South Africa has it all, beautiful mountains, hiking trails, gorgeous beaches, and vibrant cities. South Africa is where we grew up and we call it home. Stick around for a while and talk to the locals, as South Africa provides many opportunities for rich cultural interaction.
It's a vast country with many diverse regions, both with regards to geography, landscape, and climate as well as culture, tradition, and way of life. To truly experience South Africa, you will need to visit a few cities across the country. Our favorite is, of course, Cape Town, with its iconic Table Mountain and a multitude of stunning white-sand beaches. South Africa boasts exquisite natural landscapes, with dramatic mountain ranges, vast open spaces, and the opportunity to enjoy either sunrise or sunset over the ocean depending on your location along the long and rugged coastline. With low risks of any natural disasters and a generally temperate climate, South Africa is a good all-year-round destination.
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SOUTH AFRICA QUICK FACTS
Currency: South African Rand (ZAR) - current conversion rate here.
Electricity: 220-240V AC electricity. Power outlets are mostly round three-prong sockets (type D and type M) and round two-prong sockets (type C) and more recently also round three-prong sockets (type N). Be sure to pack a universal travel adaptor so you can still use all your electronic gadgets.
Visa: Traveling to South Africa is easy; for citizens of most countries you won’t need to apply for a visa beforehand. There are a handful of countries, such as India, that will require a pre-arranged visa. Note that visas cannot and will not be issued upon arrival, so be sure to have the necessary paperwork in place before you arrive. Be sure to take note of the fine print with regards to visa runs and how your length of stay is calculated if you plan on entering and exiting the country more than once throughout your stay, as overstaying your visa will result in a minimum of a 1-year ban. Also, make sure your passport is valid for at least 6 months after your entry and that you have at least one blank page (two if you require a visa). The latest entry requirements are available here.
Safety: South Africa is notorious for its extraordinarily high violent crime rate with muggings, car theft, and rates of physical violence among the highest in the world. However, by being vigilant and using common sense, you will most likely have a safe and wonderful trip. Always use general safety precautions, never walk around in deserted areas at night or advertise possession of money and expensive accessories. Do not wear a tummy bag with all your valuables, rather have a concealed money belt worn under your shirt. Do not leave your valuables in plain sight when driving in your car, as "smash and grab" attacks do sometimes occur at intersections and keep your car doors locked, and windows closed. When stopped at a traffic light at night, always leave enough room between your car and the car in front of you so you can get around them, as hijackings are especially prevalent in some suburbs of Johannesburg. Do not stop to pick up hitchhikers. Visiting the townships is possible, but do so only with an experienced guide.
Luckily South Africa has very low risks of natural disasters! Whatever you do, don’t travel without travel insurance! We would suggest checking out World Nomads or SafetyWing, for travel insurance as they have the best coverage for active travellers.
Language: South Africa has 11 official languages, namely Afrikaans, Southern Ndebele, Xhosa, Zulu, Swazi, Northern Sotho (Sepedi), Southern Sotho (Sesotho), Tswana, Tsonga, Venda, and English. Although only about 8% of the population speak English as a first language, most people speak English as a second language and it’s easy enough to get by with English in most of South Africa.
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SOUTH AFRICA PUBLIC HOLIDAYS
21 March, Human Rights Day
27 April, Freedom Day
1 May, Workers Day
16 June, Youth Day
9 August, National Women’s Day
24 September, Heritage Day
16 December, Day of Reconciliation
26 December, Day of Goodwill
For holidays falling on a Sunday, the following Monday shall be a holiday.
Also, Good Friday and Easter Monday (Family Day).
FESTIVALS IN SOUTH AFRICA
South Africa holidays are indeed plentiful and a celebration of the rainbow nation’s rich heritage and people, as well as its diverse produce. Every year there are numerous festivals and celebrations across the country, so be sure to check out what’s happening when you visit.
