South Africa has all the cliches that you've heard of before: lions, elephants and rhinos; village life with women carrying their days burden on their heads; sprawling mountain ranges and sparkling coastline; poverty in the townships; and a dark and recent history of racial injustice.
During my time exploring Africa and getting to know its people I also found so much more that intrigued me enough to stay for three months. The holiday destinations in South Africa are so much more than I could have ever imagined. Certainly way more than Cape Town and Kruger National Park.
Driving through the country is an adventure of its own when you go from coast to desert, national park to urban oasis. You can walk amongst thatched huts dotted along the sprawling countryside with an ocean view in Coffee Bay or live the good life in regenerated precincts in Johannesburg.
A South Africa vacation also has every type of adventure activity, sky diving, para gliding and even shark cage diving. You can see whole penguin colonies, visit a town that is visited by hippos nightly and even snake through an ancient cave tunnel on your stomach. If you want a relaxing time, there is a whole wine route in Stellenbosch with over 200 producers or you can stay in a luxury lodge right in the heart of one of the many animal reserves.
While spending three months in South Africa, and only leaving because my visa expired, I traveled extensively throughout the country. There are a lot of the out of the way places that I missed out on but I managed to visit all of the towns and sights that I really wanted to including some surprises that I only found out about along the way.
Here’s a list of my favourite places to visit and why I think you should include it in your next South Africa vacation.
Pair these recommended holiday destinations in South Africa with my South Africa Itineraries.
Where to go
Cape Town feels very European and modern. I was always in awe of the truly beautiful landscapes that surround the city and the multitude of activities and sights that you can visit. My very first day I was walking through one of the popular markets along the water, turned around to see Table Mountain, and said out loud, "Is that... Table Mountain? It's just right there? Wow! It's beautiful" I certainly got some funny stares.
You can easily spend a whole week exploring Cape Town so make sure you plan well before you get here!
Robben Island is worth it just for the boat ride alone where you can spot whales if you're lucky. It's an island full of history and the comprehensive tour includes a bus trip around the island and a chance to view the cell of Nelson Mandela.
You can try a free walking tour around Bo-Kaap, District 6 or the inner city and at night see a show at the legendary Fugard Theatre. Table Mountain is a must see either by attempting a hike or via the Cable Car and I loved Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden.
Lastly, you can spend half a day at one of Cape Town's beautiful beaches but only the brave will attempt to swim in the icy cold water. Trust me, you're a brave soul if you can get past the numbing feeling once the bottoms of your feet touch the wet sand.
Check out my Cape Town itinerary post for more ideas to help you plan your time in Cape Town.
A half day or full day visiting the wineries in South Africa is time well spent and the Stellenbosch region is chock full of them. Try a day tour if you'd like to leave the driving responsibilities up to someone else. Also fun to see the new group of strangers start off as future wine sommeliers by describing the mouth feel, legs and other wine related rubbish, and then by the end of the day you're all best friends who really just want to throw another glass down your throat. Fun times.
Hermanus (during whale watching season)
Whale watching at its laziest, you can sit on the shore during wale watching season (July to November) and spot these impressive creatures swimming by. Hailed as one of the 12 best whale watching destinations in the world, in Hermanus you can even take a sea kayak out if you're feeling extra brave.
One of my favourite towns in South Africa, Oudtshoorn has a lot to offer in a small space so it's easy to see most things in a couple of days. Caving, ostrich farms, wildlife spotting, elephant hugging and one of the most beautiful routes in all of Africa, the Swartberg Mountain Pass. If you're not claustrophobic, I highly recommend the Adventure Tour in Cango Caves.
A great base for exploring the Garden Route of South Africa, both these towns are within easy reach of most of the beach activities along this coast. Wilderness gives you some great small town action, while Knysna is a lot more developed with greater options for accommodation. If you’re up for some hiking, camping, kayaking and serious beach time, then this is a great option. Also consider nearby Plettenberg Bay. It’s known for being a quieter version of Knysna.
The Crags/ Storms River/Natures Valley
Loads more hiking opportunities are available as well as some of my favourite wildlife spotting opportunities. Monkeyland and Birds of Eden are both worth the visit and you can even access the popular Addo Elephant Park from here.
Hiking in Tsitsikamma National Park, kayaking, mountain biking, zip lining, sky diving and bungee jumping from the world’s highest bungee at the Bloukrans Bridge are some of the adventure activities in the area.
