When Archbishop Desmond Tutu called South Africa the “Rainbow Nation,” his words described the very essence of what makes this country extraordinary. Certainly, the blend of peoples and cultures that his oft-used moniker referred to is instantly evident, but the country’s diversity stretches far beyond its people.
Within South Africa’s borders you can sleep under the stars in a desert or hike to snowcapped peaks. The hills of the Wild Coast provide a bucolic antidote to the bustle of large cities like Johannesburg. Wildlife watching ranges from remote safari walks to up-close encounters with waddling penguins.
Here are the must-visit places in South Africa.
1. Cape Town
Overlooked by flat-topped Table Mountain, with its cable car, walking trails and abseiling, Cape Town is one of the world’s most beautiful cities. Fill your days here visiting beaches and Constantia wine estates, wandering the V&A Waterfront, catching the ferry to Robben Island and, above all, meeting the easy-going Cape locals. In complement to its considerable natural charms, the city is benefiting from ongoing urban renewal, with world-class restaurants, hip food markets and design-savvy arcades opening in once-industrial neighborhoods such as Woodstock and the Waterfront’s Silo District.
2. Kruger National Park
Kruger National Park is one of Africa’s great wilderness experiences and the mightiest of the country’s national parks – a trip here will sear itself in your mind. Its accessibility, quantity and variety of wildlife, and staggering size and range of activities make Kruger unique and compelling. From wilderness trails and bush walks to mountain biking and remote 4WD trails, there are myriad opportunities to enjoy the wild environment and its four-legged inhabitants. Kruger is simply one of the best places to see animals – big and small – in the world.
3. Drakensberg Region
Majestic, stunning and mysterious, the mountains and foothills of the World Heritage–listed uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park are among the country’s most awe-inspiring landscapes. Drakensberg means “Dragon Mountains” in Afrikaans, while the Zulu named the range Quathlamba (“Battlement of Spears”); both convey beautifully the area’s sublime backdrop of incredible peaks. People have lived here for thousands of years, evidenced by the many San rock-art sites. With its Zulu villages, wilderness areas and wildflowers, and good accommodations and restaurants, the Drakensberg region is the perfect place for photographers, hikers and adventurous travelers.
4. South Africa’s Winelands
Whitewashed Cape Dutch architecture dots this endlessly photogenic landscape of rolling hills and vines in neat rows. The Winelands is the quintessential Cape, where world-class wines are the icing on the viticultural cake. Stellenbosch, Franschhoek and Paarl, the area’s holy trinity of wine-tasting towns, host some of the southern hemisphere’s oldest, largest and prettiest wine estates. But this is not the only wine region: head to Tulbagh for sparkling wines; the heights of the Cederberg for crisp sauvignon blancs; and Hermanus’ Hemel-en-Aarde (Heaven on Earth) valley for boutique wineries.
5. Wild Coast
With its rugged cliffs plunging into the sea, remote sandy beaches, rural Xhosa villages and history of shipwrecks and stranded sailors, the aptly named Wild Coast is ideally explored on foot. From the Great Kei River to Port St. Johns, pathways hug the shoreline, cutting through dense vegetation or snaking across denuded hillsides and gorges, and often overlook southern right whales and dolphins in the turquoise seas. Power down in rustic accommodations or overnight with families in traditionally designed rondavels (round huts with a conical roof).
6. Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park
Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park covers almost 15,445 sq miles of raw Kalahari in the Northern Cape and Botswana, an area roamed by some 2000 predators. But such statistics, albeit impressive, barely scrape the surface of this immense land of sizzling sunsets, velvety night skies and rolling red dunes. The park is one of the world’s best places to spot big cats, and you might spy black-maned lions napping under thorn trees, or cheetahs and leopards purring along the roadside. Best of all, you don’t need a 4WD to access the park.
7. iSimangaliso Wetland Park
iSimangaliso, which means “miracle” or “wonder” in Zulu, has a fitting name. This Unesco World Heritage site stretches for a glorious 136 miles, from the Mozambique border to Maphelane, at the southern end of Lake St. Lucia. iSimangaliso Wetland Park protects five distinct ecosystems, offering everything from beaches, offshore reefs and coastal forests to lakes, wetlands and woodlands. It’s nature’s playground, which travelers can enjoy on wildlife drives, kayak safaris, cycling and cruises. The extraordinary animals here include loggerhead and leatherback turtles, whales, dolphins, antelope, zebras and hippos galore.
The odd international star popping in for a lungful of fresh mountain air gives well-heeled Clarens celebrity credentials. But with galleries, antiques, classy restaurants, a microbrewery and adventure activities in the surrounding countryside, there’s something to appeal to most visitors. The laid-back town is perfect for an evening stroll after a day exploring the nearby Golden Gate Highlands National Park. And with plenty of pubs to drop into and a bookshop to browse, Clarens is the best place in the Free State’s Eastern Highlands to simply wind down.
9. Blyde River Canyon
Blyde River Canyon, the third largest in the world and possibly the greenest, is one of South Africa’s great sights. Even the bus loads of domestic and foreign visitors to the canyon, where the Blyde River snakes down from the Drakensberg Escarpment to the lowveld, cannot spoil the majesty of sights such as Bourke’s Luck Potholes. On a clear day, viewpoints including the Three Rondavels and God’s Window will leave you breathless. This vast natural landmark scarring northern Mpumalanga can be appreciated on foot or by car.
