Travel Guide South Africa

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South Africa is a large, diverse and incredibly beautiful country. It varies from the picturesque Garden Route towns of the Western Cape to the raw subtropical coast of northern KwaZulu-Natal. The vast Karoo semi-desert stretches across its centre, while one of Africa’s premier safari destinations, Kruger National Park, sprawls along the northeast border. The big cities attract immigrants from across the continent, making them great, bubbling cultural crucibles. Read our South Africa guide for everything you need to know before you go.

South Africa travel facts

  • Population: 56 million people
  • Language: South Africa has 11 official languages: Zulu, Xhosa, Afrikaans, Pedi, English, Ndebele, Sotho, Setswana, Swati, Venda and Tsonga
  • Origins: The majority of the population are black Africans. White people make up just under 9%, as do coloured people – the mixed-race descendants of white settlers, slaves from Southeast Asia and Africans.
  • Size: South Africa is size of France and Spain combined,
  • Politics: The country is a multiparty democracy, led by President Cyril Ramaphosa
  • Record-breaking first lady: Nelson Mandela’s widow, Graça Machel, who was previously married to the late president of Mozambique, is the only woman to have been first lady of two different countries.
  • Nuclear disbandment: South Africa is the only country in the world to have manufactured nuclear weapons and then to have voluntarily dismantled them.

Where to go in South Africa

From the vineyards of the Cape to baobab-dotted Limpopo, via the Karoo and Drakensberg mountains, travel in South Africa is varied and rewarding. You could travel around South Africa in a few weeks, but it’s more satisfying to focus on a specific region.

Each of the nine provinces has compelling reasons to visit, whether that’s wildlife, beaches, culture or urban life. However, depending on the time of year and your interests, you’d be wise to concentrate on either the west or the east.

Here are some of the best places to visit in South Africa:

Cape Town

Cape Town is one of Africa’s most beautiful cities, nudging up to the squat bulk of Table Mountain. Cape Town’s rich urban texture is immediately apparent in its varied architecture. The signature Cape Dutch style, rooted in northern Europe, is at its grandest on the Constantia wine estates and typified by whitewashed gables. Muslim dissidents and slaves, freed in the nineteenth century, added their minarets to the skyline. The English, who invaded and freed the slaves, introduced Georgian and Victorian buildings. In the tightly packed terraces of the Bo-Kaap and the tenements of District Six, coloured descendants of slaves evolved an evocatively Cape brand of jazz.

Durban

Although the beachfront pulls thousands of Jo’burgers down to “Durbs” every year, the city’s main interest lies in its gritty urbanity. There is a seemingly endless struggle to reconcile competing cultures. Durban’s second-largest group is its Indian population, whose mosques, bazaars and temples are juxtaposed with the Victorian buildings of the colonial centre. The bustling harbour area is always photogenic and the swanky northern suburbs are packed with fashionable cafés, restaurants and bars.

Johannesburg

Back in 1886, when gold was discovered, what is now Johannesburg was an expanse of sleepy, treeless veld. Now the economic engine of Africa, it’s the sprawling, infuriating, invigorating home to six million people and extreme contrasts of wealth and poverty. The city has a reputation as a place to avoid, but its energy and vibrancy are seductive. The highly cosmopolitan city boasts South Africa’s most famous townships, its most diverse cultural life, some of its best restaurants and the most progressive nightlife.

Pretoria

Just 50km north of Johannesburg lies dignified Pretoria, the country’s administrative capital. Historically an Afrikaner stronghold, today it’s a cosmopolitan mix of civil servants, diplomats and students from South Africa and around the world. Smaller and more relaxed than Johannesburg, Pretoria is an intriguing destination in its own right. A range of interesting museums and historic buildings include the famous Union Buildings, the Mandela monument and the remarkable Voortrekker Monument.

The Western Cape

The Western Cape is the most mountainous and arguably the most beautiful of South Africa’s provinces. The highlight for many is the Winelands, where you can indulge in fine food and wine pairings while visually feasting on verdant valleys, dramatic mountains and handsome Cape Dutch architecture. Elsewhere, the Whale Coast is the best place to travel in South Africa for shore-based whale-watching in winter, while the Garden Route is a scenic drive along the N2 that extends between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth.

