South Africa has to be the greatest country on earth. No other destination in the world has the same pull on me, and every time I visit I fall even more in love. There are endless adventurous things to do and it’s natural beauty is on par with the likes of both New Zealand and Switzerland. Jessie On A Journey agrees with me.
What many people don’t know about South Africa is that it’s also a backpacker paradise. It’s home to some of the coolest backpackers hostels on this planet – with some so alluring that you’ll never want to leave. Backpacking South Africa is an unforgettable experience for all your senses and will get your heart racing like never before.
Having just returned from my third trip to South Africa I believe I have finally ticked off *most* of the incredible adventure activities on offer. I returned to most of my favourite hostels in South Africa, fell in love with Cape Town yet again, and had endless fun driving the lengths of The Garden Route and being mesmerised by each and every spectacular beach along the way.
This South Africa travel guide is, and always will be, a “work in progress”. I plan to constantly work on it, add to it and of course edit it based on advice from YOU and other travellers. Help me to make this the only guide to backpacking in South Africa that travellers will ever need, a one stop shop for adventure, safety tips, and practical advice.
Guarantee: If I don’t have the answer, or the knowledge, I’ll find OTHER travel blogger who do. That’s why you’ll see lots of links to other brilliant blog posts about backpacking in South Africa.
Getting to South Africa
How you get to South Africa will obviously depend on which part of the world you’re coming from but here are a few of your best choice:
Flying to South Africa
- I believe the best place to fly to in South Africa is Cape Town International airport. Nothing beats that spectacular view of Table Mountain and the Cape Peninsula as you land in South Africa for the first time. Cape Town International is also the busiest airport in SA and the third busiest in Africa. This means there are flights from *virtually* all large cities and countries. Emirates do really good deals to Cape Town, with most flights going Via Dubai. I flew from Egypt to Cape Town, via Dubai for less than €300 and I flew from Cape Town to Ireland for €400. Ethiopian Airlines is a great choice if flying from LA or Ireland as they do really cheap flight deals, via Addis Ababa in Ethiopia.
- Flying to Johannesburg is also a great option, especially if you plan to start your trip in the North of the country on safari. The only reason I would choose Cape Town over Johannesburg is that Joburg can be quite an intimidating city to start your trip, and you really need to be very alert of your belongings from the minute you arrive. Many people’s possessions have also been known to mysteriously go missing before they get to the baggage carousel, not the greatest start to your trip. Keep any valuable items i your hand luggage and you should be fine.
Travelling overland to South Africa
- If you’re already in or near Southern Africa, chances are you will be arriving into South Africa by bus. There are daily Intercape buses from Windhoek in Namibia to Cape Town, buses from Maputo in Mozambique and from Gaborone in Botswana to Joburg. All Intercape routes and timetables can be found here.
- Renting a car is also an option, although most rentals are best started in South Africa. You can rent cars long term (a few weeks or even a few months) for a couple hundred euro so it really is a great way to travel in Southern Africa.
Getting around South Africa
When it comes to transport in South Africa, you really only have THREE OPTIONS. Two of these options are much better than the third, but I think it’s best to lay it all out for you.
Rent a car
- Renting a car is honestly the best option for travelling around South Africa. Nothing else will give you as much freedom to go where you like, when you like. Renting a car is surprisingly cheap in South Africa, especially if you can share the costs with a friend and or two. Last year I did a 2 week road trip with 5 friends and we rented a large people carrier that cost us € for the 2 weeks. This year my friend Ian and I rented a much smaller car for 3 weeks, which cost us €350, so about €175 each for the 3 week period. It cost around €30 each time we filled up our tank with petrol, which can add up if you are driving very long distances.
Take the Baz Bus
- The Baz Bus is the only dedicated hop-on hop-off backpacker bus in South Africa. It’s a little expensive (in my opinion) but if you are travelling solo and can’t afford or don’t want to rent a car, it’s by far the best option. The bus starts in either Cape Town and works its way up The Garden Route and Wild Coast to Durban and then inland towards Johannesburg. You can buy either a pass for a set amount of time (2 weeks, 1 month etc) or a hop-on hop-off pass which does not have a time limit but is only valid in one direction. The cheapest ticket is €157 and the most expensive is €552. More details on ticket types and timetables here.
