Located on the southernmost tip of Africa, South Africa is one of the largest countries on the continent and the cities of Johannesburg and Cape Town have become popular tourist destinations for travelers from around the world. However, there are many other places in South Africa to visit than just the two biggest cities.
Travelers looking to escape the ordinary can enjoy the mountain air in Hogsback and the Drakensberg; settle back with world-class wines from the Cape Winelands; relax on the coastline of Knysna: or enjoy a safari in the oldest and best Wildlife Park in Southern Africa, Kruger National Park.
Fortunately, it's also relatively easy to travel around South Africa with several low-cost airlines operating throughout the country and excellent roads, which makes it convenient to rent a car to explore the country yourself.
Known for its cultural diversity and social tolerance, Cape Town is a trip highlight for many visitors to South Africa. The Mother City is blessed with a variety of great sights, experiences, dining destinations, and outdoor activities perfect for travelers of all ages and interests.
While in Cape Town, you can enjoy breathtaking scenery—from the white-sand beaches of the Cape Peninsula to the iconic cliffs of Table Mountain—or a whole selection of world-class restaurants and local wines. You can also spend leisurely mornings browsing beachside farmer's markets or shopping at the V&A Waterfront; and afternoons hiking, surfing, scuba diving, or making friends with the penguins at Boulders Beach.
There are several safari parks within a few hours' drive of the city center.
The Cape Winelands, Western Cape
To the east of Cape Town lies the Cape Winelands, a spectacular region full of verdant mountains and fertile valleys. Visitors love the area for its astounding scenic beauty, for its culture (best represented by the stunning Cape Dutch architecture of its towns and outlying farms), and for its world-famous vineyards.
There are several distinct viticultural regions, the most popular of which include Stellenbosch, Franschhoek, Wellington, and Paarl. Each one offers wine-tasting tours and an array of superb restaurants, most of which showcase the Western Cape's finest local produce.
Tourists can rent a car in Cape Town to explore the vineyards independently, book a stay at a local B&B, or hop aboard the Franschhoek wine tram to take in a variety of vineyards and sample many different wines while in the region.
Located 120 kilometers southeast of Cape Town, the seaside town of Hermanus has earned itself a reputation as the whale-watching capital of South Africa.
Every year, migrating southern right whales pass within a few hundred feet of the Hermanus shoreline, with many of them stopping to breed and calve in the town's own Walker Bay. You can book a tour with one of Hermanus' many whale-watching boats, or you can enjoy the whales' antics for free from any of the lookout points along the Cliff Path.
In the center of town, the restaurants that line scenic Gearing's Point are a great place to sample gourmet cuisine while keeping an eye out for passing cetaceans. The whale-watching season lasts from July to November, but there are also plenty of other attractions worth seeing in Hermanus year-round.
Nested between the Outeniqua Mountains and the Indian Ocean, Knysna offers a wide range of charismatic guesthouses and bed and breakfasts, in addition to art galleries, boutiques, and craft centers. It's especially well known for its seafood restaurants, which feature oysters freshly harvested from the town's picturesque lagoon.
While in Knysna, you can take a hike to the top of the twin cliffs known as the Knysna Heads; spend idyllic days on the golden beaches of Leisure Isle and nearby Brenton-on-Sea; or encounter the world's largest terrestrial animal at the Knysna Elephant Park.
Oudtshoorn, Western Cape
The small town of Oudtshoorn makes a great pit stop along Route 62 through South Africa's wine country. Known for its ostrich farms and the nearby Cango Caves, Oudtshoorn offers a variety of attractions ranging from wildlife parks and ostrich museums to hot air ballooning over the countryside.
Among the top attractions in the region, the CP Nel Museum is dedicated to early 20th-century and Victorian-era life in the region as well as the rich history of the ostrich trade, which put the city on the map. While you're there, you can also take a guided tour of the Safari Ostrich Farm or the Cango Wildlife Ranch for an up-close look at the wildlife around Oudtshoorn.
