South Africa Travel, Backpacking & Gap Year Guide
With 48 million residents and 11 official languages, South Africa is an incredibly diverse country. This is the perfect country to see wildlife, go on safari, travel overland and see spectacular destinations. Find ideas and inspiration for the best things to do if you would like to travel, go backpacking or take a gap year in South Africa.
Activities & Things to Do in South Africa
Travel to South Africa
View our comprehensive South Africa travel and backpacking guide with tips, ideas for the best things to see and do and information about itineraries, costs, how to save money, and more!
Our destination guide aims to give you all the information you need to have an amazing experience in this special country. Find affordable travel and backpacking ideas with advice for amazing things to do and how you can be more than just your average traveller. You can also get recommendations for budget travel tips, tips for places to stay and advice how to stay safe.
Get inspired to visit the 'Rainbow Nation' today.
- Capital - Pretoria, Cape Town, Bloemfontein
- Currency - South African Rand (ZAR) $1 = 9ZAR / £1 = 14ZAR
- Population - 50,000,000 (approx)
- Language - Afrikaans, English + local languages
- Country Size - 330,000 sq km
- International Calling Code +27
- Transport - We recommend booking private bus transport for South Africa, crime can be an issue. You can also fly or hire a car
- Tourist Visa - Most nationalities can gain a tourist visa on arrival. If you are from the UK on arrival you will be given a 90 day tourist visa with a valid passport and you will be free to visit anywhere in the country
How to Get to South Africa
South Africa is connected to a lots of international airports worldwide with most flights arriving into Cape Town or Johannesburg. Prices for flights can vary, if you fly direct from London for example this will be more expensive than catching a connection in Dubai. Book in advance to secure the best deals. We recommend searching flights to South Africa on Skyscanner which is the best flight comparison website.
Weather & Best Time to Visit South Africa
South Africa is one of the most exhilarating and beautiful destinations in the world which enjoys a warm climate which makes it an attractive destination. The country is 22 and 35 degrees south of the equator; flanked on the west by the Atlantic Ocean and on the east by the Indian Ocean, whose waters meet at the country's most southern tip, Cape Agulhas. The seasons are exactly opposite to those of the northern hemisphere. This is a destination that can comfortably be visited any month, June to September is cooler and ideal for outdoor activities.
There are hundreds of hotels, hostels, safari lodges, apartments and AirBnB accommodation. If you are looking for somewhere cheap to stay, use Hostelbookers or Booking.com to search for budget accommodation and book in advance to get the best prices.
Travelling & Backpacking in South Africa
Keen to travel to South Africa? Get ready for the most amazing experience of your life.
There are so many highlights of South Africa including visiting Soweto which was home to Nelson Mandela, watching a live rugby game, diving with sharks, learning to surf, seeing exotic wildlife up close, visiting the Kruger National Park, seeing elephants in the Addo National Park, riding the stunning Garden Route, partying on Long Street in Cape Town, learning to surf in Jefferys Bay and chilling out on beaches in Durban.
We do not recommend taking public transport as the infrastructure isn't reliable or safe. It is always best to stick to the tourist routes and either book trips in advance or with hotels and hostels once inside South Africa. Organised packages are very safe, you will be given full safety information when joining a trip and very few problems occur with international visitors.
On our directory you can find activities and inspiration for the best things to do if you would like to go travelling, backpacking or take a gap year in South Africa.
Best Places to Visit in South Africa
South Africa might look quite small on a map but believe us there is a lot to see and do here. Everywhere is quite spreadout so you might want to plan your itinerary to see as much as possible. Here is a run down of just a few of the places you might want to visit...
