The ultimate South Africa itinerary for backpackers

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Hamba Kahle’ (go well), ‘let’s have a braai’  (barbeque) and ‘it was so lekker’ (awesome/good/tasty) are just a few of the phrases you’ll hear in the medley of languages when you touch down in South Africa. With eleven national tongues and cultural groups to match, South Africa is a chaotic cultural hive which will have you singing with the Zulus and braaing with the Afrikaaners before your trip is over. Dubbed the Rainbow Nation for its cultural diversity, the country’s natural landscape is equally diverse in its dramatic scenery. From deserts to forests, mountains to grasslands and a long and varied coastline, a two-week South Africa itinerary will have you ticking off your bucket list faster than you can write it. Let’s go!

📷 @timalanjohnson

South Africa itinerary – 2 weeks

Days 1 – 5: Cape Town

Affectionately named by locals as the Mother City, Cape Town is a booming South African travel hotspot and probably the most accessible spot for backpackers to ease themselves into the country. While renting a car is always the best option for getting around South Africa, Cape Town has a safe and convenient bus system called the MCiTi bus, which gets you to most places of interest. Otherwise, Uber is your cheap and cheerful friend and the best option for moving around in the night. The city sprawls around the iconic Table Mountain and along the Atlantic coastline, set against a backdrop of the Cape Fold Belt mountain range. Hundreds of nature trails, sparkling rock pools, water sports and adventure activities are easily accessible from anywhere in the city, making it a playground for nature lovers and adrenaline junkies.

📷 @austindistel

For those who prefer to eat and drink their way through a country, Cape Town will be right up your street. It’s got a number of scenic wine farms offering cheap tastings of some of the best wine in the world. Those on the Constantia Wine Route are breathtaking, with spectacular views and a relaxed atmosphere. The MyCiTi bus can get you there and depending on how much wine you drink, you can stumble along to different farms as you go. Cape Town also has loads of eclectic markets and an endless amount of cheap food options for budget backpackers. The Old Biscuit Mill Market in Woodstock is popular, and the neighbourhood is awash with vintage stores and artisan cafes. Cape Point Vineyards Noordhoek Community Market is a food and wine market with scenic sunset views over the vineyard and lake, while the Oranjezicht City Farm Market is a centrally located, friendly spot for fresh-from-the-farm food. For the best caffeine fix, Truth Coffee is a world-renowned coffee shop that doubles up as an immersive, steampunk experience. On a hot day, their iced coffee is unbeaten.

Looming over the city, Table Mountain is the pride of Capetonians and while you have a view of it from basically everywhere, the views from the peak are unparalleled. Don’t worry if you left your hiking boots at home, there is a cable car which takes you to the flat peak and is easily accessible with the MyCiTi bus. There are a number of routes up Table Mountain, from a relatively easy ascent via rocky stairs to a death-defying scramble up cliffs. Choose the trail which best suits your fitness level and appetite for adventure! The most popular, safest and easiest hiking route is up Platteklip Gorge, which starts near the cable car station. This trail is moderately easy with only steps, and lots of opportunities to catch your breath while you pretend to admire the view. The panoramic views and warm fuzzy feeling when you get to the top make it all worth it.

 📷 @renateeriksen

To immerse yourself in Cape Malay culture, visit the historic and colourful Bo-Kaap neighbourhood, a quirky and bright array of houses dating back to the 1760s whose rainbow colours you may recognise from many Instagram feeds. The multicoloured neighbourhood, formerly known as the Malay Quarter, was constructed as leased living quarters for slaves from Malaysia, Indonesia and the rest of Africa. These people were known as Cape Malays, and a distinctive culture has grown from their descendants. The “huurhuisjes” (rental houses), were white when the slaves lived there. When they were able to buy property, it’s believed that in order to celebrate their freedom they painted their houses in bright colours. Many Cape Malay families have been living in these houses for generations and Bo-Kaap is a must-visit to begin to understand South Africa’s cultural heritage. If you want to dive deeper, Cape Fusion Tours offer an awesome half-day cooking course in Cape Malay food.

