Travel

Why you should see South Africa

Travelers on safari see two leopards

One of the biggest countries on the African continent, South Africa promises one of the most diverse—and all-around gorgeous—travel destinations in the world.

Its spellbinding landscapes include the dreamlike ramparts of the Drakensberg (the “Dragon Mountains”) along the Great Escarpment, which soar above 11,000 feet and support, surprisingly enough, winter skiing. There’s the parched but wildlife-rich fringe of the Kalahari Desert, the windswept Karoo, the fertile farmlands of the Highveld, and of course the astonishingly beautiful Cape Peninsula, from the Cape Town backdrop of Table Mountain to the wave-battered Cape of Good Hope.

The Cape Peninsula accounts for only a small share of South Africa’s roughly 1,550-mile seacoast: an “unbelievably beautiful” one, says AAA travel advisor Page Goodrich, presenting its seductive beaches and rugged headlands along both the Atlantic and the Indian oceans. The country is also easily one of the top destinations in the world for wildlife-viewing, given such preeminent safari hotspots as Kruger National Park. From black-maned lions to great white sharks, enormous elephants to even more enormous humpback whales, South Africa has a surfeit of wonders for the nature lover.

“South Africa is a one-of-a-kind, world-class destination,” Page notes—not just scenically and ecologically diverse, but, in this “rainbow nation,” also multicultural and multiethnic. It’s an extraordinary and complex place that most definitely rewards repeat visits.

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Fast facts

South African rand money, in paper bills

Currency

South Africa’s official currency is the rand, represented by the symbol R. Page notes that credit cards are widely accepted in the country’s urban centers.

Capitals

South Africa has three capitals: a legislative one in Cape Town, an executive one in Pretoria, and a judicial one in Bloemfontein. Johannesburg, meanwhile—with a metro area surpassing 9 million—is the largest city.

Language

South Africa claims 11 officially recognized languages, making it one of the most linguistically rich countries in the world. Zulu and Xhosa are the most widely spoken, followed by Afrikaans and English.

Fun fact

Southwestern South Africa’s Cape Floristic Region is a downright epic global hotspot of biodiversity, host to some 9,500 species of plants. Roughly 70% are endemic: found nowhere else in the world. Table Mountain National Park near Cape Town harbors more kinds of plants than all of Great Britain.

What to see

“South Africa is the kind of place that’s hard to see on one visit,” says Page—as it’s big and diverse, with plenty of off-the-beaten-track treasures in addition to its high-profile destinations. But the following suggestions at least gesture at some of the premier attractions to be found in this southernmost realm of Africa.

An aerial view of Cape Town, South Africa

Cape Town

South Africa’s legislative capital is consistently ranked among the top cities in the world to visit, not least for its spectacular, mountain-rimmed setting along Table Bay. It enjoys a mild Mediterranean-style climate with a rainy winter season from June to August. “Probably the best time to visit would be January, February, and March,” Page says.

No visit to Cape Town is complete without taking in the astonishing scenery of its signal peak Table Mountain up-close, and one classic way to do so is by riding the Table Mountain Aerial Cableway—in operation since 1929—to the summit. Page especially recommends a sunset ride on the cable car: “Cape Town is a major natural harbor and quite beautiful at night, especially from the panoramic view at the top of the gondola,” he says.

A cell block at Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned

Cape Town’s beaches are legendary, and there’s fantastic shopping and dining to be had in this thoroughly cosmopolitan metropolis.

Page suggests tapping into South African history while exploring Cape Town via the District Six Museum, which tells the story of apartheid-era forced removal of the city’s District Six neighborhood, and the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Robben Island in Table Bay, where civil rights leader Nelson Mandela—who helped lead the fight against apartheid and who ultimately became South Africa’s first black president—was imprisoned for some 18 years.

Penguins at Boulders Beach on the Cape Peninsula

The Cape Peninsula

Venture beyond Cape Town to experience the stunning scenery and wildlife of the Cape Peninsula, which extends south from the city to Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope. “There are some surprisingly quiet, beautiful, crystal-clear beaches for all water-related activities including surfing and fishing,” Page says. Critters include the African penguins of Boulders Beach, plentiful chacma baboons, fur seals, humpbacks, and the southern right whales that frequent the coastal waters from June to November.

False Bay is also famous for its great white sharks: This is one of the preeminent places anywhere on Earth to go cage-diving with this superlative marine predator, which prowls these depths to feast on pinnipeds.

A vineyard in South Africa

The Cape Winelands

Page also suggests touring the Cape Winelands, easily reached from Cape Town and host to some of the most extensive and well-regarded vineyards in South Africa. “These wines are becoming very famous and highly rated throughout the world,” Page notes. He suggests Stellenbosch—some 30 miles east of Cape Town—as a good destination for sampling the flavor of the Winelands country.

A herd of rhinos at Kruger National Park

Kruger National Park

On the opposite side of the country as Cape Town, Kruger National Park ranks among the biggest game reserves in all of Africa as well as one of the oldest protected areas in the world. Its roughly 7,500-square-mile swath of Lowveld woodland plays host to a stunning variety of large mammals, including the famous “Big Five” so coveted by safari-goers: the lion, the leopard, the Cape buffalo, the African elephant, and the rhino (both black and white). Also here are rare African wild dogs (aka painted hunting dogs), cheetahs, spotted hyena, hippos, zebra, Nile crocodiles, and a wealth of antelope, including the huge eland.

