South Africa’s social and economic development has gone through tremendous shifts over the years, with infrastructure development and service delivery being at the heart of all the progress made. These developments have also impacted population and human settlement dynamics.
For several decades, both South Africa’s urban and rural population grew almost in parallel, with the rural population being slightly larger than the urban. This changed in 1987, when urban dwellers became the majority, initiating a rapid population growth in South Africa’s cities that soon was accompanied by a decrease in rural population – a trend that continues to this day.
The developments above, however, have not taken away the jewel small towns of the country which still remain vibrant and relevant with decent levels of life still prevailing.
Which towns can be considered as the best, charming small towns of South Africa to visit or live in?
Glencoe, a stone’s throw from Dundee, is rather unassuming. You could easily reach the conclusion that it’s a ‘not-happening’ town. Put it this way: unlike the coastal holiday towns, you are not going to struggle to find a parking space. For one, it’s in northern KwaZulu-Natal – as far from the beach as you can get. And for another, it’s a really small town. This is a place to visit when you want to escape, when you don’t want any action. Certainly not a night life. Businesses here are family owned, stays are on neighbouring farms, and activities, if indeed you seek any, hinge around the odd tea shop, sedate walks celebrating the town’s rich history, visits to neighbouring battlefields, or outrides into the surrounding mountains.
St Lucia - Kwazulu-Natal
St Lucia is all about its estuary, beaches, forest, dunes and wetlands. It’s the scuba diving mecca of the country, and its beaches are in pristine condition. Situated high on the north coast of KZN the little town forms part of the country’s first World Heritage Site. It lies 240 km from Durban, and usually functions as a launching pad for the iSimangaliso Wetland Park.
Highlights in this small town include cruises up and down the estuary to spot hippos and crocs, the eastern shores of the park where there might not be lions, but just about every other animal a part of the Big Five, as well as vulnerable loggerhead and leatherback turtles who lay their eggs on the wild untouched beaches.
Darling - Western Cape
Darling is a rural town outside of Cape Town that was settled by 29 farmers over 300 years ago. Today, there are several wine estates in the surrounding area, and the Darling Wine Experience is a major attraction. In addition to the vineyards that stretch as far as the eye can see, you will find lots of wildlife here as well. The landscape is dotted with graceful wind turbines, and the vast fields are blanketed with wildflowers each spring. Darling is also known for its high-quality butter and other dairy products. There is even a museum dedicated to preserving the history of dairy production in the town.
Hermanus - Western Cape
Hermanus is a seaside town southeast of Cape Town, in South Africa’s Western Cape Province. It's known as a whale-watching destination. Hermanus was formerly a small fishing village, but today it’s a popular vacation spot. It offers extraordinary views and beaches along with a number of oceanic attractions, including whale watching and shark cage diving. There is a path along the cliffs that offers particularly spectacular views and also serves as an excellent vantage point for watching the whales from the shore. The fields surrounding Hermanus are covered in diverse wildflowers, and the breezy climate is comparable to that of the Mediterranean.
Betty’s Bay, Western Cape
The small and sleepy seaside town of Betty’s Bay on the Overberg coast of South Africa’s Western Cape province combines stunning ocean vistas, a magnificent mountain back-drop, and a laid-back vibe. Positioned in a narrow strip of land, sandwiched between the Kogelberg Mountains and the Atlantic Ocean, and bordered by fresh water lakes, it offers visitors the chance to explore the UNESCO-protected Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve, an unspoilt and isolated site of natural beauty and floral diversity. Other local highlights include the penguin colony at Stony Point and the Harold Porter Botanical Gardens.
Bathurst, Eastern Cape
Bathurst is about 12 kilometres inland from Port Alfred, on the R67 road, in the Eastern Cape. The small town of Bathurst might remind you of an old English 19th century village, and yes there is tea and scones available, but Bathurst is also possibly South Africa’s most eccentric town. Bustling with activity, passion, history and art, the town is a home to festivals, the oldest pub in South Africa and the biggest pineapple you will ever lay eyes on.
You can enjoy a drink in South Africa’s oldest licensed pub, Pig and Whistle Inn, visit the weekly Bathurst Farmer’s Market for fresh produce on a Sunday, climb inside the 16.5 metre man made pineapple and learn about the history of the pineapple industry. You can also view local artists’ work at Engage Art Centre and he Workshop Art & Craft Gallery, visit the pottery studio of Richard Pullen and take a Tori Stowe creation home with you, step back in time and go to the Bathurst Agricultural Museum and the Bradshaw’s Mill that was built in 1821.
Steytlerville - Eastern Cape
Steytlerville is a settlement in Sarah Baartman District Municipality in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa. It is a town on the Groot River, 164km north-west of Port Elizabeth and 90km east of Willowmore. Known for rugby legend Danie Craven and poet A.G Visser, there is more to this town than what meets the eye. You can drive through the open-air gallery, the Valley of Flags, on Noorspoort Pass (from Kleinpoort’s side on the R329), stop at the open-air museum with its old farming implements and visit the Pegasus Early Motoring Museum, which highlights important motoring moments in South Africa.
