South Africa Travel Guide

By Admin | Last Updated September 04, 2019

South Africa, on the continent’s southernmost tip is a fascinating country to visit. With a total area of 471,445 square miles or 1,221,037 square kilometers, it is the continent’s largest country, and the 24th biggest country in the world by land area. Wineries, jagged mountains, top cities like Cape Town and Johannesburg, Kalahari dunes, a stunning coastline of powdery white beaches, and one of the finest wildlife safaris in the world… South Africa offers everything to every kind of traveler.

The country presents endless diversity. Kruger National Park, Kgalagadi, Addo, and Mapungubwe are home to the big 5 – lions, leopards, buffalo, elephants and rhinoceros. South Africa’s wildlife parks are at par with the best in the world, Serengeti and Masai Mara included. Cape Town with the stunning Table Mountain is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. It is one of the world’s most recognizable sites.

Then there are the stunning Drakensberg Mountains, KwaZulu Natal coast, and the huge semi-arid desert landscape. With good public transport systems, excellent highway network, and well-marked hiking trails, South Africa will always be an easy country to explore. No wonder its one of the most popular destinations in the continent. 3.5 million tourists visited South Africa in 2017, most of them from the US, UK, Germany, Netherlands and France.

It is a country of astounding diversity. The population is diverse too. There are 11 official languages in the country and many more tribes that live alongside the communities from Europe, other parts of Africa, and the Indian sub-continent. It’s for good reasons that South Africa is called the ‘Rainbow Nation’. You will see diversity everywhere… in the landscape, language, culture, architecture, and food habits.

South Africa – Quick Facts

  1. Area - 471,445 square miles or 1,221,037 square kilometers
  2. It is the world’s 24th biggest country by size
  3. The country has 3 capital cities – Pretoria (executive), Cape Town (legislative), Bloemfontein (judicial)
  4. Population – 57,725,600 (2018)
  5. Ethnic groups - 80.2% blacks, 8.8% colored people, 8.4% whites, 2.5% Asians
  6. Time zone – UTC+2
  7. Driving side – Left
  8. Official languages - Zulu, Afrikaans, English, and 8 others
  9. National animal – Springbok
  10. Only country that has hosted the soccer, rugby, and cricket world cups
  11. The Palace of Lost City is the world’s largest theme resort
  12. The most number of shipwrecks in the waters around South Africa – 2000
  13. There are 560 wineries and 4,400 primary producers of wine
  14. Only country where 2 noble prize winners lived on the same street – Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu
  15. Cape Town’s Table Mountain is one of the oldest mountains in the world

South Africa is considered to be the ‘Cradle of Humankind’. The 2.3 million years old fossil of Mrs Ples was discovered here.

Top 10 Places To Visit

  1. Cape Town – One of the world’s most beautiful cities with stunning beaches. Spend time at the waterfront. The Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Cape Town also has the spectacular Table Mountain.
  2. Kruger National Park – One of the best safari parks and home of the Big 5 – lions, leopards, buffalo, elephants and rhinoceros. There are also archeological sites and bushman rock paintings within the park. A must-visit.
  3. Garden Route – A scenic coastal road to the Storms River from Mossel Bay. The road is dotted with many lakes and lagoons. Take this road to reach Nature’s Valley, Plettenberg Bay, and Knysna, while enjoying its beauty.
  4. Drakensberg – A mountainous region bordering between Lesotho and South Africa. Stunning landscape. Visit the Giant's Castle Game Reserve and the Royal Natal National Park.
  5. Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park – Formed by merging Kalahari and Gemsbok National Park. A huge wilderness area, home to the Kalahari lions, cheetah, leopards, hyenas, and many birds.
  6. Hermanus – Visit for whale watching. The shallow waters of the southern coast attract whales that come here for breeding. There are whale-watching boat tours.
  7. Stellenbosch – A beautiful preserved town with white-washed houses and old oak trees. It is also a university town. There are also many good restaurants. Visit the Village Museum and see the restored houses.
  8. Blyde River Canyon – A top destination between Jo’burg and Kruger. A huge canyon with diverse plants, wildlife, waterfalls, rivers, and beautiful rock formations. Whitewater rafting and boat trips on the rivers.
  9. Robben Island – Memories of the apartheid days. Nelson Mandela was imprisoned here for 18 years in a small cell with other political dissidents. Learn from the former prisoners, who work as guides.
  10. Durban – The 2nd biggest city of South Africa. City with scenic beaches, Christian churches, Zulu murals, and colonial architecture.

