The new year is fast approaching, which has me thinking about travel in the coming months. Definitely on my list — again — for 2019 is South Africa. It is going to be an epic year for my favorite destination on the continent, as the country celebrates 25 years of freedom and democracy. What’s so great about South Africa?
Well, it’s a super diverse destination for one, where you can experience stunning natural beauty, only in Africa wildlife, modern cities and loads of culture and activities for all types and budgets of travelers.
Here are 9 reasons to visit South Africa in 2019:
1. South Africa is Great Value
The dollar to rand (South Africa’s currency) exchange rate is favorable to Americans with one dollar getting you about 14 rand. This means you can eat, drink, sleep and play -- and see elephants on safari -- for a fraction of what you’d pay in say Europe, the Caribbean or your hometown back in the U.S.
For example, a meal for two including two main courses, a shared appetizer and two drinks at a mid-range restaurant in Cape Town or Johanessburg will cost about $25 or $30, which is significantly less than what you would pay in a city of comparable size like Los Angles or New York.
2. Easy To Access from the U.S.
Despite being at the southern tip of Africa, South Africa is actually a very accessible destination from the U.S. There are direct flights to Johannesburg on South African Airways from New York City and Washington, DC. If you are coming from Europe or the Middle East there are also direct flights. The flights from the U.S. average between 14 and 18 hours long. This is less time than it takes to get to Bangkok from anywhere except the West Coast.
The time difference is also the same as Western Europe — as little as 6 hours ahead from the East Coast. Once you arrive, American and Canadian passport holders will be automatically granted a 90 day visa. If you don't have a passport and need one, see our article on How To Get A Passport in a Hurry.
3. Getting Around is a Breeze
South Africa boasts a modern infrastructure of roads, public transport and domestic flights, which makes getting from Point A to Point B a breeze. Personally, I love driving in South Africa. Even traveling as a solo woman I’ve never had a problem driving here. And I’ve circumnavigated the country more than once.
South Africa also boasts a really cool hop-on, hop-off long distance bus service. Called the Baz Bus, it is aimed at the backpacker travel market (but hostels in South Africa are not just for dorm rooms and partying, they’re actually amazing value sleeps with private room options and an opportunity to meet people of all ages and citizenships). The bus stops at backpacker hostels in all the major destinations.
4. The Safari Experience
There is no shortage of safari opportunities in South Africa. From private game reserves to national parks (where you can actually drive yourself around and look for animals, just like national parks in North America), the country hosts 21 different parks.
It is easy find a wildlife experience within a few hours drive of all the major cities. Kruger National Park and Sabi Sands Reserve, east of Johannesburg, are two of the most famous areas. Personally, I love Madikwe Game Reserve, which is by the Botswana border.
At the edge of the Kalahari Desert, this reserve hosts large numbers of big cats, rhinos and also has a healthy wild dog population. For sleeping, check out Jaci’s Safari Lodge . The property boasts gorgeous accommodation, fabulous game drives and great food. The reserve is just a 4-hour drive from Johannesburg. Or you can reach it by a scenic hour long Federal Airlines flight.
5. Following in Nelson Mandela’s Footsteps
Nelson Mandela would have celebrated his centennial birthday on July 18, 2018. And South African spent all of 2018 celebrating this anniversary with dozens of events across the country.
South African Tourism relaunched the popular Madiba’s Journey app that helps travelers plan the historical and cultural portions of their South African journey. The app offers loads of info on Madiba inspired tourism attractions in the country by offering info on the backstory and letting you organize a custom itinerary before your trip begins.
Key attractions include Robben Island in Cape Town, Constitution Hall in Johannesburg, the Drakenstein Correctional Centre, where Mandela spent some of his 27-years behind bars and the site where he was captured in KwaZulu-Natal in 1952 following 17 months of evading the authorities.
5. Cape Town is Sexy AF
Cape Town was in the news in 2018 for its water woes. But thanks to innovative solutions put in place to combat the drought, the Mother City is open for business again with water levels stabilizing. One of the world's most beautiful cities, Cape Town has an addictive energy. She also enough attractions and activities to keep travelers engaged for weeks at a time.
Here you will find world-class food, wine and art. As well as stunning natural beauty like the 6,000-foot table shaped mountain in the city center and white sand meets deceptively cold turquoise water beaches like Clifton and Camps Bay around it. The city is also home to cultural must-sees like Robben Island, where Mandela was imprisoned for many years.
Cape Town is a compact city that is easy to navigate by car or ride-share like Uber. One of my favorite hotels is a boutique South Beach in Camps Bay, one of the most beautiful beaches around Cape Town. The Miami-inspired property has just 19 gorgeous studio suites. These come with full kitchens that are partially stocked with beverages and snacks. The owner is an avid art collector. As such the hotel boasts an exclusive art collection with commissioned pieces by well-known South African artist Lionel Smit throughout.
In the famous Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, The Silo is a five-star design hotel that features the best bathtubs in the city — they face convex windows with stunning views.
6. Johannesburg is Buzzing
A key entry point to South Africa, most international flights go into Johannesburg. And while Jo’burg used to have a reputation as being a dangerous city, today that is not the case. Many parts of the city are quite safe to wander and skipping the country’s largest city would be to miss out on some of its top cultural experiences.
Of note, don’t miss a visit to the Apartheid Museum, which is a sobering but necessary experience. Also pay a visit to Soweto, where you can tour Nelson Mandela’s former home and also Constitution Hall, which once imprisoned Mandela and other high profile political prisoners.
Jo’burg is also filled with energetic neighborhoods, like Maboneng, which boasts amazing street art, innovative galleries, boutique hotels and a cafe culture. Also check out Newtown and Melville. Most of the hotels are found in the Northern Suburbs, which host massive shopping malls, and lower crime rates. I loved The Michelangelo Hotel in Sandton, which opens onto Nelson Mandela Square and features five-star opulence inside.
7. Northern Cape is Where to Escape
Another of my favorite South African provinces is the Northern Cape. The country’s largest province borders Botswana and Namibia and is home to the awe-inspiring Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. Here you will discover wild red sand dune scenery and animals a plenty. It makes a great safari destination.
If you are in the country during the spring, pay Namaqualand a visit. During where wildflowers form a magic carpet after the rains. Also in this province is Kimberley, which has a wild west vibe and hosts The Big Hole, South Africa’s most famous former diamond mine.
8. Wild Coast for Digital Detox
If you want to get off the beaten path and do some digital detox in South Africa, pay a visit to the Eastern Cape's Wild Coast. Here you will also experience some of the country’s most beautiful and remote beaches. Covering some 350-kilometers along the Indian Ocean south of Durban, it hosts awesome surfing and hippie backpacker towns like Coffee Bay and Port St John’s.
Once known as the Transkei, this area is home to the Xhosa people and was a former black homeland during Apartheid. During this time it served at the forefront of South Africa’s struggle for independence. This is also where Nelson Mandela was born and where he is buried.
7. South Africa Produces Great Wine
South Africa produces world-class wine. This is thanks to a favorable Mediterranean climate for grape growing. As such, the country boasts a number of established wine regions.
The most famous region is known as The Cape Winelands. It is located in the Western Cape about an hour drive from Cape Town. This region is comprised of the picture perfect towns of Stellenbosch and Franschhoek as well as the more industrial looking Paarl.
Other major wine producing regions in South Africa include the Orange River Valley in the Northern Cape. Also the Breede River Valley east of the Drakenstein Mountains with major towns being Robertson and Bonnievale.