South Africa is a fascinating country for vacation. To visit South Africa is in fact very easy. I traveled there for over two weeks in the search for beautiful places and totally loved my trip.
Because I didn’t plan my trip in advance, I focused my itinerary on visiting the South African UNESCO World Heritage Sites on the East side of the country, in the states of Gauteng, Free State, Eastern Cape, Kwa-Zulu Natal, Mpumalanga, Northern Province, and North West.
On a road-map, I pinpointed all the UNESCO sites and that’s how I traveled. I visited other places that the map showed as points of interest and that were on my route. I think I got a pretty good list of the most famous places to visit in South Africa in this part of the country.
Read my page: Self-drive South Africa guide to parks & game reserves
NOTE: take into consideration that this list of beautiful places in South Africa reflects my experience traveling around the country. I haven’t visited the West part of South Africa where I’m sure other amazing places exist.
Places to visit in South Africa
History of South Africa
The History of South Africa begins at the pre-historical period when the Khoisan people of hunters and collectors settled here. Between the 1st and the 14th centuries, precisely in the pre-colonial age, these pioneer people were confronted by the Bantu people who conquered the territory and where they developed the Mapungubwe Empire.
In 1448, the navigator Bartolomeu Dias, coming all the way from Portugal discovered South Africa after traveling around the Cape of Good Hope. This was a strategic discovery because he used Robben Island as a sort of depot that supplied ships on the way to India.
The Dutch and the English disputed this land for almost four centuries and only in the 20th century did the British found the Union of South Africa as a British Crown dominion.
English became the official language and the native people lost all political and social rights, paving the way to Apartheid. Apartheid only ended in 1994 when Nelson Mandela was elected the president of South Africa.
Geography of South Africa
In area, South Africa has a total of 1219090 square kilometers and it covers most of the south of the African continent. It borders in the west with the Atlantic Ocean and the east with the Indian Ocean.
The land borders of South Africa are Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Swaziland. The landscape is quite diverse.
In the west, you’ll see big plateaus with deserts, savannahs, and pastures, where the Orange River flows through. In the south, you’ll see the Karoo mountain ridge in the south and the Drakensberg mountain ridge in the east (the largest mountain ridge in southern Africa).
The country is organized in nine states, namely Western Cape, Eastern Cape, Southern Cape, Free State, Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, Mpumalanga, and North West.
Culture of South Africa
Culture in South Africa is a mix of influences from different native ethnic groups and from colonists, which together make up what we now call the South African people. Apartheid brings back a lot of negative memories and racial discrimination isn’t something that ended in the 1990s.
There are still many race-based groups who don’t interact with other people and continue the atmosphere of the Apartheid even if not in an “official” way. Each people’s traditions and languages are preserved and empowered, turning the country into a multicultural one.
The most popular music genre is Zulu Isicathamiya, made popular by famous band Ladysmith Black Mambazo when they recorded an album with Paul Simon. The cuisine is quite diverse and is a mix of African, Asian, English, and Dutch. One of the local food’s highlights is the braai barbecue made with different kinds of meat.
Visit South Africa
If you want to know what to see in South Africa, I organized a list of places to visit so that you can plan your trip and maximize your time during your holidays.
Top 19 places to visit in South Africa.
1. Vredefort crater
Vredefort crater it’s about 120 km southwest of Johannesburg, in the Free State, in South Africa. It’s the largest impact crater in the world, caused by a meteorite of about 10 km in diameter that created a hole of about 300 km in diameter.
This phenomenon happened over two billion years ago. Over time and due to erosion, the rim of the crater was worn out and what you see today is a crater with about 180 km.
The town of Vredefort is inside the crater and it’s predominantly rural.
The place is widely visited by tourists because of its relevance as a geological phenomenon, because it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and because of the gorgeous landscapes and the outdoor activities.
The different rock formations and the valley of the Vaal River make this place even more unique.
Top places to visit in the Vredefort Crater:
- Vredefort Crater
- Vaal River
- Vredefort Information Center
- Parys Town
- Vredefort Town
- Church Nederduitse Gereformeerde
- Parys River
Clarens it’s a small town in the Free State, 336 km from Johannesburg and close to the Golden Gate National Park and Lesotho. The city was founded in 1912 after the merge of two farms.
The name Clarens is a tribute to President Paul Kruger who spent his final years in Clarens in Switzerland after he won the battle of Naauwpoortnek against the Basotho (1865-66) in this area. It’s a town surrounded by mountains and beautiful natural landscapes.
