South Africa has breathtaking landscapes and quaint, country towns when you need to escape it all for a weekend getaway or longer.
South Africa offers a great range of getaway destinations through mountainous landscapes, vineyards, beaches, colonial towns and more. Here are just 25 of the top places to visit in South Africa, in alphabetical order.
Sometimes you find yourself in the middle of nowhere. And sometimes, in the middle of nowhere, you find yourself.
With the picturesque Clanwilliam and Bulshoek dams and the spectacular Cederberg mountains in the area, this town offers the perfect weekend getaway. Located two hours from Cape Town, Clanwilliam is the perfect base from which to explore the surrounding area, including the magnificent and secluded Biedouw Valley.
Clarens is dubbed ‘the jewel of the Free State’, and is a haven for artistic and food-loving types. Clarens would be a serious contender for the title of ‘South Africa’s favourite town’ due to its location nestled in the foothills of the Maluti mountains and a stone’s throw from Golden Gate National Park, which lies on the border between the Free State, Kwa-Zulu Natal and the mountain kingdom of Lesotho.
3. Coffee Bay
It may be a stretch to classify Coffee Bay as a ‘town’ (it is tiny), but our list would not be complete without it. Nguni cattle graze freely on rolling green hills which abruptly end to meet the ocean. Coffee Bay is located on the ‘Wild Coast’, which is completely untouched by industrial development and breathtakingly beautiful. The Hole in the Wall is one of South Africa’s most famous tourist attractions and Mdumbi beach has been voted one of South Africa’s best beaches.
Fresh air, tranquility, magnificent scenery and the unofficial title as South Africa’s premier fly fishing destination make this village the perfect getaway and a shoo-in on this list.
Known as the good food and wine capital of South Africa, this scenic gem never disappoints. Its dramatic mountains, fusion of French and Dutch architecture and laid-back atmosphere have visitors returning time and time again.
Many motorists travelling through the Free State pass this gem without a second thought, but anyone who has woken up to the sunrise from the De Stijl hotel, which overlooks the dam, will forever understand why this inconspicuous village made this list. The many islands and bays are reminiscent of a Mediterranean archipelago, made all the more spectacular against the backdrop of the Free State’s plains.
Graaff Reinet is South Africa’s fourth oldest town, and arguably one of its most beautifully-preserved. It was the hometown of one of South Africa’s greatest industrialists and philantropists, Anton Rupert, and the town boasts leafy streets and a treasure trove of quaint restaurants and cafés. Camdeboo National park and the Valley of Desolation, just outside town, is a wonderland of scenic contrasts.
Little more than an hour’s drive from Cape Town is the picturesque village of Greyton, founded in 1854. Visitors can unwind and step back in time as they stroll through the village’s oak-lined lanes, past free-roaming cows and donkeys. Calming scenic beauty coupled with excellent restaurants and cafés make Greyton a favourite on this list.
Legend has it that Hogsback was the inspiration for JRR Tolkien’s creations in his Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit books. There is something undoubtedly magical about this village. The road leading to it winds steeply through lush green forests until the small town reveals itself perched atop the Amathole mountains. With regular snowfall in winter and its pristine forests, the town of Hogsback can confidently claim to be one of the most picturesque towns in South Africa.
Vineyards stretch as far as the eye can see and line the majestic Orange River, which works its way through the town of Kakamas. The abundance of water (thanks to the river and a labyrinth network of canals), grand-scale vineyards, deep-blue African skies, quiver trees, wide-open landscapes and starry nights all combine to create this gem in the Kalahari. Friendly, hospitable, down-to-earth people ensure visitors are treated like royalty.
At the foot of the Langeberg mountains on the eastern edge of the Cape Winelands lies the charming village of Montagu. The town has an old-world charm, great restaurants, a vibrant Saturday market and superb guest accommodation which caters for every budget. Whether visiting for a weekend of fun with the kids, relaxing with friends or a romantic getaway, Montagu will not disappoint. Voted ‘town of the year’ by CapeInfo.com in 2012.
This tiny village at the foot of the Sneeuberg is a favourite among artists and writers. The village gained popularity thanks to Athol Fugard’s acclaimed play, The Road to Mecca, which tells the story about the Owl House and Helen Martins, its reclusive and eccentric former inhabitant. It’s one of the most interesting places in South Africa.
Nieuwoudtville is known for the springtime bloom of wild flowers, which results in explosions of vibrant colours. However, this town is worth visiting all year round as it has all the natural beauty, peace, quiet and genuine hospitality anyone can ask for.
