A visit to South Africa usually involves a trip to the photogenic city of Cape Town, perhaps a quick stopover in Johannesburg, and a safari in a nearby game reserve. Yet even as more international travelers discover what makes South Africa an iconic tourist destination, some of the most charming areas remain unknown by tourists. Small towns in South Africa such as Darling, Dullstroom, and Nottingham Road and their surrounding areas should be on your must-visit list.
Unfortunately, given South Africa’s tragic history many of these towns’ documented past is predominantly colonial. During Apartheid, people of color were relegated to “townships,” which are primarily situated in big cities like Johannesburg and Cape Town. Since the Group Areas Act was abolished in 1991, these towns are no longer only inhabited by white people. They are far more integrated yet still not as diverse as the big cities since they are remote and offer fewer employment opportunities. However, there are many Cultural Villages around South Africa that offer tourists a greater insight into ancient native South African cultures such as Xhosa, Ndebele, and Zulu — and we’ve listed those you can visit by some of these towns.
One of the oldest small towns in South Africa, Clanwilliam’s history dates back to 1660 when Dutch settlers first reached the Olifants River. Olifants is Dutch for elephants, and the river is so named for the large number of elephants the settlers spotted on the river’s banks. Situated about 120 miles north of Cape Town, Clanwilliam is surrounded by the Cederberg mountain range and is the only town in the world where rooibos tea is planted and cultivated.
Tea enthusiasts will feel right at home in the world’s rooibos capital, where they can visit Rooibos Ltd, the largest producer and distributor of the beloved caffeine-free beverage. At its visitor center, House of Rooibos, guests can sip on a comforting cup of rooibos in an old-school tea room while they learn about the drink’s history.
In the surrounding mountainous region of Cederberg, you’ll find many fascinating caves and rock formations. The Stadsaal Caves and Truitjieskraal are great destinations for rock climbers and avid photographers. These ancient caves are home to some incredible examples of centuries-old rock art from the San people, the oldest inhabitants of Southern Africa, who have lived in the area for thousands of years. Similarly, the three-mile Sevilla Rock Art Trail visits nine sites of San paintings along a scenic, walkable route dotted with wildflowers in the spring. You may even encounter small game like springbok and eland or baboons and dassies, which resemble guinea pigs.
Known as the “Jewel of the Free State,” Clarens is about a three-hour drive from Johannesburg, making it a popular destination for those seeking a break from the city. Clarens is undoubtedly one of the prettiest towns in the country, with its pristine rivers, green mountains, and seasonal beauty that ranges from spring blossoms to orange and red Lombardy poplars in autumn. The town of Clarens was established in 1912; however, San paintings and much older dinosaur fossils indicate life in the area dating back to the Jurrasic period.
The town of Clarens is a bit of a haven for artists, with plenty of galleries and creative stores scattered around the village. Autumn is a wonderful time to experience the artsy nature of Clarens with yearly art exhibitions, food stalls, flea markets, concerts and the celebrated annual Clarens Craft Beer Festival.
If it’s an adventure you seek, try your hand at white-water rafting along the crystal clear waters of the Ash river, or unleash your inner Mad Max on one of the many quad biking or 4×4 trails in the area. For some peace and quiet, take a hike along a picturesque hiking trail, many of which are situated in the nearby Golden Gate Highlands National Park. Clarens is also the perfect place to go freshwater fishing and is well-known for its ideal trout fishing conditions.
Just past the Golden Gate Highlands National Park, at the foot of huge sandstone mountains is Basotho Cultural Village. Basotho beautifully explores the Southern Sotho lifestyle and architecture dating from the sixteenth century to the present. Take a tour through the village and sample local beer; watch demonstrations of hut building, basket making and traditional dances; get a glimpse into the future from the chief’s Ngaka (bone thrower); try traditional Sotho meals before spending a night in one of the village’s rondavels.
This provincial heritage site in Mpumalanga has not changed much since its gold mining heyday in the nineteenth century, with much of the architecture remaining untouched. Some historical sites to see include gorgeous old churches dating back to 1846, various museums, and a cemetery of graves that marks where those that did not find fortune on the goldfields now rest.
Gold panning is still practiced today in Pilgrim’s Rest. To find out more about this practice and even try your hand at it yourself, visit the Diggings Site, a complete reconstruction of the gold rush valley. There are plenty of souvenir shops around the town selling locally made pottery, stained glass, and custom-made goods. There are also many traditional shebeens (taverns), pubs, and restaurants to spend an evening.
The scenery around Pilgrim’s Rest is quite spectacular and ideal for activities like hiking, horse riding, bird watching, mountain biking, and golfing. Nearby, the Mount Sheba Nature Reserve is one of Mpumalanga’s premier forest birding destinations. A little farther away is Blyde River Canyon, the world’s third-largest canyon.
Less than an hour’s drive from Pilgrim’s Rest is Shangana Cultural Village, one of South Africa’s most celebrated traditional villages. Shangana is home to the Shangaan people, and by visiting this village you’ll be supporting over 100 jobs in this rural area. Shangana is surrounded by ancient trees and is centered around the vibrant Marula Market, where you’ll find spectacular locally made crafts and curios. daytime tours can be arranged to learn more about the local culture and history. The evening festival hosted by Chief Soshangane includes a choir, actors, dancers, a fire circle, and a feast prepared by the chief’s wife.
