South Africa may be the most captivating country to travel through. It has vast mountain ranges, endless deserts, breathtaking coastline, amazing wildlife, and Cape Town one of our favorite cities in the world. You can take a safari in Kruger, climb the Drakensberg mountains, or sip world-class wine in Stellenbosch. To top it all off South Africa is affordable for travelers.
More than a year after we left the country, we still find ourselves plotting the day our return. There is so much to do in South Africa that it’s almost impossible to get bored of exploring. It does come with one catch corruption, crime and poverty are pervasive problems and it is something to keep in mind for any trip.
However, with a level head, you’ll be fine and have an enjoyable trip. After all, there are only so many places in the world where you can swim with cape fur seals, surf long waves, indulge on luxury safaris, camp under an open sky, jump off the highest bridge bungee bridge in the world, snap selfies with penguins, or get up close and personal with great white sharks. This guide to South Africa is designed to help make the most out of your trip and get you started planning.
- Languages Spoken: The most widely spoken language is Zulu, then Xhosa, followed by Afrikaans. However, just about everyone speaks English.
- Capital: South Africa has no legally defined capital city. Instead, there are three South African capitals. They are Pretoria (executive capital), Bloemfontein (judicial), and Cape Town (legislative).
- Currency: South African Rand 4 (ZAR) – $.
- Visa: Some nationalities are issued a 90-day visa on arrival. Check with your embassy for the best information. The visas are consecutive, not concurrent, don’t be like us and get kicked out.
- Weather: Hot and humid especially during the summer months.
- What to Pack: Depends on the season and where you are at. Definitely bring hiking shoes, a bathing suit, and a jacket.
- Malaria: Not a major threat in South Africa. In the rainy season, areas around Kruger and the north are at mild risk of malaria.
- Stay Connected: Vodacom, Telcom, OneCell, and MTN are the cell phone and internet providers. Check here for more information.
- Adaptor: You’ll need this adaptor in Southern Africa.
- Tipping: This is a tipping country and visitors should expect to tip for anything from a lunch out, to gas station attendants, to security guards in parking lots. Tips to car guards can be anything between 2 and 10 ZAR while 10% is the norm for waitstaff.
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Safari in South Africa
Our First Horseback Safari At Ant’s Hill
We’ve been fortunate enough to have some incredible safari experiences over the years, but riding through the bush on horseback was a first. The Ant’s Collection located in the Waterberg in South Africa has been treating guests to horseback safaris for two decades.
Safari at Jaci’s Tree Lodge in the Madikwe Reserve
For our first trip back to South Africa in three years, we took off into the bush to visit Jaci’s Tree Lodge in Madikwe. While many think of Africa’s National Parks for safari, there are some tremendous private game reserves such as Madikwe that promise to deliver visitors and unforgettable safari.
Accommodation in South Africa
Camping and Hostels (R60-R150):
Like much of Africa, camping is possible in South Africa at designated campsites. You’ll need your own car to get to these campsites. You’ll also find backpacker accommodation around the country ranging from $15-$30 for a bed depending on the season. Cape Town tends to fetch higher prices than other areas in South Africa.
Private room in a guesthouse (R300-R700)
We stayed in many private guesthouses and Airbnbs in South Africa. Including a few long-term rentals. The options are endless here and this is our favorite accommodation choice. We like to opt for full apartments when possible so that we can have our own kitchen and workspace.
Hotels and Luxury lodges (R1500-R5000+)
There are plenty of hotels while visiting South Africa. The most well-known brand is Protea Hotels which operate all over Africa. They are similar to Marriott in the US and are comfortable. Expect to pay around between R1500 Rand -R2500 depending on the season and location. Safari and super luxury lodges are in high quantity here but will set you back R5000+.
Transportation in South Africa
Johannesburg and Cape Town are the gateways to Southern Africa, and whether you are traveling to South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, or Mozambique you’ll likely have to fly to O.R. Tambo International Airport or Cape Town International Airport.
If you’re traveling to South Africa from the USA you’ll have few direct routes and will likely have a layover in Europe or the Middle East.
Greyhound, The Intercape, and Baz Buses offer the most reliable public transportation and cost anywhere from R100–900 depending on distance traveled. The Baz Bus is targeted to backpackers and they offer a hop-on-hop-off route that delivers you from hostel to hostel along the Cape.
We found the best way to get around the city is with an Uber. Uber rides in South Africa is cheap, reliable, and generally safer than taxi cabs. City buses are limited and not reliable.
This is the best option for getting around South Africa. A car rental will get you everywhere you need to go and provide you plenty of freedom. We didn’t find one place in South Africa where a four-wheel drive vehicle was necessary as roads are generally very well maintained and paved.
Car rentals in South Africa are affordable especially if you’re traveling with a group of friends or a spouse. We rented a car for three months to get around and then decided we wanted our own African car. So we bought one in Cape Town, which is also an option if you are traveling Africa for an extensive amount of time.
As a South Africa travel tip I want to note that almost anywhere we parked in SA was monitored by a “car guard” to ensure that your vehicle remains safely parked while you go and do your business. Expect to tip these guys anywhere between R2-10.
Chances are, as tourists, you will leave South Africa unscathed. However, the country has a high rate violent crime, rape, and carjackings so I wouldn’t advise hitchhiking. Most importantly hitchhiking is not a thing in South Africa – pay for your rides.
Food Costs in South Africa
Grocery stores are plentiful in South Africa. They are typically well stocked and have a wide selection of products. The main grocery stores are Shoprite, Checkers, Pick N Pay, Woolworths, and Spar. Shoprite is Southern Africa’s affordable supermarket. In American language I would place Shoprite about on par with an ALDI, while Checkers is like a super Walmart, Woolworths is up there with Whole Foods, but not quite as expensive or near as nice. We prefer to shop at Pick n’ Pay.
