Table Mountain from V&A Waterfront
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Ultimate Travel Guide to South Africa

The non-touristy First-Timer’s Ultimate Travel Guide to South Africa includes essential strategies for a first time visitor to enjoy South Africa and survive the urban jungle unscathed. These tips are priceless if you are planning a visit to any of the provinces and cities of the multi cultural melting pot that is the Rainbow Nation. If you are visiting Cape Town then this Local’s Cape Town Travel Guide is a good start.

In major cities the top hotels are located in areas that are relatively safe and well policed, although many cities have lower income areas with high crime rates resulting from unemployment and gangsterism. These areas are usually located on the outskirts of the city or in townships where many tourists are unlikely to visit.

Although it may seem like there is an uptake in reporting of violent crimes in South Africa, the average resident’s routine has not changed much in the way they live or go about their daily lives.

Communication

  • South Africa has 11 official languages but the common language is English and it is used for media communications, business and tourism. Less than 2 percent of the population speak a second official language.

Before you travel

  • If you are a passport holder of a country or territory that does not enjoy visa exempt status then ensure that your entry visa is issued before arriving at the South African port of entry. The official list of countries exempt from South African visas is available here and is subject to change without notice.
  • If you are a parent travelling alone with minor children please ensure that you familiarize yourself with the requirements for entry into the country. You may read more about it here. Failure to meet the requirements may result in being refused entry into the country.
  • Before making any travel bookings make sure that you know the location of your main activities and book a hotel that is in reasonable proximity.

When to travel

  • The timing of the trip will depend on why you are going and which part of the country you are going to.
  • If you plan to visit a Wildlife reserve or Kruger National Park then the best time to visit is during the low season from May to September that are also the drier Winter months, when the animals gather at watering holes and along rivers.
  • The peak season in Southern Cape coastal areas is in Summer (December-March) and includes the main school holidays in December and January, when most residents take their annual vacation. This always results in higher prices across the board.
  • If you wish to see the Wildflowers bloom it makes sense to visit the Cape West Coast during Spring in mid to late September when the flowers cover the landscape like a multi-colored carpet. In 2018 the floral extravaganza started early in mid-August, and large swathes of the countryside along the West Coast are already covered in flowers.
  • If you are going to see Southern Right Whales then the best time to visit the Cape Whale Coast (Kleinmond to Gansbaai via Hermanus) is between June and November.

What to pack

  • Although many newer hotels may have central air conditioning or heating, this is not the norm in homes and small guesthouses or bed and breakfast establishments across the country.
  • Summers are hot and clothing in light natural fabrics are preferable and sunglasses are essential.
  • Many first time visitors underestimate the level of sunshine they will be exposed to and experience a fair amount of sunburn. Always pack a sunhat and sunblock or buy them at any of the city’s malls or markets.
  • Winters may get quite chilly and layers of warm clothing and thick socks are recommended.
  • It rains during summer in the Northern provinces of the country so ensure that you also pack a small umbrella if you are visiting Johannesburg and surrounding cities.
  • For areas that fall within malaria zones it is advisable to wear long sleeves and trousers and cover the exposed skin with mosquito repellent cream or spray.
Camps Bay Main Road

Arrival

  • Pre-arrange a hotel transfer from the airport or use a registered metered taxi to avoid being ripped off. There are taxi touts waiting at the arrivals terminal who will offer discounted rides to any destination. These touts may charge double or more the going rate into the city.
  • At Cape Town international there are MyCiTi busses going to the Cape Town Civic centre on the foreshore. This is within walking distance to the Cape Town train station and taxi routes as well as city center hotels.
  • MyCiTi busses depart from the airport between 05:30-21:30 on weekdays, and 06:30-21:30 on weekends and Public holidays. You can find the routes for the MyCiTi Airport service here.
  • The Gautrain Airport service links Johannesburg’s O.R. Tambo International Airport to the city via Sandton and Marlboro stations. Commuters can also connect to the commuter service operating between Johannesburg and Pretoria or 25 bus routes.
  • Monitor your luggage at airports and hotels and never leave it unattended in public areas. It is preferable that all checked baggage be secured with baggage locks.

Hotel Safety

  • Ensure that the hotel room door is locked when you are inside as well as when you leave the room.
  • Always check who is at the door before opening, especially when you are not expecting hotel staff or visitors.
  • Keep valuables, passports and documents locked inside the hotel room safe before leaving the hotel room.
  • Always keep a separate copy of all passports and documents where it can be easily accessed such as a Dropbox or Cloud account.

