The Best Places To Visit in South Africa for First Timers
South Africa: A world in one country.
Millions of travellers visit this country found at the southern tip of Africa to witness its breathtaking scenery, incredible variety of wildlife, cosmopolitan cities, and to take advantage of its amazing year-round weather. The rainbow nation is also known for its rich and diverse cultures. Often voted as one of the most beautiful countries in the world, visitors to South Africa are enticed with a land that is bountiful in sweeping vistas, dramatic coastlines, rolling grasslands, wild plateaus, impressive mountainscapes, and untamed bushveld.
How to decide where to go?
That’s what I’m here for. Check out this list of the best places to visit in South Africa in 2023.
Other reasons to visit South Africa include its unparalleled biodiversity, friendly locals, adventure activities, good food and wine. The country is also known for its great tourist infrastructure and abundance of accommodation options. Not to mention, South Africa is an affordable tourist destination.
So what are you waiting for? Book that trip to South Africa!
>> Further reading:
- 35+ essential South Africa travel tips to know before you go
- The best countries to visit in Africa in 2023
- Be inspired to visit with these quotes about Africa and songs about Africa
- Revealed: The richest countries in Africa
- Where to find the best sunsets in Africa
- 10 cheapest islands to visit
- What is South Africa famous for?
Your Guide to the Best Places To Visit in South Africa
What part of South Africa is best for your first trip?
Here’s some inspiration for you…
1 | Kruger National Park
Often described as the real Africa, the Kruger National Park encompasses almost 2 million hectares of the world’s most iconic wildlife and safari species. Established way back in 1926, the park is one of Africa’s largest game reserves and certainly one of the most famous.
Found in the northeastern part of the country, it is the region with the greatest diversity of wildlife in the country with over 3,000 species of fauna and flora. Animals to be found in this massive expanse include the Big 5 – lion, elephant, rhino, leopards, buffalo – as well as cheetah, giraffe, zebra, springbok, hippo, hyenas, wild dogs, and crocodile. It is also a haven for bird watchers with more than 500 species of birds found living here.
A self-drive through the park on designated routes is a great way to go at your own pace, starting at one of the 10 entrance gates. Skukuza is the main rest camp of the park and the current daily conservation fee in 2023 is R440 per person.
What is the best month to visit Kruger National Park?
When planning a trip, it is worth bearing in mind that the best time to visit the Kruger National Park is during the dry season from May to October. During this period the vegetation is thinly dispersed and scattered, making the wildlife easier to spot. Prepare to spend at least 4 days exploring this fascinating region to really get a taste of the park’s amazing wildlife viewing. You’ll also be happy to know that crime is not an issue in the Kruger Park and it is very safe to visit.
No trip to the southern part of Africa is complete without experiencing the magnificence that is the Kruger National Park and it remains one of the best places to visit in South Africa in 2023. It is simply the perfect destination for nature lovers and wildlife enthusiasts.
>> Your guide to the safest countries in Africa.
Is South Africa on this list?
2 | Cape Town
This beautiful city needs no introduction and is often voted as the best place to visit in South Africa for first timers. Charmingly located between the Atlantic Ocean and Table Mountain, the Mother City is a tourists’ playground and a top vacation spot in the world.
This hub of culture, history, beauty, nightlife, and cuisine has something to offer everyone. Whether you’re visiting as a family, a couple, a bunch of friends, or as a solo traveler, you’re bound to have a good time.
A week in Cape Town will give you ample time to discover the city and its immediate surroundings. However, you could spend weeks in this African city and not run out of things to do and adventures to have.
The first thing you should do is hike up or take a cable car to the top of Table Mountain, the country’s most iconic landmark and most photographed site. This significant tourist attraction, one of the 7 Natural Wonders of the World, offers the best views of cape Town and the surroundings below.
Other popular tourist attractions in Cape Town include the V&A Waterfront, Lions Head, Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens, Bo Kaap, Camps Bay, and the Two Oceans Aquarium.
Don’t miss a trip to see the penguins of Boulders Beach as well as the Cape Peninsula, Cape Point, and the Cape Winelands. You will also want to prioritise a drive along the scenic Chapman’s Peak and a visit to Robben Island, a living museum dedicated to the history of the country.
The best places to stay while in Cape Town include the Atlantic Seaboard and the City Bowl, with the former being my personal favourite. Cape Town is enticing and inviting, with a whole lot of good vibes. Once here, you may not want to leave.
3 | The Garden Route
Picture a 300 km stretch of spectacular coastline along the southwest coast of the country filled with amazing beaches, evergreen forests, lagoons, lakes, rocky shores, charming towns, and a vast ecologically diverse landscape. This is the Garden Route, a top contender as one of the best places to visit in South Africa, that extends from Mossel Bay in the Western Cape to Storms River in the Eastern Cape province.
Is the Garden Route worth doing?
