20 Best Things to Do in South Africa

Elephant walking down a road beside vehicles in South Africa

TripSavvy / Chris VR

When it comes to amazing ways to spend your time, South Africa is a land of endless opportunities. For the cultural traveler, cities like Cape Town and Johannesburg offer a wealth of museums, galleries, and fascinating historical sites. For the discerning foodie, it's difficult to rival the restaurants and wineries of the Western Cape, while adrenaline junkies are spoiled for choice with blood-pumping activities such as shark-diving, white-water rafting, and the world's highest bridge bungy jump.

Of course, South Africa is also a country of unparalleled natural beauty, and exploring its diverse flora and fauna is top of the list for many visitors, whether they stay for several months or just a few days

01 of 20

Drive Along South Africa's Scenic Garden Route

Garden Route in South Africa

holgs / Getty Images

South Africa
Phone +27 44 877 0046

Stretching roughly 186 miles (300km) from Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape to Mossel Bay in the Western Cape, the Garden Route is one of the most beautiful drives in the country. A popular day trip from Cape Town, you'll have the most flexibility to explore areas of interest by driving it yourself, though a number of half-day and full-day tours can be booked through sites like Viator and GetYourGuide.

Along the way, make time to stop and see Knysna Lagoon; the Cango Caves, said to be South Africa's oldest tourist attraction; Agulhas, the country's southernmost point; Gansbaai, a popular spot for cage diving if you want to see the great whites up close; and Hermanus, a terrific place for whale watching.

02 of 20

Sip South African Wine

Stellenbosch Wine Region in South Africa

jaap-willem / Getty Images

Klapmuts - Simondium Rd, Simondium, 7670, South Africa
Phone +27 21 863 3852

Wine enthusiasts, rejoice! Cape Town is surrounded by some of the best and most well-known wine regions in the country—Franschhoek, Stellenbosch, and Paarl, each about a 45–60 minute drive of the city center, as well as Constantia, Helderberg, Durbanville, which are closer to downtown—meaning you're never too far away from a nice glass of vino.

Make time to try some South African pinotage, cabernet sauvignon, shiraz (or syrah), merlot, or the locally made Cape Blend, as well as sauvignon blanc, chenin blanc, chardonnay, and South African white wine blends, which shouldn't be missed. If you're celebrating, ask for the MCC, or Méthode Cap Classique, the country's version of Champagne.

Babylonstoren is an old Cape Dutch farm in the Franschhoek wine region that's home to an elegant hotel, stunning garden, multiple restaurants, and most importantly, a 200-acre winery that produces excellent pinot noir and chardonnay. There's also a luxurious on-site spa to unwind in after a long day of sightseeing.

03 of 20

Ride The Blue Train Between Cape Town and Pretoria

The Blue Train in South Africa

The Blue Train

Adderley St, Cape Town City Centre, Cape Town, 8000, South Africa
Phone +27 21 553 8000

If South Africa is your dream trip, there's no better way to see it than by taking a ride on The Blue Train, a luxury train that runs between Cape Town and Pretoria, just north of Johannesburg. Be warned that it's not a cheap journey—prices hover around the $3,400 mark for a deluxe suite or $4,300 for a luxury suite, based on double occupancy—nor is it a short one, at 31-hours from one end to the other.

That said, you'll have a rare chance to sit back and watch the country go by out your window, as well as posh perks like your own controlled air conditioning system, access to a gourmet dining and observation car, a couch that turns into a double or two twin beds, and your own bathroom, equipped with a shower or bathtub.

04 of 20

Road Trip Along the Panorama Route

Bourke's Luck Potholes in South Africa

Martin Harvey / Getty Images

Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve, Moremela, South Africa
Phone +27 13 769 8926

For a chance to experience some of South Africa's most beautiful natural wonders, rent a car and drive along the Panorama Route, located near Kruger National Park on the eastern side of the country. If you'd rather not drive the route yourself, half-day and full-day guided tours are also available from Johannesburg via websites like GetYourGuide and Viator.