The Eastern Cape

Sandwiched between the Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal, the Eastern Cape tends to be bypassed by visitors travelling South Africa – and for all the wrong reasons. The relative neglect it has suffered as a tourist destination is precisely where its charm lies. See traditional African villages, and explore the region’s 1000km of undeveloped coastline. From Addo Elephant National Park to the historic township of Port Elizabeth, this off-the-beaten-track province is one of the most rewarding regions in South Africa.

The Northern Cape

From the lonely Atlantic coast to the provincial capital Kimberley, the vast Northern Cape covers over one-third of the nation’s landmass, an area dominated by heat, aridity, barren landscapes and huge travelling distances. However, the swathes of flowers transform the landscape into riots of colour. Spot wild animals roaming the red sand dunes and golden grasses. The biggest miracle of all perhaps is the Orange River, which separates the Kalahari and the Great Karoo – two sparsely populated semi-desert ecosystems.

KwaZulu-Natal

KwaZulu-Natal has everything South Africa is known for – beaches, wildlife, mountains and accessible ethnic culture. The city of Durban is the industrial hub of the province and has a heady mixture of cultural flavours. Towering peaks and ancient San (Bushman) rock paintings sculpt the landscape of uKhahlamba-Drakensberg. Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park is one of the best places in the world to see both black and white rhinos.

Free State

The Maloti Drakensberg Route is one of South Africa’s most scenic drives. The route skirts the mountainous eastern flank of the Free State, the traditional heartland of conservative Afrikanerdom. If you’re driving from Johannesburg to Eastern or Western Cape, the Eastern Highlands are worth the detour. The highlight is the Golden Gate Highlands National Park, dominated by the beautiful Maloti Mountains with their stripy red sandstone outcrops. West of Golden Gate is Clarens, by far the nicest of the string of towns along the Lesotho border.

Gauteng

Gauteng is South Africa’s smallest region, comprising less than 2% of its landmass, yet contributing around 40% of the GDP. Home to over 12 million people, Gauteng is dominated by the huge conurbation incorporating Johannesburg, Pretoria and a host of industrial towns and townships.

North West Province

The North West Province is one of South Africa’s least-understood regions. It's renowned for the opulent Sun City resort and the Big Five Pilanesberg National Park, but not much else. Few people venture beyond these attractions; so it can be curiously rewarding to do so. The old-fashioned hospitality of the myriad little dorps (farming towns) and the tranquillity of the endless stretches of grassland and fields of mielies (sweetcorn) make a refreshing change after hectic Johannesburg.

Mpumalanga

Mpumalanga, “the land of the rising sun”, extends east from Gauteng to Mozambique and Swaziland. The province is synonymous with the Kruger National Park, one of the best places to travel in South Africa for wildlife safaris. A number of private reserves lie on its western border – called the Greater Kruger – offering the chance to escape the Kruger crush, with well-informed rangers conducting safaris in open vehicles.

Kruger National Park

Most people who travel to South Africa are lured by the promise of epic creatures. Kruger National Park is home to scores of elephants, lions and thousands of other magnificent animals. Kruger covers over 20,000 square kilometres – an area the size of Israel or El Salvador – with an astonishing 414km drive north to south. It is the easiest African game park to drive around on your own, with many accommodation options. Alternatively, you can sign up for an organized safari tour or stay on an exclusive reserve.

Limpopo

Limpopo is a hot, thornbush-covered area caught between the dynamic heartland of Gauteng and the Limpopo River. The province is dissected by the busy N1 highway (or Great North Road), South Africa’s umbilical cord to the rest of the continent. Find plentiful wildlife and mist-shrouded mountains, all accessible at lower prices than elsewhere in the country. Culturally, Limpopo also stands out: seven of South Africa’s 11 official languages are spoken here.

