Sculpting the tip of a vast continent, South Africa contains unrivalled scenery, diverse safari experiences, bold cultures and vibrant cities in a way that no other country does.
Known primarily for its long history of colonisation and apartheid, you don’t have to spend long in the country’s cities before you encounter an image of Nelson Mandela or an opportunity to learn more. Whether that’s going to Robben Island, visiting the museum or entering Mandela’s Home, this is a crucial stepping stone on any South African adventure.
Outside of this, breathtaking landscapes are ready to open up to you. An eclectic range of desert plains, dramatic mountain outcrops and countless beaches that give most countries a run for their money are the norm here.
Whether you’re hiking up Table Mountain, cruising the Garden Route in a rental car or seeing a lion for the first time in Kruger National Park; one thing is for sure, not a moment will be lost on any of South Africa’s tours and safaris.
No South African travel guide is complete without a mention of the local love of socialising, especially if it’s over beer and food! There is no better way to embrace the culture than to do things the South African way – a braai (it’s just a barbecue – we didn’t tell you that). You don’t have to be in South Africa for long before you find yourself hanging out around a grill!
This beautiful country is packed to the brim with adventure. This guide will introduce you to some of the must-sees in South Africa and some of the lesser-known trails to unlock the country’s potential!
When to Go to South Africa
Sitting firmly in the midst of the southern hemisphere, South Africa has four distinct seasons with temperatures varying depending on the proximity to the southern-facing coast. With mild temperatures throughout the year with the odd chance of rain, South Africa is a year-round destination.
In the height of summer, from November to February, which is great to travel the Garden Route and the beautiful beaches, temperatures can reach between 25-30 degrees Celsius. In winter, South Africa varies between wet cold days and sunny warm days from May to August. As long as you are prepared for the cold, this can be a great time to visit South Africa.
South African Travel: the Best Places to Visit
Cape Town and Table Mountain
Accurately named the Mother City, Cape Town will easily trump any other you have been to. Centred by the towering plateau of Table Mountain, little pockets of scenic towns that range from small fishing harbours to high-end condos are separated by numerous stunning beaches and shaded walking trails.
Back in the city centre, Cape Town guided tours will take you to the Victoria & Albert Waterfront (V&A Waterfront) with a chance to go to Robben Island off-shore before you are introduced to the city’s quirky corners like Bo-Kaap and Woodstock. No matter where you are in Cape Town, you’ll be blessed with an angle of Table Mountain. Protected by its own national park, you can choose whether or not you climb Table Mountain following the trail in the park or take the cable car to the top like on this 8-day Cape Town to Victoria Falls tour. From the plateau, you can see views across all of Cape Town and beyond as well as the Lion’s Head, an iconic rock face that watches over the city.
Kruger National Park Game Drives
Of all the safaris in South Africa, Kruger National Park comes top of the list. Nestled in the northeast and straddling the border of Mozambique, Kruger National Park is the largest of the 21 national parks of the country. As a haven for all southern African wildlife, this is your chance to see the Big 5.
With a mix of game drive tours in an open 4×4, bush walks and lounging at your chosen lodge, every moment spent in Kruger is a safari. In between the animal sightings, you’ll become acquainted with the region’s history by hopping between the numerous heritage sites and rock art paintings. Some tours from Johannesburg to Kruger will continue onto other highlights of the area such as the Blyde River Canyon, which is one of the world’s largest!
Durban is a city with unexpected vigour. Often cast into the shadow of Cape Town, Durban’s recent turn to modern chicness is mixed up with old art deco buildings that echo its colonial past. This is washed over by a salty breeze of one of South Africa’s top surfing locations that lines the city’s ‘golden mile’ of beach and promenade, which is only made better by Durban’s tropical climate.
The highlight of any Durban city tour is its streets. Packed with street food vendors and markets, walking around Durban’s centre is an explosion for the senses. The city’s population is mostly a mix of Zulus and Indians, the highest population outside of India, and with that comes food and music of both cultures that give this city its edge. The liveliness that bubbles up from this cultural melting pot is something you won’t forget. Maybe it’s the warmer weather, but Durban has energy.
Making up both a national park and a district, the Garden Route is one of western South Africa’s most sought-after destinations and the longest wine route in the world. A network of towns connects together to make a lattice of experiences from the coastline to the countryside that includes some of the most memorable safaris in South Africa.