Noteworthy stops include Blyde River Canyon, Bourke's Luck Potholes, God's Window, Berlin Falls, Lisbon Falls, the Pinnacle, Wonder View, the picturesque Lowveld viewpoint, and the Three Rondavels.

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05 of 20

Realize Your Safari Fantasies

Kruger National Park in South Africa

Thomas Retterath / Getty Images

South Africa
Phone +27 13 735 4000

For most people, going on an African safari is probably one of the main reasons for visiting South Africa in the first place. The country's most famous game reserve is Kruger National Park and for good reason—it's also the largest and oldest park in the country and is easily accessible. You can see all of the Big Five here—lions, leopards, elephants, rhinos, and African buffalo—and there's a variety of accommodation options ranging from self-catering chalets to luxury lodges. Night drives, horseback safaris, and walking safaris are all possible here as well.

Be aware that Kruger National Park's popularity means it is also often crowded. For a more off-the-beaten-track safari destination, consider Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, a true wilderness area located on the Botswana border that's known for its population of black-maned lions. If you like the idea of a self-drive safari, check out Addo Elephant National Park, located near Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape. There are also several smaller safari parks near Cape Town.

06 of 20

Tee Off at a Top Golf Course

A golf course below mountains in Western Cape

Hein von Horsten / Getty Images

R570 Leopard Creek Estate, Malelane, 1320, South Africa
Phone +27 13 791 2000

South Africa is home to some of the most beautiful golf courses on the planet and the great thing is they're surprisingly affordable. Gary Player and Ernie Els earned their first birdies on South African golf courses, and some of the country's top spots were even designed by these two golfing legends.

Stand-out favorites include The Links at Fancourt, a luxury hotel located in George, Western Cape, and Leopard Creek, located near Kruger National Park. Designed by Gary Player, The Links at Fancourt boasts spectacular views of the Outeniqua Mountains, while Leopard Creek is special for its truly African flavor. Where else can you see giraffes wandering across the green or spot crocodiles and hippos wallowing in the water hazards? Many of South Africa's golf courses are also affiliated with luxury spa hotels so non-golfers will also have plenty to do. 

07 of 20

Discover World-Class Surfing

Surfers at Muizenburg Beach

TripSavvy / Chris VR

Jeffreys Bay, South Africa

South Africa's coastline stretches for more than 1,600 miles, stretching from the frigid Atlantic to the balmy Indian Ocean. While both coasts have their fair share of surf spots, the most famous are located in the Cape Town area or farther north along the East Coast. If you're headed to the Mother City, check out Muizenberg for beginner waves or Big Bay near Blouberg Beach. For pros, the most famous wave here is Dungeons, a beastly right-hander known to get as big as 60 feet. 

South Africa's surfing capital, however, is Jeffreys Bay, a laid-back town located 50 miles south of Port Elizabeth that welcomes the likes of Kelly Slater and Jordy Smith for its annual J-Bay Open, which focuses on the legendary right-hand break Supertubes. Farther north, Durban is another hotspot for beginners and pros alike. For the biggest thrills, check out the waves at North Beach, Bay of Plenty, and New Pier.

08 of 20

Go Swimming With Sharks

A shark approaching a cage with divers inside it.

TripSavvy /  Chris VR

Aliwal Shoal, South Africa

If you'd rather be under the water than on top of it, consider signing up for an encounter with the world's greatest apex predator: the great white shark. These magnificent animals are drawn to the waters of the Cape by an abundance of their favorite prey, Cape fur seals. Several companies in Gansbaai, Mossel Bay, and Simonstown offer cage-diving tours, allowing you to see the sharks in their natural environment without compromising your safety or theirs.

If you'd rather do away with the steel bars, head farther north to Aliwal Shoal, a Marine Protected Area located just south of Durban. Here, you can dive with several species of sharks without the protection of a cage. In summer (November to April), baited dives allow you to get up close and personal with tiger sharks, while bull sharks and oceanic blacktip sharks are commonly spotted here throughout the year. During winter (June to September), sand tiger sharks congregate on the reef to mate. 

