Western Cape: Best for Wineries, Beaches & Scenic Drives
About the size of England, Western Cape is often the first province international travelers experience in South Africa and arguably the most scenic since it borders both the Atlantic and Indian oceans. You could spend an entire trip exploring its crown jewel alone, Cape Town—a sight to behold against flat-topped Table Mountain. The city is a melting pot of cultures with beautiful beaches, scenic hiking trails, excellent dining options, and the largest museum of contemporary African art in the world: Zeitz. You can also take a boat to Robben Island where Nelson Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years as a prisoner.
To fully experience the province, head further afield to discover hidden surf beaches, cliffside trails, hundreds of wineries in Stellenbosch and Franschhoek valleys, Dutch and Victorian architecture, and a number of game reserves accessed by stunning drives like Garden Route and the artsy alternative Route 62.
Eastern Cape: Best for Undeveloped Coast, Multi-Day Treks & Surfing
Compared to its more developed neighbor, Eastern Cape offers a wider and less-populated array of landscapes, activities, and experiences and can make it seem as if you've traveled to another country. From tropical forests to remote desert landscapes and chilled-out beaches, travelers tend to relax a bit more in this undeveloped part of the country.
For example, some of South Africa's best day-hikes and multi-day hikes are here, and many trails meander along the coastline snaking through the province's mountainous interior. A good place to start is Tsitsikamma National Park with a marine reserve, including migrating whales, plus small mammals like baboons, monkeys, and birdlife.
Also in the interior, you’ll find several private wildlife reserves offering the Big 5 (lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants, and buffalos). It's good to note that this is a malaria-free area, making it a great place for family safari.
One of the best spots for surfing in the country is Jeffrey’s Bay with consistent supertubes; it's even home to the World Surf League's annual J-Bay Open.
Since Nelson Mandela is a native of the Eastern Cape, the Nelson Mandela Museum is located in Mthatha, offering visitors an inspiring journey through his life.
For an itinerary, check out South Africa and Victoria Falls Adventure - 14 Days.
Northern Cape: Best for Sand Dunes, Waterfalls & Astronomy
The Northern Cape is South Africa’s largest, yet little populated, province with a diverse set of wildlife and landscapes including an isolated section of Atlantic coastline. Meanwhile, the hot and dry interior covers a big chunk of the country with wildlife herds and a scattering of towns. Sharing a border with Botswana, many travel north to see the Kalahari Desert and Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park for red sand dunes and animal life including falcons, antelopes, hyenas, and lions.
Other draws of the Northern Cape include waterfalls and hiking trails at Augrabies Falls National Park, stretching along the Orange River. You can also take a guided night tour at South African Astronomical Observatory for a sky safari using some of the largest research telescopes in South Africa.
If visiting during spring, you’ll catch fields of wildflowers especially in the Namakwa district; meanwhile, the provincial capital of Kimberley offers history dating back to its gemstone rush of the 19th century.
North West: Best for Premier Game Reserves & Resorts
North West is an inland province that, like, Northern Cape, borders Botswana. With no ocean, the landscape offers a vast array of mountains, trees, shrubs, windswept hills, and endless stretches of grassland—and even an extinct volcano. Given the diversity, it's often treated as a nature escape for Johannesburg and Pretoria city dwellers due to its close proximity to the province of Gauteng.
Provincial highlights include Pilanesberg National Park for a stunning variety of South African wildlife including lions and elephants, as well as Kgaswane Mountain Reserve, known for great hiking trails. You'll be able to pick from a range of lodging choices including upscale Madikwe Game Reserve—the country’s fourth-largest reserve and one of the best for Big Five wildlife. Since the resort limits visitors (no day-trippers allowed), Madikwe is an ideal place for a romantic safari.
Also in North West is Sun City, Africa’s version of Vegas, a luxury resort complex with more than 1,000 hotel rooms, entertainment venues, a golf course, casino, and water park. Though it's not for everyone, the development has received awards for sustainability. Sports enthusiasts will also appreciate visiting the city's South African Hall of Fame museum.
Free State: Best for Scenic Road Trips & Fruit Farms
The expansive province of Free State is often used as a place to pass through en route to another province. However, it’s well worth exploring for its natural beauty alone starting with its rolling grassy plains and pastureland. This rich soil coupled with ideal climate provides a healthy agricultural industry; look for fruit farms sprinkled throughout towns and villages. The province also offers more mountainous terrain in the Drakensberg and Maluti foothills. A good overnight stop near Maluti is Clarens, a charming town known for trout fishing and horseback riding.
The only national park in the province is the Golden Gate Highlands with gorgeous landscapes, sandstone cliffs, cave paintings, and wildlife in the form of elands, zebras, and wildebeests. Here, you can choose between a range of adventure sports including day-hikes, multi-day hikes, and self-guided game drives.
KwaZulu Natal: Best for Local Heritage, Wildlife & Water Sports
KwaZulu Natal is a unique province on the southeast coast loaded with natural beauty and cultural diversity. It’s easy to see why this is a popular tourist destination for fellow Africans.
The interior offers rugged mountains, indigenous tribes, and dense scrub hosting members of the Big 5. For the best safari destination, many come to Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park in the northeast, home to giraffes, rhinos, and lions. Meanwhile, uMkhuze Game Reserve has lions, hyenas, rhinos, elephants, and 400 bird species. You can also visit cultural villages around the town of Eshowe showcasing the traditions of the indigenous Zulu people.
