Is South Africa Worth Visiting? Honest, Un-Obvious Observations

“Is South Africa worth visiting?” is a silly question.

Of course it is. Every country is worth visiting. The more nuanced and less obvious question is,

“Is South Africa is worth visiting more than other countries you could travel to?”

That’s not as easy to answer. It depends on what you are looking for in a destination.

To help you decide, I’m going to share some pros and cons of South Africa that weren’t obvious to me before Kim and I came here, but that I’ve observed over the 13 months and counting I’ve had to get to know the place.

Let me emphasize “observed.” These are my observations. Opinions, too. Not facts. If you disagree with or are offended by anything, that’s up to you. I’m just trying to be as honest and not-so-obvious as possible.

I hope it helps you decide for yourself.

Chris playing it safe in Johannesburg
Fences are everywhere in South Africa because nobody wants to be the weakest link.

Are you worried about your safety?

As you’ve almost certainly heard already, South Africa isn’t super safe.

Nobody wants to be the weakest link, so most houses and buildings in the cities have electrified fences and heavy-duty grates over their windows and doors.

This creates a sense of paranoia that’s even higher than the actual risk level. So too do the fear-mongering news and stats that reflect how scary the crime levels are in the townships, but not in the areas tourists go.

We feel safe walking alone during the day in the areas we should be walking with AirPods in our ears and laptops in our backpacks.

But if you’re the paranoid type, you might feel on edge the whole time. This will take away from your enjoyment. Maybe go somewhere safer, like Rwanda, instead.

And if you’re on the other extreme and are the careless type who gets blitzed and wanders around Long Street screaming your national anthem, your trip’s not going to go well, either.

But if you’re reasonably cautious, safety shouldn’t be cause for concern when visiting South Africa.

Also keep in mind that:

  • The safety situation is much more relaxed in smaller towns.
  • No matter where you are, people are friendlier than in most other countries.
  • There’s very little hassle, haggling, and rip-off risk in South Africa.
Kruger safari tips cover image of Kim's parents sitting outside
Kim’s parents on lookout duty between safaris in Kruger Park.

Are you looking to “travel to Africa”?

If you have dreams of Lion King-esque savannah, colorfully-clothed tribes, and chaotic cities, you’re better off going to Kenya than South Africa.

That’s not to say South Africa doesn’t offer all of those “African” experiences. It does. It’s just that there’s a lot more European in its blood—and South Asian, and even American—than in its northern neighbors. This is especially the case in the areas you’re most likely to visit.

So go to South Africa to visit South Africa, not to “travel to Africa.”

kim-luxury-life-cape-town
Kim living the lifestyles of the not-so-rich and un-famous in Cape Town.

Are you looking for a 5-star trip on a 3-star budget?

In my books—and in my blog on the best countries to visit for various types of trip—South Africa is number one in the world by this measure.

Some examples from Kim and my South African adventures of the not-so-rich and un-famous include:

  • Hiring a driver for less than $150 US for the day to drive a group of us from one luxurious estate to sit among carefully manicured flower gardens sipping reserve wines for less than $5 a tasting.
  • Renting a BnB carved out of a cave, Weskus Grotjie, or a private cabin on a fynbos farm with a pre-heated woodfire hot tub for less than $100 a night.
  • Entering the oasis of Cape Town’s luxurious Mount Nelson hotel for high tea and unlimited treats for less than $30 a person.

Basically, we can live like YouTube stars on a blogger’s budget here.

Atop a mountain after hiking in the Drakensberg
Our friend Rebecca backpacked by herself on a Drakensberg hiking adventure.

Are you a solo backpacker?

You might be better off going to South America or Southeast Asia. Transport is cheaper and more abundant and fellow cheap travelers are more abundant, too.

That’s not to say you’d regret backpacking in South Africa.

Our friend Rebecca rented a car and hiked the Drakensberg by herself. My brother enjoyed a reasonably-priced group tour of Kruger Park and exploring Johannesburg with new friends he met at the hostel. And Lisette, a friend we made along our Hectic Route from Johannesburg to Cape Town, managed to have a great trip through South Africa despite being wheel-chair bound thanks to the backpacker-friendly Baz Bus.

It’s just that you might get more out of a South Africa trip if you come back when you have a slightly bigger budget.

Are you looking for a getaway over the December holiday season?

South Africa’s maybe too good of a choice.

Because December is summer down here, school holidays and Christmas holidays combine into one superstorm of a holiday. Locals descend in droves to the nicest parts of the country. Mix in all the Germans and Brits who’re escaping their miserable weather up north and things get extra “hectic,” as South Africans like to say. Prices skyrocket, reservations are hard to come by, parks are packed, and line-ups are long.

Better to come in other months if you can.

South Africa Road trip tips cover of sunrise view of highway driving towards the Namibian border.
See our South Africa road trip tips for lessons we’ve learned covering over 10,000 km all over the country.

