South Africa is an extraordinary travel destination, and one that I can’t get enough of. The country offers a seemingly endless array of experiences, most of which you won’t find anywhere else – or at least not all in the same place. There are tons of exciting things to do in South Africa from adventure activities to leisure pursuits, and many varied experiences can be had over the course of a single trip.

South Africa is an ideal road trip destination making it a breeze to fill your time. If you’re planning your own road trip, take a look at our South Africa road trip guide. The ever-changing landscapes from ocean to mountains, from deserts to forests, from big cities to rural villages will keep you busy for the entirety of your trip, and instil some major fomo if you don’t have time to do it all.

Based on my travels across the country here are my top 23 things to do in South Africa that all travelers should include on their next trip (in no particular order!)

The Top Things to do in South Africa

South Africa Road Trip - Kruger National Park Naledi Lion

A Kruger Safari

Perhaps the most iconic South African travel experience, a safari within Kruger National Park is a must for many travelers. Depending on your budget and travel style, you can opt for a self drive safari or a private game lodge, both of which offer excellent, though highly differentiated, experiences. There are several rest camps spread throughout Kruger and many private nature reserves bordering the national park with a high density in the south near Sabi Sands and around Hoedspruit. Though Kruger is the most popular safari destination, there are many other spots to see the Big Five up close throughout the country including Pilansberg, Addo Elephant National Park, Kgalgedi Transfrontier Park and Shamwari Game Reserve. No matter what you choose, there’s nothing like encountering local animals in their natural habitat. It’s at the top of my list of things to do in South Africa for a reason!

Drive the Garden Route

Named one of the best drives in the world, the Garden Route is undoubtedly South Africa’s most popular road trip. Stretching along the coast from Storms River in the east to Mossel Bay in the west, it’s dotted with small picturesque towns and stunning nature. The Garden Route offers a tremendous amount of things to do and places to stop along its three hundred kilometres, with highlights including rugged Tsitsikamma National Park, beach town Plettenberg Bay, and the gorgeous lakes of Knysna. Incorporating some (or all) of the Garden Route is essential if you’re doing a road trip in South Africa.

Things to do in South Africa

Hit the Beach in J-Bay

Jeffrey’s Bay in the Eastern Cape is a renowned surf town. With stretches of pristine white sand beaches and laid back vibe, it’s also popular with the backpacker set who stay in the many hostels around town. J-Bay’s main strip Da Gama Road is lined with beach apparel shops and brand name outlets alongside casual eateries, including J-Bay Bru Co, a craft beer bar and restaurant with an expansive patio. You’ll find several surf schools near the beach offering lessons, though if you’re just interested in a swim the nearby Paradise Beach is aptly named.

Things to do in South Africa

Hike in Golden Gate Highlands National Park

Somewhat off the beaten path in the Free States is this epic national park. The stunning landscape is punctuated by sandstone mountains that have been eroded over hundreds of thousands of years creating unique shapes and bright colours. There are several hikes in Golden Gate ranging from a few kilometres to full day treks, as well as a couple self-drive routes to see the local wildlife including Eland, Wildebeest, Springbok and Zebra. To continue the adventure, stay in one of the park’s self catering units such as the Mountain Retreat Log Cabin perched high on a hill overlooking the park. Nearby, the town of Clarens is a pleasant base as well. Don’t miss this amazing place when deciding on what things to do in South Africa!

Head Deep into the Cango Caves

The impressive Cango Caves are located near Oudtshoorn, a small town popular for its ostrich farms. The caves, which were used as far back as the Stone Ages, have a number of rock paintings alongside impressive stalagmite formations. The underground network spans more than four kilometres, though a smaller section is available to tourists, who must be accompanied by a guide. Two tours are offered daily every hour: the Heritage Tour – a standard one hour tour that showcases the highlights of the caves – and the Adventure Tour – a 90 minute tour that goes deeper within the caves with more steps and narrower passages. The tours, which are conducted in multiple languages, are definitely some of the more adventurous things to do in South Africa!

Things to do in South Africa

Drive Route 62

Though often in the shadows of the more popular Garden Route, Highway 62 between Oudtshoorn and Montagu shouldn’t be an afterthought. The aptly named ‘Route 62’ offers a varied mix of diversions through the Klein Karoo desert including charming farm stalls, quaint wineries, artsy towns and eclectic businesses including the iconic watering hole Ronnie’s Sex Shop. The road is much less trodden and the desert landscape adds to the appeal. Don’t miss the towns of Calitzdorp, Barrydale and Ashton.

