Top Travel Tips for South Africa
South Africa is a great destination to experience diverse cultures, amazing natural beauty (including one of the seven wonders of the world), and unique cities.
The most populated areas in South Africa are its cities, which are worth visiting. These include Pretoria, which is the executive capital of South Africa, Cape Town, South Africa’s legislative capital, and Bloemfontein, the judicial capital.
Johannesburg is the biggest city and a hub for commerce. Durban is a port and industrial center, and Port Elizabeth is a commercial and cultural city on the southern coast.
South Africa is also known for its rich wildlife, including lions, leopards, elephants, rhinos, hippos, baboons, zebras, jackals, vultures, over 100 varieties of snakes, and much more!
Many of these animals can be viewed in the national parks such as the Mountain Zebra National Park and the Addo Elephant National Park in Eastern Cape, the Bontebok National Park in Western Cape, and the Greater St. Lucia Wetland Park in KwaZulu-Natal.
To get to South Africa, you’ll most likely fly into one of three international airports. The first is O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, which is the most popular for direct flights.
Cape Town International Airport also has some direct flights, and King Shaka International Airport in Durban is a third option for international travel.
Direct flights from Europe can be up to 12 hours, up to 17 hours from Asia, and up to over 15 hours from the United States, so bring plenty to do and to keep comfortable on the flight!
South African weather varies depending on which part of the country you are visiting. The whole country is in a temperate zone, meaning there aren’t extreme hot and cold temperatures. It is also generally dry, so you don’t have to worry about humidity.
In Johannesburg, locals praise the beautiful weather. You can wear comfortable clothes for moderate temperatures and expect little rain.
In Cape Town, locals say that the weather can change quickly from sunny to cloudy. The temperature changes often, too, and therefore you should always have something to keep you dry and warm, especially if you are hiking.
Cape Town is overall much cooler than other parts of Africa, so you’ll want to pack an extra layer or two when you visit- maybe even a coat and boots!
Durban is another area where locals love the wonderful weather. They don’t have much rain, and most days are moderate and sunny. Don’t forget to bring your beach gear to take advantage of the climate!
One local on Crowdsourced Explorer warns that, “Port Elizabeth is not known as the “Windy City” for no reason. It is not uncommon to see pedestrians battling the elements in a semi-horizontal position when the mighty South-Easter is blowing.” Make sure you pack rain gear, extra jackets, and blankets!
In Bloemfontein, the weather changes often. It might go from hot to cool and from sunny to overcast and stormy. You’ll need to be prepared with many layers!
Though many know English in South Africa, they also speak a variety of other languages. You should consider learning some common phrases in local languages to show respect and in case their English is limited.
The languages among black Africans include Swati in the east, along the coast, and in Gauteng province; Sotho-Tswana in Highveld, Limpopo, and Mpumalanga provinces; and Venda in Limpopo province.
In Pretoria, South Africa Tswana is the main language. However, English, Northern Soho, and other languages are spoken there, too.
If you’re visiting Bloemfontein, you should try to learn basic Afrikaans and SeSotho, as those are the main languages spoken in addition to English.
When you’re traveling, you need to be mindful of your surroundings and aware that you might be a target for crime as a tourist. In South Africa, this is especially true.
South Africa has an exceptionally high crime rate that has increased over the past few years despite increased police activity.
From January to March of 2022, there were 6,083 murders and 6,000 more attempted murders in South Africa. In that same time period, there were 11,000 reported rapes along with almost 46,000 counts of common assault and 43,000 counts of grievous bodily assault.
Locals can attest to the problems with crime, too. One local in Johannesburg shared, “Anyone moving to my city should be aware of the high prevalence of gender-based violence against women and children. They should be aware of the sharp increase in kidnapping incidents linked to human trafficking.”
Another local warned, “Joburg is not the nicest place because if you go there and they try to rob you, everyone will be minding their own business and won’t help out.”
Likewise, Cape Town is crime-ridden and has gangs. In the inner city and even on Table Mountain, you need to be on your guard.
Pretoria has a lot of crime as well, but Port Elizabeth is known for being a safe city in South Africa.
To stay safe, here are some tips:
- Avoid areas where there are protests or known criminal activity, such as gang territory.
- Always keep your bags and belongings right next to or on you.
- Keep any valuables, including a camera and cell phone, concealed.
- Only use your credit card or withdraw small amounts at ATMs, as criminals wait near these to rob people.
- Keep your windows up and stay alert at intersections or when parked, as criminals target people in parked vehicles. Do not be fooled by fake “tourist police” who ask you to roll down your window or get out of the vehicle.