It’s a very famous tourist destination among artists who settled here or who come here for vacation. There are several art galleries in the town’s main square.
The town maintains a very traditional look, with stone houses that fit neatly in the backdrop of mountains and vast green areas.
Top places to visit in Clarens:
- Golden Gate Highlands National Park
- Bushmen Art at Schaaplaats Farm
- Naauwpoort Monument
- Angel’s Wing Trail
- Basotho Cultural Village
- Smudge Contemporary Art Gallery
- South Africa Art & Wine Gallery
- Maloti Mountains
- Bokpoort Mountain Biking Trail
- Motouleng Sacred Caves
3. Golden Gate Highlands National Park
Golden Gate Highlands National Park covers an area of 365 square kilometers and it’s located on the northeast side of Free State, near the border with Lesotho. It’s about 17 km from the Clarens town.
It’s an area with large sandstone rock formations, yellow, ochre, red, and sometimes purple at sunset. Those golden hues that bounce off the most famous cliff in the area, Brandwag Rock, is the reason why it’s called Golden Gate.
The natural landscape is the biggest attraction, so it’s best to enjoy this gorgeous scenery from one of the viewpoints: Zuluhoek, Generaalskop, Oribi or Drakensberg.
There are also several caves and rock shelters, some of them decorated with paintings from the San tribe, one of the 14 ancestral people from which all humankind descends.
It’s a park rich in anthropological and paleontological traces because dinosaur bones and eggs were found here. Don’t skip the Basotho Cultural Village, an open-air museum that recreates the lifestyle of the Basotho people.
You can see the typical houses with facades decorated with colorful motifs and attend recreations of these people’s daily activities. If you can’t travel to Lesotho to see the real villages, this is a great recreation to visit.
One more site you can’t miss is the church in the cave, Rose Chapel or Modderpoort, formerly a shelter for the San tribe where later, in 1867, a church was built as a shelter for the first missionaries. This was the park where I saw zebras for the first time.
Top places to visit in Golden Gate Highlands National Park:
- Longtoom Dam
- Basotho Cultural Village
- Rhebok Hiking Trail
- Brandwag Buttress
- Rock paintings
- Mushroom Rock Trail
- Rose Chapel / Modderpoort
- Zuluhoek Viewpoint
- Generaalskop Viewpoint
- Oribi Viewpoint
4. uKhahlamba Drakensberg Natural Park
uKhahlamba Drakensberg Natural Park it’s on the eastern border between Lesotho and South Africa and stretches for 150 km in the state of KwaZulu-Natal.
The mountain ridge is known as uKhahlamba, which in Zulu means “barrier of spears,” or the Drakensberg, which in Afrikaans means “mountain of the dragon.” It’s the tallest mountain ridge in South Africa and has several peaks that many tourists long for climbing.
Those are Cathedral Peak, Monks Cowl, Champagne Castle, Giant’s Castle, and the geological phenomenon Drakensberg Amphitheater.
The landscape of the park is diverse with large rock formations, rivers and waterfalls, cave paintings, and infinite green fields. That diversity attracts rich flora and fauna that, together with the natural beauty, led the park to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
One of the most popular sites is the plateau known as the Amphitheater where the most adventurous can reach by climbing an 18-meter ladder hanging from the rock.
Once you get up there and see the amazing view and Africa’s biggest waterfall, Tugela, you’ll know the challenge was worth it.
Top places to visit in the uKhahlamba Drakensberg National Park:
- Giant’s Castle Peak
- Tugela Falls
- Amphitheater to Cathedral Trail
- Devils Hoek Valley Trail
- Cave paintings
- Tugela Gorge Walk Trail
- Cathedral Peak
- Champagne Castle Peak
- Thukela River
- Little Berg Cliffs
Howick it’s a small town in the state of KwaZulu-Natal, between the Drakensberg National Park and Durban.
The town is famous for its waterfalls and the highest, Howick Falls, has an impressive height of 95 meters.
There are other smaller waterfalls outside of town. Recently, the town added one more tourist attraction: the monument to Nelson Mandela in the outskirts of Howick.
The monument celebrating the 50th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s arrest was designed by artist Marco Cianfanelli and consists of a group of 50 steel columns that resemble prison bars but that when seen from a distance make up the face of Nelson Mandela.
It’s an impressive and original work of art. Visiting this monument is also paying tribute to a great personality of contemporary history.
