10 important things to know before visiting South Africa

by | Mar 26, 2023 | Africa, South Africa, Travel Guides | 0 comments

2-week Namibia itinerary
2-week Namibia itinerary

South Africa is one of my favorite countries on the planet. It boasts incredible landscapes, gorgeous beaches, an abundance of wildlife, copious amazing lodges and unique cabins… and I have yet to meet someone who didn’t fall in love with Cape Town the second they stepped off the plane.

But South Africa is more than a holiday destination for me – it’s where my husband grew up, where we got married, and where my in-laws live. Visiting South Africa is always an awesome combination of  exploring new places and spending time with friends and family.

In addition, I also worked as travel consultant for Southern Africa for a while, helping people plan trips to South Africa and beyond. In this post, I have created a list of things I have learned from my trips to South Africa, through my husband and his family, and from answering other peoples questions while putting together an unforgettable itinerary for them.

Here are 10 important things to know before visiting South Africa to make sure you’ll have an epic trip!
Top of Lions Head
Bettys Bay Penguin Colony

visa and health requirements

Citizens from many countries can get a free visa on arrival, allowing them to spend up to 90 days in South Africa. You can check here if you’re on the list or need to apply for a tourist visa.

In addition, you might need to show a yellow fever vaccination certificate if you are coming from or transiting through a yellow fever-risk country. You can find more information here.

The distances in South Africa are big

One of the most important things to know before visiting South Africa is that often less is more! South Africa is one of the largest countries in Africa, and there is a lot to see, but the distances between those places are often quite big. Don’t try to squeeze in too much, or you might end up spending most of your time in the car.

If you want to combine different regions, take a flight to cover some ground more quickly.

There are daily flights to so many places in South Africa, and often multiple times a day between bigger cities like Johannesburg and Cape Town. In addition, you’ll find many cheap connections to neighbouring countries like Mozambique, Namibia, or Botswana.

It gets busy during high season

South Africa is a popular holiday destination for tourists and locals alike. Especially during the holiday season, many locals head to the coast, and places book out quickly!

If you are planning to visit South Africa over Christmas and New Year’s, book your accommodation in advance, especially if you head to the coast or Kruger National Park.

In my opinion, you can find some of the most amazing and unique accommodations in South Africa. From comfortable glamping tents and bubble suites to remote cabins, vineyard cottages, and cave hotels there is something for every taste.

Here are just a few examples of some amazing getaways in South Africa:

The Whale Route in South Africa
2-week Namibia itinerary

South Africa is a great self-driving destination

The best way to travel around South Africa is by going on a road trip. The country is home to some incredible landscapes, from wild coastlines and lush farmlands to grassy plains and high mountain ranges just waiting to be explored.

South Africa is a great self-driving destination with an extensive road network. Unfortunately, the roads are not always in the best condition, so keep an eye out for potholes.

Tips for self-driving in South Africa

  • In South Africa, you’ll drive on the left-hand side of the road. If you’re not used to it, make sure to rent a car with an automatic shift.
  • Don’t go for the smallest car, pick something mid-size with a bit of clearance. You’ll be more comfortable driving on gravel roads, and it will be easier to spot the potholes ahead of you.
  • Keep your doors locked and your valuables out of sight while driving. Don’t stop to pick up hitchhikers, or if you see someone on the side of the road who appears to have a problem, and avoid driving at night.

The ocean isn’t warm everywhere

South Africa boasts picture-perfect beaches all along the coast. But don’t go planning your South African beach getaway just yet! Here are some important things to know before visiting South Africa for a beach holiday:

Being located at the tip of the continent, the water temperature in South Africa is influenced by two currents: the warm Agulhas current coming down along Africa’s east coast and the cold Benguela current moving up Africa’s west coast. Cape Town and the Garden Route aren’t exactly blessed with tropical waters. The temperature can vary slightly but is cold to freezing all year round. Swimming is possible, but you will be spending more time on the (gorgeous) beaches than in the ocean.

If you’re planning a beach holiday, head to KwaZulu-Natal province.

Located in the southeast of South Africa, bordering Mozambique and Eswatini, KZN province features amazing beaches all along the coast. Head to the Dolphin Coast, or St. Lucia if you’re craving a beach holiday, or to Sodwana Bay for great diving all-year-round. There are some sharks around, but many of the KZN beaches have shark nets. You can find an overview here.

2-week Namibia itinerary
2-week Namibia itinerary

Be aware of load shedding

One of the most important things to know before visiting South Africa is that the country regularly experiences load shedding. Load shedding is a controlled and scheduled power outage to reduce the demand on the energy generation system. This happens almost daily in South Africa, and you can use the EskomSePush app to check the load shedding schedule in your area.