- Cape Town Minstrel Carnival - The first event of each year is the Cape Town Minstrel Carnival, also known as Kaapse Klopse in Afrikaans or Tweede Nuwe Jaar. It was traditionally held on January 2 but now some of the festivities start on the 1st and continue throughout the first week of the year. The event sees teams of costumed minstrels parade through the streets of Cape Town carrying colorful umbrellas and playing an array of musical instruments - as many as 13,000 people take part in the event! This celebration attracts tens of thousands of visitors every year to the streets of the Mother City.
- Knysna Oyster Festival - This popular festival is held in the Garden Route town of Knysna in the Eastern Cape during July. You will encounter over a100 events taking place in various locations across the area, including oyster shucking contests, oyster eating challenges, the Knysna Forest Marathon, and cycle tours.
- National Arts Festival - The National Arts Festival is held in Grahamstown (recently renamed to Makhanda) and is a hugely popular July event. A premier national showcase of arts and culture, theatrical dramas and opera, music, street entertainers, and visual art are all integral parts of the 11-day-long festival.
- Royal Reed Dance - During the first half of September each year, up to 10,000 Zulu maidens don their traditional garb and make their way to the Zulu king’s KwaNyokeni Palace in the province of KwaZulu-Natal. The women spend a lot of time preparing the beads and the reeds to sing and dance as the parade arrives at the royal palace.
- Arts Alive Festival - During September, Johannesburg hosts the Arts Alive Festival, a 10-day spectacle dedicated to South Africa’s visual and performing arts. Theatres and other venues in the city’s old Newtown precinct stage dance and musical shows. Audiences are just as likely to see local performers enact Afro-fusion as Spanish flamenco dances. International acts often include Chinese puppet groups and ballet troupes.
- Jacaranda Festival - Due to its copious number of jacaranda trees, Pretoria is often referred to by South Africans as Jacaranda City. In late spring when the trees are in bloom, the area takes on a purplish hue and creates an incredible spectacle. October’s Jacaranda Festival honors the native symbol with family entertainment and a special market.
- Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees (KKNK) - One of the most famous art festivals in South Africa is the Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees (KKNK). While this tradition began in the year 1994, it has grown exponentially to become nothing less than a movement. The visual and performing arts of South Africa are celebrated in Oudtshoorn in March every year.
- Hermanus Whale Festival - One of the first and probably the only eco-marine festival of South Africa, Hermanus Whale Festival celebrates the ocean and its majestic inhabitants. September is the best time to go whale watching, with the famous Southern Right Whales putting up quite a show.
- Robertson Wacky Wine Weekend - Head to the best of the wine festivals in South Africa, the Robertson Wacky Wine Weekend. Just as it sounds, it is one of the most happening and fun events to be a part of. Not only are the exquisite wines celebrated here, but couple that with multi-cuisine delicacies, and you are in for a treat! Takes place in June.
BEST TIME TO VISIT SOUTH AFRICA
South Africa is a large country with a diverse climate that varies vastly from region to region. Cape Town and the Western Cape experiences winter rainfall (June to August) and predominantly dry hot summer, while much of the rest of the country, including the Kruger National Park area, endure heavy summer thundershowers (December to March) and a drier winter period (May to October). One exception is the Garden Route and coastal Eastern Cape which can experience rain at any time of year. The best time to go will thus largely depend on where you would like to go to the country and what you would like to see and do.
For a Cape Town beach holiday, you can’t beat the summer months between November and February although temperatures can sore inland during this time Also note that Cape Town experiences its windy season over the same time and unless you are an avid kite-surfer you might find the daily wind along especially the Atlantic coast to be rather excessive. You will need to book your accommodation very early if you want to visit over Christmas or New Year as Cape Town is an extremely popular destination over this period. If you want to avoid the heat, the wind and most of the crowds, the best time to visit Cape Town is from late March through April.
The drier winter months between May and October are the best time for superb game viewing on a South Africa safari in Kruger National Park, Madikwe, Pilanesberg, and KwaZulu-Natal as you will find animals concentrated around water sources and easier to spot in the thinned-out bush.
The KwaZulu-Natal coast has year-round sunshine, beautifully mild winter, and warm ocean temperatures so any time is a good time.
