A land of great diversity and incredible beauty South Africa has become one of the most sought-after travel destinations in the world…
I first visited South Africa over a decade ago. At 17 I had left my friends and family behind to live and study in Cape Town for a year. In a matter of days, I was in love – with the people, the culture, and the natural beauty. I took full advantage of my year travelling all across South Africa at every opportunity, here are my choices for the best and most beautiful places to visit in South Africa…
1. Kruger National Park – one of the most famously stunning places to visit in South Africa
Iconic, remote, and beautiful. Chances are if you tell someone you are going to visit South Africa, Kruger national park is the kind of picture that they will envisage. Dust off your khaki suit because if you want to surround yourself with natural wonder and exotic species, then look no further, this is THE place to go for a safari.
The gorgeous park is a nature reserve spanning just over 19,000 square kilometres, so chances are that you won’t ‘get around it in a day’. That said there are quicker means available to take it all in if you are paying a flying visit, helicopter tours are available, as are hot air balloon trips, so you’ll be able to see mountains, the savanna, and tropical forests.
Guided tours are the way to go, and there are plenty of lodges if you feel you want to enjoy the flora and fauna for an extended amount of time. Easily one of the best and most famous places to visit in South Africa.
2. Garden Route – easily one of the best places to explore in South Africa
Imagine a road as iconic as the USA’s “Route 66”, and then put it along with one of the most beautiful coastal roads in Africa, in fact no, the world. This is the Garden Route, a 200km stretch of road that takes in mountains, lush greenery, crashing waves, and golden white sand…oh and did I mention whales, great white sharks, dolphins, and African Penguins.
Due to its popularity, there are numerous hotels and guest houses located along Africa’s most southerly coast, so don’t feel that you have to do it one go. The road is super safe to drive (provided you are sensible) and many (thousands) of people do so every year, without incident. Try everything! From beach life to exploring mountains and the nearby savanna.
Hotels and Airbnbs in Garden Route
3. Durban – a gorgeous coastal city and popular place to take a vacation
If Cape Town is just a bit too ‘big’ then Durban might be the answer. Recently renovated as part of the 2010 World Cup, Durban has undergone quite a transformation, and dare we say is a little bit trendy. For a start, the water at the beach is much warmer than that of Cape Town, which encourages throngs of surfers to flock there every year. Durban is a real cultural melting pot and has the highest population of Indians in the world (well apart from India, obviously…).
As a result, the cuisine and culture are just a little different than you would expect in Africa. If you want to have a properly authentic curry, while sipping on a locally brewed beer and then getting your groove on to some authentic gcom beats, you won’t find anywhere better.
But that said it doesn’t have to be hectic, if you make the trip to Vidal Beach a real gem of a place to visit in South Africa, prepare to be amazed. The aquamarine water accompanied by white sand which stretches for 18 or so miles means you can spend the day in relative solitude. Keep your eyes out for the endangered Samango monkeys, as they are a bit rare nowadays.
Hotels and Airbnbs in Durban
4. Stellenbosch – a wine and food capital with gorgeous vineyards
“Architecture! Wine! Food! Culture!” I hear you cry, “where can we find all of these things combined?” Well, my answer to you is South Africa’s second-oldest town, Stellenbosch… Alright alright, we’ll talk about the wine. Think of scattered granite hills and lush leafy vineyards arranged in lines like soldiers, with arrow-straight paths leading up to various estates – so yes easily one of the best and most beautiful places to visit in South Africa.
If it’s wine tasting you are after in Stellenbosch, it’s wine tasting you will get, there are even ‘routes’ where you can take an exploration of different tastes and wines melded with amazing views and scenery.
When combined with restaurants serving some of the best food on the planet (no exaggeration) Stellenbosch is truly a feast for the senses. If you have a little hangover to work off there are mountain biking tours, safaris, and hikes right on the doorstep.
Hotels and Airbnbs in Stellenbosch
5. Eastern Cape – beautiful deserts, forests, mountain ranges, and a beach-lined coast
If you are looking for an authentic South African experience the Eastern Cape is certainly worthy of your time. It isn’t quite as affluent as some of the other more known destinations in South Africa, but as a result, it is far less ‘touristy’ and genuinely authentic.
How authentic? Well, it is the birthplace of Nelson Mandela, who’s three room home is now a museum. Aside from international cultural icons there is a fair bit to see dotted around. The Wild Coast is awash with natural beauty, where unique rock formations jut out of the sea menacingly.
If things that are solid and sturdy appeal to you, visit Addo Elephant Park, where over 500 elephants mix with other wild species that are native to the region, or take a hike with a view and make your way along one of the many trails of Camdeboo National Park. Huge rocky fingers shoot out of the surrounding forest, and if you have the energy to walk, you will be rewarded with views that are out of this world. Stare across the Valley of Desolation, a huge natural bowl framed by the aforementioned rock formations (so huge in fact that it encompasses the nearby city of Graaff-Reinet).