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Top 10 Reasons To Visit South Africa

Wildlife South Africa is home to the Big 5 – lions, leopards, buffalo, elephants and rhinoceros. Kruger National Park, spread over 20,000 square kilometers is one of the best. A must-visit. There is also the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park in the Kalahari, and the Addo Elephant National Park among others.
Beautiful Beaches Coffee Bay on the Wild Coast has stunning beaches. There are other beaches too with beautiful deep blue waves. Many feel Cape Town has the world’s best urban beaches. Drive along the famous Garden Route and you will find stretches of golden pristine sand. The tropical coral reef at Rocktail Bay is excellent for snorkeling.
Cape Town One of the most beautiful cities in the world. Stunning city with excellent tourist infrastructure. Very picturesque with the Table Mountain as the backdrop. The beaches are beautiful with whale watching tours. The waterfront has many shops and restaurants.
The Blue Train 27 hour scenic rail journey between Pretoria and Cape Town covering 994 miles. See Kimberley, the diamond mining town, and the old fashionable town of Matjiesfontein. Butler service, bathtubs, food and drinks included.
History See the Cradle of Humankind where the fossil of Mrs Ples was discovered. It is 2.3 million years old.There are kwaZulu-Natal Battlefields to see, and modern history at Robben Island that served as the prison of Nelson Mandela for 18 years, while he was fighting apartheid.
Culture South Africa is called the Rainbow Nation, as it is home to the Dutch, British, Afrikaners, Asians, and people from other places who have settled here at different times. You will find varied culture living side by side.
Food, Wine One of the best wine growing regions in the world. The country has 560 wineries and 4,400 primary producers of wine. Visit cool cellars, and sample award-winning wines. For food, go to Franschhoek, Cape Town, and Johannesburg. The food scene is diverse.
Penguins Cape Town’s Boulder Beach has a colony of 3,000 penguins. Visit the SANCCOB sea bird rehabilitation center for a behind-the-scenes tour. You can pet a penguin, and even adopt one.
Diving Get inside a cage and dive with sharks at Gansbaai, just 2 hours from Cape Town. At Oudtshroon, you can get intimate with crocodiles.
Extreme Sports The country offers everything, from bungee jumping, cage diving, cave exploration, ostrich riding, sky diving, to wildlife safaris, and more. Bloukrans Bridge has one of the world’s highest bungee jump at 710 feet.

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One of the most popular countries in the continent, 3.5 million tourists visited South Africa in 2017. 4.6% of the employed population works in the tourism sector.

How To Reach

Most tourists arrive by flight. The country has 10 international airports. The biggest –

  • Cape Town International
  • Tambo International Airport – Johannesburg
  • Durban International Airport

Cape Town International Airport has a capacity of 9 million tourists, just after Jo’Burg’s Oliver Tambo International Airport.

South Africa is well-connected by air. There are direct flights to Amsterdam, Athens, Paris, Istanbul, London, Munich, Zurich, Madrid, New York, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Buenos Aires, Sao Paulo, Hong Kong, Singapore, Doha, Mumbai, Cairo, Dar es Salaam, Kinshasa, Harare, Sydney, Nairobi, and other cities.

Beware of baggage theft at the airports. Tambo International has the worst reputation for this. Avoid keeping expensive devices and jewelry in your check-in luggage. Keep them in your cabin luggage.

Visa Policy

You have to get a visa from the South African diplomatic Mission. However, residents of many countries are exempt. All visitors who apply for visa must hold a valid passport.