 📷 @claudiofonte

The city centre is chaotic, with hawkers shouting out ‘mineral water for your daughter’ or ‘mangoes, mangoes – wherever a woman is, man goes!’ – simply strolling around is an experience. Take a walk down Long Street, a funky area with impressive street art, vintage stores and vibey bars with large terraces for prime people-watching. Be careful of pickpockets in this area, as it’s an infamous street for getting your phone swiped. Head over to Green Market Square to haggle over prices for handmade African artwork, or to the V&A Waterfront for a sunset boat trip or lunch overlooking the harbour. Drop-in to Yours Truly on Kloof Street, a coffee shop/bar packed with backpackers and locals from 5pm every afternoon, winding down the day with an ice-cold beer on the upstairs garden terrace. Down the road is Kloof Street House, a visual fantasy land which will have you feeling like you’ve fallen down the rabbit hole straight into a Lewis Carroll novel – the fantastic food is just a bonus.

If you’ve rented a car, the Cape Peninsula loop is a spectacular mini road trip which can be done in a day and is packed with sights and activities. If the erratic local traffic is too daunting, you can break the trip up and use Uber to ferry you around (the MyCiTi bus does not travel here). Head over to Muizenberg beach, the first stop on the loop. Here you can enjoy the warmer water and the small waves which make it the perfect place for novice surfers – you can rent budget wetsuits and boards and learn by yourself, or book some lessons. Muizenberg has a laid back, beach bum feel, in contrast to the other glam beaches around Cape Town.  Kalk bay is the next village over and is quaint and idyllic, dotted with welcoming cafes, designer beachwear shops and the famous Kalkys – the best fish and chips in Cape Town.

Muizenberg beach 📷 @_entreprenerd

From Kalk Bay, head over to Boulders Beach (R160/£8) and visit the penguins – not the Arctic type, the kind of smelly but unbelievably cute African type. Keep your eyes peeled for whales and dolphins too. If you’re not driving, end your day in nearby Simons Town, otherwise it could be an expensive Uber back. From Boulders Beach, the road continues along the coast towards Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope through a large nature reserve (entry R320/£15) that extends from the southernmost tip of the peninsula to Table Mountain. The route continues through one beautiful seaside town to the next, with plenty of opportunities for an icy dip in the sea and a walk on the beach. You can loop back to town via Chapmans Peak, an elevated coastal road with epic views. If that hasn’t satisfied your beach cravings, the four Clifton beaches are a popular choice for backpackers and locals alike for their white sand and rocky coves. Llandudno beach is a great spot to enjoy the humbling African sunsets.

📷 @austindistel

The Western Cape is the natural habitat of the fascinating Fynbos vegetation. It’s a small but diverse floral kingdom, with two-thirds of the plant species occurring only in the Western and Eastern Cape. The perfect place to appreciate the Fynbos is the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens (entry R75/£3.50). Meander through rock gardens, gape at the strangely gorgeous cycads and walk on the architectural marvel that is the Tree Canopy Walkway. The Skeleton Gorge trail up Table Mountain starts in the garden and involves a technical but doable ascent up a shaded gorge which ends at a Coca-Cola coloured mineral lake, perfect for a swim on a hot summer’s day. If you happen to find yourself in Cape Town in summer, there’s a concert at Kirstenbosch Gardens almost every weekend, where you can get a taste of local live acts with Table Mountain as your backdrop. Arrive early and know that picnic blankets and bottles of wine are encouraged!

  • Getting to Cape Town: It’s best to start or end your trip in Cape Town as the international airport offers some of the best international flight rates and times.
  • Best time to visit: Late spring and summer (November – February) is the best time to visit Cape Town, as winters are wet and windy. The wind off the Atlantic sea brings a cold breeze even in summer and it’s not uncommon to experience four seasons in one day, so be sure to pack for all climates!
  • Best for: Cosmopolitan city vibes and a perfect intro to South Africa!

Where to stay:

Cape Town is jam-packed with awesome hostels, and staying in the centre of town is the best option. You can walk safely during the day in the centre and reach many of the sights and neighbourhoods by bus or foot.

ONCE in Cape Town

This hostel has a dreamy location right on Kloof Street in the same building as Yours Truly – if you’ve been paying attention, this is a huge bonus. All the rooms, including the dorms, are en-suite, and there are buzzing social spaces and fun events. You can book a number of trips and sightseeing activities easily from reception.