Hotels and Airbnbs in Eastern Cape
6. Golden Gate Highlands National Park – one of the most unique parks to visit in South Africa
Another national park? Yes indeed! That’s what you came for right? The Golden Gate Highlands National Park gets its name from the hue that the impressive sandstone rocks take on at certain times of the day. When held against the backdrop of luxuriant green forests they are a sight to behold. If a hotel is ruining your authentic ‘savanna vibe’, go and stay in a traditional rondavel, which literally translates as ‘round hut’, as there are plenty in the surrounding area.
For a bit of cultural interest, the sandstone rocks have been used by hunters and bushmen for countless generations, and if you look closely whilst walking you may be able to pick out some cave paintings. The area is also home to several rare breeds of animals that are native only to this area, mixed in amongst the more ‘common’ indigenous species.
7. Drakensberg Mountain Range – a stunning and dramatic beauty spot in South Africa
Drakensberg’s literal translation in Afrikaans is “Dragon Mountains” and it truly is like something from a storybook. Found in the KwaZulu national province, green and grey layered mountains stretch to over 13,000ft, making for a natural paradise, especially if you are an ‘outdoorsy’ type.
There are endless walks, trails, and hikes for you to be as close to nature as you can possibly get. If you missed the rock paintings in the Golden Gate National Park then Drakensberg Mountains has them in abundance.
8. Sani Pass – a unique mountain pass located in the West of KwaZulu-Natal
You wouldn’t be considering Africa unless you wanted just a little taste of adventure. Allow me to present to you… The Sani Pass. A gravel track that is precarious, remote, and maybe just a bit scary. Accessible using a 4×4 only, if you aren’t a confident driver we definitely recommend a tour as this one is not for the faint-hearted.
If you brave the pass, located about 3 hours outside of Durban, you’ll find yourself in the small kingdom of Lesotho where you can visit South Africa’s highest pub, take a sip of local beer, and then wonder how you are going to get back down.
9. Cape of Good Hope – a beautiful rocky headland to explore in South Africa
It looks nice, but we recommend you leave your bathing costume in the car, why? Well first of all the South Atlantic is absolutely freezing, and secondly, because it is so rough that most people only swim there when they are victims of a shipwreck.
This rocky promontory offers amazing views, dramatic windswept ocean vistas, and really remote experience. If you want the best views of the cape, walk up to the lighthouse, or if you have had enough of being windswept take the small train that will take you directly to the top.
10. Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park – offers a unique safari in The Kalahari desert
This park is not nearly as verdant as some of the others on our list, the reason for this is that it borders the Kalahari desert, that said you’ll get to experience grassy plains and a feeling of being truly in the wilderness. The park is to the north and borders Botswana, as a result of its remoteness it is often a lot quieter than the bigger more well-known parks.
As a location for a first safari, it is truly magical, whether you drive yourself, or take a guided tour. If you want to stay for a while and ‘go wild’ there is a tented camp experience which mixes the benefits of being outdoors with a few smaller comforts, such as a working toilet (just remember to check under the lid for uninvited ‘guests’).
11.Franschhoek – a pretty town known for its centuries-old vineyards and Cape Dutch architecture
Literally meaning ‘French corner’ this small town located about half an hour from Stellenbosch lives up to its namesake. You’ll find a great deal here that you would commonly associate with Paris, namely excellent wine and gastronomy at every turn, with an African twist.
Fillet mignon makes way for Springbok and other local fare, which is far more organic than anything you’ll ever get back home. Good food, amazing wine, and perfect landscapes, what could be better?
12. Namaqua National Park – famous for its indigenous flora species
Now it’s not often we get to use the word biome, but we love it when we do. Namaqua National Park is one of only 34 Biodiversity hotspots. It also has a bit of everything, whether you are on the lookout for coastal vistas or want to go inland and experience truly unique natural beauty, it’s like the garden of Eden.
Go in Spring and you’ll be greeted with views of an endless sea of wildflowers, and as there are about 3000 different varieties the landscape is a smorgasbord of colour. Take your camera, crank the saturation up, and make everybody jealous with your holiday snaps.
13. Pretoria – one of South Africa’s three capital cities
Pretoria (like most cities in South Africa) is a real mix of cultures. It is a city with a ‘mixed’ past that has its’ glasses on and is looking firmly into the future, and that future is bright. It is an administrative city, however, you will find that it is embracing the multiculturalism that is putting down roots throughout South Africa.
Visit in October and you will be treated to leafy boulevards filled with purple blossoms. As with any big city, there is plenty to do. You can be in a trendy hotel one minute and trying an authentic African Braai barbecue in a mud-walled tin shed the next. Due to its location and infrastructure, it makes for an ideal place to stay if you are looking to travel on to the Kruger National Park.
14. Tshukudu Game Reserve – a beautiful alternative to Kruger Park
This is a stunning place to visit in South Africa and if you can I would recommend staying at The Bush Lodge. The Bush Lodge is a very romantic place built high atop a hill that overlooks the vast plains of the Tshukudu Game Reserve consisting of 5000 acres.
