South Africa travel guide
With its stylish cities, fantastic roads, enticing cuisine and accessible national parks, South Africa is like a little slice of Europe tacked onto the tip of Africa. Along with Namibia is one of Africa's only self-drive destinations, and it's largely malaria-free. Even its notorious crime rate is unlikely to affect sensible tourists, making a South Africa vacation a superb choice for those who just want to dip their toes into the continent. For the same reason, however, if paved roads and tourist crowds aren’t your thing then Botswana or East Africa offer a much truer sense of the wilderness.
South Africa vacations seem to have rather been designed for first-timers, families and the less fearless.
They can explore its varied wildlife, fascinating culture and gorgeous landscapes without leaving their creature comforts behind. Although its tourist infrastructure is superb, it remains rough enough around the edges to give a real sense of adventure. But this all reinforces South Africa’s motto: “Unity in Diversity”, and visitors will find that this is a destination that extends far beyond the traditional African clichés, into something much more complex, fascinating and enriching.
South Africa is...
a taste of amicable, accessible Africa
South Africa isn't...
a voyage into the wilderness. Head north for your feral fix
Our South Africa Vacations
What we rate & what we don't
Wheelchair accessible travel
From self-drive vacations along the iconic Garden Route to game drives in its national parks, South Africa is a great destination for wheelchair accessible vacations. Operators can ensure that suitable accommodations and restaurants are arranged, and private door-to-door transfers if required. For safaris, if you don’t mind being lifted in and out of the jeeps by the driver then there’s nothing stopping you heading out on a game drive.
South Africa may not offer the (often clichéd) “tribal” experiences of other nations, such as the Himba or the Maasai, but what it does have is far more real and accessible without the need for contrived tours. Superb street food, diverse local music, cultural festivals and art fairs are great ways to discover genuine culture on your South Africa vacation, from Xhosa and Zulu to Coloured and Afrikaans.
iSimangaliso Wetland Park
It’s not a name that springs to mind when planning a trip to South Africa, but iSimangaliso – meaning ‘miracle’ in Zulu – was listed as South Africa’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are 220km of beaches to explore, winding between coral reefs and the Lubombo Mountains, along with wetlands, lake networks, estuaries, over 500 bird species and mysterious swamp forests.
In the rush to see the cities, savannahs and sandy beaches, South Africa’s largest ecosystem is sadly overlooked. The Karoo is wild and arid, yet astonishingly diverse, with succulent plants, mountain zebras and lions living amongst its plains, ravines and flat topped mountains which stretch out to endless horizons. Base yourself in the pretty, Dutch-style Graaff-Reinet or ostrich farming Oudtshoorn for easy excursions while on vacation in South Africa.
Crime, poverty and poor infrastructure have deterred many a visitor from the townships. But they are changing – and rapidly turning into one of South Africa’s biggest cultural draws. Soweto and Khayelitsha host well-managed walking and cycling tours, with opportunities to meet local residents, learn about the resettlements, visit Mandela’s house, sip a cold beer in a shebeen – and provide much-needed income for local residents.
The majestic scenery and Mediterranean climate make this one of the most picturesque South Africa vacation destinations. Wineries here date back to the 1700s, but for a contemporary twist on this traditional industry, visit one of the growing number of black-owned vineyards around Stellenbosch. Alternatively, ride Franschhoek’s open sided Wine Tram through the valley for a narrated tour with tastings.
The newly crowned 2014 World Design Capital may be thronging with tourists, but you can’t come all this way and miss Africa’s most vibrant, dramatically-situated city. A buzzing urban blend of bars, world-class restaurants, cultural festivals and museums sits comfortably side-by-side with sweeping bays, botanical gardens, bold baboons – and even penguins, on Africa’s southwesterly tip.
In 1879, the British army invaded Zululand and found themselves face to face with thousands of Zulu warriors. Today, the battlefields at Rorke’s Drift (where 140 British troops held off up to 4,000 Zulus) and Isandwana (where 1800 British solders were killed) set the stage for mesmerising tours, led by knowledgeable storytellers who bring the scenes to life.
Being “touched by an elephant”
Unlike Asia, Africa has no history of working with elephants. Captive elephants here work exclusively in the tourist trade – and to get them to “behave” around tourists, they are beaten and maltreated so that tourists can touch and even ride them. Knysna has a particularly awful example of this. If you want a genuinely magical elephant experience – go and see these incredible mammals in the wild. You’re in Africa!
Playing with lion cubs
A photo of yourself feeding a baby lion will wow friends back home – until you realise what might have happen to the cub once your South Africa vacation is over. Habituated animals can never be released into the wild, and when the cub gets too big to be safely handled it’s not cost-effective to keep. To put it bluntly – there’s a good chance it’ll end up on a canned hunting reserve. Read more about this issue here.
Ok, we’re not going to argue that the Big Five are not worth seeing. No-one is ever disappointed by a rhino. But we do think there is much, much more to a South Africa vacation than just seeing these species, and to miss the landscapes, cultures, birdlife, cities, and lesser-known species in your bid to tick off this list would be a terrible waste of a trip.
Cape Town Waterfront
The V&A Waterfront attracts more foreigners than anywhere else in South Africa – and with 24 million visitors a year, international hotel chains, shopping malls, overpriced restaurants and characterless cafes are jostling for a piece of the tourist dollar. Come for the views and free family entertainment at the amphitheatre, but be sure to dig deeper into the city to experience more than just the tourist façade.
