From the Indian Ocean beaches in the east to the desert coasts of the west, and from the beautiful winelands around Cape Town to the jagged peaks of the Drakensberg, South Africa has some amazing scenic sights. Here’s our selection of the very best.
Chapman’s Peak is on Hout Bay, the next bay south of Cape Town. It’s famous for a road hacked out of the sheer side of the mountain, a scenic drive that is familiar to every South African from glossy car adverts. The best way to fully enjoy the view, however, is with a hike that adds the road itself to the spectacular view.
As you climb, look out over the Atlantic Ocean, where cold waters from the west coast meet the warm waters from the east, producing an ever-changing assortment of colours. The landscape here is also truly special, with deep valleys whose sides are covered in a series of rare plant species – many of them unique to the Cape region. Known as fynbos, an Old Dutch word meaning “fine bush”, the range includes the King Protea, South Africa’s national flower, as well as heathers, reeds, orchids and hundreds of others.
East of Cape Agulhas, the most southerly point of Africa and the place where the Indian and Atlantic Ocean meet, this reserve is only a few hours from Cape Town. Popular with hikers and birdwatchers, as well as attracting whale watchers in season (June–October), the reserve also has some wonderful beaches.
Walk or cycle to see some of the rare species of both bird and mammal, including the Cape mountain zebra and bontebok, once reduced to only 22 animals.
In spring and summer, the red blooms of fynbos cover the landscape. De Hoop is part of the Cape Floral Kingdom, which has the highest number of plant species anywhere in the world. Almost three-quarters of the 9,600 plant species, which includes 1,600 Protea variations, are found nowhere else on earth.
The view from the rocky peak of Lion’s Head takes in Cape Town, Table Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. At “only” 669m above sea level, it’s popular with paragliders and hikers, but you don’t have to go all the way to the top to breathe in the view.
The climb starts at Signal Hill, below which are the brightly coloured houses and cobbled streets of The Bo-Kaap (“above the Cape”). It’s the oldest surviving residential neighbourhood in Cape Town and a photographer’s dream.
MUST DO: Watchman’s Cave is just above the main path and is a great picnic spot to enjoy a superlative vista over the Cape Peninsular with Robben Island in the distance.
Any visit to Cape Town must include a trip on the cable-car to the top of Table Mountain. The cable car rotates through a full circle during the five-minute trip up, so you don’t miss anything.
The top is a large plateau that is also a national park, filled with unusual plant species and home to birds such as eagles and peregrine falcons. Guided and self-guided walks vary in length to suit everyone’s fitness levels and timescale.
The famous whale-watching town of Hermanus is at the western edge of Walker Bay, where this nature reserve protects white sandy beaches, lagoons and the waters of the bay itself.
Every year, hundreds of southern right whales come here to breed and the reserve is a great place to see them from the shore.
MUST-DO: Klipgat Cave in Walker Bay Nature Reserve has some of the oldest human Stone Age fossils in the world. Its history is told well through information boards, but the amazing view of the bay is what draws most visitors.
The beauty of Cape Town’s winelands, with names such as Constantia, Stellenbosch, or Paarl, is well known. The drive east from Cape Town along the “Garden Route” from Mossel Bay to St Francis is also one of the world’s loveliest. With a mild climate and landscapes ranging from mountains and rainforest to rivers and beaches, it can be explored by car, boat, bike or on foot.
Among the many highlights is the Otter Trail, a five-day/45km hiker’s paradise within the Tsitsikamma National Park. Less challenging walks in the Robberg Nature Reserve on Plettenberg Bay give a taste of the scenery, birdlife and sealife on this lovely coast.
A popular stop is the pretty town of Knysna, where cruises and panoramic walks show off its beauty. Elephants once roamed the forests behind the town, and an elephant sanctuary remains.
MUST-DO: A canopy tour in Tsitsikamma National Park takes you around the tops of Outeniqua yellowwood trees that are 30m high and are up to 700 years old. The Storms River Suspension Bridge will test your vertigo, but the spectacular view should be enough to distract you.
Mpumalanga’s Panorama Route could be covered in one day, but with so much to see it would be a real shame to rush it. Hugging the edge of the Great Escarpment to the west of Kruger Park, there are epic views over the Lowveld from such well-named spots as God's Window and Wonder View. Waterfalls pour over the cliff in many places, among them Berlin, Lisbon, Mac Mac, Bridal Veil, Sabie and Horseshoe Falls.
The highlight is Blyde River Canyon, South Africa’s very own Grand Canyon – but much greener than the American version, being rich with tropical vegetation. With sides as high as 800m in places, it’s protected within the Motlatse Canyon Provincial Nature Reserve.
Where the Blyde River meets the Treur River are the much-photographed Bourke’s Luck Potholes, created by water erosion over millennia. Other sights not to miss are Lowveld Viewpoint, where you look out over Blyde Dam, and Three Rondavels Viewpoint, named for a striking rock formation.
To learn more about the geology, take a tour deep into the historic Echo Caves with its stalactites and stalagmites. You can also take self-guided hiking trails in the canyon, ranging in length from a few hours to several days.
MUST-DO: Long Tom Pass between Lydenburg and Sabie is named after a 5,500kg cannon that was dragged up it after the last major battle of the Boer War in 1900. A replica stands at the top, where the view from 2,150m is spectacular.
Much of South Africa stands on the Southern African plateau, between 1,000 and 2,100m high, whose edge follows a large coastal plain around the country and divides it into Highveld and Bushveld. This Great Escarpment reaches its highest point in the east, along the border with Lesotho, where it is known as the Drakensberg. Nearly 3,500m at their highest, these peaks make up some of the most striking scenery in Africa, if not the world, and are often touched with snow in winter.