See the Ocean’s Converge at Cape Agulhas

Cape Agulhas is the southernmost tip of Africa, and is where the Indian and Atlantic Oceans meet (not at the Cape of Good Hope, which is often incorrectly attributed). Cape Agulhas has remained relatively natural and untouristy, with a boardwalk along the ocean and a lighthouse, which you can climb to the top of. It’s a serene spot where you can look out into the vastness of the ocean while contemplating the many ships that approached the cape, both safely or perilously.

Things to do in South Africa

Discover Johannesburg’s hip side

Johannesburg is taking off as South Africa’s hub for young entrepreneurs, which is bringing hip restaurants, shops, markets and projects to the city in droves. The most impressive are the many redeveloped zones in the inner city like Maboneng and Braamfontein, formerly no-go zones that were all but abandoned and dangerous for both locals and visitors. Despite being overlooked by many travelers in the past, Joburg’s renewed energy is making it a compelling stop on any South Africa travel itinerary. Head over to my Hip Joburg article to read more about the city’s emerging neighbourhoods.

Things to do in South Africa

Head to the Winelands

The Stellenbosch region in the Western Cape is home to South Africa’s most notable wineries. Across the region wine hubs like Franschoek, Paarl and Stellenbosch feature an abundance of wineries, from large vineyards to family owned farms. The landscape is stunning with rows of vines alongside classic Cape Dutch architecture, and the region has evolved into a foodie’s paradise boasting some of the country’s top rated restaurants. It’s the perfect spot for travelers looking for things to do in South Africa on the culinary side. If you want to visit a few wineries in a day, best to opt for a tour such as the ultra convenient Vine Hopper, or alternatively stay in a guest room on a winery for a more in depth experience.

Things to do in South Africa

Visit a Penguin Colony

Boulders Beach on the Cape Peninsula is home to a large colony of African Penguins that enjoy frolicking in the sand and splashing around in the water. It’s probably one of the cutest things to do in South Africa! The cove on Foxy Beach where the penguins reside is part of Table Mountain National Park and visitors have to buy a ticket to access the viewing areas and boardwalks. While you can’t hang out on the beach with the colony, other spots on the beach offer great swimming and sunbathing opportunities.

Things to do in South Africa

Sleep in a National Park

South Africa has an extensive national park system with 21 distinct areas across the country. One of the best aspects of visiting one of the national parks, aside from the epic nature of course, is that they offer on-site lodging allowing visitors to experience the parks while its closed to everyone else. It’s an unparalleled experience. Often the accommodations offered are rustic but comfortable self-catering units that range from traditional rondevaals to multi-room lodges that can host a large group. Favourites include the Highlands Mountain Cabin in Golden Gate Highlands National Park, Forest Cabin in Storms River Rest Camp and a Cottage in Karoo National Park.

Go Whale Watching

Every year between June and November, whales migrate from Antarctica to the waters around Cape Town. Whale-watching tours are offered in many coastal towns along the Garden Route including Hermanus, Knysna and Mossel Bay, though you might be able to spot them from the shore anywhere along the stretch. If you opt for a tour, ensure it’s an ethical operator that follows responsible whale watching practices like approaching whales from the site, not breaking up groups, not using feed to attract whales, and has a focus on conversation.

Things to do in South Africa

Explore the Drakensberg Mountains

Drakensberg, translated into Dragon, are a large, imposing and formidable mountain range stretching 1,000 kilometres across eastern South Africa and Lesotho. Much of the Drakensberg area is lush and vibrantly green, with waterfalls, rivers and excellent hiking spots. There are several spots to explore in the Drakensberg such as Giant’s Castle, Cathedral Peak and Monks Cowl and most lodgings are eco focused and getting you back to nature. For a once in a lifetime experience, the Sani Pass takes intrepid travelers up a high mountain pass into Lesotho. The trip might seem perilous (4×4 required but recommend opting for a tour), but the views from the top are phenomenal.

Things to do in South Africa

Peruse Cape Town’s Artisanal Markets

Cape Town offers a wide range of activities and excursions like Table Mountain, Robben Island and the Botanical Gardens, but it also provides some of the best shopping in the country. The Watershed Market at the V&A is a large warehouse filled with independent artisans showcasing their unique items, Neighbourgoods is a hip market held each Saturday featuring a wide array of food and handmade products, Biscuit Mill is a converted industrial building with several boutiques, Woodstock Exchange is an impossibly hip building with some super cool shops, and The Woodstock Foundry is a creative hub with shops and galleries.

Hip Johannesburg Guide Things to do in South Africa

Tour Soweto

South Africa’s most notorious township is rooted in history and overflowing with culture. There is so much to see and learn in this vibrant community and the best way to do that is through a tour. Leading hostel Lebo’s Soweto Backpackers offers an immersive and informative bike tour that’s one of the best ways to experience the township. You can also do a self-tour of Soweto either by car or metro – there are several stops within Soweto. Don’t miss Mandela House, Hector Pietersen Museum, traditional restaurant Wandies Place, and brewery Ubuntu Kraal.

