With safaris, mountains, wineries, an endless coastline, and cities like Cape Town, South Africa is a magical place where no traveler can go wrong! As a backpacker, this country is a great place to travel as it’s inexpensive (thanks to a very weak currency), there are a lot of work opportunities, and plenty of adventure activities to keep you busy. True, the country isn’t perfect with high levels of corruption and petty crime (be sure to watch your stuff!), but the country’s rich history, natural beauty, and international culture make it a hotspot with travelers from around the world. It’s a country I always wish I got to spend more time in. This guide to traveling South Africa can help you plan the perfect trip.
Accommodation – Hostels will cost you about 120-150 ZAR per night for a 10-20 bed dorm, or around to 250-300 ZAR per night for a 4-8 bed dorm. A private double room will cost between 300–450 ZAR. Free WiFi is standard, and many hostels also include free breakfast. If you have a tent, most will let you camp on their grounds. If you are looking for a hotel, budget hotels range from about 750-1,200 ZAR for a twin or double in big cities and get cheaper in more rural areas. For a hotel with free breakfast, expect to pay at least 900 ZAR. Airbnb is also an option around the country, though it’s most commonly available in larger urban areas. Prices for shared accommodation start around 300 ZAR per night, while an entire home or apartment will cost at least 800 ZAR (though average prices are closer to 1,800 ZAR). For those traveling with a tent, camp grounds can be found all around the country. Expect to pay between 90-400 ZAR per night, depending on the facilities and location.
Food – Restaurants in South Africa are pretty cheap. A meal at Nando’s or another fast-food chain will cost you about 50 ZAR per person. At a nicer restaurant, a 3-course meal with a wine costs about 225 ZAR per person. Expect to pay around 30 ZAR for a beer and 9 ZAR for a bottle of water. A bottle of wine at a restaurant or bar will cost 50-120 ZAR (for the bottle, not a glass!). The low-cost alternative to eating out is to buy groceries. A week’s worth of groceries for one person will cost around 500 ZAR. If you want to keep costs low, avoid expensive items like chicken, beef, and cheese.
Transportation – Greyhound and Baz Buses offer the most reliable public transportation and cost anywhere from 25–700 ZAR. A bus from Cape Town to Johannesburg, for example, will cost around 500 ZAR. Train rides are less common but more comfortable and safer than buses. Fare for a first class sleeper carriage is around 200–300 ZAR, depending on the distance. If you plan on exploring a lot a small car can be rented for as little as 260 ZAR per day, including insurance and the fee to drop it off in a different city. Public transportation is available in the larger cities, though it is notoriously unreliable (and I actually wouldn’t recommend taking buses or vans within the cities). If you’re just trying to get around a big city, I recommend downloading the Uber app instead of taxis. Absolutely do not hitchhike!!
Activities – There are so many activities to choose from in South Africa. Hiking and nature-based activities are generally free (or close to it). Entrance fees to game reserves usually run about 100-300 ZAR per person. Full-day tours can cost anywhere from 400-2,000 ZAR, depending on what you’re doing. White water rafting, for example, will cost at least 550 ZAR (prices will vary depending on how long you go for, as multi-day tours are available). Diving will cost around 1,900 ZAR for a two-tank dive. In order to ensure that you’re getting the cheapest prices, book these through your hostel.
Suggested daily budget – 460 – 600 ZAR/35-45 USD (Note: This is a suggested budget assuming you’re staying in a hostel, eating out a little, cooking most of your meals, doing lots of free activities, keeping your drinking to a minimum, and using local transportation. Using the budget tips below, you can always lower this number. However, if you stay in fancier accommodation or eat out more often, expect this to be higher!)
Money Saving Tips
- Pitch a tent – Most hostels have yards that they allow travelers to pitch a tent in. It costs much less and you still have the option to use the bathroom, kitchen, and other amenities.
- Work for your room and board – South Africa has plenty of farms and an active WWOOFing community. If you’re looking to stay for a while, cut your food and accommodation costs by spending some time working on a winery or farm.
- Sleep on a train – The Shosholoza Meyl train service connects Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban, Port Elizabeth, East London, Komatipoort, and Musina. Backpackers traveling together in tourist class can sleep on the train and save skip paying for a hostel for the night. Prices will vary depending on where you are going, but a one-way sleeper ticket from Cape Town to Johannesburg will cost around 700 ZAR.
- Rent a car – Renting your own car is a great way to get around South Africa since the buses can be quite slow. Prices will vary depending on what sort of vehicle you get, but they can be as low as 260 ZAR per day.
- Drink in hostels – Most hostels have a small bar where socializing after a day of sightseeing is the thing to do. Local beer and wine can be purchased cheaper here than most bars and restaurants.
- Cook your own food – Purchase groceries at supermarkets like Pick n’ Pay or Checkers and to prepare meals at your hostel. This will cut down your costs significantly!
Top Things to See and Do in South Africa
- Visit Kruger National Park – Kruger National Park is the biggest, most popular, and busiest game reserve in the country. It’s a huge park with over 2 million hectares of space brimming with life. Admission to the park is 264 ZAR for adults and 132 ZAR for children. If you want to do an exciting (and less popular) safari, check out Pilanesberg National Park, Addo National Park, Umfolozi National Park and the St. Lucia Wetlands.
