Rising from the ashes of a fairly recent political upheaval, South Africa is a vibrant country with a rich blend of tribal and colonial influences and an abundance of natural beauty just begging to be explored. From the lions and leopards of Kruger National Park and the quaint coastal towns dotting the entirety of the Eastern and Western Cape, to the rolling vineyards of the Cape Winelands and the staggering beauty of the country’s (legislative) capital and it’s iconic Table Mountain, there is something to suit the historian/dare-devil/foodie/outdoor enthusiast in all of us. If South Africa isn’t already on your list, it absolutely deserves to be! Check out this itinerary for my recommendations on spending 3-5 weeks in SA, including where to visit, how to get around, where to stay, and the sights you just can’t miss.
Johannesburg (1-3 days)
It may be far from South Africa’s most beautiful (or safest) city, but Johannesburg is pretty much guaranteed to make its way into your itinerary, as it’s a major entry point into the country and the only international hub in close proximity to the renowned Kruger National Park. I’d recommend taking at least a full day in Joburg, but two days would give you an opportunity to completely beat your jet lag and see some of SA’s largest city.
The most popular activity in the city is a tour of Soweto (South Western Townships), where beloved anti-apartheid activist and SA president Nelson Mandela grew up. Although it was largely settled during apartheid by thousands of black families who were forced out of the main cities, Soweto is home to 1.5 million (mostly black) citizens today, many of whom are still living in poverty 20 years after the fall of SA’s institutionalised racist policies. There are tours that will bring you into the township and share this history with you— but it’s up to you to decide if you are comfortable with this kind of slum tourism. If not, there are still other ways to learn about past and present SA, such as touring the Number Four Prison and Constitutional Court with a knowledgeable guide. Coupled into a single morning, these places perfectly juxtapose apartheid and post-apartheid life for South Africans of colour, and will truly inspire you to see just how far the country has come in the last two decades.
A trip into the CBD, however, will remind you of how far the country still has to go, as there is a painfully obvious wealth (and opportunity) gap between many of Joburg’s residents. There’s not much reason to visit the centre of the city, as it’s notoriously unsafe, other than to take the lift up Africa’s tallest building and wander around its observation deck. You don’t have to expect Empire State Building-esque queues (or prices), and it’s impressive to see the endless urban sprawl from the top of the Carlton Centre.
Highlights: Visit Soweto on a tour to learn about apartheid in South Africa; see democracy in action at the Constitutional Court; learn more about apartheid and the struggle for equality at Number Four Prison; explore trendy neighbourhoods like Maboneng and Melville; see the view from Africa’s tallest building, the Carlton Centre.
Getting there & away: Fly into Joburg’s O.R. Tambo International Airport and then take an Uber to your accommodation. Due to safety concerns in Joburg, it’s recommended that you avoid taking taxis or public transport; however, Ubers are super cheap and provide an easy, safe means of transport! Alternatively, join a day tour to explore the city.
Where to stay: Look for a private room or a granny flat on Airbnb in the central neighbourhood Melville. It’s a great location from which to Uber out to all the sights, but still a relatively safe area; your hosts should be able to give you more safety tips and recommendations.
Top tips: Don’t let all these safety concerns frighten you away from experiencing anything in Joburg, as it actually has a lot to offer in terms of culture and history— you’ll need to exercise far more caution than you may be accustomed to, but the risks are definitely manageable, even as solo females. Do not carry phones or cameras in your hand, take off jewellery and watches, avoid carrying a backpack or purse (and if you do, carry it in front of you), and Uber from location to location.
Read more: TOP 5 THINGS TO DO IN JOHANNESBURG
Kruger National Park (3-4 days)
As Kruger National Park is one of the most compelling reasons to visit Joburg in the first place, it’s next up on your itinerary! I dedicated a whole post previously to weighing your safari options (self drive vs. SAN Park group tour vs. private guide), but my ultimate recommendation for most people would be to hire a private guide to pick you up in Joburg, drive you to Kruger (via the Panorama Route, if possible!), and then take you on full-day game drives through the national park. It’s obviously on the upper end of the price spectrum, but it guarantees that you’ll see more animals (the guides are really experienced), have a better chance of seeing the animals you want to see (they know the best places to look for whatever you’re most interested in), and learn so much about the animals along the way (the guides really do know their stuff)! Our guide was an incredible wealth of knowledge on everything from animal mating and pack/herd behaviour, to the trees and natural environment, so it’s unlikely we would have seen even 10% as much if we were on our own. We also had the luxury of looking out the window and taking photos the entire time rather than worrying about driving, so it is definitely the best way to experience South Africa’s National Parks.
