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12 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in East London, South Africa

Written by Karen Hastings and Carri Wilbanks
Aug 2, 2019

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The gateway to South Africa's spectacular Wild Coast, East London sits on the estuary of the Buffalo River where it flows to the Indian Ocean. The city is South Africa's only important river port, and its economy is bolstered primarily by car manufacturing. Like the nearby city of Port Elizabeth, beaches are one of the top attractions. Thanks to warm-water currents, the ocean temperatures are more tolerable here than other parts of South Africa, and things to do include swimming, surfing, fishing, and whale-watching.

For a dose of culture, the small city center offers a few surprises, including an excellent natural history museum, one of the best in the country; a historic house; and the splendid Victorian-style City Hall. A short drive from the city, visitors can experience a classic African safari adventure at one of the region's popular private game reserves. Plan your trip with our list of the top tourist attractions in East London.

Note: Some businesses may be temporarily closed due to recent global health and safety issues.

1. Beaches

A beach in East London
A beach in East London

One of East London's best assets are its beautiful beaches, washed by relatively warm waters thanks to the Indian Ocean currents. Between the mouth of the Buffalo River to the south and the Nahoon River to the north are the city's three most popular strands. The closest to the city center is Orient Beach, a relatively safe beach sheltered by the breakwaters of the harbor. Children love the playground, paddling pool, and water tube here, and the proximity to shops and restaurants is a bonus.

Adjoining is popular Eastern Beach. Surfing can be great here, depending on conditions, and the small East London Aquarium is a short walk away. Nahoon Beach, on a large lagoon eight kilometers north of the city center, is popular for swimming and surfing—an offshore reef provides ideal conditions for experienced surfers, while the Nahoon River Mouth offers fantastic opportunities for angling.

About a half-hour drive northeast of the city, beautiful Gonubie Beach sports the coveted Blue Flag status, awarded to beaches with excellent water quality, safety, and environmental management. This is a great spot to escape the crowds of the city beaches. Other popular things to do here include tinkering at the tide pools and relaxing with a picnic.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in East London

2. East London Museum

Coelacanth fish
Coelacanth fish

At the north end of Oxford Street, the East London Museum, established in 1921, is one of the most fascinating natural history museums in the country. The star attraction here is the coelacanth, a fish with limb-like fins that was believed to have become extinct more than 80 million years ago until it was caught in the Chalumna River, near East London, in 1938.

The museum also displays numerous specimens of mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians, as well as exhibits on the maritime history of the region, and even a dodo's egg. Don't miss the anthropological section displaying the beautiful beadwork of the local Xhosa-speaking people.

Official site: http://www.elmuseum.za.org

3. Inkwenkwezi Private Game Reserve

Inkwenkwezi Private Game Reserve
Inkwenkwezi Private Game Reserve

On the Wild Coast, about 33 kilometers from East London, Inkwenkwezi is one of the top private safari parks on the Eastern Cape. The park's 4,000 hectares spans five regional biomes, including tidal estuaries, resulting in an impressive diversity of wildlife. Rhinos, elephants, giraffes, buffalos, zebras, antelope, and lions are among the animals found in the park, including rare white lions, which inhabit their own enclosure. The park also boasts abundant birdlife; more than 180 different species have been recorded here, including the rare ground hornbill.

Highlights of a visit include the elephant and cheetah experiences, which offer guests a chance to interact with these amazing creatures under the careful supervision of experienced handlers. Day trippers are welcome.

Visitors can choose from guided game drives in open-topped 4WD vehicles or self-guided game drives. Walking safaris, quad bike tours, canoe trips, and mountain biking are other adventure options. Those who want to immerse themselves in the serenity here for more than a day can stay in luxury tents that blend beautifully with their surroundings or at the nearby Umnenga Lodge.

Official site: http://eastlondon-info.co.za/

4. The Venom Pit Snake Park

Green mamba
Green mamba

Even those with a snake phobia will find something to appreciate about these misunderstood animals at this small snake park. The park cares for a collection of more than a thousand reptiles from around the world and focuses on African snakes such as mambas, large adders, dwarf adders, African pythons, cobras, and file snakes, with a few exotic species thrown into the mix.

Crocodiles, alligators, lizards, and chameleons are some of the other species residing in the park. The staff share fascinating facts about these amazing animals, and visitors can handle some of the non-venomous species.

Location: 4 kilometers after the Lion Park on the N6, East London

5. Mpongo Private Game Reserve

Mpongo Private Game Reserve
Mpongo Private Game Reserve

About 35 kilometers northwest of East London, Mpongo Private Game Reserve is a fantastic safari option for travelers who don't have time to visit one of South Africa's national parks. Encompassing more than 3,500 hectares of conservation land, the park offers wildlife lovers the chance to spot four out of the "Big Five" safari animals: lions (in a separate enclosure), elephants, rhinos, and buffalos, as well as antelope, giraffes, hyenas, hippos, and many species of birds.

Day trippers can embark on guided safaris in open vehicles for excellent photographic opportunities or take a self-guided tour in their own vehicle. Afterwards, visitors can enjoy a meal at the park's raised restaurant overlooking a hippo pond. Overnight accommodation is available in comfortable lodges.

Location: Macleantown District, N6 National Road, East London, Eastern Cape

Official site: http://www.mpongo.com/

6. City Hall

City Hall
City Hall

Between Oxford Street and Argyle Street, City Hall is one of the few colonial buildings still standing in East London's city center. This grand Victorian-style building was completed in 1899 and is a striking landmark with its red-painted exterior and stark white trim. The clock tower, known as the Victoria Tower, was added to celebrate Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee (the 60th year of her rule).