14. Nottingham Road
In the rolling green hills of KwaZulu-Natal lies the charming village of Nottingham Road. Besides being an art-lover’s paradise, Nottingham Road has country charm and an abundance of natural scenic beauty. It lies in the heart of the Midlands Meander, where visitors are welcomed into the studios of some of South Africa’s best-known artists, craftsmen and sculptors. The site of Nelson Mandela’s capture, which eventually led to his 27-year imprisonment, is 30 minutes’ drive away.
15. Pilgrim’s Rest
Bourke’s Luck Potholes, Mpumalanga
As a living museum which offers insight into the gold rush at the turn of the 20th century, the entire town has been declared a national monument. As much as the town itself is interesting and quirky – don’t miss the Royal Hotel’s Church bar, which was transported from Cape Town to Pilgrim’s Rest via Maputo, by sea and ox-wagon – the town is on Mpumalanga’s picturesque Panorama route, which boasts some of the most majestic scenery on earth. Everyone should see the view from God’s Window at least once in their life.
16. Port St Johns
Port St Johns is touted as the ‘Jewel of the Wild Coast’ on account of its subtropical climate and completely untainted natural environment. Similar to Coffee Bay, Port St Johns is adorned by numerous secluded beaches and hectares of dense forest. This is rural Africa at its best.
17. Prince Albert
Prince Albert lies in a picturesque fertile valley on the edge of the great Karoo on the one side and the Swartberg mountains on the other. The legendary Showroom theatre, with its Art Deco architecture, attracts many well-known artists to the small town and visitors can choose from many good-quality restaurants, guest houses and art galleries. The spectacular Swartberg pass, a dramatic and scenic mountain pass, starts just outside town.
Want a food and wine lover’s paradise in the Cape winelands without the crowds or exorbitant prices? Look no further than Riebeek-Kasteel. Try the French-Italian inspired country cuisine at Café Felix, the beautifully presented comfort food at Bar Bar Black Sheep Restaurant, or a late afternoon gin and tonic on the verandah of the Royal Hotel.
Sabie and its surrounds are paradise for nature lovers and adventure seekers. Game viewing, hiking, fly fishing, white-water rafting, rock-climbing and abseiling are just some of the activities on offer. Add to that the majestic scenery on the Panorama route and the fact that day trips to the Kruger National Park can easily be made from town. Named ‘town of the Year’ by Rapport and Kwêla in 2012.
20. St. Lucia
St. Lucia’s iSimangaliso Wetland Park became the first South African World Heritage Site in 1999. Wild and largely unspoilt (hippopotami roam the streets at night), nature lovers can marvel at the area’s large populations of hippos, crocodiles and other wildlife. Apart from the wetlands areas, the area also offers pristine beaches and sensational scuba diving.
Only a few hours’ drive from Cape Town is one of the coldest places in South Africa: Sutherland. Besides being known for its cold winters, it offers year-round warm hospitality, wide-open spaces, peace and quiet. With very little light pollution, it is known as the star-gazing capital of South Africa. Don’t miss the lamb shank at Cluster d’Hote restaurant.
Tulbagh is a hidden gem, bordered by mountains on three sides and located in a fertile, serene, wine-producing valley. The town is one of South Africa’s oldest (the first farmers settled here in 1700) and in Church Street visitors will find the highest concentration of national monuments in the country (some 32). The nearby Matroosberg reserve is known for its snowfall during winter and Saronsberg Wine Estate produces some of South Africa’s best wines.
With the Sani Pass, the mountain kingdom of Lesotho and uKhahlamba/Drakensberg park (declared a World Heritage Site in 2000) on its doorstep, Underberg is known as the gateway to the southern Drakensberg. It is also a popular destination for fly fishing.
Located in a fertile valley cradled by mountains, the town of Villiersdorp is as charming as you’ll ever visit. The quiet streets are lined with storm water trenches and oak trees as well as beautifully maintained gardens and old houses, giving the town a lovely country feel. Getting there is a pleasure, with four spectacular mountain passes to choose from (the Franschhoek pass is particularly breathtaking). To top it all off, the nearby Theewaterskloof dam is a playground for watersports in summer.
The town of Wilderness encapsulates everything there is to love about the Garden Route – it has a long, white sandy beach and azure ocea,; a wonderfully mild climate, lush forests, majestic mountains and a number of lakes, rivers and estuaries. The Garden Route National Park is beautifully maintained and offers excellent accommodation at reasonable prices.
Photo credits: Valroe (Cederberg cave), Vincentvanoosten (Hole in the Wall), miquitos (Franschhoek), South African Tourism (Valley of Desolation), Dave Bezaire (Cape Winelands), Yolanda (Bourke’s Luck Potholes), Petter Lindgren (iSimangaliso Wetland Park).