Ranked third in the world in terms of biodiversity, South Africa supports all the iconic big game for which Africa is renowned, but it is also home to some of the world’s known plant species. Culturally, South Africa is equally diverse: a unique and engaging blend of European, Asian and indigenous influences. Given all the variety, here's our take on the best things to do in South Africa.
The information in this article is inspired by The Rough Guide to South Africa, your essential guide for visiting South Africa.
This part of the Eastern Cape offers peace and seclusion along a remote and spectacular subtropical coastline. The beautiful Wild Coast was once part of the Transkei, a nominally independent Xhosa homeland under apartheid. In the rural areas here, rolling grass hills are dotted with mud-and-grass huts.
The Wild Coast lies between Port Edward in the north and Morgan’s Bay in the south, and its wildness is apparent from the moment its deep ravines, steep cliffs and waterfalls come into view. Properly speaking, however, the coast was named after the reefs and rocks that lie some distance offshore which in the past have posed a great danger to shipping.
Find more scenic routes in our guide to the 5 of the best routes of South Africa.
KwaZulu-Natal’s finest game reserve offers an unsurpassed variety of wildlife-spotting activities, from night drives to self-guided walks and even donkey trails. All of the above makes a visit to this park one of the best things to do in South Africa.
Originally proclaimed in 1897, making them the second-oldest game reserves in Africa after Phongolo, Hluhluwe (pronounced shloo-shloo-ee) and iMfolozi (formerly Umfolozi) were originally discrete entities, but they are now linked by a corridor of stateowned land to create a combined area of roughly 1,000 sq km (390 sq miles).
Hluhluwe is best known for the success it achieved in saving the white (or square-lipped) rhino from extinction. By the early 1930s, only about 150 white rhinos were left in southern Africa, having been shot almost to extinction.
Spend a full day on safari in the magical Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Park on this spectacular tour from Durban. See the amazing wildlife in their natural environment, including rhinos, lions, and elephants. Or, enjoy the incredible hill-top views over the reserve.
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A tour around the vast, sprawling township – South Africa’s largest – provides a graphic idea of how the majority of black South Africans live.
It may seem bizarre to treat a township created by the apartheid government as a tourist attraction, but a visit to Soweto (an acronym of SOuth WEstern TOwnships) enables one to see both sides of what is still largely a segregated society. Home at one time to luminaries such as Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Lucas Radebe, Soweto was the setting for many pivotal events during the anti-apartheid struggle.
Soweto is most safely visited on a guided tour, which can be arranged through most operators and hotels in Gauteng. Several important apartheid-related landmarks are dotted around Soweto, and are visited on most guided tours. In the suburb of Kliptown, Walter Sisulu Square.
Join a cultural tour of Orlando West in Soweto. Bike through homes of political icons who lived here while fighting the regime during apartheid.
Durban, Africa’s busiest port, boasts a large Indian population, brightly coloured Hindu temples, buzzing markets and zinging curries.
The site of Durban was one of the first parts of South Africa to appear on European maps, after the Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama landed there on Christmas Day 1497 and christened it Terra do Natal. A distinctive feature of Durban is its large community of Indian people – around one million strong, of which 70 percent are Hindu, 20 percent Muslim, and the remainder mostly Christian.
In Durban and the surrounding area, the cuisine has a distinctly Indian flavour. Indentured labourers imported from India to work in the sugar-cane trade in the 1860s brought with them their wonderful curries – spicy casseroles made of vegetables, legumes, lamb, chicken or beef on saffron rice.
As a multicultural country, South Africa is renowned for its cuisine. Explore our guide to the amazing food and drinks of South Africa and be convinced by yourself.
Hiking in the “dragon mountains”, which harbour South Africa’s highest peaks, plus waterfalls, rock art and awesome panoramas is among the most exciting things to do in South Africa.
The Drakensberg – Afrikaans for Dragon’s Mountain – is South Africa’s highest and most extensive range, running for 1,000km (620 miles) from Hoedspruit west of the Kruger National Park all the way south to Rhodes in the Eastern Cape, interrupted by just one valley between Harrismith and Barberton.
When South Africans talk about “The Berg”, they are almost certainly referring to its most spectacular section: the sequence of jagged cliffs and towering peaks that rises from the KwaZuluNatal midlands to run for 200km (120 miles) along the eastern border with Lesotho. The Zulu people who live in the shadow of this impenetrable sequence of peaks know it as uKhahlamba – The Barrier of Spears.
