South Africa is a diverse, exciting, awe-inspiring country that deserves a place on every traveller's bucket list. From world-class winelands to spectacular safari parks, it's truly an experiential destination. But, with so much to see and do, planning your trip can be challenging. With this in mind, I've put together the ultimate guide, covering everything from what to pack and when to go, to the best in luxury hotels and safari lodges.
The strikingly different landscapes, from coast to interior, contrast cliffside towns and golden beaches with grassy game reserves and rugged mountains. Hike among Paleozoic rock formations in the Cape Fold Belt or traverse the Drakensberg Mountains, dotted with glassy lakes. In Cape Town, views from Table Mountain reveal a medley of elegant architecture and vibrant coloured houses across the city, along with glimpses of Robben Island, the notorious prison that once held Nelson Mandela. Get out of the city on luxury rail journeys through the country, indulging in gourmet dining along the way, or get lost in the fertile vineyards – the oldest outside of Europe – of the Cape winelands.
Then, of course, the game reserves of Kruger National Park, Sabi Sands Game Reserve, and Madikwe offer once-in-a-lifetime safari experiences among the likes of buffalo, cheetahs, leopards and gemsbok – you can even spot the Big Five. Visit Zulu battlefields in KwaZulu-Natal, uncover ancient San rock art in hidden caves and search for prehistoric human fossils at the Cradle of Humankind. Or, if relaxation is what you're after, the sub-tropical beaches on the Indian Ocean pair powder-sand beaches with pods of playful dolphins, whales, and seals. In short - wherever you go, it's bound to be special.
Depending on where you're heading, there are myriad luxury hotels in South Africa to choose from. In Cape Town itself, Belmond's grand Mount Nelson blends pared-back elegance with sleek modernity, just a short walk from Kloof and Long Streets. Meanwhile, Cape Cadogan is a quirky, boutique hideaway with just 15 bedrooms and many of Cape Town’s most popular restaurants and cafés within walking distance.
For dedicated oenophiles, Richard Brandon's Mont Rochelle sprawls across a hundred or so acres of gardens and vineyards in Franschhoek, with 26 rooms and suites named after the region's leading wines. Nearby, La Residence's opulent glamour is hard to ignore, close to the Wemmers River and, of course, some of the country's best wineries – the Chamonix and Stony Brook varietals are world-renowned. Alternatively, head to the oldest wine route in South Africa, perhaps staying at Oude Werf, all wood beams and period-style furnishings. Stellenbosch's oak-lined streets are on your doorstep, and the hotel boasts a shaded pool for relaxing afternoons in the sun, post-wine tasting.
If it's relaxation you're seeking, consider the stunning Ocean Eleven Guesthouse in Hermanus, South Africa's whale-watching capital. Perched high on the cliffs above picturesque Walker Bay, you can watch whales calving, between June and November each year, from your balcony or the peaceful pool deck. And, similarly impressive views can be enjoyed from The Plettenberg, on the famous Garden Route. Its two infinity pools overlook the Indian Ocean and surrounding mountains at Plettenberg Bay, on the border of the Western and Eastern Capes.
South Africa is well-known for its safaris, where seeing the Big Five is commonplace, and luxury lodges offer the chance to experience it all in serious style. One of my favourites is the Great Fish River Lodge in Kwandwe, a vast private game reserve in the malaria-free Eastern Cape. After days spent on game drives and guided safari walks, you'll return to your suite, complete with outdoor terrace, private plunge pool and indoor and outdoor showers.
A round-up of safari lodges wouldn't be complete without those in Sabi Sands and Kruger – one of the world's most famous safari parks. &Beyond's Tengile River Lodge is an environmentally-conscious property set right on the river in the Sabi Sands reserve, which shares an unfenced border with Kruger itself. The lodge's panoramic views over the surrounding forest are best taken in from your private lap pool and spacious timber deck. Dulini River Lodge is equally picturesque, in the western sector of Sabi Sands, this time on the edge of the Mabrak River. With just eight suites and personal butler service, it's an intimate and luxurious experience, with everything from wilderness dinners and bush breakfasts to Kruger game drives bringing your surroundings to life.
Finally, although not technically a safari lodge, I have to mention Bushmans Kloof. Nestled below the mighty Cederberg Mountains, its remoteness is part of its charm. Here, the elusive Cape leopard roams the mountains, while one of the largest private herds of Cape mountain zebra are protected on the predator-free reserve. It's also endlessly luxurious – the onsite spa was voted Best Luxury Wellness Spa in the country, and there are four pools set in pristine gardens around the resort.
If you're heading to one of the safari lodges above, there's no doubt that you're seeking wildlife encounters of the most thrilling kind. South Africa is blessed with an abundance of wildlife – so here's my definitive watch list.
South Africa is in the Southern Hemisphere, so when travelling from the UK, the seasons will be reversed. With this in mind, here's what you might need:
The great thing about South Africa is that it's truly a year-round destination. Unlike many other African countries, it does have four seasons, but it's often easier to think about the year as wet and dry. For most of the country, the rains usually coincide with the summer months, although the Western Cape (including Cape Town) is an exception to this rule. So if you're heading out on safari, May through September is dry, covering winter and a short spring – making it a great time of year for game drives and outdoor activities. October to April is wetter, although usually in the form of short showers that won't affect your trip too much. In the height of summer, between December and February, the country is very hot, and school holidays make the tourist hotspots busier. If you're hoping to see whales, June is the best time, coinciding with the Sardine Run off KwaZulu-Natal.
In short, no matter when you decide to travel, there's always something to see and enjoy. For generally good weather for whatever you want to do, I recommend booking your holiday for winter, when the days are clear, warm, and dry.
South Africa is a tourism hub and therefore well-connected with flights from the UK and Europe, including with British Airways. Within the country, there are a number of smaller domestic airlines that connect various parts of the country together.
Self-drives are a popular way of getting around, particularly in the scenic Cape winelands area and along the Garden Route. To hire a car you must be at least 18 and have held a licence for a year, although there is usually a surcharge for young drivers under 25. Petrol stations are always manned, but be aware that the attendants expect a small tip.
Luxury railway journeys like Rovos Rail or the iconic Blue Train are highly recommended if you enjoy exploring by rail, and want to avoid further internal flights. Any taxis and transfers should always be booked in advanced through a reputable company, as the taxi system in South Africa is largely unregulated.
It's always worth checking, but currently, citizens of 48 countries including the USA, Canada, United Kingdom, and Australia, are able to visit South Africa visa-free for up to 90 days. Many other countries can visit visa-free for up to 30 days. You'll also need other documentation to visit – so make sure you also consider the below just in case.
If you need help planning your route, browse our suggested itineraries below for inspiration. Remember, all our journeys come with private chauffeur service from home to the airport, and complimentary VIP lounge access, to help see you off in style. Enquire now to get started – we're here to help you create your perfect South Africa holiday.