10 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Gauteng and the North West Province
In the heart of the country's northern reaches, the tiny province of Gauteng is South Africa's economic dynamo. Home to the bustling metropolis of Johannesburg as well as Pretoria, the country's trim and tidy administrative capital, Gauteng is the smallest province in the country but its population is the largest. Gauteng means "place of gold" in the Sotho language, but today instead of gold, the province lures travelers primarily with its urban attractions, including poignant historical monuments and impressive museums and botanical gardens. Away from the cities, sightseers can explore the fossil-rich caves of the Cradle of Humankind, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
To the west of Gauteng, separated by the millennia-old Magaliesberg Mountains, the North West Province is a perfect counterpoint. Here, superb game parks such as Pilanesberg National Park and Madikwe Game Reserve offer back-to-the-bush authentic African safaris. But even this province has been touched by nature-defying development. In sharp contrast to the province's sprawling savannah, the impossibly lush Vegas-style Sun City resort is like a mirage in the desert, an unabashed pleasure precinct packed with entertainment, from water parks with wave pools to lavish themed hotels.
1 Editor's Pick Pilanesberg National Park, North West Province
About three hours' drive from Johannesburg, near Sun City, Pilanesberg National Park offers fantastic game viewing with a chance to spot the Big Five: leopard, lion, elephant, buffalo, and rhino. Thanks to its location in a transition zone, between the arid Kalahari and the moist lowveld of the Transvaal, the park's wildlife is diverse and abundant; sable antelope, roan, African wild dogs, zebras, giraffes, and more than 360 species of birds are among the many animals found here. Sightseers can explore the 550-square-kilometer park on self-drive tours, and guided walking safaris and game drives in open vehicles are also available. For a bird's eye view of the game, visitors can soar over the park in a hot air balloon. Accommodation options are plentiful and varied - from safari tents to luxury lodges, and unlike Kruger, this region is malaria free.
2 Lion Park, Gauteng
For a walk on the wild side, less than an hour's drive from Johannesburg, animal lovers can head to the popular Lion Park for the day. Cheetah walks, lion cub cuddles, and interactions with giraffes and ostriches are some of the exhilarating activities on offer, and the park also offers a two-hour lion tour as well as special game drives for photographers in silent electric vehicles. In addition to all the animal encounters, visitors can take a self-drive tour of the resident wildlife or hop aboard the park's safari vehicles for guided game drives to see hyena, wild dog, zebras, lion, cheetah, and many species of antelope. A fun park here replete with jumping castles and jungle gyms will keep the kids entertained for hours.
3 The Cradle of Humankind, Gauteng
About 44 kilometers from Johannesburg lies the Cradle of Humankind, a UNESCO World Heritage Site with one of the richest concentrations of early human fossils in the world. The site is also home to the impressive Sterkfontein Caves with six connected underground caverns where many of the fossils were found. Among the finds here is the skull of a humanoid creature known as Australopithecus africanus, estimated to be two million years old, as well as a skeleton thought to be about 3.5 million years old. To learn more about the site and its remarkable fossil stories, stop by the Maropeng Visitor Center. This fascinating journey back in time is a popular day trip from Johannesburg.
4 The Apartheid Museum, Johannesburg
One of the top attractions in the bustling metropolis of Johannesburg is the evocative Apartheid Museum. Poignant exhibits such as photos, artifacts, personal stories, newspaper clippings, and films trace the story of apartheid and its impacts on everyday life during the time. Visitors here become travelers through time, following a path of exhibits that takes them on South Africa's journey from oppression to democracy. It's an emotional experience, but a visit to this excellent museum bestows a new appreciation for the long road this country has traveled. Plan to spend at least two hours here to really soak up all the exhibits.
5 Pretoria National Botanic Garden, Gauteng
A tranquil escape near the city center, Pretoria National Botanic Garden focuses on South Africa's fascinating flora. Cycads, aloes, and colorful flowering plants brighten these 76-hectare gardens, which are home to more than half of the country's species of trees. Cold and warm climate plants flourish in separate sections of the park and provide contrasting landscapes thanks to a quartzite ridge, which separates the gardens. Themed plantings include coastal forests, savannas of the Karoo, and the grassland plains of Namibia; and the National Herbarium here is home to the country's largest collection of plant specimens. After strolling among the gardens and natural bush on the scenic nature trails, visitors can relax at a restaurant overlooking the lake.