Use Intercity Buses
- These would really be a last resort if you feel you cannot afford the Baz Bus or to rent a car. There a regular intercity buses between most big towns and cities in South Africa, and they are both safe and convenient. The only problem is they sometimes arrive at weird times (like 4 o’clock in the morning!) and the bus stations can be quite an intimidating place. You will also need to figure out how to get to your hostel, which could be a taxi ride away. When I was travelling solo I used these buses in combination with hitching rides with other backpackers along The Garden Route which worked quite well.
BONUS OPTION: Cheap Flights
- This is a great option to use in conjunction with one or two of the other transport options. It’s great if you want to go a long distance such as from Johannesburg to Cape Town or Cape Town to Durban. When travelling in South Africa most people go a certain route and it can be a right pain to have to back track and drive an extra 1,500km just because you need to drop your car off at the same place or fly out of the same airport. That’s where these cheap flights come in handy. Flights from Durban to Cape Town or as low as €46 while flights from Johannesburg to other main cities start from as little as €32. Best budget airlines to look up include: Flysafair, Mango, and Kulula.
Best time to visit
There’s honestly no bad time to visit South Africa, but certain times of the year are better depending on what type of holiday you’re looking for and what your interests are. When it comes to the weather, there are two main things to remember. First of all, South Africa is in the southern hemisphere so their summer starts in December and their winter starts in June. The next thing to keen in mind that South Africa is a massive country with a lot of micro climates. While cities like Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and destinations along The Garden Route can all get very cold, wet and windy in the winter months, other parts of South Africa like Durban and further North along the coast remain quite warm all year.
March – September
If you’ve seen the movie The Endless Summer or have been hanging out with keen surfers for any amount of time, you’ll know South Africa has some of the best surf spots in the world. Surfing mecca J-bay on The Garden Route is one of the best known spots, but their are plenty more secret surf breaks up and down the coast. The best surf can be found in the Autumn and Winter months between March and September. While the waters around Durban and along the Wild Coast are warm year round (thanks to the warm currents from the Indian Ocean) the water along The Garden Route can get very cold and around Cape Town it is freezing cold year round!
Steve from Backpacker Banter has written a great guide to the best surf spots in South Africa which you should check out.
For wildlife watching
If you have your heart set on a whale watching tour while in South Africa then it’s best to visit between June and November. The Southern Right Whale can be seen very close to the coast of the Western Cape between these months while Humpbacks can be spotted up and down the coast between May and December. For an experience you will never forget, try visit between May and July when the famous Sardine Run takes place. This is where millions of sardines swim up and down the coast off Durban attracting thousands of marine animals from sharks and dolphins to whales and other ocean predators!
The best months for viewing wildlife are June, July and August. These are the driest months of the year which means there is less foliage to obstruct wildlife viewing and lots of animals congregate around water holes making it easier to view them all together in one place. If you want to see newborn animals joining this world, then September and October are the two best months to see this.
Anna Everywhere has written a great guide to doing a self-drive safari which should help you in budgeting for a safari to Kruger. Hannah from Getting Stamped also has a great safari packing list which might be useful!
For sun worshippers
If you are like me and the sun puts a smile on your face, then you will want to visit sunny South Africa in the hot summer months. The weather starts to get really good from the middle of November right up until the end of March. December and January are high season, so expect everywhere to be very busy, but this also means the atmosphere is better. During high season the hostels are full of people looking to make new friends and party and the beach bars are generally busier and great fun! This is personally my absolute favourite time of the year to visit. Nothing beats lying on the beach in the middle of December or spending Christmas at a beautiful winery in Stellenbosch, drinking good wine and listening to Christmas tunes!
Be sure to check out this great guide to Cape Town’s best beaches.
Backpacking budget for South Africa
How much you spend in South Africa REALLY depends on what sort of budget you have to start with. If you plan to do wild and wacky adventure activities every day of the week, party like there’s no tomorrow and stay in private rooms instead of dorms, it’s possible to spend WAY more than you might have imagined.
