I have visited South Africa twice in the past two years, and every visit has been unique and wonderful. As a result, I have gained some valuable information for first time travellers when visiting the country. South Africa is one of my top three favourite countries, just because it never fails to impress me no matter how many times I visit. However, first time travellers commonly have no idea what to expect when landing in either Johannesburg, Cape Town or one of the other major cities. So I want to make sure you don’t make any common rookie mistakes whilst there. As a result I have produced 20 things to know before visiting South Africa, to make the planning stage of your trip just that little bit easier.
Top Things To Know Before Visiting South Africa
Don’t Be Flashy
To be honest, I have never had any trouble with safety or crime whilst visiting South Africa. However, South Africa still has a fairly bad reputation for crime and safety issues, therefore I recommend keeping expensive jewellery and clothes to a minimum. There is no need to attract unwanted attention to yourselves. Don’t flash large sums of cash around in public, as again petty thieves will notice you’re fairly privileged and you’ll have a higher likelihood of getting targeted and robbed.
However, don’t let this put you off from going, this could happen anywhere in the world. It’s always better to be safe than sorry when travelling. Anyway, even if I was travelling to some of the safest countries in the world I wouldn’t bring my expensive items as I wouldn’t want to loose them!
South Africa Is Large Country
Some people forget just how big South Africa is! Comparing it to the size of the African continent it does look small, however it is the 24th largest country in the world! Bigger than the likes of Ethiopia, Turkey and France. Make sure to plan your routes carefully beforehand, as exploring South Africa can take months if you want to cover it all.
If you’re on a fairly tight time schedule, I suggest splitting up the trip either by Cape Town and The Garden Route or Johannesburg and north to Kruger. Although you can do Kruger National Park with Cape Town and the south you will be very tight on time and feel rushed.
This is one of the reasons why I love South Africa so much. Its full of so much diversity; with safaris, vibrant cities, skiing (yes you heard that correctly!), vineyards, canyons, the list just goes on. I highly recommend taking a safari at Klaserie Sands River Camp, it was honestly one of my most memorable travel experiences so far!
As well as natural diversity, South Africa is the land of cultural diversity. Don’t worry, nearly everyone speaks English so you won’t have any problems with language barriers. However, English is only the 5th most spoken language in South Africa, with 11 official languages throughout the country it is certainly home to strong cultural diversity. The most widely spoken language is Zulu, then Xhosa, followed by Afrikaans (which is fairly similar to Dutch).
South Africa Is Safe To Travel!
South Africa often ends up in the news for the wrong reasons. We hear about frighteningly high crime rates and the high number of people who are HIV-positive and we think that it’s not a safe country in which to travel. To dismiss the very real issues with crime in South Africa would be foolish, but smart travellers can enjoy trips to South Africa without being in a constant state of worry.
Like I have said previously, I have never had any trouble with safety in the past, and I have never felt uneasy or worried. I’ve hired a car and driven round the north of the country twice stopping in many rural villages and never had a problem. The locals are so friendly and will help you with anything. Even when you’re on your own, you’ll have an exceptionally good time, so don’t let the issue of safety stop you from visiting this awesome country!
One of the more important things to know before visiting South Africa is that in the big cities like Johannesburg however, it’s not uncommon for your hotel or hostel to suggest that you take a Taxi or Uber for just a few blocks away, which could be walked in a few minutes. They would rather you be safe than sorry, it’s super cheap and if they suggest this then 100% take their advice.
Theres More Than Just Safari (But A Safari Is Still A Must!)
Don outfits that sport every shade of khaki and beige and set off in an open-top 4×4 by all means, but be sure to leave room in your itinerary for other regions of South Africa.
I recommend visiting Cape Town for Table Mountain. Which is believed to be one of the oldest peaks in the world and is also well worth the hike or the cable car journey for unrivalled, panoramic vistas over the Cape Peninsula. The country is also home to the second highest waterfall in the world, Tugela Falls, and the earth’s third largest gaping canyon; The Blyde River Canyon.
