A few years ago, my sister and I traveled to South Africa, and it quickly became one of my favorite countries. Sweeping ocean vistas along the Garden Route, epic hiking trails in lush national parks, “big five” safaris in game reserves, verdant wine country, and hip urban areas… what’s not to love?
With so much to do and see in South Africa, it can be daunting. Where do I start, you may ask? Have no fear. I’m here to share thirteen of my favorite places with you so that you can focus and hit the highlights during your stay.
But make sure you bring a good camera! You’ll want to capture the pristine beauty of this stunning country. Your trip will remain with you, always…
I use a Nikon D-3100 and Canon Power Shot SX40. Check out Gumtree for some good camera options.
Table of Contents
13 South Africa Highlights
There are so many things to do in South Africa. After spending three weeks there, I left only wanting to see more. Despite missing out on big chunks in the southeast like Durban, Swaziland, Lesotho (those two are actually separate countries), Zululand, and the Drakensberg Mountains, we were able to experience a lot of what South Africa has to offer. Here are my favorites:
1- Addo Elephant National Park
South Africa’s third largest national park, Addo is a self-drive safari park, which is pretty neat. Visitors cover the park at their own pace and discover wildlife on their own. It’s kind of like a choose your own adventure.
If the name doesn’t give it away, there are a stunning amount of elephants in the park. They will walk right up to your vehicle, cross the street in front of you, lay down in the road, you get the picture. Elephants are smart and beautiful creatures, but don’t let their gentle giant aura fool you. They are one of the Big 5 and are extremely dangerous.
Do NOT make the mistake that I did and get out of your car to take a photo. As a seasoned traveler, it’s hard for me to admit that one. What was it that the South African bloke said from a nearby car?
[Said in a lovely South African accent] “Are you mad?! Get back in your car!”
2- Tsitsikamma National Park
One of many must-see stops along the Garden Route, Tsitsikamma covers 50 miles of stunning coastal reserve. Head to one of the highlights, Storm’s River Mouth, where visitors can walk on the suspension bridge and overlook the mouth of the river where it meets the ocean.
The park has plenty of amazing hikes in indigenous forests as well.
Considered a coastal resort town, Knysna is situated on a warm water estuary called Knysna Lagoon, where the Knysna River meets the Indian Ocean. It’s also a stop along The Garden Route.
One of the small town’s claims to fame (other than the breathtaking views) are the large headlands where the river meets the ocean, known as The Heads.
4- The Cape Winelands: Stellenbosch, Franschhoek and Paarl
Most people have heard of South African’s fabulous wine (the country’s wine industry produces about one billion liters of wine annually). One of the best wine producing regions includes the Stellenbosch, Franschoek, and Paarl valleys, which form the Cape Winelands.
During our stay in Cape Town, we purchased a fun wine tour package with African Story Tours, visiting vineyards in each of the three valleys. This was a great way to experience the Cape Winelands on a day trip, but if I had more time in the area, I would most certainly stay in Stellenbosch (or thereabouts) and explore the area more thoroughly.
Like most wine grape growing regions (think California’s Napa & Sonoma, Italy’s Tuscany, Southwest Australia, Argentina’s Mendoza, etc. etc.), the Cape Winelands embody that perfect Mediterranean climate: warm, dry days, crisp cool mornings and evenings. The landscape reminded me a lot of California wine country, but the mountains added a punch of drama. There are few things more enjoyable than gulping sipping a delicious glass of Cab on a beautiful day, surrounded by stunning scenery and good company.
5- Kruger National Park
South Africa’s largest national park is also one of the best places to see the Big 5.
6- Table Mountain
Did you know that Table Mountain National Park is home to more species of plant than the entire United Kingdom? Part of the UNESCO Cape Floral Kingdom World Heritage Site, Table Mountain is a biodiversity hotspot and considered an anomaly by most botanists.
If you want a great half to full day activity in Cape Town, hike to the aerial cableway and ride it to the top of Table Mountain for stunning views of the whole Cape area!
