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South Africa is pretty huge country, there is A LOT to explore and lots to learn before you go. This article will cover all the essential South Africa travel tips and will have you well prepared for your trip of a lifetime. We’ll cover currency, timezone, health risks, the best time to visit and all the best things to see and do from Cape Town to Johannesburg.
I’ve tried to think of everything you need to know to prepare for a stress-free and inspiring trip, starting with whether or not you need a tourist visa for South Africa.
Tips For Travelling to South Africa – Things to Know Before You Go
The South Africa Online Tourist Visa
Depending on where you’re coming from, you might not need a visa for your South Africa holiday at all. Citizens of 48 countries, including Australia, Ireland, the UK, and the US can enter South Africa for tourism for up to 90 days, while passport holders from an additional 28 countries can spend up to 30 days visa-free. You can check if your country is exempt here.
At the moment, foreign nationals from non-visa exempt nations need to apply for a visa from a South African Embassy or Consulate in their home country for a short holiday in the country. However, the government is in the process of implementing the online South Africa tourist visa application that will make it easier and faster to get a travel document sorted before the trip.
Just make sure you check well in advance, to avoid a nasty surprise at the airport!
Essential South Africa Information
Once you’ve got your South African visa sorted, it’s time to brush up on some basic travel tips and facts about the country. I pays to know your surroundings where you’re travelling to foreign lands.
Population: 56 million in 2018
Capital cities: Pretoria (executive capital), Bloemfontein (judicial capital), Cape Town (legislative capital)
Currency: South African Rand (ZAR). Always make sure you have cash on you as some smaller shops won’t accept card. Plus you’ll need it for tips.
Time Zone: South African Standard Time (GMT+2)
Emergency numbers: 112 (for any emergency from a cell phone), 10111 (for police response only), 10177 (for ambulance response only)
Official language: South Africa actually has 11; Afrikaans, English, Ndebele, Northern Sotho, Sotho, SiSwati, Tsonga, Tswana, Venda, Xhosa, and Zulu!
Plug Sockets: D, M and sometimes N (so you’ll need an adapter if you’re coming from the UK or Ireland). Though most modern hotels will have a USB plus socket.
Driving in South Africa: Drive on the left. Mainly manual cars. When driving keep your doors locked and be aware. Don’t keep valuables on the backseat or beside you, make sure they are out of sight. In certain places you’ll find “car guards”, men who watch your car to prevent theft while you’re in a restaurant etc. Normally these men charge a few Rand for this service.
Taxis in South Africa: You can use Uber in South Africa if you have the app. Taxis are pretty cheap but make sure you use a metered taxi, or agree a price before you get in the taxi. The best bet is to ask your hotel or restaurant to call a reputable taxi driver for you.
Health requirements for entry to South Africa: yellow fever vaccination certificate (only for travelers coming from certain African and Latin American countries), comprehensive travel insurance (recommended). Other vaccinations and medications may be recommended depending on the areas you’re planning to visit, so make sure to make an appointment with your local GP or travel clinic before you go. Malaria tablets are normally recommended if you’re planning to visit Kruger National Park.
Health & Safety in South Africa: Traveling to rural South Africa often means having to protect yourself from insects that can carry some nasty diseases. Strong bug repellent, mosquito nets(though these may be provided by where you’re staying), and light, long-sleeved clothing are musts on your South Africa packing list.
Some parts of South Africa can have a high crime rate, especially petty theft carried out on unsuspecting tourists, so it’s always best to be vigilant with your belongings. Don’t walk around poorer areas wearing expensive watches and jewelry, it’s just basic common sense. Be cautious of unsolicited advice from people who just come up to you on the street etc, all the usual things.
Some areas are safer than others and it’s a good idea to check your government travel advisory for South Africa to keep up-to-date on where to avoid. Also, ask the receptionist or concierge at your hotel if there are any areas that you should avoid. Keep in mind though that tourists rarely have any troubles in South Africa and it’s generally considered very safe for visitors.