Never@Home Cape Town

Located in Green Point, this hostel has the benefit of being close to the waterfront, Clifton beaches and Camps Bay with the city centre easily reachable. It has a sundeck and pool, with happy hour specials and ping pong always on the cards.

Check out all of our hostels in Cape Town

Days 6-9: Garden Route

The Garden Route is a 200km coastal stretch starting at Mossel Bay, about 4 hours from Cape Town. A fairyland of forests and wilderness, it has magical landscapes and ethereal beauty which is unmissable on your two week South Africa itinerary. There’s a reason that hippy communities decided to set up homes in the woods years ago, and many people are still living off the grid in this area today – the gratitude towards nature here is strong. You can choose to make your way up to Port Elizabeth, moving from one enchanting ‘town’ to the next, or make a base in Knysna and explore from there. The Baz Bus is awesome for getting around the Garden Route. It stops at all the major destinations, picks up from over 200 hostels and is the best bang for your buck if you’re not interested in renting a car.

📷 @lienvandh

Mossel Bay is home to a brand new, thrilling, record-breaking activity – the longest over ocean zipline in the world. Prepare for a 1100m glide over the ocean, reaching speeds up to 80km per hour with views of dramatic cliffs, crashing waves and sea life. If you leave Cape Town early enough, Mossel Bay will be your first stop on the Garden Route and there’s no reason why you can’t enjoy this zipline and still head on to the next town the same day. If you do plan to stay, Mossel Bay is one of the region’s best surf spots, alongside Plettenberg Bay and Jeffrey’s Bay – the latter being famous for having some of the best waves in the world.

Mossel Bay 📷 @zatourist

The gem of the Garden Route, which is a big claim as the whole area sparkles, is the Tsitsikamma Forest found in the Tsitsikamma National Park, between mountains and the sea. Deep canyons are etched into the mountainside and surrounded by thick, indigenous forest that’s home to an 800-year-old giant tree, standing tall above the forest canopy. Adventure across these canyons by way of swinging bridges, visit animal sanctuaries, venture deep into the wild on one of the many nature trails, explore the dense brush by horseback or travel above the trees on the canopy tour.

Tsitsikamma Mountains 📷 @mateuamaia

If the sea and sun are getting too much, your sunburn needs a break and your hair could use a brush, head inland to Oudtshoorn to explore the Cango Caves. A tiny little ‘dorpie’ in the middle of nowhere, Outsdhoorn is what South African’s would call a ‘one-horse town, and the horse has died.’ However, the Cango Caves have kept this patch of dust on the map. You can choose a heritage tour which is informative and interesting, or an adventure tour which will take you down steep ladders and tight crevices deeper into the caves. The heritage tour is recommended if claustrophobia limits you from commando crawling through tight spaces into the unknown.

If you haven’t had enough hair-raising excitement by this stage, a bungee jump off Africa’s highest bridge will fulfil your daredevil desires. Bloukrans Bungee Jump, located between Natures Valley and Storms River, is the highest commercial bridge bungee jump, and the third-highest jump in the world – do you dare? Other active adventures along the route include sandboarding and surfing in the town of Knysna, and canoeing, paragliding and abseiling in beach town Wilderness. You can even swim with seals in Plettenberg Bay – yup, that’s a thing! Cape Fur Seals are the dogs of the ocean and their social and curious nature make them epic swimming companions.

For the Garden Route’s best hiking, hit up the Giant Kingfisher Trail in Wilderness, Robberg Hiking Trail in Plettenberg Bay, the Goukamma Trails in Sedgefield, Ruiterbos Forest Hiking Trail in Mossel Bay or the Pass to Pass Trail in George. Many of these hikes require permits, which are easy to obtain and help to ensure that the trails are not overcrowded.

📷 @elundini_backpackers

  • Getting there: From Cape Town, you have the option of a four-hour drive or a slightly longer trip by bus. These are the most affordable options, but it’s possible to fly into three airports along the route: Plettenberg, Port Elizabeth and George.
  • Best time to visit: The Garden Route is part of the Western Cape and has a similar climate to Cape Town, so November-February is best.
  • Best for: Getting off the grid and exploring nature!

