south africa travel

South Africa Travel: A Beginner’s Guide

South Africa is a unique country with beautiful sceneries, unique vegetation, and an abundance of wildlife. It’s a country that offers an unforgettable journey filled with many activities like a mountain desert trip, walks on the beautiful coasts, a tour to the vineyards of the Western Cape, or a visit to the Garden Route’s forests.

Whether you’re planning a road trip or booking an escorted tour, you’ll get all the benefits of having an amazing journey. There are plenty of opportunities to explore remote locations or go somewhere special, so make sure you plan the itinerary ahead of time and book in advance.

In this ultimate guide to South Africa travel for beginners, we share some of the main reasons to choose South Africa for your next adventure. Plus, these travel tips will take you further and save you money along the way.

travel guide to south africa

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Visit National Parks and Game Reserves

While South Africa travel offers visitors a wide range of landscapes, modern and historic infrastructure, and activities for every type of traveler, the country’s stunning national parks and game reserves are some of the most popular attractions in the country.

Most of the most famous national parks and game reserves are located in the northern and eastern parts of the country, which means you’ll have some traveling to do from the major cities closer to the south. Looking for a game reserve to visit closer to Cape Town? Consider Aquila Game Reserve.

These are some of the most popular safari destinations in South Africa

Kruger National Park

You’ve likely heard of Kruger National Park even before considering a trip to South Africa: this is one of Africa’s largest national parks and game reserves and is home to all the “Big Five” animals that many visitors hope to spot on a safari: lions, leopards, buffalos, rhinos, and elephants.

The park is located in South Africa’s northeast corner bordering Mozambique and Zimbabwe.

Sabi Sands Game Reserve

Located next to Kruger National Park, the Sabi Sand Game Reserve is home to incredible wildlife, including elephants, water buffalos, cheetahs, wildebeests, and much more. The Reserve is home to luxury lodges and some of the best opportunities to see the “Big Five” on a safari in South Africa.

Phinda Game Reserve

This game reserve along South Africa’s east coast is well known both for being home to the “Big Five,” as well as being one of the best places in the country for spotting cheetahs, and the critically endangered black rhinoceros.

Madikwe Game Reserve

Despite being one of the largest game reserves in the country, Madikwe is often overlooked by travelers for more well-known parks and reserves. Located along the border with Botswana, the game reserve is home to countless species that live in this unique area at the edge of the Kalahari Desert, making it one of the best South African safari destinations.

Walk in Desert Sands

Many visitors unfamiliar with Africa picture this diverse continent as covered with desert sands. While this is far from the reality for much of South Africa, you’ll find long sandy stretches filled with wildlife and dunes at the Namib Sand Sea.

This unique coastal desert is insulated with dunes and inhabited mostly by nomadic tribes. The unique flora and fauna flourish in the area due to the foggy and humid atmosphere, making the coastal desert a marvelous destination that attracts millions of tourists annually.

Additionally, you can enjoy the views of zebras, buffalos, elephants, impalas, and reedbucks galloping and living in the wilderness. It’s a highlight of South Africa travel you won’t find anywhere else!

If you plan on visiting the Namib Sand Sea desert, make sure to book a tour to explore this unique and remote destination properly. Such escorted tours to South Africa provide an organized itinerary, round-trip transportation, and access to destinations you can visit along the way that otherwise you wouldn’t be able to.

Take in a Game (Or Match) With Crazy Fans

South Africans are mad about sports, meaning that attending a game or match is entertaining for both people watching and enjoying the game. From horse-riding to golf and athletic sports, there’s something for every fan. 

While in South Africa, you can attend a soccer (football) match, or learn about cricket and rugby, and cheer on local teams at games. The country also boasts top-class facilities in many sports areas, which attracts visitors from around the world.

Cape Town is known for the Two Oceans marathon that takes place annually, so it’s a great chance to experience the spirit of competition.

Explore Cape Town

There is plenty to see and do in Cape Town, one of South Africa’s three capital cities, enough to keep you busy for an entire trip! These are some of the highlights of Cape Town you won’t want to miss:

Visit Bo-Kaap

One of the highlights of visiting Cape Town is a walking tour of Bo-Kaap. A mix of somber history and colorful whimsy, this distinctive neighborhood is a must-see.

Photographers love Bo-Kaap for its distinctive colorful buildings. These rows of bright colors make excellent social media backdrops.

It’s a cinch to get to this popular spot just 5 minutes from the city center. Sign up for a free walking tour or download an audio tour. Learn from a local about the rich history of Bo-Kaap while taking in the vibrant buildings and street art.

Stop by the oldest building in Bo-Kaap, now a museum, and see the first Muslim mosque in South Africa. Wear walking shoes for comfort on the cobbled streets and bring a camera to shoot the awesome scenery of bustling Bo-Kaap!

Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden

Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden is a must-visit for any trip to Cape Town. It is one of the premier botanical gardens in the world and is dedicated to the natural flora and fauna of the area.  

Here you will find an abundance of flowers, but a highlight is spotting the Protea, the national flower of South Africa.  A highlight of any trip to Kirstenbosch is the Canopy Walk which takes visitors on a bridge through the treetops and offers unrivaled views of the area. 

The garden is brilliant to visit whatever season you are in Cape Town, but those visiting in summer will see more things in bloom.

While the garden is not on any public transit route, you can easily take the city sightseeing bus here, or for those with a vehicle, there is ample parking. The cost of entry to the gardens is R210 for adults, and you can easily spend a whole day here, especially if you come prepared and bring a picnic to enjoy on the grounds.

