South Africa Travel Guide: Plan the Ultimate Trip

Located at the tip of Africa, South Africa is full of beauty, culture, and wildlife. I was truly mesmerized by this wonderful country, and I am already plotting my return. So, if South Africa has piqued your interest, this travel guide will provide you with the information you need to plan your trip.

Below, you will find practical information, help with travel planning, popular sites, safety, transport, and more. Let’s dive in!

Boulder Beach Bay ocean view with mountains in the distance - South Africa Travel Guide

General Information About South Africa

South Africa borders Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Botswana, and Namibia.

Language: There are many languages spoken in South Africa. Around a quarter of the population speaks IsiZulu. Approximately 10% of people speak English.

Capital: South Africa has a capital for each branch of government: the administrative Capital is Pretoria, the Legislative Capital is Cape Town, and the Judicial Capital is Bloemfontein.

Currency: The currency used is the South African Rand. US dollars are sometimes accepted.

Power Outlets: Multiple power plugs and sockets are used across South Africa. These include type D, type M, and type N. The voltage operates on 230 V and 50Hz. Don’t forget a converter.

Cell Service: In the major cities, you won’t have any issues with cell service. However, if you take part in a Safari or visit National Parks, you may not be able to access cell service during that time. I suggest an E-sim, this way you have service when you land. I recommend Holafly.

Travel Visa: Most travel visas to South Africa are valid for 90 days. We visited from the USA, and did not need to pay for a visa. However, always double-check to see if visa requirements have changed.

Vaccinations: The only vaccination that is required is Yellow Fever IF you were recently in a Yellow Fever area. Malaria medication is also recommended in some areas of South Africa.

Tipping: Tipping is a big part of the South African culture. You will be expected to tip at least 10%.

Credit Cards and ATMs: You will be able to use credit cards in South Africa and Visa and Mastercard are the most accepted. The main banks include Standard Bank Group, ABSA Group, Nedbank Group, Investec, and FirstRand.

3 elepants near a watering hole in Kruger National Park South Africa. One elephant spraying water with its truck
Views of the ocean and Cape Town City below from Table Mountain - South Africa Travel Guide
Views from Table Mountain

South Africa Safety

South Africa can be safe, depending on which location you visit. However, there are issues that you need to be aware of. Petty crimes and violent crimes can take place, unfortunately. This is why it is very important to stick to tourists routes and to stay in after dark.

During our time in Cape Town, our hotel strongly suggested we did not walk around after dark. Furthermore, if you rent a car, do not leave anything AT ALL in sight. People may break into your car for even a t-shirt.

Stealing cell phones is an issue here. People have been known to come right up to your car and take them. Now, with all of that being said, as long as you stick to the tourist areas, you should be fine. We felt safe during our time in Cape Town and the Greater Kruger area.

I do think it is safe for solo travelers, but I recommend joining group activities. You can find a ton on platforms like Viator.

Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden view with mountain in the background. Samantha Oppenheimer standing in pathway looking at view wearing white shirt and orange pants
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden

How to Get Around

Airports: The two main airports are Cape Town International Airport (CPT) and Johannesburg International Airport (JNB). You will likely be flying to one of these.

If you’re visiting for a Safari experience, you’ll want to use Hoedspruit Airport (HDS), Skukuza Airport (SZK), and Nelspruit Airport (MQP), depending on which part of Kruger National Park you will be visiting. I recommend Airlink for those transfers.

Transport: While South Africa does have public transportation, I don’t recommend tourists to take it. This is where crime often happens. Instead, consider either renting a car, going on a tour, or using Uber as your mode of transportation.

Because they drive on the left side of the road, we didn’t feel comfortable driving. Instead, we used Uber in and around Cape Town. It was very affordable, safe, and easy.

You should avoid the regular taxis, however. These are often privately owned minibusses and are not considered safe for tourists.

Boulder Beach with a group of penguins by the water
Boulder Beach

The Best Time to Visit

The best time to visit South Africa actually depends. This is because it is a pretty large country, so the weather varies. If you are visiting for a safari, May through September is best. 

This is because it is the national park’s dry season. Dry season means there will be less rain, therefore animals will congragte around common waterholes. The plants will also be dead, making it easier to spot animals. Also, since the dry season is winter, animals are more mobile since the heat is not too bad.

From November through February, the Northern regions get incredibly hot and go into the rainy season. This is considered more of a low season for safari due to the rain, humidity, and heat.

In Cape Town, however, it is rainy from May to September. It is better to visit from November through February.

As for the prices, the lowest prices can be found during the the shoulder months. Temperatures are still comfortable during this time and you may be able to grab yourself a good deal on your accommodation. 

Cape Town City Centre with Ferris Wheel and car
Cape Town

Most Popular Places to Visit

When people say they are visiting South Africa, most are heading to either the Cape (Cape Town), driving the garden route, the panoramic route, and Kruger National Park. Those who are wine enthusisists will also want to visit Franschhoek and Stellenbosch. They are known to produce some of the best wines in the world.

Those who try to stay in Malaria-free areas tend to safari in the Eastern Cape, including Amakhala Game Reserve, Kariega Game Reserve, and Shamwari Game Reserve

Some still choose to visit Johannesburg, South Africa’s largest city, although it has become a more dangerous area for tourists. Therefore, we only visited the airport here, which has tons of lounges.

2 Rhinos by a red dirt watering hole with 2 warthogs in the background
View of Ocean and mountains from Table Mountain in Cape Town
Table Mountain Views

Popular Things to Do in South Africa 

South Africa has so much to offer, especially if you enjoy nature! From safaris and endless coastlines to road trips and adventurous activities, these are once-in-a-lifetime activities. 

