A trip to South Africa doesn’t have to coincide with the seasons. Cape Town is stunning in summer, and the Drakensberg is majestic covered in winter snows, but there are great reasons to visit all year round. If you’re heading to South Africa out of peak season, you might be surprised at how much there is to do and see, just off the beaten track. Below is a year of things to do in South Africa. But first, some things to know about the weather:
Seasons and Climates in South Africa
Before you travel to a country known for its beaches and natural scenery, you’ll want to make sure you know what to expect from the weather. South Africa is in the Southern Hemisphere, which means it is summer when it is winter in North America and Europe. In addition to this, it also has two very different climate regions – the Cape Mediterranean Zone and the rest of the country.
The vast majority of the country (apart from the Karoo which is more or less what you would expect from a semi-desert) has something of a sub-tropical climate. Summers are warm with frequent thundershowers and rain, and cold, very dry winters with snow in some areas. The rain generally doesn’t get to the locals in summer, and you’ll still find the beaches in Durban full of surfers during a shower.
Cape Town and the Winelands have their own climate, different from the rest of the country. It is called a Mediterranean zone because it is similar to Southern Europe – wet, very windy winters (with severe storms during late June/Early July), with warm, temperate summers. Temperatures in the Cape region are more moderate than in the rest of the country, but winter rains can go on for days.
Summer in the Cape offers visitors some unique enjoyments, and usually near-perfect weather. December – January is peak season in the Cape, and so there is plenty for tourists of all ages to do and see. Be sure to spend some time on Clifton and Camps Bay beaches, take a trip up the cable car (on a day when there’s little wind), and hop on the ferry for the half-day Robben Island tour. In the evenings try out some of the lovely restaurants and bars in the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, or head out for a night on the town in Sea Point or Long Street in Cape Town’s city center.
If you’re lucky enough to be in Cape Town for New Years’ Eve, you’ll be spoilt for choice. Always worth a look is the New Years Carnival in Cape Town, which is usually a vibrant, colorful affair put on by the local Cape Malay community and various local commercial sponsors. For the young (and young at heart), however, there is also the legendary New Years Vortex (more recently Prism/Rezonance) party, a three-day trance and electronic music festival which climaxes at midnight on New Year’s Eve. Over 10,000 partiers head out to the glorious Nekkies resort and dance in orchards beneath the shadow of the mountain all day and all night – for three consecutive days.
In Cape Town there are many wonderful hotels and guest houses, if you want to spoil yourself we recommend a stay at the Cape Grace Hotel in the V&A Waterfront.
If you’re spending summer in the Cape, then you’ll probably want to arrange your stay to continue on into February. Some of the crowds leave, and it is also harvesting time in the Winelands. This means that many vineyards and wine estates host special tasting days or family days, with meal specials and tours at bargain prices. You can join a number of full or half-day wine tours from shuttles leaving from the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront. Wine tours are usually priced between R250 and R1,000 – all include free wine tasting and transport, and some may come with a delicious meal at a luxurious wine estate restaurant. We recommend that you spend a few nights in the Cape Winelands so that you really get to experience this amazing area with its many wine estates, golf courses, and world-class restaurants. Majeka House and Lanzerac Hotel would get our strong recommendation.
Many residents of Cape Town would say that March is the best time in the Cape. The weather is great, warm, and sunny but not too hot, and most of the tourists have gone home. This makes it easier to get restaurant bookings. Summer in the Cape wouldn’t be complete without a trip up to some of the many great golf courses in Cape Town, Cape Winelands, and the Garden Route.
If you call yourself a surfer, then book your trip to South Africa for mid to late-April, going into May, and make sure you make your first (and maybe only) stop Durban and Northern KwaZulu Natal. The weather is balmy (with an occasional freak, warm showers), the surf is good, the water is warm, the wind is off-shore, and the locals are friendly and very good looking. April is without a doubt the best month for the beach in Northern Natal, so book your flights, find a hotel or a beach chalet, and hire a surfboard! A great place to experience the Robinson Crusoe style beaches of Northern Natal is to book a stay at Thonga Beach Lodge.
May is still the best time for the beach in Northern Natal, but as the weather turns cooler towards June there are still plenty of things to do up and down the East Coast of South Africa. As the wind turns colder the off-shore winds grow stronger, and the size of the surf will pick up towards the end of May and into June before on-shore conditions start to prevail during the colder, drier winter.
May also happens to be the best time for shark cage diving in Gansbaai. While some people have reservations about the practice, it is performed with sustainability and minimal impact at the forefront of the Conservation Board’s concerns, and it is only carried out by licensed professionals. If you’re up to the challenge, then get ready for the underwater encounter of your life!
