16 Top-Rated Places to Visit in South Africa

Written by Meagan Drillinger
Mar 7, 2023
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Author Meagan Drillinger traveled extensively throughout South Africa in November 2022.

South Africa is a dream destination. There's a reason why this country at the very tip of the African continent is on so many bucket lists. Not only is it stunningly beautiful, but it is packed with culture, history, great restaurants, fascinating people, and an abundance of wildlife.

Table Mountain, Cape Town, South Africa
Table Mountain, Cape Town, South Africa | Photo Copyright: Meagan Drillinger

From the rich energy of Cape Town to the history of Johannesburg, the national parks, beaches, mountain regions, and beyond — you can spend a decade visiting South Africa and still not tick off every noteworthy place to visit.

Still, every great journey begins with a single step. So if you're looking to get your feet wet, here are the best places to visit in South Africa.

1. Cape Town

View over Cape Town
View over Cape Town | Photo Copyright: Meagan Drillinger

At the very bottom of the continent of Africa is one of the most exciting places on the planet. Cape Town is South Africa's most beloved city, and one of the most naturally beautiful and culturally diverse places in the world. Perched at the very tip of the continent, almost where the Atlantic Ocean and Indian Ocean meet, this city of converging cultures is an absolute must for a visit to South Africa.

Cape Town is, in a word, gorgeous. Nestled at the foot of the spectacular Table Mountain, the historic city has been vitally important in the country's storyline. Today it is the seat of Parliament of South Africa, but over the centuries, it has also been known for its Dutch and English occupation, which subsequently contributed to the historic racial divide and extreme hardships for people of color in the country.

Today, while racial tension is still very much a part of South Africa's story, Cape Town is a bit more integrated than other parts of the country. It's a cosmopolitan, trendy spot with fabulous attractions and restaurants; exciting nightlife; beautiful outdoor adventure opportunities — thanks to Table Mountain National Park and a plethora of beaches — and a sparkling marina that is a center for art, shopping, and entertainment.

Cape Town is, without a doubt, the crown jewel of South Africa and a must for anyone making their way through the country.

Accommodation: Top-Rated Resorts in Cape Town

2. Kruger National Park

Elephant in Kruger National Park
Elephant in Kruger National Park | Photo Copyright: Meagan Drillinger

What is a visit to South Africa without a safari adventure? South Africa has nearly 113,000 square kilometers of protected area, and within that area comes some remarkable opportunities for wildlife viewing. Perhaps the best-known place for animal spotting in South Africa is Kruger National Park.

Tucked up in the northeastern corner of the country touching the border of Mozambique, Kruger National Park is almost 20,000 square kilometers of wide-open protected land, home to thousands upon thousands of stunning wild animals.

Among the wildlife you can spot in Kruger National Park are Africa's Big Five: elephant, lion, rhino, leopard, and buffalo. But you'll also be able to see zebras, hyena, giraffe, hippopotamus, warthog, impala, and hundreds of other species.

The most popular way to explore Kruger National Park is on a guided safari tour, of which there are many within the region. Other ways to explore the park include self-drive or staying in a safari lodge within the park.

Kruger National Park has a way to visit that will fit every budget type, too, which makes it one of the most accessible safari experiences in Africa.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Kruger National Park

3. Drakensberg Region

Royal Natal Majestic Amphitheatre in the Royal Natal National Park
Royal Natal Majestic Amphitheatre in the Royal Natal National Park

Nothing can quite prepare you for the ridge-backed spine of the spectacular Drakensberg Mountains. Covering more than 700 miles across five of South Africa's provinces, the Drakensberg region is one of the most stunningly beautiful places to visit in all of South Africa.

Hikers and outdoor adventurers will flock to Drakensberg for its miles upon miles of hiking trails, as well as its spectacular scenery. The entire region is packed with wonderful things to see and do, from the Royal Natal Majestic Amphitheatre in the Royal Natal National Park to the plunging waterfalls of Tugela Falls.

