Situated in the southernmost tip of continental Africa, South Africa is a diverse country with an up and coming economy. It is a member of the Commonwealth of Nations, United Nations, and World Trade Organisation among others. The country is bordered by Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and eSwatini (formerly Swaziland) and completely surrounds the tiny nation of Lesotho.
Modern South Africa is a hub for travel and tourism – hence this South Africa Travel Guide! People visit from all over the world to explore the bustling cities, take safari trips through the national parks and enjoy the sunshine on its glittering coastlines. It has a burgeoning gastronomy scene and is well established as a hotspot for arts and culture in Africa.
- South Africa travel guide: quick facts
- South Africa Provinces
- How to travel to South Africa
- How to travel around South Africa
- What to pack for South Africa travel tips
- The best time to travel to South Africa
- What to eat in South Africa
- Famous events in South Africa
- Public holidays in South Africa
- Cultural customs to be aware of in South Africa
- Where to stay in South Africa
- Don’t forget travel insurance
- Is South Africa safe to travel to?
- The use of cash and cards in South Africa
- Calling abroad, WiFi and data use in South Africa
- Tipping in South Africa
- A brief history of South Africa
- Posts about South Africa
South Africa travel guide: quick facts
Size: 1,221,037 km² or 471,445 sq mi
People living there: more than 54,956,900
Capital: Pretoria (executive), Bloemfontein (judicial), Cape Town (legislative)
Governmental structure: unitary dominant-party parliamentary constitutional republic
National day: April 27
Time zones: South African Standard Time / UTC+2 for the main territory and UTC+3 for the Prince Edward Islands
Power voltage and socket type(s): 230 V, plug types D, M and N. If your devices have different plugs, make sure to pack a universal adapter.
Official religion(s)/Freedom of religion: Freedom of religion with a dominance of Christianity. Islam, Hinduism, Bahá’í Faith and Judaism are minority religions in South Africa.
Official language(s) and general knowledge of English: South Africa has 11 official languages: Afrikaans, English, Ndebele, Northern Sotho, Sotho, Swazi, Tsonga, Tswana, Venda, Xhosa, and Zulu. English is widely spoken and most South Africans speak more than one language.
Drives on this side: left
International driver’s licence accepted? yes
Phone code: +27
Vaccinations for South Africa travel? hepatitis A, hepatitis B, tetanus, typhoid, rabies, malaria depending on where you go
Can you drink the tap water? sometimes but it is generally better to be on the safe side and drink bottled water
South Africa Provinces
1. Eastern Cape
As you might imagine, the Eastern Cape of South Africa runs along its eastern coastline. Although the capital of the province is Bhisho, the two biggest cities are Port Elizabeth and East London. It is the second largest of all the provinces and is home to a number of amazing nature reserves including the Addo Elephant National Park, Mountain Zebra National Park, and Camdeboo National Park.
Thrill seekers will find plenty to do in the Eastern Cape. One particularly popular activity is bungee jumping off of Bloukrans Bridge. This is the country’s foremost bungee jumping site! Alternatively head over to Tiffindell, South Africa’s only ski resort or go for a hike along the beautiful Sacramento Trail.
Read about our experience at the Shamwari Game Reserve, where we had our first safari experience in style.
2. Free State
The Free State sits just east of central South Africa and runs along the northern and western edges of Lesotho. The capital of the province is Bloemfontein, which is filled with museums and landmarks to discover, as well as a gorgeous botanical garden.
A three-hour drive to the east of Bloemfontein is Clarens, nicknamed the ‘Jewel of the Free State’. Here, you can learn all about Basotho culture and explore the Golden Gate Highlands National Park. For something a bit more adrenaline pumping, you can also enjoy 4×4 safari tours, horse riding, and white water rafting in and around Clarens.
The smallest but most populous of all South Africa’s provinces is Gauteng, home to Pretoria, the national capital; and Johannesburg, the provincial capital. In Johannesburg, the Apartheid Museum is a must. This sobering museum depicts the rise and fall of Apartheid and its effects on South Africans. Jo’burg also boasts some beautiful parks, including a bird garden and botanical garden.
Whilst in Gauteng, you should definitely check out its one and only UNESCO World Heritage site, known, impressively, as the Cradle of Humankind. It is claimed that this is where humankind originated as the first hominid, Australopithecus, was found in the excavation sites here.
