Every year, 15 million tourists travel south for a South African adventure. Some are looking forward to seeing majestic animals in the wild, others wish to surf some of the world’s best waves.
The rainbow nation has much to offer for visitors. From landscapes to climate, from culture to cuisine, South Africa is one of the most diverse countries on the planet.
Before packing and getting on a plane, though, there are a few things travelers need to know to plan the perfect South African holiday. It’s better to be as prepared as possible for your trip to the country, and it’s a good idea to first learn about how to plan the best travel itinerary, and the best safety and security practices to get the most out of your stay. It’s also important to check if you need a South Africa visa to travel to the country.
Essential South Africa Tourist Information: Location, Population, Language, and More
South Africa sits at the very southern end of the African continent. Its neighbors are Botswana, Mozambique, Namibia, Lesotho, and Eswatini (Swaziland), and it is bordered by the Indian Ocean. Its shores are washed by the Indian Ocean.
The South African population is around 55 million people. The majority of them live in the eastern half of the country — where better climate and richer mines favor development — and urban areas.
Unlike most countries, South Africa has 3 capital cities. Pretoria is the administrative capital, Cape Town rules legislation, and Bloemfontein is the judicial capital. In order to spend cash during their travels, thourists will need to buy South African currency (the South African Rand or ZAR). Of course, exchange rates vary and we suggest that you use a real-time calculator.
South Africans speak 11 official languages: English has long been the country’s lingua franca while Zulu is the most widely spoken, followed by Xhosa. Most South Africans identify as Christian (around 80%) with the rest of the population being followers of Islam, Hinduism, and Indigenous faiths.
Arriving in South Africa
One of the most important requirements for foreign citizens planning to travel to South Africa is to obtain one of South Africa visa types before arriving in the country. Travelers should check the South Africa visa requirements to determinate whether they are visa-exempt for short stays or whether they need to obtain a travel document. A number of eligible citizens will soon be able to obtain an eVisa for South Africa through a simple online application, eliminating the need to apply from an embassy or consulate.
Tourists arriving in South Africa by plane will most likely use O.R Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg or Cape Town International Airport, the most popular international airports in the countries.
Foreigners mostly interested in safaris can also benefit from reserve airports. King Shaka International Airport and Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport, for example, were specifically built inside popular national parks to support safari tourism.
No matter what airport they choose, most tourists will need a South Africa visa in order to enter the country. You can check the South Africa visa requirements and learn about the online South African visa.
South Africa Travel Info: Safety
Although South Africa is known for having a high crime rate, in general, the country is considered safe for tourists to visit. Travelers can avoid any dangerous situations by carefully planning their trip beforehand, exercising caution, and making informed decisions.
The UK Government travel advisory states that the risk of violent crime in South Africa is actually quite low and only likely to occur between people who know each other in certain neighborhoods, most commonly in the townships outside of the main tourist areas. It’s a good idea to check with your tour operator to make sure any high-risk crime zones aren’t on your itinerary before traveling to South Africa.
Travelers are advised to book accommodation in advance in upmarket areas of South Africa’s cities and to consider spending extra on a decent hotel where security procedures are taken seriously. It’s a good idea to check online reviews of hotels and guest lodges before booking to get an idea of their reliability.
The main issues that travelers need to watch out for when visiting South Africa are credit card fraud, muggings, and petty crime, which is considered to be a big problem in the country. However, there are steps you can take in order to minimize the risk, such as trying to avoid particularly crowded places and keeping your valuables out of sight. Travelers are advised not to bring any expensive jewelry to South Africa, but if they do, to leave it securely in the safe in their hotel for the duration. Leave any expensive watches at home and get an inexpensive one for the duration of your trip.
Travelers are also advised not to carry or bring out any large quantities of cash in public, as this can attract the attention of thieves. It’s best to use a credit card as a payment option in South Africa, and it’s a good idea to get a travel credit card with a limited amount of funds in the account to cover the trip. This way, if your card does get stolen, the thieves won’t have access to funds in your primary bank account.
