Arguably the easiest country on the continent to navigate, South Africa is the perfect start for the first time visitor to Africa! Growing up, Africa always seemed a world away; this distant land where exotic wildlife bursts into song – *Cue The Lion King.* Your South Africa vacation is bound to astound you with its wildlife and landscapes, while simultaneously challenging your perceptions of Africa. People (especially the older generations) tend to think of Apartheid, HIV/AIDS, rampant poverty and starvation, the famine in Ethiopia, Live Aid, terrorist organizations, child soldiers, and malaria when the word “Africa” comes to mind due to the news and traditional media… but it’s so much more than that. Thankfully, the age of social media has the ability to expand people’s perceptions of this outstanding continent.
You can see Nala in real life on your South Africa vacation!
Let’s talk about – and debunk – some common misperceptions that people have about visiting South Africa in particular:
Perception #1: If I go to Africa, I’ll get Malaria.
Reality: While, YES, there is certainly Malaria in Africa, it isn’t everywhere like people believe. In fact, only one type of mosquito carries Malaria and there are many parts of South Africa where you will not find this mosquito. With that said, of course I always recommend wearing ample bug spray, particularly at dawn and dusk – these bug spray wipes are my absolute favorite – and to be diligent about remembering to take your prescribed Malaria medications.
Perception #2: Africa is scary and there are high levels of crime.
Reality: It’s only scary if you’re irresponsible. While crime is a problem, if you do your research you will know where not to go. Explore during the day and have an idea of where you’re coming from and where you want to get to. Educate yourself on your environment and refrain from over-drinking.
Perception #3: Poverty is everywhere.
Reality: Yes, extreme poverty is a serious problem in Africa, but that shouldn’t keep you from visiting. In fact, 1 in 22 working people in South Africa are employed in the tourism sector. Tourism is hugely important and continues to create jobs for people in Africa. While on your vacation in South Africa, please remember to buy and support locally made products — clothes, textiles, souvenirs, handicrafts, etc. While organizing your game drives or overland tours, do your research to try to find the locally owned and operated companies. This is how we, as tourists, can make a greater impact.
Perception #4: HIV/AIDS is rampant.
Reality: You’re right. In fact, 7.2 million people are infected with HIV in South Africa and it is the biggest HIV epidemic in the world. 18.9% of the general population have HIV, but that doesn’t mean that you will get it too. Just don’t sleep around or do intravenous drugs and, in the meantime, educate yourself on the life-saving medication that needs to be made easily accessible to anyone, no matter their income level or geographic location. Consider shopping Product (RED) or donating to their cause here, as 140 million lives have already been positively impacted through (RED). Remember, “Where you live shouldn’t determine whether you live.”
Now that the awareness part is over (thanks for sticking with me), let’s get into the nitty gritty of planning your South Africa Vacation. It’s important to note that South Africa is massive and, realistically, you need about a month to cover the coastal regions. While I spent four weeks exploring this incredible country, I honestly could have spent three months doing so. When planning your South Africa vacation, I want you to first think about what you want to focus on:
- Do you want to see wildlife everyday?
- Do you want to embark on an epic road trip?
- Are you looking to get off the beaten path?
- Would you rather stick to the well-trodden routes?
- Would you prefer the remote outdoors or beautiful beaches?
- Adventure activities or relaxation?
These are all questions that you need to ask yourself. With that being said, I will give you options below that cover all of these areas – as well as a map – so that you can piece together the best vacation in South Africa for you and your travel companions!
How would you like to see a Cape Buffalo like this staring you down on your vacation in South Africa?!
How To Get To South Africa
South Africa’s two major airports are located in Johannesburg and Cape Town. You can get direct flights from: New York, Atlanta, Washington, São Paulo, Buenos Aires, Munich, Frankfurt, Zurich, Amsterdam, Paris, London, Istanbul, Israel, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Qatar, Hong Kong, Singapore, Sydney, Perth, Egypt, Kenya, and Namibia. Bear in mind that most major carriers will fly directly to Johannesburg instead of Cape Town. Of course, if you are already traveling throughout Africa, there are numerous daily inter-continental flights, typically with a layover.
