7 Things You Should Know Before Visiting South Africa

Mary Holland reveals what her native country of South Africa is like and the best things to do, from little-known wine regions, beaches, and national parks, to art and culture in Cape Town and Johannesburg.

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An aerial view of the South African city of Cape Town. Photo © Getty Images / Christopher Loh

As a South African, I’ve always known my country is beautiful and culturally rich, but it took moving across the Atlantic Ocean to make me realize what a knockout place it really is.

I now live in New York, but still travel back at least once a year, and every time my plane dips into Cape Town and I spot the monumental Table Mountain from my window, I’m in awe. Beyond Cape Town, South Africa has many exceptional landscapes and unique experiences. Here are a few things to know before you go.

1. South Africa is less expensive than you think

Travelers often assume South Africa is expensive because flights come at a hefty price. But, once you arrive, it tends to be very affordable, due to the weakness of the South African Rand.

While certain trips (like a high-end safari) can break the bank, there are many experiences that won’t. At most national parks, travelers can easily skip five-star accommodation and opt for simpler, self-catering options – Kruger National Park, for example, has plenty of budget-friendly accommodation. Remember, there’s also no fee to laze on the beaches or hike in the mountains.

When it comes to food (and wine), prices tend to be very wallet-friendly, and we tip between 10 and 15 percent. A fancy coffee like a flat white (we make very good flat whites) will cost you around US $2, and a glass of wine (we make very good wine) will only set you back around US $4. Some high-end restaurants that attract overseas visitors can be pricey, but all the major cities have superb, affordable options that cater to South Africans (who aren’t spending US dollars or British pounds).

Spring wildflowers bloom on a hillside in Namaqualand, South Africa.
Spring wildflowers bloom on a hillside in Namaqualand. Photo credit: Getty Images / Martin Heigan

2. The best time to visit South Africa

Over the December holidays (summer), hordes of foreign visitors descend upon the country. But the best time to visit South Africa is outside of the local school holidays. The spring and autumn seasons are perfect – not only is the weather generally milder, but you can snap up seasonal experiences like whale watching in the Western Cape (the season begins around June) or the blossoming of wildflowers in Namaqualand (September) along the west coast. Prices tend to be more affordable and accommodation more available out of high season – especially for those who want to go on safari.

3. Don't let Johannesburg's dangerous reputation deter you

I love this city. Many people are warned that Johannesburg isn't safe. And, yes, like many major urban environments across the world, it can be dangerous in certain parts and you do have to be aware. But if you stay in a reputable hotel in one of the revitalized neighborhoods and find yourself a knowledgeable guide, you’ll get to explore one of Africa’s buzziest cities. There’s a thriving art and design scene and unmissable historical sites that will easily merit spending two or three days here.

A guided walking tour in downtown Johannesburg’s Maboneng district (try Main Street Walks) will reveal cool galleries and restaurants; try an art tour in Soweto, visit the iconic Apartheid Museum, or spend a weekend mixing with locals at one of the many hip markets or pop-ups such as Victoria Yards.

Bikes parked at an outside cafe in Maboneng Precinct, Johannesburg, South Africa.
Bikes parked at an outside cafe in the Maboneng district. Photo credit: Getty Images / Michelle Dormer

4. There’s more to the winelands than Stellenbosch, Franschhoek, and Paarl

There’s no denying the Paarl/Stellenbosch/Franschhoek area has superb wineries that produce award-winning wines, but there are also other wine regions that don’t get the attention they deserve.

An hour north of Paarl lies the Swartland, a rugged wine area centered around the historic town of Riebeek Kasteel. This hot, dry region is one of my favorite places to visit and has become known for its handful of independent winemakers who produce world-class chenin blancs.

In the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, north of the coastal town of Hermanus (two hours from Cape Town), winemakers produce superb chardonnays and pinot noirs. I recommend spending a few days at the beach in Hermanus, then tacking on a weekend of wine tasting in the valley.

5. Kruger Park isn’t the only safari park worth visiting

Most people who go on safari in South Africa will probably end up in Kruger National Park. There’s nothing wrong with this, I’ve been there countless times – the park is one of the largest reserves in Africa, packed with wildlife. But it’s only one of 20 national parks and many reserves.

