What are the best tourism sites in South Africa?
If you’re making that trip of a lifetime to South Africa, you’re in for a treat. The country is full of astounding experiences, stunning scenery and vibrant, cosmopolitan hubs. From the majestic Table Mountain to the wonderful wildlife reserves, there’s simply heaps to see and do – meaning it can be a challenge to select a definitive list of the top ten tourist attractions in South Africa.
But if you're seeking inspiration and the very best cultural attractions and those that bring history to the fore, then our selection of the top 10 sights in South Africa will get you started. Some of them are well-known, while others are slightly more obscure but wonderful places we snuck in when no-one was looking. All will ensure you get the most out of your trip to this fascinating country. And if you still have time or the inclination, check out our full sites of South Africa guide for more.
A symbol of the most difficult and divisive era in South Africa’s history - the Apartheid period and the fight for its end - Robben Island is arguably the most symbolic, evocative and important of all South African visitor attractions. A short boat ride from Cape Town, it was here that Nelson Mandela spent the majority of his 27-year incarceration. The likes of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have been drawn to this island, as have UNESCO, and we can understand why. Plan to spend at least half a day here.
If you’re in Johannesburg then your first port-of-call should be the Apartheid Museum. Across 22 exhibition areas, visitors can learn about the twentieth century policy that saw the separation and discrimination of the black population from the white. The horrific history of the period is brought to life through a series of artefacts, as well as information panels, films and other immersive media.
An imposing structure and a rare example of a significant military fortification within the region, the Castle of Good Hope in Cape Town is one of the most popular tourist attractions of South Africa., Pentagonal in shape, it’s not just the intriguing design of the Castle that is a reason to visit. Built by the Dutch East India Company between 1666-1679, the Castle holds the title of South Africa’s oldest surviving colonial building. It tells of a fascinating history and even has a dungeon.
District Six, a once lively, multicultural area of Cape Town which was declared a white only area during Apartheid, is now a barren landscape and an evocative reminder of the country’s divided history. There’s not much to see in District Six itself today, but to understand the true tragedy of the time the nearby District Six Museum is jammed packed full of information. Telling the story of those who lived through this time, visitors can explore how a neighbourhood which was once an outstanding example of communities co-existing and flourishing became a terrible story of Apartheid in practice.
An imposing site located on a hilltop, the Voortrekker Monument near Pretoria is an important monument to a crucial period of South African history. The looming granite construction commemorates the exodus of the Boers in the nineteenth century and is surrounded by an impressive sculpture depicting 64 ox wagons to symbolise this. Not the most high-profile South African tourist attraction, it nevertheless provides an interesting insight into a fundamental period of the country’s history. But history isn’t the only draw. Located in a nature reserve, it is worth visiting as much for what it represents as for its stunning surrounds.
While it might have been a long walk to freedom for Mandela, it’s a relatively short, albeit memorable, walk around the Nelson Mandela Museum. Located in the town of Mthatha, where the freedom fighter hails from, the Nelson Mandela Museum – spread across three locations – is packed full of information for anyone wanting to know more about the life and times of Mandela.
Few battles involving British troops have invoked such controversy as the one fought near the hill of Isandlwana in Zululand in 1879. Vividly brought to life in the film Zulu Dawn, the battle continues to divide historians today. For those who wish to explore this pivotal moment in South African history, Isandlwana Battlefield and its museum makes for an informative – and beautiful – tourist destination. While you’re in the Isandlwana neighbourhood, we recommend seeing nearby Rorke’s Drift - which features as number 10 on our list of the top ten visitor attractions in South Africa.
The Anglo-Boer War, in this instance referring to the Second Boer War (1899 - 1902), was a pivotal moment in South African and world history. It was during this conflict when concentration camps – a devastating fixture of twentieth century warfare – made their sombre debut. For these reasons and to find out more about this conflict, the Anglo-Boer War Museum in Bloemfontein is an important place to visit. The museum neighbours the Women’s Museum, which commemorates those who died in these camps.
Another one of South Africa’s top tourist attractions for military history fans, the Spioenkop battlefield was the site of one of the most fearsome battles of the Second Anglo-Boer War. Not that you would know it today. The setting is a quiet, sun-drenched hill. That sense of tranquillity only makes the site more evocative. Graves, trenches and memorials hint at its more violent past.
10. Rorke’s Drift
The battle that took place at Rorke’s Drift was a much-vaunted victorious episode for the British which took place against the backdrop of their far more significant defeat at Isandlwana (see above). The Battle of Rorke’s Drift has now become one of the most iconic encounters in British military history and resulted in the award of no less than 11 Victoria Crosses. As such it’s an important part of British history, and indeed South African. Today the site ranks among the most famous tourist attractions in South Africa. Visitors can tour the battlefield and discover more about the real events which took place here - as opposed to the Hollywood version...
If that’s whetted your appetite for all things South African, remember you can explore a range of outstanding ideas for your travels in South Africa.