If you are traveling by land, you can cross into South Africa from Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Eswatini (formerly known as Swaziland). Of course, make sure you have a valid license, visa, and car registration.
If border crossings stress you out and you hate flying but want to visit other countries in addition to South Africa, I’d recommend joining an overland tour. While you’re still covering massive distances, the stress is taken off you and put on your tour guide instead.
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How To Get Around On Your South Africa Vacation
The absolute best way to travel around South Africa is by car. We rented an incredibly affordable car to drive the majority of the coast, and I cannot imagine having done it any other way. South Africa has pretty good infrastructure, especially compared to countries like Uganda, and as long as you stay on the main roads you’ll be good to go. As always, be sure that you don’t leave any valuables in your car (I literally leave my car empty every time I get out, no matter where I am in the world), lock your doors and do not drive at night. Not only do you have to deal with everyday animals and rodents skirting across the road in front of you, but you risk drawing unnecessary attention to yourself as well as getting lost.
This could be you on your South African vacation!
If you’re not up for driving, there are numerous bus companies including Greyhound, Intercape, and Baz Bus. When we were there, the Baz Bus seemed to be the most popular option. The Baz Bus is a hop on, hop off bus with multiple stops between Johannesburg and Cape Town; you can get a ticket as a straight-shot between the two major cities, or a 21-day hop on, hop off pass.
And, again, if you're looking for a completely stress-free South Africa vacation, be sure to check out locally-operated overland tours!
Africa is an incredibly diverse country and I’m certain that no matter how long you have, or what mode of transport you choose to take, you’ll have a wonderful time. So, without further ado, here are 31 spectacular places to visit on your South Africa vacation, divided up by region.
It’s likely that you will fly into Johannesburg, as it’s the biggest flight hub in South Africa. While I didn’t spend much time in Johannesburg, I would recommend visiting the Apartheid Museum, Constitution Hill, the Mandela Museum, and Soweto. When visiting Soweto, the shantytown that was once home to Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, is best visited on a full-day tour for both ease and safety reasons.
Downtown Johannesburg – Places to visit on your South African vacation
Pretoria is the administrative capital of South Africa. It is a bit cleaner and less dodgy than Johannesburg as there are ample historical buildings, parks, and museums. While I met up with a friend from the area who took me around, it’s worth seeing the Voortrekker Monument, Freedom Park, and the Union Buildings. I personally preferred to beat jetlag in Pretoria rather than Johannesburg.
Pretoria – Places to visit on your South African vacation
3. Panoramic Route
It’s worth devoting an entire day driving, and stopping along, the Panoramic Route. You’ll want to spend the night beforehand in Nelspruit – which is three and a half hours from Johannesburg and Pretoria give or take – so that you can start your day fresh and ready to go. Begin by getting breakfast at Harrie’s Pancake House in Graskop before checking out Berlin Falls, Bourkes Luck Potholes, and the Blyde River Canyon. Blyde River Canyon is actually the only green canyon and also the third largest canyon in the world. Continue further to the Lowveld Viewpoint, and the Three Rondavels, which are truly stunning. Turning around, stop by God’s Window for a peek into Mozambique, check out Pinnacle Rock, and end your day with mouthwatering scones and milkshakes at “The Pantry” in Pilgrimsrest before returning to Nelspruit for the night! This is truly a hidden gem in South Africa.
The Three Rondavels – Places to visit on your South African vacation
4. Kruger National Park
Kruger National Park is an absolute must for anyone looking to experience a true “safari.” In Africa the word safari is only used for tourists, as locals call them “game drives” and I will be using that term from here on out. Kruger National Park stretches from the Mpumalanga region and north into Limpopo; I spent three days in Kruger and didn’t go north enough to reach Limpopo, but it’s certainly an option. Kruger is known for its high concentration of species — 147 species of wildlife, 507 species of birds, 49 species of fish, and 300 species of trees. It’s home to the Big 5 and one of those “out of this world” experiences. You can experience Kruger National Park via car if you choose to be adventurous and go your own route, or with a reputable local operator who knows the park inside-out-and-backward. We were lucky enough to go with a friend who was a professional wildlife guide, but (had we not met him) I would highly recommend joining a small tour or hiring a private guide to make the most of the experience.