Resturants and cafes
You’ll be able to find just about any cuisine you want in South Africa – in the cities. Restaurants are affordable in South Africa due to a low value of the South African Rand. We were able to eat at the nicest sushi restaurant in Cape Town for R750 and that included a bottle of wine. Cafes are sprouting up everywhere as well and you can expect to pay R20-30 for a cappuccino and R50-75 for a sandwich.
If there is one thing that just about every South African loves it is a “braai.” Braai is Afrikaans for “grilled meat” and that’s exactly what you should expect from a braai – a bunch of grilled meat. Not just your typical beef either, but exotic things like Kudu, Eland, Ostrich, or Impala. “Having a braai,” just means someone is having a social gathering that is very similar to an American BBQ. We’ve become quite custom to the typical South African braai now, and it’s a popular part of the South African culture.
South Africa is a very meaty country, but vegetarians and vegans can be catered for almost anywhere – seriously – even in the bush.
Carling Black Label and Castle Lager are the most popular beers in South Africa. A beer in a bar will set you back all of R20. The Western Cape is home to the Cape wine region and produces world-class wine. Pinotage or a Cape Blend is the signature wine in the region. The best part are the prices a glass can be had for R30 at a restaurant, a premium bottle for R140 at the store, or a wine tasting for R50.
Things to Do in South Africa
Tour the vineyards in Stellenbosch
Just a 45-minute drive away from Cape Town lies one the best wine regions in the world. The wines around the Western Cape are some of the best value in the world and a wine tasting is at a vineyard is the perfect way to spend a day.
Stellenbosch has a rich history, gorgeous landscape, lively university, and fine restaurants to pair with your fine wine. Stop here before or after Cape Town or take a day trip if you don’t have your own car.
Swim with seals in Hout Bay
Hout Bay has long offered tourists the chance to take a wildlife cruise out to a small island just outside the harbor where 15,000 Cape Fur Seals reside.
Now the brave can now jump into the chilly waters of the Atlantic and swim with the furry animals up close and personal. Be prepared, as the young pups are very curious and playful!
Relax in Cape Town
There is so much to do in Cape Town that if I mentioned it all this travel guide would be neverending. Cape Town a lot to offer adventure addicts or outdoor enthusiasts; however, it’s easy to get carried away with so many things to do in Cape Town.
It’s easy to miss the easy things to do in Cape Town like a stroll along the V&A Waterfront, a visit to the District 6 museum, a tour of Robben Island, lunch in a sidewalk cafe, or a picnic in Kirstenbosch Gardens.
Bungee jump of the world’s highest bridge bungee
Face Adrenalin has been throwing people off of the Bloukrans bridge since 1997 and has every intention of remaining fatality free after 25 years as a bungee company. We both went and actually loved jumping off a 216-meter high bridge.
Go on safari in Kruger
Make sure to pack your khaki clothes and safari camera on a trip to South Africa. Kruger National park is about a four-hour drive from Johannesburg. It’s the largest park in South Africa and is home to the big five animals.
Not only is it perfect for safari, but we found it to be the easiest park in Africa to self-drive. Roads are paved, well signed, and a safari here is one of the most affordable in Africa.
Spot whales in Hermanus
Hermanus is the whale watching destination in South Africa, and with being less than two hours away from Cape Town it is accessible. It’s also where you can go cage diving with Great White sharks if that is something you want to fit into your South African road trip itinerary.
Hike up Table Mountain or Lions Head
If you visit Cape Town there is no way to miss Table Mountain. The impressive mountain defines the beauty of Cape Town and draws people in from all over the world. There are two ways to get up, the cable car or a nice hike.
Across the street is Lions Head peaking at 669 meters. This is much easier and quicker mountain to climb and is popular with locals and tourists alike to do around sunset every day.
Embark on an epic road trip!
In my opinion, the beauty of South Africa is best seen by embarking on a road trip. Car rentals are cheap in South Africa and the roads are in good condition. My suggestion is to start or end in Johannesburg or Cape Town and see all the in between. Great if you have a few weeks to spare! We used a Happy Campers campervan in Iceland and now the company is offer campervan rentals in South Africa.
Hike the Drakensberg Amphitheatre
For an adrenaline rush head up to the Free State and go hiking up the Drakensberg amphitheater. This endeavor is a full day adventure and not for the faint of heart.
Seriously the hike is hard and dangerous, especially in bad weather conditions. You have to climb two chain ladders on a cliff face to get to the top, but the view is one of the best in Africa – not to mention exhilarating.
Go surfing in Muizenberg
Muizenberg is a neighborhood outside of Cape Town and it is the heart and soul of the surf culture in South Africa. The vibe is laid back and multicultural.
There are dozens of cafes, yoga shops, and beach shacks to explore in between surf sessions. If you’re feeling adventurous then rent a surfboard and take a surf lesson. It’s a popular place for beginners.
Hang with the penguins at Boulders Beach
A half-hour drive from the center of Cape Town is Boulders Beach. The beach is home to hundreds of wild African penguins and visitors can get a ridiculously close angle thanks to boardwalks.
The cost to see the penguins is R65 and goes back to conservation of the penguins’ habitat. I promise you it’s worth it!
Oysters in Knysna
Dubbed the culinary capital of oysters and other delectable seafood, Knysna is world famous for its seafood. Better yet, oysters, which typically are a luxury item are rather affordable here at 100-200 South African Rand a shell. If you’re there in July make sure to hit up the Knysna Oyster Festival.