South Africa travel guide

Stylish cities, fantastic coastal drives, enticing cuisine and accessible national parks – South Africa is a great introduction to southern Africa. Along with Namibia, it’s one of Africa’s only self-drive destinations, and it’s largely malaria-free. Its notorious crime rate is unlikely to affect sensible tourists, making a South Africa holiday a superb choice for those who just want to dip their toes into the continent. For the same reason, however, if tourist crowds aren’t your thing then Botswana or East Africa offer more of a sense of the wilderness.
South Africa holidays seem to have rather been designed for first-timers, families and the less fearless.
With superb tourist infrastructure, it’s easy to explore the varied wildlife, towns and landscapes without leaving creature comforts behind, while safaris into the lesser-visited parks give a real sense of adventure. It all reinforces South Africa’s motto: “Unity in Diversity”, and visitors will find that this is a destination that extends far beyond the guide book clichés, into something much more complex, fascinating and enriching.

South Africa is...

a taste of amicable, accessible Africa.

South Africa isn't...

a voyage into the wilderness. Head north for that.

What we rate & what we don't


Wheelchair accessible travel

From self-drive holidays along the iconic Garden Route to game drives in its national parks, South Africa is a great destination for wheelchair accessible holidays. Operators can ensure that suitable accommodations and restaurants are arranged, and private door-to-door transfers if required. For safaris, if you don’t mind being lifted in and out of the jeeps by the driver then there’s nothing stopping you heading out on a game drive.

Real culture

South Africa may not offer the (often clichéd) “tribal” experiences of other nations, such as the Himba or the Maasai, but what it does have is far more real and accessible without the need for contrived tours. Superb street food, diverse local music, cultural festivals and art fairs are great ways to discover genuine culture on your South Africa holiday, from Xhosa and Zulu to Coloured and Afrikaans.

iSimangaliso Wetland Park

It’s not a name that springs to mind when planning a trip to South Africa, but iSimangaliso – meaning ‘miracle’ in Zulu – was listed as South Africa’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are 220km of beaches to explore, winding between coral reefs and the Lubombo Mountains, along with wetlands, lake networks, estuaries, over 500 bird species and mysterious swamp forests.

The Karoo

In the rush to see the cities, savannahs and sandy beaches, South Africa’s largest ecosystem is sadly overlooked. The Karoo is wild and arid, yet astonishingly diverse, with succulent plants, mountain zebras and lions living amongst its plains, ravines and flat topped mountains which stretch out to endless horizons. Base yourself in the pretty, Dutch-style Graaff-Reinet or ostrich farming Oudtshoorn for easy excursions while on holiday in South Africa.

Township tours

Crime, poverty and poor infrastructure have deterred many a visitor from the townships. But they are changing – and rapidly turning into one of South Africa’s biggest cultural draws. Soweto and Khayelitsha host well-managed walking and cycling tours, with opportunities to meet local residents, learn about the resettlements, visit Mandela’s house, sip a cold beer in a shebeen – and provide much-needed income for local residents.


The majestic scenery and Mediterranean climate make this one of the most picturesque South Africa holiday destinations. Wineries here date back to the 1700s, but for a contemporary twist on this traditional industry, visit one of the growing number of black-owned vineyards around Stellenbosch. Alternatively, ride Franschhoek’s open sided Wine Tram through the valley for a narrated tour with tastings.

Cape Town

The newly crowned 2014 World Design Capital may be thronging with tourists, but you can’t come all this way and miss Africa’s most vibrant, dramatically-situated city. A buzzing urban blend of bars, world-class restaurants, cultural festivals and museums sits comfortably side-by-side with sweeping bays, botanical gardens, bold baboons – and even penguins, on Africa’s southwesterly tip.

Anglo-Zulu Battlefields

In 1879, the British army invaded Zululand and found themselves face to face with thousands of Zulu warriors. Today, the battlefields at Rorke’s Drift (where 140 British troops held off up to 4,000 Zulus) and Isandwana (where 1800 British solders were killed) set the stage for mesmerising tours, led by knowledgeable storytellers who bring the scenes to life.

Being “touched by an elephant”

Unlike Asia, Africa has no history of working with elephants. Captive elephants here work exclusively in the tourist trade – and to get them to “behave” around tourists, they are beaten and maltreated so that tourists can touch and even ride them. Knysna has a particularly awful example of this. If you want a genuinely magical elephant experience – go and see these incredible mammals in the wild. You’re in Africa!

