The 10 best things to do in South Africa

There’s no shortage of thrilling things to do in South Africa, from spying elephants on safari to exploring the country’s historic sites. We look at some of the best experiences the Rainbow Nation has to offer.

By Saga team

Published 5 May 2024

Rhino white family Kruger South Africa

Cape Town is renowned for its melting pot of culture, along with its vibrant streets and friendly people. Its long history through struggle, wars, and oppression, has made its people hardy, resilient, and open.

Cable car over Cape Town, South Africa

The Cape of Good Hope is a truly beautiful vista, complete with adorable ‘Jackass’ penguins, which are always great fun to watch. For those looking to discover the history of the area, the District Six Museum maps the lives and stories of locals displaced by the apartheid regime, or you can learn more about Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was once held prisoner. Take the short ferry ride over from Cape Town to explore the prison buildings, the quarry where inmates were put to work and the leper cemetery.

The revolving cable car to the top of Table Mountain is another must-see experience from your Cape Town base; or you can even hike some of the way if you’re feeling energetic!

Whether you’re a wine connoisseur or someone who simply appreciates an occasional glass of red, white or rosé, a holiday spent in the Cape Winelands is both educational and immensely enjoyable. Just an hour’s scenic drive from Cape Town is a wonderful wine-producing area, regarded as the best in South Africa.

In the beautiful Franschhoek Valley, which can be explored aboard a quirky wine tram, you’ll find rolling countryside full of vast vineyards – and some of South Africa’s oldest and most distinguished wine estates, many of which have a French Huguenot heritage. Expert guides will explain the winemaking process, share their knowledge of local grape varieties, and, of course, allow you to sample a few.

Vineyards, Winelands, South Africa

The neighbouring region of Stellenbosch has nearly 200 wine and grape producers, and many of the estates boast grand Cape Dutch manor houses and equally imposing gardens.

At Stellenbosch Vineyards, which has an ideal climate and soil for winemaking, you may get the chance to sip The Flagship Petit Verdot, a deep ruby-hued wine with intense dark cheery and blackcurrant flavours. Or perhaps a limited-release Verdelho, a floral zesty wine with revealing peach and apricot flavours.

Another Western Cape town, found a little south of Cape Town, is Hermanus. This seaside resort is famous across the globe as a whale watching destination, so if you’re interested in seeing some of these magnificent mammals in their natural habitat, this is the place to head.

Whale watching

The area is treated to a wash of whales in late July as they come surprisingly close to the coast, making it a great place to see some of nature’s greatest mammals, as well as offering up the perfect opportunity to relax by the sea. Head to the Old Harbour Museum and the Whale House Museum for more information on the region's most famous beautiful creatures.

With its own selection of award-winning wineries and bistros, it’s the perfect place to unwind for a few days, or on a day trip from your base in Cape Town.

Kruger is the oldest national park in South Africa, having been established in 1898. It’s also one of the biggest, with an area five times that of Kent.

It was partially established in an attempt to control hunting and allow for repopulation of faltering species. Today, the park is home to more than 16,000 elephants, African wild dogs, which are critically endangered, and a great deal of other bird and plant life.

People on safari in Kruger National Park, South Africa.

We recommend you start early; the gates open at around 4:30am, so it’s worth beating the morning rush and going until lunchtime, with a break until mid-afternoon (3-4pm). The midday heat drives most animals to seek shelter, so not only will you be braving the harshest sun, but you’re unlikely to see many animals.

We offer a range of safari holidays that let you explore Kruger National Park, along with other big-hitting parks like Sanbona Wildlife Reserve and KwaZulu Natal.

Arum lilies, pincushion protea, the orange clusters of clivia – many fascinating and beautiful flowers flourish in South Africa. The stunning strelitzia is one of the country’s favourites; otherwise known as the bird of paradise flower, its vibrant orange and blue blooms even appear on South Africa's 50 cent coin. The whole area of the Western Cape is a paradise for both keen gardeners and avid photographers, especially in spring when wild flowers appear en masse.

Kirstenbosch Gardens in Cape Town South Africa

The same can be said for the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, which are situated on the slopes of the iconic Table Mountain, and just eight miles from Cape Town. The gardens’ grand setting is just a small part of the appeal, though – the attraction is also considered to be one of the greatest botanical gardens in the world. South Africa’s national flower, the king protea, takes centre-stage, but you can also see around 2,500 other species of plants.