- Only use professional guides to avoid being scammed.
- Be alert and keep your distance from others in city centers and popular tourist locations, as criminals target these areas.
- If you are being robbed, comply with their requests, avoid eye contact, and keep your body language non-threatening. Most robbers have weapons.
- Avoid going out after dark in the following areas: Berea, Hillbrow and Yeoville in Johannesburg, Sunnyside in Pretoria, the beachfront and Victoria wharf in Durban, downtown hotels and the waterfront in Cape Town.
- Never leave your food or drink unattended, as criminals may spike it to abduct, rob, or sexually assault you.
- Hike with others and avoid empty picnic areas and beaches
- Don’t stop along the roadside on national roads
Malaria is probably the biggest health concern for travelers, though you should also be aware of the prevalence of AIDS and the risks of other diseases such as Covid-19.
To avoid getting malaria, you’ll want to make sure you only go to malaria-free reserves such as Madikwe and Pilanesberg in the North West area, Sanbona in the Western Cape, and Shamwari in the Eastern Cape. You’ll also want to wear long sleeves and pants and wear bug spray.
Another tip to avoid getting sick is to drink bottled water and avoid eating street food.
The Best Areas to Visit
South African cities are popular places to visit, and with good reason!
Johannesburg is a fast-growing city with a blend of different cultures, a rich history, and fun places to visit such as the Johannesburg Zoo and Gold Reef City. They also have a busy nightlife, though many areas of the city are unsafe at night.
Cape Town is another great city to visit. It is home to one of the wonders of the world, Table Mountain, and has multiple hiking trails and wine tasting locations. Make sure you enjoy the beautiful beaches there, too!
Pretoria has great museums, parks and resorts. It is also known for the beautiful jacaranda tree in spring.
Locals share that Pretoria is “the most authentic in terms of food, culture, music and everything else.”
Port Elizabeth is known for its amazing beaches, Historical Monuments, and Museums. You’ll also find nature reserves for wildlife viewing and game parks for hunting. It is also only an hour from the Addo Elephant Park.
One local shared, “Bloemfontein is known for its haunted buildings and there are tours available for those who are curious enough. These tours always take place at night. If you deem yourself brave enough, you might just enjoy a haunted tour. The city’s historical buildings provide a sense of excitement at night and everyone takes pride in the ghostly stories that we all know so well.”
Bloemfontein is also home to the annual Roses Festival, dubbing it the “City of Roses.” They have a zoo, plenty of parks, and great resorts.
How to Get Around
Depending on the city and where you’re traveling in South Africa, you’ll want to research the best way to get around.
In Johannesburg, the locals advise against using public transit as it is sparse, difficult to use to get around, and dangerous. This is the case for many other cities, too.
There are many other ways to travel in South Africa: by car, train, plane, or bus. Here are our recommendations, based on what locals and authorities say:
To avoid being scammed, you should arrange your taxis in advance and negotiate the fare ahead of time. Do not try to hail a taxi!
To be safe, sit in the back with your bags out of sight and keep the door locked.
In Johannesburg, you may want to avoid the bus stations, as they are often targeted for crime, and many tourists have been mugged and assaulted.
In Pretoria, however, buses are the most used mode of transport. Locals recommend the Areyeng buses and the Tshwane buses.
In general, Buses can be a great way to travel around South Africa and can be an affordable option.
You may want to think twice about taking a train in South Africa, as many Violent attacks have occurred on them in certain areas such as between Johannesburg and Pretoria and near Cape Town.
If you do travel by train, make sure it’s first class and in a safer area, such as the Gautrain that goes between O.R. Tambo International Airport and Pretoria, or the Blue Train and the Rovos Rail, which are luxury trains.
The Blue Train is the most luxurious and runs between Pretoria and Cape Town, and then Pretoria and Durban.
The Rovos Rail is an old, beautifully rebuilt train with luxury suites. It can be rented for charter and has three seaside retreats it takes tourists to in St James, Cape Town.
Renting a Car
Though it can be expensive, renting a car can be a fun and safe way to travel in South Africa. Just make sure you read the fine print about the rates and fees you can expect to pay.
Vehicle theft is common, so you’ll want to rent a vehicle with a central locking system, a secure fuel tank cap, and an alarm.
You’ll also want to stay apprised of the road conditions and adhere to the traffic laws. Rains can cause flooding on some roads in KwaZulu-Natal Province, so be aware of road closures.
You’ll also want to be careful when driving in more remote areas, as there may be many potholes.
For more great South Africa travel tips, see what locals have to say!