The Drakensberg region is also a top spot in the world to take a look back in time. Within the Kamberg Nature Reserve is the famous San rock art, which dates back to more than 4,000 years and helps to tell the story of the earliest people on the African continent.

Tip: Take the two-mile hike to Game Pass Shelter, where you'll see some of the best rock art in the region.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in the Drakensberg Region

4. Stellenbosch and Franschhoek

Franschhoek
Franschhoek | Photo Copyright: Meagan Drillinger

Lovers of natural beauty must flock to the small, boutique communities of Stellenbosch or Franschhoek for some of the best views in South Africa. Both towns are surrounded by the towering mountain ranges that loom just outside of Cape Town.

Known for their alpine-like vistas, shimmering lakes, and abundance of flowers and wildlife, Stellenbosch and Franschhoek are two of the most beautiful towns in all of South Africa.

Stellenbosch and Franschhoek are foodie destinations, boasting some of the best restaurants in the country. They also are home to lovely gardens, particularly Babylonstoren, one of the oldest Cape Dutch farms, home to acres upon acres of meandering gardens with epic mountain views.

The hotels in this part of South Africa are a cut above the rest, too. La Residence, for example, is an absolute treasure, with sumptuously decorated public areas, glittering chandeliers, roaring fireplaces, and a roaming peacock or two on property.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Stellenbosch

5. Wild Coast

South Africa's Wild Coast
South Africa's Wild Coast

South Africa has many hundreds of kilometers of spectacular coastline, but the Wild Coast region is one of the most special stretches. The Wild Coast runs along the Eastern Cape, bordering the Indian Ocean, stretching from East London in the south to the KwaZulu-Natal border in the north.

Tourists can explore the Wild Coast by driving the N2 motorway, one of the main national roadways in the country. Along the way, the Wild Coast delights with gorgeous views of open beaches, broad rivers, rolling hills, forests, and rocky cliffs.

Sightseers come to explore the Wild Coast predominantly for its untamed wilderness, whether they are wildlife viewing below the waves, fishing, riding horses, or cutting through the forests and beaches on 4x4s.

The Wild Coast has a tremendous amount of history, as well. It is the ancestral home of the Mpondo people, and includes the birthplace of Nelson Mandela.

6. Blyde River Canyon

Blyde River Canyon
Blyde River Canyon

Blyde River Canyon will take the wind out of your lungs. It is one of the most outstanding natural sights to see in all of South Africa, and one of the largest canyons in the world. Towering cliffs of red rock are practically carpeted in lush, green forest, while the Blyde River slithers along at the base of the escarpment.

The rock formations of Blyde River Canyon are among the most beautifully formed in the country. While driving Route 532, you'll be able to trace the outline of many of these gigantic structures, with plenty of opportunity for waterfall spotting from dramatic lookout points.

You can find Blyde River Canyon in the northeastern corner of South Africa's Mpumalanga province. It's one of the top spots in the country for bird-watching, as well as spotting other wildlife species like waterbuck, wildebeest, kudu, hippos , and crocodiles.

7. Mapungubwe National Park

Mapungubwe National Park
Mapungubwe National Park

The northern province of Limpopo is where adventurists will find the ruggedly beautiful Mapungubwe National Park. The park sits where the Limpopo and Shashe rivers converge, sharing a border with both Botswana and Zimbabwe. The park is shrouded in mysteries of the past, being a meeting point for people and wildlife across the span of time.

Speaking of wildlife, Mapungubwe National Park is one of the best places in South Africa for game viewing, especially if you're looking to spot elephants, leopards, rhino, lions, and hyena. It's also a paradise for bird-watching.

And speaking of people, this region is home to one of Southern Africa's first kingdoms, which was established at Mapungubwe Hill sometime between 1200 and 1290 CE. The civilization spanned seven centuries and has left behind a wealth of evidence of its existence.

Visitors can stay in the park, too, at many tented camps. Guided tours are among the best ways to experience the park's natural beauty.