Garden Route explorations are best done in a rental car like in this adventure tour from Cape Town, where you’ll be able to take your time to enjoy beautiful locations like the wine capital Franschhoek, and Oudtshoorn where you’ll find safari experiences and caves that are second-to-none. This paves a green path of what is yet to come as you are led on the trail to the heart of the Garden Route, Knysna.
Boasting the benefit of green forestry and misty beaches, Knysna is a town with it all. Endless nature-filled adventures are to be found here: kayaking, scuba diving, safaris and whale watching – to name a few!
If you love keeping up with the pace of rapidly growing cities, you’ll lose yourself in the excitement of Johannesburg.
As South Africa’s largest city, Johannesburg, often referred to simply as Jozi or Jo’burg, has taken the time to carefully dismantle its hardened reputation of being a dangerous place, something that has lasted since apartheid.
As it continues its regeneration, trendy centres like Maboneng and Rosebank are leading the way to this vast city becoming a sea of modernity with an artistic, fashionable and foodie flair. An essential tour in South Africa will take you around Johannesburg’s most important sites that dip into its past and look at its present including the Apartheid Museum and a chance to visit Mandela’s house as you explore the city.
South Africa safari tours from Johannesburg are among some of the best in the world with Kruger National Park and Sabi Sands, among others, not too far away.
Cape Peninsula and the Winelands
Creeping out into the Atlantic Ocean, the Cape Peninsula is a rocky outcrop that forms the backbone of Cape Town, home to many of its misty beaches and the picturesque Cape of Good Hope, protected by Cape Point National Park.
The best way to explore the peninsula, an essential component in any Cape Town travel package, is Chapman’s Peak Drive which takes you from the city to Hout Bay, a small, picturesque town nestled in a valley.
The drive hugs the cliff faces with its 114 curves. Along the way, you’ll have views of False Bay which looks back to the city and a chance to stop at the peninsula’s beautiful beaches. The drive will take you to two viewpoints, the lighthouse and the Cape of Good Hope, where a short, yet slightly challenging hike will take you to the historic Cape Point for unrivalled views of the coastline.
On the other side of Cape Town, you don’t have to drive far before you reach the Cape Winelands. Seemingly endless vineyards are protected from coastal winds by rolling hills – the sight alone is worth the journey. This is the ultimate wine tour of South Africa where you’ll spend your time vineyard hopping to learn about some of South Africa’s most famous wines and have the chance to purchase bottles from the vineyards. This memorable experience can only be ended in one way – dining while sampling wines and looking out across the valleys of Cape Winelands!
Kwa-Zulu Natal’s Nature Reserves
South Africa guided tours that go off the beaten track will take you to one of the many reserves that this area should be known for!
Kwa-Zulu Natal lines South Africa’s eastern coast. It’s known for its impressive variety of landscapes and sub-tropical temperatures: where finely carved mountains stumble down to the beachfront, and with it, comes all manner of wildlife experiences as you’ll see in this 10-day Kwa-Zulu Natal beach and bush tour.
Dozens of game reserves, from coastal wetlands to Africa’s oldest, protect both the landscape and the wildlife from any threats that they may encounter. Here, you’ll not only see the Big 5 on land but have a very good chance of seeing some of the Big 5 of the sea too.
How to Get Around South Africa
Self-Drive or Private Driver
There is no better way to travel to South Africa than by renting a car. Focusing on areas in the eastern or western side of the country, the roads are easy to navigate and offer some amazing scenery along the way.
You can hire a car at your chosen airport or with one of our Local Designers who will organise it for you. Should you hire a 4×4, you can also take these cars into national parks if you are looking for a self-drive safari in South Africa. As long as you follow the rules, this can be an amazing experience! You’ll need an international drivers license to hire a car. Not to worry, there is little chance of encountering animals on the road outside of the reserves!
If the idea of driving outside your home country intimidates you, our Local Designers in South Africa can organise a private driver to take you on your journey. This will give you a great opportunity to take in the scenery; some of South Africa’s driving routes are among the best in the world.
South Africa is huge. If you are short on time and want to cover all bases in this diverse country, you will need to fly. Flights in South Africa can be expensive, so it’s best to book in advance to get the best prices.