KwaZulu-Natal runs along the eastern coast of South Africa from where the Eastern Cape ends, all the way up to the borders with eSwatini and Mozambique. In Durban, the provincial capital, be sure to take a stroll along the Golden Mile, which is actually four miles long and runs alongside the beach. Then go down to one of the province’s Blue Flag beaches and soak up the endless sunshine.
Away from the city are the dramatic Drakensberg Mountains, home to dozens of hiking trails in all shapes and sizes. If you’re looking for an adventure, over in the Oribi Gorge you will have the chance to do a heart-stopping canyon swing across the 165m gorge. If that’s not enough, combine the experience with zip lining, white water rafting and abseiling.
Polokwane is the capital city of Limpopo, the northernmost province in South Africa, which borders Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique. A tree might not sound like much of a tourist attraction but Limpopo is the home of the world’s largest baobab, the Sagole Baobab, which has a staggering diameter of over 10 meters.
Aside from the colossal Sagole Baobab, Limpopo is famous for being one of the two provinces across which the Kruger National Park extends. This park is one of the largest of its kind in Africa and is home to lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants, and buffalos – collectively known as the Big 5. A safari tour in Kruger National Park is a bucket list experience for sure.
Just beneath Limpopo is Mpumalanga, the other province that boasts a chunk of Kruger National Park. The capital city of Mpumalanga is Mbombela, formerly known as Nelspruit, which tends to act as a gateway to Kruger. If you’re looking for the most magical way to see the park, consider splashing out on a sunrise hot air balloon tour.
Mpumalanga’s other pride and joy is the astonishing Blyde River Canyon – the largest green canyon in the world. This canyon plunges down 800 meters and can be experienced in all manner of different ways. There are hiking trails to explore, waterfalls to enjoy, and a natural bridge over the Mac Mac River to marvel at.
7. North West
Despite being called North West, this province is actually situated right in the center of Northern South Africa, just beneath Botswana. Its capital city is Klerksdorp. One of the top attractions in this part of the country is the enormous Sun City resort, which encompasses various hotels, a casino, golf courses and a huge water park, complete with a massive wave pool.
Another highlight of the North West is Pilanesberg National Park, another park that boasts the coveted Big 5. Throughout the park are lodges of varying levels of luxury and over 7,000 animals you could spot on your safari tour.
8. Northern Cape
The Northern Cape – capital city Kimberley – is the least populated province in South Africa despite being by far the largest. This province accounts for well over a quarter of the entire of South Africa and is bordered by Namibia and Botswana on its northern edge. The Augrabies National Park is a must while you’re in the Northern Cape, if only to check out the sensational Augrabies Falls.
Other features in the Northern Cape worth viewing include the aptly named Big Hole, which is the remains of a thoroughly depleted diamond mine, and the bright orange Namaqualand daisies, found in the Namaqua National Park. You could also go for a paddle in a canoe along the Orange River.
9. Western Cape
Finally, we get to the Western Cape, home to arguably South Africa’s best-known city: Cape Town. The capital of the province, Cape Town has no end to attractions, the most famous of them all being Table Mountain, which you should definitely take the time to climb. If you can get to Lion’s Head in time to watch the sunrise, even better.
Outside of the city center, you will find Gansbaai, the world’s best place to see Great White sharks. If you’re feeling daring, have a go at cage diving and get up close and personal with these fearsome beasts. If you have your own car, take a drive along the world-famous Garden Route, which runs through some of South Africa’s most spectacular scenery from the Western Cape into the Eastern Cape.
Discover more about the Western Cape:
- Where to see pinguins on the Western Cape
- Visiting Table Mountain
- Doing a half-day Robben Island tour from Cape Town
- Whale watching along the Western Cape in South Africa
- Driving the Cape of Good Hope tour from Cape Town
- 4 days in Cape Town: a detailed itinerary
- 15-day itinerary for the Western Cape
How to travel to South Africa
South Africa travel requirements
No visa is required for a stay of up to 90 days for EU, British, Canadian and American ordinary passport holders.
Most international travelers arrive In South Africa by plane. The major airports in South Africa are:
- OR Tambo International Airport – Johannesburg & Pretoria
- Lanseria International Airport – Johannesburg & Pretoria
- Cape Town International Airport – Cape Town
- King Shaka International Airport – Durban
Greyhound buses offer services across the border from Mozambique, and Zimbabwe into Pretoria and Johannesburg. There are also buses to these cities from eSwatini and Botswana. On the other side of the country, Intercape runs buses between Namibia and Cape Town.