Last year I was on a much tighter budget than this year, so I always stayed in dorms, tried to have as many cheap beach days as possible and didn’t do as many adventure activities as I would have liked. This year I literally worked my way through an adrenaline junkie bucket list, and surprisingly still did not break the bank. I’ve broken it down into a few sections so you can get an idea how much you think you would spend depending on eating habits, interests and mode of transport.
Kristin from Be My Travel Muse spent 9 week travelling solo through South Africa and documented all her spending here – be sure to check it out.
Accommodation is surprisingly cheap in South Africa. In fact, most people I talk to can’t believe how cheap everything is in general. There are amazing backpackers hostels all over the country, and many have just as many facilities as a hotel. In fact the standard of hostels is so high that regardless of price, I would nearly always choose to stay in a hostel over a hotel in South Africa.
A dorm bed in a hostel will cost you anywhere from €9 or €10 along The Garden Route or Wild Coast up to €26 in one of Cape Town’s more expensive hostels. A private room (for two people, per night) in a hostel will cost as little as €21 up the coast to €70 in Cape Town during high season. Prices tend to be higher during the busy months of December and January and things get booked up very quickly during the December holiday period.
It’s best to budget about €15 per person per night if you plan to stay in dormitories for most of your trip, and about €20 per person if you plan to share a private room with someone else or €30+ if you want a private single.
If you’re looking for nice accommodation and aren’t a big fan of hostels, you could try Airbnb. I stayed in an amazing Airbnb in Cape Town with my friends last year and many people we met on the road said they had found some really unique Airbnb apartments up and down the coast. Not a member? Sign up for free here and get €30 off your first booking.
This will probably account for the biggest chunk of your budget if South Africa. It can actually be overwhelming as there are so many great adventure activities on offer in Cape Town and up the coast. You could honestly spend all day every day jumping out of planes, snorkelling with seals, abseiling, paragliding and jumping off bridges if you wished. Your budget would go out the window fairly quickly though!
Part 7 of this guide goes into a lot of detail about all the best adventure activities to tick off your bucket list and how much everything costs, but here’s a quick guide to get you started.
Anna Everywhere also has a great guide to some of her favourite extreme sports in South Africa which might provide a little inspiration for your trip.
Extreme Activities: €80 – €160
- Extreme adventure activities are the most expensive. Activities like Skydiving, Paragliding or diving with Great White Sharks will all cost over €100. A tandem skydive costs €155 in Cape Town, which puts it at one of the cheapest places in the world to go skydiving! Paragliding costs anywhere between €50 and €70 depending on where you do it, diving with sharks will set you back €110 in low season or €120 in high season. You can rent a private helicopter (for 3 passengers) and do a scenic flight over Cape Town for €221 – so less than €80 per person!
Half day adventures: €30 – €80
- Lots of half day adventures and boat trips fall into this price range, such as whale watching trips (€35), swimming and snorkelling with seals (€55) as well as the Bloukrans Bridge Bungee jump (€61 if you book online).
Everyday adventures: €10 – €40
- Most other fun adventure activities fall into this budget, which means as long as you are not travelling on a shoestring, it’s possible to do something fun almost every day. From surfing and sand-boarding, which usually cost €20 for a 2 hour lesson, to zip-lining, kayaking trips and tubing adventures (which all cost between €20 and €40) you will never run out of adventurous things to do while backpacking South Africa.
- If you are really strapped for cash, or simply prefer not to pay for too many activities, you will still find lots of fun things to do. From hiking the Drakensburg, Table Mountain or the lovely 3 hour hike from Coffee Bay to Hole in the Wall to spending the day at any of South Africa’s stunning beaches – there’s free stuff to do in every destination, you just need to ask locals for some advice.
Tips for budgeting for activities
- Many of the exact same activities offered in Cape Town are available further up the east coast for a fraction of the price. For example, paragliding in Cape Town costs almost double what it costs in Mossel Bay. You can also find the cheapest surf lessons in South Africa at The Coffee Shack hostel in Coffee Bay – at just €3 for a two hour lesson (compared to €20 in Wilderness or J-Bay), which is pretty much unbeatable!
- The closer you are to the area where the activity takes place, the cheaper it will be. For example, if you stay in Stellenbosch, rent a bike and visit all the wineries by yourself (or with friends) you only have to pay €3 in each winery to do a full tasting. If, on the other hand, you do a full day trip from Cape Town it could set you back anywhere form €50 to €150. Big difference!