Beautifully decorative Basotho huts are characteristic of the eastern Free State’s Maloti Route.
In the rural areas of KwaZulu-Natal, the original Zulu beehive hut of intricately woven grass has disappeared. In remote parts, a closely related type can still be found, consisting of a low wattle-and-daub cylinder with a dome-like beehive roof. Most common today, however, is the cone-on-cylinder type, often built with modern materials, or Western-influenced rectangular houses.
In rural Free State, beautifully decorated South Sotho homes are still frequent. Their rectangular shape with low mono-pitch roofs reveal Western influences, but construction methods and decoration are still traditionally African.
Encounter elephants and the rest of the Big Five at the end of the Garden Route. You may have failed to spot elephants in Knysna, but you’ll not miss the Addo Elephant National Park which lies about 50km (30 miles) northeast of PE on the R335.
Elephants are the main attraction here, and they are easily observed at close quarters, but the park also contains substantial numbers of rhinoceros, buffalo, kudu, jackal, ground squirrel and endemic birds such as the colourful bokmakierie and handsome jackal buzzard – not to mention lions, which were reintroduced in 2003.
This Garden Route and Addo Elephant National Park tour is an adventurous, yet relaxed and affordable way to explore South Africa’s Garden Route. Enjoy six-days of visiting the area’s key landmarks, exploring nature, learning about the region’s culture and taking part in daring activities.
Find more accommodation options to stay near Addo Elephant National Park
Find traditional handicrafts in rural and urban areas alike, such as the Venda region of Limpopo.
The art of southern Africa dates back to prehistory and, it has been argued, represents the human race’s longest artistic tradition. San rock art developed from this time right up to the second half of the 19th century. The paintings and engravings of the San people are found mainly in the Drakensberg and its extension from the Eastern Cape to Lesotho and Swaziland, as well as in the mountains of Limpopo Province.
The sensitive depictions of animals and human figures painted and engraved in rock shelters are thought to be shamanistic and a link between the real world and the spirit world. There are over 15,000 documented sites in South Africa.
The Cape’s wine estates combine stunning scenery, Cape Dutch architecture and some fine vintages. Write down taking a tour in this area to your list of things to do in South Africa if you would also like to taste some of the finest wines.
South Africa is the world’s seventh-largest wine producer (approximately 1,000 million litres annually), while export volumes increased from 120 million litres in 1998 to 428.5 million in 2016, with the UK being the single largest importer. Hearteningly, increased volumes have done nothing to compromise quality – on the contrary, most wine experts believe that the overall standard of South African wine is higher than ever.
Buitenverwachting (literally beyond expectations) is one of the most beautiful estates in the Cape, noted for its fine Cape Dutch architecture and setting below Constantia Mountain. Most estates in the vicinity of Cape Town offer wine tasting – though, unless you intend to make extensive use of the spittoon, an organised tour is a safer bet than self-drive.
Cape Town and the Garden Route have it all - a fascinating culture, safaris, chocolate and wine tasting, and much more. Discover the coastal city of Cape Town and the Peninsula on this tailor-made Cape town and Garden Route luxury guided tour.
The most precipitous pass in Southern Africa, connecting Lesotho to KwaZulu-Natal.
South of Giant’s Castle, the Kamberg Nature Reserve protects another thrillingly scenic stretch of the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg known for its hiking opportunities and trout fishing. Kamberg is also host to an innovative Rock Art Centre where a fascinating DVD presentation on rockart interpretation is supplemented by a guided visit to the Game Pass Shelter.
Further south still, the Sani Pass is the only route leading from the east to the independent state of Lesotho – poor road conditions and treacherous hairpin bends make a fourwheel-drive vehicle essential.
Experience a private Sani Pass tour up South Africa’s highest, toughest, and steepest mountain pass. Come face to face with the vast, imposing Drakensberg Mountain Range, admire the stunning views, and taste traditional delicacies at the highest pub in Africa.
Spot wildlife on a guided hike in Kruger National Park. South Africa’s Kruger National Park epitomises the African safari, with vast stretches of savannah studded with flat-topped acacias, teeming with immense herds of elephant, buffalo, lion and leopard. It protects an astonishing 147 mammal species, including more than half of the world’s surviving rhinos.
For a more intimate safari experience, there is Sabi Sand, Mala Mala and the other exclusive private reserves that border the Kruger, while elsewhere you have the relatively compact likes of Madikwe and Pilanesberg Game Reserves, which offer similarly scintillating game viewing in an area totally free of malaria.
