South Africa has abundance of small towns each with their own charm, slow paced life and artisan communities. There’s no better way to explore or connect with locals than by venturing travelling off the beaten track and embracing the slow life of these towns. Here’s a list of top small towns in South Africa we think you should visit…
1. Stanford, Western Cape
Fast on its way to becoming the foodie capital of the Overberg, this riverside town is a peaceful little slice of small town paradise. With an eclectic mix of shops, galleries, restaurants and a number of great outdoor activities, it is the perfect getaway and only about 20 minutes’ drive from the popular whale watching town of Hermanus.
Adventure seekers can look forward to kayaking, canoeing, bird watching and river cruises as well as the must-do Stanford Walking Trail where you make your way along the banks of the Klein River and get to catch a few glimpses of the local bird population. Foodies will love the weekly organic market in the town square and Mariana’s, a charming farm-style restaurant overlooking vegetable gardens, fruit trees and the mountains beyond.
Discover what XO Africa’s GM, Samuel Regnier, has to share about Standford Valley.
2. Mcgregor, Western Cape
Tucked away in a valley along Route 62, lies the laid-back town of McGregor. McGregor’s aesthetics committee has ensured that the town’s architecture adheres to its original historical building style allowing the town to retain the quaintness of a 19th century hamlet with whitewashed cottages, freely growing gardens and old stone irrigation channels.
In the heart of the Breede Valley and only 10 minutes from Robertson, wine tasting is a must in this neck of the woods. There are a number of local wineries, like Kingsriver Estate and Lord’s Winery perfect for a day of sipping on fine wines in this lush valley. The Four Cousins restaurant is perfect for tastings and lunch with you have kids as their tractor and playground will keep them occupied for ages. They also have a kiddies tasting including sweets and sparkling juice. Van Louveren’s historical garden is a must, so ensure you book a garden tour to learn about the wealth of stories behind each tree as well as a tasting for you and the kids. Children will also love visit the Eseltjiesrus Donkey Sanctuary where they will get to meet the donkeys, have lunch enjoy the outdoor area of the restaurant.
McGregor is also a haven for artists, with hand-crafted items on offer such as hand painted kaftans and amazing hand crafted pottery and brassware. Millstone Pottery is a studio and showroom showcasing the inspiration and creations of local potters Paul de Jongh and Nina Shand. Locals and visitors are invited to watch how various items are made, as well as to purchase once-off pieces and attend frequent workshops where you can explore the creative process of pottery.
3. Wilderness, Garden Route
An essential stop along the Garden Route, Wilderness is a series of beaches, natural lakes, bird-rich estuaries, lagoons and long beaches. With its abundance of natural beauty and wild open spaces, popular activities include hiking, mountain biking, birding, paragliding, horse riding, scenic drives, day tours, angling, boating and other water sports.
Be sure to make a stop at the Map of Africa at Wilderness Heights, where amazing viewpoints show you breath-taking scenery of forests, lakes, mountains, and coastline and is also a great spot for spotting dolphins and whales.
4. Matjiesfontein, Karoo
A little piece of South African history, Matjiesfontein is a perfectly preserved Victorian railway village as well as a National Monument. Once a British army stronghold during the Anglo-Boer war, these days it remembers this rich history with a British Army Remount Camp and the Marie Rawdon Museum where various Anglo-Boer War items are on display. Most famous in Matjiesfontein is The Lord Milner Hotel named after Lord Alfred Milner, the governor of the Cape during the Anglo-Boer War. During the time the hotel served as a military hospital for the 10000 troops camped around Matjiesfontein and so tale of haunted hallways are common so beware.
5. Wellington, Western Cape
For a Cape Winelands experience head to Wellington where the wine flows and the food is world-class. Wellington still has that undiscovered, undisturbed charm of a real small town and really embraces the slow life mantra. As home of the vines with its ideal climate and soil, almost 90% of the country’s vines are grown in vine-cutting nurseries in the town before being transported elsewhere for planting.
Viticulture in this little town began back in the 1600s with the French Huguenots while the actual Wine Route was established in the mid 1990s. Wine cellars are within easy driving distances from each other so you can always fit in a quick tasting and if you’re looking to commit to something that’s a little longer there is always the Wellington Wine Walk, a three-day hiking trail in the foothills of the Hawequa Mountains through vineyards, olive orchards, fields of buchu and vine cutting plantations with overnights in local Wellington guest houses. A visit to Wellington’s berry farm is also a must where you can take guided tours of the strawberry, raspberry, and Cape gooseberry fields and even pick some of your own.
6. Jeffrey’s Bay, Eastern Cape
Jeffreys Bay, or J-Bay as it is affectionately known, is another firm favourite for locals and tourists. With your pick of beaches to choose from this small town is a surfers and beach-lovers paradise with an endless summer atmosphere where beachwear all day every day is the norm. For those who are already well acquainted with the waves you can experience the best right hand point break in the world that finds thousands of surfers flocking to J-Bay every year.
While there why not try your hand at some surfing lessons, scuba diving, boat trips, mountain biking and so much more or just simply soak up the sun on the beach where you might be lucky to spot some dolphins on the horizon. If you manage to peel yourself away from the beach for a while, J-bay has some stunning coffee shops, restaurants, curio shops and interesting spots to visit in town. The Shell Museum showcases some amazing, rare shells found along this coastline.