The following safari lodges are my recommendations if you’re wanting a world class experience and service that is second to none!
Singita Lebombo Lodge: belongs to the most amazing hotels in South Africa just for the size and the hillside location of the villas, with unbeatable views of the river bed below. The outside terraces are a real gem as well. Singita is located inside the Kruger Park.
Lion Sands Private Game Reserve: Along with Singita Lebombo, the Lion Sands Game Reserve is one of the most famous high end accommodation options. There are actually four different lodges in the reserve, but all of them are simply amazing. How about dining and / or sleeping under the stars up here?
Klaserie Sands River Camp: I’ve actually stayed at this camp in December 2016 and it was a fabulous experience. Read my review here, the staff were superb and the whole setting is just perfect. The eco-strategy they practice here is one of the best out there, as they don’t take any guns on game drives, don’t lure predators with fake animal calls and so on.
South Africa Is One Of The Adventure Capitals Of The World!
My first trip to South Africa was purely for adrenaline activities; I bungee jumped, sky-dived, went on many bridge swings, you name it I probably did it in the 10 days I was there. I guess what I was just 16 when I did all this, Emma you’re crazy!
It is true, South Africa is home to many adrenaline activities from Shark Cage Diving to Tandem Paragliding to A HeliCopter Flight! Want some inspiration, here are a few of my favourite tours/activities you can do in South Africa:
Make Sure To Hire A Car And Road Trip
You may be thinking, no way! But honestly it is the best way to travel around the country. Hire cars are so cheap to rent at around 20 to 30 USD a day including insurance! The whole country is full of amazing drives, scenery and nature it would be silly not to hire a car. Remember to keep small change in the car for tolls on major roads and cash to avoid being caught between sparse petrol stations that don’t accept credit cards.
Click here to get the best rate on rental cars in South Africa!
I was also surprised how amazing the roads were! Better than England and Germany in most cases. They were quiet, smooth and so easy to drive! In addition, public transport in South Africa is fairly non-existent when you get out of the big cities. Taxis aren’t readily available and the country doesn’t make use of a metro system.
If you want the ultimate backpacking experience then I suggest you hire a camper-van during your time in South Africa. There are plenty of campsites across the country. This is a great budget accommodation as this serves as your accommodation too!
Check The Entry Requirements
Dull? Yes. But we’ve all been there. Making sure you know the nitty gritty entry requirements will save you a lot of time and stress when compared to arriving unprepared. If you’re lucky enough to hold a passport bursting with an array of exotic stamps from far flung, tropical places across the globe, make sure you’ve got enough space before you get too smug about adding South Africa to your enviable collection. You’ll need two blank pages to present to immigration when you enter South Africa.
Luckily for Europeans, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders and Americans, they can visit the country for 90 days without the hassle.
But the good news is that, once you’ve made it past the arrivals lounge, South Africa offers myriad unforgettable experiences. From the people to the landscapes and the wildlife, you’re practically guaranteed an extraordinary adventure!
Best Time To Visit South Africa?
When most people think of South Africa, they think of a hot and dry climate. But during winter, temperatures can drop to as low as 0ºc in the cities, and below freezing in mountainous regions! So make sure you check the weather forecast before you go, otherwise you may be packing the wrong clothing!
South Africa is a year-round destination due to its varying regional climates and wildlife opportunities. The Cape has beautiful hot, dry weather in its summer months between November and February, while the best time to visit for whale watching is between July and November, however during these months it can be cold and windy by the coast. The northern regions can be rainy from November to February, but this can be the best time to travel for birding, while the cooler winter months from May to September bring superb conditions for viewing big game.
Ultimately, you need to decide your primary purpose of travelling to South Africa, whether it’s for whale watching, viewing big game or relaxing by the coast in Cape Town.
