Only a fool would contest the fact that South Africa is host to an extraordinary amount of natural and cultural variety. This year, South Africa laid claim to its tenth UNESCO World Heritage Site.
While we may not have the most heritage sites (Italy takes that accolade with a staggering 53), we sure do know a thing or two about exceptional diversity.
Whether you’re into breathtaking mountain views, magnificent botanical displays, desert isolation, warm-water snorkelling, ancient history or simply lying on the beach there’s a heritage site everyone can enjoy.
Here are our top tips and an epic guide for exploring South Africa’s 10 UNESCO World Heritage Sites
Cultural World Heritage Sites
1. Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape
Closest city: Alldays and Musina
Cost: Entry fee to Mapungubwe National Park costs R55 per adult per day.
The magnificent Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape is thought to be the site of the earliest known indigenous Southern African kingdom and was occupied between 900 and 1300 AD, which precedes the Great Zimbabwe Ruins further north. We don’t know exactly why the people of Mapungubwe moved away, but the ruins give a good idea of how they lived and how their society functioned thanks to expert archaeological findings. We know for example, that these people were trading with the rest of the world because glass beads and gold was found here, the most famous artefact is the tiny golden rhinoceros with just one horn (intriguing because both our local rhino species have two).
Don’t miss: Walk the hill where these ancient people lived and see where the rhino was found. You can’t visit the site alone and having a local guide interpret the site is essential. From R258 per person.
Inside tip: A high-clearance vehicle is best for properly exploring Mapungubwe in the wild north of South Africa.
2. Richtersveld Cultural and Botanical Landscape
Province: Northern Cape
Closest city: Port Nolloth
Cost: Entry fee to |Ai-|Ais/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park is R71 per adult per day.
Botanical landscape? In the desert? Yep. The Richtersveld Cultural and Botanical Landscape is a World Heritage Site thanks to its diverse plant life. Covering an extraordinary 160,000 hectares, the Richtersveld is an area of dramatic landscapes – rugged mountains cut by the linear oasis of the Orange River. It’s also classified as a cultural landscape because it sustains the semi-nomadic pastoral livelihood of the Nama people, who have lived this way for as long as two thousand years. Here, the Nama people still construct portable rush-mat houses and collect medicinal and other plants.
Don’t miss: Experience the area’s floral splendour between June and October, depending on good rains.
Inside tip: You can only explore this remote park with a 4X4.
3. Robben Island
Province: Western Cape
Closest city: Cape Town
Cost: R360 per adult, which includes the ferry trip out to sea. This departs from the V&A Waterfront departing at 09:00, 11:00, 13:00 and 15:00.
All self-respecting South Africans know the importance of this infamous island. Robben Island has a multi-layered 500-year-old history and was used as a prison, a hospital for socially unacceptable groups and a military base. Most famously though, the maximum security prison on Robben Island was used for political prisoners and witnessed the triumph of democracy and freedom over oppression and racism.
Don’t miss: Watch these moving personal prisoner stories before visiting.
Inside tip: If you are prone to seasickness then take sea sickness tablets an hour before boarding the boat.
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4. Fossil Hominid Sites of South Africa
Closest city: Johannesburg
Cost: Entry to the Maropeng Visitor Centre is R120 per adult.
It’s not odd to feel strongly attached to South Africa, it might just be a million-year-old homing instinct. Fossils found in the Cradle of Humankind have enabled the identification of early hominids, dating back to 4.5 million years. Yup, this sure is home. This easy-to-visit World Heritage Site includes Sterkfontein, Swartkrans, Kromdraai and Environs, and the Makapan Valley and Taung Skull Fossil Site. All of these fossil sites are critical in showing the origins and then the evolution of humankind. Interestingly, there’s even evidence of how humans domesticated fire 1.8 million to 1 million years ago.
Don’t miss: The Almost Human exhibition is the largest-ever public display of hominin fossils in the world and shares the story of Homo Naledi.
Inside tip: Get the combo ticket and visit the Sterkfontein Caves as well as the Maropeng Visitor Centre for R190 per adult.
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5. ǂKhomani Cultural Landscape
Province: Northern Cape
Closest city: Upington
One of the more recent World Heritage Sites, the ǂKhomani Cultural Landscape is located at South Africa’s border with Botswana and Namibia, including the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. The striking red Kalahari sands contain evidence of human occupation from the Stone Age right up to present day and the proclamation of this area is to honour the culture of the formerly nomadic ǂKhomani San people and the incredible strategies that allowed them to adapt and thrive in these harsh desert conditions. At the south-western tip of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, 28000 hectares of land was restored to the ‡Khomani San in the historic settlement of one of democratic South Africa’s most significant land claims. Together with a similar area granted to the neighbouring Mier Community, a Heritage Park was established. Visitors can now learn about Kalahari life through various activities on offer in the park.