Unparalleled Medical and Beauty Facilities

South Africa is known for its world-class medical and beauty facilities and qualified practitioners. It’s quickly becoming a medical tourism destination, and with top doctors and scientists, people from all around the world travel to South Africa to get treatment or wellness and beauty treatments.

Even if you’re not interested in this type of tourism, you can still take advantage of world-class spa treatments and therapies as you rest and relax on vacation. Luxury hotels offer treatments in large cities, and plenty of lodges on game reserves and national parks offer treatments as well.

Travel Essential

Don’t think about traveling without a good VPN (Virtual Private Network). Using a VPN while connecting to the internet is an easy way to keep your personal information safe from hackers and trackers. We’ve used NordVPN for years and couldn’t recommend it more – it’s a must for safety online, at home or abroad. 

Visit Robben Island

Robben Island, known as ‘The Island of Exiles’ is a must-see for any traveler to Cape Town. Located 12km off the coast of the city, Robben Island has served as an island prison for centuries. Most notably, it was where the iconic South African leader Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years.

Today, Robben Island is one of South Africa’s must-see attractions. 

The prison has been preserved as a monument to Mandela’s freedom struggle. The island can be accessed by booking a boat trip from the V&A Waterfront. It’s roughly an hour’s trip. The boat trip is amazing and includes beautiful views of the region and sea.

The island has also become a beautiful ecological reserve home to several indigenous bird and plant species.

Visit African Penguins at Boulder Beach 

One of Cape Town’s most popular beaches is Boulders Beach, part of the Table Mountain National Park. It is the only place you can get close to free-roaming African penguins. Boulders Beach has been home to the Boulder Penguin Colony and is one of the few mainland penguin colonies. 

There is a small fee to visit Boulders Beach, which helps support the conservation and maintenance of the area. The beach is just under an hour from the Cape Town city center near Simon’s town, and plenty of organized tours provide transportation to the site. 

To make the best of your experience at Boulder Beach, we suggest you get there early before the area gets busy. The best way to observe the penguins is through the wheelchair-friendly boardwalk. If you are lucky, you may get an up close and personal encounter with one of the penguins. 

travel to south africa

Breathtaking Beaches and Coastline

South Africa is home to over 3,000 km of dramatic and stunning coastline, including countless beaches, world-class reefs, and stunning landscapes. For in-the-know travelers, this can be one of the best reasons to visit South Africa.

The Clifton 4th Beach in Cape Town is popular among travelers and locals alike, who like to go scuba diving or explore the shipwrecks and reefs of Sodwana Bay.

After you’ve had your fair share of activities on the coastline, you can sip a cocktail and enjoy the view of hundreds of colorful kites in the water from surfers around the world.

You can have an exhilarating morning game fishing in the sea or book a boat for some quiet and relaxing time. Plus, you can visit many game reserves, national parks, and protected wilderness areas on a hiking trip to enjoy the stunning coastline.

Visit The Cape of Good Hope

The Cape of Good Hope is a must-see while in South Africa. This spot is roughly an hour’s drive from downtown Cape Town, making it an easy day trip. It’s located on the Cape Peninsula and claims the proud title of the most south-westerly point in Africa. Cape Point is another worthwhile stop.

There are several things to see and do in this area, including hiking, enjoying stunning views of the water and rocky coastline, or spotting animals on the Reserve. Some of the wildlife includes the likes of zebra, eland, and even ostrich.

Visitors can enjoy taking the relatively easy hike up Cape Point to the Old Lighthouse. The trek to the lighthouse provides breathtaking vistas of the Atlantic Ocean and False Bay. Another popular way to reach the summit is to take the 3-minute ride on The Flying Dutchman Funicular.

There is a fee to enter the park, about R90 for South Africans or R360 for foreigners, but it’s well worth the cost. Don’t forget your hiking shoes and camera and grab a photo in front of the iconic Cape of Good Hope sign!

Hiking Adventures

Making the most of its incredible and diverse natural scenery, South Africa is home to over 2,000 hiking trails across the country. These trails offer a close-up look at many natural wonders and breathtaking landscapes.

There is a trail for every taste – you can explore the wilderness area, hike beside rivers, cross mountains or go around cities.

The duration of the hikes ranges between a couple of hours to several days, depending on the route and accessibility of the area. Some famous trails that attract travelers from around the world include the Amatola Hiking Trail, the Wild Coast, and the Magoebaskloof mountain trail in Limpopo province.

Travel Essential

Don’t head out on your adventure without comprehensive travel insurance! Good travel insurance may cover lost or stolen gear, medical emergencies, delayed or canceled flights, and more. Check out the policies available from SafetyWing or compare plans using Visitors Coverage.

Pack Your Bags!

This is just a glimpse of South Africa. The real beauty lies within the overall South African experience – from wilderness tours to desert hikes and rugged coastlines. Book your trip, pack your bags, and get ready for an unforgettable journey!

carley rojas avila

Carley Rojas Avila is a bilingual New York-based travel writer, editor, content marketer, and the founder of the digital travel publications Explorers Away and Home to Havana. Carley is an expert on all things Latin America, the Caribbean, and Cuba, having lived and worked in four different countries in the region. Her writing has appeared on the Associated Press wires and in Travel + Leisure, Yahoo, MSN, Euronews, The Weather Channel, and more. When she's not writing about her travels, find her front row at a Bad Bunny concert, befriending street cats, and taste-testing every pizza in Havana.