Are you looking to do a road trip?

Look no further.

After Jordan, South Africa’s the best country we’ve ever been to for road tripping. The roads are empty and in good shape, the drivers are courteous, the scenery’s stunning and varied, the towns are charming (well, some of them), and there’s so much to explore.

So even if you aren’t looking to do a road trip, you should if you decide to visit South Africa.

For tons of inspiration and advice, read our South Africa road trip tips, our “Hectic Route” from Johannesburg to Cape Town, our trip up and down the Garden Route, and our journey from Cape Town to Namibia.

Drinking milkshakes
My childish brother doing a milkshake tasting at a wine farm outside Hermanus.

Do you want to go somewhere family-friendly?

I’m not the most reliable source on this one. It’s been a long time since Kim and I were kids, and we don’t have any kids yet.

Even so, we haven’t helped but notice how kid-friendly South Africa is. Even at “adult” places like restaurants and wine farms, there are often things to keep the kids happy so the parents stay happy. And the child-less grown-ups seem “chilled” (another South African-ism) about little ones running around, too.

From the opposite angle, I guess South Africa’s not the best if kids get on your nerves.

Train your palate to taste better cover of Chris at a wine tasting
South Africa turned me into such a wine snob that I researched an in-depth guide to training your palate.

Are you not much into wine?

Doesn’t matter. You might change your mind after visiting South Africa.

I did. I came to Cape Town as a beer guy who thought wine was for snobs and couldn’t tell a Chardonnay from a Shiraz in a blind taste test. The only times I drank wine was when someone else bought it.

But then we toured the wineries (or “wine farms,” as they’re called in South Africa).

As Kim’s teetotaling mom will attest, the opulent settings are worth exploring in their own right. And the tastings are either free or only cost a few bucks, so I happily partook. Before I knew it, my ambivalence wine had matured into full-blown snobbery.

So yeah, I guess if you don’t want to get hooked on wine, don’t go to South Africa.

Or are you a wine snob?

If it’s too late to save your pretentiousness and your wallet from oenophilia, you absolutely, truly must visit South Africa.

And I don’t mean “must” in the polite way South Africans say it, either. It’s a Canadian “must.” You’re doing yourself a disservice if you don’t.

Don’t let South African wine’s middling reputation fool you. As I’ve seen in the liquor stores in Vancouver, they export and overcharge for the crap they don’t want and keep the good stuff to themselves to drink at incredibly affordable prices.

Are you bad with languages?

No need to hold your tongue.

Unless you get way off the beaten path, everyone you meet in South Africa will speak excellent English with ear-pleasing accents.

Once you experience the ease most everyone in South Africa has with English, you may be surprised to learn how few people speak it as their first language. I’m surprised now as I google the stats. English is only the fourth most common mother tongue, at less than 10 percent of the population. Ahead of it are Zulu (23 percent), Xhosa (16 percent), and Afrikaans (14 percent).

Or do you want a language learning challenge?

If you love languages and are looking for a challenge, you’re in luck, too. I suggest you take on Xhosa, Nelson Mandela’s native language. Get started practicing with this video we shared in our Cape Town destination guide:

Are you worried about racism?

My experience here comes with a huge grain of salt, given that I’m as white as a huge grain of salt.

But I wondered about it before I first came to South Africa, so I imagine others might, too.

Here’s my biased experience:

While the inequality is pretty, well, black and white, Kim and I rarely observe any hint of animosity you might expect given the country’s history. At least on the surface.

This seems to partly be thanks to the lack of taboo among South Africans around talking about race. Calling someone “coloured,” “black,” or “white” is like calling Charlize Theron blonde. Commercials go so far as to poke fun at stereotypes of the country’s different cultures:

This seems to be better than only doing so behind closed doors, like in America.

Prejudice seems to remain strong, though.

On this, I side with Trevor Noah’s theory from his book (which I can’t recommend more highly you decide to visit South Africa). People are quick to put each other in buckets based on their accent more than their skin color. I suppose this happens everywhere in the world. But the buckets in South Africa seem deeper.

Even Kim and I experience it. When some hoity-toity people hear our American accents, they tighten up. But they sometimes relax a bit when we clarify that we’re Canadian. Then they invariably say, “I have a family member who lives in Canada!”

giraffes poking their heads out in kruger park - kruger safari tips
To see more animals and have a better safari experience, check out our 16 Kruger Safari tips.

Do you want to see lots of wild animals?

You’ll see lots of game on safari in South Africa’s Kruger Park, for sure. But can you expect to see more there than in other countries?

That depends on quite a few factors:

  • The time of year you visit. Better not to come in the wet season when animals have foliage to hide behind. September to November are the best months for safaris.
  • Whether you hire a guide or not. Guides not only have a keener eye but also exchange spottings on WhatsApp groups.
  • Whether or not you read our Kruger safari tips.
  • Luck. It’s not a zoo.

The “feel” is worth taking into account, too.