If you want to see whales along the Whale Coast in the south-western Cape (Hermanus to Agulhas) then visit between June and November, although numbers are at their peak in September.
SOUTH AFRICA WEATHER SYNOPSIS
Temperate & moderate, varies vastly across the country.
SOUTH AFRICA TOURIST SEASONS
Most destinations have different times of the year when they’re more or less popular with tourists.
Off Peak Season
SPORT & ACTIVITIES
SNOW SPORT IN SOUTH AFRICA
South Africa is not a snow sports destination, but the Tiffindell Ski Resort in the Eastern Cape does guarantee snow over the months of June, July & August for those in desperate search of snow activities. Matroosberg can also be a good place to go to enjoy the scarce snow falls in the Western Cape.
HIKING & CYCLING IN SOUTH AFRICA
South Africa is such a big and diverse country that there will always be a suitable hiking route somewhere in the country throughout the year. If you want to hike some of the more popular routes, you may well need to consider the season and even book your place well in advance. But if you're more of a spur of the moment kind of person, there are plenty of fantastic and free outdoor activities to be enjoyed.
BEACH OPTIONS IN SOUTH AFRICA
South Africa has a long, stunning coastline with plenty of beautiful white sand beaches. The best time for relaxing on these beaches is from November till March, with December to February being the busiest and hottest months. The weather throughout the rest of the year remains fairly moderate, so even in the cooler months, you will likely be able to enjoy a walk along the beach.
SURFING IN SOUTH AFRICA
With 3 000 km of coastline, South Africa offers fantastic surfing conditions all year round. March to September usually provide the best waves when the big winter swells from the South Indian Ocean arrive. With so many possible spots to consider, perhaps start with the areas of St Francis Bay, Durban and the Cape Peninsular where the surf is very consistent.
KITESURF IN SOUTH AFRICA
South Africa is one of the best kitesurfing destinations in the world. With a long coast full of wavy beaches, many flat water lagoons and even rivers, South Africa is perfect for beginners to professionals, for wave surfing and wakestyle riding. The windy season stretches from October to March, with the most consistent winds between November and February.
For more details on kite surfing in South Africa expand this section!
HEALTH RISKS IN SOUTH AFRICA
Be aware of possible health risks in
Yellow fever - The yellow fever virus is found in tropical and subtropical areas of Africa and South America. The virus is spread to people by the bite of an infected mosquito. There is no medicine to treat or cure an infection. To prevent getting sick from yellow fever, use insect repellent, wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants, and get vaccinated.
Zika Virus - Zika is spread mostly by the bite of an infected Aedes species mosquito. These mosquitoes bite during the day and night. Zika can be passed from a pregnant woman to her fetus. Infection during pregnancy can cause certain birth defects. There is no vaccine or medicine for Zika.
Malaria - Malaria is a serious and sometimes fatal disease caused by a parasite that commonly infects a certain type of mosquito which feeds on humans. People who get malaria are typically very sick with high fevers, shaking chills, and flu-like illness. Although malaria can be a deadly disease, illness and death from malaria can usually be prevented.
Dengue - Dengue is spread mostly by the bite of an infected Aedes species mosquito. These mosquitoes bite during the day and night. About one in four people infected with dengue will get sick. For people who get sick with dengue, symptoms can be mild or severe.
SOUTH AFRICA TRAVEL COSTS
Travel in South Africa can be very affordable but is not an entirely budget destination. Certain aspects, such as accommodation can be pricey, but on the other hand, dining out and luxury treatments can be good value for money. With the South African Rand’s steady decline to the USD, foreign tourists can generally find good value in South Africa. If you’re happy sleeping in a hostel and eating budget food, you should be able to get by on $35 a day. If you want to stay in bed and breakfast style accommodation but are happy to eat budget food, up your budget to about $80 per day and if you prefer to splurge on a fancy hotel or a few gourmet meals, you might want to up your budget to over $150.
For Cape Town specific information, be sure to check out our blog posts/podcasts.