Don’t miss: The chance to walk with a local and learn the time-honoured skill of tracking. Walks and trails are conducted on the traditional farms of Witdraai and Erin and include tracking animals, looking at medicinal plants, a heritage trail, or a combination.
Inside tip: Ask Aunt Koera for freshly-made ash bread. Aunt Koera’s Farm Kitchen is located on Erin farm near Andriesvale.
Natural World Heritage Sites
6. Barberton Makhonjwa Mountains
Closest city: Barberton
Our newest UNESCO World Heritage Site features mountains that are older than entire continents. Just four hours from Johannesburg, the Barberton Makhonjwa Mountains were formed between two-and-a-half and four billion years ago. You can see these impressive mountains (and the wonderful views that go with them) on the Barberton Makhonjwa Geotrail. The winding mountain route starts in Barberton and ends at the Swaziland border. On the way there, are interpretive information boards to teach you about these important hills.
Don’t miss: Visit the quaint village of Kaapsehoop nearby and try to spot on the wild horses.
Inside tip: Although the Geotrail drive is under 40 km, the return trip plus reading all the info boards and taking photos can easily take up to three hours – pack padkos.
7. Cape Floral Region Protected Areas
Province: Western, Eastern and Northern Cape
Closest city: Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and Clanwilliam.
Cost: Park entry fees vary, but you can see many of these flower species for free on roadsides and hiking in the Table Mountain National Park.
Declared as one of the world’s great centres of terrestrial biodiversity, the unique Cape Floral Region Protected Areas include national parks, nature reserves, wilderness areas, State forests and mountain catchment areas. It is also one of 35 biodiversity hotspots and one of the richest areas for plants when compared to any similar sized area in the world. Not convinced? Well, the Cape Floral Kingdom represents less than 0.5% of the area of Africa but is home to nearly 20% of the continent’s flora. The outstanding diversity, density and endemism of the flora are among the highest worldwide. Some 69% of the estimated 9000 plant species in the region are endemic and 1736 plant species identified as threatened.
Don’t miss: South African winter is the best time for seeing this incredible floral kingdom in bloom.
Inside tip: For the latest update on the best flower fields, check the Cape West Coast Tourism website or call 0729388186. You can also sign up for alerts.
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8. iSimangaliso Wetland Park
Closest city: St Lucia
Cost: Entry to the Western Shores section costs R53 per adult and R58 per vehicle.
South Africa’s first World Heritage Site, iSimangaliso Wetland Park stretches across 220 kilometres of coastline and includes pristine marine, coastal, wetland, estuarine, and terrestrial environments which are scenically beautiful and basically unmodified by people. An incredibly diverse park, here you can find coral reefs, long sandy beaches, coastal dunes, lake systems, swamps, and wetlands, providing critical habitat for a wide range of species from Africa’s seas, wetlands and savannahs. In one day, you can find leopards in the morning, snorkel with rays and colourful fish in the midday sun after beach lounging and keep an eye out for elephants in the afternoon.
9. Vredefort Dome
Province: Free State
Closest city: Parys
Just an hour from Johannesburg, the Vredefort Dome is a representative part of a larger meteorite impact structure or astrobleme. It dates back 2023 million years and is the oldest astrobleme yet found on Earth. Essentially a giant crater, the Vredefort Dome stretches 300 kilometres wide. To achieve this impact, the meteorite must have been about 10 kilometres in diameter across (as big as a mountain) and travelling at 36000 km/h.
Don’t miss: Book a tour with Jan Fourie to fully understand the complexities of the Vredefort Dome.
Inside tip: The crater as a whole is best seen from the air, why not skydive to see it?
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Mixed World Heritage Sites
10. Maloti-Drakensberg Park
Closest city: Durban
Cost: Entry fee to the various protected area varies. Here is a full list of KZN Wildlife tariffs.
Crossing borders, the Maloti-Drakensberg Park encompasses both the uKhahlamba Drakensberg National Park in South Africa and the Sehlathebe National Park in Lesotho and is composed of 12 protected areas. The site has exceptional natural beauty in its soaring basaltic buttresses, incisive dramatic cutbacks, and golden sandstone ramparts as well as visually spectacular sculptured arches, caves, cliffs, pillars and rock pools. These magnificent mountains also protect some ancient art galleries. The rock art of the Maloti-Drakensberg Park is the largest and most concentrated group of rock paintings in Africa south of the Sahara and is outstanding both in quality and diversity of subject.
Don’t miss: Hiking is the best way to appreciate the might of these incredible mountains. Strap on your tackies and tackle the heights.
Inside tip: In winter, this is one of the best places to find snow. Here are more top places to find snow in South Africa.
Choose from a variety of cheap flight options and tell us which World Heritage Site you can’t wait to explore.
Visited any of these sites recently? Share your experiences in the comments section below.