Your mornings will start with a casual stroll with the resident Cheetah, Savannah, your days can be spent traversing the African Bush in search of the Big Five and the cool evenings sitting on the patio watching the sunset behind the Drakensberg Mountains that border the horizon. This is one of the best places to get a feel for the wildness of Africa and a really fantastic place to visit in this wonderful country.
15. Knysna – a lush paradise of forests, lakes and gorgeous beaches.
This is a beautiful small South African town to visit which is located on the Knysna Lagoon and is a delightful place to visit in South Africa. Those who live in Thesen Harbour Town – an island just off the mainland of the inlet – seem to use boats more than vehicles to get to where they want to go as they navigate the waterways.
Across the lagoon is the Featherbed Nature Reserve and an outdoor restaurant sheltered from the elements by the giant Milkwood trees it was built around. Their thick canopy of leaves protects it from sun and rain. The low lying mountains around the town are a deep luscious green and the waters of the lagoon a clear turquoise making Knysna a perfect place to lounge and soak up the natural beauty.
16. God’s window – stunning panoramic views
Part of the Panorama Route, God’s Window is a vantage point over South Africa’s Lowveld and is, in my opinion, the most amazing view in the world. Standing and looking out across South Africa, on a cloudless day, you can see clear across the landscape into Kruger National Park. It’s as if you’ve found the edge of the world!
17. Boulders Beach – known for the cute penguins!
Home of over two thousand African penguins, this beach lives up to its name with white sand and large scattered boulders. The boulders create inlets sheltered from the wind and in the summer you can find quite a few other people enjoying the beach or swimming in the waters.
18. Blyde River Canyon – one of the largest canyons on Earth
Located in Mpumalanga the Blyde River Canyon – one of the largest canyons on earth – is where you’ll find a scenic river winding past red sandstone cliffs as it crosses the Lowveld. You can stay up high and get some breathtaking photos of the river and cliffs or head down to the river itself and take a boat tour where you may even spot a hippopotamus or two.
19. Paarl – steeped in beautiful natural splendour and a centuries-old tradition of winemaking
The Cape Winelands are a beautiful South African gem and Paarl is a small city in the western Cape and is dominated by classic Cape Dutch houses and large gardens. Surrounding the city is fertile farmland used mostly for vineyards and olive farms. As a result there are two known routes in the area.
The Paarl Wine Route and the Cape Olive Route. There are plenty of accommodations available on vineyards making them a great vacation destination. What better place to enjoy a sundowner than the peace and quiet of a vineyard in the middle of wine country?
20. The Waterfront, Cape Town – a cosmopolitan beauty spot in the capital
The Waterfront in Cape Town is a great place to be. You can sit down at a café and watch the ships roll into the harbour, take scuba diving lessons in their Kelp Forest, or hit up the art market filled with hundreds of stalls of African art. There’s also plenty of gorgeous photo opportunities to be taken around the waterfront including a stunning view of Table Mountain (which is of course is another great place to explore in South Africa).
21. Pringle Bay – a beautiful hidden gem to visit in South Africa
Pringle Bay is a great getaway from the hustle and bustle of Cape Town. Just over an hour drive there are plenty of holiday homes available for rent. What was once a small collection of houses has become a popular destination for Cape-Tonian retreat and you’ll find plenty of activities available.
Just a word of caution though, keep doors and windows closed as there’s a family of baboons in the area that are not afraid to help themselves to your fridge. The beach is definitely the main feature of this small town but the mountains that surround Pringle Bay offer a beauty all their own with hiking trails abound for those of all fitness levels.
22. Cape Point – a beautiful place to visit in South Africa for wonderful views
Most people mistake this as being the most southern point of Africa but regardless it boasts some really spectacular views. An easy hike to the point you can glance far below where the waves crash against the cliffs or look out at the edge of the world where the ocean dips below the horizon.
The water’s below are so clear I could see a seal swimming beneath the surface even from the top of the cliff and all around me were birds gliding in circles on endless currents of air. A gorgeous place to visit in South Africa!
23. Tsitsikamma National Park – for gorgeous coastline and hiking trails
Tsitsikamma is a reserve stretching along 80 kilometers of pristine coastline. It is best known for its giant indigenous trees, such as Milkwood or Yellowood, and its many hiking trails, including the Otter Trail. There’s plenty of amazing things to experience in the Tsitsikamma Park such as a suspension bridge over Storms River or a Canopy tour that takes place 30 metres above the forest floor.
On the canopy tour you will navigate from platform to platform, zip-lining along steel cable suspension. The best part, the platforms and zip lines are held in place by tension only so no trees were harmed in the making of this product!
24. Maclear’s Beacon, Cape Town – marks the highest point on Table Mountain
Originally constructed by an astronomer (no prizes for guessing his name) Maclear’s Beacon is a large mound of rocks marking the highest point on Table Mountain. The good news is that it was actually built to get a good view, the reason being that Sir Thomas Maclear wanted to use the extra height of the beacon to assess the curvature of the earth.
Although it is still occasionally used by geographical types, for you it means you’ll be able to make a fairly short walk (about 45 minutes) from the nearby cable car station to reach it and be rewarded with a view that is not too shabby when you get there.