Where to stay:

Wild Spirit LodgePlettenberg Bay

On the western tip of the Tsitsikamma forest lies this laidback, family-run lodge in the heart of the Garden Route. Eco-friendly and open-minded, the lodge is a good place to unwind or explore. It offers a range of accommodation from family suites to off-the-grid camping.

Afrovibe Beach LodgeSedgefield

Situated in sleepy Sedgefield, a coastal town between Wilderness and Knysna, the lodge provides the ultimate beach vibe. Resting on Myoli beach, it’s a raw paradise with all sorts of activities at your doorstep.

Jembjo’s Knysna Lodge and BackpackersKnysna

Knysna is a must-visit and a good base to explore the Garden Route if you want to find a solid base rather than move from town to town. Jembjo’s is a centrally located hostel with a communal kitchen and free breakfast – those two beloved words that make every backpacker’s ears perk up.

Days 9-12: Kruger National Park

The true essence of South Africa lies in its bushveld and its wild animals. There are few experiences that can compare to a sunrise in the bush, dunking Ouma rusks into rooibos tea, the pink hues of sunrise touching the grass while you search for wildlife. Fast forward to sipping a sundowner as the sky sets on fire and elephants, giraffes and the like end off your day. There are a number of national parks where you can experience this in South Africa, but Kruger Park is the most popular and diverse – more than 90 countries in the world are smaller than the park, so it never feels overcrowded and there are lots of opportunities to spot weird and wonderful creatures. For visitors with limited time, it’s best to stick to the south of the park in order to minimise travel time and maximise safari time. There are a number of fenced and gated camps to choose from to pitch up your tent. Recommended campsites include Lower Sabie, Skukuza and Malelane.

📷 @mira.kaut

For travellers on a budget, self-drive safaris are the best option. You can rent a vehicle from the main towns just outside the park (Hoedspruit, Nelspruit and Phalaborwa) or from the airport. Self-driving gives you the opportunity to pick your own routes and times and go at your own pace. Animals are most active during the sunrise and sunset hours, so try to get out of camp when the gates open (5.30am in summer months, 6am in winter months). It’s simply too hot around midday, so take the opportunity to head back to your camp or accommodation and laze by the pool, have lunch and then head out again in the afternoon. You must make it back out of the park or to your camp by the time the gate closes (6.30pm in summer, 6pm in winter), otherwise you’ll be handed a hefty fine and a stern warning.

📷 @tobinrogers

If driving yourself, keep your distance from elephants – they can get moody if they feel like they’ve been boxed in by cars. Ear flapping is not a good sign. Drive slowly, as it’s easy to miss things and even to hit animals crossing the road. Look up in the trees to find birds and down on the ground for snakes and smaller animals. Binoculars are a must, and don’t be afraid to flag down other cars and ask them what they’ve spotted! Download the Kruger Park App and keep checking their Twitter page for the latest sightings. But most importantly, be patient.

For solo travellers or safari newbies, game drives and bush walks are a fantastic way to be taken on safari with a guide who can share expert knowledge and introduce you to the marvels of the African bush.

📷 @redcharlie

Locals take great pride in their national parks and it is simple respect for nature which governs the park. There are no police monitoring your behaviour and often it can seem like a good idea to bend the rules. Don’t litter in the park, don’t get out of your car except in designated areas and bird hides, don’t hang out of windows or sunroofs or shout at animals to try and get their attention (that doesn’t work anyway) and most importantly, don’t try to  feed any animals – especially the cheeky monkeys!

In addition to accommodation or camping fees, visitors must pay a conservation fee for every day that they’re in the park. For international visitors, this is R400 (£20). You can pay the fees while booking your accommodation, or each morning.

  • Getting to Kruger National Park: The easiest way (but not the cheapest) is to fly into one of the few surrounding airports from your final destination on the Garden Route. These are KMI Airport in Nelspruit, Hoedspruit Airport or Hendrick Van Eck Airport in Phalaborwa. From here you can rent a car or organise a shuttle. For a cheaper option, fly into Johannesburg’s Lanseria or OR Thambo airports and take a shuttle to the park. Renting a car at one of the airports is the most efficient option, with the drive to the park being around 4.5 hours. Alternatively, Baz Bus offers Kruger Park Packages leaving from a number of destinations.
  • Best time to visit: The summer months in Kruger Park can reach temperatures of up to 40 degrees which can be unbearably hot, especially if camping. Winter is the best time to spot animals and enjoy more comfortable temperatures. Spring or autumn have milder temperatures and would fit in nicely with the rest of your South African itinerary.
  • Best for: Spotting unforgettable wildlife!