Graaff-Reinet is a town that has been home to many notable South Africans, including politicians, scientists, artists, athletes and academics. It has more national monuments than any of the big cities or other small towns in South Africa. This Eastern Cape town is also the fourth oldest town in the country.
With a recorded urban history dating back to 1786 and a collection of dinosaur fossils to view at the Old Library Museum, there are many fascinating historical sites to see in Graaff-Reinet. The Durch Reformed Church is an extravagant display of Victorian Gothic architecture. At the same time, Reinet House, Old Library, Old Residency, Urquhart House and the Military History Museum were all built in the early 1800s and showcase the town’s heritage with displays that range from old dolls and photographs to old furniture and rock art.
Just eight miles outside of the town is the awe-inspiring Valley of Desolation. Situated within the Camdeboo National Park, home to 43 mammal species, the Valley of Desolation is a collection of spectacular piled dolerite columns. These rock formations result from volcanic and erosive forces over 100 years and contribute to the valley’s breathtaking sunsets when they turn stunning shades of red. There are three hiking trails to choose from, including a short one-hour hike and an overnight hike. You’ll be rewarded with expansive views of the Great Karoo plains.
Darling makes for a fabulous day trip from Cape Town at just over an hour’s drive away. This town is as endearing as its name, known for its lively festivals that celebrate all forms of art, from music and theater to fine foods and wine. The Darling Wildflower Show displays the finest in Cape Fynbos, the regional shrubland that blazes with blooms every spring, while the surrounding areas burst with colorful wildflowers.
Famous South African satirist Pieter-Dirk Uys turned the old Darling railway station into Evita se Perron, a quirky theater venue named after the performer’s wildly popular alter ego, Evita Bezuidenhout. The 80-seat theater houses a restaurant and bar that serves up traditional “farmer’s food” with a twist and stocks their very own range of boutique wines. And the exhibition hall and garden displays offer a humorous look at South Africa’s political history.
Stepping into this town can often feel like stepping into a different century with its Victorian houses, tree-lined streets, and occasional horseback riders traveling through. The Darling Museum gives visitors a glimpse into the actual 18th-century version of the town with displays that replicate the old houses, post office, church, and even the Darling Butter and Darling Creamery that still stand today. A fun way to explore Darling is to sign up for the museum’s Mystery Trail, where you’ll be given a map and riddles to find hidden treasures.
For more Old World charm that dates all the way back to the creation of humanity, a visit to the nearby award-winning !Khwa ttu San Heritage Centre is a one-of-a-kind experience. The only San-owned and operated cultural center offers a look into the oral and spiritual heritage of the San people. There are two 90-minute tours offered; the Hunting Trail, which includes a visit to a replica of San village and insight into how San people hunted and tracked animals, and the Gathering Trail, which explores the San’s use of traditional and medicinal plants.
Each tour can be done on foot or on a safari vehicle and includes a photographic viewing of the San’s recorded history of tragic dispossession and a lesson in San languages (known by foreigners as “clicking” languages). Overnight accommodation is available, and the center also houses a gift shop selling rare handcrafted gifts and a restaurant that serves locally sourced, seasonal dishes.
At 2,100 meters above sea level, Dullstroom is the highest of the small towns in South Africa — making its climate significantly different. Dullstroom is just a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Johannesburg and is halfway to the world-renowned Kruger National Park, the country’s top safari destination. The subtropical highland climate makes Dullstroom relatively cool throughout the year and makes it the only place in South Africa where beech and elm trees grow.
Dullstroom is a dream for outdoor enthusiasts, being one of South Africa’s premier fly fishing destinations that is also popular with hikers, mountain bikers, horse riders, and birders. The town is also the proud home of a championship golf course designed by former professional golfer, Ernie Els.
There are plenty of culinary experiences to be had in Dullstroom, with an array of acclaimed restaurants and pubs lining the streets. Wild About Whiskey claims to be South Africa’s best-stocked whiskey bar, while old-school pub Duck and Trout hosts live music, quiz nights, and the yearly Ducktober Beer Fest. The Dullstroom Winter Festival is held every July and hosts food stalls, art exhibitions, and live music from well-known local artists.
In the center of the Eastern Cape province lies the magical town of Hogsback. Hogsback appears to have been plucked straight from a fairy-tale and is often claimed to be Tolkien’s inspiration behind Lord of the Rings, particularly for the fictional forest of Mirkwood. The peaceful village is situated high up in the Amathole mountains and is surrounded by centuries-old indigenous Afro-montane forests.
Hogsback gets its name from three mountain peaks that resemble the wild hogs that roam the forest. Many hiking trails on and around these mountains offer glorious waterfall and forest views. Horse riding, abseiling, and mountain biking offer some more adventurous ways to explore the region.
