With nine provinces and over 250 municipalities with unique local vibe, South Africa offers a huge diversity in cultural tourism.
From super-friendly locals, a captivating blend of eight cosmopolitan cities, to the amazing wildlife and landscapes, in this article we explore quieter, lesser-known towns and dorpies our beautiful Rainbow Nation is endowed with.
Western Cape: Paternoster
Perfect for: The seaside serenader
What makes it unique: It’s one of the oldest traditional fishing villages on South Africa’s West Coast and is celebrated for its Instagram-worthy white-washed fishermen’s cottages.
Activity of choice: Dive into a seafood cooking class with local culinary experts, learning about the heritage of West Coast flavours. As you craft traditional dishes, you’ll get to know more about the fisherman’s relationship with the ocean. Then, savour your masterpiece, paired with fine wines, against the backdrop of Paternoster’s periwinkle blue skies.
Among other things it’s well known for in addition to the abundance of crayfish, white beaches and charm, the main road of Paternoster is lined with fantastic restaurants, art galleries and speciality shops that are a must for those looking to discover new and exciting art.
Western Cape: Swellendam
Perfect: The heritage enthusiast
What makes it unique: An ultimate Heritage Day getaway nestled in the shadow of the Langeberg mountains – between Cape Town and the Garden Route. South Africa’s third-oldest town, Swellendam is home to more than 50 provincial heritage sites.
Activity of choice: Time rewinds at the Drostdy Museum, and a stroll through the town’s precincts reveals its storied past. Spend a few days rejuvenating, surrounded by Mother Nature in Bontebok National Park, keeping an eye out for the park’s namesake antelope grazing in the wild.
Top tip from Antoinette Turner, GM of Flight Centre South Africa: “Swellendam’s Under the Oaks market on Saturday mornings offers local delicacies at reasonable prices. Grab a picnic basket and fill it with fresh produce before you visit Bontebok National Park.”
Eastern Cape: Nieu-Bethesda
Perfect for: The artistic soul
What makes it unique: Local art lovers’ best-kept secret, Nieu-Bethesda is an isolated community off the main tourist routes. It was originally founded as a church town in the late 1800s.
Activity: The Owl House, once the abode of artist Helen Martins, is now a kaleidoscope of glass and light. Uncover Helen’s artistic narrative as you wander through this dreamlike space. Be sure to wear good walking shoes and carry a hat, as there are plenty of captivating garden sculptures (including her unique watchful owls) to admire in the gleaming sunshine.
Eastern Cape: Graaff Reinet
Perfect for: The nature-bonded historian
What makes it unique: Known as the ‘Gem of the Karoo’, Graaff Reinet is almost completely surrounded by the Camdeboo National Park.
Also known as ‘The Cathedral of the Mountains’ it was declared as a National Monument of geological and scenic significance in 1939.
Activity of choice: The Valley of Desolation lies within the Camdeboo National Park, where staggering rock formations stand testament to a volcano that erupted 100 million years ago. As you hike, watch the sunset paint these dolerite pillars bright orange and be sure to have your camera handy.
Camdeboo National Park is a must for budget travellers. Entrance is only R52* per adult (prices subject to change), and R26* per child, and all hiking trails are free.
Eastern Cape: Addo Elephant National Park
Perfect for: The wildlife wanderer
What makes it unique: Revered for its diverse wildlife, Addo is the only national park in the world offering access to the African Big Seven: the leopard, lion, Cape buffalo, rhino, elephant, great white shark, and southern right whale.
Home to over 600 elephants, it’s the third largest national park in South Africa in size after Kruger National Park and Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park.
Activity of choice: Dive into nature headfirst. Enjoy game drives, hiking, marine eco-tours, and secret sightings in various hides.
Turner advises travellers to avoid the main gates to steer clear of crowds, using lesser-known entrances, like Matyholweni, instead.