Hogsback, Eastern Cape
Situated high in the misty Amathole Mountains, Hogsback is a quaint town said to have inspired J.R.R. Tolkien (who was born in South Africa) when he wrote "Lord of the Rings." The surrounding landscape is lush, green, and dotted with hiking trails that take you through the forest to a series of hidden waterfalls and streams.
The dense indigenous woodland also plays host to an array of endemic birdlife, including the highly endangered Cape parrot. The town itself is steeped in fairy folklore. Here, you'll find a bohemian collection of backpacker lodges, guesthouses, art galleries, and New Age boutiques. Perhaps most magical of all, however, is the view from the cliffs at The Edge Mountain Retreat.
Designated as a black homeland under apartheid, the Transkei region was once considered separate from South Africa. Now, it is a wild, unspoiled area of incredible natural beauty that extends from the Great Kei River to the Umtamvuna River in the Eastern Cape.
As the birthplace of anti-apartheid leaders including Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, and Oliver Tambo, the Transkei has a proud cultural heritage. The traditional Xhosa way of life is still observed in its remote rural villages, and its rolling landscapes are dotted by simple rondavel huts and herds of indigenous Nguni cattle.
With its abandoned beaches and pounding surf, the Transkei is also a haven for fishermen, hikers, surfers, and nature lovers.
The cosmopolitan center of KwaZulu-Natal province, Durban, is known for its golden beaches, its tropical climate, and its rich Indian culture.
Flavorful curry restaurants dominate the city's culinary scene; and after dark, an impressive array of bars and nightclubs await visitors. For the best view with your cocktail, head to Moyo at the end of uShaka Pier. During the day, visitors embrace the perennial vacation atmosphere of Durban's Golden Mile, home to some of the most famous surf spots in South Africa.
Shopping is another favorite pastime—whether you choose to explore the colorful stalls of Victoria Street Market or to spend your money in upscale malls like the Gateway Theatre of Shopping in Umhlanga.
The capital of KwaZulu-Natal province, Pietermaritzburg, is a great destination. Popularly referred to as Martizburg, this industrial hub known for its colonial buildings, rich gambling culture, and the lush nature found in parks and reserves nearby.
If you're a fan of sports, you can catch the Comrades Marathon between Pietermaritzburg and Durban in June or the yearly Amashovashova cycling race held between the two cities in October. For history and art enthusiasts, Martizburg is also home to a number of museums and galleries including the KwaZulu-Natal Museum, City Hal, the Imperial Hotel, and the Tatham Art Gallery.
Additionally, Albert Falls Nature Reserve, Midmar Public Nature Reserve, Queens Elizabeth Park, World's View, and Howick Falls are all within a few miles of Maritzburg, making it a great place to stay if you hope to explore the upland savanna around the city.
The Drakensberg Mountains, KwaZulu-Natal
The uKhahlamba-Drakensberg mountain range stretches along the border of South Africa and Lesotho. It includes the country's highest peak and Blyde River Canyon, the third largest canyon in the world. It's an impressive playground full of soaring summits and plunging valleys and is the ideal destination for those with a love of hiking, climbing, horse-riding, whitewater-rafting and mountain fly-fishing.
A series of trails cater to all abilities, with options ranging from hour-long hikes to multi-day expeditions. However, you choose to explore, keep an eye out for rare regional wildlife, including 300 different bird species and altitude-adapted mammals like the klipspringer and the mountain reedbuck. The mountains are also home to many fine examples of ancient San rock art.
Soweto Township, Gauteng
Soweto may not be the most beautiful destination in South Africa, but it certainly ranks as one of the most culturally important sights the country has to offer.
A sprawling township located in Johannesburg, Soweto is home to over 1.3 million people. Much of the struggle against apartheid played out in the slums of Soweto, and the township was in a virtual state of war during the 1970s and 80s. Nowadays, Soweto is still subject to crippling poverty and a high crime rate; however, it also features some of the most vibrant music and theater South Africa has to offer.
Visitors can join a township tour to explore the area's incredible history and culture in safety. Sample local food, visit Nelson Mandela's house, or even opt to stay overnight at a township bed and breakfast.
