Travel to South Africa
It’s not an overstatement when we say that South Africa has something for everyone.
The diverse landscape has it all – beaches, mountains, forests, deserts, cityscapes, winelands and wild African bush.
Enjoy the beautiful beaches, roaming winelands and modern city life in Cape Town or the edgy cultural vibe in Johannesburg and the chilled out beach scenes of Durban. For relaxed bohemian culture check out the small towns along the Garden Route and for even more chilled out deserted life wander through the Karoo. For the ultimate African safari, there’s the Kruger National Park, Pilanesberg, Addo Elephant Park and many other wildlife parks around the country.
The variety on offer is what makes tourists return over and over again to South Africa – as each visit can offer something unique. There are plenty of exciting experiences in South Africa.
Every trip to South Africa needs to include a little bit of everything – some city life paired with beautiful scenic destinations and wildlife.
The diversity extends to its people, with countless ethnic groups and 11 official languages. South African culture is as diverse as its landscapes – there’s a reason that it’s known as the rainbow nation.
While the main cities of Johannesburg, Cape Town and Pretoria may fit the part of first-world cities, there is still a lot of inequality and poverty across South Africa. While travelling across the country, you will see a lot of poverty stricken rural areas.
Travel tips for South Africa
Visa Requirements for South Africa
There are currently 48 nationalities who can enter South Africa for up to 90 days without a visa, including nationals from the United States, Canada, most of Europe, Russia, Brazil and Argentina.
Another 28 nationalities are able to enter South Africa for up to 30 days without a visa, including Turkey, Poland, South Korea, Thailand and Malaysia.
Visit this website to find out if you are exempt from getting a visa to enter South Africa.
Citizens from other countries will need to obtain a visa before entering South Africa. Visas for South Africa can be obtained from embassies and consulates. The South African eVisa will soon be available to make this process easier.
For parents traveling with children to South Africa, you may be required to produce your child’s birth certificate before entering the country. While this was a requirement before, the Department of Home Affairs has relaxed travel rules for foreigners visiting South Africa with minors. It would be advisable to double check this before leaving for your trip.
Important Cultural Information
South Africa has 11 official languages: Afrikaans, English, Ndebele, Northern Sotho, Sotho, Swazi, Tsonga, Tswana, Venda, Xhosa, and Zulu. Of these, Zulu is the most widely spoken, followed by Xhosa, then Afrikaans, then English.
Here’s how to greet in African countries.
South Africans are generally very friendly and welcoming to tourists. The country is very westernized, making it easy for tourists to fit in.
With so many ethnic backgrounds and with the history of Apartheid, racial issues do arise, though generally do not affect tourists in the country.
When traveling to rural areas or townships within the cities, do be aware of the high poverty within these areas. You will also likely come across beggars and homeless people on the streets. It’s up to you whether you give them anything, it’s advisable to rather give food than money.
Banking & Money
South Africa’s currency is the South African Rand (ZAR). The Rand is divided into 100 cents (c). Notes are in denominations of R200, R100, R50, R20 and R10. Coins are in denominations of R5, R2, R1, 50c, 20c, 10c and 5c. To exchange money, there are plenty of ATMs, where you can withdraw from your international account usually for a fee, depending on your own bank conditions. Credit cards, both Visa and Mastercard are well accepted all over. But it’s always useful to have a few notes, especially when traveling to more rural areas.
Medical Emergency Information
For any emergency that requires police response, dial 10111. For any medical emergency, dial 10177. There are no compulsory vaccines for travel to South Africa unless you’re visiting from a country where yellow fever is endemic. If this is the case, you will need to provide proof of yellow fever vaccination on arrival. If traveling to Malaria risk areas, you will need to take medication – consult your doctor before traveling. Get a quote for travel insurance through WorldNomads below, or visit the SafetyWing website for more options.
Wi-Fi and Internet in South Africa
South Africa has some of the highest mobile phone and data prices in the world. If you’re spending a short amount of time in the country, it may just be cheaper to stick to Wi-Fi spots (easily found in the main cities). If you would like to get a local SIM card, the best mobile providers are Vodacom, Cell C and MTN.
To avoid having to RICA your SIM Card (a process that includes providing a proof of address), use the B4IGO service. This service allows you to purchase a SIM and airtime/data bundle of your choice before you even leave your home country. You can pick up your pre-ordered SIM at any international South African airport upon arrival.
Cape Town is packed with coworking spots, including Workshop 17 (in several locations around the country), Cape Town Office, Work and Co, Inner City Ideas Cartel and Seedspace Cape Town (just a quick Google search will bring up loads of options).
In Joburg the main coworking spaces include Impello, Workshop 17, Perch and Workspace (again, Google for the most updated list). You will also find coffee shops throughout the country offering free Wi-Fi.
Remember to use a VPN while traveling and accessing public Wi-Fi hotspots.
Arrival in South Africa
Most tourists will enter South Africa through O.R Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, though there are international flights to Cape Town and Durban. From Johannesburg, you can then catch domestic flights to all major hubs around the country. For visitors going on safari or staying to explore Johannesburg and surrounds, car hire is available at the airport, otherwise you can catch the Gautrain to major districts within Johannesburg and Pretoria.
