9 places any visitor to South Africa shouldn’t miss

Any visitor to South Africa will marvel at the country’s diversity – in its geography, its culture, its wildlife and (of course) its marvelous people.

Each of South Africa’s regions truly has its own distinct personality, offering a captivating blend of cosmopolitan cities, enthralling animals, rich history and remote wilderness. From the bustling streets of Cape Town and the wild-game viewing in Kruger National Park to the charming valleys of the Winelands, every place here enchants.

So though it was hard, we’ve selected a few of the absolute best places to visit in South Africa. 

People at an outdoor cafe in Maboneng Precinct, Johannesburg, South Africa
Maboneng Precinct is one of Johannesburg’s most stylish and appealing neighborhoods © Finn stock / Shutterstock

1. Johannesburg

Best city for history and street art

South Africa’s largest city is admittedly not one of its prettiest. Johannesburg was an old mining town that has become a sprawling conurbation, with poorer neighborhoods sprinkled among wealthy suburbs. It seems a world away from Cape Town’s coastal beauty – yet spending some time in Johannesburg gives visitors valuable insight into the country’s complicated past and lively present. 

Start by visiting the Apartheid Museum, see the street art in Maboneng Precinct and take a historical tour of Soweto to get a feel for Johannesburg’s heritage. Then visit Sandton City, browse Rosebank Sunday Market and spend an evening at glitzy Montecasino to see another side of the city. 

Planning tip: Johannesburg isn’t walkable, and we do not recommend open-ended wandering around. Plan where you want to go, then drive directly to your destination. You can explore when you get there.

A woman running on a wooden boardwalk down toward the sea and an empty beach
Knysna has an array of pristine beaches and peaceful lagoons © nattrass / Getty Images

2. Knysna

Best for town for beaches

A local favorite, Knysna is a coastal town along the famous Garden Route through the Western Cape. Here, you’ll find an array of pristine beaches and idyllic lagoons – and a mix of laid-back atmosphere and stunning natural beauty that makes for an ideal beach getaway. Spend your time on the sand, out on the water or hiking along one of the stunning forest trails.  

Planning tip: Book a sunset cruise or guided kayak tour on the Knysna Lagoon to see one of the loveliest coastlines in the country.

Oryx standing in a field of flowers, Namaqualand, South Africa
When semi-arid Namaqualand is in bloom, it’s a wonder to behold © Grobler du Preez / Shutterstock

3. Namaqualand

Best region for wildflowers

This arid, semi-desert region in the Northern Cape is a wonder to behold during the wildflower season. From late July to September, Namaqualand’s arid landscape transforms into a riot of color, as thousands of wildflowers carpet the region.

Aside from the flowers, you can also see the remarkable quiver trees, hike along one of the pretty trails and see the local wildlife, including caracals, leopards, springbok and tortoises.

Planning tip: Make sure you view the wildflowers on a bright, sunny day, when they will fully open. 

A wine tasting partnered with a food sampling, Stellenbosch, Western Cape, South Africa
Wine tasting in beautiful Stellenbosch is a must on any South African itinerary © Getty Images/iStockphoto

4. Stellenbosch

Best region for wine tasting

Less than an hour outside of Cape Town, in the heart Cape Winelands, you’ll find Stellenbosch, a picturesque town known for its colonial Cape Dutch architecture, student vibe and excellent vineyards. Walk the town’s quaint streets, then set off to explore the wider region by visiting wine estates nearby.

It’s easy to spend a day at a wine estate, and many offer activities for children too, making it a good trip option for the family. As well as tastings, most of the wineries also offer on-site restaurants and picnic options come meal time. If you have more time, visit nearby Paarl and Franschhoek, where you can take the “wine tram” (a one-car train) to visit the wineries in Franschhoek Valley.

Planning tip: Consider joining a guided wine tour to visit multiple wineries. This not only saves you worries about driving yourself, but gives you insider knowledge about the region’s wine production.