Unfortunately, there are currently no trains between South Africa and Botswana, Namibia, eSwatini and Zimbabwe. However, there are trains connecting Maputo, Mozambique to Pretoria and Johannesburg.
The most common ferry ride into South Africa is from Namibia and goes across the Orange River in the Richtersveld Transfrontier Park. You can catch the Octha Ferry and the journey only takes around five minutes.
How to travel around South Africa
Independent travel around South Africa
Independent travel around South Africa is relatively easy thanks to it being a hotspot for backpackers and international travelers. There is an excellent infrastructure of inter-city buses and trains, and there are hotels in all the main cities and tourist areas. Shosholoza Meyl has trains connecting all the big cities and Metrorail offers commuter trains in large urban areas.
If you want to stop in lots of different places as you travel through South Africa, you might want to consider buying a 21-day Baz Bus ticket. This allows is a hop on and off system of bus travel in South Africa that allows you to get on and off the Baz Buz bus as many times as you like. The Baz Bus travels between Cape Town and Johannesburg.
As always, renting a car offers you the most flexibility to go where you want to go, when you want to go there. We hired a car for our trip to the Western Cape and loved the freedom it offered us.
What to pack for South Africa travel tips
South Africa is in the southern hemisphere and so its seasons are the inverse to what we are used to in Europe and the US. Summer runs from November to February, while winter is June through August.
Every province in South Africa has its own climate and this can range from scorching hot to below freezing depending on where you go and during which season you visit. Take a look at what I recommend packing for each season.
What to pack for South Africa in summer
- light clothing
- a light cardigan
- a reusable water bottle
- good walking sandals
What to pack for South Africa in winter
- merino woolen socks
- a warm jacket
- a reusable water bottle
- a warm scarf
- a hat
- layered clothing
- a merino woolen baselayer
- comfortable hiking trousers
- a warm and waterproof jacket
- a reusable water bottle
- layered clothing
- a scarf
- Biltong – strips of dried meat (like jerky but better), usually made from beef, ostrich or kudu
- Vetkoek – literally translates as fat cake and is a deep-fried ball of dough stuffed with jam, cheese, mince or some other delicious filling
- Braai – this isn’t a dish but a way of cooking. Stick a chunk of meat, usually a chop or steak of some kind, over some open coals and let it cook like that
- Braaibroodjies – if meat isn’t your thing, you can grill a sandwich over a braai. Common fillings include cheese, tomato, and onion
- Boerewors – a long coil of sausage, usually cooked on a braai that contains a mixture of beef, pork, and coriander
- Bunny chow – a hollowed out white loaf of bread filled with curry
- Chakalaka & pap – a vegetable porridge-like dish made with carrots, onions, tomatoes, peppers, spices, beans, and corn maize
- Bredie – spicy lamb stew made with tomatoes and vegetables
- Amarula Don Pedro – Amarula liqueur blended with ice cream to make something halfway between a dessert and a cocktail
- Milk tart – pastry filled with milk, eggs, sugar, and flour and dusted with cinnamon
- Afrikaburn – South Africa’s version of the famous Burning Man festival in the USA (April or May)
- Cape Town International Jazz Festival – local and international musicians play across five stages over the course of two days (March or April)
- Oppikoppi – multi-genre music festival in Limpopo (August)
- Grahamstown National Arts Festival – 11 days of arts and culture, including techno raves, medieval banquets, craft fairs, operas, carnivals, buskers and walking tours (June-July)
- Knysna Oyster Festival – big festival in honor of the oyster with over 100 events, including eating challenges and a marathon (June)
- Splashy Fen – South Africa’s oldest music festival in the Drakensberg with a range of rock and folk artists (April)
- Durban July Handicap – big horse racing event in Durban (first Saturday of July)
- Innibos Arts Festival – festival for theatre, dancing, literature, and creativity, with over 100,000 visitors each year (June)
- Johannesburg Arts Alive Festival – music, dancing, and community-based events festival (September)
- Clarens Craft Beer Festival – over 50 different beers and ciders available to try from around the region (February)
- New Year’s Day
- Human Rights Day (21 March)
- Good Friday
- Family Day (Easter Monday)
- Freedom Day (27 April)
- Workers Day (1 May)
- Youth Day (16 June but public holiday will be given on Monday, 17 June)
- National Women’s Day (9 August)
- Heritage Day (24 September)
- Day of Reconciliation (16 December)
- Christmas Day
- Day of Goodwill (26 December)
What to pack for South Africa in fall and spring
Have a look at my packing list for the Western Cape in September based on the road trip we did there.