- You will often get much cheaper deals on activities in the hostels you are staying in. Tube N’Axe Hostel in Storms River, for example, offers guests a whole range of discounted adventure packages and many hostels also have in-house surf instructors or local guides who can take you on Township Tours or to local waterfalls.
- Be sure to take into account the cost of the video and photos before choosing which company to use. This is because while some companies might seem cheaper, they may charge more for their photos and videos (which you nearly always want to buy) so it might end up costing you more than you bargained for.
Food and Drink
Cost of food
It’s possible to cook your own meals in a lot of the hostels which can really keep your costs down. That said I’m pretty lazy when I travel and I find eating out in South Africa ridiculously cheap. It must be the only country in the world where you can get a mouth-watering steak for just €5 in a restaurant! Most hostels have bars and restaurants attached that offer cheap backpacker food such as burgers, wraps and pizzas or a local / traditional dinner which you can pre order for less than €5 each night.
If you’re eating most meals in your hostel, expect to pay €2 or €3 for breakfast, €4 or €5 for lunch and about the same for dinner. So in total, about €10 – €12 per day on food. If you want to eat in a restaurant once a day, then you will need to budget more, maybe up to €10 per meal.
The Travelling Chilli blog has a great guide to food in South Africa, and will introduce you to foodie delights such as Bunny Chow and a good old South African braai!
Cost of drink
Like I said, most hostels have in-house bars where you’ll probably spend most of your time as that’s where you make friends and meet other backpackers. Beers cost around €1 or maybe slightly more where as a mixed drink (such as a vodka and coke) will cost about €3. Lots of hostels also do Happy Hour every evening so make the most of that!
Drinks in bars are a little more expensive, especially in Cape Town. You still won’t pay more than €2 or €3 for a bottle of beer anywhere, so it’s a million times cheaper than Ireland, the UK or America!
Wine tasting costs about €3 per winery and buying wine in South Africa is delightfully cheap, especially considering the high quality of the wines. You can pay as little as €3 for a bottle of wine and they can go up to €15 or even €20 for a really, REALLY good bottle of wine. Total bargain, so stock up!
Backpacker hot spots
Oh Cape Town, you absolute beauty. By far one of my favourite cities in the world and definitely the most incredible place in South Africa, you simply cannot travel South Africa without spending at least a few days in Cape Town. In my opinion it’s the perfect place to both start and finish your trip, and it will probably suck you in and make you never want to leave. That’s what it does with me…every single time. I’ve written quite a lot about why I love Cape Town, so I’ll try not to go on too much here! My only advice would be the longer you can stay here, the better. Three days definitely will not be enough, but if that’s all you can spare than you will be surprised how much you can fit into your days.
Cape Town is pretty much where every overland trip across Africa either starts or ends which means its the backpacking mecca of Africa. Cape Town’s main backpacker hub is Long Street, where you’ll find lots of hostels, travel agencies, cheap bars and souvenir shops. It’s a backpacker melting pot that you have to visit at least once.
I plan to write in detail about all the wonderful restaurants, cafes, secret gin bars, and of course all the amazing things to see and do, so this is just a short summary. For adventure activities, go to part 6 of this guide!
The World Pursuit bloggers Cameron and Natasha have written extensively about Cape Town, I especially love their post about romantic things to do in Cape Town. I also love this brilliant Foodie Guide to Cape Town written by Annika from Midnight Blue Elephant.
Essential Cape Town sights: Climbing Table Mountain, spending a day on the beach in either Clifton or Camps Bay, driving the Chapman’s Peak drive to the Cape of Good Hope, surfing in Muizenberg, visiting the penguins in Simonstown, taking the ferry to Robben Island, visiting the District Six museum, having a mini photo shoot in Bo Kaap, having a picnic in Kirstenbosch Gardens, Long Street or Bree street nightlife, open top bus tour and finally some shopping at the V & A Waterfront. Oh and a helicopter tour one the city or paragliding off Lions Head are also great fun. As is watching the sunset from Signal Hill or Camps Bay. Phew….good luck fitting all that in!!