The Garden Route

The Garden Route, a slender stretch of coastal plain between Mossel Bay and Storms River Mouth, has a legendary status as South Africa’s paradise. The coast is dominated by three inlets: Mossel Bay, which marks the official start of the drive; Knysna, an undulating landscape of forest-cloaked hills; and Plettenberg Bay, dotted with good swimming beaches. Expect outdoor adventures galore, from hiking ito marine safaris or tubing along deep river gorges.

The Winelands

The Winelands are all about indulgence – eating, drinking and relaxing. Stellenbosch, Paarl, Franschhoek and Somerset West each has its own established wine route. The towns are packed with Dutch colonial heritage and surrounded by vineyards. The Winelands are one of the best places to travel in South Africa for foodies. The area has a disproportionate concentration of the country’s top restaurants.

Port Elizabeth

In 1820, Port Elizabeth was the arrival point for four thousand British settlers, who doubled the English-speaking population of South Africa. The smokestacks along the N2 bear testimony to the fact that it was formerly an industrial centre that thrived on cheap African labour. The port has some outstanding city beaches along Nelson Mandela Bay, as well as beautiful coastal walks, and a small historical centre.

Discover more places in South Africa

Best time to go to South Africa

The best time to visit South Africa depends on where you want to go and your interests. The west is best visited in the warmer months (November to April), while the eastern flank of the country is ideal in the cooler months (May to October).

Peak season is from December to January and at Easter, when prices soar and accommodation is booked up months in advance, especially along the coast and around national parks. If you’re travelling to South Africa for its iconic creatures, spring is best for whale-spotting while autumn onwards is perfect for wildlife-watching.

June to August is rainy season in Cape Town and the Western Cape, though prices are low and these are great months to visit South Africa’s arid areas, like the Karoo.

Read our guide on the best time to travel to South Africa.

How to get to South Africa

Most people travel to South Africa by plane. Many flights connect Johannesburg and Cape Town with London and the rest of Europe. Australia is also well served, with nonstop flights from Sydney and Perth to Johannesburg, and (expensive) onward connections to Cape Town. Flights from New Zealand tend to be via Sydney.

From North America, there are a relatively small number of nonstop flights into Johannesburg; your best bet is a direct flight from New York (JFK) and Washington (via a refuel stop in West Africa). There are no direct flights from Canada; you’ll have to change planes in the US, Europe or Asia, with journey times that can last over thirty hours.

Read more in our South Africa travel guide.

How to get around South Africa

In this section, we’ll look at how to travel around South Africa.

Despite the large distances, travelling around South Africa is mostly straightforward. There’s a reasonably well-organized bus and train network, plenty of car rental companies and well-connected internal flights. The only weak point is public transport in urban areas, which is mostly poor and dangerous with the exceptions of Johannesburg’s Gautrain and Cape Town’s MyCiTi bus and Metrorail Southern Line.

Renting a car is the easiest and safest option for your South Africa trip. Besides, short of joining a tour, the only way to reach national parks and the more remote coastal areas is by car. However, flying between destinations compares favourably with the cost of covering long distances in a rental car and overnighting en route.

Best things to do in South Africa

  1. Kgalagadi Transfrontier ParkView cheetahs, meerkats and other desert dwellers amid the harsh beauty of the Kalahari. Spotting Kalahari lions purring between the dunes is one of the most memorable experiences in South Africa.
  2. Wine RoutesThe Cape’s wine estates combine stunning scenery, Cape Dutch architecture and some fine vintages.
  3. The Wild CoastThis part of the Eastern Cape offers peace and seclusion along a remote and spectacular subtropical coastline.
  4. Kruger National ParkGet spine-tinglingly close to hippos and other big game at South Africa’s ultimate wildlife destination. Intrepid types may want to choose a guided hike to strike out on foot among the Big Five.
  5. SowetoA tour around the vast, sprawling township – South Africa’s largest – gives visitors a vivid insight into how the majority of black South Africans live.
  6. Cape PointThe rocky promontory south of Cape Town is one of the most dramatic coastal locations on the continent.
  7. The DrakensbergHike in the “dragon mountains”, which harbour South Africa’s highest peaks, plus waterfalls, rock art and awesome panoramas.
  8. Addo Elephant National ParkEncounter herds of majestic elephants and the rest of the Big Five at the end of the Garden Route.
  9. The Sani PassExpect a touch of vertigo as you test your mettle on the most precipitous pass in Southern Africa, connecting Lesotho to KwaZulu-Natal.
  10. The Bo-KaapOn the slopes of Signal Hill, meander through Cape Town’s most colourful quarter with its pastel Cape Dutch and Georgian houses.
  11. Rafting the Great UsutuRamp up the adrenaline factor on Swaziland’s Great Usutu River with exhilarating whitewater rafting.
  12. Live music in JohannesburgJohannesburg offers the best nightlife in South Africa, attracting top musical performers from around the country and abroad.
  13. Robben IslandJust half an hour from Cape Town is the notorious offshore jail where political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela, were incarcerated.
  14. Whale-watchingRegularly visiting Hermanus and the southern Cape coast, whales often approach surprisingly close to the shore.
  15. De Hoop Nature ReserveMonumental dunes, zebras, bontebok and whales by the dozen make this one of the Western Cape’s most compelling reserves. See it all on the five-day Whale Trail.

