Visiting UNESCO World Heritage Sites in South Africa

unesco world heritage sites south africa

Ten sites in South Africa have been granted UNESCO World Heritage Status. These sites are a representation of the rich cultural and natural diversity that this country offers.

World Heritage Sites Designation in South Africa

South African World Heritage Sites are classified as follows:

  • 5 cultural Heritage Sites
  • 4 natural Heritage Sites
  • 1 mixed Heritage Site

Cultural heritage sites are historic buildings, archaeological sites and important works of art.

Natural heritage status is it provided if one of 4 criteria are met:

  • It provides a record of life or geographical processes
  • It shows examples of ecological and biological evolutionary processes
  • It contains rare or extremely beautiful natural phenomena
  • It provides a habitat for rare or endangered animal or plant species.

Sites are classified as mixed if they are of both natural and cultural importance.

Distributed across South Africa, tourists in any area of the country can include at least one of the sites on their travel itinerary.

Information about each of the World Heritage Sites can be found below along with further practical advice.

Fossil Hominid Sites of South Africa, the Cradle of Humankind

This cultural attraction is of great importance to our understanding of the human species. The fossils found at these sites are considered proof that the African content is the Cradle of Humankind.

The Fossil Hominid Sites of South Africa include the Sterkfontein, Swartkrans, Kromdraai and Environs caves plus the Makapan Valley and Taung Skull Fossil Site. These contain some of the world’s most significant fossils in understanding the evolution of the early modern human.

  • Where: Gauteng province
  • Type: cultural
  • Inscription date: 1999, 2005
  • Period: Pliocene and Pleistocene

How to get to the Fossil Hominid Sites

This World Heritage site is situated in the Gauteng province, some 50 km from Johannesburg.

The Fossil Hominid Sites are 55 miles (90km) from O.R. Tambo International Airport and 20km from Lanseria International Airport.

Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape, the Remains of a Medieval Kingdom

This open, flat landscape was once the heart of the Mapungubwe Kingdom, a medieval state in South Africa which lasted from around 1075 to 1220.

The area was abandoned in the 14th century but left behind remains of settlements and palaces creating what is now a place of great archaeological significance offering insights into cultural and social changes taking place in South Africa during this period.

  • Where: Limpopo province
  • Type: cultural
  • Inscription date: 2003
  • Period: 11th to 14th century

How to get to the Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape

The closest airport to Limpopo is Polokwane International Airport. Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape is 130 miles (203km) by car from the airport and the journey takes just under 2 and a half hours.

This site is just around 200 miles (321 km) by road from Johannesburg and is reached by car in 3 hours 25 minutes.

Richtersveld Cultural and Botanical Landscape, Home to the Nama People

The Richtersveld Cultural and Botanical landscape is a communally owned mountainous desert area. The site is of huge cultural significance as it sustains the semi-pastoral livelihood of the Nama people.

Only here do portable Nama rush mat houses continue to be built whilst seasonal migrations dating back over 2 millennia still take place.

  • Where: Northern Cape
  • Type: cultural
  • Inscription date: 2007
  • Period: 19th century onwards

How to get to the Richtersveld Cultural and Botanical Landscape

The international airport in South Africa’s northern cape is Upington International Airport around 310 miles (500km) away. The journey by car takes just under 6 hours to complete.

Robben Island, Former Prison and Hospital

Robben Island was used as a prison and as a hospital for social groups deemed to be socially unacceptable.

Robben Island is one of the most visited attractions in South Africa, famous for being the prison where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for 18 of his 27 years behind bars. Many other political prisoners were kept here and the island is now seen to represent the triumph of democracy and freedom over oppression.

  • Where: Table Bay
  • Type: cultural
  • Inscription date: 1999
  • Period: 17th to 20th century

How to get to Robben Island

Ferries to Robben Island depart from the Nelson Mandela Gateway at the V&A waterfront, just a half-hour drive from Cape Town international airport.

The ferry ride takes approximately 30 minutes each way and the tour lasts a couple of hours.

ǂKhomani Cultural Landscape, Evidence of Stone Age Occupation

Large expanses of sand dunes show human occupation dating back to the Stone Age. The landscape shows how the previously nomadic ǂKhomani San people, one of the last indigenous communities in South Africa, adapted to their harsh desert environment.

This World Heritage Site teaches visitors about the way of life in this region plus migration and resources over thousands of years.