There is also a charity shop on the premises whose proceeds go towards the rehabilitation and release of animals. You can also unwind by attending Steytlerville Follies, which is a captivating cabaret dinner show with the famous Karoo diva, Dame Leyla Lamborghini and maestro Freddy Ferrari on the grand piano.
Joubertina - Eastern Cape
Joubertina is a small town in the Kou-Kamma Local Municipality, Sarah Baartman District of the Eastern Cape province. In Joubertina, and the surrounding towns of Kareedouw, Krakeel, Louterwater and Misgund, you’ll find farm retreats with hands-on experiences and outdoor adventures. Joubertina’s next door neighbour, Twee Riviere, is also home to the campus of the South African Institute for Heritage Science where you will stumble upon The Belfry Kitchen; an inflation-free place with a homesteading food model, a rare find in modern-day society.
Some of the things to do in Joubertina (and the rest of the Langkloof) include getting off the tar and onto gravel to Kouga Wilderness where you can go on 4×4 trails, rock climbing, kloofing, hiking, fishing and swimming in natural crystal-clear pools, head over the mountain and visit the Tsitsikamma region with all its hiking trails and adventure activities like bungy jumping and canopy tours, be a farmer for the day and go fruit picking at Grootnek Guest Farm; they also offer horse riding, stargazing and more, get a day aside and climb Formosa, the highest peak in the Tsitsikamma Mountains, and at 1675 m above sea level you will have views for days, explore the farm stalls in the Langkloof or play a round of golf in Joubertina.
Beaufort West-Western Cape
Beaufort West is a town in the Western Cape province in South Africa. It is the largest town in the arid Great Karoo region, and is known as the "Capital of the Karoo". Beaufort West is a quaint vacationer’s town on the route to the South African coast. Dating back to 1818, Beaufort West is the oldest town in the Karoo region of the country. Many people come to Beaufort West to venture into the nearby Karoo National Park, which forms an even more picturesque backdrop to this charming town. You can find zebras and even rhinos in the surrounding landscapes.
Mossel Bay-Western Cape
Mossel Bay is a harbour town on the Garden Route in South Africa’s Western Cape Province. It’s known for the wide Santos Beach and the 19th-century Cape St. Blaize Lighthouse, which offers bay views. Mossel Bay is a very popular tourist destination, despite losing some of its luster when an oil company decided to industrialize it. You will find no shortage of amazing beaches here, with some stellar surf spots. The views of dramatic rocky cliffs, which separate a green inland from the blue sea, are truly striking. The ocean itself is flourishing with sea life, including the infamous great white shark.
George is a city in South Africa’s Western Cape, on a coastal stretch known as the Garden Route. It’s known for its golf courses and the George Museum, which has exhibits on the local timber industry. George is a small town located on a plateau with a pleasant oceanic climate. There are a few factors that make George a beautiful town to pass through. There are lots of lovely historical buildings, including the Dutch Reformed Church and this little town is also surrounded by world-renowned golf courses. You’ll also find the steam engine railway, which passes over the iconic Outeniqua Preserved Railway bridge from George to Mossel Bay.
Pilgrim’s Rest is a small museum town in the Mpumalanga province of South Africa, which is protected as a provincial heritage site. It was the second of the Transvaal gold fields, attracting a rush of prospectors in 1873. Pilgrim’s Rest is a well-preserved historical hub in Mpumalanga province. It was originally founded during South Africa’s gold rush of the late 19th century. The town was home to miners for almost 100 years, and today, it stands as a popular historical site frequented by visitors of all kinds. This town has an enticing, woodsy feel and is comprised of white wooden buildings with red gabled roofs.
Graaff-Reinet, Eastern Cape
Resonating with historic charm, Graaff-Reinet, one South Africa’s oldest towns, is set against the imposing backdrop of the rocky Sneeuberg Mountain in the Eastern Cape. Awash with hundreds of heritage buildings and Boer War monuments, the 19th-century town offers a fascinating window into the past, while the surrounding Camdeboo National Park offers landscapes of rich greenness and mountains, and the chance to try out a variety of outdoors activities including bird and game-watching, hiking, trout fishing, horse riding, and fossil study.
Clarens - Free State
Perched in the foothills of the Maluti Mountains, the small town of Clarens has been dubbed the “Jewel of the Eastern Free State” – and for good reason. As an artistic haven, many creative types come here to gain inspiration from its breath-taking scenery. This is at its starkest in the nearby Golden Gate Highlands National Park, which takes its name from the shades of gold and orange cast by the sun on the sandstone cliffs at certain times of day. There’s no shortage of gift-buying opportunities too, thanks to the town’s myriad of art galleries and craft stores. Additionally, cycling, game driving, trout fishing and birding offer plenty of outdoor recreation options.
The small towns listed above demonstrate the progressive co-existence of big cities and small towns in South Africa.
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