When is the best time to visit South Africa?
The best time to visit South Africa is between June and October when days are dry and wildlife viewing conditions on safaris are at their peak. That being said, South Africa is an excellent year-round destination with spectacular natural landscapes, bustling cities and plenty of activities for every itinerary. Whichever month you choose to visit, you won't be disappointed.
The best time for a safari
The best time to visit game reserves like Kruger, Mapungubwe and Lion Sands is during the dry season (May to September). Vegetation is thinner and animals tend to congregate by rivers and waterholes, increasing your chances of experiencing a Big Five sighting. While the days will be sunny and skies will be clear, it can be chilly in the early mornings and evenings, so make sure to layer up!
Safaris during the wet season (October to April) are still possible, but it can be more difficult to spot game through tall grasses and lush vegetation, and daily rainstorms have been known to disrupt travel plans and decrease visibility. On the upside, summertime is birthing season for some animals, which means you might have a chance to spot adorable pups, cubs and calves.
The best time for whale watching
Every year from July to November, hundreds of southern right whales migrate from the chilly waters of Antarctica to South Africa's warmer coast to mate, give birth and nurse their young. You can usually spot them off the coast of Hermanus where they like to swim close to the shore, but if you'd like to get up close and personal, it's a great idea to join a whale-watching tour.
Between late September and October, Hermanus hosts the annual Hermanus Whale Festival, a celebratory event to raise awareness about these majestic creatures. If you plan on attending the festival, accommodation typically books up quickly so be sure to plan ahead.
The best time for beaches
With just under 3000 km of coastline, South Africa has no shortage of stunning beaches. The best time to enjoy them in all their golden, sun-drenched glory is between December and February when the days are long and bright and temperatures are hot. By March, the crowds usually thin out but the weather stays warm, so it might be a better time to visit if you're looking for a quieter holiday.
You can bask in the sun and bathe in a natural rock swimming pool at Cape Town's famous Camps Bay, catch some waves at Jeffery's Bay, or strap on your snorkel to explore the impressive reefs at Aliwal Shoal in KwaZulu-Natal. Coastal towns like Hermanus, Mossel Bay and Langebaan are popular with locals and backpackers alike, so hotels can get booked up months in advance.
Best for: sea, sand and surf on the coast
January is the hottest month in South Africa, with muggy temps soaring upwards of 32°C/90°F most days, making it a great time to stick to the coast. Head over to the Golden Mile in Durban, a popular tourist area that has wide, sandy beaches, piers, restaurants and cafes. The waters in this area maintain an average temperature of 26°C/79°F making for a dreamy swim or surf. If you're all beached out, The Mile also has an aquarium, a skate park, a surfing museum and a few nightclubs. Keep in mind that January is the school holidays and the coast is a popular domestic holiday spot for South Africans. You'll want to plan ahead!
Best for: swirling and sipping in the Cape Winelands, the International Jazz Festival in Cape Town
February can be sweltering, and we can't think of a better way to beat the heat than with a crisp glass of Chenin Blanc, a regional variety of white wine with refreshing flavours of melon, pineapple and stone fruit.
The pastoral Cape Winelands is home to rolling vineyards and towns like Stellenbosch (an oenophile's paradise), offering a vibrant wine scene and some of the country's best restaurants. The town of Franschhoek, which translates to “The French Corner”, has, you guessed it, a large French influence in both wine varietals and food, and has an open-air tram to shuttle you between estates. February is the height of harvest season, so you'll most likely get to witness trees bursting with fruit, grape stomping, wine barrel races and a festival or two. You can also catch the International Jazz Festival in Cape Town in February.
Best for: going in search of your perfect wave
Home to what the 1966 film The Endless Summer coined "the perfect wave", South Africa has loads of world-class surfing spots with swells that start peaking in March every year. Novice surfers can find sandy beach breaks on South Beach, Addington Beach or the Golden Mile in Durban, and get a lesson from one of the many surf schools. While you shouldn't expect to be hanging 10 on infamous swell "Supertubes" in Jeffery's Bay (experts only, please!), you'll be in for an impressive show watching the locals charge 20-foot waves. You might even catch a glimpse of some world-famous pros.
