The following itineraries take you from South Africa’s southwestern corner to its northeastern extent, covering the classic attractions – such as Cape Town and Kruger National Park – as well as far less-visited sights. Stitched together, the three itineraries could constitute a two-month grand tour, sweeping across the country’s major themes, from safaris, beaches and epic landscapes to ethnic art and culture, colonial architecture and urban life.
If you are planning your travel to South Africa yourself, use these itineraries created by our travel writers as a starting point for inspiration.
Discover the dry interior of the Great Karoo and the contrastingly verdant Wild Coast. Allow three weeks to explore these historic stomping grounds of Dutch trekboers, English settlers and Xhosa herders.
1. Port Elizabeth
Four thousand English settlers made landfall here in 1820 and today their descendants’ families are drawn to its safe sandy beaches.
2. Big Game Country
Addo, the only Big Five national park in the southern half of the country, is also close to Shamwari and Kwande, two of the top private game reserves. For more information, see the section on Addo Elephant National Park.
3. Graaff Reinet
Totally surrounded by the mountainous Camdeboo National Park, whose highlight is the deep Valley of Desolation, this eighteenth-century Cape-Dutch Karoo outpost is perfect for exploring on foot.
The atmospherically dusty frontier town sits on the west bank of the Great Fish River, the fractious nineteenth-century border between the English-governed Cape Colony and the traditional Xhosa chiefdoms.
Edgy blend of cultured university town and rural backwater, the Settler City glories in extensive Georgian- and Victorian-colonial streetscapes.
Cultivated fantasies of Little England abound in this lush Afromontane highland resort elevated above baking valleys where herders graze their livestock.
7. Madiba Country
Boys still herd cattle, just as Nelson Mandela did, around Qunu, the village where he grew up; at nearby Mthatha, a museum tells the story of his life.
8. Wild Coast
Immerse yourself in Xhosa culture and life at Bulungula Lodge, in an unspoilt region of traditional villages, undulating hills, lush forests and hundreds of kilometres of undeveloped sandy beaches.
South Africa’s oldest urban centres are in the Western Cape, a province that packs a huge variety. You could cover its highlights in three weeks, but four would be more comfortable.
1. Cape Town
Southern Africa’s oldest, most beautiful and most unmissable city has it all: an extraordinary natural setting, beautiful historic architecture and a buzzing urban life.
Limewashed Cape Dutch manors planted among vineyards beneath mauve mountains and the country’s best restaurants and guesthouses in the country.
3. Whale Coast
Monumental dunes and wild surf are reason enough to visit De Hoop Nature Reserve, but it’s also one of the world’s top spots for land-based whale-watching.
4. Garden Route
South Africa’s quintessential self-drive route follows the N2 through pretty coastal towns, such as Sedgefield and Knysna, as well as national parks proclaimed for their ancient forests and dramatic coastline.
5. Little Karoo
The R62, the mountainous inland counterpart to the Garden Route, cuts through the semi-arid Little Karoo’s mountain passes, taking in sculptural rock formations, hot springs and some lovely historic villages.
The closest place to Cape Town to see the veld glowing with wild flowers in spring is Darling.
San rock-art sites and grotesque gargoyle-like rock formations give the Western Cape’s mountain wilderness its otherworldly atmosphere.
The eastern flank of the country most easily conforms to stereotypical Africa: game reserves, beaches and ethnic culture. You’ll need three weeks for this tour.
Africa’s economic powerhouse buzzes with a thriving arts scene, well-established café culture and Soweto, the country’s most populous township.
2. Kruger National Park
The size of a small country and brimming with wildlife, Kruger is up there with the continent’s top game reserves.
One of the world’s few remaining absolute monarchies retains its tribal traditions through a number of ceremonies.
4. iSimangaliso Wetland
UNESCO World Heritage Site that offers scuba diving in the subtropical waters of Sodwana Bay and where loggerhead and leatherback turtles come ashore to nest in summer. For more information, see Lake St Lucia.
5. KwaZulu-Natal game reserves
Hluhluwe-Imfolozi is the province’s premier game reserve, roamed by big cats, rhinos and elephants; a number of minor reserves such as Ithala, Mkhuze and Phinda also have a lot to offer.
6. Zulu heartland
Geometrically patterned basketry and several festivals, including Shaka Day, keep alive the proud traditions of KwaZulu-Natal’s dominant ethnic group.
7. Ukhahlamba Drakensberg
The dramatic landscapes make for breathtaking hikes and the chance to see the rock art of the San.
The subtropical vegetation, popular beachfront and cocktail of Zulu, Indian and English colonial cultures make Durban a compelling stay for a couple of days.