Top places to visit in Howick:
- Nelson Mandela Capture Site
- Howick Falls
- Midmar Dam
- Midmar Nature Reserve
- Karkloof River and Falls
- Zulu Handicrafts Center
- St Luke’s Anglican Church
- Karkloof Farmer’s Market
- Bushwillow Parks
- Mgeni River
6. King Cetshwayo’s Grave
King Cetshwayo’s Grave is located in Nkandla. This is a sacred place for the Zulu tribe because King Cetshwayo is the last king of the Zulu kingdom.
The Zulu tribe occupies the Southeast coast of Africa, between the Drakensberg Mountains and the Indian Ocean.
King Cetshwayo played an important role during the colonial occupation by defeating the English. Because of that, King Cetshwayo’s grave is seen as a monument to a hero of the Zulu tribe.
7. Dlinza Forest Nature Reserve
Dlinza Forest Nature Reserve it’s near the northwest coast of South Africa, in the town of Eshowe.
Originally this region belonged to the Zulu Kingdom and many of the victims of the conflict between the Zulu and the British in the 19th century were buried here.
It’s a subtropical native forest with thick vegetation and tall trees. It’s the natural habitat of many different species of animals and plants and is considered an excellent spot for birdwatching.
This reserve has a wooden walkway that goes 125 meters into the thick forest, 10 meters above the ground.
It’s a great walk near the treetops and ends at an observation deck 20 meters high, from where you have a breathtaking view above the trees. Here you won’t need ropes like Tarzan to travel among trees.
Top places to visit in the Dlinza Forest Nature Reserve
- Dlinza Forest Nature Reserve
- Zululand Bird Route
- Museum Vukani
- Historical Museum Fort Nonquai
- Butterfly Dome
Shakaland it’s a small theme park that recreates a Zulu village with its customs and traditions, the typical architecture, and lots of cultural events.
This park is 160 km from Durbin in the state of KwaZulu-Natal. The name of the park pays tribute to the great Zulu tribe leader King Shaka.
Although it’s a recreation of a Zulu village, there are native residents in one sector of the park and you can get in touch with their traditions.
The houses, the traditional clothes, and the cultural events make visiting the park an amazing experience.
You can see the traditional dances, the rituals, the handicrafts, and take part in the beer drinking ceremony for example.
Originally this site was built as the set for the 1980’s movies Shaka Zulu and John Ross.
Top places to visit in Shakaland:
- Shakaland Park
- Phobane Lake
9. St Lucia
St Lucia it’s a small town in the Northeast of South Africa, in the state of KwaZulu-Natal. It’s 240 km north of Durban and 80 km from Richards Bay.
It’s located near the estuary and its swamp lands are the habitat for many hippopotamus and crocodiles. There is a large concentration of hippopotamus in St. Lucia, and other species such as antelopes, zebras, and many birds.
You can see hippopotamus wandering the streets, especially in the morning and in the evening when it’s cooler. The iSimangaliso Wetland Park is the third largest in South Africa and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In the outskirts of town, you can visit the Crocodile Center or go out in safaris and explore the wildlife’s natural habitats. If you prefer to spend time at the beach, St. Lucia is a great place.
It’s a trendy sea destination with lots of water activities like whale watching, fishing in the high sea, diving, etc.
St. Lucia is a paradise where you can relax at the beach and enjoy water sports, or go to the natural park and walk the outdoor trails while observing wild animals.
Top places to visit in St Lucia:
- iSimangaliso Wetland Park
- St. Lucia Estuary
- Crocodile Center
- St. Lucia Lake
- Veyane Cultural Village
- Tourism Office
- St. Lucia Game Reserve
- Whale watching spots
- Diving spots
10. iSimangaliso Wetland Park
iSimangaliso Wetland Park also known by its former name, the Great Park of St. Lucia, it covers 220 km from the border with Mozambique in the north to the south end in the St. Lucia estuary.
On one side it borders with the Indian Ocean, and on the other side, it has countless lakes, where St. Lucia Lake is the largest. With such natural diversity, the iSimangaliso Wetland Park houses five different ecosystems: reefs, beach, lakes, swamps, and forest.
These ecosystems are the natural habitat of diverse species such as sea turtles, whales, hippopotamus, crocodiles, antelopes, and zebras, to name just a few.
The park is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The name of the park iSimangaliso means “miracle” or “marvel,” and it’s, in fact, a miracle to see so much diversity in one place.