Personal Safety

  • When in a dangerous situation, ask a police officer, law enforcement officer or traffic officer for assistance.
  • Stay clear from dark areas such as dark roads and alleys even when there is more than one of you traveling together. Try to be back at your accommodation before dark, especially if you are new to the area.
  • Avoid walking around and talking on the mobile phone as it may distract from potential threats.
  • Be cautious of vagrants and be observant of suspicious loiterers at all times.
  • You may be approached by homeless adults and children or beggars for money. Do not be intimidated by them and tell them ‘NO’ firmly and clearly, if you do not wish to give them cash. If you wish to help, offer food instead or make a charitable donation to a registered charity.
  • Try to avoid dressing like a tourist in khaki shorts, sandals and socks. It is appropriate to dress like a local so that you blend in and are not a target for conmen or thugs.
Road to Franschoek

Getting Around

  • Ask for a complimentary city street map at your hotel reception or concierge or from your host. Most hotels have a variety of tourism brochures available for guests.
  • Do not ask strangers for directions and approach the tourism offices or information booths in the city areas, if you are unable to find your way around town using google maps.
  • Use public transport like the MyCiTi busses or private ride-sharers like Uber, for convenience.
  • The public trains and minibus taxis are a cheap transport option but should be avoided during rush hour traffic in the morning and evening as they are ideal places for pickpockets to ply their trade.
  • The Shosoloza Meyl is a long distance train service between Johannesburg and coastal cities that promise ‘A Pleasant Experience’ on their tourist class trains. The Blue Train is a luxury cross country train experience and is likened to a five star hotel on wheels.
  • There are open bus tours in a number of cities and this will give you a good overview of the city’s main attractions.
  • Take an organized tour or rent a car and drive out of town to see surrounding areas or small towns.

Self Drive

  • South Africans drive on the left side of the road and the driver sits on the right side of the vehicle. It may feel strange for those accustomed to left hand drive vehicles but is easy to get the hang of.
  • There are dedicated bus and taxi lanes on many freeways and you may be fined if you are caught driving in those lanes during peak hours.
  • If you on a self-drive tour keep the vehicle doors locked at all times when you are in or outside the vehicle.
  • Never leave the vehicle unlocked and unattended with the key in the ignition.
  • Be vigilant when waiting at traffic intersections and crossings near residential areas and informal settlements as these are favored spots for smash and grab attacks by thugs.
  • If you plan to visit a township or informal settlement please ensure that you are accompanied by a local tour guide or resident who knows where they are going. These areas are often gangster paradise and strangers may be targeted for violent crimes.
  • Do not open your windows to strangers who approach while you are waiting at traffic intersections and signals.
  • Avoid having handbags or other valuable items on display in the vehicle and keep them under the seat or in the trunk instead.
  • Do not pick up hitchhikers or give lifts to strangers.

Food

  • The Rainbow Nation has a wide variety of culinary influences and options.
  • From the Cape Town’s home grown Cape Malay cuisine that includes fragrant curries, stews and warming desserts. Favorites are Oxtail and tomato stew, Denningvleis or Lamb curry with Cape Malay rotis.
  • The Cape West Coast is famed for grilled or pickled seafood and the best vetkoek or fried bread, served with curried minced meat or jam and cheese.
  • Durban and surrounding areas is famed for Indian curries and desserts courtesy of the long established community of South Africans of Indian descent.
  • In the North beloved foods include Pap en Tik (Cornmeal grits with tomato sauce) served with meat or chicken as well as game dishes. They are also famed for boerewors (coarse barbeque sausage) and biltong (spiced dried beef or ostrich).
  • Potjiekos or meat and vegetable stews are cooked long and slow in cast iron pots over open wood fires.
  • The Zulu culture has many vegetable based dishes as well as fermented milk and grain based foods and drinks.
  • The most authentic Xhosa cuisine is said to be found in the Eastern Cape rural areas, although many residents have moved to the township and informal settlement areas of the Western Cape in search of work. Xhosa foods include corn, beans and peas as well as goat, mutton and beef.
  • Throughout the country there are eateries where generations of the same families of Portuguese, Greek or Italian descent have served up the foods that South Africans love and know as their own, whether it is Fish and Chips, Shwarma, Souvlaki or Lasagna. Newcomers to the food scene share the delights from Turkey, Syria, Somalia and other nations who have graced the country with refugees bringing with them the beloved foods and memories of their homelands.

Money and Foreign Exchange

  • The currency of South Africa is the Rand (R or ZAR) and the favorable exchange rate against most currencies makes it an affordable holiday destination for most nationalities.
  • Avoid foreign currency transactions at unauthorized dealers. Foreign currency may be obtained from banks, authorized foreign currency exchanges as well as the currency desks at certain hotels.
  • Be cautious when using ATM’s and never accept help from strangers or let your card out of your sight. Offers to assist may be a ruse to obtain your card or pin number.
  • Be vigilant when leaving the ATM or bank and check that you were not followed.
  • Avoid carrying large sums of cash when on excursions, sightseeing or socializing.
  • Avoid keeping all your cash in the same purse or pocket and do not count currency notes in plain sight in public. Keep a small purse containing a few notes and small change that can be easily accessed without opening a handbag or wallet in public.
  • Keep your wallet or handbag in sight at all times when you are in a public place and never leave it on the back of your chair or at your feet under the table.
  • When using a credit card for payment, ask for the handheld terminal to be brought to you or take the card to the cashier for payment. Never let the credit card out of your sight.
Citrusdal valley

Be Water Wise

The city of Cape Town and the surrounding areas are in the midst of a crushing drought and the population are under severe water restrictions. Municipal drinking water use is restricted to 50 litres per person, per day. This running water available to homes, businesses and informal settlements may only be used for drinking, cooking and essential washing. Residents are encouraged to recycle grey water for toilet flushing and other requirements.