SOUTH AFRICA TRAVEL TIPS
Transport from one place to the next is fairly easy if you have rented a vehicle. Although there is not much of a public transportation system across South Africa, there are long-distance bus and train options available. Internal flights are often a lot more convenient though. Certain cities have their own efficient public transportation systems (like Gauteng and Cape Town), but these are limited and will usually still require the use of a taxi or private vehicle to get to your end destination.
Most people opt to rent a car during their time in South Africa. This provides you with more freedom and flexibility during your travels, but there are some things which you should be aware of: Prior to renting the car, make sure you understand any restrictions you might be under like driving on dirt roads or geographic limits. Many rental cars also limit the waiver they provide on any damage.
SIGHTS & HIGHLIGHTS OF SOUTH AFRICA
South Africa is a large and diverse country with much to see and do - from the nature lover to the historian and even for the adventurer. All that we can say for sure is that you will never have enough time in a single trip and you will most likely leave South Africa wanting to return.
- Visit a Game Reserve - It doesn’t really matter which game reserve you visit, you are bound to have a memorable African experience! These are some of the best that South Africa has to offer: Kruger National Park in Mpumalanga and Limpopo and other private bordering reserves; Addo Elephant National Park in the Eastern Cape; Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park between South Africa and Botswana; Zilkaatsnek Nature Reserve in Hartbeespoort and Pilansberg between the Kalahari and the Lowveld.
- Appreciate Ocean Life - With both an extensive West and East Coast, which differs greatly, there is so much along the coast of South Africa to explore. You can Scuba at Sodwana Bay in northern KwaZulu-Natal, enjoy the rugged Whale Route in Hermanus, try your luck see the Great White Sharks up close at Gansbaai, or rather visit the friendly Penguins at Boulders Beach.
- Visit the Iconic Sites of Cape Town - We may be ever so slightly biased when it comes to this, but if you have to visit only one city in South Africa (which we do not recommend), it would absolutely have to be Cape Town! Ou will be welcomed by the iconic Table Mountain, which you should visit either by hike or cable car. Be sure to also go to Cape Point. Robben Island and a few other attractions which you can read about in our Blog Posts listed above.
- Visit the Drakensberg - Located in Kwazulu Natal, the Drakensberg is a very special mountainous area well worth taking the time to explore.
- Drive through the Cape Winelands for Wine Tasting - In and around Stellenbosch, Franschhoek, Paarl, and the greater Boland area, there is no shortage of Winelands for you to appreciate both for their beauty and the fantastic selection of wines.
- Experience Local Culture - Don’t end your trip to South Africa without experiencing something traditional. You could go for an organized Township Tour (be sure to read reviews and go with a reputable operator) or just visit Constitution Hill. Why not take a free tour of the Parliament Building or explore the Cradle of Humankind or many other Historical sites that South Africa has to offer.
- Kitesurfing - Known as one of the top kiteboarding destinations in the world South Africa is perfect for any level of kiteboarder since there are conditions for everyone. The coast is full of wavy beaches, flat water lagoons, and rivers that are both flat and wavy farther out to sea. Our favourite spot by far is the magnificent Langebaan lagoon.
WHAT TO PACK FOR SOUTH AFRICA
Plan for hot summer weather between November and March. You should wear loose, cool clothes during this time when temperatures easily reach 30°-40° Celsius. Definitely pack a light jacket or sweater for evenings even in summer as the weather can cool down closer to the coast. Pack rain gear or a travel umbrella, especially if you’ll be in the Gauteng or North West province, where there are regular summer rains and thunderstorms.
Bring light, neutral-coloured clothing if you’ll be visiting game-parks. Avoid bright colours that can scare animals away and dark colours that can attract insects. Dress in layers so you can adapt to varying temperatures throughout the day. Especially during summer, you should wear long sleeves and long pants to deter insects - this also protects from the risk of sunburn.
Pack good walking shoes with a thick sole as you will need these for safari, hiking, and sightseeing. Take your flip flops for the beach but bring at least one pair of neat shoes for more up-scale events and venues.