Tips For A First-Time Visitor

  • Safety – Safety is the biggest concern in South Africa. In Johannesburg and Cape Town, don’t wander out alone in the night even if you have to travel for just a couple of blocks. Take an Uber instead. And always, keep the windows of your car rolled up.
  • Valuables – Do not flash your valuables in public. You may become a soft target. Don’t move with your passport. Keep it in the hotel. Carry only a photocopy, instead.
  • Wildlife Safaris – You can get a bargain deal at your hotel, and may even find a budget camping option. But wildlife safaris are going to cost more, if you want a good guide and a comfortable stay. But it is worth it. You are paying here for your accommodation, services, meals, the services of an informed ranger, and the top wildlife sightings in the continent.
  • Safari do / don’ts – Follow the directions of your guide closely. Of course, you should never venture out alone into the wild. Also, don’t play loud music or wear clothes that are too bright. Wear long pants if you are going to be doing some walking. Carry an insect repellant and sun-screen.
  • Tap Water – You can drink tap water. It is as safe as mineral water.
  • Tipping – It is expected at most places. Tipping usually ranges between 10% and 15%. Don’t forget to tip your car guard if you have hired a vehicle.
  • Beaches – The country has a long coastline with beautiful beaches. You can go swimming, but be careful of ocean currents, especially in the west coast. Also, the water is icy cold because of the Benguela current. The east coast is much better for swimming.
  • Vaccinations – Get malaria tablets if you are traveling in the malaria season, which is usually after the rains. Yellow fever is a mandatory vaccine. You need to provide proof of vaccination if you are coming from a country that is a yellow fever risk nation.
  • Money – Credit cards are widely accepted. But it is still good to carry a little cash. But make sure that you don’t carry too much, because you may attract attention otherwise. This may not be safe.
  • Mobile Connectivity – Very good. There are 4 main tele-companies – MTN, Vodacom, Telkom, and Cell C. Buy a local sim card at the airport from any of them on arrival. The internet speed and reception are both good in the big cities and towns. It is not that great in the wilderness, naturally.

Best Time To Visit South Africa

It is a big and diverse country where the climate varies from one region to another. There are also plenty of activities, which are good at specific times of the year. So there is no one single best time to visit South Africa. It depends on where you are going, and what you want to do.

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For Game Viewing Winter dry months – May to October. Visit KwaZulu-Natal, Pilanesberg, Madikwe, and Kruger this time of the year because the animals will be close to the water. The bush will also be thin. It will be easier to spot.
Cape Town The hot summer is great for beach time at the city. November to March. This is also the peak tourist season, especially around Christmas and New Year. So book early.
Kwazulu-Natal Coast Sunshine around the year. The winter is mild. You can visit throughout the year.
Birding November to February. Rainy months in the north, but good time for birding enthusiasts.
For Whale Watching July to November in the Western Cape region. You can see southern right whales migrating from Antarctica to the warmer waters with their young. Head to Hermanus and Plettenberg Bay. You have the best chances in September.

How To Visit South Africa On A Budget

  1. Food – South Africa is a former British and Dutch colony, so there is very little local food. African traditional foods, such as Xhosa cuisine isn’t available easily unless you visit the townships. The South African barbecue Braii is mostly available at homes. So you should be able to save money on food quite easily. If you are staying in a hostel, then prepare your own breakfast. Groceries are cheap. And if you are staying in a hotel, then fill up in the morning. Skip the lunch. Go to chains like Nando’s (chicken meals), Ocean’s basket (seafood), Spur (stakes). They are all cheap.
  2. Drinks – Almost all the wineries allow for free wine tasting, and if there is a charge, it is as low as USD 2. Take advantage of this and visit many wineries.
  3. Travel – You will probably have to take a flight for traveling to PE/ East London from Johannesburg, or Johannesburg to Cape Town. Mango and Kulula are the cheapest airlines. Buy early to get the best prices. Solo travelers can use the BAZ BUS for commuting across the country. These are backpacker buses that will take you to all popular tourist attractions. They visit the hostel gates as well.
  4. Wildlife – There is luxury accommodation at Kruger, but you can save money by selecting another option. Choose from huts, cottages, and guesthouses. There are also self-catering rest camps where the cost will be less. For an isolated bush experience, you can stay at an electricity-free tent with only a fence separating you and the animals. The price will be only £32 per night for a 2-person tent. Staying outside the main park and visiting on a day-trip will also save you money.
  5. Affordable Attractions – There are many cost-effective attractions, even in top destinations, like Cape Town, for instance. Take the Aerial Cableway in the Table Mountain for a small fee. You can also hike to the top on scenic trails to get a panoramic view. The Camps Bay, Clifton Beach, and Greenmarket Square are all free attractions.