Northern Cape: Springbok
Perfect for: The floral aficionado
What makes it unique: While still quite small, Springbok is the largest town in the Namaqualand area. It forms part of the Northern Cape’s Wild Flower Route, boasting over 3,500 different blooms in spring.
Activity: Goegap Nature Reserve transforms in spring. As you walk, witness the semi-arid landscape erupt in a riot of wildflowers, each with its own unique lifecycle. Engage with local guides to understand the delicate ecosystem and the flora’s relationship with the region’s fauna.
Free State: Clarens
Perfect for: The thrill-seeker with taste
What makes it unique: It’s the ‘Jewel of the Eastern Free State’ and known for its sandstone mountains and blissful weather.
Activity: Dive into the world of craft beers at Clarens Brewery. Sample various brews, learn the brewing process, and understand the passion behind each pour. Outside, the Ash River promises an exhilarating white-water rafting adventure with a mix of challenging surges and scenic pauses.
KwaZulu-Natal: Nottingham Road
Perfect for: The rustic gourmand
What makes it unique: Despite its name, Nottingham Road is a town, not a road. It offers world-class trout fishing and an assortment of wine cellars, cheese farms, and chocolate shops.
Activity: The Midlands Meander (which includes Nottingham Road) promises a gastronomic and artisanal journey. Stop by local craftsmen, watch them work, and then relish gourmet dishes inspired by local produce.
According to travel experts, some of the best eateries and artisanal shops are tucked away off the main roads. Travellers looking to discover lesser-known town treasures should enquire from the the ever-so friendly locals about their favourites
North West: Groot Marico
Perfect for: The outdoorsy and the cultural connoisseur
What makes it unique: Surrounded by towering blue gum trees, Groot Marico is a glamping go-to, promising the ultimate peaceful escape.
Activity: Dive into the stories of Herman Charles Bosman at his dedicated museum (consider purchasing a book at the museum – reading it while you’re in Groot Marico makes the experience even more immersive). Later, join locals for a shot of fiery ‘mampoer’, the traditional liquor, discovering how it’s made and unravelling its rich legacy.
Gauteng: Cullinan Diamond Mine
Perfect for: The treasure hunter
What makes it unique: It’s where you’ll find the world’s most important source of ultra-rare blue diamonds: the Cullinan Diamond Mine.
Activity: The underground tours of the Cullinan Diamond Mine reveal many unique geological and historical finds that are not only unique to Gauteng, but are yet to be fully explored by local and international tourists.
Adorn safety gear, delve deep, and learn about the thrilling quest that led to the discovery of the world’s largest diamond. You can also touch raw diamonds and learn about their journey from rough stone to sparkling gem.
Perfect for: The leisure lover
What makes it unique: Also known as ‘Emnotweni’, Dullstroom is one of South Africa’s highest towns above sea level. It’s also a fisherman’s paradise.
Activity: Dullstroom’s dams invite you for a laid-back afternoon of fly-fishing. Practice this fishing technique alongside local experts, from baiting to casting, enjoying the tranquillity of the still waters and chirping birds. Keep in mind that fly-fishing equipment can be expensive to purchase. Instead, rent gear from local shops – they often provide a quick tutorial, maximising your experience. Post-fishing, a whisky tasting awaits at Wild about Whiskey, the town’s specialist whiskey bar and shop.
Perfect for: The nature navigator
What makes it unique: Haenertsburg teeters on the edge of the Great Escarpment and is known for its annual September Spring Festival. The festival will take place on September 23 and 24 this year, and tickets are R50* each (kids under 12 get in for free).
Activity: Lekgalameetse Mountain Reserve is a realm of biodiversity. Trek through dense forests, spot endemic bird species, and pause at viewpoints to absorb the vastness. Interact with local communities, understanding their symbiotic relationship with this green wonderland.
Every town, every dorpie, is a world waiting. This spring, swap the tourist hotspots for the hidden gems. Let’s celebrate national Heritage Month this September, relax and rejuvenate, and traverse the many unique tales of our incredibly beautiful land.