Top places to visit in iSimangaliso Wetland Park:
- St. Lucia Lake
- St. Lucia Game Reserve
- False Bay Park
- Kosi Bay
- Etrza Lake Nature Reserve
- Mapelane Nature Reserve
- Sodwana Bay National Park
- Sibaya Lake
- Cape Vidal
- Mkuze Game Reserve
11. Hluhluwe-iMmfolozi Park
Hluhluwe-iMmfolozi Park it was previously known as the Hluhluwe-iMmfolozi Game Reserve and was the first area in South Africa to become a nature reserve in 1895.
The park is in the state of KwaZulu-Natal on the east coast of the country and stretches from Hluhluwe in the North to Umfolozi in the south. It was a hunting ground for the Zulu people and there are traces of ancient civilizations from the Stone Age period.
From my list of places in south africa to visit, Hluhluwe-iMmfolozi Park is for sure my favorite.
When the park was established as a nature reserve, the main goal was to preserve endangered species, specifically the White Rhino. The goal was achieved and the park is currently the place with the largest concentration of White Rhinos.
The park is also the home of the “Big Five”: elephant, rhino, buffalo, lion, and leopard. It’s a sanctuary to wildlife where in addition to the Big Five you can see the Nile crocodiles, hippopotamus, cheetahs, hyenas, giraffes, impalas, nyalas, and many others.
If you like animals, then this is a site you can’t miss.
Top places to visit in the Hluhluwe-iMmfolozi Park:
- Black Imfolozi River
- Sontuli Loop
- Mpila Camp
- Nselweni Camp
- Hluhluwe River
- Hilltop Camp
- Memorial Gate
- Cenjeni Gate
- Nyalazi Gate
12. Lisbon Falls
Lisbon Falls are one of the largest waterfalls in Mpumalanga, a rugged region with many waterfalls.
The waters of Lisbon River fall from 94 meters high in the largest waterfall you can see among the many smaller other ones you’ll see when traveling the famous Panorama Route South Africa.
The reason why many places have the names of foreign cities is that many foreigners came here in the 19th century looking for gold. Lisbon is the name of a nearby farm.
Top places to visit in Lisbon Falls:
- Lisbon Falls
- Lisbon River
- Panorama Route
13. Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve
Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve it’s in the Mpumalanga region, near the small town of Graskop. The park includes the canyon it’s named after, Blyde River Canyon, and it’s the third deepest in the world and the largest in South Africa.
It stretches over 50 km with diverse landscapes and must-visit sites such as God’s Window, that has a breathtaking view, the Pinnacle Rock (a tall and narrow rock that stands out in the landscape), Bourke’s Luck Potholes (large holes that resulted from the erosion process over centuries and that are now natural pools), and the Three Rondavels (three rock formations that resemble the roofs of the houses in this part of Africa).
In addition to the gorgeous landscapes you can see at the park, you can also take part in outdoor activities like rappeling, rafting, fly fishing, or hiking.
Please remember that a visit to South Africa should not be made without visiting Blyde River Canyon.
Top places to visit in Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve:
- Blyde River Canyon
- Bourke’s Luck Potholes
- Three Rondavels
- Blyderivierpoort Dam
- God’s Window
- Panorama Route
- Blyde River
- Kadishi Tufa Waterfall
- Blyde River Canyon Viewpoint
Read my page: Blyde River canyon
Gravelotte is a small town in the region of Limpopo, close to the famous Kruger Park, one of the main tourist attractions in South Africa.
The town was founded in 1916 and named after an important farmer in the area who had fought in the battle of Gravelotte (the French-Prussian battle of 1870).
The town mined gold, emeralds, mica, and silica. The main attraction here is the huge baobab tree just a few meters from the road between Leydsdorp and Gravelotte and that used to be a bar called The Muchison Club where gold prospectors stopped to quench their thirst.
Top places to visit in Gravelotte:
- Big Baobab tree
- Town of Gravelotte
15. Mapungubwe National Park
Mapungubwe National Park is in the state of Limpopo, where rivers Shashe and Limpopo meet, 60 km from the city of Musina.
The park is near the borders with Botswana and Zimbabwe and stretches into those countries as part of the Greater Mapungubwe Transfrontier Conservation Area. It’s a vast area of savannah surrounded by huge baobab trees and with a great variety of animals.
You’ll be able to see wild animals in their natural habitats including lions, elephants, giraffes, white rhinos, and many others.
