It’s no secret that major South African cities like Cape Town and Johannesburg are worthy tourist destinations, but what about the country’s lesser-known towns? Beautiful scenery, rich tribal culture, fascinating historic landmarks and some seriously great food and wine are just a few of the reasons to get to know South Africa’s smaller settlements. For the purpose of this article, we have defined small towns as having a population of 20,000 people or less.
Hermanus, Western Cape
Located halfway between Cape Town and Cape Agulhas, Hermanus is renowned as the whale-watching capital of South Africa. It overlooks Walker Bay, where southern right whales gather during the breeding season (July to November). Several operators offer boat-based tours but it’s also possible to get great sightings of the whales from land. Head up to the lookout at Gearing’s Point or take a stroll along the Cliff Path and you’re likely to see them socializing just a few meters from shore. Hermanus is also a popular destination for foodies, with a plethora of stunning seafront restaurants serving the finest cuisine and wines from around the Western Cape.
Hogsback, Eastern Cape
More a village than a town, Hogsback perches high above sea level in the Eastern Cape’s mist-covered Amathole Mountains. A true bohemian sanctuary, it’s a place for free spirits (whether you’re a student backpacker or a New Age spiritualist) filled with rustic restaurants, faerie gardens and shops selling crystals and incense. The surrounding countryside is criss-crossed with hiking trails, some of which lead to scenic waterfalls and swimming pools. Popular hotel The Edge Mountain Retreat has a spa and fine-dining restaurant – but its main attraction is an astonishing view that overlooks the valley below. Birders come to Hogsback to look for the endemic, critically endangered Cape parrot.
Wilderness, Western Cape
Nestled between the Outeniqua Mountains and the Indian Ocean, this romantically named resort town has been attracting holidaymakers since the late 1800s. It boasts a seemingly endless stretch of golden beach and dolphins are frequently spotted frolicking in the surf. In season (June to November), you can often see whales from shore as well. Wilderness is a haven for adventure-seekers. Go birding or hiking in the 2,500-hectare Wilderness National Park or try your hand at water-skiing on the lagoon. A local hang-gliding school offers tandem flights over the town’s scenic cliffs while nearby Victoria Bay is one of the best surf spots in South Africa.
Franschhoek, Western Cape
Those with a passion for South African wines will love Franschhoek, a historic town in the heart of the Cape Winelands. Famous for its original Cape Dutch architecture, idyllic climate and breathtaking vineyard-and-mountain scenery, Franschhoek was founded by French Huguenots in 1688. The refugees used their wine-making expertize to found some of South Africa’s oldest and most respected wineries. Today, you can experience wine tours and tastings at top farms like Haute Cabrière, La Bourgogne and La Motte. Many vineyards also offer gourmet restaurants and boutique accommodation. If you have limited time, consider a hop-on, hop-off tour on the Franschhoek Wine Tram.
Clarens, Free State
Often called the Jewel of the Free State, Clarens is located close to the northern Lesotho border. It’s surrounded by the picturesque Rooiberge Mountains and is loved by locals and visitors alike for its tranquil atmosphere. Artists flock to Clarens and there are countless galleries and boutiques showcasing their work. You can visit the best of them on the Artists’ Amble walking route. The mountains provide ample opportunities for adventurous pursuits, from trout fishing to horse-riding, hiking and whitewater rafting. Clarens is also the gateway for Golden Gate Highlands National Park. Self-drive safaris reveal jaw-dropping sandstone formations, rare vultures and many different types of antelope.
If mountain scenery makes your heart soar, you’ll love Underberg, the last town before the start of the southern Drakensberg Mountains. It’s a hotspot for hikers, providing the perfect base camp for Drakensberg short walks or multi-day expeditions. For fly fishermen, it’s one of the top trout fishing destinations in the country. The town itself is an agricultural center and attractions include rural farm stalls (where you can stock up on delicacies ranging from biltong to fresh-baked bread) and the Underberg Cheesery. Underberg is also the home of Splashy Fen, South Africa’s longest-running music festival. Held over the Easter weekend, the festival has featured stars like Prime Circle and Xavier Rudd.
Paternoster, Western Cape
A two-hour drive north of Cape Town takes you to Paternoster, a quaint fishing village that epitomizes the laid-back vibes of South Africa’s magnificent Cape West Coast. Here, whitewashed fishermen’s homes contrast with the deep blue of the Atlantic Ocean and the beach is an often-abandoned stretch of fine, white sand. Paternoster is famous for its crayfish and you can feast upon them in one of the town’s excellent seafood restaurants. Top picks include The Noisy Oyster and Leeto Restaurant (part of the beautiful Strandloper Ocean Boutique Hotel). Spend your days relaxing on the beach, fishing or exploring the nearby Columbine Nature Reserve and lighthouse.
Nieuwoudtville, Northern Cape
From the beginning of August to the end of September, the entire west coast is carpeted with a profusion of wild flowers – but one of the best places to catch the spectacle is in the Northern Cape town of Nieuwoudtville. It is known as the bulb capital of the world, with the Cape Fynbos and Hantam Karoo floral regions meeting in parks like Nieuwoudtville Wild Flower Reserve and Hantam National Botanical Gardens. The town is also close to two other natural wonders: the Quiver Tree Forest and the plunging Nieuwoudtville Falls. Downtown Nieuwoudtville is just as beautiful, with many historic sandstone buildings including the famous neo-Gothic Dutch Reformed Church.
Clanwilliam, Western Cape
Situated at the foot of the Cederberg Mountains, Clanwilliam is the perfect base for discovering majestic passes, challenging hiking and mountain biking trails and abundant San rock art sites. It’s also a wonderful destination in its own right. Established in 1808, the town boasts no fewer than seven national monuments including the Old Gaol (now home to the Clanwilliam Museum). The Rooibos Teahouse highlights the town’s status as the main producer of the unique South African tea variety; while fly fishermen flock to the Olifants River and the Clanwilliam and Bulshoek dams. Target fish include bass and trout but the most sought-after prize is the rare Clanwilliam yellowfish.
Port St. Johns, Eastern Cape
Located in the remote Transkei region, Port St. Johns is famous for its chilled-out backpacker vibes. It’s also incredibly scenic, with a clutch of untamed beaches and two twin mountains that guard the mouth of the Umzimvubu River. You can fish from the rocks or on the estuary, come face-to-face with zebra and wildebeest in the Silaka and Hluleka game reserves, or go kayaking amongst the coastal mangroves. Port St. Johns is also the top launching site for the Sardine Run, a bucket-list event for scuba divers from all over the world. Alternatively, discover the region’s rich tribal culture with a visit to a local Pondo village.