South Africa is a unique and complex country, rich in culture, diversity and history. It’s also home to some of the most magnificent natural wonders of the world, making for an all-in-one destination for the modern traveller. With so much to explore, planning a trip to South Africa is anything but easy. To get you started, here are the 10 most iconic places to visit in South Africa. Any trip to South African would be incomplete without at least a touchdown at a few of these impressive, popular, and instantly recognisable sights of the country.
A tapestry of colourful cultures, cuisines, rich history, modern architecture, and stunning landscapes, Cape Town is undeniably unique and usually the first base for most travellers. Built around the sprawling Table Bay, Cape Town flaunts gorgeous beaches that offer world-class surfing, oceanfront dining, shopping, and nightlife. But the most iconic features of them all is the massive mountain and carved cliff faces of Table Mountain, Lion’s Head, and Devil’s Peak, providing Cape Town with one of the most famous city backdrops in the world.
Fun fact: The New York Times voted Cape Town as the best city in the world to visit in 2014.
The Garden Route
If you thought South Africa’s landscape couldn’t get any lovelier than Cape Town, you’re wrong. Considered the most naturally beautiful area in the country, the Garden Route is a necessary part of any visit to South Africa. The 300-kilometre stretch of road is something that can only be described as breathtakingly beautiful. The rugged coastal road twists and turns along coastal cliffs and then cuts inland through ancient and indigenous forests toward the Tsitsikamma and Outeniqua mountain ranges. Some of the most unmistakable vistas in South Africa are located along this stretch of road, all of which are easily identifiable by the soaring, jagged cliffs and sprawling ocean.
Fun fact: There are 10 nature reserves alone along the Garden Route.
The Wild Coast
South Africa’s untamed beauty in the Eastern Cape, the Wild Coast is the place to go for the most unspoiled part of the country. Don’t expect luxury or even comfort; this is a raw and unapologetic side of South Africa for those who want to go off the map for a while. Visit charming coffee huts in Coffee Bay, or surf the unforgiving waves at Gonubie Point or Devil’s Horn. Visit the village of Port St. Johns for deep sea fishing or cliff angling, or meander around the small oceanfront towns of Haga and Morgans Bay. The gorgeous Waterfall Bluff, the only waterfall in the Eastern Cape that empties directly into the sea is a stunning representative of this locale — a must-see.
Fun fact: Here is the birthplace of Nelson Mandala.
Kruger National Park
The 19 485 km2 park is iconic to South Africa not because of its sheer size but due to the intensely real atmosphere it offers its visitors. Home to the Big Five and a large number of mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians, the Kruger also flaunts a set of wild trees, winding rivers, and numerous hills. While the park allows its visitors the freedom to explore the abundant wilderness and wildlife on their own terms, a safari in Kruger National Park is the highlight of any South African holiday. There is no questioning Kruger’s place on this list.
Fun fact: Kruger gets over 1.4 million visitors every year.
South Africa’s oldest and largest township with a turbulent past lies within Johannesburg city limits and was formed in the 1930s when the South African Apartheid government started segregating blacks and whites. In the 70s, Soweto became the largest black city in the country with a population of 1.3 million. Soweto also gained recognition for the violent clashes that happened during the Apartheid struggles of the 70s and 80s. However sad and heartbreaking it is to witness the poverty in this country, here is a very iconic urban South African scene nonetheless and there are some incredible attractions, beacons of history and entrepreneurial spirits leading Soweto into an exciting new era.
Fun fact: The name Soweto is an acronym coming from the words South Western Township, the original name used to designate the area.
Hermanus has officially been declared the whale-watching capital of the world. Between 60 and 100 Southern Right whales visit Walker Bay from Antarctica every year between July and December to breed and raise their babies. Visitors flock here for the opportunity to spot them in Walker Bay. And you don’t necessarily have to be on a boat to appreciate the magnificent giants — you can see them fromthe land too. The whales often come within 10 meters of the shore in Hermanus and the cliff tops are the most popular places to whale-watch from.
Fun fact: You don’t need to worry about missing a whale sighting while visiting in Hermanus as they have what’s known as a ‘whale crier’ who alerts everyone to where exactly the whales are in Walker Bay.
Great white sharks are synonymous with South Africa, particularly Gansbaai. This little fishing village on the Western Cape is best known for its immense great white shark population, making it the shark cage diving capital of the world. Gansbaai is said to be second to Kruger National Park for attracting the most tourists in South Africa for any singular activity.
Just a few miles offshore, you’ll have the chance to get in the water with a great white. You don’t even need to be a certified scuba diver in order to cage dive! Sharks are not the only thing you can see here either – it’s very common to spot what’s been dubbed as the marine big five: sharks, whales, dolphins, seals, and penguins. Make sure to book your trip with an operator that has a conservation theme to their practice.
Fun fact: Contrary to popular belief, great white sharks do not prefer to eat humans! Scientists warn that these sharks should not be seen as ruthless killers, but as cautious apex predators.
Roughly 7 km off the coast of the Cape Town suburb of Bloubergstrand is Robben Island. This island was first used by the Dutch in the 17th century to isolate their political prisoners. Flash forward to the mid-1990s, and the South African government is following Dutch footsteps. They used the Robben Island prison for criminal prisoners as well as political prisoners. Nelson Mandala served 18 of his 27 years in the Robben Island prison along with two others who went on to become the country’s president, namely Kgalema Motlanthe, and the current President Jacob Zuma.
The prison was closed in 1991 to political prisoners, and in 1996 for criminal prisoners. With the prison shutdown and apartheid demolished, the island and former-prison-turned-museum is a popular tourist attraction in Table Bay.
Fun fact: This site was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999 and many of the tour guides are former prisoners themselves.
South Africa’s largest and wealthiest city can be best described as eclectic. This melting pot of a metropolis is home to different neighbourhoods, each with outstanding restaurants, excellent shopping, nightlife and more art, architecture and history than you can shake a stick at. An all-inclusive city with many nature reserves and parks within its city limits, it is undoubtedly an iconic place in South Africa. From the trendy neighbourhoods of Braamfontein and Maboneng, to Constitution Hill, where Nelson Mandala and many other freedom fighters served some of their sentences, to the Apartheid Museum that revisits the most turbulent, terrible and defining time in South Africa’s history, Johannesburg is a stunning juxtaposition of the past and the present, the old and the new.
Fun fact: Johannesburg is the largest city in the world that’s not located on a coast, lake, or river.
Located within the Mpumalanga province, the Panorama Route as the name suggests offers some of the most picturesque scenes in the whole of South Africa. The 26km route, based around the Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve, is dotted with several natural landmarks; God’s Window, a scenic vista overlooking canyons, rock formations, and waterfalls, and Bourke’s Luck Potholes, a fascinating, naturally-created section of rock creating plunge pools or “potholes” in the Treur River gorge. The historic towns nearby, established during the gold rush in the 1800s, are other not-to-miss attractions for their serious historical and cultural significance in South Africa.
Fun fact: The Blyde River Canyon is one of the deepest (762 meters) and greenest in the world.
These 10 iconic places in South Africa are guaranteed to delight and impress you. Together they paint an incredibly detailed account of the country’s history, culture, and natural worth. If you can visit even just a few of the spots on this list, South Africa could very well become your next favourite destination.