You probably know the saying, "You cannot have it all!" especially when traveling. You have to decide: A beach vacation? An outdoor adventure? A foodie tour? What if I told you to know that you can have it all?
The great outdoors, the food, the culture, the wild animals, and the breathtaking beaches, all in just one vacation. Look no further than South Africa!
The southernmost country of the African continent offers something for every type of traveler – from budget to luxury, from nature to city life. If you visit South Africa, take your time and plan and allow for at least 14 days for your trip...or apply for a work visa and stay as long as you can!
The best way to enjoy your South Africa vacation is on a road trip. South Africa is a vast country, almost twice the size of Texas, and driving gives you the opportunity to really experience it – from touristy towns to wild nature.
So buckle up! We're going on a ride through one of Africa's most diverse countries from West to East.
The Mother City is a must-see when visiting South Africa! The country's oldest city has seen many nations and cultures, from the indigenous San people that lived here first to the Dutch, English, and French that arrived later.
Today, Cape Town is an eclectic mix of African and European cultures. And with Table Mountain as a backdrop for whatever you do, it is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful cities in the world. If you're lucky enough to live in Cape Town for even just a bit, don't let the opportunity pass you by!
Here are a few sights and activities you shouldn't miss when in Cape Town:
- Hike Table Mountain – I recommend the Skeleton Gorge Hike
- A sunset hike up Lion's Head
- An afternoon at the Victoria and Alfred waterfront
- A visit to the District Six Apartheid Museum
- A boat ride to the UNESCO World Heritage Site Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned
Not only Cape Town but the whole Western Cape is worth exploring. It is one of the most diverse places to visit in South Africa and worldwide. You'll find beaches, mountain ranges, fertile land, vineyards, and deserts in just a few hour's drive. With the endemic Cape Floral Kingdom, the region is home to more plant species than the entire UK combined!
Here are a few sights and activities you shouldn't miss on the Cape Peninsula:
- Muizenberg, with its famous Surfer's Corner – the perfect surf spot for beginners
- The Boulder's beach penguin colony in Simon's Town
- Cape Point National Park with the Cape of Good Hope
- A drive along Chapman's Peak road to Hout Bay
- A visit to the Hout Bay Harbour Market on Sunday morning
Western Cape Winelands
A visit to the Cape Winelands is a must on your South Africa vacation! Around the university Town of Stellenbosch, the former French town Franschhoek, and the Afrikaans city of Paarl, you'll find countless wineries, from boutique vineyards to luxurious, huge farms.
I recommend staying for a few nights so that you can properly enjoy the wine tastings, go on hikes, and wander the cute streets of Stellenbosch and Franschhoek.
Here are a few sights and activities you shouldn't miss:
- Take the Franschhoek wine tram from vineyard to vineyard
- Visit the Fairview wine estate and their cute goats
- Stroll through the bustling city center of Stellenbosch
- Visit the Franschhoek farmer's market
A tip if you don't have enough time to visit the Winelands: Constantia, just a 20-minute drive from Cape Town, is a wine region located at the slopes of Table Mountain and offers a great tasting experience too!
Hermanus & Cape Aghulas
Sandwiched between the Cape Peninsula and the Garden Route, this stretch of coast is known for its surf spots, coastal walks, and wildlife watching.
The town of Hermanus is the perfect base to go whale watching in South Africa. From June through December, Southern right whales come into Walker Bay to mate and breed. If you want to see those gentle giants, please make sure to book a sustainable tour operator that respects the animals.
Gaansbaai is the second most visited place in South Africa after Kruger National Park. The touristy town is known for its big population of Great White Sharks. If you are looking for adventure, you can go cage diving with the sharks here.
When in the area, also include a drive to Cape Agulhas, the place where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet.
If I had to come up with the perfect road trip route, this would be it! The Garden Route, stretching along South Africa's coast from Mossel Bay in the Western Cape to Gqeberha (formerly Port Elizabeth) in the Eastern Cape, is undoubtedly one of the most scenic routes in the world.
Lush national parks, scenic stops, great hiking opportunities in Garden Route National Park, and golden beaches await. Plan around two weeks if you can. If not, consider driving only from Mossel Bay to Tsitsikamma; it's the most beautiful stretch with many cute little towns where you can mingle with local South Africans.
If you don't have time to fly up to Kruger National Park, visit Addo Elephant National Park close to Gqeberha for your game drive fix. As the name suggests, the park hosts around 700 elephants but you can also spot the other member of the big five – lion, leopard, cape buffalo, and rhino – here.
Jeffrey's Bay and Coffee Bay are not technically on the Garden Route but they great places in South Africa for a laidback surf and beach scene, a bit further north of Gqeberha.
