Best things to do in South Africa. A list of the best things to see and do to help you plan the perfect trip to South Africa.
When people ask us about our travels and hear we’ve been to over 100 countries, the inevitable question comes up – ‘What’s your favourite?’ For both of us, South Africa and Namibia battle it out for top spot, but I think South Africa might just take the cake. It’s a truly diverse country with so much to see and do: Unique wildlife, stunning scenery, beautiful hiking and the best bit is that it’s a country geared up for outdoor lovers!
We’ve been to South Africa multiple times and it’s one country we could just keep revisiting. With that said, here’s our list of the best things to do in South Africa:
1. Kruger National Park Safari
Where else to start but one of our favourite places in the world! Searching for the ‘Big 5’ and all the other amazing wildlife in Kruger National Park is what we love to do. With 20,000km² to explore, you never know what’s around the next corner. The excellent infrastructure means it’s the perfect self-drive destination for the adventurous. And for those who prefer, there are numerous tour operators running guided tours around the park. It’s a special place for us and in our opinion, it really doesn’t get any better than driving through this wildlife haven.
Read more: Kruger National Park – A Complete Guide
2. Tour the wineries of the Cape Winelands
South Africa is well known for a lot of things: Exotic wildlife, national parks, stunning landscapes, wild and rugged coastlines and delicious wine. There are hundreds of wineries in South Africa, most of which are located in the Cape Winelands, in the Western Cape province. And planning a day trip to the Cape Winelands couldn’t be easier. With the closest wine route being just 15-20min from Cape Town, you’ll find yourself sipping on the prefect vino in no time!
3. Hike the Drakensberg Mountains
Comprising of a series of National Parks, the Drakensberg Mountains are absolutely stunning. Just driving through this area is impressive enough. But it’s literally a hikers heaven. There’s a range of easy short walks such as the Cascades, or, multi-day hikes like the Giant’s Cup or the Mnweni-Rockeries Circuit, perfect for those who really want to get a little off track. With endless stunning day hikes including the Amphitheatre, Cathedral Peak, Sentinel Peak, Blindman’s Corner via the Sphinx and Tugela Falls, there’s no end of options for those with reasonable fitness and a love of the outdoors. It’s no surprise this area is said to be J.R.R. Tolkien’s inspiration for the Lord of the Rings ‘Mountains of Middle Earth’.
4. Drive the Garden Route
With its mountainous backdrop, this 200 km stretch of coast from Mossel Bay to the Storms River, is the perfect self-drive adventure and another one of those naturally beautiful regions of South Africa. With beaches, forests, mountains, lakes and lagoons, there are bucket loads of places to explore and view points to take advantage of. And you need not just hug the coast as there’s plenty to see inland too. Some of the highlights include the Storms River Suspension Bridge, hiking Tsitsikamma National Park, the 215m Bloukrans Bridge bungee jump, whale or dolphin watching in Kynsa, bird spotting in Wilderness National Park and exploring the Outeniqua Mountains. You’ll need around 2 weeks to see the sights along the Garden Route, but be warned, the options are endless!
5. Explore Cape Town
One of our favourite cities in the world and with so much to see and do, we just want to keep going back! Surrounded by beautiful beaches and Table mountain forming the cities backdrop, is there a more picturesque city than Cape town? With great shopping and restaurants, easily accessible hikes and outdoor attractions, an abundance of sunny beaches and great range of museums, Cape Town caters for everyone. It’s the perfect spot to start or finish a trip around South Africa and the gateway for many incredible sights.
Read more: Best things to do in Cape Town & Around
6. Addo Elephant National Park Safari
South Africa’s 3rd biggest national park is the place to go for large herds of African Elephant. Home to approximately 550, Addo has one of the densest populations of Elephant on the planet. Other than Elephant, there’s plenty more wildlife including Black Rhino, Cape Buffalo, Burchell’s Zebra, numerous antelope and plenty of birds. Both Lion and Spotted Hyena were reintroduced in the early 2000’s too. It’s also the place to see the rare Addo Elephant Park flightless Dung Beetle. With both guided game drives and self-drive options as well as several hiking trails, this park has options for all.
7. Visit the African Penguins at Boulders Beach
Who doesn’t love Penguins? The colony of African Penguins at Boulders Beach is one of the coolest and easiest things to do when in South Africa. Follow the boardwalks that guide you through the colony, allowing you to get close to these cute little birds, without disrupting them. Time your visit right and you’ll see some baby penguins too. But what makes this area different to other colonies is that Boulders Beach is also an active swimming area, giving you the opportunity to swim alongside these adorable creatures. But remember these are wild animals, so respect them and keep a 3 metre distance!
Read more – Visiting the Penguins of Boulders Beach
8. Clamber through the Cango Caves
Close to Oudtshoorn you’ll find this South African natural wonder. These limestone caves are home to some of the largest and most spectacular stalagmite formations in the world. Perhaps the caves most impressive area is the massive Van Zyl’s hall named after its discoverer Jacobus Van Zyl. For the adventurous, take the 90 minute ‘Adventure Tour’ and crawl through some of the more remote parts of the cave system. But note, there are some tight squeezes and no option to turn back, so it’s not one for the claustrophobic!