While Soweto may be one of the biggest draws of the city, the rest of Johannesburg has plenty to offer tourists of all persuasions. What started as a gold-mining settlement, Johannesburg is now the biggest city in South Africa and the capital of the Gauteng province.
While you're there, you can visit underground shebeens (speakeasy-style bars) in the surrounding townships, eat traditional shisa nyama (a form of barbecue) at local restaurants, or enjoy the nightlife in thriving the Braamfontein neighborhood.
The history of Johannesburg is another important aspect to explore on your trip, and there are plenty of museums, monuments, and historic sites to discover including the former home of Nelson Mandela, The Mandela House, which is now a moving museum.
Located in the northern part of the Gauteng province, the city of Pretoria is similar to Johannesburg but much more relaxed. Known for the Union Buildings that house the set of South Africa's government, Pretoria is also a great place to take in some history, culture, and wildlife.
Popular attractions in Pretoria include the Voortrekker Monument, dedicated to the Afrikaans settlers who arrived in South Africa in the 1830s; the National Zoological Gardens of South Africa, a research hub and 210-acre zoo; and the Freedom Park Heritage Site and Museum, which is dedicated to the South African freedom fighters.
Kruger National Park, Limpopo, and Mpumalanga
South Africa's first national park is also its most famous attraction, offering one of the best safari experiences on the continent.
Located in the far northeast of the country, the Kruger offers an incredible variety of flora and fauna, including Africa's Big Five and the lesser-known Little Five. The birdlife is exceptional, too, with over 500 species recorded within the park.
There are countless different ways to explore: You can rent a car and drive along the park's well-maintained roads, or sign up for a private game drive and benefit from the knowledge of an experienced guide. Night drives and walking safaris are also well worthwhile. In terms of accommodation, your options range from rustic campsites to five-star lodges.
Bloemfontein, Free State of South Africa
Bloemfontein is the capital city of the Free State of South Africa and one of the country's three national capitals; however, it's also known as the "city of the roses" due to the huge rose festival held in the city each spring.
Bloemfontein is also full of history, culture, art, and wildlife to explore and discover. Stop by the Oliewenhuis Art Museum and gardens or the Gallery on Leviseur for a look into the modern art scene of the country. To learn about the history of the region, you can visit the Anglo Boer War Museum or the National Museum of Bloemfontein.
For an outdoor adventure, you can head over to the Free State of South Africa National Botanical Garden or meet the wildlife up close at the Bloemfontein Zoo or an exclusive Cheetah Experience found right outside the city.
East London, Eastern Cape
Located on the Indian Ocean on South Africa's eastern coast, East London is a quiet, relaxed beach town perfect for an escape any time of year.
Cove Rock and Nahoon beaches are the biggest attractions in East London, but a variety of wild game reserves nearby and the local East London Museum also provide a chance to get to know the history, culture, and natural habitat of the region. Mpongo Park Game Reserve, the Nahoon Estuary Nature Reserve, the East London Aquarium, and the East London Lion Park are all popular attractions.
Port Elizabeth, Eastern Cape
A little further southwest along the eastern coast of South Africa, Port Elizabeth is a bustling city on Algoa Bay known for its thriving port, numerous beaches, and the wild elephants, rhinos, and other big game living on wildlife reserves nearby.
Encounter cheetahs at the Kragga Kamma Game Park or explore maritime and natural history at Bayworld, a kid-friendly museum dedicated to aquatic life. Tourists can also take private boat tours of Algoa Bay, where rare birds and whales are often seen enjoying the warm climate.
The capital of the Northern Cape province, Kimberley, is known for its 19th-century diamond mines, including the hand-dug Big Hole—the world's largest diamond mine.
Kimberley is also the home of Da Beers, one of the nation's most popular brands, as well as a variety of history museums, art galleries, and colonial houses built in the 1800s.
Along with visiting The Big Hole, tourists can learn about natural and cultural history at the McGregor Museum, see endangered species at Mokola National Park, and explore South African and European art at the William Humphreys Art Museum.