Best time to visit South Africa! We break it down by seasons, costs, and activities so you can plan your trip accordingly.
*This article was written by Deb Hendricks*
South Africa is a land of extraordinary landscapes and unforgettable wildlife experiences. From busy, beautiful cities to quintessential African wilderness and everything in between, South Africa has it all.
But to get the most out of an adventure in the Rainbow Nation, you’ll need to get a hold of a few details. The most important one?
Deciding the best time to visit South Africa. Here we’ll guide you through the seasons and unveil the secrets of the ideal time to visit.
The best time for your trip depends on its objective. Will you be going on a wildlife safari or chasing the festivals? Maybe you’ll be doing some scuba diving or whale watching?
Whatever your South African dreams are made of, there’s a perfect time for it, and you’ll find that here.
So, fasten your seatbelts and prepare to embark on a journey through the seasons. Lets unravel the secrets of the best time to visit South Africa.
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Best Time To Visit South Africa
South Africa has several seasons to consider when planning your trip. In addition to the usual weather-related ones, there are also the different tourist seasons – high, low, and shoulder.
Let’s start by discussing when you have the best chance of finding the perfect weather for your trip. Keep in mind that the southern hemisphere seasons are the opposite of those north of the equator.
Best Time For A Wildlife Safari
Winter vs Summer
The best time to visit South Africa for a wildlife safari depends on the weather and where you’ll be. The dry winter months from June to September are generally considered the best for game viewing.
The vegetation is less dense in winter and the water sources are limited. Since the animals have to visit the few waterholes daily, their movements are more predictable, so they’re easier to spot in winter.
The cooler temperatures during this period also make for more comfortable safari experiences. The summer months of November to March bring heat and humidity that can make for a long day on a safari vehicle.
Winter temperatures in South Africa usually top out at around 26ºC. However, summer days can reach up to 36ºC. January tends to be the hottest month overall.
Reserves in the hotter northern parts of the country, like the famous Kruger Park, are particularly popular during the winter months.
Spring And Fall In South Africa
Winter and summer in South Africa tend to bring extremes in weather. Spring and fall, on the other hand, can offer the best of both worlds. These are my favorite times for a safari.
Spring is roughly from late September to early November. Fall typically begins in late March and lasts until late May or early June.
The foliage is a bit more lush then, beautiful but not full enough to hide most animals. Water sources are few enough that you can still count on seeing wildlife gather at permanent waterholes.
There are often a lot of young and newborn animals at these times of the year, too. The babies are always exciting to see!
Temperatures will be more moderate as well. Winter mornings can be chilly in South Africa, and in summer they can already be quite hot. These ‘in-between seasons’ can offer a perfect compromise.
West vs East
The best time to visit South Africa may also vary depending on whether you’re exploring the western or eastern regions.
There are two important differences between these two areas that are worth noting. First, the western regions of South Africa generally receive less rainfall throughout the year compared to the east.
This means that during the summer months of November to March, the western reserves will tend to have better game-viewing opportunities.
The vegetation will be a bit sparser than in the east. As well, there may be fewer waterholes. These are both pluses when wildlife spotting.
The second difference is one you need to know if you plan to be in the South African state called Western Cape. This is where Cape Town is located, and some places in this region are known for having drier summers, and rainier winters.
This is great news if your travels are taking you to Cape Town between November and March, or summertime. If you’d like to indulge in a safari, you can get some great sightings of African wildlife this time of year here.
Pro Tip: Want to have an extra adventure during your trip? Why not consider abseiling Table Mountain in Cape Town?
There are some terrific spots for game viewing in this area, such as Aquila Game Reserve near Cape Town. A lux safari tour here is a great way to take advantage of summer in Western Cape.
But of course, weather is weather wherever you are. It’s unpredictable, and any discussion is based on what’s happened in past years.
Fortunately, it’s extremely difficult to have a bad safari experience in South Africa, whenever you go.
High, Low, And Shoulder Seasons
In addition to the weather, you’ll also hear about the tourist seasons when deciding what is your best time to visit South Africa.
