Best known for being home to two oceans, green craggy mountains, the savannah, spectacular beaches, and exotic wildlife, South Africa is a central hub for adventurous travelers. The abundant diversity of the landscape is home to some of Africa’s most famous landmarks including Kruger National Park and the Kalahari Desert.
From as early as 2.5 million years ago, human evolution has been developing on its rich soil. From the time of Australopithecines to Apartheid and today, the country has worked hard to build a better future.
With a population of over 60 million (as of 2021), South Africans are proud of their history and eager to welcome visitors into the country to share in their culture.
Sawubona – Welcome to South Africa!
Pretoria is South Africa’s capital and home to the country’s government. However, South Africa is unique with three capital cities. Different parts of the government each have their own capital, which adds two other official capitals to the list.
Cape Town is the capital of the country’s legislation and Bloemfontein is the capital of the judiciary branch. Each capital is important for the country, but Cape Town is one of the most popular cities to visit because of its stunning landscape.
- Culture and Language
- Spending Budget
- How to Get Around
- Top Cities to Visit
- Points of Interest
Culture and Language
Africa, as a continent has always been extremely important in human history because it’s where we have found many fossils of human ancestors, which have been dated back to 3.5 million years ago. While anthropology is an entire subject in itself, the history of Homo sapiens has always been ingrained in South Africa’s history.
South Africa History
South Africa’s more recent history began in the 14th century when the Portuguese mapped the coastline in 1488. By 1652, the Dutch East India Company established a port in Cape Town and created the Dutch Cape Colony.
In the 19th century, the land was found to have diamonds and gold. The discovery skyrocketed cities like Johannesburg to become more modern. A series of Anglo-Boer wars along with the First and Second World Wars also shaped the country before it was finally given independence from Britain in 1961.
Apartheid is one of the most infamous periods of South Africa’s history and it started back in 1856 under Dutch command. The Apartheid legislation was a governmentally established racism that formed discriminatory laws and allowed for segregation.
Under British colonization, the country did not change and the Apartheid era that’s most commonly discussed today lasted from 1948-1994.
South African Culture
Due to the blend of traditional, Western, and foreign cultures, South Africa is a diverse nation. Divided by region and the country’s ethnic groups, there are many notable tribes throughout.
The Khoikhoi and San are known as the “Bushmen”, while the Zulus were regarded as brave warriors. Other notable ethnic groups include the Xhosa, Sotho, and Ndebele. However, refugees from other African countries and Western ideology have also shaped South African culture to be the unique blend that so many visitors are eager to experience.
With so many cultures, South Africa also has eleven official languages. The official languages are a mix between native languages and foreign languages. Zulu is the most widely spoken native language throughout South Africa followed by Xhosa. But Afrikaans and English are the most popular foreign languages.
With so many official languages, most South Africans will likely speak both a native and foreign language.
English is taught in schools and used in businesses, so you will likely hear it on the street. Since Afrikaans was used during Apartheid by the government, there are many South Africans who still speak the language today.
It’s important that you consider your spending budget when you begin to plan your trip. Travelers can stick to an affordable budget in South Africa, however, be aware that the cost of excursions can make your budget rise. Other important parts of your budget include airfare, accommodation, food, and transportation.
Direct airfare from the US to South Africa will be a large portion of your budget with many tickets costing well over one thousand dollars. A direct flight from JFK International Airport to Johannesburg’s O.R. Tambo International Airport, a popular route, can cost double or triple the price during certain times of the year.
However, you may find that the flight cost is reduced if you stopover in a European city, like London.
As with any flight, the time that you fly can also increase or decrease the cost. High tourist season is from November to March, so you will likely see airline tickets increase in price during that time. Booking in advance or looking for deals can help reduce the overall cost of getting to South Africa.
Accommodation is another important part of your budget and it can be quite expensive, depending on your location. Most hotels around the country will have an average price near one hundred dollars. You can reduce this by staying in a hostel, which will be must less. However, make sure to check reviews before booking.