South Africa Has Three Capitals!
South Africa is the only country in the world with three capitals! As such there is no legally defined capital city.
Pretoria is the administrative and executive capital.
Cape Town is the legislative capital.
Bloemfontein is the judicial capital.
Hotels In South Africa
South Africa is home to some of the best and most luxurious hotels in the world! Whether you’re wanting an exclusive safari lodge, wine retreat, city break or a hotel overlooking the ocean. South Africa has it all.
The following hotels are my favourite in Cape Town, Stellenbosch, Johannesburg and Kruger National Park:
Great Value Luxury Hotels in Cape Town:
Great Value Luxury Hotels in Stellenbosch
Coopmanhuijs Boutique Hotel & Spa
Great Value Luxury Hotels in Johannesburg
African Pride Melrose Arch, Autograph Collection
Great Value Luxury Lodges in Kruger National Park
Get A Power Converter/Adaptor
South Africa has very different plugs to anywhere else in the world. They are three pinned with a thick top pin, and are 15 amp 3-prong, with round plugs.
I would recommend purchasing one before you land, especially if you land at night, because if you’re like me I cannot travel without having my devices fully charged and my phone available at hand whenever I want.
You Can Drink The Water!
You may be surprised by this, but yes it is perfectly safe to drink the tap water across the whole of South Africa! Amazing right?!
However, if you are in remote locations or on game drives then you’re lodge or a nearby facility will probably have a water filtration system in place to make sure the water is drinkable. Other than that the water in South Africa is safe to drink so please consider drinking the free tap water instead of buying plastic bottles. If you are truly worried on your trip to South Africa I suggest investing in one of these awesome filter water bottles which removes 99.9% of waterborne bacteria and waterborne protozoan parasites.
Language & Key Phrases
As previously mentioned, South Africa has 11 official languages, a head-spinning mix of European and tribal dialects that span the entire spectrum of human tonal capability. Here’s a quick guide on some of the most useful and common words that many South Africans use:
– Howzit?: How’s it going, contracted. The standard greeting throughout South Africa, and the easiest and most immediate way to demonstrate that you’re paying attention.
– Lekker!: Cool! Nice! Great!
– Braai: barbecue or grill.
– Bra/bru: Terms of basic male endearment, along the lines of brother or dude.
Don’t Leave Without Travel Insurance!
In the past I’ve jumped between many travel insurance companies, trying to figure out which is the best overall. Last year I went with World Nomads, and haven’t looked back since. I personally love how quick and easy it is to get a quote, and it’s one of the important things to know before visiting South Africa . You can even purchase a plan with little advanced notice. Extend coverage online from anywhere too, or if you decide to extend your month long trip into a six month long one, it will be no problem with World Nomads.
Travel insurance from WorldNomads.com is available to people from over 140 countries and is designed for adventurous travellers.
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I’d add this tip: if you are traveling with minors (age 18 and younger), you must have a copy of their birth certificates (official copy is best) along with their passports. We were turned away at the gate in Zurich but luckily our neighbor was able to send us copies of the certificates!
wow this is an excellent point that I never knew as I don’t travel with children! Thanks so much for telling me about this!
Bring head torches! Load shedding is happening again so when we were in Cape Town we ended up eating dinner by candle light as the electricity went off from 8-10.30pm most nights (stage 4 load shedding). It was super romantic but having the head torches made the trip back to the hotel safer.
That is a really great tip and sounds absolutely beautiful 🙂
South Africa is lovely! Your pictures make it look magical and definitely a must-visit country. I agree this is such a huge country with great variety when it comes to destinations and experiences you can get from it. That’s why SA is an excellent choice for all kinds of travelers from adventure junkies to families. I enjoyed reading your blog and your tips! I would recommend this post to anyone who will be visiting SA in the future. Great article, keep it up!
Thanks so much, South Africa is such a beautiful and diverse country!
What a great article. This is very useful info. Thanks!