Hogsback isn’t going to be for everyone. Inspiration for many poems and novels, Hogback has a fairytale-like feel. Home to many trails and known for its waterfalls, gardens and views, its a great place to watch the sunset, listen to the birds sing and enjoy the tranquility of the surrounding mountains.
This was one of my favourite towns in all of South Africa. You really get to be off-the beaten track here and experience the wild coast in a small South African village. Coffee Bay is located about one hour and half drive off the main highway along a dirt road and you get to dodge wildlife while avoiding pot holes and locals.
There are some classic hikes including The Hole in the Wall hike, a 9 km coastal hike takes you through some of the remote rural villages in the area and up to the Mpako River that passes through the Hole in the Wall. There’s cliff jumping, waterfalls and caves to explore as well as some great surf spots.
You must stay at Coffee Shack when you’re in town. They offer some unique accommodation right on the beach and has such a fun environment that it’s hard for anyone to be left out. They also offer some reasonably priced day trips to the nearby attractions, provide surf lessons and rent equipment. I am 100% not getting paid to say that, I just loved it there.
This doesn’t appear on a lot of lists but I feel like Durban is definitely worth at least a day to experience a different side of South Africa. Durban is unique due to its mostly Indian population and its definitely the best place in the country to experience this culture.
You can surf, swim and scuba dive along Durban’s Golden Mile - a 3.7 mile stretch of sandy beach and these will be some of the warmest waters you’ll experience in South Africa - a lot warmer then Cape Town. There are also some world class national parks nearby which makes Durban a comfortable base for a couple of days.
Don’t forget to try some Bunny Chow while you’re in town!
St Lucia was one of my pleasant surprises in South Africa. I had heard about it along the way but it wasn’t until I got to Johannesburg that I decided to pop down to visit. The biggest attraction for me was the fact that hippos come out of the water at night time.
You can do boat safaris to see these guys during the day but the real treat is to drive down to the water once it gets dark and (carefully) watch the hippos as they leave the safety of the water and wander around for some yummy grass as a late-night snack. Please don’t get out of your car, get too close or try to interact with the hippos. They can still be very dangerous outside of the water.
Besides the mighty hippos, St Lucia is also packed full of activities and also has two great nature reserves close by. The Hluhluwe Imfolozi Park is the oldest proclaimed reserve in Africa, is home to the big five and is one of the best places in the country in which to see the endangered rhino. Cape Vidal offers two diverse environments, the wildlife of the Greater St Lucia Wetland Park and the marine life of the Indian Ocean.
Drakensberg and Lesotho
The whole Drakensberg area is known for its beautiful mountain ranges and challenging hikes. It’s also the gateway to Lesotho where you can spend a day or more getting know a vastly different country. I recommend visiting via the Sani Pass either on foot (if you’re seriously intense) or by 4x4 (if you’re a regular sane person).
The Sani Pass is the only vehicle route over the Drakensberg escarpment and into the mountain Kingdom of Lesotho. It is a memorable track snaking its way through the rocky cliffs to the top of the world. Before the 1950's, it was a trail for pack animals to carry goods through to the isolated town of Mokhotlong in Eastern Lesotho. The Basotho have a unique African mountain culture and live in traditional rondavels (huts), herd goats and sheep in the high mountains and grow crops by ox-ploughing and hand-hoeing.
Jo’burg or Josie as it is known by the locals was my favourite place in South Africa. The city moves to its own beat of addictive house music and shows of its colours in the bright designs of the stylish men and women and the thoughtful murals painted within its reclaimed neighbourhoods.
Jo’burg is worth at least a couple of days, if only to visit the The Apartheid Museum, a site that touches every visitor. Constitution Hill, where Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi once served time is an educational experience. The Cradle of Humankind is nearby where you can visit the birthplace of humanity and Pilanesberg Game Reserve is also within driving distance. While you’re in the city you can experience the culture through art galleries, walking tours in the city and surrounding townships and eat at some of the best restaurants in the country.
If you're planning to visit check out my round up for the most unique places to stay in Johannesburg for any budget or check out this updated list of what's on in Johannesburg. If you're up for a private game reserve, check out Shindzela Safari Camp near to Kruger.
South Africa is one of the few countries that I plan to return to one day and I know that it will be a whole new country by then because its constantly going through such big changes. I have some great memories of the people I was lucky to meet along the way and the land that really opened up to me. I know there's much more to explore so if you have any advice on some of your favourite places please let me know the details in the comments!