Itineraries for South Africa

Our South Africa travel guide wouldn’t be complete without mentioning our South Africa itineraries. These routes will take you to every corner of the country – and you’ll learn plenty about the nation no matter where you want to go or what you want to do. You’re unlikely to complete the list, but it will give you a flavour of how to travel around South Africa and a deeper insight into the country’s natural and historic wonders.

Accommodation in South Africa

Accommodation in South Africa may be expensive compared with other African countries, but you can be assured of high standards and exceptional value for money. Even modest backpacker lodges provide a minimum of fresh sheets and clean rooms. South Africa also has great boutique hotels, luxury guesthouses, lodges and country retreats at reasonable prices. The national parks and reserves feature a range of accommodation, from basic restcamps to slick game lodges. You’ll also find no shortage of camping and self-catering options.

Food and drink in South Africa

Traditional African food tends to focus around stiff grain porridge called mieliepaporpap, made of maize meal and accompanied by meat or vegetable-based sauces. During your South Africa trip, you’ll likely come across braai (“meat grill”). This is most commonly barbecued steak, lamb cutlets and boerewors (“farmer’s sausage”). Potjiekos is a common meat and vegetable dish cooked in a cast-iron cauldron.

If you ask most people why travel to South Africa, and they’ll mention the wine. South Africa is one of the world’s top ten wine-making countries, producing particularly fine New World wines.

Read our South Africa guide to food and drink.

Activities in South Africa

South Africa’s diverse landscape of mountains, forests, rugged coast and sandy beaches makes the country supreme outdoor terrain for sport and recreation. South Africans have been playing outdoors for decades, resulting in a well-developed infrastructure for activities, an impressive national network of hiking trails and plenty of operators selling adventure sports.

Safari

Most people visit South Africa for the chance to spot the iconic Big Five on safari. Spot buffalo, elephant, leopard, lion and rhino, as well as a large supporting cast of other animals. Kruger and the KwaZulu-Natal parks offer walking safaris and night drives. You can also book a safari excursion through hotels and tour operators. The cheapest option is to rent a car and drive around a national park on a self-guided tour. However, with this option you would miss out on the benefit of a knowledgeable rangers. These local guides lead the safaris organized by private reserves, telling you about the flora and fauna during the search for game.

Hiking

Wherever you are travelling in South Africa you won’t be far from some sort of walking trail. The best ones are in wilderness areas, where you’ll find waymarked paths, from half-hour strolls to multi-day hiking expeditions. Numbers are limited on most overnight trails, and some trails are so popular that you need to book several months in advance. Walking safaris are an exhilarating way to explore game country, accompanied by an armed ranger. Just bear in mind that you are likely to see fewer animals on foot than from a vehicle.

Watersports

South Africa has some of the world’s finest surfing breaks, all the way along the coast from Namibia to Mozambique. Some world-class shapers work here, and you can pick up an excellent board at a fraction of the European or US price. Boogie-boarding and body-surfing make easy alternatives to the real thing. Windsurfing centres all along the coast cater to demand, while kitesurfing has taken off in Cape Town. On inland waterways, popular activities include waterskiing, kayaking, canoeing, stand-up paddleboarding (SUP) and white-water rafting.

