South Africa is at the top of many bucket lists! And finding the right South Africa travel tips for you means deciding where you want to go, what you want to do, and how many days you have to do it all. After putting it on my bucket list six years ago, I finally visited South Africa for the first time and am spilling all the tips for first-time visitors.
So if you’re looking for South Africa travel tips for Cape Town and Johannesburg, you have come to the right blog post. I spent ten days traveling through both cities on a girl’s trip. We filled our days and did as much as we possibly could!
I will have to return one day to do more because there is so much to experience! But if you’re visiting South Africa, in particular Johannesburg and Cape Town, for the first time, here is what I would recommend.
What do you need to know before traveling to South Africa?
Like other countries, it’s essential to read about South Africa’s history. Understanding the importance of Nelson Mandela and apartheid helps you contextualize much of what you experience and observe. Of course, you do not have to be an expert. But I think basic knowledge of the history and culture amplified my visits to the Apartheid Museum, Mandela’s House, Robben Island, Soweto, and more.
How many days are enough to visit South Africa?
If you are coming from a location to the US, you want to give yourself time in South Africa. The flight can be 18 hours or more; hence, it warrants more than a few days for a trip. I believe the ideal timeframe to visit South Africa is two weeks. Therefore, I would love an extra few days on my 10-day trip.
What is the best way to travel to and around South Africa?
When I visited South Africa, I only visited Cape Town and Johannesburg. For both cities, my friends and I did a mix of Ubers and tours that included transportation. South Africans drive on the opposite side of the car compared to the U.S. If you are comfortable with that, you can rent a car!
Is South Africa “cheap” for American tourists?
Noting a destination as “cheap” depends on your currency, which usually correlates with your travel privilege. Therefore, compared to the U.S., South Africa is inexpensive in our currency. However, note that Cape Town is more expensive than Johannesburg.
When is the best time to visit South Africa?
All the best South Africa travel tips will tell you to visit during the spring or summer. We visited in November 2022, towards the end of the month, meaning we experienced the end of spring. The summer months in South Africa are from December to February. Winter is June, July, August, and spring are September, October, and November.
Johannesburg travel tips
Safari day at Pilanesberg National Park/Game Reserve
One of the most common South Africa travel tips is to visit a safari. However, many South African safaris can be multiple days long and require an overnight stay. If you do not have that time, I recommend doing a detour to Pilanesberg National Park/game reserve. I found a tour including round-trip, transportation, lunch, and entry into the park on Viator for $144 per person. This price was inexpensive compared to the other South African safaris across the country.
Spa day at Mowana Spa
For those travelers who love a luxury day on their trip, Mowana Spa is the place to be in Johannesburg. They offer a variety of packages! And with their full-day package you can get five massages and breakfast, lunch, and drinks between your massages for $120 per person. Prior to Mowana I did not get massages while on vacation. But now it is one of my top South Africa travel tips that I want to replicate in other places.
Shop, eat, and drink at The Playground
For a market with delicious food, talented people, and a music-filled atmosphere head to The Playground. On the first level you can find local vendors selling clothes, smoothies, peri-peri chicken, sandwiches, handmade crafts, and more. Then the top floor has a DJ with more artisan market vendors, a bar, and rooftop. The Playground is ideal for friends hanging out, enjoying the music, and meeting new people all afternoon.
Bush walk with lions Ukutula Lodge & Conservation Center
An adventurous adventure near Johannesburg is going to the Ukutula Conservation Center. We booked the visit and bushwalked with lions through Big Six Tour Safaris. It was $150 per person and included roundtrip transportation from Johannesburg. The ride is 45 minutes to an hour from downtown.
However, after some additional research post-walk, I learned that these walks are not as ethical as advertised. I did not find any concerns about Ukutula Lodge in particular (though that does not mean they don’t exist). Though I did learn that there is controversy about what happens to the lions after they are no longer “pretty” to tourists. If responsible travel is a priority to you, this may be an activity you skip.
