lions, leopards, caracal and cheetah. Rare sightings of some of the park’s unique residents include; hairy-footed gerbil, honey badger, bat-eared fox and the painfully shy pangolin.

Travel Expert Tip

Temperatures can soar in the summer months, so get away this winter to the Kalahari with our Kalahari Desert Hideaway retreat, perfect to escape the cold this year.

4. Hermanus

A little closer to Cape Town, Hermanus is famous as officially being the whale watching capital of the world. Here you can take one of the several boat tours that depart daily from the harbour to view them in the ocean, but between July and November, you could be in the right time at the right place, to simply spot the Southern Right Whales frolicking at sea from the shoreline. Hermanus is great for a day expedition too and halfway between Cape Town and Hermanus, Pringle Bay has one of the area’s nicest beaches and makes a great pitstop for a light lunch and quick swim before heading back for the evening.

Travel Expert Tip

The best time to see whales in Hermanus is between the end of June and November. Make sure to book in advance as the town gets exceptionally busy during the whale watching season.

Did you know?

Gansbaai is only 45 minutes away and is another great location to get a glimpse of these magnificent creatures. A little quieter, it makes a scenic holiday location if you are in the area.

5. Cape Agulhas

If you are looking for dramatic, wild, untouched beauty: a photo-worthy shipwreck close to shore and a pretty lighthouse – with rickety wooden ladders – you can climb up in, then Cape Agulhas is a must-visit.

Not only is it the most Southern Point of Africa, but it is also where the Agulhas current collides with the Benguela current. Although this spot tends to fluctuate seasonally between Cape Agulhas and Cape Point, the International Hydrographic Organisation (an intergovernmental organization that supports safety in navigation and the protection of the maritime environment) declared that Cape Agulhas was indeed the official meeting point of these two currents.

Talking of photo opportunities, where else can you get up and personal with an intact prow of a metal shipwreck? The Meisho Maru (A Japanese fishing vessel, as the name suggests) ran aground on the rocks close to shore, in the 1980s. It is quickly disintegrating, having lost a large portion, leaving only the prow intact. Experts warn that if you are wanting to view this interesting sight, then you better visit Cape Agulhas soon …. Before it succumbs, once again, to the treacherous elements.

Did you know?

Many places in the Cape discourage single-use plastic and because gusts blow light items into the sea, they request that you take your packaging with you – from experience, we recommend that you keep items in sturdy containers and dispose of single-use plastic before any picnic in and around the Cape.

Travel Expert Tip

Cape Agulhas is a great visit or stay-over on the way to the Garden Route. It’s about 2 hours’ drive from Hermanus and a further 3 hours to Mossel Bay. To fit a visit nicely into your itinerary, why not spend the night in Hermanus and drive to Cape Agulhas early in the morning before making your way to the Garden Route?

6. Wilderness

Wilderness is a little village in the Western Cape Province. It is a magical world of rivers, lagoons, lakes, forests and mountains and a wonderful stop along South Africa’s Garden Route. As you enter Wilderness, you will likely see the colourful canopies of paragliders, just as you pass the Kaaimans River Bridge. Have your camera ready and pointing up to the sky, as this is an experience to capture!

A turn-off to the left will take you to Wilderness Heights, a steep windy route between the forests that ends in a well-maintained gravel road. This is where the paragliders take off. It is also the spot called “The Map of Africa”. This has a magnificent view of the meandering Kaaimans River around a landform similar in shape to the African continent. In the distance is the blue hue of the Indian Ocean.

When you have explored some of the forests, you may want to head to one of the beautiful, expansive beaches. They are ideal for long walks and you can take your dog along, too. The kids will love the miles of clean white sands and the sea is safe to swim in. Often, dolphins and whales can be seen from the beach.

Visitors to the Wilderness area are spoiled for choice with walks and hikes – from easy child-and-elderly friendly to 5-day hikes. The Wilderness National Park has 5 hikes, each varying in distance. The Giant Kingfisher Trail (also known as the Waterfall Trail) is an easy walk that ends at some lovely waterfalls you can swim in and picnic beside.

Did you know?

The Garden Route is a stretch of more than 200km from Mossel Bay to Storms River and gets its name from the Garden Route National Park – known for the ecologically lush and diverse vegetation and the multitude of estuaries and lakes that are found here.

Travel Expert Tip

If you are a nature-lover, remember to pack a bathing suit, angling gear, hat, sunblock, walking shoes, binoculars, bird and mammal reference books. Take water and mosquito repellent when you are going on a walk. Whilst cool comfortable clothing is recommended in summer, the evening can get chilly so pack in some warm clothing.

7. Knysna

Along the Garden Route is the interesting and picturesque town of Knysna, built on the northern shore of a warm-water estuary.

It is perfect for nature, wildlife and adventure lovers, and its year-round temperate climate makes for an easy-going, holiday vibe.

The Knysna-Amatole montane forests are a birders paradise. There is a rich assortment of interesting bird species, many of which are shy – which makes for especially exciting sightings. Here you will find the near-endemic Knysna Loerie, Knysna Warbler, Knysna Woodpecker, Chorister-Robin Chat and the Forest Canary.