Diving and snorkelling

Scuba diving is popular, and South Africa is an affordable country to get an internationally recognized open-water certificate. The best place to travel in South Africa for diving and snorkelling is the iSimangaliso Wetland Park on the northern KwaZulu-Natal coast, which has vibrant coral reefs and fluorescent fish. You won’t find bright colours along the Cape coast, but the huge number of sunken vessels makes wreck diving popular. Gansbaai (near Hermanus) is the most popular place to go shark-cage diving, with more options on the Garden Route.

Spectator sports

South Africa is a sports-mad nation, especially when local or international teams take to the field. Winning performances, controversial selections and scandals commonly dominate the front and back pages of newspapers. The major spectator sports are football, rugby and cricket, and big matches involving the international team or heavyweight local clubs are well worth seeing live.

National parks and reserves in South Africa

No other African country has as rich a variety of national parks, game reserves and wilderness areas as South Africa. If you’re planning a safari, you have around two-dozen state-run parks and private reserves to choose from. If you had to choose one, Kruger would win for its sheer size and its range of animals. The Tsitsikamma section of the Western Cape’s Garden Route National Park is just as astonishing for its ancient forests, rugged sea cliffs and dramatic Storms River Mouth. There's also the multi-day Otter Trail, South Africa’s most popular hike. For epic mountain landscapes, nowhere can touch the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park.

Culture of South Africa

South Africa is something of an enigma. Even after 25 years of democracy, the “rainbow nation” is still struggling to find a new identity. Apartheid is dead, but its heritage still shapes South Africa in very physical ways. This is all too evident in the layout of the towns and cities, where the historically poorer African areas are usually tucked away from the centre.

South Africa’s population doesn’t reduce simply to black and white. Over 80 percent of the population are black Africans, while white people make up just under nine percent, as do coloured people – the mixed-race descendants – the mixed-race descendants of white settlers, slaves from Southeast Asia and Africans. The rest are mostly Indians (2.5 percent), resident mainly in KwaZulu-Natal and descended from indentured labourers, who came to South Africa at the beginning of the twentieth century.

But perhaps a better indication of South Africa’s diversity is the plethora of official languages, most of which represent distinct cultures with rural roots in different corners of the country. Each region has its own particular style of architecture, craftwork, food and sometimes dress. Perhaps more exciting still are the cities, where the whole country comes together in an alchemical blend of rural and urban, traditional and thoroughly modern.

Travel advice for South Africa

Despite horror stories of sky-high crime rates, most people visit South Africa without incident. Be careful, but not paranoid. This is not to underestimate the issue – crime is probably the most serious problem facing the country. But some perspective is in order: crime is disproportionately concentrated in the poor African and coloured townships.

Violent crime is a problem throughout Johannesburg, from the city centre to the townships, and travellers are most at risk here. However, the greatest peril facing most visitors is navigating South Africa’s roads, which claim well over 10,000 lives a year.

Some basic South Africa travel tips include avoid wearing expensive jewellery and watches and avoid carrying excessive sums of money or a camera. Don’t put your wallet in your back trouser pocket, or leave valuables exposed. Lock your car doors while driving, especially in cities and don’t walk alone at night.

Read more South Africa travel advice to help you enjoy a stress-free trip.

Travel visa requirements for South Africa

This section will look at travel requirements for South Africa.

Citizens of the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Argentina, Brazil and most European countries do not need a visa for trips to South Africa of up to 90 days. The exceptions being citizens from Bulgaria, Croatia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia, who need to obtain one at a South African diplomatic mission in their home country. Everyone who visits South Africa needs a valid passport and proof of a return ticket (or onward travel documents) and a bank statement showing sufficient funds to cover their stay. Though rare, immigration officers do on occasion ask to see these documents. If you are planning to travel to South Africa alone with a child, you must obtain a notarized document certifying both parents’ permission. All children travelling to South Africa will be expected to show an unabridged (full) birth certificate.