Top things to do in Cape Town
- Take a helicopter ride
- Hike Table Mountain
- Visit Robben Island
- Go paragliding
- Drive Chapman’s Peak
- See the penguins in Simonstown
- Have a picnic in Muizenberg
- Go wine tasting in Constantia
- Explore the Cape of Good Hope
- Watch the sunset from Signal Hill
- Walk around Bo Kaap
- Sunset from Bloubergstrand
- Beach day in Camps Bay
Where to stay in Cape Town
By far my favourite hostel in Cape Town, Ashanti Lodge and Gardens Hostel is more like a boutique hotel than your average hostel. With high ceilings, wooden beams, a bright and cheerful bar/restaurant and a pool with a view of Table Mountain – you just can’t go wrong with this hostel. I always find it easy to make friends here, and the staff on reception are super friendly and will help you book tours, make phone calls, get yourself a sim card or anything else you need help with. There’s also great security and a coded gate to get in so I always feel safe.
Price: Dorm beds from €17 and privates €53 for two people sharing.
I stayed at The Backpack on my last trip to South Africa and quickly realised why it has won so many awards (including Best Hostel in Africa in 2013) and is so well loved. There’s a great community vibe here, the bar area is great for making friends and there are lots of large chill out areas. I love how they give back to the local community and organise lots of fun trips in and around Cape Town. Dorm beds are super comfortable, theres a swimming pool with an awesome view of Table Mountain and the staff were always helpful and smiling. Oh, and free breakfast! I would definitely return here.
Price: Dorm beds from €26.
The Garden Route
After Cape Town, The Garden Route (a 400km+ coastal driving route between Mossel Bay and Port Elizabeth) is the most popular place for backpacking. Its jammed full of beautiful beaches, amazing hiking routes, great hostels and and more adventure activities than you can shake a stick at. While it’s possible to drive the entire route in a day, realistically you need at least a week or two to truly see all the sights along this amazing driving route. It’s the perfect place to start your South African road trip, or if you’re tight on time I think doing Cape Town and The Garden Route is a great way to get a taste of all South Africa has to offer.
Essential Garden Route stops: Wilderness, Knysna, Plettenberg Bay, Storms River Village, Tsitsikamma National Park, Jeffrey’s Bay and Port Elizabeth / Addo Elephant Park.
Top things to do along The Garden Route
- Surfing in Jeffreys Bay
- Kayaking in Tsitsikamma
- Sand boarding in Wilderness
- Tubing in Storms River
- Explore the Cango Caves
- Go on a game drive
- Do an elephant safari
- Shark cage diving
- Zip Lining in Storms River
- Bloukrans Bridge bungee jump
- Eat at Ile de Pain in Knysna
- Take an outdoor bath in Hogback
- Hike around Tsitsikamma National Park
- Ride an ostrich
Where to stay on The Garden Route
Afrovibe is one of those hostels where you just feel good vibes the minute you arrive. The staff here are almost too cool, and sometimes in the summer they fill the bar with sand to bring the whole beach bar vibe to the next level. There’s a great bar / restaurant attached, you couldn’t get nearer to the beach if you camped on it and there are endless activities organised each day from sunset cocktails to sand-boarding or surfing. Awesome spot in Sedgefield, and very close to Wilderness and Knysna.
Price: Dorm bed from €13, private room from €49 (for two people sharing).
Island Vibe has probably been one of my favourite hostels in the world, right from the very first time I stayed there as a young and innocent 18 year old backpacker over 10 years ago. There’s just something special about this place, and everyone who stay there never wants to leave. It’s a real party hostel, with bar busy most nights and absolutely popping at the weekends. Staff are amazing and besides walking two minutes down to the beach for a surf, there are loads of other fun activities and day trips on offer. The dorms come with panoramic views of the beach and ocean and there is also a new building with amazing privates with a balcony and perfect beach view.
Price: Dorm beds from just €11 and private rooms start from €41.
I had always heard lots of great things about this hostel but only stated there for the first time in December 2016. This family run hostel is almost like a holiday complex or backpacker haven – complete with large pool, chill out area, deck chairs, great bar and restaurant and fire pit for nightly camp fires. They also own the Blackwater Tubing adventures so you can sign up to quite a few adrenaline junkie packages for discounted prices. Love the outdoor eco shower and toilet too – such a unique place.