Address: 2 Cussonia Avenue, Brummeria, Pretoria
6 Pretoria's Historical Monuments, Gauteng
Apart from its jacaranda-studded parks and gardens, Pretoria is known for its thought-provoking historical monuments. One of the most famous is the Voortrekker Monument, a South African Heritage Site, which honors the Boers' pioneering history. A steep staircase leads up to this 40-meter-high imposing granite memorial, and a wall of carved ox wagons surrounds it, representing the trek wagons used by the Boers in the mid-19th century. Highlights include the Hall of Heroes with marble reliefs representing the Great Trek of 1838, informative museum exhibits, and sweeping views of the city from its rooftop.
Overlooking the Voortrekker Monument from the peak of Salvokop HIll, Freedom Park unveils South Africa's journey to democracy through a series of evocative memorials and museum exhibits. Visitors can see the Wall of Names honoring victims of South Africa's conflicts, and the Gallery of Leaders, which celebrates some of the nation's most inspirational figures. Guided tours enrich a visit to this poignant site.
Surrounded by gorgeous gardens, the Union Buildings perch atop the highest point of the city near historic Church Square, site of the city's first settlement. Designed by Sir Herbert Baker in 1913, these sandstone buildings are the seat of government and also house the offices of the president and the state archives.
7 Sun City, North West Province
About 160 kilometers northwest of Johannesburg, Sun City is entrepreneur Sol Kerzner's extravagant vision, a kind of Disneyland meets Las Vegas in South Africa. Where arid savannah once sprawled, now impossibly lush lawns, parks, and even tropical forests surround this flamboyant, family-friendly pleasure precinct, and four hotel complexes accommodate a stream of fun-seekers, many of whom hail from Johannesburg for weekend getaways. The enticing line-up of entertainment venues includes cinemas, shops, a mammoth stadium for pop concerts and sporting events, a world-class golf course, and water parks with artificial beaches and wave pools. The luxury fairy-tale-like Palace of the Lost City is the most exclusive hotel and the centerpiece of the resort. Children can escape to Kamp Kwena, ride the safari train, learn to waterski and jet ski on the faux lagoon, bob around on bumper boats, and commune with animals at the petting zoo. For a more authentic taste of Africa, the nearby Pilanesberg National Park and Madikwe Game Reserve offer superb game viewing in natural bushland.
8 Bush Babies Monkey Sanctuary & Elephant Sanctuary, North West Province
At the Bush Babies Monkey Sanctuary near Hartbeespoort Dam, animal lovers can get up close and personal with these adorable creatures. Nestled in a gorge in the Magaliesberg mountain range, the sanctuary rescues orphaned and abused bush babies, as well as lemurs and many species of monkeys, and accommodates them in naturalistic large enclosures. The bushbabies are nocturnal and sleep during the day, but visitors can enter the monkey enclosures with experienced guides and view these mischievous animals from raised walkways. Watch out for furry long-tailed pickpockets. Next door, the Elephant Sanctuary offers elephant-back rides and educational interactions with these gentle giants.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in North West Province
9 Madikwe Nature Reserve, North West Province
About a three-and-a half-hour drive from Johannesburg and only 90 minutes from Sun City, Madikwe Nature Reserve offers travelers the chance to see the Big Five (lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo, and rhino) in more than 750 square kilometers of malaria-free natural bushland. The park also protects endangered African wild dogs, hippos, cheetahs, hyenas, antelopes, and more than 300 species of birds. Accommodation options range from affordable bush camps, self-catering villas, and guesthouses to full-board luxury lodges. Guests can fly in here from Johannesburg or Tambo airports.
10 Magaliesberg Canopy Tour, North West Province
About a 90-minute drive from Johannesburg near the little town of Rustenburg, thrill seekers can fly across a plunging canyon in the beautiful Magaliesberg Mountains, the world's second-oldest mountain range. The Magaliesberg Canopy Tour is an exhilarating eco adventure that gives visitors a bird's eye view of this spectacular area and the chance to spot wildlife such as dassies (rock hyrax), duiker, klipspringer, zebra, impala, and wildebeest, as well as many varieties of birds. Built into the sheer rock faces, ten zip lines allow visitors to fly at heights of up to 300 meters above the canopy floor stopping at eleven platforms with panoramic views of the surrounding wilderness. Expert guides accompany the tours and share fascinating facts about the flora and fauna along the way.