Kruger National Park – Places to visit on your South African vacation
5. Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Park
Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Park (which I promise is definitely not pronounced the way it’s spelled, was a very pleasant surprise. While this park is only 10,000 hectares (only a fraction of the size of Kruger), it was fabulous and well worth the visit. Hluhluwe-Umfolozi used to be two separate parks, but merged due to having the highest concentration of rhino in the world. While both parks are accessible, 80% of the predators are found in Umfolozi so we spent most of our game drive there; Umfolozi is also the oldest park in Africa and second in the world (following Yellowstone). Within the first five minutes of entering the park we saw two lions chowing down on breakfast and another right in front of our vehicle! We also saw two black rhinos, which are two of only 5,000 left in the world. If you don’t want to drive around the park yourself, you can do either a half-day game drive or full-day game drive. Personally, I recommend one of the guided game drives as there are dirt roads and it could be easy to get lost.
A Black Rhino – Places to visit on your South African vacation
6. St. Lucia Estuary
For a relaxing afternoon, take a cruise on the St. Lucia Estuary. You’re not only likely to see plenty of hippos, but crocodiles and numerous different bird species as well. We went out with Heritage Tours and were very happy with the experience.
St. Lucia Estuary – Places to visit on your South African vacation
7. iSimangaliso Wetland Park
The iSimangaliso Wetland Park can be entered from either the Eastern Gate or Western Gate. We did a self-guided game drive and I’d advise that you enter at the Eastern Gate, as the turn offs are clearly marked and the roads are well-maintained. This is an easy park to get around on your own and you’ll have the chance to see everything from elephants to white rhinos, giraffes, zebras, and more.
iSimangaliso Wetland Park – Places to visit on your South African vacation
8. Howick Falls
Howick Falls is in the center of the town of Howick. Commonly known KwaNogqaza, “The Place of the Tall One,” this waterfall is 95 m (310 ft) tall and beautiful in its surroundings. Local legend has it that the water at the bottom of the falls is occupied by a giant snake-like creature. There are many other waterfalls in the region if you’d like to see others.
Howick Falls – Places to visit on your South African vacation
9. Nelson Mandela Capture Site
The Nelson Mandela Capture Site is certainly worth a 30-minute stop. There’s a small museum documenting Mandela’s life and 27 years in jail, as well as a freedom path which leads to a unique memorial and sculpture. It was here that Mandela was arrested on August 5, 1962.
Nelson Mandela Capture Site – Places to visit on your South African vacation
10. Drakensberg Mountains
The Drakensberg Mountains are a UNESCO World Heritage Site located within KwaZulu-Natal. These mountains were formed over 200 million years ago and are absolutely worth the detour inland. They’re absolutely beautiful, and quite easy to access if you have a car. It’s worth noting that the Sani Pass within the Drakensberg Mountains makes for a great gateway into Lesotho too!
Drakensberg Mountains – Places to visit on your South African vacation
Region: Eastern Cape
Bulungula is one of my favorite places in South Africa, and a necessary stop for anyone who’s interested in truly experiencing the African culture. While it’s off the beaten path, it’s an eye-opening experience. Spend a night (or three) in this local village with no electricity, indulge in delicious, traditional food, and fall asleep in your own thatch-roof hut. Bulungula is located beside a lovely secluded beach, yet in the hills of the Wild Coast. Bulungula offers many activities, lead by the locals from the village, where we had the opportunity to experience firsthand their day to day activities. Please have a look at my recap from this very special, authentic experience here and here.