Since this was such an enormous bucket list item for both me and mum, we really splurged on the safari experience by booking through African Sky, whom I can’t recommend highly enough. I spent weeks corresponding with their staff to describe our perfect 5 day safari (our budget, what we wanted to see, how luxurious we wanted it to be, etc.) and then we paid one lump sum, which covered the African Sky guide who drove us from Joburg to Kruger, on game drives all around the park for 2.5 days, and delivered us to Sabi Sands Private Reserve; all of our meals; the luxury safari lodge in Sabi Sands (room, meals, drinks, game drives, bush walks); an airport transfer from Sabi Sands to Hoedspruit and our flight back to Joburg. Our whole booking cost $3,000AUD per person, but considering that it literally covered everything during our 5 day safari, it was entirely worth it for this once-in-a-lifetime experience. (If you’re not looking to splurge, you can read more about the self-drive options in Kruger in this post.)
Highlights: Tick the Big 5 (elephant, rhino, lion, leopard, buffalo) off your list, as well as dozens of other wildlife sightings, from cheetah to warthog to giraffe.
Getting there & away: It’s possible to fly from Joburg into Hoedspruit’s Eastgate Airport, but the best way to get to the park is just to drive (or be picked up by your guide) from Joburg.
Where to stay: Stay within Kruger’s walls at the SANPark-owned Satara Rest Camp, in either a 2-bed bungalow (R1500) or campsite (R300).
Top tips: Get up dark and early to begin your safari drive every morning, and be sure to check the animal sightings board at camp to keep an eye on where lions, leopards, and other elusive animals were seen the previous days.
Read more: COMPARING SAFARIS IN KRUGER NATIONAL PARK, SABI SANDS PRIVATE GAME RESERVE & ADDO ELEPHANT NATIONAL PARK
A GUIDE TO PLANNING THE BEST SOUTH AFRICAN SAFARI
PHOTO JOURNAL: HIGHLIGHTS FROM MY FIRST SOUTH AFRICAN SAFARI
Sabi Sands Private Reserve (2-4 days)
Most of the details about my recommended safari experience are in the section above— I really think 2-4 days in each Kruger and Sabi Sands is the perfect way to see it all. If you’re with a guide (check out African Sky!) or self-driving through Kruger, you can arrive in nearby Sabi Sands by car and begin you luxury experience.
Unlike Kruger, Sabi Sands is not a national park, which has several important implications for your visit. Firstly, there is no option to self-drive, so you’ll be joining the included game drives at your lodge (we loved Arathusa Safari Lodge). There is also no government run rest camp with camping (or any budget options in general), so you’ll have to choose from luxury lodges ranging from pricey to exorbitant. The upside is that Sabi Sands is incredibly small and intimate, so the guides and trackers actually know almost all of the animals individually. All the lodges also communicate with one another via radio to share sightings, so you have a much better chance of seeing the more elusive animals. We chose Sabi Sands as it was recommended as THE place to see big cats, and it absolutely didn’t disappoint— we basically saw non-stop leopards and lions during our 2.5 days there.
When you’re not out on your included game drives, you’ll be eating artfully prepared meals overlooking a watering hole or swimming in your own private plunge pool overlooking the bush or relaxing by the bar or enjoying a nature walk with a guide. All in all, this is an incredible experience, and one that shouldn’t be missed in South Africa.
Highlights: Enjoy an even higher concentration of African wildlife (BIG CATS), alongside the extensive knowledge of your guides and the luxury of the safari lodge.
Getting there & away: You can either fly into nearby Hoedspruit and organise a transfer through the lodge or drive from Kruger to Sabi Sands (2.5hrs). After your safari, fly from Hoedspruit back to Joburg.