Many hotels and even some AirBnbs have generators or inverters to keep the power, or at least the wifi going during load shedding. If you rely on having power at all times, I’d recommend bringing a power bank and charging it whenever you can.

Do you have something to add to this list of things to know before visiting South Africa? Make sure to let me know in the comments!

Use Uber to get around

I don’t recommend strolling around on foot too much or walking home after a night out in South Africa. Especially at night, it’s a lot safer to drive or call a taxi to get from A to B.

Uber is the most convenient way of getting around in South African cities.

It saves you from getting lost in unknown streets or having to look for parking in busy areas, and it’s cheap! As the rides cost so little, and because Uber takes a cut, the drivers are always very grateful for a tip (you can add a tip after the ride straight through the Uber app).

2-week Namibia itinerary
2-week Namibia itinerary

Get a local sim or e-sim

As you’ll be using Uber a lot and because you might not always have wifi due to load shedding, I’d recommend buying some mobile data for your trip to South Africa.

When travelling, I almost always use Airalo for mobile data. With Airalo, you can buy an e-sim for over 200 countries and regions, easily select the data package you want to buy, and install it on your phone with just a few clicks.

Alternatively, you can get a local sim card with mobile data once you land in South Africa. Vodacom offers different data bundles, perfect if you want to stay connected during your trip.

2-week Namibia itinerary
2-week Namibia itinerary

Pick the right safari experience

Home to an incredible variety of wildlife, South Africa is a prime safari destination, and you can’t visit the country without spending a few days in the bush. Here are some useful things to know before visiting South Africa for an epic safari holiday. When planning your safari getaway, you have two options:

  • visiting a national park
  • or visiting a private game reserve
There’s no one-size-fits-all safari experience, and it can vary greatly depending on what you want and pick!

Private Game Reserves

If you’re looking for some luxury in the bush, treat yourself to a safari getaway at a private game reserve. As the name suggests, they are privately owned, often by the lodges within the reserve.

Private game reserves can be fenced or share unfenced borders with national parks such as the Kruger. In general, you’re only allowed access if you’re staying in one of the lodges in the reserve. This means you’ll get a less crowded and more private safari experience.

Self-driving is not allowed, and all your game drives will be with a guide and often with a spotter sitting in a chair at the front of the vehicle. The guides are usually allowed to drive off the roads to give you even better sightings.

Staying at private game reserves is more expensive, but the price usually includes all meals, sundowners, and daily game drives.

National Parks

Visiting a national park like Kruger or Addo is the right choice for you if you want the thrill of self-driving, if you’re not looking for any luxury, or if you’re travelling on a budget.

National parks are owned by the government and open to the public. You’re allowed to self-drive or book guide game drives, but in either case, off-roading is not allowed. You can either book into one of the rest camps in the park, or base yourself in one of the towns outside, near the gates.

The rest camps are owned an run by Sanparks, and usually offer different accommodation options, from campgrounds to basic cottages and chalets.
2-week Namibia itinerary
2-week Namibia itinerary

South Africa is an all-year-round destination

Lastly, you’ll surely want to know when the best time for a trip to South Africa is. This depends greatly on what you’re going for, but the good news is that there is no bad time for a trip to SA!

Cape Town & the Garden Route | December to February are great months to visit Cape Town and the Garden Route, with blue skies, hot temperatures, and lots going on. But these months are also very busy, especially over the festive season and during school holidays in December and January. If you visit during these months, book well in advance!

KwaZulu-Natal | If you are planning to visit the subtropical KwaZulu-Natal province, April to September are the best months. The days will be pleasantly warm and usually sunny but not as hot and humid as during the summer months. Make sure to visit in spring or autumn if you want to include the Drakensberg to avoid the cold and sometimes snowy winter months.

Safari | May to September are perfect if going on a safari is the main highlight of your trip to South Africa. During the dry winter months, the vegetation is thinner, the grass is lower, and there are less water sources around. Spotting animals is much easier in the scarce vegetation, and you’ll often find them crowding around the remaining waterholes.

Whale Season | Another reason to visit during winter is the whale season from June to November. During these months southern right whales and humpback whales migrate to the Western Cape to mate and calve. The best place for whale watching in South Africa is Hermanus, about 120 km from Cape Town.

Don’t forget to pin this post on Pinterest to remember these 10 things to know before visiting South Africa!
2-week Namibia itinerary
2-week Namibia itinerary

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Welcome to my world!

Hi, I’m Sara, a twenty-something Swiss on a mission to become a full-time travel writer and digital nomad.