Areas of South Africa
There are so many amazing places to visit in South Africa, from the main cities and areas to small off-the-beaten track destinations. You could travel South Africa for months and still not cover all of the ‘must-see’ destinations. However, some of the main areas to visit in South Africa include:
Locally referred to as Jozi or Joburg, Johannesburg is often skipped on international tourists South Africa itineraries. It’s used as an arrival destination before quickly heading off to somewhere else in the country, which is a huge shame. Joburg is a city packed with life, energy and hustle. Top Johannesburg attractions include a tour of Soweto, bungee-jumping off Orlando Towers, a visit to Constitution Hill, Cradle of Humankind, the Apartheid Museum and experiencing city life in Maboneng. When in Johannesburg, make sure to take a trip to South Africa’s administrative capital city Pretoria. Highlights to a Pretoria visit include Parliament and the Voortrekker Monument.
Often ranked among the most beautiful cities in the world, Cape Town is one of South Africa’s main tourist attractions. The Mother City is home to pristine beaches, breathtaking vineyards (producing delicious wine), beautiful views and of course the iconic Table Mountain.
Cape Town also features a fun and vibey city energy, with a large selection of restaurants, bars, hotels and nightlife. Popular sights to visit while in Cape Town includes a trip to Robben Island, a visit to Cape Point, diving with great white sharks, going up Table Mountain and swimming with the penguins at Boulder Beach. Cape Town is also a great base to visit the surrounding winelands including those in Franschhoek, Stellenbosch, Paarl and Worcester.
Check out our guide on unique things to do in Cape Town.
Travel tips for Cape Town
Durban is the ultimate seaside playground, boasting warm weather throughout the year. Located in KwaZulu-Natal, Durban (or Durbs if you’re speaking to the locals) is South Africa’s chilled out, surf-vibes coastal city. Not only is the weather warm, but so is the water in the Indian Ocean along the beautiful golden beaches. Making watersports a key attraction to the city. Popular things to do in Durban is eat a bunny chow from one of the many Indian restaurants in the city, visit Shaka Marine World and enjoy sunny beach days.
The Garden Route stretches along South Africa’s most scenic coast, from Mossel Bay through to Storms River. 200 kilometers of beautiful scenery, adventure hotspots and cute seaside towns. Go bungee jumping off Bloukrans Bridge, discover the untouched Wilderness, look for whales in Plettenberg Bay, go in hunt for the Knysna Elephant in the Knysna Forest, zipline through the Tsitsikamma or go kayaking down Storms River.
Kruger National Park
For tourists looking for a South African safari experience, you best head to the Kruger National Park. This wildlife park covers nearly two million hectares of preserved wilderness and is home to the big five among thousands of other wildlife species. Here you can explore the bush by game drive or walking safari – there are loads of various safari tour companies available. You will find accommodation both inside the Kruger National Park as well as within its surrounding wildlife reserves and towns. Nearby cities include Nelspruit, White River, Sabi and Hazyview.
The Wild Coast
Not featuring at the top of many South African travel itineraries, the Wild Coast is South Africa’s hidden gem. This beautiful stretch of coast in the Eastern Cape is best described as raw, natural beauty. Popular spots along the Wild Coast Coffee Bay, Chintsa, Morgan’s Bay and Port St. John’s. Don’t expect fancy accommodation here, it’s a ‘camping on the beach’ kind of destination.
The Drakensberg Mountains range is the highest in the country and among the most beautiful in Southern Africa. Stretching for over 1,000km, the mountain range is a massive sight to see. Not only offering stunning scenery, the Drakensberg offers endless outdoor activities including hiking, birdwatching, horse-riding, rock climbing, quadbiking and mountain biking. It’s also home to an interesting collection of San rock paintings.
Transportation in South Africa
The easiest way to get around South Africa is by car – with so many amazing road trips in South Africa (check out our South Africa road trip planner). The same goes for getting around within the main cities as public transportation is not as accessible as other western countries.
Cape Town is probably the most tourist-friendly city with a good public bus system (check out MyCiti). Otherwise Uber or other private taxis are your best bet for getting around. There are long-destination buses available as well as trains (though, not really recommended).
The exceptions of train travel of course, is the Blue Train and Rovos Rail – both offering ultra-luxurious train trips around South Africa. They cost a lot, but are worth it if you love train travel.
Companies that offer long-distance bus trips include Greyhound, Intercape Mainliner, Translux and SA Roadlink. In Johannesburg the Gautrain, a high speed train, works well. The connections are still few however cover trips from OR Tambo International Airport through to the hubs of Sandton, Rosebank, the CBD and Pretoria.
For backpackers traveling South Africa, we recommend the Baz Bus. It’s a hop on hop off bus route that travels to more than 40 cities, towns and villages around South Africa.
If you are short on time or not keen on long road trips then traveling between the major cities is best done by plane. Domestic airlines include Kulula, Mango, FlySafair and Airlink, with domestic airports scattered around the country.
Transportation In & Out of South Africa
There are 10 international airports in South Africa, with the two major being OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg and Cape Town International. Durban International Airport is the third biggest airport.