Travelling With Children: If you’re traveling with kids, the South African government recommends you bring a copy of the child’s full birth certificate along to present at border control. Although no longer compulsory as of December 2018, South Africa immigration officers still reserve the right to request a copy at their individual discretion. This most commonly happens in instances where one parent’s surname differs from the child’s, but it’s better to come prepared just in case.
The Best Time to Visit South Africa
‘When is the best time to visit…?’ is always a tricky question to answer because it always depends on what you want out of your visit.
May to September is the low season for tourism in South Africa, so a great time to visit some of the busier attractions.
Some other things to bear in mind when choosing when to visit South Africa:
- Summer is December to March, autumn April to May, winter June to August, and spring September to November
- Accommodation prices go up quite a bit in the summer
- South African school holidays (especially in December and at Easter) should be avoided at main attractions if you don’t feel like dealing with big crowds.
- May to August is considered the best time for spotting elephants and other endangered animals in the reserves and national parks, as the dry season brings the animals out to the waterholes.
Personally I think I’d take a look at the prices for travel, see when is cheapest and then weigh up the pros and cons. Though I’d 100% avoid the school holidays, that’s a general travel rule. But I don’t have kids so it’s a bit easier for me.
Cape Town or Johannesburg
Unless you have a couple of months spare, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to take in everything South Africa has to offer in one visit. Even if you were just talking about South African cities, there’s a lot to see. So here’s the essentials about the two big hitters, Cape Town and Johannesburg, and you can make up your own mind about which city you’d like to spend more time in. Of course there are other cities to choose from such as Durban and Port Elizabeth, but this article is already WAY longer than I was expecting so we won’t cover them in this post.
The oldest city in South Africa is also one of the most beautiful. Cape Town is one of the most multicultural cities on the globe, and in 2014 was named the best place in the world to visit by The New York Times. Accordingly, there is a lot to explore, but in general, you can take in the highlights in a few days (I recommend 4 days).
A good place to start the morning is with a tour of Robben Island, a small outcrop 5 miles off the coast from Cape Town. Taking in the former prison used to incarcerate Nelson Mandela, along with many other enemies of Apartheid, the tour is a moving and inspiring experience that gives you great insight into South Africa’s turbulent history.
The whole Robben island experience takes around 4 hours, including the ferry ride return trip, so there’ll still be time to explore the city when you get back. The ferry picks you up and drops you off from the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, a trendy seaside area which boasts a huge food market with a vast range of street food stalls, perfect for a lunch break.
Alternatively, take a stroll through the Woodstock district, a hippie neighborhood covered in beautiful street art. Stop for lunch at the Old Biscuit Mill, located in a retro industrial factory, which is full of great spots to eat/drink, as well as trendy boutiques and boho stalls perfect for some after-lunch shopping.
Cape Town is totally surrounded by distinctive hills and peaks, and your visit wouldn’t be complete wihtout a trek up one of them to experience incredible views over the city and one of Cape Town’s spectacular sunsets. If hiking seems too daunting, you can enjoy all the benefits of the destination without the effort by taking a cable car to the top of the iconic Table Mountain.
Before you leave the city, be sure to check out some of the incredible countryside surrounding Cape Town, including the Namaqualand flower route in the north and Boulder Beach and its adorable penguins to the south. If you’re a lover of a good glass of wine, though, head to the east, where you can find some of the best South Africa wineries amid rolling vineyards of Chenin Blanc and Pinotage.
South Africa is among the top 10 wine-producing countries in the world, and there is literally an endless number of gorgeous and decently-priced vineyards in the area that offer high-end accommodation, and tastings of their wares. One of the most popular is the Fairview Vineyard just a 45-minute drive from Cape Town, which has become famous for a very bizarre reason: it’s home to one of the first-ever goat towers in the world.
If you don’t know what a goat tower is, look it up and prepared to be crippled by cuteness. Although busier than other vineyards, the fact you can sip a glass of Shiraz at sunset while a pair of goats cuddle up in their adorable home in front of you makes Fairview worth the trip.
South Africa’s largest city has less of a ‘must-visit’ reputation than Cape Town, and a bit of a ropey reputation when it comes to crime, but don’t let that put you off exploring the vibrant culture in the city.