Plan to arrive in South Africa during the day if possible. Foreign citizens are not advised to use commuter taxis or the public bus services in the country, although Uber is becoming an increasingly popular and safe transport option. You should always have onward transport from the airport organized well in advance, whether you are being picked up, renting a car, or taking a shuttle bus.
Is South Africa a Safe Place to Travel Alone?
Most of the safety advice for South Africa for those traveling in a group also applies to solo travelers, although there are some extra points to consider for those traveling by themselves:
You can read this guide about South Africa safety for a more complete list of safety travel advice.
Staying Healthy While in South Africa
Before applying for a tourist visa for South Africa, travelers should first check the required vaccinations for the country. There are several tropical diseases present in South Africa, including malaria and Zika, both of which can be spread through mosquito bites. Travelers should find out if there is a risk of infection of these diseases in the area of South Africa they plan to visit and take the necessary precautions if there is. If you require anti-malarial medication for your stay in South Africa, it’s best to take it with you from home.
In general, South Africa has excellent facilities for medical care, especially in major towns and cities. Many high-end pharmacies in tourist areas also offer medical rooms, travel clinics, and trained nurses. The quality of medical facilities in rural areas can be lower, so if you do require medical attention while in South Africa it’s better to seek it in the cities.
All travelers to South Africa should also make sure they have travel insurance which covers any medical emergency which may arise during their stay. Foreign citizens who do not have adequate insurance cover will not be admitted for emergencies in South Africa’s major private hospitals. It’s especially important to get medical insurance if you are planning to go on or a safari or take part in any extreme sports while in South Africa.
South Africa also suffers from a very high rate of HIV/AIDS infection. Travelers should use precautions when engaging in activities that expose them to a risk of infection.
Travel to South Africa while Pregnant
If you’re pregnant and planning on a trip to South Africa, you should first meet with a travel medicine specialist at least 4-6 weeks before the scheduled trip. The specialist will be able to review your travel itinerary, make suggestions based on the potential risks, and administer any vaccines you may need. You should also ask your obstetrician if it’s safe for you to travel.
Pregnant woman traveling to South Africa should take special care to avoid mosquito bites in the country, in order to reduce the risk of diseases which could affect the pregnancy. This is especially important if traveling to an area with Zika infection risk, as Zika infection in a pregnant woman can cause severe birth defects.
Most airlines will let women fly up to 36 weeks into the pregnancy, but some may have an earlier cutoff point so it’s best to check before planning a trip to South Africa. If you’re pregnant and planning to enter South Africa on a cruise, you should also ask the cruise operator about their cutoff point. Most cruise lines will not permit women to travel after 24-28 weeks, and it may also be necessary to provide a doctor’s note confirming fitness to travel.
Why Go to South Africa?
South Africa is a large country — its 1.22 million km² correspond to 5 times the size of the UK. Lovers of nature, beach, and cultural tours alike will have plenty to experience.
Travelers interested in safaris have countless options, from organized tours to DIY parks that allow to rent cars and explore the bush. The best major airport for safaris is Johannesburg’s as it’s at reachable distance from most parks and natural reserves.
The dry season is the ideal time for those wanting to spot the Big Five (lion, African leopard, rhino, elephant, and buffalo) and the rest of the fauna living in the savannah. That’s because most animals travel close to water sources like rivers and waterholes. The dry season runs between May and September and also happens to be the off-peak season.
Surfers and beach lovers will enjoy the southern part of the country and the area around Cape Town. They will be able to visit a plethora of small coast towns to find the best waves and enjoy freshly caught fish.
Cape Town is also a cultural hub where old and new merge. Tourists can visit museums and relax in top-quality restaurants, find plenty of live music events, and stroll around the city centre and admire its impressive street art.
South African summer months are those between November and February, when Cape Town enjoys dry, sunny weather. Although it’s the best time for beach activities, it also coincides with the high season and local holidays.
What to Pack When Traveling to South Africa
It goes without saying that the right items to pack for a trip to South Africa will depend on what you’re planning to do and the season you chose for your travels. South Africa’s climate is mostly temperate but weather can change swiftly, especially in the Cape Town area.
It’s advisable to bring light clothing (unless you are visiting South Africa during the winter) as well as a rainproof jacket and closed shoes. Sunscreen is also a must.