Giraffes at Kapama game reserve

Private game reserves

For more classic South African wildlife-viewing, Page recommends two private game reserves in the Kruger vicinity: Kapama and Sabi Sand. These well-accoutered refuges also play host to the Big Five, plus everything from blue wildebeest and impala to civets, pangolins, vervet monkeys, and those feisty members of the weasel family known as honey badgers or ratels.

 “In a private game reserve, you’ll generally do two game drives a day,” Page explains. “You’ll start early in the morning about daybreak, because that’s when many predators are active, and do a four- or five-hour game drive with a driver and a guide. Then in the afternoon and evening as the sun’s going down, you’ll go out on another game drive for three or four hours, and again that’s another very active time for animals.”

An aerial view of Blyde River Canyon

Blyde River Canyon

South Africa boasts one of the world’s greatest gorges in the form of the Blyde River Canyon, among the scenic centerpieces of the Drakensberg. Here you’ll find such wonders as the “Weeping Face of Nature” waterfall and the round-topped canyon pillars called the Three Rondavels.

A dig site at the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site

The Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site

Just a short trip from Johannesburg, the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site encompasses one of the most significant paleoanthropological complexes in the world: Some of the most extensive and ancient hominin fossils anywhere have been unearthed from this remarkable terrain.

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Page Goodrich and AAA's other travel advisor can help you plan a trip that's the right fit for where you want to go, what you want to see, and what you can spend. See how to get in touch with Page and AAA's other travel advisors.

What to eat

South African chutney

Chutney

A quintessential taste of South Africa, according to Page. South African chutney is similar to jam and usually made with sweet fruit, but with chili and vinegar to balance out the sweetness. It can be used as a baste on meat, a dipping sauce, or a topping for toast, among many other uses. Page says the locally produced Mrs. Ball’s Original Chutney is “a must-eat and something to bring back home.”

Meats being braai'd in South Africa

Braai

The South African version of barbecuing is known as braaivleis, an Afrikaans word meaning "grilled meat." Called braai for short, it's traditionally done with a wood fire, and it's a common way for South Africans to socialize, as well as a popular cuisine in restaurants. Meats on offer include familiar favorites like steaks and chicken, but you'll also find native favorites like boerewors, a traditional South African sausage cooked in a spiral shape; and roosterbrood bread, which is cooked by putting dough right on the grill.

A wine tasting lunch in South Africa

Wine

Page notes that a tour of the Cape Winelands region is one of the best epicurean experiences to be had in South Africa, and not just for the vino. “Many of the wine tasting tours include local food for lunch,” he says. 

South Africa's most distinctive wine variety is Pinotage, a fruity dark red that's a new experience for most visitors. Other popular varietals include Chenin blanc, Colombard, Cabernet sauvignon, and Shiraz.

Where to stay & how to get around

Hotels along the coast in Cape Town

Stay in Cape Town

“Cape Town offers world-class accommodations such as the Waterfront Hotel, the Commodore Hotel, and the Table Bay Hotel,” Page says. He also highly recommends the Twelve Apostles Hotel & Spa to the south of the city along the road down the Cape Peninsula, which overlooks the Atlantic.

The South African city of Johannesburg at night

Stay in Johannesburg

In Johannesburg, meanwhile, your options include the Saxon Hotel, Villas & Spas—which, notably, once served as a home-away-from-home for none other than Nelson Mandela—as well as Fairlawns Boutique Hotel & Spa and the Four Seasons Hotel The Westcliff.

A small propeller plane takes off in South Africa

Getting around South Africa

In terms of transportation, Page notes that most of the major hotels offer shuttle services as well as concierge-directed private drivers. You can also take various bus tours headed for the Cape Winelands and beyond.

A typical South African itinerary might look something like this, Page says: “Most people will come into, say, Johannesburg, work their way down with a connecting flight to Cape Town. They’ll spend maybe three or four or five days in Cape Town viewing the beaches, the city, the tip of the peninsula, the Winelands, and then come back up to Johannesburg and catch a small plane into Kruger National Park.”

Other destinations to add to your trip

A truck crossing sand dunes in the Namib Desert on Nambia's Atlantic coast

Safari excursions & coastal deserts in Namibia & Botswana

From South Africa, you might consider making forays into the neighboring countries of Namibia and Botswana, home to such celebrated safari destinations as Etosha National Park (Namibia) and the Okavango Delta and Central Kalahari Game Reserve (Botswana), plus the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park sprawling across the Botswana/South Africa borders and the extraordinary Skeleton Coast of Namibia’s Namib Desert oceanfront.

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Ready to explore South Africa?

Cruising is a great way to see South Africa, and booking your cruise with AAA is a great way to get discounts, onboard spending credits, exclusive cruise specials, and more. AAA's online booking engine lets you search by price, cruise duration, ports of call, cruise line, and even specific cruise ships. Explore what each South Africa cruise has to offer, and find the perfect one for you.

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AAA can help put together the right trip for you

Navigating all the options is no small task when considering a trip to South Africa. A travel advisor can help find the itinerary that's right for you, whatever your culinary, historical, artistic, and leisure goals. Get a AAA travel advisor's help planning your personalized South Africa adventure by calling our dedicated travel advisor phone line, submitting a request for assistance online, or finding a AAA branch near you.

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AAA Travel alert: Several countries, states, and cities have implemented travel and business restrictions due to COVID-19. Prior to making any travel reservations, please ensure that restaurants, hotels, and attractions are open. The local tourism board is another good resource for updated information in your destination.

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