Food, shopping & people
Eating & drinking in South AfricaInventive Durbanites created the ultimate takeaway food: Bunny chow. “Bunnies” are curry served inside a hollowed-out loaf of bread.
The intensely full-bodied Pinotage is a wine unique to South Africa, and it’s the perfect accompaniment to a meaty braai. Try and buy Fair Trade labels if possible.
Bobotie is a typical South African dish of curried, minced meat, dried fruit and an egg topping.
Finish off with a koeksister – a plaited, donut-style sweet. It’s deep fried, dipped in sugar and flavoured with ginger, cinnamon or cardamom.
One capital city was not enough for this considerable country; it has three: Pretoria (executive), Bloemfontein (judicial) and Cape Town (legislative).
If you'd like to chat about South Africa or need help finding a vacation to suit you we're very happy to help.
People & culture
South Africa’s many ethnic groups are emphatically unique, yet proudly South African. Explore this country through its culture, including gaudy Cape Malay houses, Afrikaner Braais, Zulu beadwork, Kwaito and Cape Jazz, and Khoisan rock art.
Robots are on every street corner - ‘robots’ are traffic lights.
Confusingly ‘just now’ doesn’t mean immediately, it means sometime soon.
‘Now-now’ means slightly sooner.
‘Now-now’ means slightly sooner.
Bring your umbrella if you get told it’s a ‘monkey’s wedding’ – this Zulu expression means it’s sunny and raining.
Gifts & shoppingMany craft cooperatives provide an income for disadvantaged people. Look out for skilled metalwork from recycled wire, cans and bottle tops – and even functioning recycled radios!
Naturally dyed indigo cloth – known as ‘shweshwe’ - has been adopted by Xhosa women as part of their traditional dress – as well as by fashion designers worldwide. Authentic shweshwe is still produced here – look out for trademark stamps.
Over half of the world’s mohair comes from South Africa – and you’ll find deliciously soft blankets, jumpers and rugs, dyed in the most beautiful colours from burnt orange (a Xhosa favourite) to deep plum.
The ‘Rainbow Nation’ has 11 official languages – more than any other country in the world.
How much does it cost?
Large glass of Pinotage: £2.70
Litre of petrol: 82p
Boerewors for your braai: £2.65
Cup of rooibos tea: 95p
Pack of Koeksister: £1.20
A brief history of South Africa
This story of South Africa is a notorious one, and we can’t as yet say whether or not it is one which has an entirely happy ending – everyone involved will have a very different experience. It’s paradoxical that Africa’s superpower houses some of the world’s most impoverished people; that exciting, modern cities sit a stone’s throw from unspoiled wildernesses; that its wildlife is free to roam the continent’s largest game reserve, while the people who campaigned for freedom became political prisoners. But great steps have been taken towards the democracy, freedom and unification of this wonderfully diverse Rainbow Nation, and every passing year brings new developments.Read more
More about South Africa
South Africa is definitely a year-round destination, with hot summers, mild winters and a climate that varies dramatically across the country.
It may be a cliché but South Africa really does have something for everyone - with winelands, wildlife, camping and luxury lodges - not to mention the culture, from vibrant modern cities to tribal rituals.
We've chatted to tour leaders, vacation companies and recalled our own adventures to pick out of top four things to do in South Africa.
Kruger National Park is one of South Africa’s most celebrated destinations, and rightly so, home to diverse and abundant wildlife – including the Big Five – over 500 species of birds and a great range of beautiful habitats.
South Africa is home to diverse landscapes, hopping with all creatures great and small, from the Big Five on game drives, to humpback whales that skim the coast.
Unity in diversity is one way that South Africa is trying to heal the scars of apartheid. Cultural tours in South Africa are less about the Big Five and more about the Big Nine – provinces, that is, each with its own distinct cultural heritage.
Towered over by Table Mountain, bordered by the Atlantic and Indian Oceans and on the doorstep of wildlife and wine country, Cape Town is way more than just a city.
The Garden Route delivers a diverse dose of South Africa in a single trip: dramatic coast and unspoiled landscapes, wildlife and cool city culture, game viewing and whale watching, hiking and kayaking.
Prolific wildlife, wild beaches, biodiverse wetlands, jagged mountains, Zulu culture and 19th century battlefields – KwaZulu Natal is dramatic, delightful and diverse.
Like any form of community tourism, township tours should be led by the people who live there, be sustainable and non-intrusive.
South Africa is the most welcoming country in Africa for LGBT travelers – with equality and protection from discrimination enshrined in law.
There is a huge difference between legal game meat and illegally hunted bushmeat in Africa: one is sustainable, the other drives species closer to extinction.
Incarcerated for 27 years for opposing apartheid in South Africa, Nelson Mandela went on to become the country’s first black head of state.
This is by far one of the easiest African nations to travel in with children, with plenty in South Africa for families to enjoy from comfortable lodges to brilliant beaches and amazing wildlife.
Read insider tips from our vacation companies - from how to really get under the skin of South Africa and where to see wildlife in Kruger, to the best way to explore Table Mountain.
Responsible tourism in South Africa has come a long way since the days of big game hunters and Apartheid.
Find all our South Africa guides in one place with guides on Cape Town to Victoria Falls, the Garden Route, Kruger National Park and so much more.
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