In front of the building stands an equestrian monument commemorating those who fell in the Boer War, while in the vestibule, marble tablets list the names of white men who perished in the frontier wars. Also on the grounds is the statue of the famous activist Steve Biko. Visitors should ask the caretaker for permission to tour the building, as it is still in regular use.

7. Ann Bryant Art Gallery

Along the north side of Oxford Street, the Ann Bryant Art Gallery resides in a grand old Edwardian house surrounded by peaceful gardens. The gallery spotlights South African works, especially those hailing from the 1960s, and includes contemporary Eastern Cape artists and artists such as Tinus de Jongh, the popular South African painter known for his Cape landscapes. Temporary exhibitions draw many local art lovers. After browsing the gallery, visitors can relax in the gardens with a light snack from the cafe in the adjacent Coach House.

Address: 9 St. Marks Road, Southernwood, East London, Eastern Cape

Official site: http://www.annbryant.co.za

8. Hemingways Mall

Hemingway's Mall makes a great rainy day alternative to the beach. The complex is home to more than 200 shops, as well as a custom-designed amphitheater used for fashion shows, music shows, and exhibitions. Rounding out the rainy day activities are six cinemas with 3D offerings, a 4D simulator, arcade games, a bowling alley, and bumper cars. Speed demons can blow off steam at the Go-Kart track with 10 laps of adrenaline-infused thrills.

Address: Corner Western Avenue and Two Rivers Drive

Official site: http://www.hemingwaysmall.co.za/

9. Gately House

This colonial-style, single-story house is one of the oldest buildings on the east bank of the Buffalo River. It was built in 1876 for John Gately, an Irishman who was one of the city's first mayors, and the family lived here until 1966 when Gately's oldest daughter died and donated the contents of the house in an effort to preserve its history. Today, it operates as a museum, with most of the original contents intact.

The antique furniture displays Victorian, Georgian, and Art Nouveau styles and is mostly built from fine woods such as mahogany, walnut, and rosewood. Decorative Japanese pieces also complement the collection. Tours include the parlor, bedrooms, living rooms, and veranda.

10. Khaya La Bantu Cultural Village

About 30 kilometers from the city center, on a working cattle ranch, the Khaya La Bantu Cultural Village offers a fascinating insight into the way of life of the local Xhosa people. Visitors are welcomed with a lively song and dance performance accompanied by rhythmic drumming by the Xhosa residents, who are dressed in traditional beaded costumes.

Guests are then treated to a tour of the traditional village, which includes the kraal, where major meetings are conducted; ritual huts; the traditional healer; and the communal kitchen where a lunch of pot-baked breads, meat stews, and local vegetables is prepared. After the meal, more song and dance ensues, and visitors can browse the craft center. A small guest lodge is available for those who wish to stay overnight.

11. East London Aquarium

Recently re-opened after a short hiatus, the East London Aquarium is the oldest public aquarium in Southern Africa, first opening its doors in 1931. Although small—this isn't a big city aquarium with thousands of fish—it does have newly renovated tanks with fish representing most of the local species.

The aquarium also has a 30-plus-foot viewing platform right on the beach to look for the southern right whales that migrate down this coastline on the way to their feeding grounds in the arctic. The platform is also used for watching the magnificent humpback whales that pass through in November.

Location: 13 Esplanade Street, Quigney Beach, East London

12. Nahoon Estuary Nature Reserve

Nahoon Beach
Nahoon Beach

Stretch your legs with a walk along the Dassie Trail in the Nahoon Estuary Nature Reserve. The short, flat trail is perfect for kids and begins at the reserve's visitor center, which also hosts a bird hide. For most of its length, the trail follows a boardwalk created with recycled plastic. It takes you through a section of forest before the views open up, and you find yourself walking past mud and mangrove trees.

The reserve is also home to beautiful Nahoon Beach mentioned earlier. A second trail also departs from the visitors center and takes you on a 30-minute walk through the reserve. Don't be surprised if you see vervet monkeys laughing at you from trees or running across the boardwalk on either stroll.

Location: North-East Bank of the Nahoon River Mouth, East London

Where to Stay in East London for Sightseeing

  • Luxury & Mid-Range Hotels: The best luxury properties in East London are actually B&Bs and small inns like Quarry Lake Inn. The four-star property fronts a lake in a quiet East London suburb. The 16 rooms are elegantly appointed with either lake, pool, or garden views. One of the top guesthouses is The Hampton, which offers a charming mix of old-fashioned and modern in its individually designed rooms and suites. The included morning breakfast is impressive with hot and cold selections, as well as fresh baked bred and pastries from the on-site bakery. Also check out Tidewaters River Lodge for a top end B&B. It sits next to the Gonubie River and has a tranquil vibe. The four-star property offers free kayaks to take out on the river and has a swimming pool on-site. Families will appreciate the suites with kitchenettes. While on the Esplanade, Hotel EL ICC has contemporary rooms with views of the port or Indian Ocean.
  • Budget Hotels: The Kennaway Hotel is a three-star hotel that provides excellent value. Rooms are clean and spacious, and many come with sea views. There is a restaurant on-site. Part of a South African chain, the Road Lodge East London is another top budget hotel choice. It offers small but clean rooms with flat-screen TVs and work desks.

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