South Africa travel guide


2 minute summary

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 its one of Africas only self-drive destinations, and its 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 arent your thing then Botswana or East Africa offer a much truer sense of the wilderness.
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 Africas motto: Unity in Diversity, and visitors will find that this is a destination that extends far beyond the traditional African clichs, 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

What we rate & what we don't


Our guide to the best & worst of South Africa

Underrated

Wheelchair accessible travel Real culture iSimangaliso Wetland Park The Karoo

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 dont mind being lifted in and out of the jeeps by the driver then theres nothing stopping you heading out on a game drive.

Real culture

South Africa may not offer the (often clichd) 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

Its not a name that springs to mind when planning a trip to South Africa, but iSimangaliso meaning miracle in Zulu was listed as South Africas 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.

The Karoo

In the rush to see the cities, savannahs and sandy beaches, South Africas 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.

Rated

Township tours Winelands Cape Town Anglo-Zulu Battlefields

Township tours

Crime, poverty and poor infrastructure have deterred many a visitor from the townships. But they are changing and rapidly turning into one of South Africas biggest cultural draws. Soweto and Khayelitsha host well-managed walking and cycling tours, with opportunities to meet local residents, learn about the resettlements, visit Mandelas house, sip a cold beer in a shebeen and provide much-needed income for local residents.

Winelands

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 Franschhoeks open sided Wine Tram through the valley for a narrated tour with tastings.

Cape Town

The newly crowned 2014 World Design Capital may be thronging with tourists, but you cant come all this way and miss Africas 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 Africas southwesterly tip.

Anglo-Zulu Battlefields

In 1879, the British army invaded Zululand and found themselves face to face with thousands of Zulu warriors. Today, the battlefields at Rorkes 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.

Overrated

Being touched by an elephant Playing with lion cubs Big Five Cape Town Waterfront

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. Youre 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 its not cost-effective to keep. To put it bluntly theres a good chance itll end up on a canned hunting reserve. Read more about this issue here.

Big Five

Ok, were 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 faade.

Food, shopping & people


Travel like a local with our South Africa travel guide

Eating & drinking in South Africa


Inventive 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 its 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. Its 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).

People & culture


South Africas 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 doesnt mean immediately, it means sometime soon. Now-now means slightly sooner.
Bring your umbrella if you get told its a monkeys wedding this Zulu expression means its sunny and raining.

Gifts & shopping


Many 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 worlds mohair comes from South Africa and youll find deliciously soft blankets, jumpers and rugs, dyed in the most beautiful colours from burnt orange (a Xhosa favourite) to deep plum.

Fast facts


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 cant as yet say whether or not it is one which has an entirely happy ending everyone involved will have a very different experience. Its paradoxical that Africas superpower houses some of the worlds most impoverished people; that exciting, modern cities sit a stones throw from unspoiled wildernesses; that its wildlife is free to roam the continents 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 ▼
Photo credits: [Accessible safaris: ] [Real culture: ] [iSimangaliso: ] [Winelands: ] [Battlefields: ] [Cape Town waterfront: ] [Bunny Chow: ] [Being touched by an elephant: ] [People & culture - Cape Malay: ]
Written by Vicki Brown
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