From my personal & brilliant experience, here’s everything you need to know before planning your ZA trip. From places to see, tips & itinerary, here’s a complete South Africa travel guide.
South Africa is the southern most country in Africa, and one of the most beautiful. It offers something for everyone, which makes it one of the most popular destinations in the continent. South Africa travel can’t be defined by just one activity. From local wineries to beautiful landscapes to culture, wildlife and city life, there is no shortage of things to inspire and entertain you.
There are adventure sports like hiking up for some of the most breathtaking views, the highest natural bungee jumping site in the world and kayaking. The cities of Cape Town and Johannesburg are alive with culture, stories of political history and the juiciest burgers you’ll ever have! And most importantly, there’s some lovely scenery and wildlife that’ll give you a lifetime of memories.
I visited South Africa last year in February, for a whole month, and it was the most beautiful and memorable trip I have ever had. I’ve visited countries in Asia, America, Europe and Australia, but honestly, after visiting South Africa, I’m afraid to go anywhere else, because I don’t think anything else we’ll compare to its beauty, and especially the experiences I had with wildlife. I mean what else can top penguins? And seeing giraffes and zebras right in front of you? And petting a cheetah, feeding vultures and ostriches? Yes, South Africa has all that, and more.
So if you’re doing some South Africa travel planning, here’s a complete guide you need to read before you start making your itinerary. From travel and safety tips to places to see to budget & itinerary-making, here is my South Africa travel blog for you.
South Africa Travel Plan: Best Way to See South Africa
Here are some of the ideas on what to do and places to see during your trip. Your South Africa travel planning starts here!
Kruger National Park
Kruger is one of Africa’s largest game reserves. It is very well preserved, and people here truly care about the wildlife, which includes the Big 5: lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants and buffaloes. Plus you’ll also run into other animals and birds, like zebras, cheetah, hyenas, impala, giraffes, deer, bushpig, vultures, eagles.
3 to 5 days: Although the game reserve is dense, but it’s still very large, and has early closing time. So you won’t be able to cover all of it in a day. It’s best to stay nearby or within the game reserve in a camp, lodge, hotel or Airbnb. Additionally, there are interesting places to visit nearby.
One of the southernmost cities in South Africa, Cape Town is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, full of lovely beaches, scenery and so much to do. It’s famous for many spots, Robben Island, the prison that once held Nelson Mandela, the iconic Table Mountain, the colorful neighborhood of Bo-Kaap, the picturesque Cape of Good Hope and Boulder’s Beach, where you can swim with penguins! And many more things, plus road trips.
3 to 6 days: It’s impossible to enjoy Cape Town in one or even two days. On a tight schedule, you still need at least 3 days, and 6 days is preferable.
A 300-kilometre route of smooth roads that are surrounded by breathtaking landscape stretching out infinitely, Garden Route is a must visit if you’re for a longer trip in South Africa. It lies on the south-eastern coast of South Africa, starting from Cape Town’s suburbs, extending out to Port Elizabeth on the east. Wineries, beaches, ostrich farms, mountains, lagoons and picturesque quaint towns are strewn on this route. Plus, bungy jumping, kayaking and hiking spots. If you’re looking to learn a new sport like kayaking, there are sites like Globo Surf where you can lean the techniques, gear and more.
5 to 6 days: The drive from Cape Town to towns like Port Elizabeth, George or Knysna, which most people do, can’t be completed in a day. So it’s best to stay in between. Plus it’s a great idea to spend some time once you’re in one of these towns so you can relax and take it all in!
South Africa’s biggest city, Johannesburg has some interesting spots, and is also where you can start driving from, when traveling to Kruger. While the city has some interesting places of historical importance to visit , you can skip Johannesburg entirely (like we did) if you’re short on time. This will give you way more time to spend in Kruger, Cape Town and Garden Route, and make your trip less packed or rushed!
Total trip: 3 weeks
South Africa Travel Itinerary
Your itinerary really depends on what all you want to see, and how you want your travel to be spaced out. As a reference, here’s my own itinerary for 3 weeks.
South Africa Travel: Places to See in ZA
Kruger National Park, Hoedspruit & Limpopo
- Game reserve in Kruger
- Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, Hoedspruit
- Blyde River Canyon The Blyde River Canyon, Mpumalanga
- Hoedspruit Endangered Species Center, Limpopo
- Table Mountain
- Signal Hill
- Simon’s Town and Boulders Beach
- Robben Island
- Cape of Good Hope
- V&A Waterfront
- Botanical Garden
- Camp’s Bay Beach
- Muizenberg Beach
- Whale Watching
- West Coast National Park
- Mossel bay
- Port Elizabeth
- Tsitsikamma, Garden Route National Park & Bloukrans Bridge
- Stellenbosch Winere Route
- Gordon’s Bay & Lagoon
South Africa Travel Tips
South Africa Travel Planning
- Since South Africa has so much to see, keep aside at least 2 to 3 weeks. 3 weeks is a good idea (see our itinerary above for ideas).