A local gets her photo taken for the first time at the local bar in Bulungula
We found Hogsback by chance, and I’m thrilled that we did! Hogsback is said to be the inspiration for J.R.R. Tolkien’s Mirkwood Forest in The Lord of the Rings. Be sure to hike to the 39 Steps waterfall and Madonna Waterfall, as the hiking trail sure is a pretty one! Hogsback was one of the most peaceful places in which I’ve stayed, and has incredibly clear starry skies.
Hogsback – Places to visit on your South African vacation
13. Addo Elephant National Park
Addo Elephant National Park has – you guessed it – a lot of elephants! As with any game drive, you never know what you’re going to see. While we didn’t see much the first day, we saw a breeding herd the second day and a Cape Buffalo on the third day! Addo Elephant National Park has a great on-site campground too, which helps for those early morning wakeup calls (remember, some of the best game drives are as soon as the gates open)!
Addo Elephant Park – Places to visit on your South African vacation
14. Jeffreys Bay
Jeffreys Bay, commonly referred to as JBay, is well-known amongst surfers as being one of the best surf breaks in the world. JBay reminded me of a small Californian beach town. There isn’t much to do in JBay per se, other than the beach, but I guess that’s the biggest draw. If you visit, I definitely recommend checking out the Surf Shop outlets, as they had some amazing deals!
Jeffreys Bay – Places to visit on your South African vacation
15. Bloukrans Bridge
Bloukrans Bridge is the world’s highest bungee bridge jump, and was the first ever bungee jump that I ever did! This 216 m (709 foot) bridge is quite daunting and equally exciting. If you’re an adrenaline-seeker then the Bloukrans Bridge Bungee simply cannot be missed! This was a massive highlight for me along the Garden Route, and a great way to get the blood flowing in the middle of a long drive!
Bloukrans Bridge – Places to visit on your South African vacation
Region: Western Cape
16. Tsitsikamma National Park
When road tripping the Garden Route, it’s worth stopping and viewing the suspension bridges located within Tsitsikamma National Park. Tsitsikamma is a Khoisan word meaning “place of much water” and there truly are some lovely views! The Lookout Hike offers a great view of the park, and I’d definitely recommend doing the Otter Trail if you have time. If you’re not feeling very active, there are some cute cafés along the water.
Tsitsikamma National Park – Places to visit on your South African vacation
17. Monkeyland & Birds of Eden
Monkeyland is the world’s first free-roaming primate sanctuary. They aim to rehabilitate and free previously caged monkeys by introducing a natural forest as their new home. Birds of Eden, on the other hand, is a massive tent full of various free-roaming birds. The colors are simply spectacular! You can easily spend a few hours between these two places.
Monkeyland – Places to visit on your South African vacation
18. Jukani Wildlife Sanctuary
Jukani Wildlife Sanctuary focuses on the conservation efforts of big cats. This sanctuary serves as a refuge to protect the cats from hunting and exploitative animal tourism because, believe it or not, the government supports cat hunting (or trophy hunting) as it brings in money. These animals come from all over the world, and it is incredibly important to note that Jukani Wildlife Sanctuary does not support the breeding of animals or the touching of animals.
Jukani Wildlife Sancturary – Places to visit on your South African vacation
19. Cango Caves (Klein Karoo)
The Cango Caves are a lot of fun for the adventure traveler! While a tour is necessary, the “Adventure Tour” has you sliding on your belly and crawling through small places in order to access certain chambers. The Cango Caves have been known to man since the Early Stone Age and are South Africa’s oldest tourist attraction. The Bushman inhabited the caves for quite some time and left it as recently as 200 years ago, however, they only inhabited the entrance chambers because, supposedly, the dark parts of the caves are where the ancestral spirits are resting. Tools, knives, pottery, and paintings are said to be dated 10,000-12,000 years old.
The Cango Caves – Places to visit on your South African vacation
Oudtshoorn is home to the world’s largest ostrich population and, thus, is the ostrich capital of the world. I recommend touring the Cango Ostrich Farm, as you will learn all about this unusual animal, and a fantastic lunch is included on site. You can feed and play with the ostriches as well. It’s certainly a unique experience and one that you will not find in many places around the world!
