There may be no country on the African continent more versatile than South Africa. In one moment, you could find yourself clutching steel bars in the shark infested alleys of Gansbaii, while in the next you may be riding crests twenty feet high in Jeffreys Bay or trekking the lush canyons of the Mpumalanga Escarpment. It's hard to find another country whose ecosystems vary so greatly: from the biodiverse coastal beauty of the Cape of Good Hope to the desert wilderness of Richtersveld National Park and the coral reefs and marshlands of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, any adventure-seeker will find their interests well-represented. Except for skiing. Leave the skis at home. Should have warned you of that.
Which is not to say that this is a fairy tale vacation destination; violent crime is still a very real issue and a death grip of poverty and overpopulation exists in many townships throughout the country. The scourge of Apartheid is decades in the rear view mirror, yet dreams of true equality and opportunity are far harder to realize. Despite the much publicized gap between the have's and have not's and criminal element that results, traveling in South Africa is quite safe if you use common sense and have a little foreknowledge of where you'll be spending your time. Our city listings, which include Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Durban are a great place to start.
No matter where you choose to pitch your tent, there will be numerous chances to engage with South African culture. Tourist villages of the Zulu, Xhusu and other aboriginal societies will give you a taste of the customs and cuisines of these ancient tribes. There are plenty of township tours that give back to the local communities where you can get a sense of the conditions from which international figures like Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela emerged. You may also get your art and history fix, often with some unique perspective on Apartheid or Dutch colonization, in any major city (see their culture pages for specifics).
You could even spend your time avoiding cities. Sling your pack over your shoulder and set out for the Drakensberg Mountains or the Golden Gate Highlands or even the numerous multi-day hikes along the Cape (the Amatola Trail and the Otter Trail are highlights). Just make a point to immerse yourself in the real South Africa: the vibrant pulse of Cape Town's Long street, the exhilaration of a rugby or soccer match, the delicious Indian-influenced cuisine found in Durban, and the many monuments and museums dedicated to all that these people have overcome.
Even if you come here to scratch shark cage diving or bungee jumping or “seeing the Big 5” off of your bucket list, you'll quickly realize that there's much more with which to pack your itinerary. View our adventure listings, videos, and further related information if you need help or inspiration.
Citizens of the United States do not need a visa to enter South Africa as long as they have a valid passport and are staying less than 90 days. The majority of first-world nations may travel to South Africa without a visa, although if you are concerned about your eligibility you may check with the Department of Home Affairs.
South Africa's currency is the Rand. The current rate of exchange can be found here.
South Africa's government is based on a constitutional democracy. The President is both head of state and head of government, while the Ministers are the executive heads of important government departments. Legislative authority belongs to the Parliament, which is made up of the National Assembly and the National Council of Provinces, while the highest judicial courts are the Constitutional Court (for constitutional matters) and the Supreme Court of Appeal (for non-constitutional matters). Since the hope and optimism that reigned when Nelson Mandela took office in 1994 and effectively brought Apartheid to a close, there has been little progress by the government in erasing economic gaps between the have's and have-not's. There have been recent steps to fight the prevalence of bribery and corruption at all levels with an anti-corruption bureau, but at this point the battle looks uphill.
With an incredible eleven official languages (yup, you read that right; no need to clean your glasses), South Africa is the type of country that has earned its status as a rainbow nation. And although native languages like Zulu, Afrikaans (derived from Dutch), Sotho, Xhosa, and Swazi are spoken in the home, English is the dominant language of business, government, and media. Travelers to metropolitan areas like Cape Town or Johannesburg will have no trouble reading signs or menus or communicating with the locals, while there may be some issue if you're entering rural townships.
Crime and Safety:
Statistically, South Africa is one of the highest centers of crime in the world. You can't really sugarcoat that... the numbers for violent crimes like rape and assault are outrageous, while petty crimes like theft and car-jacking are all too common. Even since the end of Apartheid in the 1990's, the ubiquity of economic, social, and racial disparity between the shanty houses of townships and the electric fence perimeters of gated communities, the legitimization of violence and sexual coercion as “normal” ways of life, and the corruption of law enforcement and local government have continued to create conditions for extreme levels of crime. Still, we're not going to go as far as to tell you not to go to South Africa. Despite these horrifying statements, there are plenty of safe places in South Africa. Even in Johannesburg, a city that identifies with the criminal element, there are plenty of secure areas where the last thing you'll need to worry about is violent crime. Do your research and know what neighborhoods to avoid while making sure to take the same precautions you would take in any other country. That means leaving your valuables in your hotel room safe, being aware of your surroundings at ATM's or in poorly lit areas, and avoiding public buses. If you have a rental car, keep it locked and tuck your bags out of sight, while also taking advantage of guarded parking when possible. All of this being said, the overwhelming majority of travelers to South Africa do not have issue with crime. For more information on race in South Africa, this article is an excellent resource. For more safety information on traveling to South Africa, this is an excellent US government resource.