Playing with lion cubs

A photo of yourself feeding a baby lion will wow friends back home – until you realise what might have happen to the cub once your South Africa holiday is over. Habituated animals can never be released into the wild, and when the cub gets too big to be safely handled it’s not cost-effective to keep. To put it bluntly – there’s a good chance it’ll end up on a canned hunting reserve. Read more about this issue here.

Big Five

Ok, we’re not going to argue that the Big Five are not worth seeing. No-one is ever disappointed by a rhino. But we do think there is much, much more to a South Africa holiday than just seeing these species, and to miss the landscapes, cultures, birdlife, cities, and lesser-known species in your bid to tick off this list would be a terrible waste of a trip.

Cape Town Waterfront

The V&A Waterfront attracts more foreigners than anywhere else in South Africa – and with 24 million visitors a year, international hotel chains, shopping malls, overpriced restaurants and characterless cafes are jostling for a piece of the tourist dollar. Come for the views and free family entertainment at the amphitheatre, but be sure to dig deeper into the city to experience more than just the tourist façade.

Food, shopping & people

Eating & drinking in South Africa

Inventive Durbanites created the ultimate takeaway food: Bunny chow. “Bunnies” are curry served inside a hollowed-out loaf of bread.

The intensely full-bodied Pinotage is a wine unique to South Africa, and it’s the perfect accompaniment to a meaty braai. Try and buy Fair Trade labels if possible.

Bobotie is a typical South African dish of curried, minced meat, dried fruit and an egg topping.

Finish off with a koeksister – a plaited, donut-style sweet. It’s deep fried, dipped in sugar and flavoured with ginger, cinnamon or cardamom.
One capital city was not enough for this considerable country; it has three: Pretoria (executive), Bloemfontein (judicial) and Cape Town (legislative).

Our top South Africa Holiday

Self drive South Africa holiday

Self drive South Africa holiday

Explore Cape Town, the Winelands and the Garden Route

From £3395 15 days inc UK flights
Tailor made:
This trip can be tailormade throughout the year and can be adapted to suit your interests, budget and requirements as necessary
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about South Africa or need help finding a holiday to suit you we're very happy to help.

People & culture

South Africa’s many ethnic groups are emphatically unique, yet proudly South African. Explore this country through its culture, including gaudy Cape Malay houses, Afrikaner Braais, Zulu beadwork, Kwaito and Cape Jazz, and Khoisan rock art.
Robots are on every street corner - ‘robots’ are traffic lights.
Confusingly ‘just now’ doesn’t mean immediately, it means sometime soon.
‘Now-now’ means slightly sooner.
Bring your umbrella if you get told it’s a ‘monkey’s wedding’ – this Zulu expression means it’s sunny and raining.

Gifts & shopping

Many craft cooperatives provide an income for disadvantaged people. Look out for skilled metalwork from recycled wire, cans and bottle tops – and even functioning recycled radios!

Naturally dyed indigo cloth – known as ‘shweshwe’ - has been adopted by Xhosa women as part of their traditional dress – as well as by fashion designers worldwide. Authentic shweshwe is still produced here – look out for trademark stamps.

Over half of the world’s mohair comes from South Africa – and you’ll find deliciously soft blankets, jumpers and rugs, dyed in the most beautiful colours from burnt orange (a Xhosa favourite) to deep plum.
The ‘Rainbow Nation’ has 11 official languages – more than any other country in the world.

How much does it cost?

Large glass of Pinotage: £2.70
Litre of petrol: 82p
Boerewors for your braai: £2.65
Cup of rooibos tea: 95p
Pack of Koeksister: £1.20

A brief history of South Africa

This story of South Africa is a notorious one, and we can’t as yet say whether or not it is one which has an entirely happy ending – everyone involved will have a very different experience. It’s paradoxical that Africa’s superpower houses some of the world’s most impoverished people; that exciting, modern cities sit a stone’s throw from unspoiled wildernesses; that its wildlife is free to roam the continent’s largest game reserve, while the people who campaigned for freedom became political prisoners. But great steps have been taken towards the democracy, freedom and unification of this wonderfully diverse Rainbow Nation, and every passing year brings new developments.Read more
Written by Vicki Brown
Photo credits: [Page banner: bikeriderlondon] [Is/Isn't: Dekeister Leopold] [Underrated: Willem van Valkenburg] [Rated: South African Tourism] [Overrated: Axel Hecht] [People & Language: South African Tourism] [How much does it cost?: Chris Fleming]