Guide to Visiting South Africa for the First Time
Updated: Sep 2
Photo by Estee de Villiers
Want to visit South Africa, but not sure where to start? Grab your passport and read on for quick facts about this amazing country in this guide for first time travelers.
Whether hiking Table Mountain (one of the Natural Wonders of the World), following Chapman’s Peak Drive from Cape Town to the Cape of Good Hope for one of the world’s best ocean drives, riding horseback on Noordhoek Beach, or learning Gumboot with dancers in the townships, there’s something everyone will want to do in South Africa.
Psst…Want more South Africa travel tips? Check out these other posts:
7 to 14 Days Itinerary for Cape Town
Read on for my guide to visiting South Africa.
Table of Contents
quick facts about the rainbow nation
Before I first visited in 2016, I couldn’t point to Cape Town on a map (now I can’t imagine my life without it), let alone tell you any of the below. So if you didn’t know this much about the country, no judgement. Now’s your chance. Here are some quick facts to get you started!
They have 11 official languages.
Almost no South Africans have lions living in their backyard.
People in Cape Town don’t live in “huts”. In the province of Eastern Cape, many people live in rondavels traditionally made of wood, thatched grass, and mud, which could be called “huts,” but this is an unfair word for these beauties majestically peaked on high mountains overlooking stunning cliffs and majestic ocean line.
South Africa is the “Rainbow Nation,” but this doesn't reveal South Africa’s difficult history. Though things are far from perfect, life in South Africa is filled with entrepreneurial energy and community spirit.
Their first democratically elected president, Nelson Mandela, took office in 1994 after 46 years of the “apartheid” era, meaning apartness or systematically instituted racism.
They’re truly the “Rainbow Nation”.
Want to learn more South African history? Visit Clarke's Bookshop on Long Street in downtown Cape Town. The gold-lettered, wood-floored bookshop once held banned books. Now it holds rare books, out-of-print books, secondhand books, and impossible-to-find vintage prints. If you want to soak up South Africa’s history by reading Biko, Asking for Trouble, and Long Walk to Freedom, this is the place to go.
HOW TO STAY SAFE WHEN VISITING SOUTH AFRICA
"Isn’t South Africa dangerous?" South Africa is a very beautiful place with a very complicated past that affects South Africa’s present. The longer I live here, the less I think I know. But if there’s one thing I know, it’s - If you haven’t been here, you’re missing out! Like anywhere else, there are safe places to go and not-so-safe places. Most likely as a tourist, you won’t be visiting the areas with the highest crime rates.
Here are my top tips for staying safe! I learned these from the locals and from years of living in Cape Town. These tips apply to South Africa, but also to many other countries.
LISTEN to safety advice even if you think you don’t need to.
Don’t drive with your windows down and your doors unlocked.
Keep your valuables and anything worth stealing (even shoes) in the trunk (“boot”) of your car when it’s parked.
Download a reliable app for finding directions. I like Waze because it alerts you where potholes are, which is especially useful when traversing rural areas like the Eastern Cape.
Don’t keep your purse or phone near the windows of your car when you’re at a stoplight (“robot”) or intersection.
Don’t leave your phone or valuables unattended, especially on the table while you eat at a restaurant or take an icy dive at the beach.
Keep your phone and wallet or purse at the front of your body or in your front pockets.
Don’t walk around alone at night. If you are enjoying Cape Town’s night life even in a group, it’s better to take an Uber from stop to stop even if they are a 10-minute walk apart.
Psst…Want more travel safety tips? Check out this post:
how to save money on your trip
Visit in the off season outside of the summer months of December and January. Visiting in winter will mean less competition for hotels, AirBnBs, and activities. My first trip ever to Cape Town was in winter, and I had no idea!
Book activities through the deal site Hyperli. (Think Groupon). So far, I've eaten out more times than I can count, gone for cheap massages, and flown in a helicopter all for a fraction of the cost!
Download the Entertainer app to save 50% on meals. This one is a no brainer if you’re in South Africa for more than 2 weeks. Entertainer charges R595 for a subscription that gives you access to Buy 1 Get 1 meal deals at restaurants all across the city, depending on which city you purchase. Cities are sold separately.
Book budget safaris through deal sites like Bush Breaks. Safaris can be notoriously expensive, but they're not out of reach, especially if you plan right and find the best deals. I've spent hours scouring BushBreaks.co.za, and it paid off when I was able to book a stay at a luxury lodge for over 50% off! Make sure to read the fine print, as some deals are reserved for South African nationals.
Buy a Wild Card if you plan on visiting a lot of parks during your trip. The R3,420 Wild Card is a huge money saver. South African parks charge separate local rates and international rates. International rates can be expensive with R360 just for a visit to Cape Point. With the Wild Card, you have one-year, unlimited access to 80+ parks and reserves across Southern Africa.
WHAT THE HECK IS LOAD SHEDDING?
Before I moved to South Africa in January 2020, I was blissfully unaware of what load shedding was. It wasn't until my first night, sitting up by the dim light of my phone, waiting for the lights come on again that I received my first load shedding lesson. Sometimes, in South Africa, the power goes out at scheduled intervals often for 2 - 4 hour intervals in order to keep up with the high electricity demands of the country. Most likely as a tourist, you'll be staying in a hotel or a hostel with a generator or UPS system, but if you're staying in an AirBnB or home stay, I'd suggest asking your hosts what happens when there's load shedding. It's a good idea to download the app EskomSePush that notifies you when load shedding is happening in your area, and also to keep flashlights handy and your phone charged just in case.