Safari is a hard thing to plan. We've rounded up our best tips to help you plan a safari in South Africa. Also read our guide to the best wildlife safari in South Africa.
The rocky promontory south of Cape Town is one of the most dramatic coastal locations on the continent. Cape Town stands at the northern end of the spectacular Cape Peninsula, a 60km (36-mile) long sliver of mountainous land that runs southward from the city to Cape Point, flanked by the wild open Atlantic to the west and the stiller, warmer waters of False Bay to the east.
It’s best to dedicate a full day to the circular road trip that follows both sides of the peninsula’s coastline, allowing plenty of time to stop to swim and admire the views, to picnic or eat at a restaurant, and to take in the many historic buildings and the unique fauna and flora.
Equally, you could cover different parts of the circuit on different days, for instance travelling to Cape Point for the views, or to Muizenberg for a swim, or to Scarborough for a leisurely seafood lunch.
Explore cosmopolitan Johannesburg, go on safaris in Kruger NP, sip wine on the Cape Peninsula and explore the Eastern Cape - this tailor-made tour to Safaris, culture & wine allows you to truly immerse yourself in the culture and lifestyle of South Africa, discovering the most fascinating parts of the country.
Cape Town is also a wonderful place to travel with your kids thanks to its abundance of parks and beaches. You will find more inspirational destinations for a family holiday in our guide the best places to go with kids.
The Garden Route’s most spectacular coastline, where you can cross Storms River Mouth by footbridge. The well-run Storms River Rest Camp which lies within the national park 1.5km (1 mile) west of the river mouth, has chalet accommodation and camp sites, and forms a good base for swimming, snorkelling and hiking.
The short walk from the rest camp to the suspension bridge across the river mouth is one of the best things to do in South Africa. Look out for seals below the bridge – and if you’re feeling ambitious you could ascend from there to a viewpoint high on the surrounding cliffs.
Storms River is legendary in South African hiking circles as the starting point of the Otter Trail, which follows the coast westward all the way to Nature’s Valley, a distance of 26km (14 miles) as the gull soars and 41km (25 miles) on foot. It is one of the country’s oldest and most challenging hikes, and one of the most scenic in the world.
View cheetahs, meerkats and other desert dwellers amid the harsh beauty of the Kalahari. Protecting the red dunes and dry watercourses of the Kalahari, visiting this remote park is one of the best things to do in South Africa for predator viewing.
Characterised by red sand dunes interspersed with sandy river beds, Kgalagadi is strikingly reminiscent of Australia’s Simpson Desert. But it has a more varied fauna, including all three of Africa’s large felines as well as an impressive selection of smaller predators such as black-backed jackal, bat-eared fox, Cape fox, caracal, suricate and yellow mongoose.
The only entrance to the park, and the site of the largest camp, is at Twee Rivieren (Two Rivers), which lies close to the confluence of the Auob and Nossob rivers.
Following the winter rains, Namaqualand’s normally bleak landscape explodes with colour in the stunning Northern Cape region.
Back on the N7, Springbok is the principal town of a vast region of sandveld known as Namaqualand, which extends northwards from the Olifants River as far as Pofadder, and is renowned for its spring wildflower displays. For most of the year, these stony plains cannot hide the wrinkles and cracks of their age-old skin, or the tattiness of their drab green-grey cover.
But come spring, fields burst forth in colours gay and dazzling. Nature favours these semi-arid scrublands with one youthful flush of wildflowers that draws people from all over the world for a few days in August or September each year. Indeed, the daisies of Namaqualand are one of South Africa’s greatest natural attractions.
Cape Town’s oldest residential area is filled with colourful Cape Dutch and Georgian architecture. West of the city centre, beyond Buitengracht Street, is one of Cape Town’s most exotic districts – the Bo-Kaap (Upper Cape), or Malay Quarter. Here, winding, narrow streets are flanked by restored early 18th- and 19th-century cottages painted in pastels – originally slave quarters, stables and a military barracks.
The main tourist focal point here is the Bo-Kaap Museum whose “wavy” parapet is a unique surviving feature of a type of building common to the city in the third quarter of the 18th century. All the early woodwork survives, including the original teak windows, teak shutters, the doors and decorative fanlight above the front door. Inside, it has been restored to resemble the home of a Muslim household of the 19th century.
Cook your own 3-course meal in the historic Bo Kaap neighborhood. Discover what makes Malay cooking different from other traditional South African dishes.