In the Eastern Cape, the scrubby Addo Elephant Park is known for its abundance of elephants. The lush iSimangaliso Wetland Park, a protected coastal area in KwaZulu Natal, is a great place for spotting hippos, crocodiles, pelicans, and flamingos. In the northern part of the country, the Kalahari – a parched savannah that bleeds into Botswana and Namibia – is home to meerkat, cheetah, and wild dog.

A family of elephants at Addo Elephant Park in eastern South Africa.
A family of elephants at Addo Elephant Park. Photo credit: Getty Images / westend61

6. If you think Cape Town has great beaches, try KwaZulu Natal and/or the Garden Route

Cape Town has a fantastic coastline, where inky ocean laps creamy white shores. The Indian Ocean (around Muizenberg area) tends to be much warmer, while the Atlantic Ocean (around Clifton and Camps Bay) is chilly. Both areas are undeniably stunning, but so are the coastlines along the Garden Route and KwaZulu Natal.

The Garden Route – a stretch of land that runs between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth – has a string of beach towns such as Wilderness, Plettenberg Bay, and St. Francis, with warm water and tawny beaches. The climate also tends to be fairly moderate, so swimming during the winter is possible.

In KwaZulu Natal, a hot and humid part of the country, wild seashores are in abundance. Sodwana Bay, Umhlanga Rocks, and Kosi Bay all have rugged beaches that are great for surfing.

A surfer rives a wave in KwaZulu Natal.
A surfer rives a wave in KwaZulu Natal. Photo credit: Getty Images / John Wilkinson

7. Don’t skip the lesser-known art, design, and culture

South Africa is diverse in landscapes and temperatures as well as extremely culturally rich, and has 11 official languages. There are some iconic sites and museums you absolutely shouldn’t miss such as Robben Island, the Apartheid Museum, and the Zeitz MoCAA.

But don’t skip the smaller galleries and museums that promote emerging creatives. Johannesburg and Cape Town both have a slew of brilliant spaces such as the Norval Foundation, Gallery MOMO, Southern Guild, Goodman Gallery, and Michael Stevenson. You’ll be wowed by the diversity of talent, and hopefully snag a ceramic or painting to take home with you.

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10 Comments

  • akilitravel said

    Great Information!

  • John Pinheiro said

    Love South Africa pity the accommodation rates go up 20% every year. Food prices have gone up a lot, fuel used to be cheap now very expensive so I would challenge that it is "more affordable then we think!"
    I now live in Australia and try and visit at least once a year. My salary doesn't go up 20% a year. Food for thought.

  • MALCOLM JACOBS said

    i have been going to Cape Town every year for the last 30 years, it is the best place in the world dec jan feb and march for a holliday, fab restaurants, fab people and fab value

  • rio vitenda said

    South is one of the most dangerous countries, or even the first most dangerous in southern africa. there's hijacking unnecessary lost of innocent lives. South Africa is a nightmare of a country. i stay in Namibia but I get goosebumps when I things about South Africa.

  • Jorrion said

    I was married to a South African lady and lived there for two years . I love South Africa as it is the most beautiful place in the world. The climate is second to none. The food is great . The South African people are very friendly. I was there from 1998 to 2000
    I went back in 2010. The cost of living went up sustancialy. I was never mugged or injured. You need to be careful where you are traveling and it is best not to travel at night. The South African black people are wonderful and friendly. I miss living there. I made allot of friends. I meet South Africans in the USA and they miss living in their country .we all pray that the situation in South Africa improves and that people of all races can leave in peace.

  • Grace weaver said

    I would love to come to South Africa but I am on a walker and I was wondering would it be safe for me to come there

  • Val davis said

    Me and my niece plan on visiting South Africa the first two weeks in November I just want to find out is that a good time to come

  • Kelly said

    Going there in the SA spring for the first time, should be exciting. I will comment again when I come back on how it all went!

  • Andrew said

    I want to go to cape town so bad. I want to meet a penguin face to face.

  • Charles Sampson said

    This post was truly worthwhile to read. I wanted to say thank you for the key points you have pointed out as they are enlightening.

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