Bus or Train
Bus and train services operate across the country connecting more rural areas with cities and their townships. The services are very affordable, however, if you are looking to connect to the city they come with dangers that could be presented at any time. The buses and trains often go through poorer areas where drugs and theft can occur.
The safest way to negate this is BasBus, a safe and convenient door-to-door travel service designed for safety and comfort while travelling in South Africa! This can be arranged online or through your hotel!
Where to Stay in South Africa
Cape Town and the Surrounds
From the city centre to the beautiful towns of Cape Peninsula, one thing is guaranteed in Cape Town; no matter where you stay, there will be breathtaking views!
For trendsetters and party-goers, Cape Town’s waterfront and City Bowl area will put you in the modern centre where restaurants, shopping centres, clubs and the V&A are found. Although the most modern part of the city, these areas have a mix of upmarket and budget accommodation options.
Outside of the centre, the artistic Woodstock or Bo-Kaap, and even further out to Camps Bay, Hout Bay or Muizenberg; you’ll find guesthouses, apartments and small-scale hotels that will give you a true sense of the city with more up-market options catering to the all-inclusive Cape Town experiences.
This rapidly growing city has a host of affluent areas that boast the benefits of being both safe and trendy with lots of bars and restaurants that you’ll be eager to try while staying in Johannesburg.
Among them, Melrose and Rosebank are up-and-coming areas that have everything that you could possibly need. Rosebank marks the centre of the city, where you’ll find a variety of accommodation options ranging from up-market lofts to cosy guesthouses that are just moments from the city’s best art galleries and museums.
Melrose neighbours Rosebank and has an equal amount of traction to it with sophistication and flair that is perfect for a romantic getaway to Johannesburg. Your options here will be among the more expensive as this is Johannesburg’s wealthiest area, however, it comes with the benefit of some of the city’s best restaurants.
The Best Safari Lodges in South Africa
While on safari in South Africa, the lodges are an experience by themselves! Nestled in some of the best spots in the country, the safari lodges offer an equal hand of luxury to environmental and ecological friendliness for protected wildlife areas.
Whether you are looking to visit the famous Kruger National Park, Drakensberg or spot some wildlife out on the Garden Route on your South African travels, you’ll be met with amazing safari lodges! Think camping out in a private luxury tent to see the star-lit sky, starting your day with a coffee on the deck watching elephants drink in the watering hole next to you, and heavenly interior design!
What to Eat and Drink in South Africa
Some call it a tradition but others call it a way of life. A braai, which is the South African way of barbecuing, is taken very, very seriously, particularly among local men. The braai meat -and only meat- is typically accompanied by a potato salad and corn on the cob, both of which are essential sides, among others.
There are never a lot of vegetarian options unless you specify that you do not eat meat. In the past, not eating meat was not very common in South Africa, however, times are slowly changing.
Most of South Africa’s tours and safaris include bush dinners. Set under the stars, dining in the wilderness is a unique silver service experience that is perfect for a romantic getaway.
Bush dinners are the highlight of any safari lodge experience where you’ll be served a series of courses in the wild, surrounded by candles. This is a meal to remember!
Wine and Craft Beers
South Africa is famous for its wine. With some of the finest hailing from the outskirts of Cape Town, it would be rude not to have a taste while you’re here. As vineyards are never too far away, you’ll rarely find wine from anywhere else!
To match the high standards of wine production, craft beers are making a bold appearance in South Africa’s bar scene. Among the more creative locals, you’ll no doubt be invited to try some homebrews too. Cape Town is hot on the tip of the tongue as the beer capital of South Africa, taking the lead in its impressive range of IPAs and blonde beers.
Fish and Chips
Britain’s long-lasting colonial rule over South Africa has resulted in a distinct cross-over in cultures, and with that came many things, however, the most celebrated is a love for good quality fish and chips.
Best eaten from small shacks by any harbour on South Africa’s coastline, fish and chip fiends will be delighted!
Among the favourites are Kalk Bay, Hout Bay, Muizenberg, or anywhere in Durban and Port Elizabeth where there are several famed eateries that attract many locals. To those not in the know, fish and chips are best eaten outside and are considered at their most authentic when served on paper.