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Get spine-tinglingly close to lions and other big game at Southern Africa’s ultimate wildlife destination. The Kruger National Park has an extraordinarily rich and diverse animal life, which together with its tremendous size makes it one of the world’s great game reserves.
Some 147 mammal species have been recorded (the second-highest tally for any African national park), including lion, leopard, cheetah, wild dog, spotted hyena, elephant, black and white rhino, hippo, zebra, giraffe, warthog, buffalo and 21 antelope species.
The bird checklist of 517 species is particularly strong on raptors, along with several other large birds now rare outside of protected areas, such as ground hornbill, saddle-billed stork and kori bustard.
Most of Kruger’s game is spread fairly evenly throughout the park, but the frequency of sightings will obviously be determined by topography and vegetation. Game densities are generally highest in the south and hippo, elephant, crocodile, buffalo and small herds of giraffe are often spotted around rivers and watering holes near camps such as Skukuza, Pretoriuskop, Lower Sabie and Crocodile Bridge.
Kruger National Park is one of the best known national parks in South Africa and always worth a visit. Start and end your tailor-made Kruger adventure in Johannesburg, the perfect stop, then take a domestic flight towards George or Cape Town for the rest of your trip.
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Fierce, rugged and hot, the Richtersveld has some of the most dramatic mountainscape in the country, sparsely populated by science-fiction vegetation.
Richtersveld National Park amalgamated with its Namibian counterpart in 2003 to form the Ai-Ais/ Richtersveld Transfrontier Park. Richtersveld is a wild and remote semidesert region with several camp sites and two rest camps at Sendelingsdrif and Potjiespram. Winter is the only time it rains here, and in summer the temperature can rise to an unbearable 50°C (122°F).
It’s hard to believe that so much grows in such a harsh environment, but the diversity of succulents here is so rich that botanists are struggling to get them all classified and described.
Johannesburg offers the best nightlife in South Africa, attracting top musical performers from around the country and abroad.
South Africa is distinguished by one of the richest musical histories and most complex profusion of styles on the continent, with a diversity ranging from Zulu maskanda, gospel, township kwaito, to African jazz and “bubblegum” pop. Centuries-old traditions have mixed with new genres to evolve into South Africa’s unique soundtrack.
Find great live music visit the Bassline in Johannesburg, the BAT Centre in Durban or and the Assembly and Zula Bar in Cape Town.
The most spectacular way to ascend Cape Town’s famous landmark and one of the best things to do in South Africa – the revolving cable car. Most of the Cape Peninsula forms part of 2,500- hectare (6,200-acre) Table Mountain National Park, which incorporates Boulders Beach, the Cape of Good Hope and the Silvermine Nature Reserve.
Species are protected from agriculture, farming and urban sprawl, fire and marauding alien vegetation. Table Mountain, which forms the backdrop to Cape Town, is the park’s focal point. The views – as well as the operation of the cableway to the top, and the feasibility of hiking there – are wholly dependent on the weather, so it is always advisable to visit Table Mountain early in your stay in Cape Town.
The most popular and effortless way to reach the summit is with the Table Mountain Cableway, which opened in 1929 and celebrated carrying its 25 millionth passenger to the top in 2016.
This perfect South Africa tailor-made trip in just 17 days starts in Cape Town with Mountain Table, Robben Island, the Peninsula and more. Head further to the wine lands for a relaxed stay before proceeding to Kruger National Park - 3 days of safari await before finishing your trip in Johannesburg.
Slide down mountainous dunes or watch whales from the high vantage point they provide. ational monument.
Running for some 50km (30 miles) along the coast east of Arniston, the De Hoop Nature Reserve and Marine Protected Area protects what is probably the Cape’s largest remaining contiguous fynbos habitat, together with significant populations of the endangered Cape mountain zebra and bontebok, and various other antelope and small predators.
Several walking routes run through the reserve, ranging from the two-hour Klipspringer Trail to the 55km (34- mile), five-day Whale Trail. Large flocks of water birds frequent the extensive lake and wetlands formed where the mouth of the Sout (“Salt”) River is blocked by dunes, the offshore marine reserve offers great snorkelling and forms a breeding ground for an estimated 120 southern right whales between June and November.
Notorious as the prison where Nelson Mandela served the first 18 years of the life sentence he received at the Rivonia Trail this little kidney-shaped island 11km (7 miles) off the shores of Green Point was named by the Dutch for the seal (rob) colony they encountered here.
