South Africa is the ultimate year-round destination. No matter when you decide to travel, there's always something amazing going on—from whale migrations and prime game-viewing in winter; to blissful sunshine and Christmas festivities in summer. For generally good weather for whatever you want to do, the best time to visit South Africa is May through October, during the southern hemisphere's winter. Days are still clear and warm, with colder nights.
Weather in South Africa
South Africa is a vast country, with a mix of desert, tropical coastlines, temperate woodlands, and snow-capped mountains. Because of this, climates can vary.
Unlike many other African countries, South Africa does have four distinct seasons. May through September is typically the drier season, covering winter and a shorter spring season, and making it ideal for game drives and other outdoor activities. October through April is the wet season, encompassing fall and summer. This is an excellent season for bird-watching, and even then, rains are often quick showers that are unlikely to affect your trip. December through February are very hot (the equivalent of summer for the Northern Hemisphere) and can be crowded since schools are on holiday.
In general, high temperatures range from around 80 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer to 60 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter.
The Best Time to Go on Safari
The best time to go on safari is during the dry season. For most of the country, this means traveling during the southern hemisphere winter (May to October), when the weather is typified by clear, warm days and chilly nights. At this time of year, there is less foliage on the trees, making it easier to spot animals in the bush. The lack of available water draws wildlife to dams and waterholes, which is where you'll get some of your best sightings. Dry weather also means better road conditions for self-drive safaris at parks like Addo and Mkhuze, while the chill keeps mosquitoes at bay (a major plus for safaris in malarial areas of South Africa).
Game reserves near Cape Town are the exception to this rule. In the southernmost part of the country, summers are the driest time of year. Therefore, it's best to travel between November and March for the best safari sightings. Be aware, though, that this time of year coincides with the busiest period for tourism in South Africa and you'll need to book accommodations and game drives in advance. For keen birders, the rules are reversed. The rainy season brings an influx of insects and fills up the rivers and lakes, attracting a host of migratory birds from Europe and Asia.
The Best Time to Visit Cape Town
Cape Town is undoubtedly a year-round destination, with each season bringing its fair share of unique benefits. But, if you want to make the most of the region's incredible scenery, the most reliable weather occurs during the hot, dry summer months (November to February). Take the opportunity afforded by endless sunny days to browse the city's outdoor markets, hike up Table Mountain, or catch a tan on one of the spectacular beaches of the Cape Peninsula.
The Best Time to Visit the Drakensberg
For keen hikers, the Drakensberg Mountains are one of South Africa's top attractions. Weather-wise, the optimum time for hiking is during the fall (April to May), when you can expect warm, dry days and cool nights. At this time of year, the scenery is also mainly green and beautiful in the wake of the summer rains. Temperatures drop dramatically during the winter, with many of the higher trails coated in ice and snow. In summer, heavy rains are frequent in the north of the country (although the range's many waterfalls are at their most spectacular).
The Best Time to Head to the Coast
South Africa's twin coastlines extend for more than 1,600 miles (2,500 kilometers) and offer an unlimited array of activities. The best time to visit depends mostly on what you want to do. If sunbathing is your top priority, then summer (November to January) is undoubtedly the hottest time of year. Be warned though: If you're headed north to KwaZulu-Natal or Zululand, summer also means frequent thunderstorms and high humidity.
Whale-watching is also best in winter and spring. From June to October, humpbacks and southern right whales can be seen passing close to shore on their annual migration to the breeding grounds off Mozambique. If you're coming to South Africa to scuba dive, there is no "off" season, just different seasons. Shark-diving mecca Aliwal Shoal offers baited shark dives all year round, but if you want to swim alongside a tiger shark, you'll need to time your trip to coincide with the influx of warm water from December to April.
However, June to August is Sardine Run season, offering the opportunity to witness one of the underwater world's most significant natural events. Rock and surf fishermen can also experience world-class fishing on the Transkei coast during the annual Sardine Run.
The Best Time For Wildflower Blooms
Every year, the arrival of spring sparks the start of an incredible natural phenomenon in the Northern Cape. Almost overnight, the province's arid desert landscapes are transformed into a rich tapestry of color by the simultaneous blooming of thousands of wildflowers. Creating a sea of orange, pink, purple, yellow, and white, the super bloom includes over 3,500 different species, of which almost a third are endemic. Timings are difficult to get right because the rains dictate the bloom. However, it usually starts in the far north in late July or early August, moving slowly south until it fades in September.
Spring is when the peak wildflower bloom and whale migrations take place. It's also the ideal time to visit Durban, in the north, where the climate can be muggy at other times of the years.
Events to check out:
- Hopefield Fynbos Show takes place every August and September, celebrating this dramatic flower with food stalls, tractor races, and more.
- During the first half of September, more than 10,000 Zulu maidens in traditional dress head toward Zulu king’s KwaNyokeni Palace in KwaZulu-Natal Province as part of a four-day procession.
- Johannesburg hosts the 10-day Arts Alive Festival every September. Performances include stage dance, concerts, and more, performed by both local and international talents.
If you're traveling on a budget, avoid the rush of high summer, when accommodation and activities are at their most expensive across the much of the country.
Events to check out:
- The Swartland Heritage Festival takes place in November, celebrating more than 20 different wine producers and food from the region.
- The new year kicks off with a bang thanks to the Cape Town Minstrel Carnival, or the "Kaapse Klopse" in Afrikaans. Held on January 1 and continuing through the first week of the year, costumed minstrels parade through the streets of Cape Town, playing traditional jazz and music.
The Winelands of Franschhoek, Paarl, and Stellenbosch are extraordinarily beautiful in fall when the weather is cooler, and the trees start to change color, and the season is also optimal for hiking throughout the country.
Events to check out:
- The Cape Town International Jazz Festival, southern Africa's biggest jazz festival, is held each April.
- AfrikaBurn is a unique event not unlike Burning Man in the U.S. Held in late April, the incredible week-long event takes place in Ceres, near the Tankwa Karoo National Park.
If you're interested in discovering South Africa's best surf spots, winter brings big swells and consequently, the best waves. This is also the ideal season to head out on safari.
Events to check out:
- August 9 is a country-wide celebration for Women's Day.
- The National Arts Festival takes place in July in Grahamstown. The 11-day-long festival includes theatrical dramas, opera, street entertainers, and visual art.
- If you love oysters, don't miss the Knysna Oyster Festival, held every July in Knysna. Events include shucking contests, eating challenges, and even a marathon.