Where to stay: Experience the luxury side of an SA safari at Arathusa Safari Lodge. The ridiculously beautiful rooms start at R6450 per person sharing, which includes chef-prepared meals, endless drinks, twice daily safari drives, wildlife walks, and use of the incredible facilities (infinity pool overlooking a watering hole that attracts all variety of animals!!).
Top tips: Staying in a luxury camp like Arathusa is sure to drain your trip budget quickly, so don’t have your only safari experience here— split your time between a more wallet-friendly option like a SANPark rest camp and a luxury, all-inclusive safari lodge like Arathusa so you can sample a bit of both.
Read more: A GUIDE TO PLANNING THE BEST SOUTH AFRICAN SAFARI
COMPARING SAFARIS IN KRUGER NATIONAL PARK, SABI SANDS PRIVATE GAME RESERVE & ADDO ELEPHANT NATIONAL PARK
PHOTO JOURNAL: HIGHLIGHTS FROM MY FIRST SOUTH AFRICAN SAFARI
Durban (2-3 days)
After flying back into Johannesburg, you can transfer swiftly onto a flight to Durban, the coastal capital of KwaZulu-Natal. There are several game parks nearby, so if you haven’t seen enough wildlife, you should check out Hluhluwe-Unmfolozi. Otherwise, head down to the golden beaches (which are admittedly crowded during summer and the school holidays, as many locals visit Durban for a seaside getaway) and explore the many shops and markets around the city. What brought me to Durban was the food, though, so make sure to spend plenty of time sampling the incredible Indian dishes, such as the delightfully-named Bunny Chow, which is just a lamb or beef curry served in a hollowed-out bread bowl (no rabbits were harmed in the making of this meal). Durban actually has the largest population of Indians outside of India, so there is a vibrant blend of Afro and Indian influence in this bustling city.
Highlights: Try Durban’s signature Afro-Indian dish, Bunny Chow; go for a swim and lounge about on the Golden Mile; shop for jewellery and other souvenirs at the Victoria Street Market.
Getting there & away: Take a quick flight from Johannesburg to Durban on the Indian Ocean.
Where to stay: Stay in one of Durban’s glamorous beach-front resorts, or save some money by staying in an Airbnb in nearby Berea.
Top tips: You can hire a car at the airport relatively cheaply and explore Durban that way, but Uber is even cheaper and you’ll be able to avoid all the stresses of parking and driving through the city traffic.
Read more: WHAT TO DO IN DURBAN, SOUTH AFRICA
The Garden Route: Plettenberg Bay, Hermanus & beyond (6-12 days)
After spending a few days in Durban, catch another quick flight to Port Elizabeth, pick up a hire car, and begin making your way slowly along the the jaw-dropping Garden Route, the country’s best scenic road trip. I dedicated a whole post to building an itinerary and planning your stops along the route, so be sure to check that out, as well as the half-dozen entries from every day of our drive. But suffice to say that this was an absolute highlight and I could easily have spent twice as many days exploring the varied coastline (and occasional inland detours) from Port Elizabeth to Hermanus.
Highlights: Self-drive through Addo Elephant National Park; sample great seafood and hike through Robberg Nature Reserve in Plettenberg Bay; visit the animals at Tenikwa Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre; go kayaking in Knysna or Wilderness; visit an ostrich farm in Oudtshoorn; cruise around Seal Island in Mossel Bay; walk the coastal path in Hermanus‘ Fernkloof Nature Reserve.
Getting there & away: Fly into Port Elizabeth and pick up a hire car to drive the rest of the Garden Route down to the Cape Winelands and Cape Town.
Where to stay: Check out my guide to driving the Garden Route for some specific accommodation recommendations.
Top tips: Take your time to enjoy South Africa’s best coastal road trip, stopping in all the beautiful towns along the way and participating in some unique adventure activities. You’ll need 6 days at minimum, not including time in Stellenbosch and Cape Town.