When discussing the seasons in these terms, the main differences will be the cost of excursions, and the number of people you’ll have to contend with.
High, or Peak, Season
High season in South Africa tends to correspond to winter. It falls roughly between June and September.
For the reasons we saw above, this is the most popular time for travelers to go on safari in South Africa. It’s also the most expensive.
If you decide to travel in high season, be sure to book your excursions and accommodations well in advance. As far as a year out might be necessary.
- Cooler weather
- Great conditions for sightings
- Waterholes and sightings can be very crowded with safari vehicles
- There’s little chance of seeing baby animals
- The most expensive time for safari
Corresponding with summertime, low season is roughly from November to March.
Low season is the easiest time for a wildlife safari if you are booking on relatively short notice. This is often my situation, and in spite of the downsides to a safari this time of year, I always have an amazing time.
And I save some money.
- The cheapest time of year for a safari, great for budget travelers
- Far less crowded; you may often have a waterhole or sighting to yourself
- You have a good chance of seeing baby animals of all species, from lions to hyenas to antelope
- Booking tours and accommodations is often possible on relatively short notice
- The heat, humidity, and possible rain can be uncomfortable
- The foliage is lush and full and can make spotting the wildlife more challenging
You guessed it, spring and fall are the shoulder seasons for safari tourists in South Africa.
You can experience the best of both worlds in spring, late September to early November. And in fall from about late March until late May or early June.
- Smaller crowds
- Some baby animals
- Fairly moderate weather
- Lower prices than in high season
- A fair chance of being able to book with shorter notice
- More people at waterholes and sightings than in low season
- More chance of rain storms and high temps than high season
- Prices will higher than low season (but lower than high season)
Best Time For Festival In South Africa
If you’re planning a trip to South Africa to enjoy the best of its festivals, you’ll be glad you did! Experiencing its dynamic festivals is an inspired way to immerse yourself in the country’s rich heritage and creativity.
From colorful celebrations of music and dance to rituals steeped in tradition, these festivals offer a glimpse into the rich heritage and vibrant spirit of the nation.
Dozens and dozens of festivals happen around the Rainbow Nation. And there is a best time to visit South Africa, depending on which festival you’d like to join in on.
Here are a handful to give you an idea of what’s in store for you.
Fall Festivals In South Africa
Freedom Day (April 27) – Celebrating the first non-racial election in 1994, this festival features parades and street parties across the country. Everyone who attends is riding high on a spirit of unity and diversity. This is a fantastic festival to attend and celebrate the freedom of South Africa.
National Arts Festival (last week of June to first week of July) – Set in Makhanda (formerly known as Grahamstown), this festival spans 11 days. It served as a platform for political protests during apartheid, and today makes a special point of being utterly inclusive. It offers a wild variety of performing arts, visual arts, food and craft fairs, and historic tours of the town. With approximately 60 venues throughout Makhanda, this is the largest art festival in Africa by attendee count.
Knysna Oyster Festival (July) – Knysna is a popular town on South Africa’s famous Garden Route. This festival combines a celebration of its beloved and delicious oysters with a variety of fun activities. These include a marathon and a cycle tour, fun runs, cooking demonstrations, eating contests, wine tastings, and live music. Even if you’re not after the oysters, you’ll enjoy a spectacular seaside celebration.
Oppikoppi Bushveld Music Festival (first week of August) – Located near the mining town of Northam in Limpopo Province, this music festival showcases an eclectic mix of genres. You’ll hear everything from ska and hip hop to kwaito and blues, plus everything in between. It’s all about bringing the people of South Africa together. To that end, the bands are mainly local, but there are some international acts thrown into the mix as well.
South African Cheese Festival (end of September) – Located in the scenic Stellenbosch Wine Region, this 3 days festival showcases local and international cheese makers. With cooking demonstrations, live bands, and dining al fresco, it’s a cheese lover’s paradise.
Hermanus Whale Watching Festival (end of September) – When the end of September approaches, the charming coastal town of Hermanus joins together for this eco-marine festival. It pays tribute to the incredible southern right whales. It also celebrates their return to Hermanus’ waters after a long swim from their winter home off Antarctica.