Experience a Soweto day tour
Of all my South Africa travel tips, Soweto is the one for history lovers. MoAfrika Tours has a variety of tours across the continent, especially in South Africa. It was a full day, including lunch, entrance fees, and roundtrip transportation for $90. But going into Mandela’s House was an additional cost, and if you do go, be sure to bring cash to tip the guide.
Learn more history at the Hector Pieterson Museum
The Hector Museum is lesser known than the Apartheid Museum but holds so much significance. Hector Pieterson was a 12-year-old boy killed by police during the youth uprisings in Soweto. They were protesting the use of Afrikaans as the primary language in schools. This museum is one of the most emotional museums I have ever visited. It was also included in the MoAfrika Soweto day tour. I think it is a must-visit to understand South Africa’s history.
Immerse yourself in Apartheid Museum
My South Africa travel tips would not be complete without a trip to the Apartheid Museum. The tour was included in the Soweto day tour with MoAfrika Tours. However, I highly recommend visiting this museum on your own. Spending at least 2 to 3 hours reading all the histories is recommended. Therefore, I recommend returning if you have less than that on tour. There is so much to read that I wish I had longer to experience it all.
Cape Town travel tips
A reflective morning on Robben Island
After visiting Soweto, it was imperative to visit Robben Island. This island is where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years. You can take a tour that includes roundtrip transportation on the ferry and a bus on the island for $35 per person.
The Robben Island tour is four hours and I found myself going through a wave of emotions. It is led by a former political prisoner and you have the opportunity to talk to him and walk into the cells. Similar to the Hector Pietersen Museum, be prepared to learn a lot and feel a bit heavy here.
Walk around the Waterfront
If you are looking for a place to grab some food or do some souvenir shopping, you can check out the Waterfront. There are also some designated spots to take photos to get a view of Table Mountain from down below. This Waterfront is where you board to take the ferry to Robben Island and visit the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa if you love art museums.
Ride the cable car to Table Mountain
Your trip to South Africa for the first time is not complete without a visit to Table Mountain. It was one of the most beautiful views I’ve ever seen. To reach the top you can hike or take the cable car. There is also a bar and restaurant at the top for you to patron as you take in the views. The cost per person is $22.
Wine tasting at Cape Winelands
If you are a wine lover, you need to visit Stellenbosch and/or Franschhoek. My friends and I did the half-day Cape Winelands tour with MoAfrika tours at Fraschhoek, which included a stop in Stellenbosch. You get at least two glasses from three wineries for $65.
This was the perfect chill half day to end our trip. If you do the morning tour, I recommend eating a hearty breakfast as you will start drinking at 9am. And if you have space in your luggage, snag two bottles for the flight home!
Snap a photo and learn history at Bo-Kaap
Bo-Kaap is a popular neighborhood with colorful houses in Cape Town. The styles and vibrancy of the homes make it one of the most popular photo ops on this list of South Africa travel tips. If you take a walking tour on Viator, Get Your Guide, or Airbnb Experience, your tour guide will stop here too.
Historically, Bo-Kaap is also a multicultural neighborhood with a predominantly Muslim community. In the 1950s, it was declared a Muslim-only space and people of other religions and ethnicities were forced to leave. Be mindful and responsible when you are taking photos that people still live here too!
Hang out with penguins at Boulders Beach
Boulder’s Beach is one of the most social media famous South Africa travel tips! Tourists, such as myself, love to visit the penguins that live here. You can visit Boulder’s Beach while on the Cape Peninsula tour with MoAfrika Tours as well. Or you can plan a trip here yourself, just remember not to touch the penguins. If you want a more up close and personal experience with the penguins, go to Foxy’s Beach too.
Take a boat to the seals on Seal Island
Seal Island was a surprise while on our MoAfrika’s Cape Peninsula full-day tour. It is our first stop on time, and it is $8 to take the boat to the seals. Therefore, the smell is not the greatest. Yet, it was fascinating to observe all the seals living life and enjoying themselves in and around the water.