9. Drive the Panorama Route
Driving through the Mpumalanga Region on the R352 is an unforgettable experience and The Panorama route is truly stunning. With spectacular waterfalls like Berlin and Lisbon Falls and some of the most stunning view points in Africa, like the Blyde River Canyon, the Three Ronadvels and God’s Window, the Panorama route should be on any South African itinerary. Don’t underestimate the time you’ll want here. Best done over two or three days, this area of South African natural wonders is easily combinable with a visit to the nearby Kruger National Park.
Hire a car
Car hire in South Africa is really cheap. Driving around is pretty easy and for the most part, connected by good roads. This option definitely offers the most flexibility and allows you to go wherever you like, for as long as you like. We used AVIS for our last trip to South Africa and Eswatini (Swaziland). Make sure you read all the T&C’s and know what is and isn’t included in your car rental contract, including insurance and included kilometres.
Day trips & organised tours
Don’t fancy driving, no problem! There are many companies offering day and multi-day trips throughout parts of South Africa. If you’d rather take a longer tour, there are loads of awesome overland travel companies offering great packages, such as Intrepid Travel and GAdventures. This is a great option if you don’t want to DIY, but want to see a lot of the South Africa and or neighbouring countries in a shorter amount of time.
Best time to visit
South Africa is a big country and the weather varies from region to region. As a very loose guide consider the below:
Weather in the North East of the Country (Kruger, Drakensberg, the Panorama route)
Areas on the north eastern side of the country like Kruger, Drakensberg and the Panorama route have two distinct seasons and when to visit depends on what you want to experience.
The dry season falls during the winter months of May-October, which offer the best conditions for game viewing and hiking. Animals are more visible as the grass is shorter and they are forced to emerge in search of water. High season, specifically, mid-winter (June-August) is particularly comfortable for visitors. There is little to no rainfall, few mosquitoes and the temperatures are cool during the evenings and warm through the days. September-October can be uncomfortably humid and hot, but the concentration of animals around waterholes are at their peak. Therefore these months are considered the best for game viewing.
The rainy season falls during the summer months of November-May. Also known as the ‘green season’, most rainfall occurs between November and April, with the wettest months being January-February. All South African holiday periods are busy in these areas, with the Christmas period of December-January being the busiest.
Weather in the Western Cape (Cape Town, Cape Winelands, Boulders Beach)
The weather in the Western Cape is basically the opposite of the Northern Hemisphere. This means summer falls from December-February, winter from June-August with spring and Autumn on either side.
December through February is the high season and the weather is great during this period. This combined with the South African schools fourth term break (December & January) and the European winter holidays, means prices are higher and it can get very busy.
The winter months of June, July and August, are the least desirable to visit the Western Cape. Temperatures tend to hover around 16-20°, but the weather can be unpredictable. It may sunny one day and wet and windy the next. This is often enough to keep many tourists away. Therefore, accommodation can be cheaper and attractions less crowded.
The shoulder seasons of spring (September-October) and autumn (March- May) are our favourite times visit. From our experience, the weather is generally dry and although the costal winds can be chilly, the sun is often shining. There’s fewer crowds and prices are a bit cheaper so for us, it’s win win.
Weather on the Garden Route and Addo Elephant National Park
The Garden Route sits somewhere in the middle and the weather is a little more temperate meaning it’s a good year-round destination. That said rain can really fall at anytime.
Although Addo Elephant National Park is a good year-round destination, the drier months of May-September are the better game viewing months.
If you’re planning on an extensive visit to South Africa, consider purchasing a SANParks Wildcard. The wildcard gives access to 80+ parks and reserves around Southern Africa. International tourists will need to purchase an ‘International All Parks Cluster.’ For those lucky enough to be spending a bit of time here and visiting multiple parks around the country and Eswatini (Swaziland), this can be big money saver!
South Africas currency is Rand (ZAR) and yes, you will need to use Rand to pay for everything. Visa & Mastercard are accepted almost everywhere (hotels, restaurants, ticket offices etc), but you will need cash for small purchases, tips etc. ATM’s are available all over the country.
**Note – South Africa’s ZAR is pegged 1:1 to the Namibian dollar (NAD). If travelling onto Namibia, you can use ZAR there. However, you cannot use NAD in South Africa!
Safety & Security
South Africa has a bit of reputation as a dangerous country. We’ve been multiple times and never had any problems, but we do know people who have. It’s important to use common sense, stay cautious and be vigilant, as you should when travelling anywhere in the world!
A few things to be mindful of:
- Avoid walking around at night and where you can, avoid driving at night.
- Likewise, avoid certain areas/districts – speak to hotel staff or tourist information about which areas are best avoided.
- Hiking alone is also not recommended. If you’re a solo traveller, try to head out during the busier parts of the day when there’s lots of people around.
- Speak to trusted informed locals about your planned routes, as they can advise on which routes to stay clear of.
- Keep valuables in a safe or locked in your luggage at your accommodation, especially passports.
- Only take what you need outside. Don’t flash your cash or wear obviously expensive and excessive jewellery.
- Don’t leave phones, wallets or other valuables in your car.
- If the worst does happen and someone does try to mug you, don’t resist.
- Be especially vigilant when out drinking /partying. Don’t take excessive amounts of cash and try not to drink too much, as it will only impair your judgment.
With all of that said, we must reiterate we have never experienced anything bad in South Africa. But it’s better to be safe than sorry.
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