Best for: verdant landscapes, dramatic hikes and rewarding views
April marks the end of the summer, bringing cooler temperatures and great conditions for outdoor activities like hiking. The majestic Drakensberg Mountain Range, home to South Africa's highest peak at 3482 meters, forms part of the border between South Africa and Lesotho and has endless trails. After the summer rains, the highlands of Lesotho, often called 'The Kingdom in the Sky', will be lush and vibrantly green, waterfalls will be flowing and the views will be worth the sore muscles. Autumn (April to May) is an ideal time to hike the Drakensberg to have pleasant trail conditions and more stable weather, but thunderstorms aren't uncommon and temperatures can start dropping quite low, so it's wise to pack waterproof layers. Snow typically arrives in early May.
Best for: the best bang for your buck on a safari
If your main reason for visiting South Africa is safaris rather than beaches, May is your month. May kicks off the safari season and days will be warm and dry while nights start getting cool. Game viewing tends to improve as the dry season continues, but you'll still have great odds of seeing spectacular animals congregate at watering holes, and prices and crowds tend to be at their lowest at the start of the season.
Best for: lions, elephants and marathon racers, oh my!
With dry, sunny days and clear skies, June is another excellent month for wildlife viewing. Consider a visit to the Addo Elephant National Park which was created in 1931 to protect the region's eleven remaining elephants and is a true success story in conservation. Today there are over 450 elephants in the park, as well as Cape buffalo, black rhinos, all kinds of antelopes and even the unique flightless dung beetle. Need a little more adrenaline? Every June South Africa hosts the Big Five Marathon where participants race through the private Entabeni Game Reserve. Do it if you dare!
Best for: wildlife viewing in the northern parks
While July is technically the middle of the low season, there's no better time for wildlife viewing in the northern parks like Kruger. Smack dab in the middle of the dry winter, the landscape will be dull and sparse but visibility will be at an all-time high, making your chances of spotting the Big Five pretty solid. Cooler weather, low humidity and fewer mosquitos will make days in your overland vehicle much more comfortable than in the sweltering heat of the summer.
Best for: getting up close and personal with marine life
Is seeing a breaching whale on your bucket list? Look no further than the town of Hermanus, the whale-watching capital of South Africa. Every year between July and September, hundreds of southern right whales migrate from Antarctica to mate in the warmer waters of South Africa. In Hermanus, the waters remain deep until fairly close to the shore which means whales that swim into the bay can be seen right from the beach, or even from your accommodation. The town also has lots of opportunities for boat tours as well as a 12 km (7.5 mi) coastal path with dozens of lookouts to spot whales, dolphins and sea lions. Listen carefully and you might even hear a mating call!
Best for: road-tripping The Garden Route and doing a little bit of everything
If you're looking to enjoy a little bit of everything that South Africa has to offer, September is the best month to visit. Coming out of the dry season, you'll still have great conditions for a safari, the whale festival is on in Hermanus and beach season is right around the corner in Durban with average daily temperatures of 23°C (74°F). Consider a trip along the Garden Route, a gorgeous coastal trail that stretches 300 km (190 mi) between the Western Cape and Mossel Bay for wildlife, wine-tasting, white-sand beaches and mountain passes. It's like the holiday combo platter of your dreams!
Best for: flowers, fruit and festival fun
October is spring in South Africa which brings showstopping blankets of wildflowers across the country. Whether you're a nature photographer or someone who appreciates stopping to smell the flowers, these impressive blooms will be a treat for sore noses. The Namaqualand Flower Route is an 800 km (500 mi) stretch of arid desert that sees an incredible super-bloom of millions of flowers every year from August until early October. For something a little more edible, stop by one of the various fruit-picking farms for fresh cherries, strawberries and naval oranges. The town of George hosts a Strawberry festival every October with live music, food and family entertainment.
Best for: baby animal sightings on a shoulder season safari
November is full of shoulder season goodness before the summer starts. Wildlife viewing is still an option on game reserves, though the vegetation might be getting thicker from the rains. With temperatures rising, early morning and nighttime game drives will be enjoyable and you're unlikely to come across too many storms. November is also the birthing season for many animals, so if you're lucky you might see some adorable antelope, impala, wildebeest or blesbuck babies on game reserves – you'll be fawning over fawns!
Best for: warm weather, exciting festivals and city-hopping
Although the sunny South African summer is peak tourist season, December is a great month to see how vibrant the larger cities can be, especially if you're travelling from the Northern Hemisphere to escape the cold. Glittering Cape Town (the Mother City) not only offers dreamy views of Table Mountain, but a robust foodie scene with trendy cocktail bars, microbreweries, hundred-year-old pubs and food tours. You can find music festivals like AFROPUNK in Johannesburg and the Durban Street Food Festival in Durban. School holidays kick off in December, so be mindful that prices might be higher, and booking accommodation and tours ahead of time is a good idea.
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