House of the spirits

For thousands of years, San Bushman shamans in South Africa decorated rock faces with powerful religious images. These finely realized paintings, found in mountainous areas across South Africa, include animals, people, and humans changing into animals. Archeologists now regard the images as metaphors for religious experiences, one of the most significant of which is the healing trance dance, still practised by the few surviving Bushman communities. Rockfaces can be seen as portals between the human and spiritual world: when we gaze at Bushman rock art, we are looking into the house of the spirits.

President Botha and apartheid's last stand

Pieter Willem Botha was the last and most rabid of South Africa's apartheid enforcers. A National Party hack from the age of 20, Botha worked his way up through the ranks, becoming an MP in 1948 and subsequently Minister of Defence, a position he used in 1978 to unseat Prime Minister John Vorster. Botha set about streamlining apartheid, modifying his own role from that of a British-style prime minister, answerable to parliament, to one of an executive president taking vital decisions in the secrecy of a President's Council heavily weighted with army top brass.

Informed by the generals that apartheid couldn't be preserved purely through force, Botha embarked on his Total Strategy, reforming peripheral aspects of apartheid while fostering a black middle class as a buffer against the ANC. He also pumped vast sums into building an enormous military machine that crossed South Africa's borders to bully or crush neighbouring countries harbouring anti-apartheid activists. At home, security forces were free to murder, maim and torture opponents of apartheid.

Botha's iron fist proved his undoing when, in 1985, he responded to international calls for change by hinting that he would announce significant political reforms at his party congress. In the event, out of fear of a white backlash, or just bloody-minded intransigence, he shrank away from meaningful concessions. The result was an immediate and devastating flight of capital from the country, a withdrawal of credit by Chase Manhattan Bank and intensified sanctions.

Botha blustered on through the late 1980s, while his bloated military sucked the state coffers dry. Even National Party stalwarts realized that his policies were leading to ruin, and in 1989, when he suffered a stroke, the party was quick to replace him with F.W. de Klerk, who swiftly announced reforms.

Botha lived out his unrepentant retirement near George, declining ever to apologize for the political crimes committed by his administration. Curiously, when he died in 2006, he was given an uncritical, high-profile state funeral, broadcast on national television and attended by members of the government, including then-president, Thabo Mbeki.

The history of Afrikaans

Afrikaans is South Africa's third mother tongue, spoken by fifteen percent of the population and outstripped only by Zulu and Xhosa. English, by contrast, is the mother tongue of only nine percent of South Africans.

Signs of the emergence of a new Southern African dialect appeared as early as 1685, when a Dutch East India Company official from the Netherlands complained about a "distorted and incomprehensible" version of Dutch being spoken around modern-day Paarl. By absorbing English, French, German, Malay and indigenous words and expressions, the language continued to diverge from mainstream Dutch, and by the nineteenth century was widely used in the Cape by both white and coloured speakers, but was looked down on by the elite.

In 1905, Gustav Preller, a young journalist from a working-class Boer background, set about reinventing Afrikaans as a "white man's language". He aimed to eradicate the stigma of its "coloured" ties by substituting Dutch words for those with non-European origins. Preller began publishing the first of a series of populist magazines written in Afrikaans and glorifying Boer history and culture. Pressure grew for the recognition of Afrikaans as an official language, which came in 1925.

When the National Party took power in 1948, its apartheid policy went hand in hand with promoting the interests of its Afrikaans-speaking supporters. Afrikaners were installed throughout the civil service and filled most posts in the public utilities. Despite there being more coloured than white Afrikaans speakers, the language quickly became associated with the apartheid establishment. This led directly to the Soweto uprising of 1976, when the government attempted to enforce Afrikaans as the sole medium of instruction in African schools. At the same time, the repression of the 1970s and 1980s and the forced removals under the Group Areas Act led many coloured Afrikaans speakers to adopt English in preference to their tainted mother tongue.

There are few signs that Afrikaans will die out, though. Under the new constitution, existing language rights can't be diminished, which effectively means that Afrikaans will continue to be almost as widely used as before. But it is now as much with coloured as white people that the future of the taal (language) rests.

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Rough Guides Editors
8/29/2020
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