Two oceans, green craggy mountains, sandy 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.
But South Africa wasn’t always famous for travel and from as early as 2.5 million years ago, human evolution has been developing on the 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 56.72 million people, South Africans are proud of their history and eager to welcome visitors into the country to share in their culture.
What To Do in South Africa
Sawubona – Welcome to South Africa
Pretoria is South Africa’s capital and home to the country’s government. But South Africa is unique and different parts of the government each have their own capital, which adds two other official capitals to the list. Cape Town is the capital for the country’s legislation and Bloemfontein is the capital for 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
Africa, as a continent has always been extremely important in human history because it is 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.
However, 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 governmental established racism that formed discriminatory laws and allowed for segregation. Under British colonization, the country did not change and the Apartheid era that is most commonly discussed today lasted from 1948-1994.
All of this history has made South African culture extremely diverse. Many people will even state that South Africa has one of the most diverse cultures because of the blend between traditional, Western, and foreign cultures. Most of the country’s culture is divided by region and the country’s ethnic groups. 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 has 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 a native and foreign language. English is taught in schools and used in businesses, so you will likely hear it on the street. But since Afrikaans was used during Apartheid by the government, there are many South Africans who still speak the language today.
For US citizens who are eager to visit South Africa, you do not need a tourist visa if you do not plan to stay for more than 90 days. However, to be stamped entry into the country, you will need to meet a few requirements.
Firstly, your US passport needs to be valid for at least 30 days beyond your date of departure. You will also need to have 2 blank visa pages, consecutively, in your passport to receive your stamps. For your health, you will need a recent yellow fever vaccination that was administered within 10 days, if you are traveling from a WHO designated yellow fever country. Malaria and typhoid are also prevalent in South Africa, which you may want to discuss preventative treatments with your physician. It is recommended that you are up to date on all vaccinations before you travel.
If you have met all the requirements, you can arrive at any port of entry to be given your stamp and there is not visa fee for US tourists. However, you may be asked to provide proof of a return ticket or sufficient funds for the duration of your stay.
For families traveling to South Africa, the entry process is a little more complicated. For any minors (under 18 years old) who are accompanied by both parents for their trip, they will need to provide an unabridged birth certificate upon both entry and exit of South Africa. If you are traveling with your children and they are only accompanied by one parent, you will need to provide the unabridged birth certificate along with and parental consent affidavit.
The non-travelling parent must complete this affidavit, which acknowledges that they give permission for the child to travel. The affidavit needs to be certified and you must include a copy of the non-traveling parent’s passport. All of these document requirements for children are to prevent human trafficking.
Now that you understand the visa process, you may be eager to explore South Africa, but first, it is important that you consider your spending budget when you begin to plan your trip. Travelers can stick to an affordable budget in South Africa but be aware that the cost of excursions can make your budget rise. Other important parts of your budget include the airfare, accommodation, food, and drink. Transportation is also essential, but we will cover that in the next section.
Direct airfare from the US to South Africa will be a large portion of your budget with many tickets costing well over $1000 US dollars. A direct flight from JFK International Airport to Johannesburg, South Africa is one of the most popular flight paths chosen but during certain times of the year, can cost up to $3,000 US dollars. 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. However, the further ahead you plan your trip and book your ticket can help reduce the cost. Airlines may also have special deals with lower ticket prices.
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 of about $80 US dollars per night. You can reduce the price by staying in a hostel, which will cost about $25 US dollars per night, but be aware of the hostel’s quality and reviews. Airbnb is about the same cost of a hotel, $80 US dollars per night but it can help you save on the cost of food by having a kitchen for cooking.
But 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. Many of the wildlife lodges do include full service, which includes the cost of going on safari and your food. However, the prices can range drastically. A budget price would be about $200 US dollars per night and per person. Other people are willing to spend about $1000 US dollars per night and per person for a luxury experience.