The best time to travel to South Africa
South Africa is a place best enjoyed in the sunshine – and luckily there are some parts of the country that are sunny nearly all year round, like Durban! Between November and February is the best time to visit South Africa if you want beach and safari weather. However, if your aim is to do some whale watching, you should go between July and November.
What to eat in South Africa
Famous events in South Africa
Public holidays in South Africa
Cultural customs to be aware of in South Africa
Generally speaking, there are not too many cultural customs to be aware of in South Africa. However, you should note that pointing with your index finger at something is considered rude. You may also find people try to get your attention by making a hissing or smacking noise with their mouth, instead of saying ‘excuse me’.
Where to stay in South Africa
I always use Booking.com to find hotels and guesthouses for my travels. Booking has a bunch of filtering options so I can easily get a list of only the hotels that meet my criteria. If you’re looking for accommodation, I highly recommend you check there.
When I want to book an apartment rather than a hotel, I look on Airbnb. If you don’t have an Airbnb account yet, you can sign up using my link to get a discount on your first stay.
Don’t forget travel insurance
No matter how well you plan and research a trip, there are always things that happen beyond your control. Something might get canceled, you can get ill or hurt while traveling or one of your electronics might break or get stolen. When misfortune strikes, travel insurance has got you covered. I’ve had ongoing travel insurance ever since I started traveling to make sure I’m covered for every trip I go on. Don’t have insurance yet? You can get a free quote here:
Is South Africa safe to travel to?
Unfortunately, there are some safety issues you need to pay attention to whilst in South Africa. Petty theft and even armed robbery occur regularly so avoid carrying any valuables around with you and try not to look too flashy or obviously like a tourist. You should also work out beforehand if there are any no-go zones in the city you’re in. A local guide should be able to tell you this.
To be on the safe side, carry a decoy wallet with you that contains a couple of old credit cards and a small amount of cash. You can hand this over in the event you are robbed. Also, avoid walking around late at night. Pick-pocketing can occur even when you’re in a group so it is better just to take a licensed taxi. If you have a car, never leave your valuables in it as car-jacking is rife.
We read a lot a lot about safety and looked up a lof of tips before traveling to South Africa and while we used our common sense always, we only once felt uncomfortable and that was in Cape Town’s city center, just because there was a lot of armed police around.
The use of cash and cards in South Africa
Both cash and cards are widely used in South Africa. When traveling on public transport, shopping in small businesses or visiting rural areas, it is handy to have cash as cards may not be accepted. Be wary of carrying too much cash around. There are ATMs in all the towns and cities so use these to withdraw small amounts of cash at a time.
Calling abroad, WiFi and data use in South Africa
As I have a Belgian/European SIM card, I would normally pay roaming charges when calling, texting, or using data in South Africa. To get around this, I use the Solis mobile hotspot by Skyroam and buy day passes for the duration of my trip.
Aside from day passes, Skyroam also offers monthly prescriptions providing you with 4G throughout your trips. I’ve been using their daily passes not just when I travel outside the EU (no roaming charges for me in the EU) but also as a backup for when I think I’ll go over my phone’s data plan.
Check out Skyroam here.
Tipping in South Africa
Tipping is common and expected in South Africa. I’ve put together this South Africa tipping guide with guidelines you can keep into account when budgeting for your trip there.
A brief history of South Africa
The Portuguese first landed in South Africa back in 1488 and before this time there is very little documentation of what life was like there. In 1652 the Dutch arrived and this is when the nation’s history begins in earnest. South Africa was used as a pitstop as Europeans traveled around the cape to the East to buy and sell goods. This was before the Suez Canal was built.
In the 1800s the discovery of gold and diamonds in South Africa brought an influx of British settlers. The Dutch were eventually ousted and in 1948 the British started implementing segregationist laws that would later be known as the Apartheid system. In 1961 South Africa declared independence from British rule but it wasn’t until 1994 that Apartheid finally ended with the election of Nelson Mandela as the country’s first black president.
Post-Apartheid South Africa has certainly seen its fair share of problems and poverty is still rife, particularly in the former townships. However, the country has retained its strong cultural heritage and has a fabulous arts scene. It is also flourishing as a tourist destination, welcoming around 10 million tourists every year.
Posts about South Africa
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