The largest settlement on the coast between Durban and Cape Town, Port Elizabeth is one of South Africa’s most underrated tourist destinations. Reasons for visiting this charismatic Eastern Cape city include Blue Flag beaches, award-winning restaurants, and a wealth of historic sites with a connection to the city's colonial past. If you plan on being in town for a few days, consider investing in a one, two, three, or seven-day Nelson Mandela Bay Pass. For a discounted one-off price, you’ll receive free admission to many of the city’s best activities and attractions—including several of the Port Elizabeth highlights listed below.
Unwind on the City’s Blue Flag Beaches
Sun worshippers and watersports enthusiasts are spoiled for choice in Port Elizabeth, with a bevy of beautiful beaches to choose from. Three of them have been awarded Blue Flag status for their safety, cleanliness, amenities. and environmental standards. Kings Beach is an idyllic stretch of golden sand with family-friendly facilities including a waterslide park and children’s playground. Hobie Beach is popular with windsurfers, bathers and rock pool fans; while Humewood Beach offers sheltered sunbathing and a reliable surf break near the jetty. All three beaches are protected by licensed lifeguards for the duration of the South African summer. December is a particularly festive time to visit while the winter months see considerably fewer crowds.
Discover Port Elizabeth’s Gourmet Culinary Scene
Port Elizabeth is a foodie city, with many excellent restaurants serving an impressive variety of international cuisines.Your first port of call should be Vovo Telo, a famous bakery and local hang-out spot. Using traditional artisan techniques, it serves up mouthwatering breakfasts and brunches with menu items ranging from inventive sandwiches to thin crust pizzas. One block over from Vovo Telo is Stanley Street, Port Elizabeth’s culinary epicenter. It’s home to some of the city’s best restaurants including Muse (farm-to-table fine dining), Fushin (sushi and tempura), and Two Olives (Mediterranean tapas and seafood). Don’t miss the Valley Market either, an artisanal food festival held on the first Saturday of every month at the historic Tramways Building.
Learn About Local History at the Port Elizabeth Museum
Located on the Humewood beachfront, the Port Elizabeth Museum explores the city’s cultural and natural history through a series of fascinating permanent exhibits. These range from the Maritime History Hall to the Xhosa Beadwork Gallery, and tell the story of Algoa Bay from the days of the indigenous San people to the arrival of the colonial settlers. Some of the exhibits (specifically, a life-sized reconstruction of a local dinosaur species called Algoasaurus) even date back to prehistoric times. Other highlights include a bronze cannon from a Portuguese galleon that wrecked off the coast in the 17th century; and the skeleton of one of the last Southern right whales to be killed by Algoa Bay whalers.
Walk the Donkin Heritage Trail
The Donkin Heritage Trail is named after Sir Rufane Donkin, Port Elizabeth’s founder. It connects 51 historical sites, which together tell the story of the 1820 settlers and the British colonial era. The self-guided tour starts outside the Public Library with its statue of Queen Victoria and includes a host of Victorian houses, churches, and memorials. Amongst these is the Campanile (which marks the landing site of the 1820 Settlers and affords spectacular panoramas of the city and harbor) and the stone pyramid at Donkin Reserve. The latter was erected in honor of Sir Donkin’s wife, Elizabeth, for whom the city was named. Maps for the 5-kilometer trail are sold at the Donkin Reserve Information Office.
Indulge in a Spot of Retail Therapy
Port Elizabeth is also a shopaholic’s paradise with a seemingly endless choice of retail outlets. Its most popular malls include Greenacres Shopping Centre, Walmer Park Shopping Centre and Baywest Mall, all of which offer a selection of South Africa’s biggest high street brands. Baywest Mall also has its own movie theater and ice rink. At The Boardwalk Casino and Entertainment World you can combine your retail therapy with open-air dining, arcade games, gambling and go-karting; while the Beachfront Traders flea market is your best bet for souvenirs. Held every Saturday and Sunday on the Kings Beach promenade, the market specializes in African curios ranging from wooden sculptures and paintings to Xhosa beadwork.
Pack a Picnic for a Day Out at St. George’s Park
When the sun is shining, those that are tired of the beach flock to St. George’s Park. Established in 1860, it sprawls across 73 hectares of beautiful parkland complete with specimen trees and colorful flower beds. In season, you can watch local athletes competing at the historic Port Elizabeth Cricket Club or on the oldest bowling green in South Africa. The Conservatory is a magnificent relic from Victorian times and still hosts seasonal displays of exotic plants. In summer, the park’s Mannville Open-Air Theater hosts the annual Port Elizabeth Shakespearean Festival. Alternatively, try to time your visit with the Art in the Park artisan craft market, held on the last Sunday of every month.
Take a Tour of Port Elizabeth’s Townships
Although Port Elizabeth’s townships are not safe to visit on your own, you can learn a lot about the history and culture of the city’s townships by signing up for a tour with an operator like Calabash Tours. Under the supervision of local guides, you’ll hear firsthand about residents’ experiences of life in the Eastern Cape before, during, and after apartheid. You’ll have the opportunity to visit a township school, and to share a drink with the locals at a shebeen. Most visitors are astonished by the diversity, positivity and entrepreneurship that can be found in the city’s poorest areas. Calabash Tours promotes responsible tourism by making sure that township residents benefit directly from tour revenue.
Visit the Birds at Cape Recife Nature Reserve
Located on a remote peninsula just south of the city center, Cape Recife Nature Reserve is a wilderness of untamed beaches, fragrant fynbos and dramatic rocky outcrops. It’s also one of the best birding sites in the Eastern Cape. Strike out on the 5.6-mile (9-kilometer) hiking trail or spend hours in the bird hide at the freshwater reclamation ponds. A particular highlight is the tern roost, where you can spot roseate, Antarctic, and Damara terns in season. The reserve is also home to SANCCOB Port Elizabeth, a sanctuary and rehabilitation center for marine birds. For 45 rand per adult, you can take a self-guided tour and enjoy close encounters with a variety of species including endangered African penguins.
Meet Marine Life on an Algoa Bay Cruise
PE’s Algoa Bay is home to some incredible marine life, including dolphins, whales, sharks and Cape fur seals. Raggy Charters offers a range of different wildlife cruises, including trips to St. Croix Island (home to thousands of African penguins) and Bird Island (the planet’s largest breeding colony of Cape gannets). You can also sign up for pelagic birding cruises that take you out to the continental shelf in search of albatrosses, shearwaters and skuas; or test your mettle by cage diving with great white sharks. If you want to see whales, remember that the peak time for humpback sightings is June/July or November/December, while southern right whales give birth in the bay from July to October.
Go on Safari at Addo Elephant Park
For the chance to see Africa’s most iconic land mammals, take a 30-minute drive north of Port Elizabeth to Addo Elephant National Park. As the name suggests, the reserve is especially famous for its huge herds of elephant, which can often be seen congregating around the waterholes in groups of 100 or more on hot days. It’s also home to the rest of the Big Five—including buffalo, lions, leopards and rhinos. You can sign up for a guided game drive or opt for a self-drive safari instead. The reserve’s dirt roads are well maintained and suitable for all vehicles. Currently, self-drive safaris cost 307 rand per adult and 154 rand per child.