Where to stay:

Other than the multiple camps which are found in the park, there’s also an option to stay just outside and take day trips into the park. There are many hostels to choose from, and it’s recommended that accommodation is booked in advance as it’s an immensely popular destination for domestic and foreign travellers.

Kruger Inn BackpackersMarloth Park

A daily shuttle leaves from OR Thambo airport to this backpacker’s inn. Antelopes and other grazers roam freely around the area, so you’ll have the safari right on your doorstep. Expect to hear lions in the night and look out for wildebeest when you walk to the shops. It’s located right outside the park, so it’s perfect for day trips.

Check out all of our hostels in Kruger Park

Days 12 – 14: Johannesburg

The City of Gold and SA’s financial capital is often overlooked as nothing more than a pit stop on the way to safari, but Johannesburg deserves at least a two-day spot on your South Africa travel itinerary. While Cape Town is the sweetheart of South Africa, ‘Joburg’ is the epicentre of the raw and recent history of apartheid. To truly understand the complexities of South African society, the inner workings of various cultures and the race relations unique to this country, one must learn about apartheid, and Johannesburg is the best place to do that.

📷 @picsbylikesoda

It’s not all macabre history and dark tourism, Joburg has a vibrant arts culture, a growing African foodie scene and hipster neighbourhoods with cool bars and music scenes. Of course, the Cradle of Humankind is just down the road, if you feel like stepping way back in history and visiting the fossils of the earliest humans.

The easiest way to visit the important sights of this massive city is via the hop-on-hop-off bus service, which offers different ticket options including two consecutive days and a Soweto combo. The public transport in the city quite frankly sucks, and Uber can become expensive as you cover long distances. Get on the bus at the Rosebank centre and take in the City of Gold. Jump off at Constitution Hill, a former prison complex with a legacy of the country’s tumultuous past and journey to democracy. Now home to the constitutional court, it’s a living museum which imprisoned some of the most important leaders in South African history, namely Nelson Mandela, Albertina Sisulu and Mahatma Gandhi. The bus stops at the Apartheid Museum, and you should allow at least two hours for this informative, immersive experience. End the day on a high note at SAB Brewery with a tour and a cold one.

 📷 @gregfullard

For the city’s best Pan African food check out Yeoville Dinner Club in the CBD, a delicious ode to cuisines from all over the African continent. The Living Room in the groovy Maboneng precinct is a leafy rooftop cafe and bar which features local DJs on a Sunday afternoon. This is the local’s best-kept secret for deep African house music.

If you happen to be in Joburg at the weekend, the revitalised neighbourhood of Braamfontein is the place to go for your culture fix. Unusual art galleries, pop up theatres, the Neighbourgoods Market and disco bars are just a few of the gems you’ll come across in ‘Braam.’ Here’s where you’ll witness the eclectic African Mod culture.

📷 @nerd_kool

  • Getting there: Joburg has something real snazzy – an infrastructural diamond in the rough – the Gautrain. This modern train system makes it easy to get from OR Thambo International Airport to various centres in the city. Therefore, flying into or out of Johannesburg is a great option. Coming from Kruger Park, however, requires a shuttle or car (or expensive flight). Beginning your South Africa itinerary in Johannesburg and doing the whole thing backwards is an option if flights are cheaper.
  •  Best time to visit: Spring and autumn (March-May and September-November) are great times to visit Johannesburg, as the weather is pleasant and the city isn’t as busy.
  • Best for: Diving headfirst into South Africa’s history.

Where to stay:

CURIOCITY Backpackers

This hostel has a social vibe and a killer location in the funky Maboneng neighbourhood. The staff offer walking tours around parts of Joburg that most backpackers don’t get to visit, and there’s a bar and rooftop terrace, so you can enjoy a beer with views of the colourful streets below.