  • Where: Botswana and Namibia border
  • Type: cultural
  • Inscription date: 2017
  • Period: 17th to 20th century

How to get to ǂKhomani Cultural Landscape

ǂKhomani Cultural Landscape is located at the Botswana and Namibia border. It is a remote area with the closest town and airport being Upington, some 2 and a half hours’ drive away.

Cape Floral Region Protected Areas, Exceptional Plant Diversity

The Cape Floral Region is considered to be one of the most remarkable places for plants in the world for diversity, density and total number of endemic species.

Thirteen protected area clusters spread out over more than a million hectares including The Table Mountain National Park and De Hoop Nature Reserve.

The region also features examples of developing ecological, biological and evolutionary processes.

  • Where: south-western extremity of South Africa
  • Type: natural
  • Inscription date: 2004, 2015.

How to get to Cape Floral Region Protected Areas

This vast region is composed of several different areas so travel routes and times vary. The closest airdrome is Cape Town international airport, located around 35 minutes by car from The Table Mountain National Park, for example.

iSimangaliso Wetland Park, Diverse Habitats and Species

iSimangaliso Wetland Park is one of the most exceptional wetland and coastal sites to be found throughout Africa. The site boasts coral reefs, sandy beaches, coastal dunes, lakes and swamps which have been largely unaltered by human activity.

With such a diverse range of habitats, an incredible number of different species can be found across the area.Turtles, flamingos, and waterfowl are just some examples of the creatures resident here.

  • Where: KwaZulu-Natal province
  • Type: natural
  • Inscription date: 1999

How to get to iSimangaliso Wetland Park

Located in KwaZulu-Natal, the closest international airport is King Shaka, 2 hours and 20 minutes away by car.

Transfers and tour operators can be found at the airport for tourists who would like to arrange transport or a tour.

Vredefort Dome, an Ancient Astrobleme

Vredefort Dome is the oldest astrobleme (meteorite impact structure) to be found to date on Earth, dating back 2,023 million years. It is also the largest- its radius measures 190km.

Vredefort is significant as it is evidence of the planet’s biggest known single energy release event which had a profound effect on the earth.

  • Where: Vredefort
  • Type: natural
  • Period: Paleoproterozoic era
  • Inscription date: 2005

How to get to Vredefort Dome

Vredefort Dome is located approximately 93 miles (150km) by road from O.R. Tambo International Airport.

The journey by car takes around 2 hours. Tours are available often starting from the nearby town of Parys which is 25 minutes away.

Maloti-Drakensberg Park, Home to Endangered Plant Life

Sandstone ramparts, cutbacks, and basaltic buttresses, as well as arches, cave and rock pools, make Maloti-Drakensberg Park a site of varied natural beauty.

The habitats allow threatened and important plant life to thrive.

  • Where: KwaZulu-Natal
  • Type: mixed, cultural & natural
  • Period: 2000 BC
  • Inscription date: 2000

How to get to Maloti-Drakensberg Park

Maloti-Drakensberg Park is approximately 398km from O.R. Tambo International Airport which can be reached by car in just over 4 hours.

King Shaka International Airport in Durban is a 2 and a half hour drive from the park.

Barberton Makhonjwa Mountains, Ancient Volcanic Rocks

Over 40% of the Barberton Greenstone Belt make up the Barberton Makhonjwa Mountains.

As one of the world’s oldest geological structures, this is of great significance for human understanding of the natural world.

This World Heritage Site is the best-preserved volcanic and sedimentary rock which dates back up to 3.6 million years. From this rock it is possible to extract information about early life including surface conditions and meteorite impacts.

  • Where: Mpumalanga province
  • Type: natural
  • Period: Archean era
  • Inscription date: 2018

How to get to Barberton Makhonjwa Mountains

Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport is an hour away by car whilst the mountains can be reached from Johannesburg in around 4 hours.

Tours, trails and a range of mountain activities such as paragliding are on offer.

South African Sites on the Tentative List

In addition to the 10 sites inscribed on the UNESCO World heritage Site list, South Africa is home to 5 properties currently on the tentative list. This means that the state party may consider for nomination in the coming years

  • Succulent Karoo Protected Areas
  • Liberation Heritage Route
  • Early Farmsteads of the Cape Winelands
  • The Emergence of Modern Humans: The Pleistocene occupation sites of South Africa
  • Human Rights, Liberation Struggle and Reconciliation: Nelson Mandela Legacy Sites.

South Africa World Heritage Travel Advice

Sightseers who decide to visit any of the World Heritage Sites listed above should take the following practical points into consideration when planning their trip:

By keeping the above in mind, travelers can enjoy South Africa’s World Heritage Sites to the fullest.