- Plan your trip in advance to make sure you go at the right time of the year, so that you can do the things you are most interested in. For example, whale watching happens only during certain times of the year. Wildlife is great almost all year long. Travel when the country is not packed with tourists to enjoy the majesty of wildlife.
- Plan your itinerary so that you can spend less time searching for things. We had a whole plan of day to day activities before we went. You can always change it as you deem fit. It’s better to have some plan than no plan. Pre-planning can save you a lot of time and make your trip way more relaxed.
- Spend at least three nights in one location so that you can relax more and really get to enjoy the place. Don’t change your hotel or Airbnb too frequently.
- Try to plan your daily activities well in advance, so that you can book tickets well in advance where necessary. Such as for Robben Island, tickets may not be available at all times of the day. Same for bungee jumping.
- Plan break days before and after your long drives to relax and have some spare time because long drives can be tiring and you’ll need your full attention while driving.
- Keep an extra day for your favorite activities, such as we went wanted to go see penguins again and again, but we just didn’t have enough time!
Packing for Your South Africa Travel
- South Africa has a lot of outdoor activities from bungee jumping to hiking to kayaking and swimming. So don’t forget to take your swimming costume and a good sunscreen.
- If you’re going to hike or do other outdoor activities, don’t forget to carry anti-septic cream (in case you get small injuries from any bushes, like I did) and a small water bottle.
- If you’re Indian, you can take basic spices from home so that you can cook in your Airbnb apartment.
Renting a Car
- One of the first things to do when doing your South Africa travel planning is to book a car. The best way to see South Africa is by driving. So be sure to rent a good car.
- Since you will be spending a lot of time in your car going from one city to the other or around the city, especially if you’re going on the Garden Route, it’s best to get a car in a good condition. Something like a Ford Focus, Chevrolet Cruise or above would be a good idea.
- You want a car that has a mileage of anything less than 10,000 miles. If it’s anything above 30K to 40K miles, don’t hesitate to return or exchange it.
- Book your car and insurance well in advance before you arrive so you can choose one that you like. Plus it’ll save a lot of time when you reach.
- Book your car-pickup and drop right at the airport to save up on to and fro cab-fare from airport to hotel.
- The grocery stores in South Africa sell large containers of water, which can be way less expensive than small bottles. So keep a small bottle in your car that you can keep refilling during road trips.
- When driving, be sure to carry a stand for phone in your car for GPS and a charger, so that you can keep your phone charged at all times.
- Keep a small bag in your car with ready-to-eat snacks or drinks, since you will be spending a lot of time in the car, especially when going outside the city.
Where to Stay
- Airbnb is a great alternative to traditional hotels in South Africa. You can easily find great ones in the central, safe locations. Plus, they’re a great way to save money and get to know the local neighborhoods and locals. When I visited there with my husband, we didn’t stay in a single hotel and saved so much. We cooked dinner and got to know so many locals.
- Tourists have concerns about safety in South Africa and honestly, before visiting South Africa, we, too, had our concerns. It’s pretty safe in the tourist areas and basics basic safety rules apply. Live in centrally located areas to save up on driving time, plus they’re safer. Also read the Safety Guide for South Africa Travel below.
- The camps in Kruger National Park may seem tempting. But you don’t have to live in the game reserve camps because they are too expensive. Something outside Kruger National Park boundaries may be just as good. There are a lot of private game reserves. One we stayed in (Kumkula lodge) had great premises, wildlife watching and it was a lot of fun, while same saving us a lot of money.
Where to Eat
- Ask your Airbnb owners on advice for the best local restaurants and good places to see because they have great advice, and they’ll tell you about the non-touristy spots.
- South Africa is famous for its wineries. They have some lovely wine, so be sure to go for wine tasting in Stellenbosch and get a bottle for the rest of your trip.
Things to See & Do
- Kruger is a must-visit in South Africa, and in Cape Town, Boulders Beach is a must where you can see penguins. See full details above.
- Kruger National Park touches Mozambique on the east. So if you drive up to Shingwedzi Camp, you can be very near the Mozambique border. 🙂
- Many people think that Cape of Good Hope is the lowest point in Africa. However, the lowest point in Africa is actually L’Agulhas, which lies on the Garden Route. You can drive there from Cape Town.
- People in South Africa are really nice, especially the people of color, who really know how to live life and be happy! So be friendly to them and see how many great memories you make!
- The best way to see South Africa, or any place really, is to get to know the local culture, the local ways. One such way is to hike up the Table Mountain instead of taking the cable car, which is only something that tourists do.
- If you’re going to hike up the Table Mountain, start early when the weather’s cool. Carry a small backpack with you in which you can take one or two water bottles, because it gets very dehydrating to hike up (and down) for 2 or 3 hours.
- Wear comfortable walking shoes and keep your clothing light and airy, but also protective (from sun, dust and bushes).
- Don’t feel obliged to do touristy things choose your favorites for example we skip the Cape of Good Hope because it was too expensive and we found a similar Beach nearby which we could go to just for free. Three things may be more fun so just choose what you like.
Some tourist spots have tickets only for international tourists. So if you have a local relative or friend, try to name them and pass of as a ZA national for some money saving!