Things to do in South Africa

Stroll Bo Kaap

This area of Cape Town is a former township for the city’s Malay community, who were brought as slaves to South Africa. The brightly coloured district with its cobblestoned streets is popular with travellers, though visitors to Bo-Kaap shouldn’t miss out on learning more about the area’s history and its people at the Bo-Kaap Museum, located in a house that dates back to the 1760s. Trying the local food is another must while in the neighbourhood, including the ever popular Marco’s African Place.

Visit Hogsback

This lush forested inland region in the Eastern Cape is often referenced as the inspiration for The Lord of the Rings, and though J.R.R. Tolkien was born in South Africa, the legend is likely false. Similarities to the Shire aside, Hogsback is a natural oasis that inspires those who visit. The area offers excellent hiking through indigenous forests and many waterfalls to view. The village itself is welcoming and laid back, getting labelled ‘hippie’ more often than not likely due to its prevalence of eco-lodgings. If you’re looking to get lost in nature for a few days, Hogsback is the perfect place!

Things to do in South Africa

Swim in Tsitsikamma

At the eastern boundary of the Garden Route is Tsitsikamma, a region of the Garden Route National Park near Storms River. The natural surroundings at Tsitsikamma are magnificent. Right on the Indian Ocean, the National Park offers excellent views and the potential to spot dolphins, otters and porpoises. Watersports are on offer such as swimming, kayaking and snorkeling. A suspension bridge high above the water is a must do, while the hike in the surrounding forest to Agulhas Look Out offers a spectacular view after a physically grueling uphill hike. It’s one of the more active things to do in South Africa.

Things to do in South Africa

Chill in the Karoo

The Karoo, so vast and so tranquil, is a special place in South Africa. The desert terrain and climate is a marked detour from the Garden Route coast and its crowds. The isolation is even more pronounced in the Karoo National Park, an arid and expansive region that offers game viewing and relaxation. With the last local lions were shot here in the 1800s, South Africa National Parks recently reintroduced a large tribe within the park, who can be spotted alongside mountain zebra, springbok, kudu and many other animals. Staying within the park is highly recommended where the lack of light pollution offers the most spectacular stargazing. Spending time in the Karoo is one of my favourite things to do in South Africa – and I promise it will be for you too.

Things to do in South Africa

Take a Break in the Wild Coast

Part of the coastal region of the Eastern Cape and home to the Xhosa culture, the Wild Coast has a rich history and played a pivotal role in ending apartheid. And as it’s relatively undeveloped, it’s a virtually unspoilt natural setting. The isolated towns in the Wild Coast like Coffee Bay, Chinsta and Port St. Johns have long been popular with the backpacking set for their relaxed vibes and beautiful beaches. It’s the type of place where travelers plan on spending a few nights and end up staying around for a few months. A two day guided hike from Coffee Bay to Bulungula passing by the famous ‘Hole in the Wall’ is a tremendous experience.

Things to do in South Africa

Hike in Cape Town

Table Mountain is one of Cape Town’s most iconic landmarks and is visible from many areas of the city. Take a cable car up to the top of the flat-topped mountain or alternatively hike it in about two hours, where you’ll be rewarded with stunning views over the city and out across the ocean. The summit of Cape Town’s other mountain, Lion’s Head, is another excellent trek and is only accessible on foot. This 90 minute hike will get you sweating (especially in the hot summer months) but the views from the top are so worth it. It’s Things to do in South Africa’s favourite city

Take in the Blyde River Canyon

In a country with a dizzying number of natural wonders, Blyde River Canyon is spectacular. It’s a massive canyon (third largest in the world!) with breathtaking views and a couple of waterfalls. Located on the drive between Johannesburg and Kruger National Park (appropriately called ‘The Panorama Route’, many travellers make a brief stop here but you could easily spend a day or two exploring.

Things to do in South Africa

Learn about Nelson Mandela

No person encapsulates South Africa more than Nelson Mandela. The anti-apartheid leader who spent 27 years in prison and later became the country’s first black president gives us hope that we can better our world. A visit to South Africa isn’t complete without visiting some of the historical spots that formed Mandela into one of the world’s most respected leaders. Visitors flock to a number of sites to learn more about him including his birthplace in Qunu, a town in the Transkei which is now part of the Eastern Cape, the site of his capture east of the Drakensberg Mountains, which has a beautiful sculpture, Robben Island off of Cape Town where he spent the majority of his sentence, and the Mandela House in Soweto. Of all the things to do in South Africa, expanding my knowledge of Nelson Mandela was the most inspiring.

Things to do in South Africa photos courtesy of JP Bervoets, Ken TreloarJoshua Earle, and South African Tourism.