Accommodation: Where to Stay near Mapungubwe National Park

8. Plettenberg Bay

Plettenberg Bay
Plettenberg Bay | Photo Copyright: Meagan Drillinger

Known simply as "Plett" to locals, Plettenberg Bay is a quiet, tranquil seaside town along South Africa's scenic Garden Route drive.

Plett is one of the major stops along this Indian Ocean road trip, particularly if you're interested in great restaurants, beautiful views, and outdoor thrills. Plan to stay at least two nights in Plett, because one simply will not be enough.

The reason everyone flocks to Plett is because of its gorgeous beaches. The three most popular beaches are Lookout Beach, Central Beach, and Robberg Beach. Each is spectacular and offers something a little different.

Another reason to visit Plett is to hike the Robberg Nature Reserve, known for its epic scenery and rock formations that date back millions (yes, millions) of years. It also happens to be a World Heritage Site.

One thing cannot be denied — the views in Plettenberg Bay are simply stunning. With such a chill vibe, it's no wonder this is one of the best places to visit in South Africa.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Plettenberg Bay

9. Knysna

Knysna
Knysna | Photo Copyright: Meagan Drillinger

The Garden Route is not short on scenic towns and a breathtaking coastline, but you get a heavy dose of both when you visit Knysna. The village wraps itself around a stunning lagoon, with rocky outcrops known as the Knysna Heads that protect it from the churning ocean.

Knysna is one of the most famous towns along the Garden Route, particularly among those who like to get out on the water. The marina in Knysna is always packed with vessels — and their captains — who have come to sail along the calm lagoon waters.

Knysna's downtown is charming, with plenty of restaurants and things to do. You'll also find the Featherbed Nature Reserve, which is a protected area that you can only access by boat.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Knysna

10. Hermanus

Hermanus
Hermanus

South Africa is not short on charming seaside towns, but Hermanus is in a whole league of its own. Just 120 kilometers from Cape Town, Hermanus makes for a perfect day trip, though you'll probably want at least a couple of days to really enjoy this lovely town in the Western Cape.

What makes Hermanus so special is that it is one of the top whale-watching spots in the entire country. The town overlooks Walker Bay, which is a prime destination for whales from Antarctica to breed and calve. As such, Hermaus is completely devoted to whale tourism. The Hermanus Whale Festival is an annual event held in September with food trucks, arts and crafts, and exhibits on conservation.

Tip: The best time for viewing whales is between June and November.

Hermanus is also surrounded by the Fernkloof Nature Reserve, which has 60 kilometers of trails and a plethora of wildlife.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Hermanus

11. Mossel Bay

Mossel Bay
Mossel Bay | Photo Copyright: Meagan Drillinger

If you're driving the Garden Route, then your journey will either begin or end in Mossel Bay. This historic harbor town is known for its spectacular beaches, 19th-century lighthouse, and maritime history. It's a wonderful spot to learn a bit about South Africa while taking in its lovely natural beauty.

Mossel Bay also happens to be the adventure capital of the Garden Route, with roughly 50 different types of adrenaline-pumping experiences, including one of the largest over-water ziplines in the world.

History buffs will want to visit the Bartolomeu Dias Museum, which features a maritime museum and botanical gardens. You can also climb to the top of the Cape St. Blaize Lighthouse complex for beautiful views over Mossel Bay.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Mossel Bay

12. Johannesburg

Johannesburg skyline
Johannesburg skyline

If Cape Town is South Africa's chilled-out seaside city, then Johannesburg will be a bit of a shock to the system. This is South Africa's larger, more chaotic, and infinitely more expansive city — and a must-see on a visit to the country.

Johannesburg sprawls out in every direction from the city center and is divided into very distinct suburbs and neighborhoods, each of which has its own personality. Tap into its arts and culture scene in the once-industrial-now-cultural Maboneng Precinct, or hit up the luxury shopping malls and elegant restaurants of Sandton or Rosebank.

