South Africa Guide: Planning Your Trip

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South Africa is a country of extremes, where poverty-stricken shanties exist alongside first-world art galleries, entertainment venues, sports arenas, and restaurants. Its magnificent landscapes include snow-dusted mountains and areas of arid semi-desert; whilst its twin coasts support incredible marine biodiversity. With countless ethnic groups and no fewer than 11 official languages, its human culture is just as diverse. Whether you're looking for a beach vacation, a city break, or an escape into the game-filled bush, South Africa has the ability to be all things to all people. 

From deciding when to travel to choosing where to stay, this article takes a look at everything you need to consider when planning your next trip there.

Planning Your Trip

  • Best Time to Visit: Although South Africa is a year-round destination, summer (December to February) is the hottest, wettest time of the year and the best time for a beach holiday. Winter (June to August) is the coolest, driest time of year and the best time to go on safari.
  • Languages: Afrikaans, English, Ndebele, Northern Sotho, Sotho, Swazi, Tsonga, Tswana, Venda, Xhosa, and Zulu.
  • Currency: The rand.
  • Getting Around: Public transport is unreliable and unsafe in South Africa. In the larger cities you can use Uber to get around, while privately owned long-distance buses operate in between the country's major destinations. If you're not planning on joining a chauffeured itinerary, the best way to travel is to fly or hire a car.
  • Travel Tip: Malaria is a risk in parts of Limpopo, Mpumalanga, and Kwa-Zulu Natal provinces. Before you travel, ask your doctor whether you should take prophylactics.

Things to Do

For many visitors, South Africa's awe-inspiring wilderness areas and safari parks are the main reason to visit. Outdoor activities abound, from whitewater rafting to scuba diving, mountain biking, and even snow skiing. However, the country's rich culture and history should also be explored, perhaps with a township tour or a visit to Cape Town and Johannesburg's apartheid-era landmarks.

  • Go on safari: Experience South Africa's unspoiled natural beauty while looking for iconic animals on safari. Explore one of the major national parks (like Kruger or Addo), experience five-star luxury in a private reserve like Sabi Sands or Phinda, or step off the beaten track with a visit to the remote Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park.
  • Discover natural wonders: South Africa is also home to some jaw-dropping geological features. These include the Blyde River Canyon (the third-largest in the world), the dizzying peaks and valleys of the Drakensberg Mountains, and the mighty Kalahari Desert. On the coast, expect coral-filled reefs and world-class surf breaks.
  • Learn about local culture: South Africa is defined by the traditions of its many different ethnic groups. Visit an Ndebele or AmaPondo tribal village, or sign up for a Cape Malay cooking class in Cape Town's Bo-Kaap neighborhood.

Explore more things to do in South Africa with our full-length articles on the best swimming beaches, the best small towns, and the country's UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

What to Eat and Drink

South Africa is a foodie's paradise, with fertile lands and productive seas offering a smorgasbord of locally sourced fruits, vegetables, meat, and seafood. Traditional African staples include pap (a kind of porridge made from mealie meal) and umngqusho, a hearty stew made from samp and beans. Immigrant laborers from India founded Durban's legendary curry culture; while Cape Malay cooking is inspired by the native recipes of Indonesian and Malaysian workers brought over by Dutch colonists. The greatest South African culinary tradition of all is the braai, or barbecue. More than a way of cooking, it's a way of life that transcends all cultural barriers.

South African beverages are just as diverse. Tourists come from all over the world to visit the vineyards of the Cape Winelands, where wines of all varieties are produced but pinotage is the national signature. Local beers range from mass-produced giants like Castle and Black Label, to small-batch microbrews with their own distinct flavor. For a uniquely South African drinking experience, try umqombothi (a Xhosa beer brewed using fermented maize and sorghum malt) or mampoer (the Afrikaans take on moonshine). Non-alcoholic drinks that every tourist should try at least once include amasi (a fermented milk popular with indigenous cultures) and rooibos, a healthy, fragrant tea made from the leaves of the red bush plant.

Explore our full-length articles on the best curry restaurants in Durban, the best South African beverages, and biltong, South Africa's improvement on beef jerky.