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09 of 20

Hike Among Stunning Scenery

South Africa's natural scenery

TripSavvy / Chris VR

Unnamed Rd, South Africa

South Africa's natural scenery is undoubtedly some of the world's most beautiful, and the best way to experience it is on foot. There are many long-distance hiking trails to check out, some of which take you along the scenic coast, while others introduce you to the hidden secrets of the country's interior. Among the most famous routes are the Fanie Botha trail in Mpumalanga and the Rim of Africa, which traverses the Western Cape mountains. 

If you're looking for a less structured hiking experience, head to the Wild Coast or the Drakensberg Mountains. In both places, an abundance of short and long trails allow you to see as much or as little as you like. The Wild Coast (also known as the Transkei) offers an insight into the rugged beauty of the Eastern Cape shore and the culture of the Xhosa people. It's also the highest mountain range in South Africa.

10 of 20

Photograph a Wildflower Bloom

Wildflowers blooming at Namaqua National Park

Peter Van Der Byl / Getty Images

South Africa
Phone +27 27 672 1948

For the avid botanist, South Africa is a truly special destination. In the far southern section of the country, the Cape Floral Region is home to approximately 9,500 plant species, 70 percent of which are found nowhere else on Earth. The region is one of the world's six floral kingdoms and is especially famous for its utterly unique fynbos species.

For a brief period every year, the flowers of the Western Cape are usurped by wildflower blooms in the Northern Cape. In late July or early August, the arrival of spring sees the arid landscapes of South Africa's northwest transformed into a sea of color. The bloom starts in the far north and slowly spreads south, lasting for just a few splendid weeks. Hotspots for viewing the wildflowers include Namaqua National Park and the Goegap Nature Reserve.

11 of 20

Learn About South Africa's History

Fort Nongqayi National Monument Eshowe Zululand South Africa

 lcswart / Getty Images

1963 R33, South Africa
Phone +27 34 632 1695

History lovers will find plenty of interesting places to visit in South Africa. At Blood River, two monuments stand as a record of the conflict between the Zulu people and the Dutch Voortrekkers, while the Anglo-Zulu War is commemorated by memorials and museums at historic battlefields like Rorke's Drift and Isandlwana. Of course, South Africa's modern history was overshadowed by the horrors of apartheid and many of its sights are connected to that period of racial injustice. In Johannesburg, it is possible to see firsthand the revival that has taken place since apartheid with a tour of Soweto. Once the site of bloody uprisings, the township is now a cultural hotspot.

12 of 20

Visit UNESCO World Heritage Sites

Interior of the Sterkfontein Caves, the "Cradle of Humankind"

Mark Harris / Getty Images

South Africa
Phone +27 14 577 9000

South Africa is home to 10 UNESCO World Heritage Sites and each one is recognized by the United Nations as being of great cultural or natural importance. Make time to visit he Fossil Hominid Sites including the Cradle of Humankind, where fossils of our ancient ancestors were discovered; the ruins of the ancient kingdom of Mapungubwe; Robben Island; the ǂKhomani Cultural Landscape; Richtersveld Cultural and Botanical Landscape; the Cape Floral Region Protected Area; the Barberton Makhonjwa Mountains, Maloti-Drakensberg Park; Vredefort Dome and iSimangaliso Wetland Park.

Vredefort Dome represents one of the largest meteor craters on the planet, created in a collision so big it is thought to have shaped evolutionary history. iSimangaliso Wetland Park is an incredible protected area that stretches from the Mozambique border to the East Coast province of KwaZulu-Natal. Here, you can explore beaches, game reserves, and precious estuarine areas. 

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13 of 20

See Incredible Flowers at Kirstenbosch Gardens

Flowers at Kirstenbosch Gardens

TripSavvy / Chris VR

2a Ann Rd, Jacanlee, Randburg, 2194, South Africa

If you have limited time, Cape Town's Kirstenbosch Gardens offers a spectacular overview of South Africa's plant life. Described as one of the world's greatest botanical gardens, this South African showpiece is set at the eastern edge of Table Mountain and houses more than 7,000 of the 22,000 plant species that grow in South Africa, including unique plants like fynbos, pelargoniums, and medicinal flora.

