South Africa is a dream travel destination, there’s no doubt. And not only for those looking for a safari holiday. Scattered throughout the country’s vast and spectacular landscapes lie numerous quirky little towns filled with interesting buildings, stories and people.
Here we showcase eleven of our favourites. Go on, get off the beaten track and visit them! You know you want to.
The Wild Coast, or Transkei, is aptly-named. It’s an incredibly gorgeous, unspoilt, strip of coast on the Indian Ocean in the Eastern Cape, stretching up to KwaZulu Natal. In its middle lies Coffee Bay, a favourite spot for hikers, backpackers and tourists alike – both local and foreign.
Rolling green hills dotted with traditional huts, cows, pigs and chickens and sharp cliffs with waterfalls, protect the vast sandy beaches of the bays. Time goes slowly here and it offers a wide range of activities, beside just hanging out on the beach enjoying the serenity.
Numerous lodges, like the Coffee Shack and Sugarloaf Backpackers provide not only accommodation, but a meeting place (they have vibey bars/entertainment areas, where you're guaranteed to meet an array of interesting people!) and info on surfing, hiking and other activities in the area.
Be sure to do the beach hike to Hole In The Wall, a fabulous walk to this incredible feat of nature, including passing the Hlungwane Falls. And that’s only one of many hikes offered in the area.
Whether you’re looking for fishing, surfing, diving, hiking, or just lying on the beach reading a book, Coffee Bay is an idyllic destination.
Situated in northern KwaZulu Natal, St Lucia is a tropical paradise on the warm Indian Ocean. It is surrounded by game reserves and beautiful wetlands. St Lucia lies at the tip of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park – over 320 000 hectares of wetland on the coast which contains three lake systems, swamp forests and ancient dunes, attracting a huge range of birds, pods of hippo and a good gathering of crocs.
Join a Turtle Tour Safari (turtle season runs from November to March) and see these incredible creatures – Loggerheads and Leatherbacks – come on shore to lay their eggs. If walking isn’t your thing, join a horse safari and experience the beauty of the beach on horseback with Bhangazi Horse Safaris.
End off your day in this tropical heaven with a sunset cruise on the St Lucia Estuary. There’s nothing quite like savouring a gin and tonic while the sun sets over Africa and hippos grunt while the crocodiles glint their eyes.
A little further north, within iSinmangaliso, lies Sodwana – one of South Africa’s premier dive spots. If you’re looking for scuba diving adventure (and PADI certification), head up there and hang out with the guys at Coral Divers.
This little gem of a town lies in the eastern Free State, close to the border of Lesotho, offering spectacular views across to the Maluti Mountains. Surrounding the town, the beautiful sandstone cliffs and valleys of the Rooiberge provide perfect horse-riding, hiking and trout-fishing spots.
Our favourite thing about Clarens? The Clarens Brewery. Brewing beer and ciders since 2006, it’s one of the oldest ‘craft’ breweries in South Africa. They offer brewery tours and tastings and a great food menu to keep the tummy lined! With beers to suit all tastes – IPA, Stout, Blonde, to name just three of their seven – and seasonal specials like a hazelnut brown ale, you don’t want to miss this. That’s before we talk about the cherry cider…
But drinking beer is not the only thing to do in Clarens. Far from it! Go white water rafting on the Ash River with Outrageous Adventures, amble through the beautiful scenery on horseback from Schaaplaats Farm, go trout fishing at the Clarens Golf Estate or just take a gentle stroll through the quaint little town visiting the museum, galleries and coffee shops.
Situated halfway between Pofadder and Upington, on the banks of the Orange River, is the tiny oasis town of Kakamas. This little town is known for its raisin and table grape exports, grown around the river (and on islands in the river).
It’s a startling discovery in the vast desert landscape of the Northern Cape to stumble upon the green grapevines. Don’t leave town without visiting the perfectly pink Pienk Padstal or enjoying a cold drink (you’ll need it) on the banks of the river at Die Mas van Kakamas.
If you’re fit and looking for a challenge, do the Klipspringer Hiking Trail, a 3-day, 40 km hike through incredible scenery, starting at Augrabies Falls. Please note that this trail is closed from 15 October to 31 March, due to extreme heat.
If fairies and elves and goblins exist, Hogsback is where you’ll find them. This tiny hamlet (population: just over 1 000 humans) is situated on top of the Amathola Mountains in the Eastern Cape.
With indigenous forest and numerous rivers and waterfalls, legend has it that J.R.R. Tolkein used it as inspiration for the lands described in The Lord of the Rings, and it’s not hard to believe. Explore the area on mountain bikes or go abseiling with Hogsback Adventures, enjoy the quiet beauty of the numerous, well-marked trails or walk the labyrinth at The Edge.
Pop in at Butterfly’s Bistro and eat a delicious meal under the trees in the garden. When winter brings the snow, turning the whole area into a winter wonderland, snuggle up close to the fire in the pub at the Hogsback Inn, which dates back to 1880.
When people talk about ‘the middle of nowhere’, this is where they’re talking about. Nieu Bethesda is located near Graaff-Reinet, in the Great Karoo. It’s worth getting off the beaten track to visit this little town beneath the Kompasberg that is surprisingly green due to the spring that flows all year.