10. Mapungubwe National Park
A real standout among South Africa’s national parks, the transfrontier Mapungubwe National Park conservation area in the making has been declared a World Heritage site for its important cultural heritage, which is explained at its interpretative center. The landscape is riveting, too: arid, ancient terrain that’s twisted and knotted, with rocky bluffs offering majestic views, and mighty rivers that intersect. The climate is harsh, but lions, leopards, cheetahs, elephants and rhinos can be found here, as well as smaller species such as caracals. Getting around can be tough but the rewards are sublime.
11. Addo Elephant National Park
At Addo Elephant National Park, more than 600 African elephants roam through low bushes, tall grass and distant hills. The land (reclaimed after being decimated by farmers) and the park represent a conservation success story. Also roaming free are hyenas and lions, introduced in 2003 to bring the kudu, ostrich and warthog populations down. Buffaloes, rare Cape mountain zebras and endemic dung beetles can also be seen, but elephants are the showstoppers – particularly when they burst from the undergrowth, flap their ears and dwarf all that is before them.
12. Golden Gate Highlands National Park
Beneath the open skies of the Free State’s Eastern Highlands, Golden Gate Highlands National Park enjoys extraordinary sunsets, and hides plenty of antelope, zebras, jackals and birds among its grasslands and sandstone outcrops. It’s great walking territory, but you can also drive short, scenic loops. Either way, views of the Drakensberg and Maluti Mountains loom large and there’s something almost fairy tale about the wind sweeping patterns through the nodding grass.
13. Garden Route
The enduring popularity of this verdant coastal strip, where woodcutters once dodged elephants in the old-growth forests, lies not only in its undeniable scenic beauty. The Garden Route is also a magnet for those in search of a little outdoor adventure. Whether you’re hiking the Knysna Forests, surfing in Victoria Bay, canoeing on Wilderness Lagoon or getting up close with great whites in a cage in Mossel Bay’s waters, the Garden Route guarantees an adventure for every taste and budget.
14. Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park
Sometimes overshadowed by Kruger National Park, Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park is nonetheless one of the country’s best-known and most evocative parks. Stunningly beautiful, it features a variety of landscapes, from open savanna to mountains with wildflowers. It teems with wildlife, including the Big Five and other amazing creatures. Hluhluwe-iMfolozi can be visited at any time because there’s always something happening and plenty to see, from elephants munching marula trees to impala, zebras, wildebeest and giraffe babies. Great wildlife drives, accommodations and hiking trails ensure a memorable experience.
15. Madikwe Game Reserve
One of the country’s most exclusive reserves on such a large scale, Madikwe Game Reserve occupies 293 sq miles of bushveld, savanna grassland and riverine forest. There’s a good chance of spotting iconic African wildlife, and the lodges are experiences in themselves, from an ecolodge to five-star options offering creature comforts in the wilderness. Visits to Madikwe are on an all-inclusive basis, allowing you to relax once you’re through the gates.
16. Venda Region
A lush place steeped in mystique and traditional customs, the Venda Region is the Africa of mist-clad hills, dusty red tracks and mud huts. Sprinkled with lakes and forests containing enormous spiritual significance, and marking the primeval ties between indigenous culture and the land, the Limpopo province’s former homeland is well worth exploring with a local guide. Stay in Elim or Louis Trichardt (Makhado) and begin with the Venda arts and crafts trail; the area is noted for its fine original artwork, with studios hidden throughout the landscape.
With a grisly reputation, Johannesburg is a surprisingly vibey and inspiring place thanks to the regeneration uplifting its inner city. The cultural enclaves of Braamfontein, Newtown, 44 Stanley and the Maboneng precinct are dynamic and exciting spots by any city’s standards, with galleries, restaurants, bars and boutiques. Take a walking tour to understand the background of this urban transformation and spot Maboneng’s public art by international muralists. Try to time your visit to coincide with Braamfontein and Maboneng’s weekly markets.
18. Pilanesberg National Park
Sprawling away from the Sun City casino complex is the underrated Pilanesberg National Park, where the Big Five and day-tripping Jo’burgers roam an extinct volcanic crater. With its tarred roads, Pilanesberg is sometimes dismissed as tame, yet the rhinos lapping at waterholes seem to disagree. To escape the other cars and score an up-close sighting, hit the gravel roads through the bush and stake out a dam. Guided drives and walks are available, as is a range of accommodations, making this a winner for families and those short on time.
19. Cradle of Humankind
As you’ll discover at this palaeontological zone, it began in Africa – Western Gauteng to be precise. The Cradle of Humankind nurses hundreds of square miles of beautiful green and brown veld, and an increasing migration of tourists, descended from hominids, who sit with the fossils of their ancestors deep underground, before returning to civilization at fine restaurants and day spas. There’s a serene sculpture park at the Nirox Foundation and wilderness to be enjoyed. Only 30 miles northwest of Jo’burg are free-roaming elands, zebras, giraffes and gazelles.
This article was first published on April 28, 2010 and updated on October 23, 2021