As our valued guest we request that you apply as many water saving techniques as possible. These include:

  • Shorter showers limited to 5 minutes or less.
  • Using a cup or jug of water to brush teeth or shave, instead of running the tap.
  • Limiting bedsheet changes to every 3rd day.
  • Limiting bath towel changes to every 3rd day.
  • Even if your accommodation has a bath or soaking tub, please don’t use it as it will be at least one or two people’s daily water ration down the drain.

Now that you have the First-Timer’s Ultimate Travel Guide to South Africa you have an idea of what is in store. Should you be interested in taking a food tour check out our available options or buy a gift certificate for yourself or a loved one.

Have you or your family visited South Africa? Would you return and why?

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34 Comments

  1. Blair

    I don’t know if I will ever get to South Africa, these are really good travel tips for any where. Thanks for putting this together.

  2. Brit Strawbridge

    I have always, always, always wanted to go to South Africa! What a great guide for people going for the first time!

  3. Frank

    Great guide! I never really though to visit this area before but maybe someday I will give it a visit!

  4. Amanda Rosson

    Wow, this really is the ultimate guide! I love how you broke everything down and how thorough you were! I feel like I am so prepared to go on a trip to South Africa now!

  5. Kisha

    Hmmm….South Africa has always been one of our spots on our list of places to see and visit, but this list is a bit off-putting. I felt like there were so many warnings about safety that it makes me want to rethink even going at all. I’ll have to do a bit of research to see just how safe Johannesburg and surrounding towns in South Africa really are now.

    • Razena Schroeder

      Regrettably, I could have left all the safety warnings out and done our readers a disservice by not making them aware of potential issues and hazards. No one wants to be the victim of a crime in a foreign country, but it is far from being as crime free as we would like so extra precautions are advised. Rather be safe than be a crime statistic. Many of the safety tips are applicable in any country, not only South Africa and we are as vigilant when we travel abroad as when we visit a neighboring city.

  6. Nate

    This is on my bucket list for sure. I will bookmark this and save for later. Very useful!

  7. Maartje van Sandwijk

    I would love to go to South Africa someday! This is an amazing guide! 🙂

  8. Woodeline

    Literally thank you for sharing this guide. South Africa especially Cape town been on my travel bucket list. I will save this

  9. Ching

    This is seriously the best guide ever! It is so comprehensive, I don’t even feel like I’d be lost if I ever went to South Africa! Great job!

    • Razena Schroeder

      Haha thank you for the kind words Ching! I feel like sometimes travellers are not necessarily aware of local conditions and a little bit of help goes a long way to keep them safe and happy on their trip.

  10. Marcie

    That’s a good tip about dressing like a local. I always cringe when I see socks and sandals, cameras around the neck, and obvious travel items.

    • Razena Schroeder

      Urghhh you have no idea how people who dress like they do in their own home town stick out like a sore thumb in a different city. Unfortunately, bad taste in footwear aside, this also makes them immediate targets for thieves or con artists.

  11. Surekha Busa

    Such a nice post and what a great guide to give to those who are planning to visit this place most especially to those first timer like me. I will save this post as my reference.

  12. Clare Minall

    Oh wow, I’m not sure I could ever leave that place. It is absolutely the most gorgeous place I’ve ever seen.

  13. Helen Neale

    I have never been to South Africa and I can say that this is a perfect destination getaway for the whole tribe. I will def add this on my bucket list.

  14. Ana

    My husband went to Cape Town for work last year and absolutely loved it! I hope to visit someday and see everything with my own eyes!

  15. Joanna

    I would love to visit South Africa. I have a friend who spent a few months there, doing her master’s research and told me so many great things about it. I’s love to explore the national parks, the wildlife and the vineyards.

    • Razena Schroeder

      I hope you have the opportunity to visit because it will definitely be a value for money vacation with so many great options for adventure, culture and food.

  16. Amanda Yorton

    I’ve always wanted to travel to South Africa! This is a great guide and I am saving for later!

  17. Gladys Parker

    I have known people who have traveled to South Africa and they loved it! I am glad to hear that they are watching the water intake of even the tourists during the prolonged drought this country is experiencing!

    • Razena Schroeder

      In Cape Town we have really suffered for the past 4 years as the drought has steadily increased. Although the city center was spared from the harsh water restrictions they utilize municipal water resources and many hotels came on board with various water saving measures to minimize the water loss through wastage. There was good rain this past winter but the climatologists have warned that this is going to be the hottest and longest summer in decades, so we will have to be extra careful to preserve our precious water resources.

  18. Gervin Khan

    I have never been to South Africa so I don’t have any idea of what to do and where to go in that place and thank you for sharing this guidelines with us this will serve as my reference of my future trip in South Africa.

    • Razena Schroeder

      You are most welcome Gervin. South Africa is an amazing and vast country with so much to see from coast to coast. Safety guidelines are important for any country and it’s good to know what to look out for when you are visiting a new place.

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