In addition to the natural richness, the park includes an important cultural heritage: the archaeological site in the Mapungubwe hill with well-preserved traces of what was once the capital of one of the most important Kingdoms in Africa from 1200 to 1270 AC.
Other findings like the famous golden rhino show us that other ancient people lived here as members of prosperous civilization. The building of the Mapungubwe Interpretation Center, where the famous Golden Rhino is on display, was the Building of the Year in 2009 for its architecture.
Because of its landscape and the historical legacy of the several people who lived here between the 9th and the 14th centuries, this park was classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Top places to visit in Mapungubwe National Park:
- Hill Mapungubwe
- Park Interpretation Center
- Limpopo River
- Shashe River
- Golden Rhino
- National Park Museum
- Maloutswa Bird Hide
- Treetop walkway
- Tshugulu Eco Route
- Maloutswa Pan hide
16. Manavhela Ben Lavin Nature Reserve
Manavhela Ben Lavin Nature Reserve is in the state of Limpopo, 12 km south of Louis Trichardt (Makhado).
The area where the reserve is used to be called Ha-Manavhela, but after the First World War a war veteran called Ben Lavin bought these lands, hence the name.
The people of Manavhela who lived here were forced to leave or stay and work as slaves. When Ben Lavin died, the property was donated to WESSA (Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa).
With an area of about 25 square kilometers, it’s not a large reserve when compared to the other nature reserves in the country. But it’s rich in animal diversity with several species that live in the African savannah including zebras, giraffes, topis, gnus, impalas, and others.
17. Pilanesberg National Park
Pilanesberg National Park is one of the four largest in South Africa and within easy reach, 160 km northwest of Pretoria.
The park has 550 square kilometers, located in the transition between savannah and forest, with a diverse landscape and several animal species from both habitats.
This is one of the most famous places in South Africa if you arrive through Johannesburg.
At the park, you can see the coveted Big Five (elephants, rhinos, buffalos, lions, and leopards) on an organized safari or driving yourself through the over 200 km of roads in the park.
The Pilanesberg National Park is inside a crater of a volcano that erupted over 1.2 billion years ago and that caused a rock formation with concentric rings of mountains.
It’s called the Pilanesberg Alkaline Belt and is one of the three examples of the kind in the world. The other two are in Greenland and Russia.
Mankwe, the artificial lake in the center of the park, is the perfect place to spot animals like hippopotamus and several bird species. In addition to the natural beauty and the wildlife that attracts amateur and professional photographers, the park has several places of cultural interest with traces of the people who lived here since the Stone Age and the Iron Age.
The Sun City resort is also one of the main attractions of the park, with hotels that look like they’re part of a Disney fairytale, tourist attractions like the water park, golf, and casino, and the Zulu hut, a recreation of the traditional lifestyle of the Zulu tribe.
This is the place for those travelers who want all the amenities and a little luxury in the middle of the African savannah.
Top places to visit in Pilanesberg National Park:
- Pilanesberg National Park
- Sun City
- Mankwe Lake
- Makorwane Lake
18. Human fossil sites in Sterkfontein
The Sterkfontein Caves, in the so-called “Cradle of Humankind,” are northwest of the cities of Pretoria and Johannesburg.
These limestone caves are famous for the fossils found here. The most famous are Mrs. Ples, the skull of an Australopithecus over 2.1 million years old, and Little Foot, an almost complete skeleton of an Australopithecus over 3 million years old.
If you’re searching for the best places in South Africa history wise,
Sterkfontein Caves is the place to go.
They’re both on display at the Maropeng Visitor Center. In addition to these paleontological findings, researchers found other fossils, even older than these.
This site is classified as UNESCO World Heritage.
Maropeng, the traces of humankind’s ancestors in this region labeled it as the Cradle of Humankind.
In Maropeng, at the Maropeng Visitor Center, you can see fossils of hominids on display, including Mrs. Ples and Little Foot found in the Sterkfontein Caves.
This center is near the caves, about 80 km from Pretoria and 60 km from Johannesburg. It’s a must-see not only for the importance of what’s on display but because of the way the exhibition is curated.
It’s an interactive exhibition, with educational experiences like the sensorial boat trip that recreates a journey back in time to when the Earth was formed.
A visit to the Maropeng Visitor Center is better than a History class that covers the evolution of humankind.
Top places to visit in Maropeng:
- Maropeng Visitor Center
- Sterkfontein Caves
Read my page: Meaning of the flags of Africa