Along the coast are great beaches, consistent surf waves, and the Indian-influenced and cosmopolitan city of Durban with its revamped waterfront and distinct Asian vibe. Also make sure to spend some time at the spectacular Sodwana Bay National Park offering some of the best snorkeling, scuba diving, and deep-sea fishing in the country, as well as beautiful hiking trails in the forest.
For more information, check out Best Outdoor Adventures in South Africa.
Gauteng: Best for Big City Culture & Archaeology
Though small in size, Gauteng is actually home to the country's biggest city: Johannesburg, (nicknamed Jozi or Jo’burg) in the heart of South Africa. This multifaceted city offers sites relating to the country’s struggle to end segregation, including the Apartheid Museum to learn about the inequalities and tensions that still exist in South Africa today. Many of these cultural activities are a little heavy, but they'll help you understand and appreciate the country's progress.
Beyond that, the city's modern developments showcase Jo'burg's rapid growth in the last decade. Once considered a place to avoid, it is now one of the most inspiring and happening cities in the world. To see a sample of its newfound energy and creativity, head to the hipster neighborhood called Maboneng boasting new lofts, restaurants, boutiques, and art galleries. That being said, crime is still an issue in certain pockets of the city and visitors should take proper precautions when venturing out and about.
The province's other large city, Pretoria, is the national capital and worth a visit for the Dutch colonial history, museums, and pretty tree-lined streets.
Gauteng also offers a unique valley full of caves and fossils, called The Cradle of Humankind, one of the continent's most important archaeological sites.
For an itinerary, check out Garden Route from Cape Town to Johannesburg - 21 Days.
Limpopo: Best for Affordable Safaris & Village Visits
This large province to the north borders Botswana, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe, and includes a section of one of Africa's largest game reserves: Kruger National Park. There are also a number of wildlife reserves with big populations of antelopes and rhinos at more affordable prices than other provinces, making Limpopo a good choice for safari-seekers on a budget.
Other provincial highlights include Mapungubwe National Park—a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to archaeological finds from the 1930s on display at the Interpretative Centre. The park also hosts excellent birdwatching and wildlife with lions, leopards, and elephants. There's also the Marakele National Park with giraffes, zebras, cheetahs, and vultures overlooking red cliffs and mountains.
Overall, Limpopo is a good choice for those who like to meet and mingle with locals and stay off the well-trodden tourist path.
For more information, check out "Big 5" Tour in Kruger National Park.
Mpumalanga: Best for Big Game, Canyons & Gorges
One of South Africa’s smallest provinces, Mpumalanga borders Mozambique and Swaziland (now eSwatini) and offers impressive mountains and valleys, with a slew of outdoor adventures. What it’s best known for, though, is hosting the southern half of Kruger National Park. Expect lots of company since Kruger is the easiest African game park in which to take a self-guided driving tour. You'll also find a wide variety of lodges, so if you're looking to skip the crowds, stick to the park's western side where a number of private reserves (for a higher price) offer guided safaris in open vehicles.
Another draw for the province is the expansive Blyde River Canyon (the world’s third largest) that makes its way through the Drakensberg Escarpment with unique rock formations and tropical foliage. Since the canyon is impassable for vehicles, those who choose to hike, bike, or river raft will have these magnificent vistas all to themselves.
Another notable activity in Mpumalanga is to take the glass elevator lift at Graskop Gorge where you'll have access to waterfalls, suspension bridges, and a visitor center with a café and crafts.
For more information on Kruger, check out Traveler Interview: South Africa Safari in Kruger National Park.
eSwatini: Best for Slow Travel & Local Festivals
Renamed eSwatini from Swaziland in 2018, this landlocked monarchy between Mozambique and South Africa is Africa’s smallest country, called 'Africa in a Nutshell' because it offers a bit of everything. It's best known for game and nature reserves, local handicrafts, and festivals showcasing traditional Swazi culture. It's also known to have a much more relaxed pace and way of life making eSwatini a growing travel destination for those looking to unplug.
You can easily combine a trip to eSwatini with South Africa especially while driving to Kruger National Park. There are border crossings, but once inside, you’ll find a network of good roads albeit occasional potholes.
Consider Malolotja Nature Reserve for miles of hiking trails, 200+ species of birds, and ziplining. Meanwhile, the Lebombo Mountains provide a stunning background to Mlawula Nature Reserve (with more hiking trails), while nearby Hlane Royal National Park is home to diverse wildlife including lions, hippos, and elephants.
In other words, this is not a country to simply pass over—give it a few days or even a week to do it justice. You’ll be able to take part in vibrant local culture and outdoor activities like mountain biking, hiking, and river rafting.
Lesotho: Best for Alpine Scenery & Genuine Hospitality
Easily accessible from both Jo'burg and Durban, Lesotho is a friendly, undiscovered kingdom entirely landlocked by South Africa with a series of mountain ranges, peaks, gorges, highlands, plateaus, and dinosaur history. It’s known as the 'Kingdom in the Sky' because of its high altitude, as it’s the only country in the world to be entirely above 3200 feet (1000 m). Because of this, Lesotho is compared to an alpine destination with opportunities for hiking, trekking, and horseback riding. Plus, accommodations are known for their genuine hospitality.
If you have a few days, head for Ts’ehlanyane National Park, the country’s best park with rugged wilderness and native forest—ideal for multi-day treks. There’s also Bokong Nature Reserve with outstanding views over the Lepaqoa Valley, and plenty of options for daytime trails.
In any case, the country gets 300 days of sunshine a year so you’re bound to find some good weather for all these mountain activities.
Read more about our Local Specialists in South Africa.