This popular holiday destination in South Africa is one of the leading scenic drives, offering something for everyone with lots of interesting things to do, see, and eat along the way. It requires at least 4 or 5 days to see the popular attractions along the main route.
When planning a road trip, prime spots to add to your itinerary include Plettenberg Bay, Wilderness, Oudtshoorn, Nature’s Valley, Jeffrey’s Bay, Mossel Bay, Knysna, Storms River Mouth, and the Map of Africa. Animal lovers should not miss the Knysna Elephant Park, Gondwana Game Reserve, Monkeyland, Birds of Eden, and Jukani Wildlife Sanctuary.
Other things to do along the Garden Route are hiking in Robberg Nature Reserve, paragliding over Wilderness Beach, abseiling in the Kaaimans Gorge, and bungee jumping off the Bloukrans bridge.
For adrenaline-filled adventure, breathtaking scenery, delicious cuisine, and rich wildlife, the Garden Route is the ideal option for you.
>> Speaking of cuisine, don’t miss this list:
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4 | The Drakensberg
The highest mountain range of Southern Africa, the Drakensberg extends over 1,125 km along the province of KwaZulu-Natal and the kingdom of Lesotho. Roughly translating to “dragon mountains,” it rises over 3,475 metres and remains one of the best places in South Africa to visit.
The Drakensberg was declared a world heritage site in 2000, not only because of its physical beauty, but also due to its cultural and ecological diversity that goes back 182 million years.
The world-renowned Amphitheatre holds one of South Africa’s most impressive cliff faces. Here you will come across cliffs rising 1220 meters for over 5 kilometres in length.
What is the Drakensberg famous for?
Along with being Southern Africa’s highest mountain range, the Drakensberg is sought after for its many hiking routes with trails that cater for all ages and every ability. Of these, the Tugela Gorge and Amphitheatre Rim hikes are the most popular. Other hiking routes worth considering include Rainbow Gorge, Cathedral Peak, Icidi Gorge, Gudu Falls, and Monks Cowl.
These mountains are also home to a number of nature reserves with plenty of wildlife. Chasing waterfalls is a pleasurable activity here along with star gazing, fly fishing, slack-packing, a visit to Kenmo Lake, and a drive along the Sani Pass.
If you have some extra time, why not check out the ancient rock art sites of the indigenous San people found at giants Castle in the Southern and Central Drakensberg.
The Drakensberg is a pleasant 3 hour journey from Durban. The entrance charge is R20 per person. You will want to plan a visit to the Drakensberg region during the spring and autumn months to take advantage of the mild weather, long days, and reduced chance of heavy rain and thunderstorms.
5 | Blyde River Canyon
The Blyde River Canyon, charmingly positioned between the Drakensberg Mountains and the refreshing waters of the Blyde River, is the largest green canyon in the world.
What is unique about Blyde River Canyon?
This ancient geological wonder, dating back almost 100 thousand years, is unique due to its subtropical vegetation that dominates the region. Located in the northeast of South Africa’s Mpumalanga province, the canyon measures 25 kilometers in length, with an average depth of 750 meters.
The R35 entry fee into the Blyde River Canyon allows you access to the canyon viewpoint and the Three Rondavels, a distinct rock formation. From here take in the magnificence of one of the most beautiful views in South Africa, extending for over 50 kms along the lip of the great African escarpment.
Once you’re done admiring the view, take your pick from one of the many adventurous activities on offer among the dramatic scenery that include hiking, kloofing, water rafting, fly fishing, and horse riding. While exploring the area that is home to an abundance of plant and animal species, don’t miss the weeping face of nature, a truly hidden gem in South Africa.
The Blyde River canyon, part of the Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve, is a highlight of any visit to Mpumalanga and should not be missed.
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6 | iSimangaliso Wetland Park and St Lucia
A natural habitat for a plethora of Africa’s iconic wildlife, a land of unmatched beauty, lush green forests, and welcoming warm waters, make St Lucia and the surrounding wetlands one of the best places to travel in South Africa.
This huge protected area along the coast of South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal Province covers an area of 3 280 km² and perfectly intertwines eight inter-locking ecosystems.
iSimangaliso, meaning miracle and wonder, is South Africa’s first official World Heritage Site that offers long sandy beaches, coral reefs, costal dunes, swamp forests, lakes, and wetlands.
What activities can one do in iSimangaliso?
Things to do in iSimangaliso Wetland Park include a river boat cruise along Lake St Lucia, going on a big-five game drive, exploring the lakes at Kosi Bay, going on a midnight turtle walking tour, wandering the fig forest in Mkhuze Game Reserve, and visiting a crocodile farm.
St Lucia, a hub for the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, is renowned for its rich birdlife and marine life. The region also supports an abundance of hippos, crocodiles, and rhinoceroses.
Cape Vidal, located within the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, is arguably the most popular spot for snorkeling in South Africa. Other activities in the area include hiking, fishing, diving, horse riding, and whale watching.