- Partake in extreme sports – South Africa offers over 100 extreme exploits including bungee jumping, sandboarding, skydiving, parasailing, jungle zip-lining, scuba diving, and other adventure sports! Prices will vary, but expect sky-diving to cost around 2,300 ZAR and bungee jumping to cost around 900 ZAR,
- Enjoy amazing Cape Town – Cape Town gives off a vibe that makes you want to stay forever because it has so much to offer. Each day you can hike up Table Mountain, explore Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, watch the street performers at the V&A Waterfront, visit Robben Island, tan on pristine beaches, enjoy a variety of museums, go on a wine tour, relax in yoga classes, partake in some extreme sports, spend all day at a coffee shop, go antiquing, or shop at a funky street market. This city has a very young, fun vibe.
- Learn about Apartheid’s tragic past – You can’t begin to understand a place without first knowing about its past. Visit the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg to see learn the horrific story of apartheid through multimedia exhibitions, sail from Cape Town over to the UNESCO site, Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela spent 18 years in prison (Note: pre-booking tickets online in advance is a must), or explore Soweto, a township created by the Apartheid government that served as the backdrop of many pivotal events during the anti-apartheid struggle.
- Drive the Garden Route – This is one of South Africa’s main tourist draws. The route stretches along the Indian Ocean from Mossel Bay to St Francis. There’s beautiful landscapes and wineries all along the route. The journey is only a few hundred kilometers, but it’s best to spend a few days exploring along the way.
- Explore KwaZulu-Natal – People flock to the KwaZula-Natal coast to relax, tan, ride the waves, eat amazing food, drink, and spot animals. KwaZulu-Natal’s game-rich Zululand and Elephant Coast in the north provide great wildlife spotting.
- Surf the waves – Dungeons, near Cape Town, is a great place to be if you’ve got experience riding gigantic waves. Beginners should visit Jeffrey’s Bay (J-Bay), about 70km west of Port Elizabeth, which is famous for its awesome right-hand breaking waves! Surfing lessons will cost around 250 ZAR (wetsuits supplied).
- Explore the Cango Caves – Visit the Cango Caves in the Swartberg Mountains to explore the these 20 million year old caves. You can see the exquisite stalagmite formations during the subterranean tours and learn about its history from the Interpretive Center. The standard tour costs 100 ZAR, while a more adventurous (and longer) tour is 150 ZAR.
- Hike Table Mountain – One of the best things in Cape Town is the hike up Table Mountain. It’s a steep, tiring climb that takes around two hours but the views are definitely worth it. There is also a cable car, so you can take it down once you successfully reach the summit. A one-way ticket is 135 ZAR for adults, with discounts available for students, seniors, and kids. Be sure to dress appropriately and bring water as the weather can change quite quickly.
- Stand in awe under the Big Tree – For nature lovers, a visit to the Big Tree in Tsitsikamma is something not to be missed. Estimated to be 600-800 years old, this majestic tree stands 36.6m high and has a trunk circumference of 9m.
- Sleep in Gandhi’s house – Mahatma Gandhi’s friend Hermann Kallenbach designed and built this house that served as Gandhi’s South African base from 1908-09. The house, situated in Orchards, Johannesburg, has been restored and provides free day visits or overnight stays in one of its seven rooms (prices from 2,500 ZAR). Satyagraha House is the spot where Gandhi developed his plan for passive resistance against the British Empire.
- Drive the Namaqualand Flower Route – This region bursts into a sea of color every spring (mainly August and September) when the flowers bloom. Spend your days driving, hiking, or cycling through the 4,000 species of flowers in bloom. The Goegap Nature Reserve provides picnic areas and overnight facilities as well. Expect to pay between 200-1,200 ZAR per night.
- Visit Durban Beachfront – For decades the Golden Mile beachfront in Durban has been popular with cyclists, joggers, and leisurely strollers. Here you can also explore the Indian District, where dealers in traditional kurtas and saris hawk incense, ornately embroidered fabrics, and aromatic spices; visit the KwaMuhle Museum, the Durban Botanical Gardens, the Tala Game Reserve, the Inanda Heritage Trail, or see a Sharks rugby game.
- Visit the wineries – South Africa is one of the biggest wine exporters in the world. Visit the vineyards to taste some incredibly fresh wine against a serene, mountainous backdrop. Cape Town is most popular for these tours, but there are great wine regions all over the country.
- Reach the Roof of Africa via the Sani Pass in Lesotho – This is the only route over the Drakensberg escarpment into the Kingdom of Lesotho. Since 1955, the Sani Pass has offered an exhilarating journey as it twists and turns upwards through rocky cliffs that peak at 2,873m above sea level (aka the “Roof of Africa”). Afterward, bask in your victory as you enjoy a drink at Sani Mountain Lodge, known for being the highest pub in Africa!
- Day trip to Swaziland – Swaziland has a reputation for being one of the friendliest countries in Africa. There are several large game parks and reserves here, making it a great destination for more wildlife spotting. The borders can be a bit slow, so check the wait times before you go.
- Riemvasmaak Community Conservancy – In 1973, under apartheid policies, 1,500 people were forcibly removed from this land. After the elections in 1994, they were able to return and now welcome visitors to their community. The park is located in the Kalahari, making for some stark — but beautiful — landscapes. You’ll find 4×4 and cycling trails here as well as plenty of hot springs.
- See the penguins – The African penguin is the only penguin to breed on the continent. You can see them at Boulders Beach or Betty’s Bay, both locations a short drive from Cape Town. Prices range from 10-65 ZAR.
- Surf the waves at Muizenberg Beach – Known for its famous multi-colored huts on the boardwalk, this is a laid-back neighborhood with a multi-cultural vibe. If you want to hit the waves, you can rent a board and wetsuit for as little as 100 ZAR for the day.