7. Chintsa, Eastern Cape
Just on the outskirts of the Wild Coast is this quaint little seaside village. Chintsa is divided into Chinsta East and Chintsa West by the Chintsa River and surrounded by lush indigenous forests and amazing bird life. Life is simple here and when you’re not relaxing along the long stretches of unspoilt beaches you can go fishing, join a horseback tour, stop by the Emerald Vale Brewing Company or take the 10 minute drive to Inkwenkwezi Game Reserve for a safari experience.
8. Nieu-Bethesda, Eastern Cape
This special little town is in the heart of the Karoo has an otherworldly charm with no tar roads, no street lights and no ATM or petrol station. The stillness and tranquillity of Nieu-Bethesda has attracted many talented people who moved here and made it the artsy town it is today with just a hint of esoteric charm. The town was actually put on the map by Helen Martin and her Owl House which was her family home that she discreetly transformed into a work of art during her years living there and only once she passed was it discovered.
Today her magnificent concrete and glass sculptures, use of bright paint and multi-coloured panes of glass have many tourists and art enthusiasts flocking to this town to marvel at her works. Besides the Owl House must-see spots include the Nieu Bethesda Art Centre, Kitching Fossil Exploration Centre and the Sneeuberg Brewery and 2 Goats Deli where you can enjoy owner, André Cilliers’ handmade cheeses, home-brewed beers, game salami, preserves, freshly-baked breads and hand-roasted coffee.
9. Howick, Kwazulu-Natal
The gateway to the Midlands Meander, Howick is best known as the place where Nelson Mandela was arrested in August 1962 and as the place of many waterfalls, owing to the many tributaries of the uMngeni River that tumble down gorges and over sharp inclines on their way to the Indian Ocean. The Mandela Capture Site is also an important stop where an impressive sculpture stands, commemorating Mandela’s capture in 1962.
Howick Falls is a 100 metre cascade of water in the centre of town where you can view the falls from a platform or, for the adventure seekers, you can abseil along the falls down the gorge and into the pool. Foodies are spoilt for choice when it comes to eating out in Howick and the Midlands Meander. The town is home to some great cafes and restaurants including La Petite France and Yellowwood Café with its amazing views of the Howick Falls.
10. Southbroom, Kwazulu-Natal
Picture long walks along endless stretches of coastline, abundant wildlife and a green tropical paradise nestled between the Mbizane and Kaba Rivers. Southbroom is a flourishing village along the coast of Kwazulu-Natal offering a proper relaxing breakaway for holidaymakers.
The beaches are immaculate and a strict adherence to local conservation laws means that wildlife and tropical fish flourish in the warm waters of the Indian Ocean making it perfect for scuba divers. The Southbroom Golf Club is one of the most popular courses in Kwazulu-Natal and boasts amazing views of the coastline and uniquely tropical, palm tree lined landscapes.
11. Sutherland, Northern Cape
Your first stop in this sleepy little town needs to be SALT (The Southern African Large Telescope) which is the largest single-optical telescope in the southern hemisphere. Almost 120 kilometres north of Matjiesfontein in the Karoo and in the middle of nowhere Sutherland’s clear night skies are ideal for stargazing and its most popular attraction. Sterland, just outside of Sutherland also has stargazing sessions every night, with the cold air providing excellent viewing of the Milky Way. Sutherland is also one of South Africa’s coldest towns and many come here in winter to witness its snowfall.
12. Kaapsehoop, Mpumalanga
25km southwest of Nelspruit sits the beautiful little town of Kaapsehoop where wild horses run free and outdoor adventure is top priority. Perched high on top of the Drakensberg escarpment the drive from Nelspruit to Kaapsehoop is almost as spectacular as the destination as the route takes you along a beautiful rugged mountain pass covered in mist on some days with the wild horses welcoming you to the town if you’re lucky enough to catch a glimpse.
Kaapsehoop, “The Cape of Hope” was named by the miners who settled there during the gold rush era and with this past of mining the town’s history is full of tales of murder, mystery and of course the missing Kruger Millions that you can experience fist hand on the Kaapsehoop Ghost Tour. Other activities include Horseback trails and the Kaapsehoop Escarpment Walk.
13. Swellendam, Western Cape
Only two and a half hours from Cape Town, Swellendam combines historical small town splendour with outdoor adventure deluxe. Grab a map from the tourist info centre and discover a bit of the town’s history in the few roads including the Drostdy Museum, the rooms of yesteryear at the Mayville house as well as the jail cell and building at the Trading Post. Enjoy gourmet cuisine at Field and Fork or the Schooneoordt Country Hotel. Pick berries in season at Wildebraam Farm, buy handmade collector’s dolls from the Bradleys and their online shop ( elizabethannbradley.com) or go horse riding from Marloth Lodge. Adventure seekers can find walking and mountain biking trails in the Marloth Nature Reserve, microlighting over the Buffeljags dam and kayking at Umshanti.
Photo Credits: Standford by Standford Valley. Sutherland by Southafricatourism.net. All other images by thetravelmanuel.com
Which town would you love to visit?