The mere mention of bunny chow to a Durbanite will spark a light in their mind. This is the ultimate comfort food in South Africa!
Inspired by Durban’s strong Indian influence, bunny chow is a curry put inside a hollowed-out half-loaf bread. Spicy, flavoursome and incredibly filling, bunny chow is the sort of dish that, once you’ve had it, you’ll crave the meal in ways that you perhaps never thought you would.
You may be asking – why the half-loaf of bread? During the apartheid era, black South African’s were not allowed in restaurants. Some restaurant owners would let people get takeaway food from the back door. This was the easiest way to get take away food without officers noticing.
Cape Malay Cuisine
Lightly sweet and sometimes spicy, Cape cuisine was brought to South Africa by Asian and Madagascan slaves. With some signs of Indonesian influences, if your Bahasa is any good, you’ll see these dishes everywhere you go. Cape Malay food forms the backbone of South African food, even though few restaurants strictly focus on the style.
Festivals and Events in South Africa
It’s hard to know where to start with festivals and events in South Africa – there really are that many! Here are some of the local favourites to get you started;
Known to be the friendliest festival in the world, Splashy Fen is South Africa’s most-loved and oldest festival that promises to be a humbling experience. Held in the Drakensberg, it’s also a sight to behold! Taking place over four days, this is a wholesome celebration of South African music, art and fun for everyone.
Attracting thousands of people from across the country in Easter, the festival-goers get lost in the creative atmosphere between the mountains. Campsites, workshops and stages straddle two sides of a river that offers a cooling respite from Kwa-Zulu Natal’s heat.
Knysna Oyster Festival
Over 10 days in the dead of winter, the locals of the Garden Route host their very own oyster festival. An event that changes with the wind, Knysna Oyster Festival has an ever-increasing number of activities that surround the humble mollusc ranging from forest walks to comedy shows and art workshops. No matter what you do during this festival, it will always come back to food and wine!
Soweto International Jazz Festival
Welcoming some of the best artists in jazz to Jo’burg, Soweto International Jazz Festival is one of the newer jazz festivals in South Africa and is on the tip of all music lovers’ tongues.
Known for its workshops and themes, the festival is much more than a series of concerts, it seeks to inspire the youth of Soweto to be creative and break boundaries in music. Over the course of the festival, both international and local artists explore genres like hip hop, blues, R&B and funk and their jazz roots.
South African Cheese Festival
Taking place on the outskirts of Stellenbosch, the South African Cheese Festival is perfectly situated in the Winelands.
Focused on celebrating local products, the Cheese Festival is a mouth-watering weekend tasting your way around the Western Cape as local artisans come to take part in several competitions against well-known brands and other local enterprises.
Typically taking place at the end of April, this is a weekend full of wine, music and good food!
Things to Know Before You Go to South Africa
Visa: Most travellers will be able to travel to South Africa without needing to worry about a visa, however, it’s best to check in your respective country before travelling.
Language: There are 11 official languages in South Africa. The most common among them are Zulu, Xhosa, Afrikaans, then English.
Currency: The official currency is the South African Rand. At the time of writing, May 2021, 1 USD is equal to 13.77 Rand.
Safety: Within South Africa’s cities there are dangerous areas just like another country. As long as you stay away from them and refrain from flashing your possessions when walking, you’ll be safe. At night, stay in well-lit areas and keep your possessions from plain sight.
Size: South Africa may look small on the map of the African continent but it’s huge. Plan your time wisely.
Water: You can take water from the tap in most parts of South Africa. In the cities, filtration systems are reliable, however, it’s best to ask your accommodation before drinking to make sure.
South Africa’s Tours and Safaris Are Waiting. Are You Ready?
Safaris, hiking, and being wined and dined, are just some of the things to look forward to in South Africa. If you don’t know where to start, we have a host of fully customisable trips to South Africa that will give you an idea of what’s possible. Our Local Designers can take it from there, making all manner of adjustments to suit your travel needs.
What’s more, if you don’t see anything you like, click on ‘design your own trip’ and answer a few questions related to your travel requirements and our Local Designers in South Africa will get to work on making your very own tailored trip. From fine dining experiences to self-drive tours and exclusive private experiences, they’ll go the extra mile to make it happen!