Whether you are a local wanting to escape the buzzing crowd, or a backpacker looking for something a bit more unusual, there are lots of small towns in the countryside that should be on everyone’s road trip itinerary in South Africa. These towns can be famous for various reasons, from the house of an acclaimed author or artist to strategic significance during a battle, or even a natural disaster. Here are our top recommendations.
Philadelphia, Western Cape
Don’t be surprised to see town names the same as the cities in the US or the UK. Despite the connotation of a big city, South Africa’s Philadelphia consists of 8 streets only. Philadelphia was established in 1860 by farmers who could not afford to go to the churches in Cape Town, although the area is only 33 km outside the city. Honestly, there is no tourist attraction in this town. On the bright side, you will have all the time to yourself to explore its historic buildings, cozy restaurants, and souvenir shops. The highlight of such exploration is the magic mineral shop, where you can find therapeutic gemstones and crystals.
Hamburg, Eastern Cape
Here is another town that will make you think the maps and the GPS have a typo. Unlike its counter-partner in Germany, Hamburg on the Sunshine Coast is a small coastal town established by German farmers, who initially moved here with the help of the British settlers. It is a bit hard to reach because of the gravel road leading to the coast, but the end product will be rewarding. The town is a popular getaway spot for swimming, surfing, bird-watching, and fishing. Besides, the community is admirable for their hard work and dedication to promote art and education. You will see many community projects for children’s health and education, craft shops owned by the local women, and coffee shops with handmade coffee.
Richmond, Northern Cape
Imagine a town so integrated with literature that its nickname is Booktown. Although Richmond is not technically off the track as the midpoint between Cape Town and Johannesburg, so many people drive past without appreciating its beauty. The community of Richmond thrives on art and literature, which is why you will see a bookshop in every corner. Not only that, but the town also hosts the annual Book Festival, where many famous writers and playwrights attend. Besides books, Richmond is home to the Modern Art Project featuring contemporary artworks, and the Horse Museum that is one of the only two in the world.
Clarens, Free State
Known as the Jewel of the Free State, Clarens is one of the most postcard-worthy towns of South Africa. Named after Clarens in Switzerland, where Paul Kruger spent his last years in exile, it boasts a lot of sentimental history. However, the main reason for visiting Clarens is the Golden Gate Highlands National Park, where you will come across massive striped sandstones in the shape of a mushroom or a ship. After trying one of the several hiking trails, you can go back to Clarens center to taste the farm-style cuisine and the high-quality craft beer.
Matjiesfontein, Western Cape
Western Cape has plenty of historic heritages, but Matjiesfontein looks like a simulation of the early 1900s. Although it was initially a railway checkpoint between Cape Town and the diamond mines in Kimberly, it became a refreshment station and a health & spa center amongst British nobles. The Lord Milner Hotel – infamously known as haunted – served both as a luxurious hotel and a military hospital during the Anglo-Boer Wars. The first international cricket game in South Africa also took place here. Strolling on the streets of Matjiesfontein, you will also come across two transport museums owned by a British entrepreneur. Here, you can find the old cars that carried the British Royal Family on their visits.
Nieu-Bethesda, Eastern Cape
At the intersection of three provinces lies a quaint little town that was home to two of South Africa’s most acclaimed figures – Sculptor Helen Martens and playwright Athol Fugard. Marten’s Owl House full of life-sized sculptures is a must-see for the delicate artwork and tragic life story of Martens that led to her suicide. Besides the Owl House, the town and its surroundings encompass a large collection of fossils displayed at its Kitching Museum. However, you shouldn’t limit yourself to museums; every building in this small town has a story to tell, from second-hand bookshops to financially-struggling community art shops.
Groot Marico, Northwest
There are so many underrated African towns that have inspired travel-writers for centuries. Located near the Botswana border, Groot Marico was a source of inspiration for the famous storyteller Herman Charles Bosman, who based some of his classics on here. The locals – aiming to keep his legacy alive – have dedicated a museum as well as a colorful art festival to his name. Other than its artsy vibe, Groot Marico is an excellent location for hiking and mountain biking. That’s why it also hosts a big race event called Annual Mountain Bike Classic.
Riebeek Kasteel, Western Cape
Located in the middle of dramatic mountain ranges and vineyards, Riebeek Kasteel is quite frankly South Africa’s writers’ retreat spot. Initially discovered by Jan Van Riebeek, the settlement later became famous as the hometown of two South African prime ministers. Today, the town has become the go-to spot for writers, artists, chefs, and many other creative minds looking for inspiration and serenity. Museums, Dutch Reform churches, galleries, and patisseries dominate the town’s silhouette, but the one place you should not skip is the Red Tin Roof Restaurant. Owned by the controversial journalist Jacques Pauw, Red Tin Roof is not only a restaurant with signature burgers but also one that displays the life story and articles of Pauw.