14 of 20

Learn About Johannesburg's History at Constitution Hill

Constitution Hill in Hillbrow, Johannesburg

THEGIFT777 / Getty Images

11 Kotze St, Braamfontein, Johannesburg, 2001, South Africa
Phone +27 11 381 3100

Few places showcase South Africa's turbulent past as eloquently as Constitution Hill. This living museum, which was once a prison, follows the country's long path to democracy. Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Fatima Meer, and tens of thousands of ordinary South Africans were all confined here at some point during the country's volatile history, making it a must-visit.

15 of 20

See the Cape of Good Hope

Scenic view of the sea and a sign that says Cape of Good Hope

 Yann Lamoureux / EyeEm / Getty Images

Cape Point Rd, Cape Peninsula, Cape Town, 8001, South Africa
Phone +27 21 780 9526

If you're staying in Cape Town, it's worth making an excursion to the Cape of Good Hope, a promontory off the country's southern tip. While the true southern tip of Africa is a few hundred miles south at Cape Agulhas, the Cape of Good Hope is still worth visiting for its rugged natural beauty. Here, you can whale watch from June to November, climb the lighthouse for stunning views, or simply explore the scenery—and don't forget to stop by Boulder's Beach if you want to see penguins!

16 of 20

Visit the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg

The Apartheid Museum is a museum in Johannesburg, South Africa illustrating apartheid and the 20th century history of South Africa.

 Catherine Scotton / Getty Images 

Northern Parkway and Gold Reef Road, Ormonde, Johannesburg, 2001, South Africa
Phone +27 11 309 4700

The Apartheid Museum opened in Johannesburg in 2001. Visitors here can learn about South Africa's painful history of racial segregation, including how residents were once classified by their nose width, hair type, skin pigmentation, and other physical features. The museum includes interactive displays, film footage, and historic photos.

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17 of 20

Visit the Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve

Africa, South Africa, Mpumalanga, Panorama Route, Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve, Three Rondavels

 Westend61 / Getty Images 

R543, Ehlanzeni, South Africa

The Blyde River Canyon Reserve is the third-largest canyon in the world and one of South Africa's most-visited attractions. Here, you'll find hiking trails, a resort, and spectacular viewpoints of natural wonders like Bourke's Luck Potholes, the Three Rondavels, Pinnacle Rock, and God's Window.

18 of 20

Admire the Majesty of Table Mountain

Majesty of Table Mountain

TripSavvy / Chris VR

Table Mountain, Table Mountain (Nature Reserve), Cape Town, South Africa

This flat-topped mountain is one of the best-known landmarks in Cape Town. If you want to head to the top for spectacular views, you can either hike or take a cableway. It's part of the Table Mountain National Park, which is home to incredible wildlife, especially bird species like booted eagles, and African harrier-hawks.

19 of 20

Learn About the Past at Robben Island

Guard tower on Robben Island

TripSavvy / Faye Strassle 

Robben Island, 7400, South Africa

In Cape Town, take a tour of Robben Island, the one-time political prison where former president Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for 18 years. You can also tour District Six, where forced evictions of non-whites took place after the passing of the racist Group Areas Act in 1950.

20 of 20

Check Out Contemporary Art at the Zeitz MOCAA

The Silo Hotel and Zeitz MOCAA Art gallery from outside with a cloudy sky at the Waterfront Development at the Cape Town Harbour in Cape Town South Africa

 wilpunt / Getty Images

V&A Waterfront Silo District, S Arm Rd, Waterfront, Cape Town, 8001, South Africa
Phone +27 87 350 4777

The Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa opened in 2017 as the largest museum of contemporary African art in the world. Located at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town, the stunning museum is housed in a converted grain silo and contains more than 100 galleries.

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20 Best Things to Do in South Africa