Some of the most popular things to do in South Africa include:

  • Visiting the top of Table Mountain National Park
  • Going on a Safari in the Greater Kruger National Park
  • Driving the Panoramic Route
  • Swimming with seals in Cape Town
  • Go Cage Diving With Sharks in Cape Town
  • Visit Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was held
  • Exploring the beautiful Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden
  • Summiting The Lions Head
  • Going Paragliding in Cape Town
  • Kayaking in False Bay
  • Seeing the Penguins at Boulders Bay
  • Visiting Cape of Good Hope
  • Driving Chapman’s Peak
  • Wine tasting at the vineyards in Franschhoek
  • Summit the Drakensberg Mountains (Local favorite)
Mother lion laying with two cubs - South Africa travel guide

Brief History of South Africa

It is believed that South Africa has been inhibited by humans for over 2 million years. In fact, a child’s skull was discovered and thought to be at least 2.8 billon years old. The first inhabitants were called the Khoisan and by 100 BC they were joined by the Bantu tribes.  

While the Portuguese explorers would make stops along the coast during the 14th and 15th century, it was the Dutch East India Company the first colonized the area. They had their first trading post in Cape Town. Over the next couple of years, South Africa was invaded by the Cape colony and also experienced the South African War.

In 1910, South Africa became a sovereign state within the British Empire. Then soon after in 1934, it became a Republic.

Over the years, South Africa has worked to preserve both its wildlife and indigenous communities.

To delve further into South Africa’s history, I always recommend taking at least one tour led by a local company.

Famous Dishes to Try Across the Country

There are so many dishes that you have probably never tried (or heard of) before that you can taste in South Africa. There are a lot of cultural blends happening here, so you will find a wide variety of food. Some of the popular ones to try include:

  • Bobotie–Spiced lamb or beef topped with an egg and milk layer, then baked in the oven.
  • Beaaibroodjie – South Africa’s take on grilled cheese.
  • Bunny Chow – White bread filled with curry.
  • Denningvleis – A slow-cooked sweet and sour stew.
  • Koe(k)sisters – Deep fried dough soaked in syrup.
  • Biltong – South Africa’s version of beef jerky
  • Amarula – A cream liqueur that is often put in coffee.

Weather in South Africa

To understand the weather in South Africa, you have to understand the seasons. The seasons are actually the opposite of the USA and even Europe. That is because they are located below the equator. So, instead, they look like this:

  • Spring: September, October and November
  • Summer: December, January, and February 
  • Autumn: March, April May
  • Winter: June, July, and August

Spring is a great time to visit South Africa. As a general consensus, South Africa begins to warm from the top of the continent to the bottom. The northeast experiences far warmer temperatures more quickly, whereas the Southwest can still continue to experience cold and wet weather.

Summer in South Africa mainly means that you’re going to experience warm and sunny weather until the afternoon, when the thunderstorms usually begin. The storms often clear quickly, but they leave warm, humid air. Summer temperatures can pass 86°F. During our time in Kruger, it was close to 100°F, and that was the end of November.

Fall is one of the best times to visit. You can experience long and warm days with a brisk and sunny early morning and cooler, comfortable evenings. The rainy season comes to an end during the fall as South Africa settles into its dry season. The temperatures range from 64°F to 88°F.

Winters bring sunny weather with blue skies, although the evenings are usually fairly cool. For safaris in Kruger, the weather is great. For the Cape, not so much. The Western Cape experiences rain in winter and it can be unpleasant. The Cape can actually snow, although it rarely ever happens. Temperatures can vary depending on where you stay. They typically range from 28°F to 79°F. 

Leopard laying in the bush

Is South Africa Budget-Friendly?

If you plan correctly and avoid unnecessary expenses such as fine dining experiences, you can visit South Africa on a budget. 

Since there are so many areas to stay in South Africa, pinpointing the exact amount that you will spend on a hotel is challenging. There are plenty of five-star hotels as well as budget-friendly options. On average, you will probably spend between $40 to $400 per night when visiting South Africa. If you book early, you are likely to find better pricing.

If you are staying at an all-inclusive safari camp, the prices may be a little higher. We spent around $660 for 5 nights in Cape Town at the AC Hotel by Marriott.

For our safari, however, we really splurged to stay at the all-inclusive 5 Star Kings Camp. We spent over $6,000 for 4 nights. You can definitely safari for way more of a budget.

Street food is extremely cheap, and you can expect to pay around $2 to $5 per meal. If you eat at a restaurant, you’ll pay around $14 to $64 per person.

For paid activities, you can expect to pay between $15-$50.

Zebra in the Greater Kruger National Park

South Africa Travel Guide Related Articles and Itineraries

Coming soon!

South Africa Travel Guide Wrap-up

There you have it! Have the best time exploring this wonderful country! If you have any questions about this South Africa travel guide, let me know in the comments below!

If you found this South Africa travel guide helpful, I would appreciate it if you could share it below!

South Africa Travel Guide
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Samantha Oppenheimer

Samantha Oppenheimer (Sam Opp) quit her corporate marketing job in 2018 to travel the world and become a travel writer, blogger and content creator. She loves experiencing authentic travel experiences, photography, and nature. Sam shares helpful travel itineraries, travel tips, budget tips, and travel advice from her personal experiences. You can also find Sam's words featured in large publications including Mirror, Thrillist, and Well + Good.

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