Airbnb is about the same cost as a hotel but it can help you save on the cost of food by having a kitchen for cooking. Be aware that your budget for accommodation will need to be raised if you plan on staying in a wildlife lodge.
Many tourists are eager to visit South Africa to see the big five: lion, leopard, elephant, rhinoceros, and Cape buffalo. Most of the wildlife lodges are full-service and include the cost of your safari and food. However, the prices can range drastically.
A budget price would be a few hundred dollars per person while luxury experiences will cost around one thousand dollars a night. Many people are eager to go on safari, so that’s likely going to be the splurge purchase in your budget. With the cost of a safari being higher, you can save money by spending less on your food and drink.
South African Food
Food and wine in South Africa are pretty famous and many are eager to try the cuisine. There are a variety of cultural influences on the local dishes, but some of the most popular include chakalaka (a bean and vegetable dish), biltong (cured meat, like beef jerky), potjiekos (similar to stew), and Durban chicken curry.
South Africa is also known for their wine like the Wildeberg White and Painted Wolf. Most wine is affordable, and you can purchase a bottle for a modest price. Moreover, you can find some bottles for a few dollars that still taste delicious.
Beer is also affordable and will likely cost a few dollars. Café Caprice is a popular spot in Cape Town that is often regarded as one of the city’s best bars, especially with its beachfront location. However, if you purchase from a grocery store, you can save more money on food and drink by experiencing lower prices.
Safaris are a huge portion of the tourist industry in Africa because of their unique wildlife in national parks and game reserves. As stated, staying at a game lodge will be more expensive than a hotel in the city because you will be paying for a full excursion and accommodation package.
Budget safaris will cost over one hundred dollars per person and only increase with mid-range options.
A luxury safari will easily cost over one thousand dollars but is considered top-notch. While this option may not be great for everyone, those wanting to experience the best of the best may prefer spending more.
How to Get Around
Transportation is also important to consider because there are likely different areas in South Africa that you’ll want to visit. Pretoria and Johannesburg are situated next to each other, but if you want to visit Durban or Cape Town, you’ll have to travel further.
Top attractions like Kruger National Park are located in the north or more inland from the coast.
Buses, Taxis, and Shuttles
The bus is a reliable way to travel, though it does have its drawbacks. Greyhound operates in the country, though Baz Bus is the best for short journeys. The drawbacks to traveling by bus are that they tend to follow the most popular routes for tourist destinations, which might limit those who want to see less commonly visited areas.
The bus is also only great for getting from certain city destinations to the next. If there’s a specific excursion you wish to see, you’ll have to find a taxi or shuttle to take you the rest of the way. Bus reservations tend to fill up quickly during the tourist season, so book your tickets in advance.
If spending hours on a bus is not your preference, Mango is a budget airline that has domestic flights between cities. With online booking and accepting major cred cards, many flights will still have seats open at the last minute that are relatively affordable.
If you want to see as much as you possibly can in a short amount of time and hit tourists and more remote locations, renting a car would be the best choice. Cars can be rented for a modest amount a day, and if you choose a smaller car, you can spend less on gas.
If you do rent a car, be aware of the risks of driving in a foreign country and take caution to avoid break-ins. You should never leave valuables in your car and follow the main roads.
Trains are the most affordable way to travel between cities, with most tickets costing a reasonable amount. The trains service most of the major cities and have routes between both coasts of South Africa.
Finally, walking is a great way to see a city or smaller areas of your destination. But do take caution in the streets. Petty theft is common among tourists and you should not walk alone a night.
Top Cities to Visit
South Africa is diverse, and each city has its own vibe and culture. With three capitals and plenty of places to explore, it’s worth visiting as many places as possible while in the country. To help you decide where to go, here is a brief overview of some of the most popular cities for tourists in South Africa.
Pretoria is one of the country’s capitals. It’s in charge of the administration portion of the South African government. The city is gorgeous with old architecture, green suburbs, and jacaranda-lined streets, which bloom in a vibrant purple color every October and November.