Most international guests will arrive via OR Tambo International Airport. OR Tambo International Airport is serviced by most major airlines including South Africa’s national airline South African Airways as well as Emirates, British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, Qantas, KLM, Lufthansa, among others. Fewer international airlines fly to Cape Town International, the ones that do include Emirates, British Airways, Lufthansa, KLM, Qatar, Air France, Singapore Airlines and a few African airlines. International airlines flying to Durban include Emirates, British Airways, Turkish Airlines, Qatar and Air Mauritius.
Use Expedia to search for available flights to South Africa.
Accommodation in South Africa
Accommodation in South Africa ranges from budget-friendly to ultra luxurious.
Throughout the country you will find a variety of hostels, guesthouses, B&B’s, apartments, hotels, resorts and villas available. All can be found for different budgets. There are many five-star luxury resorts within the game reserves in South Africa, catering specifically to an international market. For those looking for more budget-friendly accommodation in the game reserves, look for campsites within the parks or lodges just outside of the main game reserves.
Accommodation in South Africa
Food & Dining Guide for South Africa
South Africa is renowned for having a variety of good food on offer.
There are several top restaurants featured throughout the country, among some of the top rated in the world.
Franschhoek in the Western Cape is often referred to as the food and wine capital of the country, mostly because of its many top-quality restaurants and vineyards.
You will find many international take-out joints, including McDonalds, KFC, Burger King, Pizza Hut and Dominos. Local take-out place to try include Steers for burgers, Chicken Licken for fried chicken and Nandos for peri-peri chicken.
Other local cuisines to try out include braai’s (the local version of a barbecue), bobotie, pap and vleis, potjiekos, boerewors, biltong, and a bunny chow.
Sweet treats include Melktert and koeksisters!
South Africa’s Attractions
There are plenty of things to do and explore throughout South Africa.
One of the main things that people come to South Africa for is a safari. The wildlife reserves in eastern Limpopo and northern Mpumalanga near Kruger National Park offer the finest scenery and wildlife.
Other main attractions include the Cradle of Humankind and Soweto in Johannesburg, Table Mountain in Cape Town, the vineyards in the Cape winelands, the Garden Route and Drakensberg mountains.
Things to do & see in South Africa
Shopping in South Africa
You will find several major shopping centres throughout South Africa that include a variety of local and international chain stores.
The main shopping centres in Johannesburg include Sandton City, Mall of Africa and Cresta Shopping Centre, among others. In Durban, the major shopping centre is Gateway Theatre of Shopping and in Cape Town you will find Canal Walk, V&A Waterfront, the Tyger Valley Centre and Cavendish Square.
Major supermarket chains include Checkers, Pick ‘n Pay, Spar, and Woolworths Food, found throughout South Africa. There are also many local markets, with more and more ‘hipster’ style markets popping up where you will find local handcrafted goods and various different foods.
There are also lots of smaller boutique shops selling a mix of local and international products.
Here’s where to find the best souvenirs in Cape Town.
The major cities of South Africa all feature a buzzing nightlife scene, with several restaurants, bars, and clubs.
While in Cape Town, the nightlife on Long Street in town is popular as well as nearby Kloof Street and Bree Street. Members of the LGBT community will find many gay clubs and bars in the Waterkant area.
In Johannesburg, the popular nightlife spots include Rosebank and Sandton for more upmarket nightclubs and bars while Melville, Parkhurst and Greenside all feature more relaxed bars and restaurants.
Safety Tips for South Africa
Crime is a major concern in South Africa. The country unfortunately has a high crime rate including violent crimes, rape and murder. The risk of tourists traveling to high tourist areas is generally low, however travelers must always remain vigilant.
General safety tips while traveling in South Africa include:
- Stick to the main areas. Explore in groups rather than alone, and stick to busy, well-lit streets. This is particularly important at night time or in quiet areas.
- Keep your valuables hidden when walking the streets as well as when driving in your car.
- While driving, keep your car doors locked and windows closed. Park in well-lit areas where there are other cars parked – again keep your valuables out of sight. Be especially aware at traffic lights and stop streets.
- Consult a reliable tour guide when visiting rural townships.
- Be vigilant when attending events with crowds – they tend to attract pickpockets.
- Use ATM’s in shopping malls or main centres.
- Avoid stranded beaches and picnic areas.
- Hikers should stick to popular trails and hike in groups if possible.
- Be aware of local marches and protests (they are generally talked about the radio and online media), avoid those areas.
South Africa is a great country to visit year round.
If you’re looking for a beach holiday then go between November to March for their summer months – the best stops to visit would be Cape Town, Durban or the Wild Coast areas.
The subtropical temperatures of Durban also make it great to visit from April to October.
Safaris are great year-round, just expect really hot weather from around November through to March, the winter months are lovely during the day but can drop quite low at night – depending which areas you go to.
The Garden Route is also lovely to visit during the summer months, but can get quite busy with local tourists in December/January.
The Drakensberg mountains are absolutely stunning during winter, where you can experience the snow-capped mountains and perfect hiking weather.
South Africa really is an amazing country to travel to, with something for every sort of traveler.
Travel tips for South Africa