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With its cultural diversity, stunning natural landscapes, and varied wildlife, South Africa makes for a life-changing travel destination. Its cosmopolitan cities like Cape Town and Johannesburg offer art, fashion, food, and wine unlike anywhere else in Africa, as well as more humbling experiences su…ch as seeing the historic effects of apartheid and witnessing the stark economic divide between the classes. While on a South African safari, visitors can learn about animals, flora and fauna, geology, and astronomy in the most powerful way: by standing in front of the subjects themselves.
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With very few exceptions, there is no bad time to travel to South Africa. Cape Town has the most wonderful Mediterranean climate, with hot, sunny summers and cool, only occasionally rainy winters. Strike a balance and visit in the shoulder seasons of spring or fall. When seasonal droughts occur, bottled water is readily available and travelers are not typically impacted by local water usage limitations. Johannesburg, an inland city set atop the Highveld plateau, has pleasant weather year-round, though it’s particularly lovely in March, September, and November. Durban, on the other hand, has a hot, humid subtropical climate, so avoid the summer rainy season and visit between May and September when the weather is less stormy. Though the entirety of Kruger National Park lies within the savanna biome, its weather varies dramatically from the north to the south. Schedule your trip for August or September when the land is dry and everything is in bloom.
Nearly all businesses in South Africa shut down between mid-December and mid-January for the holiday season. This also tends to be the most expensive time of year to travel around the country because visitors are competing with locals for hotels and restaurant reservations.
South Africa has seven international airports, the most popular of which are O.R. Tambo International in Johannesburg, Cape Town International, and King Shaka International in Durban. Once in the country, driving is the easiest way to get around. Visitors can rent cars at any international or regional airport, but should note that South Africans drive on the left side of the road. Also be sure to carry small change for car guards (people who help you find a parking spot and watch your car until you return) as well as for the tolls on South Africa’s national roads.
Even without a car, it’s easy enough to get around urban areas by booking private transfers through your accommodation, or by using ride-sharing services like Uber. The only two train lines recommended to international travelers are the Gautrain in Johannesburg and the Southern Suburbs Metro Rail line in Cape Town. The MyCiti Bus in Cape Town is also a common method of transportation in the city center.
South Africa is a food lover’s dream destination. The cities offer a wealth of international cuisine to suit any budget, while the coastline is famous for delicious prawns, oysters, and kingklip fish. Don’t leave Durban without trying bunny chow (a hearty and savory curry served in a hollowed-out loaf of white bread), and if visiting the Karoo (a vast, semi-desert region), indulge in the local meats, specifically the lamb.
When on safari, it’s traditional to have a cold beer or gin and tonic at sunset while you braai (grill) vegetables, boerewors (sausages), and broodjies (an elevated take on the grilled cheese sandwich, stuffed with jam, arugula, and whatever else you have on hand). After the meal, savor some brandy or Amarula (a sweet liquor made from the fruit of the marula tree). In South Africa’s Western Cape region, the mineral-rich soil and Mediterranean climate make for award-winning wines, which, thanks to a favorable exchange rate, are also very affordable. Additionally, craft breweries and distilleries are popping up in urban areas around the country.
The South Africa of today may be a vibrant melting pot, but the country has a long, tumultuous history. Any visit should include a guided township tour in Cape Town or Johannesburg to learn more about apartheid and the hardships the township communities endured.
In more recent years, South Africa has also become a hub for fine art and design. Make time for world-class institutions like the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art and the Norval Foundation in Cape Town, or plan your trip around must-see music festivals such as AfrikaBurn, the Cape Town International Jazz Festival, and OppiKoppi.
The country also embraces all kinds of travelers, including the LGBTQ community.
A trip to South Africa wouldn’t be complete without going on safari to experience wildlife in its natural environment. However, Kruger isn’t the only option. As a contrast to the savanna biome, travelers should explore places like iSimangaliso Wetland Park and the Kalahari Desert, or head to one of the country’s several private reserves, many of which offer all-inclusive packages with accommodations and dining.
U.S. citizens visiting South Africa for 90 days or less do not need to obtain a tourist visa. Just ensure that your passport is valid for at least 30 days after your intended return, and reserve at least two consecutive pages for entry stamps at customs.
South Africa has 11 official languages, but English is widely spoken. The currency is the South African rand, the standard voltage is 230, and the outlets are type M (with three rounded prongs).
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While Marie Frei is based in New York, she feels most at home on safari in the African bush. With her background in the travel industry and experience living abroad, she is most interested in how the right balance of conservation and tourism can benefit both the people and wildlife of Africa. She’s also an avid photographer and writer, and shares her experiences and inspiration on her website, One Carry-On.
Updated January 2019.