The Apartheid Museum
The Apartheid Museum | Photo Copyright: Meagan Drillinger

Johannesburg is also home to the Apartheid Museum, which is one of the most important and powerful museums dedicated to the rise and fall of the oppressive White Nationalist party in South Africa that dominated it for decades.

"Joburg" is fast-paced, exciting, electric, and can be sensory overload. But it is also one of the most important cities on the African continent and one that will help give a deeper perspective into the history and culture of South Africa.

13. Cradle of Humankind

Cradle of Humankind
Cradle of Humankind

Want to know where it all began? Africa is, without a doubt, the birthplace of humankind. And South Africa, in particular, has some of the earliest evidence of life on this planet.

Life first emerged roughly 3.8 billion years ago, and it's in South Africa that fossils have been found that date back 200 million years — the earliest to ever be found on Earth.

About an hour from Johannesburg is the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site, where important fossils that have helped guide our search to understand evolution have been found.

Famous fossils "Mrs Ples" and "Little Foot" have been found in the Cradle of Humankind. Other fossils include antelope, baboon, saber-toothed cats, and rodents, which are between five and four-million years old. The site also has 92 hominid specimens, and early homo sapiens fossils.

14. Table Mountain National Park

Table Mountain National Park
Table Mountain National Park | Photo Copyright: Meagan Drillinger

Table Mountain may be one of the icons of Cape Town, but it is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to exploring the greater Table Mountain National Park. The park covers most of the Cape Peninsula, running from north of Cape Town down to the Cape of Good Hope.

In between the two are many scenic areas within the 22,000 hectares to explore. The park has more than 350 trails, meaning hikers of all levels will have many options to choose from. One of the best things to do in the park is to head to Cape Point lighthouse, which is a scenic area on the Cape of Good Hope.

You can also bring a picnic to Buffels Bay Beach and watch the waves gently lapping on shore. Do keep a lookout for wild baboons — they like to steal food and can be particularly brazen about it. Most will run away if you shout at them, though. And it's worth the slight annoyance for the lovely waterfront views.

15. Boulders Beach

Boulders Beach
Boulders Beach | Photo Copyright: Meagan Drillinger

Technically in the Table Mountain National Park area, Boulders Beach is worth a mention all on its own. If you skip everything else in the park, Boulders Beach is a must. Why? Penguins, of course.

Boulders Beach is home to one of the most famous wild penguin colonies in South Africa. The penguins turned up on the beach here years ago by chance, and have called it home ever since. What's more, you can hang out with them on the beach all day and have one of the coolest (and cutest) up-close animal encounters.

Penguins on Boulders Beach
Penguins on Boulders Beach | Photo Copyright: Meagan Drillinger

Boulders Beach requires a small entry fee to access, and it also requires a bit of scrambling over large boulders to reach the spot with the penguins. Once you do find them, you'll be surrounded by them. Splash in the crystal-clear water, explore the rock formations, and, of course, snap photos with these peculiar creatures.

If rock scrambling isn't part of your ideal itinerary, you can also head to nearby Foxy Beach, which has an accessible boardwalk viewing platform to see the penguins.

Address: Kleintuin Road, Simon's Town, Cape Town, South Africa

16. Apartheid Museum

The Apartheid Museum
The Apartheid Museum | Photo Copyright: Meagan Drillinger

South Africa's history has quite a few dark patches on it. Colonization has left an ugly stain on its past, which has still carried through to the present. To come to South Africa and not acknowledge the racial inequalities is to miss a huge part of the reality of South Africa's identity. Johannesburg's Apartheid Museum is the best place in the country to learn about the historic racial injustices and how they impact life today.

One of Joburg's highlights, The Apartheid Museum is incredibly comprehensive. You need at least an hour and a half to do it justice. And be prepared for subject matter that does not shy away from the hard topics. Still, it is an important stop for anyone who wants to begin to understand South Africa's checkered past.

Still, the message behind the museum is one of hope and change. It's a moving and deeply profound experience to visit this museum and one that must not be missed.

Address: Northern Parkway and Gold Reef Road, Johannesburg, 2001, South Africa