Some say Kruger’s paved roads and popularity (especially in the south of the park) make it feel a bit artificial. They prefer neighboring Botswana or Namibia.

But others appreciate the order and rules in South Africa that protect the animals (and their cars’ tires).

An exotic dish at Wolfgat restaurant in Paternoster, South Africa
Kim’s parents were as impressed as we’ve been by the quality, originality of the restaurants in South Africa.

Is food a big reason why you travel?

South Africa’s no Japan or Italy (or Mexico), but its food scene’s got enough to make eating a highlight of your trip.

First, the not-so-good news: Traditional South African food is meh.

Sure, there’s some Cape Malay food around Cape Town, bunny chow in Durban, and heaps of meat. But none of it is anything to write home about—or to leave home and fly thousands of kilometers to try.

The better news is modern South African cuisine is fantastic.

Like in other New World commonwealth countries like Canada or Australia, you’ll find excellent adaptations of cuisines from all over the world. And there are tons of hipster eateries, avant-garde fusion restaurants, and traditional farmhouse eateries that serve tasty fare from high-quality ingredients.

The extra good news is the price-to-value ratio’s world-class. To give you some idea, a top-notch steak will cost along the lines of R200 ($13 US) and bottles of decent wine start at around R140 ($9 US).

Do you need super-fast WiFi?

Then South Africa’s only worth visiting if you’re willing to get a 5G plan to tether from.

The internet’s a bit of a nuisance. While it has improved since we first visited South Africa in late 2018, download speeds of 10MB/s are still considered fast. Unlimited WiFi is still a selling feature at Airbnbs. And some cafés limit you to 200 MB.

On the plus side, pre-paid LTE data is only a couple bucks per GB. I pay R50 ($3.30 US) a week for 2 GB pre-paid. And now 5G’s making its way into the market.

Just watch out for load shedding—rolling blackouts that can also cut off phone towers.

Does inequality make you uncomfortable?

Then don’t go to South Africa or it will burst your bubble.

I didn’t think this was worth mentioning until I talked to my friend’s parents. They are the only people I’ve spoken with to say their visit to South Africa didn’t exceed their expectations. Why? Because they felt bad driving by the informal townships’ corrugated metal shacks on their way to spending their tourist dollars on fancy food, wine tastings, and pictures of penguins.

I see where they’re coming from. But I also think it’s better to see the inequality than go elsewhere and pretend it doesn’t exist. If anything, it makes you feel grateful for your silver spoons. At least that’s the case for me.

But if you prefer to take a vacation to fantasyland, skip South Africa.

Oranjezicht market in Cape Town
Kim’s happy place: Cape Town’s Oranjezicht Market, part of our Cape Town must-dos.

Are you a farmers market fanatic?

Then pack your baskets and make a beeline to South Africa.

South Africans do farmers markets and artisanal stuff better than anywhere Kim or I have ever been. Whereas in other countries I get the impression people try too hard to be artisanal and charge too much for it, South Africans make it seem effortless.

Everything’s exceedingly nice. Nicely designed, nicely packaged, nicely prepared, nicely priced, and nicely handed over in a soothing South African accent.

So wherever you go in South Africa, be sure to look up then hit up the weekend markets. Ask about mid-week ones, too.

Garden Route travel tips cover image of Kim in Tsitsikamma National Park
Hikes like this one along the Garden Route make South Africa is an outdoor wilderness wonderland.

Are you the active, outdoorsy type?

While most South Africa tourist brochures are about snapping photos in cities, sipping on Pinotage in the winelands, and staring at animals from inside Range Rovers, there’s also plenty to keep the active from getting antsy.

Much more than hiking Table Mountain and Lion’s Head in Cape Town, too. (Though both of them live up to the hype.)

Consider:

  • Scrambling and bouldering in the Cederberg desert
  • Hiking in the Drakensberg
  • Canyoning down aptly-named Suicide Gorge
  • Wandering along the Wild Coast
  • Doing some of the dreamy day (or multi-day) hikes along the Garden Route
  • Getting out of the jeep to do a multi-day walking safari
  • Surfing at Jeffrey’s Bay
  • Free-diving like the guy from My Octopus Teacher.

Whatever your outdoor activity of choice, South Africa’s got it. (Well… not skiing.) And the scenery will be spectacular. Even better, not many people know about it, so it rarely gets too busy.

Are you still not sure about visiting South Africa?

Then just go.

I tried to be as even-handed as I could about the pros and cons of visiting South Africa, but in all honesty I have a hard time imagining anyone regretting going. You’d have to do something really stupid, get really unlucky, or have a horrible travel guide to screw it up.

South Africa doesn’t only have something for everyone; it’s got more in store for you than you probably think.

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Kim and Chris are fighting the status quo to win at life, then sharing their best tactics on The Unconventional Route. If you want to join, subscribe to Consider This for a fresh dose of ideas every 10 days.

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