Prepare for the hot, African sun. Bring a sun hat - this is essential during summer when outside. Also, bring your sunglasses to protect your eyes from the glare. Find a good quality sunscreen which offers at least 30 SPF - however, this is something you will find available throughout the country.
If you are from the USA bring an electrical adaptor that will safely convert South Africa’s 220/230V for your electronic devices. In any case, you should travel with a universal adaptor that will fit the plugs in South Africa, which are typically 15 amp 3-prong or 5 amp 2-prong, with round pins.
WHAT TO EAT IN SOUTH AFRICA
South African cuisine is just as diverse as its cultures, with influences from English, Dutch, German, Indian, Malay, Portuguese and also the native African influences. Keep an eye out for the following must-try foods:
- Braaivleis - This has got to be the most traditional food in South Africa! Essentially, meat roasted over an open wood or charcoal fire (depending on the region), never refer to this as a BBQ! It is very popular most South Africans generally braai at least once a week, usually over weekends and for social events. This act of roasting the meat as well as the social event is referred to as a braai.
- Pap - A porridge made with cornmeal. Slap pap (runny porridge), is made into a smooth consistency and often eaten as a breakfast porridge, Stywe pap (stiff porridge) has a more doughy and lumpier consistency and is often used as a replacement for rice, potatoes and other starches. Krummel pap (crumbly porridge) is much drier, resembling couscous and is often served at a braai (but only in the northern regions of the country) covered in a saucy tomato relish.
- Potjiekos - Essentially, a meat and vegetable stew made in a cast-iron pot over an open fire. This is a second favourite to braai!
- Boerewors - A spicy sausage. Boerewors Rolls are similar to hotdog buns but filled with boerewors rather than hotdogs and traditionally garnished with an onion and tomato relish.
- Biltong and Droëwors - Seasoned meat or sausage that has been air-dried. Beef, game and ostrich meat is often used. A favourite at sports events and while travelling.
- Bunny Chow - Half a loaf of bread with the inside scraped out and filled with lamb or beef curry, this is a dish not to be missed when travelling to KwaZulu Natal.
- Bobotie - Baked 'meatloaf' with a Cape Malay influence, seasoned with curry and spices, topped with a type of savoury custard.
- Masonja - If you are adventurous, you may want to try these fried Mopanie worms. Not for everyone’s palate!
- Melktert - Directly translated as "milk tart", this is a milk-based, custard tart dessert with a sprinkling of cinnamon.
- Amarula Cream Liqueur - Made from the marula fruit, this is best served over crushed ice. The taste, colour and texture are somewhat similar to the well known Baileys Irish Cream.
- Rooibos Tea - This world-renowned tea is made from a bush-like herb which grows in the Cederberg Mountains and is a favourite for many South Africans.
LGBTQ IN SOUTH AFRICA
Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in South Africa have the same rights as non-LGBT people. Same-sex marriage in South Africa has been legal since the Civil Union Act came into force on 30 November 2006, making South Africa the fifth country in the world, and as of May 2020, the only country in Africa, to legalise same-sex marriage.
Nevertheless, LGBT South Africans, particularly outside of the major cities, do still continue to face some challenges. In most major cities, South African's are predominantly LGBTQ accepting and you will find annual Gay Pride Events in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Pretoria, amongst other cities.
WHERE TO STAY IN SOUTH AFRICA
From $15 hostels to well over $100 hotels, South Africa has a huge variety of accommodation options. Note that most accommodation is often priced per person and not per room. Competition can be fierce and if your dates are flexible and you can stay for a longer period there are plenty of bargains to be had.
If you’re travelling during peak season or holidays (particularly December to January in Cape Town),
it is best to book your accommodations in advance. We recommend checking sites like Booking.com or Agoda. No matter where you stay, you’re almost certain to experience the wealth of South African friendly hospitality. It’s an amazing place to visit and is often underestimated by foreigners as a world-class travel destination!
Airbnb Travel Tip: If you prefer to stay in your own apartment or house, we recommend using Airbnb in South Africa. Check out our full article on how to get $65 coupon code for your booking or simply click here to get our coupon code to apply on your next booking.