Tugela Falls as seen from the of Sentinel Hike, Drakensburg, South Africa
A view of Tugela Falls is your reward after the rigors of the Tugela Gorge Trail in the Drakensburg © Robin Runck / Shutterstock

5. Drakensburg

Best region for hiking

South Africa’s largest mountain range is a paradise for hikers and outdoor enthusiasts. In addition to its rugged peaks, lush valleys and dramatic cliffs, the Drakensberg is also dotted with rock and cave art that dates back several thousand years.

Many hiking trails of varying lengths and difficulties beckon. One of the most popular moderate hikes is the Tugela Gorge Trail, which meanders through the gorge and along the riverbank until you reach Tugela Falls, perhaps the highest waterfall in the world.

Alternatively, experienced hikers may prefer the Amphitheater Heritage Theatre, which leads to the summit of the Drakensberg escarpment – and spectacular views of the surrounding mountains and Tugela Falls.

Planning tip: Pack suitable hiking gear, including layers and sturdy shoes, as weather conditions can change rapidly at these high altitudes.

Women roller skating through Cape Town, South Africa
Cape Town has activities galore for visitors © Tasneem Howa / Getty Images

6. Cape Town

Best place for a city break

Tucked between the ocean and the iconic Table Mountain, Cape Town is easily one of the most beautiful cities in the world. With the mountain dominating the urban landscape here, nature’s drama is obvious just about whenever you look outside.

After dinner and drinks at bustling V&A waterfront, head to the top of the mountain to enjoy the views. Then explore a bit further, depending on your interests: get a taste of Cape Malay culture (and food) in colorful Bo-Kaap, gain some insight into South African history at Robben Island or try surfing at Muizenberg Beach.

Planning tip: Schedule your visit to Table Mountain early in the day to avoid the queues and enjoy the best views before the clouds roll in.

Aerial view of Blyde Canyon, Blyde River Nature Reserve, South Africa
Blyde River Canyon is simply breathtaking – especially when seen from a hot air balloon © Attila JANDI / Shutterstock

7. Blyde River Canyon

Best spot for panoramic views 

One of the world’s largest green canyons, the Blyde River Canyon makes a great complement to a safari in Kruger National Park. The canyon has spectacular scenery, including dramatic rock formations and impressive waterfalls, and it’s worth spending a day or two to take it all in.

Follow the Panorama Route from Graskop, stopping at Bourke’s Luck Potholes, the Three Rondavels, Pinnacle Rock and God’s Window. If you have more time, base yourself in the area for a couple of days and go white-water rafting, mountain biking or hiking through the thick forest. For the ultimate views, see the canyon from above in a hot air balloon.

Tourists on board whale watching ship taking photo of mother whale and white calf in water off the waters of Walker Bay near Hermanus, Cape Overberg, South Africa
It’s not hard to spot a magnificent southern right whale off the coast of Hermanus © Edinburghcitymom / Shutterstock

8. Hermanus

Best town for whale watching

While this scenic seaside town is worth visiting for its beaches, nature walks and stunning scenery, Hermanus is famous for one reason: whales. From June to November, the coastal town becomes a hub for visitors hoping to see majestic southern right whales frolic in the sheltered waters of Walker Bay.

Spend the rest of your trip exploring the beaches and tidal pools and walking along the spectacular Cliff Path. Before you leave, be sure to sample some local treats at the Hermanus Markets and learn about the origins of the village at the Old Harbour Museum.

Planning tip: To maximize your chance of spotting the gentle giants, plan your whale-watching visit during peak migration season.

People in a safari jeep taking photos of an elephant in Kruger National Park, South Africa
Elephants are always on parade in Kruger National Park © WitR / Shutterstock

9. Kruger National Park

Best place for safaris

For a thrilling yet accessible safari adventure, head to Kruger National Park. Home to the legendary Big Five (lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and buffalo), this vast expanse of wilderness lets you see wild animals in their natural state. You can expect to spot lions drinking at a water hole, elephants strolling by with their young and giraffes clambering through the bush.

Kruger is easy to get to, whether you’re self-driving or part of an organized excursion, and you can choose to stay at a luxury lodge or camp within the park itself. Just be aware that the park is large, and you can spend a long time driving before you see your favorite animal.

Planning tip: Opt for guided game drives or bush walks with experienced rangers to maximize wildlife sightings and ensure a safe and memorable experience.

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