Souvenirs or Gifts to Buy
- South Africa is near the coffee belt and has a great coffee imported from other African countries. So be sure to try the brands and ask the locals on which brands are there to try. You can also get a filter coffee for your home. They make for great souvenirs for gifting, too. I got a pack for myself, too, and was so sad when it got over! 😛
- Ask the locals about their favorite places to shop, especially for budget souvenir shopping.
- Most street souvenir shops haggle a lot and may come down to 50% of the original prices if you bargain well.
- What would be the good souvenirs to get for your friends and family? Find local artists in a market or by the beaches who can give you really beautiful paintings depicting ethnic scenes or wilderness. My husband and I bought a few for our families and our own home, too! Other ideas include hand painted wooden bowls, carved wooden art, ostrich eggs and wooden masks, which are different from each African country.
Wildlife & Safari
- When you’re in the nature reserve, maintain respectable distance from the wildlife. Otherwise they might may get frightened and run away or worse – attack.
- Do not interact with the wildlife in the nature reserve. Just observe them from afar. Avoid feeding, petting, chasing, etc.
- Early morning is the best time to take safari walks and get up close with the wildlife. Always go with a professional guide so you’re safe. Plus, they also know how to find the animals. My husband and I went on on safari walks with the lovely guide, Dave, who runs Kumkula lodge, and we were able to see giraffes, zebras and deer just a few feet away!
- When driving to the game reserve, if you come close to an animal, don’t panic. Just drive slowly and quietly.
- If an animal blocks your way, stop and let it pass. Be patient. They usually mind their own business if you don’t bother them or make noise. Keep the windows of your car closed and your door locked. Don’t take your hands your head out of the windows, maintain the normal silhouette of the vehicle. The largest elephant ever just came and stood in front of our car at one point, and scared us! We did nothing, and thankfully, it just went away. Phew!
- Don’t get down to eat except in the designated areas or camps.
- While you’re driving around in the game reserve, it may be difficult to get out of the car or even find a place to eat as you explore the park. So carry ready-to-eat lunch in your car, for example sandwiches with salad and water.
- Some animals are harder to spot. There are many more elephants giraffes, deer and buffaloes in Kruger Park than there are leopards and lions. So the first thing you need to do is get to a camp and check out their map. They mark the Big 5 spottings daily. So check where they have been spotted, so that you can head to those places early.
South Africa Travel Safety Guide
The one thing that concerns many tourists before planning their South Africa travel is safety. Here are some simple tips to keep your trip safe.
- Most of the big crimes happen in the small towns, inner streets or poorer neighborhoods. So avoid dingy inner streets and poor neighborhoods. Keep your travel in good neighborhoods only, near the tourism spots where it’s much safer.
- In the big cities, especially around the tourism places, you just have to beware of the pick-pockets.
- Don’t look too expensive, rich or too touristy. Avoid humongous cameras, cash or expensive clothing. Just look normal and blend in.
- In tourist locations, keep an eye on your things. Don’t leave your stuff unattended.
- Try to be back at your home or hotel before 7-ish. Try to eat early or before 8 AM.
- Don’t leave expensive things in your car when you leave, even in the glove compartment or luggage rack. Keep your wallet or purse with you at all times.
- Prefer front pockets or cross-body bags to avoid being targeted by pickpockets. This will make sure that all your money is in front of your eyes at all times.
- If you’re keeping cash and all valuables in your hotel, keep it locked when you go out.
- Don’t travel with gold, expensive jewelry or other valuables.
- Don’t dress in a very touristy way. Try to look like the locals so that you’re not targeted. Jeans, t-shirts, skirts, tops and dresses are all good. But avoid excessive patterns, blingy accessories and loud colors that may make you stand out in the crowd, as pickpockets tend to target people who are looking or behaving like tourists.
- Avoid driving on the highway after sunset, and avoid stopping at random stops, as there have been muggings on the road.
So I hope my South Africa travel guide was helpful to plan your trip. Do let me know if you have any questions by commenting below, and I’ll try my best to answer them. And share your lovely travel pics by tagging me on Instagram @shilpaahujadotcom. I’d love to see them! You can see mine there, too! Happy traveling!
Shilpa Ahuja the editor-in-chief of ShilpaAhuja.com, which she founded with the goal of inspiring confidence in the modern working woman through fashion. Other than defining the direction of the magazine, she also writes about fashion & beauty trend forecasts, industry analysis, and opinions.
Shilpa’s work has been published in the University of Fashion blog and Jet Airways magazine. She is also an artist, illustrator and cartoonist. She is also the creator of Audrey O., a comic series that represents the lifestyle of millennial women. She enjoys creative writing and world travel. Her art has been exhibited at Harvard Graduate School of Design and the Aroma Hotel, Chandigarh and been published in Chandigarh Times.
Originally from Chandigarh, Shilpa also has a professional degree in architecture and has worked in interior project management. She is also the author of the book “Designing a Chinese Cultural Center in India”. Shilpa has a Masters in Design Studies degree from Harvard University. For feedback and questions, please email [email protected]