Oudtshoorn – Places to visit on your South African vacation
21. De Hoop Nature Reserve
De Hoop Nature Reserve is known for its white sand dunes, which are located about 16km down a dirt road past reception. It’s absolutely worth it, as we were greeted with beautiful, sweeping white sand dunes juxtaposed against the turquoise and dark blue ocean. Not only were the sand dunes virtually empty, but it’s truly one of the nicest beaches I’ve ever encountered.
De Hoop Nature Reserve – Places to visit on your South African vacation
South Africa is known for its concentration of Great White Sharks. For those excited about the possibility of meeting Jaws face-to-face, suit up and go shark cage diving in Gansbaai. If you’re known to get seasick, I would highly recommend taking seasick tablets beforehand, especially if the water is forecasted to be rough. Unfortunately it was incredibly choppy the morning we went and there was zero visibility, so as I sunk down into the cage, I could feel the Great White ramming into our cage, but couldn’t see it. We did see six or seven Great White Sharks from our boat though, which was quite cool!
Shark Cage Diving – Places to visit on your South African vacation
23. Cape Winelands
The South African Winelands, or Cape Winelands, are home to over 300 vineyards and you can easily spend a week exploring this region alone. The most-visited and well-known towns in the region are Stellenbosch, Franschhoek, and Paarl. All of these towns are historically important and filled with cute shops and eateries. With so many vineyards to choose from, we decided to do the Sommelier’s Choice Beryl Back wine and cheese pairing at Fairview Wine & Cheese. This took place in a private, quiet room with our own Sommelier; we got to set the pace for the tasting. I think it’s definitely worth the few extra Rand for this experience. If you’d rather be more social though, there’s a Standard Tasting in the public room and it’s more of a communal experience. If you choose to do both tastings (as we ultimately did), know that you won’t be trying the same wines twice!
Cape Winelands – Places to visit on your South African vacation
24. Boulders Beach
I never thought that I’d see penguins basking in the sun on the beach right beside me, but Boulders Beach made that a reality. It’s one of the most unique beaches in the world – blue water, white sand, and penguins! If you visit on a weekday, the beach will be virtually secluded so that you could enjoy swimming alongside the penguins or watching them waddle close to you. This is, hands down, a “must do” along the Garden Route!
Boulders Beach – Places to visit on your South African vacation
25. Cape Point Nature Reserve
First discovered in 1488, Cape Point was both used for navigation by sailors, but it was also feared due to the rough ocean surrounding it. In fact, it was originally named “Cape of Storms” for its notoriously bad weather; it wasn’t referred to as “Cape of Good Hope” until it became a new sea trading route between India and the East. Legend has it that clouds are always surrounding the iconic white lighthouse – standing 238 m above sea level – because it’s said to be where the Flying Dutchman haunts the ocean.
Cape Point Nature Reserve – Places to visit on your South African vacation
26. Chapman’s Peak Drive
Chapman’s Peak Drive offers breathtaking views en route to Cape Town. It’s a scenic drive with 114 curves, hugging the cliffs on one side and watching the rugged coastline on the other. There’s plenty of site-seeing and hiking to do along the route, but be sure to check if the road is open before you take off for the day! It can be checked on their website here. Be sure to stop at the lookout to Hout Bay, as it’s certainly a stunner!
Hout Bay – Places to visit on your South African vacation
27. Signal Hill
Before making your way into the heart of Cape Town, it’s worth driving up Signal Hill (also known as the Lion’s Rump). Every day at noon a canon is fired off from Signal Hill, which was traditionally used as a means of synchronizing watches so that everyone was on the exact same time. Today, it offers beautiful views over Cape Town and Table Mountain.