The Karoo Desert Botanical Gardens is a wonder, too. The only truly succulent garden in the southern hemisphere, it displays a glorious collection of indigenous, rare and endangered flora, and cultivates a wide variety of arid plants. Also worth seeking out is the Cape Columbine Nature Reserve, known for its West Coast fynbos, natural shrubland.

Knysna is perfectly situated in the middle of a natural amphitheatre of hills, in the heart of the famous Garden Route. What started as an overspill from a gold rush town has grown into a beautiful seaside location, surrounded by ancient forests, waterfalls, and gorges.

Knysna, Western Cape, South Africa

Explore the indigenous forests and reserves in the area, either on foot or by bike, or head to the Knysna waterfront to relax, do some shopping, and grab something to eat. The beautiful coastline makes for the perfect beach day, or, if you prefer to spend more time on the water, why not try kayaking on the Knysna Estuary? One thing’s for sure, nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts will be spoilt for choice on a visit to Knysna.

Stretching almost 125 miles between Mossel Bay in the Western Cape to Storms River in the east, the legendary and magnificent Garden Route takes in highways, mountain passes and rugged coastlines. Lagoons, coves, gorges, forests ­– the landscape constantly changes as you meander along, with every stage of the journey providing awe-inspiring sights. If you’re not driving, keep your eyes peeled out to sea as you may spot a dolphin, southern right whale or great white shark.

Two national parks, Wilderness and Tsitsikamma, are also worth exploring – the latter is the home of the Knysna lourie, a bright green bird with a short, hooked bill and brilliant red wings. North of Oudtshoorn, there are no prizes for guessing what you’ll see at the fun Cango Ostrich Farm.

Robberg, Garden Route in South Africa

Visit the Cango Caves too, inhabited since the Early Stone Age. The caves are one of the greatest natural wonders of the world and the oldest tourist attraction in South Africa.

Plettenberg Bay has some of the coast’s most pristine beaches and crystal-clear waters. Don’t just sunbathe and swim though, head to nearby Robberg Nature Reserve – rocks from this region date back 120 million years.

And add the nature reserve at Storms River Mouth to your itinerary. The Indian Ocean relentlessly pounds rocky shores here. Some Garden Route tours also take in Cape Agulhas, the spot where the mighty Indian and Atlantic Oceans meet.

There’s something incredibly exciting and romantic about stepping aboard a train, especially one with a historic past such as the elegant Pride of Africa. The train uses authentic rolling stock, some of which is over 60 years old. Carriages are air conditioned and tastefully decorated throughout, reflecting the opulence of the 1920s era.

An adventure could take you to Matjiesfontein via the Cape Winelands and Great Karoo plains – one of the four tunnels you pass through is around eight miles long. At Kimberley, the capital of Northern Cape province, a trip to the mining museum to see the world’s largest uncut diamond is a must. Look out too for the Big Hole, the largest hand-dug excavation in the world, the result of frantic diamond rush.

Rovos Rail train, South Africa

Alternatively, experience South Africa – as well as Swaziland - from the first-class Shongololo Express. A luxury train trip could take you from Johannesburg to Malelane, where you can visit Kruger National Park. En route you’ll stop at God’s Window, a vantage point high up on the Drakensberg Escarpment which looks down into a lush forest ravine. A game drive at Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park is also recommended, looking out for the Big Five, as well as wild dogs and cheetah.

Rovos Rail is another option. This elegant locomotive will transport you straight back to the Edwardian era. Expect decadent interiors with vintage fixtures, top food and wine, and an intimate, personalised service style – with just 72 passengers onboard. There are four routes to choose from and all offer epic wildlife, winelands and mountain views.

One of the most fun things to do in Cape Town is to visit the Boulders African Penguin Colony, which is part of the marine protected area of the Table Mountain National Park.

See these cute creatures waddling between giant boulders and little rock pools, and swimming in the crystal-clear waters of South Africa.

Wild South African penguins

If you want to explore the natural side of the cosmopolitan and vibrant city of Cape Town, you don’t have to go far in the area to find it. Whether you want to visit a national nature reserve or simply sunbathe on magnificent beaches, there are plenty of options.

In Maropeng, near Pretoria, you can visit the official visitor centre of the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site, which is claimed to be the place from which all humankind originated, due to the large number of hominid (our early ancestors) fossils that have been found in the area.

Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site Landscape Panorama

Housed in a building that’s designed to look like a giant burial mound, the attraction takes visitors on an underground boat ride through the earth’s natural history and interactive displays on the development of man.

Inspired by our list of things to do in South Africa? Plan your adventure in the Rainbow Nation with Saga – we’ve got both guided group tours and independent holidays on offer.

Recent articles