Modes of Transportation:
South Africa is served by a strong transportation infrastructure that includes a number of major airports in metropolitan areas, narrow-gauge railways that connect the large cities, and freeways that traverse the country. If you are looking to travel long distances across the country, there are a number of viable options. Booking a flight is the fastest, but it is also moderately expensive (for example, a one-way flight from Cape Town to Durban will run about $150 USD in the off-season). Trains are a comfortable and safe way to get between cities like Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, Durban, and Johannesburg, but they take time. Basic one-way, off-season fares for tourist class sleepers go for just under $200 USD between Johannesburg and Cape town through Shosholoza Meyl. Then again, you may just want to rent a car and enjoy the freedom of the open road; a cheap compact car can run you as low as $20 USD a day. This may be your cheapest and most convenient option. If you're looking to get around on a local level, we suggest avoiding the minibus taxis and public transport buses that are everywhere. There have been reports of criminal activities related to these modes of travel; although it may cost a little more, we suggest calling a metered taxi because it's generally safer.
Much of South Africa benefits from a subtropical climate, making for warm, sunny summers (October to February) and generally mild winters, while the Western Cape possesses a Mediterranean climate due to the moderating Benguela Current off of the ocean and inland cities like Johannesburg enjoy cooler temperatures due high elevation. It rains a little more than half of the international average during the year, with the majority of it coming during the summer, except on the Western Cape, when it is more prevalent in winter.
Eating and Tipping:
Tipping service personnel is a common practice throughout South Africa. 10-15% of the bill is the going rate for servers, while gas station workers and parking lot attendants expect 2-5 Rand, porters should see about 10 Rand, and tour guides and taxi drivers appreciate a 10% tip for their services. Meal times are basically the same as in the United States, although dinner will usually occur after 7pm. Etiquette will vary greatly, whether you are eating out in an urban area (much more Westernized) or if you are eating with a traditional South African family. Even then, there are multiple native cultures in South Africa, so following your hosts' lead is a great way to avoid issue.
South Africa has a strong relationship with its alcohol. The people consume the most beer out of any country on the African continent, and the wineries that exist mainly around the Western Cape are annually among the ten highest producers in the world. Beer has been made in South Africa for centuries, with local varieties made from sorghum or maize predating European colonization. Today, brewing giant SAB (South African Breweries) owns the market with beers like Castle and Carling Black Label, while there are dozens of microbreweries around the country that put out a quality product (Shongweni Brewery and Nottingham Road Brewery KwaZulu-Natal, the resurgent Cape Town craft beer scene led by Mitchell's and Devil's Peak). Wine aficionados will have their interest piqued by the South Africa's fertile southwest, where the Stellenbosch, Constantia, and Paarl have long been the heart of the country's wine production. Sauvignon Blanc, Shiraz, Chardonnay, and a number of other popular wine styles can be found here in high volume. Lastly, South Africa is known for a liqueur that has begun to make waves internationally: Amarula. Made from the fruit of the marula tree, as well as sugar and cream, the liqueur is notable as a favorite food of elephants and has benefited from elephant-related marketing. The minimum drinking age is 18 years old.
Interesting Cultural Fact:
Vilakazi Street in Soweto is the only road in the world where two Nobel Prize winners, Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, have lived.
Peak season:November through March
Language:There are 11 official languages, including Afrikaans and English.
Cape Town Carnival
Held annually in March, this is one of the newest and fastest growing festivals in South Africa. In the tradition of the carnivals held in Tenerife and Rio de Janeiro, Cape Town's is a resplendent affair, with colorful people and parades, wild parties, and a lack of inhibition. If you like the madness of 60,000 people packed in the street, then your travels better take you here.
National Arts Festival
The most popular and legitimate cultural festival that you'll probably get a chance to experience while in South Africa is held every June to July in Grahamstown. There is something for all tastes; from late night raves to cabaret shows, traditional dancers to amazing visual artistry. The flea market atmosphere is also one of the most diverse and culturally representative that you'll see. The nearest large city to Grahamstown is Port Elizabeth, less than a two hour drive along N2 Road, while it is a full day's trip from any other major city.
A 10-day Mangaung African Cultural Festival, Macufe is a popular festival held in Bloemfontein at the beginning of October. The appeal is largely in its variety of internationally-influenced music from major South African artists, as well as a number of authentic and traditional crafts, activities, and cuisines. This festival is about a five hour drive south of Johannesburg.
Hermanus Whale Festival
Fans of some of the most magnificent creatures in the ocean, the whale, need to do themselves the favor of visiting Hermanus. Even better, make sure it is during the annual festival at the beginning of October, when concerts and festivities complement the natural draw of the southern right whale, which leaves Antarctic waters for the warmth of Walker Bay. You'll see whales in droves and often from as close as ten meters. Check the official site for more info. This is also a great itinerary addition if you're staying in Cape Town, for it is about an hour and a half drive along the N2.
Based on the Burning Man Festival in the United States, AfrikaBurn is the foremost venue for self-expression and radical creativity in South Africa. Every year at the end of April, over 2,000 artists and revelers gather in the desert near Tankwa Karoo National Park to enjoy the bonfires, artistry, and burning effigies. Sound like something you'd do? Check out the official website for more details.