Where to Stay

Deciding which part of South Africa to visit and stay in will be one of the biggest decisions you'll have to make when planning your trip. There are nine provinces in South Africa: Western Cape, Eastern Cape, Northern Cape, North West, Free State, Gauteng, Limpopo, Mpumalanga, and KwaZulu-Natal. From the lush coastline of southern KwaZulu-Natal to the semi-desert interior of the Northern Cape, each one is so different that the ideal option is to rent a car and see as much of the country as possible. If you don't have unlimited time or funds, however, you may have to explore one area of the country at a time.

Choose the Western Cape for winery tours, breathtaking ocean and mountain scenery, and fine dining in Cape Town. As the birthplace of Nelson Mandela, the Eastern Cape is steeped in tribal tradition – especially in the Transkei, a previous Xhosa homeland. The arid Northern Cape is a rewarding destination for adventure seekers wanting to discover remote national parks or to see the annual super-bloom of desert flowers. Head to Gauteng to explore the historic landmarks of Johannesburg and Pretoria; or to Limpopo and Mpumalanga for unrivalled game-viewing. KwaZulu-Natal is all about the Drakensberg mountains, historic battlefields, and world-class scuba diving.

Getting There

Most overseas visitors will enter the country through O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg. From there, you can catch regular connecting flights to major hubs all over the country, including Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, and Durban. If you're planning an overland trip through Southern Africa, you can cross into South Africa from border posts in Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Lesotho, or Eswatini.

Most nationalities can enter the country without a visa for up to 90 days, but it's important to check the South African Department of Home Affairs website for up-to-date information. Please be aware that there are specific requirements for those traveling to South Africa with children under the age of 18. 

Culture and Customs

South Africa is one of the world's most beautiful destinations; however, many travelers are put off by concerns about safety. While it's true that South Africa does have a higher crime rate than many first world countries, most visits are without incident. You can increase your chances of a hassle-free experience by following a few simple rules. These include keeping your windows and doors locked when driving through big cities, and never leaving valuables visible in your car when parked. Don't walk alone in remote areas or in urban areas at night, especially if you are a woman. Leave your expensive jewelry at home. Book accommodation in a reputable part of town, and if you want to experience life in a township, join a guided tour rather than exploring by yourself.

Discussing local history and culture with people that you meet along the way is an important part of traveling. However, remember that race and politics continue to be sensitive subjects in a country still trying to recover from the apartheid era, and foreign input is not always welcome. Judge the situation carefully before giving your opinions.

Tipping is expected for good service in South African restaurants. The amount is up to you, but 10 percent is standard. Don't forget to tip fuel attendants and car guards, too. A few rand is normal in this case.

Read these articles for in-depth advice about staying safe in South Africa and tipping in Africa.

Money-Saving Tips

  • Although it has more than its fair share of five-star lodges and private reserves, South Africa is also one of the best destinations on the continent for an affordable safari. You can self-drive through all of the country's national parks, which have reasonable daily conservation fees. Most also offer budget-friendly campsites and/or self-catering chalets.
  • Accommodation and food are generally affordable by American standards, even if you decide to splurge on a special meal or spend a night in an upmarket hotel. However, if you're on a tight budget, choose a self-catering guesthouse or Airbnb property and shop for ingredients at your nearest Spar, Checkers, or Pick n Pay supermarket.
  • South Africa is a vast country and you can easily spend a lot on fuel and/or domestic flights if you add too many stops to your itinerary. Instead, keep costs down by choosing one or two destinations and taking the time to explore them properly.
  • For the cheapest prices in terms of accommodation, flights, and tours, plan to travel outside peak season. December coincides with Christmas and the South African summer holidays and is typically the most expensive time to travel.
  • Save money on expensive malaria prophylactics by choosing to visit areas of the country that are free from the mosquito-borne disease. If you do decide to visit a malaria area (of which Kruger is one), ask your doctor about cost-effective generic medication instead.
  • Make sure that your travel insurance is up to date. South Africa's public hospitals often leave a lot to be desired in terms of patient care and facilities, and private hospitals are expensive.

For more money-saving tips, read our detailed articles on how to plan an affordable African safari, and the best things to do in Cape Town for under $10.

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