Nieu Bethesda is most well-known for its late resident, Helen Martins, who spent her life creating the Owl House and Camel Yard. It’s a magical place filled with crushed glass-covered walls and concrete creatures. Set aside a good few hours to explore it.
Just up the road is one of South Africa’s best book shops, Dustcovers, run by the lovely Victoria and Nico. Meet Huxley, the most handsome dog on earth and his sidekick, Harper, while you browse their shelves and stock up on holiday reading. Then wander around the dusty streets, enjoy the silence, and pop in to the numerous galleries and little shops. Some extremely talented people call Nieu Bethesda 'home'.
There are a surprising number of great restaurants, considering how small the town is, and it even boasts its own brewery! Taste the beers brewed by Andre Cilliers at The Brewery and Two Goats Deli. He uses the water from the spring and you can enjoy a goat’s cheese (also made right there!) and kudu salami platter served with fresh bread and pickles in the garden.
Step back in time to the Gold Rush of the late 1800’s. Pilgrim’s Rest – on the spectacular Panorama Route – still has many of its original buildings. The whole town is a National Monument!
Visit the three churches, see the beautiful, old intricate architecture of the police station and step back in time at the house and general store museums. Don’t forget to pop into the cemetery, where all the graves but one – that of a robber – face the same direction.
Try your hand at gold-panning at Pilgrim’s Creek and feel what it was like for the miners way back in 1890!
Relieve your disappointment at not having found a huge gold nugget by having a drink in the bar at The Royal Hotel – it used to be the chapel at St Cyprian’s School in Cape Town! It was dismantled in Cape Town, shipped to Maputo (then Delagoa Bay) and brought overland by ox-wagon to Pilgrim’s Rest.
Dullstroom-Emnotweni, in Mpumalanga, is just two hour’s drive from Johannesburg, on the way to the Kruger National Park. Perched on top of the Steenkampberg, it is one of the highest towns in SA and has an almost sub-alpine climate – cool, misty and romantic.
Known as one of the trout fishing meccas of South Africa, the town itself is quaint and pretty and filled with interesting shops and buildings.
Pretend that you’re in A River Runs Through It and go flyfishing for a day to catch yourself some delicious trout for dinner. It’s incredibly relaxing, especially surrounded by that scenery! Don’t know how? Fear not, there are a numer of places in town, like Mavungana Flyfishing that'll have you casting like Brad Pitt before you know it.
After a day of fishing, visit the Anvil Brewery for some craft beer (and boozy cakes!) or a warming whisky at Wild About Whisky. They boast the largest whisky menu in the Southern Hemisphere, so you’ll be spoilt for choice!
Don't miss out on a visit the Dullstroom Bird Of Prey & Rehabilitation Centre whose main aim is to educate the public, create awareness and rehabilitate raptors, who are increasingly becoming endangered. Watch these birds on their daily flying exercise, learn about their incredible habits and marvel at their beauty!
Cullinan is the diamond-mining centre of Gauteng. It’s been around since 1902 and its main street – Oak Avenue – is lined with beautifully-restored Victorian buildings, galleries, quaint shops and restaurants. Visit in spring to see the spectacular purple display of the jacarandas!
A visit to Cullinan is not complete without a tour of the mine and especially a look at the open-cast mining – the hole is three times bigger than the infamous Kimberley Hole!
Adventure Zone Cullinan offers a wide array of activities for adrenaline junkies – zip-lining, archery, quad-biking and paintballing, to name just a few. The nearby Dinokeng Game Reserve is the only reserve in Gauteng which has the Big Five free-roaming, and offers a self-drive route through it, to spot these incredible creatures and more.
An easy hours’ drive from Cape Town, this quirky little town lies in a fertile wine- and olive-producing valley, with the delectable delights that come with that! Riebeek Kasteel offers the visitor good food, great little shops and galleries, and a number of wine farms on its outskirts.
Amble around the little village, stopping in at the Garagista Brewery (they make a beer called ‘Tears of the Hipster', amongst others) or at The Wine Kolletive, who stock only wines from the region. Then grab a bite to eat at Bar Bar Black Sheep or Mama Cucina. Across the road, step back in time and enjoy a glass of chardonnay from the region in the bar or on the stoep of The Royal Hotel.
Half an hour by car (or train) from central Cape Town lies Kalk Bay, a quirky little seaside 'town'. It's hard to believe that you're still in a city when you walk through the cobbled streets here. You're spoilt for choice for things to do, places to eat and views to marvel at.
Kalk Bay has a working harbour with bright fishing boats and seals frolicking in the water. Head down there for a walk along the pier, followed by the freshest fish and chips on earth at Kalky's or Live Bait, right on the sea. If you're looking for a higher-end version, go up to the Harbour House for fabulous seafood with a view to beat all views over the Indian Ocean.
Main Road, Kalk Bay, is a shopping treat, filled with quirky little shops, galleries and The Ice Cafe, who sell homemade ice-cream. What's a visit to the seaside without an ice cream?
Tucked up a side street behind the Main Road find Bob's Bagel Cafe on the park, a quiet little spot away from the hustle and bustle, which boasts freshly-made bagels and coffee to beat the best.