Travel Guide South Africa
Book your individual trip, stress-free with local travel experts
Book your individual trip, stress-free with local travel experts
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.
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:
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.
Back in 1886, when gold was discovered, what is now
Just 50km north of Johannesburg lies dignified
Sandwiched between the Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal, the
From the lonely Atlantic coast to the provincial capital Kimberley, the vast
The Maloti Drakensberg Route is one of South Africa’s
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.
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.
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.
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
In this section, we’ll look at how to
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.
Our South Africa travel guide wouldn’t be complete without mentioning our
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.
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.
Most people visit South Africa for the chance to spot the iconic Big Five on
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.