Head out of the forests to the Knysna Waterfront and take a boat trip to the Knysna Heads. This is the best way to view both of the heads – and the extreme differences between the two. These are two sandstone cliffs that stand as sentinels protecting the Lagoon. If you would prefer to see them from land, the East Head is the most accessible. Here, you will find gorgeous little beaches and rock pools.

Did you know?

Millwood, off-the-beaten-track just outside Knysna, is the site of a short-lived gold rush that happened in the 1880s. It lasted for 5 years.

Travel Expert Tip

If you are keen on taking a boat tour around the lagoon, plan to stay a few days. Tours are often cancelled or postponed depending on conditions. Give yourself plenty of time to increase your chances of good weather and calm waters.

8. Phinda Private Game Reserve

Phinda is a private game reserve about 3 hours’ drive from Durban. The landscape has seven distinct habitats, which is why it is often described as the ‘Seven Worlds of Wonder’. It offers some of the best game viewing in South Africa, because of the tapestry of biomes; including woodland, grassland, wetland, forest and 520 hectares of Africa’s rare dry sand forest. Photography opportunities abound as your game drive takes you close to mountain ranges, rivers, marshes and pans.

The park boasts the Big Five, but no safari is complete without the chance to see zebras, hippos, giraffes, cheetahs and hyenas, too.

The reserve lies about an hour’s drive away from Sodwana. This is a SCUBA diver’s paradise and home to some of the most beautiful coral reefs in the world.

Did you know?

There are around 2 000 hectares of sand forest (forest growing on ancient sand dunes) left in the world and Phinda reserve has 520 hectares. To reduce elephant (and other animals) pressure on this delicate area, which houses many endemic and rare species, Phinda erected a fence around a portion of the dry sand forest.

Travel Expert Tip

To enjoy the SCUBA packages Sodwana offers, it is advised to book in advance and ensure that you have the relevant qualifications before your trip.

9. iSimangaliso Wetland Park

iSimangaliso, a World Heritage Area, is located north of the Phinda Private Game Reserve, in Kwazulu Natal. It is over 1million hectares in size and has been divided into regions, fondly known as the 10 Jewels: Coastal Forest, Eastern Shores and Cape Vidal, False Bay, Kosi Bay, Lake Sibiya, Lake St. Lucia, Mapheleni, Sodwana Bay, uMkhuze.Western Shores and Charters Creek.

It is South Africa’s second-largest protected area after the Kruger National Park and has the largest estuarine system in Africa.

There are three major lake systems, a whopping eight interlinking ecosystems, most of South Africa’s remaining swamp forests and 25,000-year-old coastal dunes – among the highest in the world.

No wonder the name Isimangaliso means “miracle and wonder”.

Such a variety of ecosystems sport a diversity of plant and animal species (530 bird species) – and a multitude of activities for visitors to enjoy.

Common animal species include hippos, crocodiles, leopards and rhinos.

There are many self-guided game drives…. Or perhaps join a guided trail on the foothills of the Lebombo mountains in uMkhuze, the coastal forests and rolling grasslands of Lake St. Lucia’s Eastern Shores. The underwater enthusiast can be promised quality diving, spearfishing and breath-hold experiences on spectacular, colourful coral reefs. There are so many more eco-adventures ranging from kayak trips to horse rides.

To make the most of the St. Lucia Area, we recommend a boat tour, where you are likely to see hippos, crocodiles and hear the iconic call of the African Fish Eagle.

Did you know?

The iSimangaliso is home to the Thonga (Thembe) Community that still practice 700-year-old fishing (woven fish traps and palisade kraals) traditions.

Travel Expert Tip

Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park, close to St. Lucia, is another great place for game viewing. It is not nearly as known as the Kruger and other national parks, yet it is home to the Big 5.

10. Kruger National Park

The world-renowned Kruger National Park is huge! At over 2 million hectares, it is one of the largest game reserves in Africa – the biggest in South Africa. Your chances of viewing the Big Five are good, with an estimated 1,500 lions, 17,000 elephants, 48,000 buffalo and 1,000 leopards.

Unrivalled in its diversity of life forms, it offers some of the best raking wildlife experiences in Africa! A whopping 6 ecosystems ensure that the landscape on your game drive changes from one place to the other! Mountains, bush plains, acacia thicket, Baobab sandveld veld, riverine forests (Six major rivers run through the park) make for spectacular viewing and photography opportunities.

The Kruger National Park is easily accessible. You can self-drive, book a tour or go on a walking trail. There are a variety of accommodation options catering to all budgets, from “roughing it” in nature campsites to luxury lodges – With the pure African bushveld setting as the backdrop.

Did you know?

Besides a bank (only open Monday to Friday and Saturday morning) at Skukuza and an ATM at Skukuza and Letaba, no cash withdrawal facilities are available in the Park. Day visitors are not allowed to bring or consume alcohol in public areas such as parking lots, picnic sites, wildlife viewing areas or roads, gates and all other areas designated as public.

Travel Expert Tip

Plan your trip – do not try and cover too great a distance. The Kruger National Park is a massive tract of land, so slow travel and regular stopping will produce much more action than covering a lot of ground.

And there you have it, 10 places that have our stamp of approval for various reasons. When it’s time to travel we hope you give one of our suggestions a try.


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