The otherworldly atmosphere of Hogsback has made it a popular place for artists and creatives to reside. One of the most acclaimed artworks in the area is the Voice of the Earth Eco-Shrine. This award-winning outdoor shrine was designed by Diane Graham and features paintings, mosaics, and sculptures.
Just 30 minutes outside of Hogsback lies the picture-perfect Elundini Cultural Village. This community-run hostel aims to give visitors a taste of Xhosa culture, offering Xhosa lessons, traditional bread-making classes, and village tours. Elundini Cultural Village is entirely eco-friendly, with all of their rondavels built traditionally with cow and dung walls and floors and thatched roofs.
Twenty minutes from the majestic Drakensberg mountains lies Nottingham Road, affectionately referred to as “Notties” by the friendly locals. Nottingham Road is the heart of the Midlands Meander, a tourist route through Kwa-Zulu Natal that directs visitors to stunning, off-the-beaten-track locations full of fun outdoor and cultural attractions. With the natural beauty surrounding every inch of Nottingham Road, the area is popular for fly fishing and horse riding.
Amongst the rolling green hills and farmland, there is plenty of country charm to be found. Stepping into the town’s old country taverns, which farmers are known to frequent, will give you a taste of country living in cozy spaces that feel like home. The Nottingham Road Brewery is a local favorite that independently produces a wide range of naturally brewed beers, with names like the lager “Tiddly Toad” and the pilsner “Pie-eyed Possum.” Notties is also home to a vibrant restaurant scene, luxury accommodation, and quirky arts and crafts stores.
With beautiful accommodation on every corner, you won’t struggle to find a place to lay your head. However, if you’d like a slice of history with a side of the paranormal, the centenary Nottingham Road Hotel is a must-visit. The legendary hotel has been a lively meeting place for travelers and locals alike and houses a historic pub with many stories to tell. With this much history, it is no wonder that Notties Hotel is rumored to be haunted. Charlotte, who was once apparently a “lady of loose morals,” is now a gentle, houseproud ghost who rearranges clothes and tidies rooms and flower arrangements.
Prince Albert is located about four hours outside of Cape Town and on the way to the glorious Garden Route. The town is situated at the foot of the Swartberg Pass, a national monument that offers sweeping views of the Karoo. Prince Albert is also on the Swartberg Circle Route linking the Great Karoo to the Klein Karoo.
Prince Albert is sunny all year round, hot in the summer, and mild in the winter — making it a popular stargazing destination as well as lending itself to outdoor activities such as hiking, birding, and mountain biking. The town is home to many beautifully preserved Dutch, Karoo, and Victorian buildings, 19 of which are national monuments. The Fransie Pienaar Museum acts as the local tourism center and is home to one of the world’s largest fossil collections. You can learn more about the town’s history and even meet the town’s ghosts by joining the Prince Albert Ghost Walk.
You’ll discover authentic Karoo cuisine in Prince Albert, where you can sample local delicacies such as Karoo lamb, cheese, olives and figs. If you visit between January and May, go to Weltevrede Fig Farm to see around 2000 beautiful fig trees in full bloom.
Take a scenic 90-minute drive from Cape Town, and you’ll discover a whole new world in Tulbagh. Tulbagh is an excellent place for those who like wine with its proximity to the Cape Winelands and multiple wineries dotted around the village. The Tulbagh Wine Route has many wineries, including both intimate family-run and award-winning boutique cellars.
Surrounded by mountains and valleys, the Tulbagh basin experiences extreme temperatures from scorching summers to snow-capped mountains in winter. This Mediterranean-like climate makes Tulbagh a sought-after viticultural destination. Some of the wine estates date back to the 1700s, while the more recently established farms still display the same old-world charm.
With natural beauty around every corner, it’s not uncommon to spot fascinating fauna like baboons, foxes, antelope, and even leopards on the mountains. Horse and pony rides offer a unique way to explore the wine valley, while there are various walking and hiking trails in the northern part of Tulbagh. Tulbagh hosts various events every year, including a horse and wildflower show, a winter Christmas village in June, and the Spring Arts Festival in spring.
Did you know that South Africa has its very own Eiffel Tower? Parys is, you guessed it, the Afrikaans translation of “Paris.” The eccentric town of Parys is undoubtedly not what you would expect as the Paris of South Africa, but that’s what makes it so unique. It takes just over an hour to drive to Parys from Johannesburg, making it another convenient spot for a break from the city.
Not only does Parys house a six-and-a-half-foot-tall Eiffel Tower, but it’s also home to a Stonehenge. The tranquil Stonehenge River Lodge greets guests with a replica of the Stonehenge monument and offers accommodation in a traditional rustic, African-designed lodge with views of the Vaal River. Walking along the town’s main street will reveal plenty of one-of-a-kind stores containing rare antiques, clothes, jewelry, art, and a variety of friendly eateries and bars.
Parys is located within the Vredefort Dome World Heritage Site, the largest and second-oldest meteorite impact site on Earth. Hiking the Vredefort Meteorite trails will reveal an array of plants, birds, reptiles, and animals within its bushveld, riverine, and forest ecosystems. Along the way, you’ll discover San rock art, Boer war memorials, and relics from the late 1880s Gold Rush era.