The best time to visit this top tourist destination is during the spring and summer months of September to May, although it is best to avoid the peak school holiday season between December and mid-January to avoid the crowds and the higher prices that come along with it.
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7 | The Cradle of Humankind
Just over 50 km northwest of Johannesburg lies the ultra-rich paleo-anthropological World Heritage site that is the Cradle of Humankind. As one of the most important fossil sites in the world, the Cradle of Humankind is a must visit during your first time in South Africa. Fortunately, it is pretty easy to get here and is one of the best day trips from Johannesburg.
Is the Cradle of Humankind worth visiting?
Aptly named so, the site is home to the largest concentration of human ancestral remains and hominid fossils anywhere in the world, dating as far back as 3.5 million years ago and is definitely worth checking out.
Traces of fossils, tools, and skeletal remains have been found that provide valuable information about the evolution of humans as a species and the confirmation that some of the earliest ancestors of modern humans originate from this area.
Top attractions to be found within the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site include the Maropeng Visitor centre, Strekfontein Cave, and the Kromdraai Gold Mine. A R175 entry fee will give you access to these sites. A visit can be done as a half of full day tour from Johannesburg. Alternatively, if you opt to spend the night, there are a number of great accommodation options to choose from.
Once inside, you get to witness the interactive exhibitions about the history of the human species, replicas of hominids, the stone tools that were used during that time period. Don’t miss the underground boat ride within the Tumulus building.
You also have the option of partaking in numerous outdoor activities such as caving, abseiling, hot-air ballooning, quad biking, horse riding, and fishing.
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8 | God’s Window & Panorama Route
Mpumalanga, or land of the rising sun, is without doubt of best places to visit in South Africa 2023. The area, known for its incredible natural beauty, is a landscape of forests, wetlands, savannahs, and pristine wildlife.
The panorama route, a 160 km stretch of road, is said to be one of the most scenic drives in the world. The route, steeped in the history of the country with picture perfect natural and cultural attractions dotted along the way, takes you into the heart of the province of Mpumalanga.
The star attraction of the Panorama Route is a viewpoint, aptly named God’s window. From here witness another awe-inspiring place in South Africa, providing a panoramic vistas of the Lowveld region and the lush indigenous forest clad ravine that surrounds. On a clear day you may even be able to see as far as the Indian Ocean.
There is a R10 entrance fee to access the viewpoint that is reached after following a trail of 300 steps.
What attractions are found along the Panorama Route?
In addition to God’s Window, other highlights found on the Panorama Route include Bourke’s Luck Potholes, Mac Mac Pools, The Pinnacle Rock, Berlin Falls, Lisbon Falls, Sudwala Caves, and the Echo Caves.
If you’re feeling adventurous, be sure to stop by at the Big Swing in Graskop, one of the world’s highest cable gorge swings with a free-fall of 70 meters in under 3 seconds.
The best way to discover this region, one of the most beautiful places in South Africa, is to hire a car and plan a road trip. Set aside around three days to fully immerse yourself in the region and its surrounding beauty.
>> Keep these questions about travelling and
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9 | Wild Coast and Coffee Bay
Last up on this list of best places in South Africa to visit is the exotic and untamed wilderness of the Wild Coast. This 250 kilometre long stretch of unspoilt coastline between the Mtamvuna River in the north and the Great Kei River in the south along the Indian Ocean encompasses wild beaches, lagoons, bays, rugged headlands, and forgotten shipwrecks.
What is there to see along the Wild Coast?
Coffee Bay is one of the most popular spots along the Wild Coast. This popular backpacking getaway spot harmoniously combines spectacular surroundings with authentic culture.
For the perfect photo op and a lovely swim in a lagoon, be sure to stop by at the Hole-in-the-Wall. This impressive natural rocky archway, dating back 260 million years, is located at the mouth of the Mpako River and features a huge detached cliff with a hole carved through its centre by the surrounding Indian Ocean.
Other amazing attractions in the Wild Coast include Silaka Nature Reserve, Hluleka Nature Reserve, Waterfall Bluff, and Wild Waves Waterpark. Adventure activities include diving, cliff jumping, hiking, fishing, canoeing, abseiling, and surfing.
To get to the Wild Coast, you have the option of a flight to Durban or Mthatha, depending on which section of this coats you intend on exploring. On arrival at the airport, you can choose to rent a car or make use of a private transfer.
10 | Other Places to Travel in South Africa
The Cape Winelands
Pilanesberg National Park
Kgalagadi (Kalahari) Transfrontier Park
Addo Elephant National Park
Tsitsikamma National Park
And there you go. Your perfect intro into the best places to go in South Africa. I would recommend using this list as a base for your South African travel itinerary and adding to it based on your own personal interests, travel style, and the length of your vacation time.
As the popular travel slogan goes, South Africa is alive with possibility. There’s no end to the adventures that await you in this unique land.