Many people are eager to go on safari, so that is likely going to be the splurge purchase in your budget. But with the cost of a safari being higher, you can save money by spending less on your food and drink. Food and wine in South Africa are pretty famous and many are eager to try a new 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. An affordable budget that many travelers spend is $20 US dollars per day for meals.
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 $15 US dollars. However, other wines may be sold for as little as $5 US dollars and still have a great taste. Beer is also affordable, if wine isn’t your taste and will likely cost about $2 US dollars per bottle. Café Caprice is a popular bar in Cape Town that is often regarded as one of the city’s best bars 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 for Africa because of their unique wildlife in national parks and game reserves. As we stated above, 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 about $150 US dollars per person. A mid-range budget would be about $350 US dollars per person, whereas a high budget would be $1000 US dollars or more per person. There are plenty of safaris that are priced well over $2000 US dollars per person and those are considered to be a luxury service.
Overall, you should expect to spend about $160 US dollars per person and per day for a trip. This price includes all of the portions of the budget we discussed above. However, if you want a luxury experience, expect to spend thousands per day and person, based on where you stay and where you eat.
How to Get Around
Transportation is also important to consider because there are likely different areas in South Africa that you will want to visit. Pretoria and Johannesburg 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.
The bus is a reliable way to travel, though it does have its drawbacks. Greyhound operates in the country, but Baz Bus is the best for short journeys. A ticket on Baz Bus ranges from $30-$40 US dollars. However, if you are going further like from Durban to Cape Town, a ticket will cost about $56 US dollars. The drawbacks to traveling by bus are that they tend to follow the most popular routes for tourist destinations, which off the beaten path travelers may not want to follow.
The bus is also only great for getting from certain city destinations to the next. If there is a specific excursion you wish to see, you will 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 and Kulula are two budget airlines that have domestic flights between cities. Both airlines have online booking and accept any major credit card. Many flights will still have seats open at the last minute and they are relatively affordable. A ticket from Johannesburg to Durban is about $70 US dollars.
If you want to see as much as you possibly can in a short amount of time and hit tourist and more remote locations, renting a car would be the best choice. Cars can be rented for about $20 US dollars per day. That budget would give you a smaller car with better gas mileage. 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 about $30 US dollars. The trains service most of the major cities and have routes between both coasts of South Africa.
Finally, walking a 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 amongst tourists and you should not walk alone a night.
Top Places to Visit: Cities
South Africa is diverse, and each city has its own vibe and culture. Here, we will give a brief overview of some of the most popular cities that tourists explore in South Africa.
Pretoria is one of the country’s capitals, which is 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 sport 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 city where the sky meets the sea. The city is a vibrant blend of culture where various people and 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 Cape Town, not only because of the vibrant energy the city has but also for the blend of urban and natural environments.
The Table Mountain National Park is home to the infamous cliffs around the city and the towering mountain. The Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden is a great way to explore 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 points of interest throughout the country to explore.
Kruger National Park
Kruger National Park is located in the northeast part of South Africa. It is also one of the largest game reserves in Africa. For the wildlife lovers, the park is the top destination to see the most iconic animals of the African safari. There are lions, leopards, cheetahs, elephants, giraffes, buffalos, hippos, and zebras within the park boundaries and 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 solidifies its popularity.
Most people know the Kalahari Desert and if you are in South Africa, you can travel north to see the dunes. But what makes the Kalahari Desert unique in South Africa is that the portion within the country is greener. There is vegetation and because of the plant life, there are safari excursions available that give you the change to see the elusive Kalahari Desert lions.
The Drakensberg is the boundary between South Africa and Lesotho, but it provides jaw-droppingly beautiful landscapes filled with lush green mountains and rocky cliffs. The sheer mountains are named Drakensberg because of their appearance like a dragon rising from the land (dragon mountains) and it provides photographers with a stunning muse. Now, a World Heritage Site, tourists 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 stops along the Garden Route 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 Cape Town are often abundant with the sharks at certain times of the year and 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 weather). But keep in mind, that the peak months are May to September.
Get Out and Go
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 country 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.