Lakeside Backpackers

Traditional braais around the turquoise swimming pool = pure chilled out bliss. The hostel overlooks Blaaupan Lake and a bird sanctuary, so feels like an escape to nature when it’s really only a few kilometres from the city centre.


South Africa itinerary – 3 weeks

Here are just a few ideas for extra things you could do with a bit more time in your itinerary:

  • Lovers of the grape, extend your Western Cape trip a few days with a night or two exploring the Cape Winelands, which include Stellenbosch, Franschoek and Paarl.
  • Head up to Kwa Zulu Natal from the Garden Route or Johannesburg by car, flight or bus. The east coast of South Africa is lush, tropical and humid. The warm Indian Ocean is great for swimming and surfing the whole year-round. Durban and Ballito are popular for backpackers looking for that beach bum vibe. Don’t forget to explore the unique Durban-Indian food culture and tuck into a spicy bunny chow (disclaimer, no bunnies are hurt or killed in the making of this dish).
  • Explore the Drakensberg, the eastern point of the Great Escarpment mountain range which forms the border between Lesotho and South Africa.
  • Before or after Kruger National Park, explore the Blyde River Canyon, the largest green canyon in the world.
  • Take the train from Cape Town to Johannesburg or vice versa. It’s a long journey which takes about 26 hours but is a trip in itself. There is the option of the luxury Blue Train at an eye-watering R15000 (£720), or the more backpacker-friendly Shozoloza at around R4000 (£190).

Durban 📷 @kaan2008

South Africa itinerary – 1 week

  • Spend a few days in Cape Town and visit a nearby game reserve for safari. Check out Buffelsfontein Game Reserve or Aquila Private Game Reserve.
  • Maybe you’re a city slicker, and the thought of dusty safaris and foreign bugs is not your thing? Visit the hubs of South Africa: Cape Town and Johannesburg. Make your way through these big hitters on a cultural journey.

Where to start a two-week South Africa itinerary

Flying into Cape Town or Johannesburg and flying out of the other is the best way to save money, maximise time and fit as much as possible into your South Africa itinerary.

How much money do you need for two weeks in South Africa?

Luckily for travellers (but unlucky for us South Africans), the rand is weak against foreign currency, so your money goes far. For the backpacker that rents a car, has one or two internal flights, spoils themselves with a nice meal but is happy to make their own sandwiches too, wants to partake in activities and enjoys a beer at the end of a day, £1200 minimum is a safe bet.

What to pack for two weeks in South Africa

  • Cotton/light material long pants and shirts to protect you from the mosquitoes without inducing heatstroke
  • Bug spray with a high DEET level
  • Sun cream. The African sun is large and in charge and many people find that out the hard way – don’t be one of them
  • Good walking shoes if you’re going to take on one of the many hikes
  • A GoPro or decent camera for insane wildlife shots

What is the best way of travelling around South Africa?

The best way to travel is undoubtedly by car. Many secret, and not so secret gems, are nothing short of a mission to get to without your own car. That being said, it isn’t impossible to get to the main destinations and spots without one. Uber is active in most big cities and buses are available for long journeys, but they suck up valuable time. The Baz Bus has become a popular choice for backpackers as it has routes all the way from Johannesburg to Cape Town and functions on a hop-on-hop-off basis. It picks up from over 200 hostels, which takes away the hassle of getting to bus stations.

📷 @linaloos

Has our South Africa itinerary got you prepared for your adventure? If there’s anything else you want to know, let us know in the comments. Have an epic trip!

To find the best hostels in South Africa, download the Hostelworld app!

About the author:

I’m Leah Alves, a South African nomad with a drifter’s heart and, unfortunately, a bank account which is never full enough to match it. I find happiness in nature. My feet are always dusty, my favourite way to get high is by climbing mountains and my best hangover cure is a dip in icy rivers. I talk way too much but when I do slow down for a second, I make sure to collect stories of all the people I meet and the places I go.  Follow me on my sometimes busy but mostly quiet Instagram: @_leah_savannah.

Keep reading: ⬇️

🌟 The 15 best hostels in Cape Town

🌟 The ultimate guide to backpacking Morocco

🌟 Backpacker’s Guide to South Africa

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