A few great stops on South Africa's most scenic routes are:
- Knysna Elephant Park
- Storms River Suspension Bridge
- Mossel Bay
- Plettenberg Bay
Tsitsikamma National Park
Located partly in the Western Cape and partly in the Eastern Cape province, this park is a natural border between the two. Tsitsikamma has it all: Dramatic coastlines, rivers, lush forests, and beautiful flora.
I recommend staying overnight in the area to enjoy swimming and hiking. For example in Sedgefield, a cute town with plenty of guest houses to choose from. There are a few hiking trails in the park, some for beginners, some intermediate or multiple days long.
And since it's the Indian Ocean rolling in on that side of South Africa, the water is much warmer than around Cape Town.
A few great activities in Tsitsikamma are:
- Walking over the Storms River Suspension Bridge
- Hiking the Otter Trail
- Jumping off the highest bungee jump in the world on Bluekrans Bridge
Located on the KwaZulu-Natal coastline, the third biggest city of South Africa, Durban, can be a good place to fly into if you want to visit iSimangaliso wetland park or Hluhluwe-iMfolozi-Park located just a few hours drive away.
When it comes to South Africa's game reserves, Hluhluwe is my favorite. South Africa's oldest national park has different topographies from savanna to grassland and forests which makes it an interesting place to drive through.
Durban is less European than Cape Town, and we didn't feel as safe, just exploring and walking around. But since it is located on the Indian Ocean, the water is warm enough to swim and the vegetation around is lush and tropical. I recommend you plan a beach day before or after your game drive and visit the impressive Whalebone Pier at Umhlanga Beach.
iSimangaliso Wetland Park
This UNESCO World Heritage Site sometimes gets overlooked since it does not offer any Big Five sightings. Nonetheless, this park close to the Mozambiquan border is one of South Africa's most special natural wetlands and coastal sites, with elephants, leopards, rhinos, and buffalos calling it their home on land. In addition, whales, dolphins, turtles, crocodiles, and hippos live in the water.
Here are a few sights and activities you shouldn't miss:
- Take a snorkeling trip to Cape Vidal
- Do a boat safari up Africa's largest estuary
- Go whale watching in St. Lucia
Drakensberg Mountain Range
The Drakensberg Mountains, with peaks up to almost 3,500 meters, are a hikers' paradise of rugged mountains, sandstone cliffs, and waterfalls. The Ukhahlamba-Drakensberg Park has even been declared a UNESCO world heritage site.
One fantastic hike you can do in the area is the one to Tugela Falls in Royal Natal National Park, the second-highest waterfall in the world. It's a challenging, multiple-day hike, but the views are the best reward one could get!
The Drakensberg Amphitheater hike is a second great option – still challenging but doable in one day. However, you still need to be an experienced hiker since this tour has chain ladders and steep cliffs to conquer.
Kruger National Park
Kruger National Park is just one of those places on almost every bucket list, and rightfully so. As one of Africa's largest game reserves, it is an ideal place to see the Big Five in their natural habitat.
Nine gates in different parts of the park make it very accessible, and you can sleep either in the park or in one of the lodges around it. Kruger is open for self-drive safaris – one of the perks of being a state-owned park – however, the trained rangers know their way around. So they might spot animals in places you are not even looking.
If you are really lucky – like we were – you might even see African wild dogs, one of the rarest animals in the park.
Kruger national park can get very busy so if you are looking for a more private experience, you can choose to stay in one of the private game reserves around it.
The second most popular road trip route in South Africa is the Panorama Route. As the name suggests, it boasts incredible vistas, stunning waterfalls, and picturesque villages.
One of the Panorama Route highlights is Blyde River Canyon, the second-deepest canyon in the world. Most tourists only stop by to take a quick picture and drive on, so I recommend going on a hike if you want to enjoy this popular tourist attraction away from the crowds.
Other great stops are the Three Rondavels, the Berlin Falls, the Bourke's Luck Potholes, and God's Window. There is a ton to see, and every nature lover coming here will be ecstatic! The Drakensberg mountain range and the rivers flowing down from them have shaped an incredible landscape.
Namaqua National Park
To close off my list of best places to visit in South Africa, let me introduce you to a true hidden gem among the tourist attractions in this country: Namaqua National Park in South Africa's Northern Cape Province.
This semi-desert area close to Namibia is famous for its beautiful wildflowers in spring and its fascinating desert landscapes full of different succulent species. Here, you can truly escape the crowds: There are only four chalets for overnight stays in the area, so be assured that it'll be only you and nature.
You'll Love Your Visit to South Africa
And that's it! Those were my favorite places to visit in South Africa. As you can see, this country is incredibly diverse, with city trips, multi-day hiking adventures, surfing, and game drives.
There is much to explore in the country so mix and match the places and activities that are most interesting to you – and be prepared to fall in love head over heels with South Africa!