No visitor should miss the “Amphitheatre”, a 1,200m sheer wall that stretches for five kilometres through KwaZulu-Natal Province. Over it plunges Tugela Falls, perhaps the highest waterfall in the world with a total drop of nearly a kilometre. The view from the top rewards any hiker with one of the world’s most remarkable views.
Cathedral Peak, Cleft Peak, Rainbow Gorge, Giant’s Castle and the Mnweni Valley are among the many highlights. Giant’s Castle has a game reserve with some 300 eland and a hide where birders can see many species of vultures in the wild, including the Lammergeyer or bearded vulture.
Apart from drives, hikes and horse-riding tours, helicopter sightseeing flights provide another great way to take in this glorious scenery – from a totally new angle.
MUST-DO: Part of the Drakensberg was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its “spectacular natural landscape, … threatened and endemic species, and wealth of rock paintings.” Battle Cave is one of the best places to see some of the rock art made by the San people over a span of 4,000 years.
KwaZulu-Natal’s Zululand is perhaps most famous to visitors for the many battles fought on its soil, but everyone comes away struck by its beauty. The Valley of a Thousand Hills is the heart of the Zulu nation and named after the rolling hills around the Umgeni River, which flows from the Drakensberg into the Indian Ocean. A notable view of the many wooded folds in the landscape is from 800m-high Botha’s Hill, from where you can also see the sparkling ocean.
MUST-DO: Mangeni Falls is a remote spot, rich in Zulu legend, amid open grassland where the waters pour over a circular cliff that is home to many bird species. The best time to see it is after heavy rain, when a good 4x4 vehicle is needed to drive in.
Running south from KwaZulu-Natal to East London is an alluring stretch of sandy bays, cliffs and green hills. This is the heart and home of the Xhosa people, where Nelson Mandela was born at Mevezo, 90km inland from the picturesque Coffee Bay.
Silaka Nature Reserve – outside Port St Johns – preserves indigenous forests and an untouched stretch of coastline where the area is at its breathtaking best.
MUST-DO: Waterfall Bluff near Mkambati Nature Reserve is one of the very few falls in the world that plunges directly into the sea. It can be reached on a short hike, but a boat trip out of Port St Johns is another option.
The Northern Cape is one of the most remote parts of South Africa; its Atlantic beaches are a treat for anyone who wants long stretches of soft sugary sand to themselves.
Towns are few and far between, but Hondeklip Bay, Kleinzee, Port Nolloth and Alexander Bay are all good places to stay. Enjoy some fishing or just eat the seafood others have caught while you soak up the view.
Kleinzee is famous for its shipwrecks and birdlife, with a fine local “shipwreck trail” allowing you to blow away the cobwebs.
Port Nolloth and Alexander Bay were once important diamond mining centres and local tours highlight their history and describe how gems are still being vacuumed off the seafloor.
Even in a country that does scenery on a big scale, the Orange River stands out. South Africa’s largest river is more than 2000km long, dropping from the highlands of Lesotho past the Kalahari and Namib deserts and into the Atlantic Ocean at Alexander Bay.
The most scenic parts are in the Northern Cape, where the river cuts deep into canyons to make for exciting whitewater trips by canoe or raft. Enjoying thrilling river rapids during the day and camping under the stars on sandy river beaches at night, with guides and cooks who prepare exquisite meals on open fires, is an experience never to be forgotten.
Don’t miss the Richtersveld, a UNESCO World Heritage Listed area bordering Namibia that mixes sandy desert and rocky mountains with strange trees, shrouded in local legend by the Nama people.
One of those is the Quiver tree, so named for its use by indigenous hunters in making quivers for their arrows. Also called the “Upside-Down Tree” because its branches look like roots. It’s considered bad luck to chop one down. Whatever you call it, it’s a haunting tree to see in its natural environment.
The Karoo National Botanical Garden in Worcester, Western Cape, is a good place to learn more about the Quiver tree and the thousands of other Karoo plants.
MUST-DO: The Augrabies Falls on the Orange River are nearly 60m in height and, at the height of the rainy season, carry more water than Niagara. They are inside the Augrabies Falls National Park, a good stop on the way to see the redder-than-red sand dunes of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park.
The Karoo (“dry place”) is a near-mythical expanse of vast desert and tiny communities where counter-cultures thrive. Painters, writers, photographers and other artists have long been inspired by the open spaces and magical atmosphere.
Stop in any town and you might find a pottery workshop, art gallery, restaurant or quirky hotel where the owner expresses their creativity. The AfrikaBurn Festival every year brings even more people to enjoy this land that was once only home to sheep, cattle herders and nomadic hunters.
Tankwa Karoo National Park, west of Sutherland, is a tiny part of the Karoo surrounded by mountains with great views of the desert spaces. At night, so many stars fill the sky that your head will spin.
MUST-DO: In spring, following the rains from May to July, the arid Namaqualand landscape of Northern Cape and Namibia is transformed when flowers of every colour burst into life. It’s an amazing sight but usually only lasts for the few weeks from mid-August to mid-September.
The South African Large Telescope (SALT) is the southern hemisphere’s largest optical telescope and is based in the Karoo town of Sutherland, popular as a holiday spot with Cape Town residents. Open for days tours, SALT has two telescopes dedicated to amateur visitors.
Conditions are ideal for stargazing, although the same high altitude and cloud-free climate mean nights can be cold. Wrap up warm to see the stars of the Southern Hemisphere in all their glory.
MUST-DO: Tick off Africa’s “Celestial Big Five” of the Southern Pleiades, Omega Centauri, Eta Carinae Nebula, Coal Sack Nebula and Southern Milky Way.
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