There are plenty of Joburg neighborhoods generally considered safe to walk around in, like the northern suburbs and the central Maboneng district. This hip and modern neighborhood is perfect for a long lunch in a trendy bistro, and, like in Woodstock in Cape Town, you can take a guided tour around some seriously impressive street art.
One absolute must-visit in Johannesburg city is the Apartheid Museum, a couple of neighborhoods over from Maboneng. You can get around this balanced and informative museum in around 2-3 hours, so it’s perfect to fill up a morning. Although it can be a sobering experience at times, it’s essential if you want to better understand the history and culture of South Africa.
If you feel like lightening the mood a little afterward, then you don’t need to go far: there’s an amusement park literally right next door. The Gold Reef complex doubles as a theme park and sort of museum/theatre highlighting the city’s gold rush past. You’ll experience period re-enactments and gold casting demonstrations. The variety of roller coasters and amusements are perfect for keeping the kids entertained for an afternoon if you’re traveling to South Africa with children.
Finally, don’t even think about leaving the region without visiting a pretty special place about 30 miles north of Joburg, the Cradle of Humankind. Some of the earliest human fossils were discovered in the extensive caves in this awe-inspiring UNESCO World Heritage site, and you can find out about the many archaeological discoveries in the on-site museum.
The surrounding nature reserve is also a great place to see some South African wildlife like hippos and lions if you’re on a short trip and don’t have time to travel to Kruger National Park in the north.
Main Tourist Things to do in South Africa
- The Namaqualand Flower Route in South Africa’s “outback” where you can see an arid desert erupt into colorful bloom in the spring. It’s a sight not to be missed.
- SAFARI! Seeing endangered animals like giraffes, leopards and rhinos roaming free in Kruger National Park and Kgalagadi National Park is a once in a lifetime opportunity. You can do 1 day safaris or even a week long safari. You can even do a safari on horseback. There is a safari to suit every budget so don’t think that you can’t afford it. The guides are fantastic and incredibly knowledgeable. Make sure you bring a good camera to get some fantastic shots of the local wildlife.
- Surf the world-class waves in KwaZulu-Natal. There are plenty of wonderful beached in South Africa that are PERFECT for surfing. You can even book surfing holidays to SA. Beaches like Jeffreys Bay (J Bay), the Bay of Plenty and Big Bay are all popular surf spots, to mention a few. And don’t worry too much about sharks, they have alarm systems that sound when a shark has been spotted in the area which gives you plenty of time to get back to shore.
- Dive with great white sharks. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Sure, it’s a little bit terrifying and you might need some extra insurance, but you definitely won’t regret it. Make sure you choose an ethical tour company. You don’t want them to chum the waters. Gansbaai is by far the most famous spot in South Africa for cage diving. May to August is the best time to see great whites, but there is a possibility of seeing them year round.
- A Wine tour is a great thing to do in South Africa if you’re a fan of vino. Stellenbosch is a popular choice for tourists chasing the grape. Franschhoek is equally lovely and another great wine-tasting spot. You can do a self-drive tour if you have rented a car or you can book a tour departing from Cape Town. Make sure you try the unique Pinotage, a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsaut.
- Drive the Garden Route. This is one of the most popular things to do in South Africa. You’re likely to meet the same people at various stops along this route because most people stop in the same spots. It’s over 200km of stunning coast, cliffs and mountains. The offical starting point is Mossel Bay. Most people take around 4 days to do the drive stopping at places such as Knysna Lagoon and Plettenberg Bay (a great spot for whale watching) along the way.
- Bungy Jump! If you want a bit of adrenaline then the Bloukrans Bridge Bungy is for you. At 216 metres high it is certainly guaranteed to get your heart racing. Face Adrenalin is the company operating things there and they have a great safety record so you’ll be in good hands should you decide to take the plunge (see what I did there).
All of that should be more than enough to get you started on a trip to South Africa, and it’s literally not even half of everything you should see while in the country. But fear not if you don’t get around to everything; you can always you can always plan a second trip!
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