Price: €20 for a dorm bed
I have never actually stayed here – and it’s one of my biggest regrets. Almost every other backpacker along The Garden Route seemed to have stayed here, and for many it was their favourite hostel in South Africa. An alternative, creative and seemingly magical hostel.
Price: €13 for a dorm bed, €26 to stay in one of their 2 man tents.
The Wild Coast
The Wild Coast essentially starts where The Garden Route ends although technically a bit further North than Port Elizabeth, and stretches up the coast as far as Durban. This is a part of South Africa that is a lot more rough and ragged than the heavily visited destinations on the Western Cape. The landscape and beaches are much wilder looking, everything is a lot more rural but there is unrivalled beauty in the landscapes and unrivalled levels of friendliness to be encountered in the people you meet. It’s truly a very special part of the country and not one to be missed if you can help it.
Best for nature lovers or anyone who loves the thought of “escaping” for a few days, to remote hostels and lodges, rugged beaches, wild hiking trails and just generally beautiful but hidden locations. It’s less about paying for adrenaline junkie activities and more about getting back to nature.
Where to stay on the Wild Coast
This cool little hostel nestled away next to the beach in Coffee Bay is one the original South African backpackers hostels and has remained popular throughout the years. From they delicious home cooked family dinners to wild nights at their tiny bar or sitting around the nightly bonfire, to availing of the cheapest surf lesson in South Africa, I can’t actually imagine a trip to Coffee Bay WITHOUT staying in this hostel.
Price: Dorm beds from just €11 – they are in traditional round rondavels!
This place is MASSIVE. More like a holiday resort complex than your average hostel, the grounds are sprawling and contain large chill out areas, a campsite, a swimming pool, a pool bar, a second bar, a restaurant, kayaks and surf boards for rent, a TV room and probably loads more i am forgetting about. They organise volleyball for all guests every afternoon and the best part is…they give out free wine for 2 hours!!
Price: Dorm beds from €11 and privates from €29.
One of the most asked questions about South Africa seems to be “Is it safe?” Not only have many of female friends asked me about safety in South Africa, but even my Dad, my Uncle and many male friends my own age seem to think it’s the most dangerous place on earth. Sure, South Africa DOES have it’s problems and a few minutes wandering a street in Johannesburg at night and you’ll know about them all too soon, but in general I find it to be a very safe country. If you just stay street smart, as you would anywhere when travelling solo, you will honestly be fine. As always, try not to go places on your own especially late at night. Don’t walk around with too much flashy jewellery as you will definitely be a target. I stayed at an amazing hostel in Joburg, loved every moment and had no troubles. During my stay, however, two separate guys who went wandering around by themselves got robbed just around the corner! Lucky they only had small amounts of cash and no cards on them, but two guys getting robbed in one night is pretty scary. Like I said though, if you stay street smart and keep out of trouble, backpacking South Africa really is very safe!
South Africa is notorious for the high rate of car jackings and robberies, so keeping your car and belongings safe is very important. While most of these incidents take place late at night, and mainly in Johannesburg, you can be at risk anywhere so better to be safe the sorry. Plan your journey in advance and try not to drive after night fall. Always make sure all doors are locked and never leave belongings on show in the back seat – lock them in to boot instead. If they see anything, they will be more tempted to smash the window and take whatever else they can find. Luckily South Africans take security very seriously and there is very good gated security or security guards at most hostels and hotels.
There’s is one particular scam, no doubt popular all over the world, that has been going strong in South Africa for well over a decade. It simply involves a man, or in my case a woman, coming up and talking to you while you try to use the ATM. They will distract you, note your pin number and then get your card. Sometimes they will snatch it from you, other times they have something in the machine that keeps your card. You will think the machine swallowed it, then they’ll come back, get your card and withdraw every last penny. Don’t let ANYONE near you!!
All I can say is…those baboons aren’t as cute as you think!! Seriously though, there are many wild animals in South Africa to be aware of. There are up to 4 breeds of poisonous snake, baboons and monkeys that will at best bite you and at worst give you rabies, not to mention the likes of lions and sometimes angry elephants. Best advice I can give you is to treat them with respect and keep your distance! It’s important to be prepared for your trip – this safari packing list should help with that.
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