Read more: THE ULTIMATE GUIDE TO DRIVING SOUTH AFRICA’S GARDEN ROUTE
Cape Winelands: Stellenbosch & Franschhoek (3-4 days)
After cruising along the coastline for the last week or two on the legendary Garden Route, make your way to Stellenbosch, just east and inland from Cape Town, for a few days in South African wine country. You can drive around to any of the 50+ wineries across Stellenbosch and Franschhoek to taste wine, but it’s definitely better to organise a tour to avoid having to tip out the large pours (and also to avoid driving if you’ve had a bit too much).
If you don’t mind being in a small group, book a ticket for the Vine Hopper, a hop-on/hop-off wine shuttle that operates 3 different routes each visiting 5-6 wineries for R320 not including lunch or tasting fees (usually R25-30). The Franschhoek Wine Tram offers a similar hop-on/hop-off experience, with 6 different routes each visiting 8 wineries for R220. Both of these are an absolutely excellent way to experience the best of the region, still with some flexibility and on a budget. Alternatively, you can book a private tour with Camino Tours (about R2000 for a full day of wine tasting with an experienced wine guide and driver) and they will customise an itinerary based on the wines you’re most into.
Highlights: Sample SA’s finest wines, including the country’s renowned Pinotage, by hopping between cellar doors on a tour or in your own car.
Getting there & away: Finish your drive along the Garden Route in Stellenbosch. Otherwise, you can fly into Cape Town and drive the short distance east.
Where to stay: I’d highly recommend booking a room in this beautiful Airbnb in Stellenbosch for $30/night. You have your own en suite, use of the kitchen and pool, plenty of street parking, and the company of an absolutely adorable kitty.
Top tips: Take some time out of your wine tasting to explore the many shops and restaurants around the charming Stellenbosch.
Read more: STELLENBOSCH & FRANSCHHOEK: A GUIDE TO WINE TASTING IN THE CAPE WINELANDS
Cape Town (4-6 days)
And finally, make your way from Stellenbosch to this glittering seaside gem for a few action-packed days that will finish your trip with a bang. There’s honestly so much to do in Cape Town that it’s hard to pick only a few recommendations, so check out this post for a dozen of my favourite activities! If you only had time for a couple, I’d recommend setting aside an entire day to make the drive down the Cape Peninsula to see adorable little penguins scampering across the sand at Boulders Beach, either from the boardwalks or on a kayak tour of the area, and walking from the Cape Lighthouse down to the country’s tip at Cape of Good Hope. Back in the city, don’t miss the quick hike up Lion’s Head for sunset or the sweeping views from atop Table Mountain, and be sure to explore the lively Victoria & Alfred Waterfront area, which is packed with shops, restaurants, and buskers.
No matter how you spend your time here, it will be impossible not to fall in love with Cape Town’s relaxed vibes and unpretentious beauty. In every way, it really is the perfect finish to your trip, bringing together an endless coastline and dramatic mountain scenery with the sophisticated glamour of the city and a unique melting pot of cultures for an experience that is entirely unique and quintessentially South African. Just prepare yourself for the inevitable disappointment that will come from having to leave this captivating city behind as you travel to the airport!
Highlights: Hike or take the cable car up Table Mountain for panoramic views; go for dinner and drinks in the glitzy Camps Bay; tour Robben Island and learn about Nelson Mandela’s time there; explore the bustling V&A Waterfront; take a day to drive the Cape Peninsula, visiting penguins at Boulders Beach and walking out to the Cape of Good Hope; go diving with Great White Sharks in nearby Gansbaii; hike up Lion’s Head or drive up Signal Hill for sunset; catch a concert in the lovely Kirstenbosch Botanic Gardens.
Getting there & away: You can finish your Garden Route drive in Cape Town or make the short drive from Stellenbosch if you’ve been enjoying time in the Cape Winelands.
Where to stay: The best area to find accomodation is near the waterfront in Green Point, as it’s not too expensive, close to all the action, and has some great spots of its own.
Top tips: It’s really easy to navigate around Cape Town and find parking, but Uber is also a good option if you don’t want to hire a car. Likely, even if you do have a car, you’ll want to do some activities without it (e.g. Uber to the start of the Lion’s Head walk).
Read more: TOP 12 THINGS TO DO IN CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA
DRIVING THE CAPE PENINSULA: BOULDERS BEACH & CAPE OF GOOD HOPE