Check out my top tips for visiting South Africa, I hope they help you with your travel plans.
We visited South Africa on our honeymoon ( many years ago!) and loved it. We decided to go back and bring the kids this time. We spent sixteen days travelling around South Africa, from Cape Town to the Winelands, along the Garden Route and enjoyed a safari on the Eastern Cape at the end. We had an amazing trip, filled with life long memories. Many people assumed we would have safety concerns, but the truth is we didn’t. We did get great advice from our travel agent GoHop.ie before we left and we also picked up a few tips along the way. Here are my top tips for visiting South Africa!
Allow yourself at least four or five nights here. There is so much to do in Cape Town and it is a great city to start off your holiday in South Africa. The Waterfront is very commercialised, but it is a good place to stay. You will feel extremely safe walking around and there are lots of shops, bars and restaurants to choose from. We stayed in the Waterfront Village apartments and found them great, they offer the comforts of an apartment, with the service of a hotel. Top attractions include Table Mountain, Robben Island and the Two Oceans Aquarium. Visit the colourful houses of Bo-kaap and allow yourself a full day to drive the Cape Peninsula. Read my guide to Cape Town, where to stay, where to eat and safety, here.
Unlike most things in South Africa, the tourist attractions can be quite expensive. Make sure you book as much as possible online before hand. Not only will this save you money, but you will skip the queues when you arrive. Trips to Robben Island need to be booked as far in advance as possible, as visitor numbers are restricted each day. A visit to the Two Oceans Aquarium is a must if travelling with kids. Located on the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town, you only need to spend a few hours there but the kids will thank you for it! While you are at the Waterfront, don’t bother with the Cape Wheel, it is over priced and the views are much better from Table Mountain!
Cape Town has a severe water problem and there are water shortages in many parts of South Africa. Although this varies depending on where you are, some establishments have little or no water in bathrooms. Locals use water very sparingly and you should too. I recommend bringing a small hand sanitiser with you at all times.
If travelling to Table Mountain (or any of the high peaks, Signal Hill or Lions Head), bear in mind that temperatures are about 10 degrees cooler than in the centre of Cape Town. Wear warm clothes or at least bring a jumper with you. Queues for the cable car to Table Mountain can be two hours in peak season. Book online, you still may have to queue, but it will be shorter. It only takes about two hours to hike it, so if you don’t fancy queuing, this is a great alternative, weather permitting. It is a strenuous climb though so a certain degree of fitness would be required.
Try to use only metered taxis or alternatively download the uber app before you go. Taxis are very cheap so if you are in a restaurant or hotel, ask them to order one for you and you shoudn’t have any price issues then. If you get into a taxi without a meter, make sure to agree a set price before you go. Haggling is expected and don’t be afraid to walk away!
Skip Stellenbosch. It is a big busy city and not exactly the quiet countryside town you might be expecting. Franschhoek is much nicer, although has a Disney type feel to it. We stayed in Val du Charron, just outside Wellington and loved it. Read why I think Val Du Charron is the best place to stay in the Winelands here.
Give yourself plenty of time. Drive times from the Winelands to the Garden route are 4 – 5 hours so it is unlikely you will fancy doing anything on your first day. Take that into account and book a minimum of two nights in particular towns if there are activities you are interested in. Towns like Hermanus are popular for whale watching, but remember the whales are usually only there from June to December. Although it is a nice drive and roads are good, at times it can look very similar to a drive in many parts of Ireland. If you are short of time, consider flying from Cape Town to George or Port Elizabeth and skipping the 1200km drive. Seaside Resorts such as Cape St Francis Resort where we stayed, is only ninety minutes from Port Elizabeth, and it is a great alternative to Plettenberg Bay. Read all about our family stay in Cape St Francis Resort here.
There is such a wide choice of safari options to choose from. If you wish to visit Kruger National Park, bear in mind you will need to take malaria tablets before you arrive. Game Reserves along the Eastern Cape, near Port Elizabeth, are usually malaria free. We stayed in Amakhala Game Reserve and loved it. Most game drives are early morning (ours was 6am) and afternoon so if you want to make the most of your stay, be sure to arrive in time for your afternoon game drive. Many people leave this part of the holiday untill last, if so, book an afternoon flight so you can avail of a morning game drive before you leave. Despite temperatures of 28 degrees, we found it cold in the open jeep. Bring plenty of warm clothes, particularly for the morning drives. You can read all about our luxury safari in Amakhala Game Reserve here.
When you park your car at the side of the road, ‘car minders’ will undoubtedly approach you. Locals will offer to mind your car while you go into a shop, restaurant or attraction. This might sound bizarre and is a bit disconcerting, but bear in mind the unemployment rates in South Africa are staggering. Do your bit to help the local economy and accept graciously. When you return give them a 5 rand coin. It is only about 30 cent, and it’s better to be safe than sorry!
Keep valuables in your hand luggage.
Unfortunately there are stories reported of suitcases being tampered with in some airports, particularly Johannesburg. We didn’t have any issues, but we were asked in Port Elizabeth if we had locks for our cases at check-in. When we said we had no locks, we were then asked if we wanted to remove any valuables, before they were checked in! Our luggage arrived safe and sound but it was a nervous wait!
Take out cash in the airport when you arrive, the exchange rate is usually better than at home. There are plenty of ATM’s around so just take out as much as you think you may need for a few days, rather than carrying large amounts of cash. There is a small fee (about €2.50 per €200) in some machines. Some petrol stations and small local shops / restaurants don’t take credit cards so make sure you have cash available.
Do something you have never done before!
South Africa is full of extraordinary sights and has adventure on every corner. From shark-cage diving to bungy jumping, river rafting to paragliding, face your fears in South Africa and try something new! I paraglided off Signal Hill in Cape Town and it was amazing!
Before you go – travelling with children:
If travelling with children make sure you bring their original birth certificates with you. You will not be allowed enter the South Africa without them. Photocopies will not suffice. If a single parent is travelling alone with one of their children or if you are travelling with a child that is not your own, there are further legal requirements – see more here.
Book with a specialist
There are so many things to do in South Africa, it is impossible to see it all! Talk to a specialist and let them know what you want from your holiday. Whether you want quiet romantic hotels or family friendly options, they will recommend the right one for you. I booked with GoHop.ie and they were excellent. The meet and greet service at the airport was superb. We received a travel digest with detailed maps, travel distances and a list of things to do in each resort. You also have the advantage of having someone at the end of the phone if you need any assistance.
Planning a trip to South Africa? Check out all my posts from our South Africa adventures here.