It has a grim history: this was where Jan van Riebeeck kept rebellious Khoikhoi leaders captive; later, the British used it as a general dumping-ground for lepers, paupers and lunatics.
Today, South Africa’s own Alcatraz has been turned into a Unesco World Heritage Site, national monument and museum, which can be visited only on one of the several official guided tours that leave from the V&A Waterfront’s Nelson Mandela Gateway daily.
Up to four hours in duration, the tours include a 30-minute boat ride each way, a coach tour of the island and a walking tour of the prison and Mandela’s old cell, guided by a former prisoner. Dolphins often accompany the boat to the island, and once there African penguins – which recolonised the island in 1983 after an absence of 180 years – are more likely to be seen than the seals from which the name “Robben” derives.
Take the ferry to Robben Island from Cape Town and visit the prison where Nelson Mandela was kept during Apartheid. Learn about the dramatic history of South Africa from one of the former prisoners.
Regularly visiting the southern Cape Coast, whales often approach surprisingly close to the shore.
No fewer than 29 species of toothed whale (Odontoceti), including the killer whale, are found off the South African coast, along with eight species of baleen whale (suborder Mysticeti). But by far the most commonly spotted are the southern right whales, pods of which seek out sheltered bays along the Cape coastline every year for breeding.
Between June and December, there is a good chance of seeing them all the way round the peninsula from Elands Bay on the west coast to Mossel Bay on the Garden Route. On a good day, you might see them spyhopping (standing on their tails with their heads out of water), lobtailing (slapping their flukes on the water’s surface) or breaching – leaping out of the sea like a trout.
From Lydenburg, it’s 56km (35 miles) east across the Mauchberg via the scenic Long Tom Pass, once used by transport riders, to the forestry town of Sabie. Timber plantations cover the surrounding hill sides; most of the country’s major paper mills are situated here.
So dramatic is the road north from here along the Escarpment’s edge that it’s been named the Panorama Route. For once the tourist-board tag is no exaggeration. This is also waterfall country and numerous short drives lead from town to picnic and viewing sites.
The 86km (54-mile) drive northwards from Sabie via Graskop to the Blyde River Canyon should be taken at a leisurely pace: the views are exceptional. At Pinnacle Rock, Jock’s View and God’s Window, you can stop to look out from sheer cliff outposts over the expanse of the lowveld.
Much of the Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve is accessible on foot only. Starting from the rest camp at the entrance gate, well-marked trails of varying lengths lead through the canyon’s lush riverine flora of evergreen trees, prehistoric-looking cycads, giant ferns and orchids.
The Ultimate South Africa road tailor-made trip in your own rental car. Johannesburg and Cape Town, the Garden Route and the Eastern Cape, Kruger National Park and the Panorama Route - this itinerary packs the highlights of South Africa in one, easy to follow route. Hop in and get on the road!
Snorkel or dive on reefs, watch hippos and crocs lurking in the waters of St Lucia Estuary, climb the world’s tallest forested dunes, or just revel in the extraordinarily diverse birdlife found at this Unesco World Heritage Site. The variety of activities makes visiting this area on of the best things to do in South Africa for outdoor activities lovers.
St Lucia Estuary is the largest estuarine system in Africa, extending over an area of 325 sq km (125 sq miles), and its shores are protected within a network of small reserves that collectively form the iSimangaliso Wetland Park.
Hikers have a superb network of routes at their disposal, crisscrossing right across the park along the promontory between the lake and the Indian Ocean through a stunning, lushly forested, sand dune landscape. Divers shouldn’t miss the coral reefs and the myriads of colourful fish in the St Lucia Marine Reserve; away from the protected area, the coastline is also hugely popular with anglers.
Journey up one of the largest Estuarine systems in Africa, St Lucia Estuary iSimangaliso Wetland Park on the Hippo and Crocodile Cruise.
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If you prefer to plan and book your trip to South Africa without any effort and hassle, use the expertise of our local travel experts to make sure your trip will be just like you dream it to be.
Ready for a trip to South Africa? Check out the snapshot The Rough Guide to South Africa or The Rough Guide to Cape Town, Winelands & Garden Route. If you travel further in South Africa, read more about the best time to go, the best places to visit and best things to do in South Africa. For inspiration use the itineraries from The Rough Guide to South Africa and our local travel experts. A bit more hands on, learn about getting there, getting around the country and where to stay once you are there.
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