7- Cape Town
Easily one of the coolest and prettiest cities on the planet, Cape Town has a perfect combination of beautiful scenery, eclectically excellent shopping, hip bars and delicious eateries, and innate culture.
I could (and I probably will) write a half dozen posts about Cape Town alone. It’s a perfect base for exploring the nearby Cape of Good Hope, Table Mountain, Robben Island, and the Cape Winelands.
8- Cape of Good Hope/Cape Point
If based in Cape Town, this is a great day or half day trip. The Cape is a beautiful drive. Just don’t run out of gas like we almost did!
9- Great White Shark Cage Diving
“Diving” is a little bit of a misnomer here, because most great white shark operations don’t actually offer SCUBA diving. Yes, you put on a wet suit and mask. Yes, you get in a cage and go under the water. But you don’t breathe compressed air from a regulator, and therefor you don’t need to be certified by NAUI or PADI to catch a glimpse of these majestic creatures.
While I was staying in Cape Town, I chose APEX Shark Expeditions, as they received some of the best reviews and are the first choice for Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, and Nat Geo. Shark Week filming is often done with APEX. Over all, it was a pretty great experience, but I don’t know if I would repeat it, and here’s why:
Like I said, you are not SCUBA diving, so to see the sharks, you have to hold your breath and pull yourself down in the cage to see the massive fish (yes, sharks are fish. Weird, huh?).
Secondly, you’re in a cage with two other people, and it gets a bit crowded. I kept bonking my head against the cage when someone bumped against me. Yea, the water is really rough…. so it’s like bumper cars in that little cage.
That’s another thing to consider, if you are prone to sea sickness, the potential for choppy seas. And that water is COLD! Burrrr. I almost didn’t get in.
If I were to ever “dive with great whites” again, I would seek out an operation that offers SCUBA, where I could stay for longer periods in the water and get better views of the sharks.
I definitely saw a couple of sharks swim by and under our cage, attracted to the chum the crew threw into the water.
But the highlight of the trip for me was watching a great white breach the water, going after a mock seal buoy our boat was towing. Here’s a (really bad) 6 second video of the shark as it is splashing back down into the water after the breach… So, it’s no Discovery Channel clip, but oh well. I saw it! It’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen!
Frequent breaching activity is unique to False Bay in South Africa, which is one of the reasons the area is so infamous and popular with Discovery Channel, Nat Geo, etc. Apparently, great white breaching is rare elsewhere in the wild!
This picturesque town is the fourth oldest in South Africa. Filled with quaint Cape Dutch architecture set against tall, lush mountains, it feels like a movie set; so perfect it seems unreal.
We stayed at Aan de Oever Guesthouse, and it was magical. I’m not being paid to say that! The staff and owner were so friendly, the room we stayed in massive and very unique, and the views… Oh the VIEWS! Made that much sweeter with a glass of delicious South African wine…
11- Apartheid Musuem
Hands down, it’s one of the best museums on the planet (not that I’ve been to every museum on the planet, but anyway…). The exhibits draw you in and bring the somber reality that was apartheid boiling to the surface. It’s simply enthralling… and powerful. The Apartheid Museum is in Johannesburg.
The Outback of South Africa, the semi-arid region where Oudtshoorn resides is full of captivating creatures and features.
The Cango Wildlife Center provides visitors with the opportunity to play with lemurs and pet cheetahs and baby tigers.
The Cango Caves are impressive, with massive vaulted ceilings and surreal formations.
13- Cape Aghulas
You can’t travel all the way to South Africa and not visit the most southerly point on the continent! Cape Aghulas is the southern tip of Africa and also where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet. There’s a neat lighthouse to climb. No need to spend too much time here, but a visit is worth the bragging rights, I reckon.
OK, now I’m totally ready to go back to South Africa! Have you been?
This post was sponsored by Gumtree, but all opinions are 100% my own.