- Cape Town - If you’re looking to experience one of the most amazing cities in the world then Cape Town is a great place to visit. Cape Town is perfect in any season, whether it is in the height of its gorgeous autumn season when spring breaks elsewhere, during summer and even winter when there is still a warm climate. Cape Town is known for its beauty and pleasant weather, so even though it isn’t uniquely “spring,” it is well worth a visit as soon as you get a chance to break away
- Durban - A sunny/hot destination with a long beach across the seafront
- Johannesberg - A thriving huge bustling city, you must see Soweto where Nelson Madela used to live
- Wild Coast - Beautiful beaches and mountains
- Garden Route - Some of the most spectacular scenery in the world
- Port Elizabeth - On the spectacular Southern Coast, expect beaches and lots of marine/shark conservation projects
- Kruger National Park - One of the best places to go on a wildlife safari in the world
- Elephant Addo National Park - See hundreds of elephants and other animals in their natural habitat
Top Things to Do in South Africa
- Going to the Kruger National Park - one of the best wildlife areas in the world where you should be able to see elephants, lions and more animals
- Diving with great white sharks
- Seeing the Cape of Good Hope, the Southern most tip of the African continent
- For culture and tradition head to Zululand
- Hiking the Drakensberg Mountains for a thrilling adventure experience
- Driving the Garden Route and pass by the impressive Drakensberg mountain range
- Visiting the Addo Elephant National Park where you can see elephants in their natural habitat
- Seeing sharks and dolphins off the coast of Port Elizabeth and Cape Town
- Learn to surf
- Watching a live sporting event like a rugby or cricket game - some of the local passions
- Going horse riding and seeing waterfalls at the Wild Coast
Transport & How to Get Around
If you are worried about traveling solo, or want to enjoy the safest and most fun experience we really advise joining a private bus service in South Africa. Book in advance as spaces can fill up quick. If you are looking to travel independently then there are bus companies and routes built specifically for tourists like the Baz Bus. The Baz Bus is a hop on hop off bus service which runs through South Africa and is great if you want a flexible itinerary. This bus service picks you up and drops you off at hotels and hostels in towns and cities all around the country and is also a great way to meet new people.
South Africa is one of the worlds top tourist destinations and rightly so but safety is a big concern for most travelers. Poverty and crime is a problem, unemployment is high and living conditions for millions of the people in the country are basic. Always listen to advice from locals and other travelers and you'll know where is best to go and where is not advised to visit. Millions of people visit this country annually and very few encounter and problems.
A safe way to travel is taking an organised excursion - this way you will always be with other travelers and have experienced staff to offer advice and assistance. We advise you to be aware of your surroundings especially late at night and in cities like Cape Town and Johennesburg which have a higher crime rate than the rest of the country. Try to travel in a group or with someone and do not carry around large amounts of money or show flashy jewlery, cameras and phones in public view.
Health & Vaccinations
Before departing check to see about vaccinations you might need prior to departure. You might also want to consider maleria tablets if you are going to be visiting certain areas of the country. HIV & Aids rates are very high in South Africa so avoid having unprotected sex with anyone. Also be sure to buy travel insurance before departing and make sure you are covered for all aspects of your trip (read the small print).
Gap Year in South Africa
Taking time out from the daily routine is important. Gap years are a wonderful and necessary reward for our hard work, but sometimes a week away isn’t enough. The excitement of being in a new place is delicious; but all too soon it’s gone again and you’re back to work, college or university. South Africa is a diverse and colourful country and when visiting you can expect lots of backpackers, things to do, places to visit and amazing wildlife to see like lions and leopards.
After some adventure and wildlife packed into one destination? South Africa is for you! Home to the incredible Big Five, make sure you head on a safari to experience a real life game reserve. With a variety of trips, can help you volunteer with a local community, get hands on with endangered wildlife, or even monitor Great White Sharks (yes really!). In your spare time make sure you soak up the atmosphere in Cape Town, and of course don’t miss out on the jaw-dropping Garden Route.
Best Gap Year Programs in South Africa
Joining a ap year program are a good way to experience the country in a different way, make a contribution to a worthwhile cause and also explore new destinations, usually you will have weekends free and South Africa has so many places you could visit. On most placements other than medical related projects you wont need any previous experience to apply, but you will need to be open minded to a new experience and also adaptable, flexible and okay living and working in rustic conditions. Prices can vary depenging on what you would like to do.
Are you interested in spending your gap year working in South Africa? You can find positions throughout the country. There are also a selection of media, journalism, medicine / healthcare, law and human rights placements. If you are looking for a unique career change consider booking a safari guide course.
Most programs will require you to be aged 18 and over, but there are also special trips for families and summer tasters for 16 and 17 year olds during summer. You will need to be from a country where you will be eligble for a tourist visa. Some companies and local organisations will require you to pay a fee to join. This usually includes placements, a donation, airport transfers, meals, accommodation and in-country support. These experiences are very organised and are perfect if you want to see the country in a safe and structured way.