You can enjoy the whale-themed parade and the craft markets featuring the work of local artisans. There is an Eco-Marine Village with interactive projects, marina and nature talks, fun runs, and a whole lot more. This is one you should do your best not to miss!
Rocking the Daisies (early October) – This is currently held from Friday to Sunday in early October at Cloof Wine Estate in Cape Town. It’s also happening on the same Sunday at Supersport Park in Johannesburg. It’s all about the music and fun! Multiple stages host a diverse lineup of artists, and even more dance floors are scattered around for guests. Delicious treats from the food stalls will keep you energized throughout the event.
Cape Town International Jazz Festival (late February) – Held annually over two days, this highly anticipated event brings together local and international bands. Tickets for the main festival sell out fast! But free community concerts can be enjoyed around Cape Town, such as at Greenmarket Square.
Ficksburg Cherry Festival (mid-November) – This festival is held in the “cherry capital of the world”, Ficksburg, in the Free State. The celebration is a weekend packed with activities like the Cherry Bowls Tournament, the Cherry Jazz Fest, a marathon, and a biking challenge. You will also get to participate in different craft activities and learn how to create decadent cherry treats, all with live music setting the rhythm.
Best Time For Scuba Diving In South Africa
Africa has some of the best diving in the world, and many South Africa dive sites are among its best.
South Africa’s coastal waters can be cold. Really cold. For this reason, the spring and fall months are generally considered prime time to explore them.
During these months, April-May and September-October, the sea is warmer, ranging from 20 to 24 ºC (68 to 75ºF). The warmer waters attract a diverse array of marine life.
But some times are better than others if there’s something specific you’d love to see. Part of that depends on where you’re at. Here’s a quick guide to the best times of year to pull on your wetsuit.
This bay is pretty close to Cape Town. If you’re in the area and are hoping to dive with sharks and southern right whales, this is the place for you.
- April – September: sharks
- June – December: southern right whales
Often considered the best place to dive the famous Sardine Run, Protea Banks is between Port Elizabeth and Durban.
- May-July: the Sardine Run
Just about 55 km (34 miles) south of Durban, Aliwal Shoal is a great spot for some great sightings.
- May – November: ragged tooth sharks, humpback whales, and dolphins
Farther north up the coast, not far from the border with Mozambique this bay has a variety of marine life to explore. Along with the following times, you’ll find amazing diving all year long here at Sodwana Bay.
- June – October: humpback whales
- December – February: ragged tooth sharks, whale sharks, nesting leatherback and loggerhead turtles
Best Time For Whale Watching In South Africa
When it comes to whale watching, South Africa offers a unique opportunity to witness these gentle giants in their natural habitat.
Southern right whales and humpback whales are the stars of the show in this part of the world. They spend their winters feeding in the Southern Ocean of Antarctica, and return to South Africa’s warmer waters to mate and calve.
August to October are peak whale watching months. Hermanus, on the Western Cape, is renowned as one of the world’s best whale-watching destinations.
You can witness acrobatic displays right from shore, as well as from tour boats out in the water. You might even get the chance to see mother and calf interactions.
Other notable spots include Plettenberg Bay, False Bay, and the Garden Route. Here boat tours and coastal viewpoints provide ideal vantage points to marvel at these magnificent creatures.
Final Thoughts On The Best Time To Visit South Africa
South Africa offers a wide range of amazing activities and experiences that are often best during specific times of the year. Whether you’re looking for adventure in the ocean, want to see whales or wildlife in their natural habitats, or experience the best of South Africa’s festivals, timing is important.
To make the most of your trip, plan it according to what you want to do and when the best time is for it. But no matter when you go, South Africa will give you unforgettable experiences and memories that will stay with you forever.
About The Author: Deb’s been traveling for more than 3 decades, and has never found a place that didn’t fascinate her. But Africa is the place she keeps returning to. There’s no place that has more to offer a traveler than this amazing continent. She hopes that by writing about it she’ll inspire you to experience Africa for yourself. It’ll be the trip of your lifetime!
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