The city is considered to be more conservative and was once at the center of Apartheid. Now, the city is embracing multiculturalism and diversity fills the streets. Tourists can explore the museums, parks, buildings, squares, and botanical gardens for a day of sightseeing.
Johannesburg was once a 19th-century gold mining settlement, which expanded with the discovery of gold in 1884. The city is also called Jo’burg and has become a top tourist destination for the country after years of decline.
Famously, Johannesburg is where Nelson Mandela began his fight against Apartheid where he lived in the Soweto township. Now, the city is thriving with museums, parks, and a thriving urban scene.
Located on the East Coast of South Africa, Durban is a busy port city that has become a central tourist hub due to the subtropical climate and beautiful beaches. The Golden Mile is a famous stretch of beaches, which often attracts surfers, families, and water sports enthusiasts.
Just outside the city are nature reserves where you can see the wilder side of South Africa.
Highlighted by the backdrop of Table Mountain, Cape Town is a breathtakingly beautiful coastal destination where the sky meets the sea. The city is a vibrant blend of cultures and various people with different beliefs co-exist in harmony. Though not always the peaceful city it is now, Cape Town has had a rough history that turned into a prosperous outcome.
Many travelers fall in love with the city not only because of its vibrant energy but also for the blend of urban and natural environments. Table Mountain National Park is home to stunning cliffs around the city and the towering mountain. The Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden is a great way to explore the greenery in the city.
For more adventurous travelers you can hit the water to surf or take to the skies and abseil of the summit of Table Mountain. With a little taste of everything, Cape Town has become one of South Africa’s top cities for tourists.
Points of Interest
While cities are a big draw for tourists, there are also many different tourist attractions throughout the country to explore. Boasting multiple national parks, stunning landscapes, and chances to get in the water with one of the world’s best-known predators, there are plenty of points of interest worth exploring while visiting South Africa.
Discover the best of South Africa’s thermal springs to add to your itinerary, on our sister site, Top Hot Springs.
Kruger National Park
Kruger National Park is located in the northeast part of South Africa. It’s one of the largest game reserves on the continent and a great place for wildlife lovers to see Africa’s most iconic animals. There are lions, leopards, cheetahs, elephants, giraffes, buffalos, hippos, and zebras within the park boundaries.
A variety of access roads gives you the chance to catch a glimpse and snap a photo. In fact, the numerous roads make Kruger National Park one of the most easily accessed game reserves and solidify its popularity.
Most people have heard of the Kalahari Desert and if you’re in South Africa, you can travel north to see the dunes. A unique portion of the country, the desert is greener than other areas. A great place to take a safari and see the natural vegetation, you can try to spot lions while visiting.
The Drakensberg is the boundary between South Africa and Lesotho. It provides jaw-droppingly beautiful landscapes filled with lush green mountains and rocky cliffs.
The sheer mountains are named Drakensberg because its appearance is similar to a dragon rising from the land. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, tourists and photographers are eager to see the lush landscape for themselves.
The Garden Route
Stretching for 300 kilometers along the southeastern coast of South Africa, the Garden Route follows the coast and stops at some of the must-see natural tourist destinations. Popular spots along it include the Knysna Lagoon, Goukamma Nature Reserve, Monkeyland, and the Garden Route National Park.
With plenty to explore, the diverse beauty of the landscape makes the Garden Route a must-see for tourists.
Cage Dive with Great Whites
One of the more obscure and adventurous activities that Cape Town offers is cage diving with great white sharks. The islands located just off the coast of the city are abundant with sharks at certain times of the year. For those who want to get up close and personal with the power of nature, cage diving is the activity of choice.
There are a variety of companies that offer the excursion and most tours can be completed at any time of the year (depending on the weather). Keep in mind that the peak months are May to September.
With all the diversity in South Africa, the country provides tourists with exciting experiences in both urban and natural settings. There are plenty of picture-perfect views throughout the nation and you may even be able to snap a photo of a lion or two.
With a rich history and hopeful future, the country has become a top tourist destination. From the mountains of Cape Town to the grasslands of Kruger National Park, South Africa will be an unforgettable adventure.