Bask in the sunset at Camps Bay
Camps Bay is known as one of the most expensive parts of South Africa. If you want to be by the water, staying at an Airbnb in this neighborhood is easy. Then, you can catch an Uber down to the beach and enjoy the sunset. There are shops, restaurants, and more activities along the boardwalk. But the sunset is the best part!
Ride through Cape Peninsula
As Cape Town is a cape, you must experience scenic driving. The Cape Peninsula tour (linked above) I booked through MoAfrika Tours included Chapman’s Peak, Cape of Good Hope, Boulder’s Beach, and lunch in Simon’s Town. The tour was $100 and included stops at each sight, long enough to take pictures and do some shopping.
Party, party in Cape Town
Cape Town is known for its nightlife! However, one of my South Africa travel tips for girls who love to be in bed early is to attend one of their day parties. We found one through Slow Cooked Sundays, the day we landed in Cape Town. I recommend them, or another one you can find via social media. The vibes, music, people, and food were incredible.
How to create a South Africa travel budget
Research the possible flights, accommodations and activities
My friends and I caught a $600 flight deal from Chicago to Johannesburg. However, flights to South Africa can cost $800+. Therefore, you need to research the window of time you want to travel because traveling during the high season in the summer means it can be more expensive.
From there, you must decide what accommodations you want to stay in. Our Airbnb in Johannesburg was $500 per person (five people total) for five nights. Our Airbnb in Cape Town was $347 per person for four nights. These can be a guide, but research hotels if you are traveling with less people to compare prices.
Additional costs you need to factor into your South Africa travel budget include a flight from Johannesburg to Cape Town. I had a flight credit of under $100 on Delta and that’s how much it cost one way. You also need to factor in transportation, tips for the tour guides, and extra money for souvenirs and shopping.
Decide on the activities you want to do
Now that you have a bunch of activities to choose from listed above, it’s time to decide. First, picking your activities will help you map out how much you want to do. Then you can align your money to choose the financially feasible tours within your time frame.
Since many tours include roundtrip transportation they will be a bit more expensive. For example, South African tours ranged from $65 to $150. But it’s important to factor in how much you would be paying for Uber and the ease of having a driver/guide on the tour too.
Plan out the days for each activity
Once you decide what tours you want to do, now it’s time to plan it out. If you choose to do full-day tours, I would not plan another activity after that because some of them can run late. And if you have the time, I would recommend relaxing between more intense sights like Robben Island, the Hector Museum, and the Apartheid Museum. A general rule is to plan up to two daily activities.
For example, in Johannesburg, we did not plan anything else the day we went on the safari at Pilanesberg National Park. However, we could do Robben Island and the Table Mountain cable car on the same day in Cape Town. Provide balance in your itinerary so you don’t feel rushed, overwhelmed, or too tired to do anything else.
Being a Black American woman in South Africa
As a Black American who (typically) travels solo, one of my goals is to visit more African countries. Unfortunately, due to being in the US, African countries are so far away and require more vacation time than I usually have budgeted to get a full experience. But I think being a Black American in South Africa felt very familiar.
Learning more about the history between white Afrikaners and Black South Africans felt very similar to U.S. history. There were parts in the Hector Pieterson Museum and the Apartheid Museum where I felt like I was transported back to the 1960s in the U.S. Our histories and struggles overlap, and in those historical spaces, I felt the tenseness of it all.
Overall, I loved my experience as a Black American woman visiting South Africa for the first time. The people I connected with on the tours and in the markets were the most impactful part of the trip. I know some Black Americans experience anti-Black American sentiments in African countries. However, that was different from my experience, and I recommend Cape Town and Johannesburg. The culture is infectious and I can’t wait to visit again.
The final tip for your first trip to South Africa
Of all the South Africa travel tips, my best one is to book the flight immediately! It is a beautiful country with rich food, culture, history, and people who are open and willing to share it with you as long as you respect them. So if you have a week off coming this year or the next, you must visit South Africa!