View from Signal Hill – Places to visit on your South African vacation
28. Cape Town
Cape Town, with all of its history, is the perfect place to take a free walking tour. I personally took a “Historical Cape Town” tour and a “Bo-Kaap” tour, and I’m thrilled that I did. It provided us with much-needed insight about the history of South African from a local’s perspective, and it was still very fun and engaging. You’ll see all of the key sites within Cape Town, and will learn far more than you ever could on your own. I highly recommend doing this, and you can read more about my experience here.
Bo-Kaap – Places to visit on your South African vacation
29. Table Mountain
If you enjoy a good hike, do not use the funicular to get to the top of Table Mountain. Instead, do yourself a favor and climb Table Mountain via the India Venster Route. It’s not for beginner hikers or anyone with a fear of heights though, as the route uses ladders, chains, and staples to help you up this vertical climb; there’s a decent amount of rock scrambling too! It is considered the most dangerous and exciting route up Table Mountain, and for good reason. If you decide to tackle Table Mountain via the India Venster Route, expect fantastic, rewarding views. I do recommend taking the cable car back down though, as the downhill route is steep, dangerous, and tough on your knees.
Climbing the India Venster Route – Places to visit on your South African vacation
30. Robben Island
Robben Island is a 50-minute ferry ride away from Cape Town, departing from the V&A Waterfront. You take the same ferry there that used to transport the prisoners. There are three prisons on Robben Island; Nelson Mandela was kept in maximum security – their biggest prison – for eighteen years. You can read more about visiting Robben Island here. One of the most fascinating aspects of the Robben Island Tour is that the guides you are given were actual prisoners, so it couldn’t be a more accurate representation of what Robben Island was like when it was an active prison.
Robben Island – Places to visit on your South African vacation
31. Lion’s Head
Lion’s Head is one of those hikes that’s best done before sunrise. Set your alarms for the crack of dawn, hop in your taxi (arrange this with your accommodation the night before), and make your way to the base of Lion’s Head. Remember to bring a headlamp, as there are no lights marking the trail. The top of Lion’s Head is a rock scramble, and if you make it up before sunrise, you will see the sunrise directly behind Table Mountain. What a view it was! If you’re not a morning person, this would be a beautiful day hike as well.
Lion's Head at Sunrise – Places to visit on your South African vacation
Where are these places located?
Here’s a map to show you the places that I recommend visiting on your South Africa vacation. I personally flew into Johannesburg, which marks the general direction of the route I took, but this can certainly be done in reverse as well if you fly into Cape Town! If you have any questions, feel free to send me a message or leave a comment below.
Kruger National Park
St. Lucia Estuary
iSimangaliso Wetland Park
Nelson Mandela Capture Site
Addo Elephant National Park
Tsitsikamma National Park
Monkeyland & Birds of Eden
Jukani Wildlife Sanctuary
De Hoop Nature Reserve
Cape Point Nature Reserve
Chapman’s Peak Drive
Resources for your South Africa vacation…
I highly recommend purchasing (and reading!) the Lonely Planet Southern Africa Guide before journeying into this incredible country! You never know what hidden gems you might find that I missed, or other notable safety concerns.
If you plan on camping, I certainly recommend – and personally use – the following gear:
And, of course it should go without saying, but don't forget your bugspray wipes! If you'd like any other packing and travel essentials, please visit my Amazon Store here. If you choose to purchase anything within this article – from flights to hotels to gear – you will need to purchase within 24 hours after clicking the individual links for me to receive a 3% to 8% commission at no extra cost to you. I truly appreciate all of the continued support…thank you so much and I hope you enjoy your South Africa vacation!
Do You Have Travel Insurance?
I hope you don’t travel without travel insurance! If you do, you better think again. Travel insurance is arguably the most important thing to have on hand (after your passports and visas). I’ve had to use my travel insurance multiple times on the road, even though I’m healthy. You never know when something might happen; take comfort in knowing that whether your flight gets cancelled or you wind up sick and in the hospital, you will be covered. I recommend World Nomads Travel Insurance for each and every one of you travelers. You can get a free quote here.