While June in Cape Town is particularly nasty, with squalls and storms featuring 70km/h winds, the rest of the country is actually quite lovely during this time. If you still want to hit the beach then head to Durban, and June is still part of the best time for the beach in Northern Natal. There should still be surf until the end of the month, so if you hurry you can make it in time to catch some waves.
An often-overlooked adventure waiting for you in South Africa is the Cederberg Mountain Range in the Western Cape. These peaks become snow-capped during the winter, and the start desolation of this place, coupled with grand vistas of soaring peaks, makes the Cederberg during the winter one of the most majestic sights to see in Southern Africa.
June also happens to be the best time for a safari in the Lowveld, as well as the best time for shark cage diving in Gansbaai. If none of those sound like your cup of tea, then why not head over to the sleepy coastal town of Hermanus on the Cape Garden Route. For 10 months out of the year not much happens in Hermanus, but in June and Jul,y hundreds of Southern Right whales flock there to calve and mate. On any one clear winter day in Hermanus, you are bound to see half a dozen whales flipping their tails and blowing spume into the air as close as 20 meters from the shore.
July is the month of storms in Cape Town, but it is still the best time fora safari in the Lowveld, and you can still catch plenty of whales in Hermanus. A great place to experience a genuine African safari is the beautiful Motswari Game Lodge in the Timbavati Private Game Reserve.
If you’re a surfer, it’s still the best time for a beach in Northern Natal, although the weather might be a little cold for casual beachgoers. If you’re feeling adventurous and up to getting into a wetsuit, it’s still the best time for shark cage diving in Gansbaai – an area that has the largest population of Great White sharks in the world. A wonderful and luxurious place to stay when viewing the whales in Hermanus and shark cage diving in Gansbaai is the small boutique hotel Birkenhead House.
And just like you don’t have to be Irish to enjoy St Patrick’s Day, you don’t have to speak a word of French to enjoy all the food, wine and culture of Bastille Day in Franschhoek. Take a shuttle up and book a bed & breakfast, because you won’t be driving anywhere after you’ve indulged all day in some of Cape Town’s finest wines, cheeses, meats, and fruits. Franschhoek is known for its many great restaurants and wine estates and here there are also many wonderful hotels and guesthouses. One of our favorites is La Petite Dauphine which is located on a working wine and fruit farm a short drive outside of the village of Franschhoek.
In August most of South Africa begins to warm up, and this is no more evident than when you take a drive up the Western Cape’s West Coast. Here you will see one of the most astounding arrays of wildflowers in the world. In fact, the Spring flowers in the Western Cape are almost a reason in themselves to visit South Africa. There are a number of charming guesthouses along the route, and the trip makes a lovely long weekend break.
Aside from the wildflowers, August is also the best time for a safari in the Lowveld, so take the opportunity to stay a few nights at one of the country’s luxury private game reserves. If you’re heading to Durban it’s the best time for the beach in Northern Natal, especially as the weather warms up and more people start flocking to the beaches.
Since it’s not quite the run-up to peak season you’ll find it easy to find very affordable accommodation in any number of charming holiday destinations. There are still a few whales in Hermanus, and it’s just about the best time for shark cage diving in Gansbaai.
Peak season in Cape Town and Durban is still about eight weeks away, so if you’re looking for an affordable holiday with a pretty good chance of decent weather, then South Africa in September is a good bet. As the weather warms up some more and Spring gets fully underway, expect a week of showers early on in the month in Cape Town, but good weather everywhere else. For surfers, it’s the best time for the beach in Northern Natal, and a good time for traveling across the country, as most of the livestock you will see will be giving birth.
September is just about the best time in the Cape if you can put up with the odd bit of rain, and you want to see the sights without fighting crowds. You’ll probably still be able to take advantage of winter specials at some of the Southern Suburbs’ gourmet seafood and Mediterranean restaurants. The vineyards look beautiful as they come into new growth, so make sure to go on a wine tasting tour on one of your days in the Cape.
During October there are still some whales in Hermanus, but if you’re only going for a day or two you stand a chance of missing them. To give yourself the best odds of sighting a whale, go out on a boat-based whale watching trip. The trained eyes of your guide and those of your fellow passengers will guarantee that you’ll spot any whales swimming about.
October is also the best time in the Cape for wine tasting and touring the Garden Route. New growth is fully in, and the vineyards will be full of new grapes growing. Daily wine tasting tours leave from the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, or you can go for a delightful picnic lunch and complimentary wine tasting at Buitenverwagting Wine Estate in Groot Constantia.
November is when things begin to heat up, and is the start of the best time in the Cape. There might still be some fresh wind and one or two cloudy days, but most of the time it’s sun, surf, sea, and sundowners overlooking the beach in Camps Bay and the Waterfront. The Long Street and Sea Point areas in Cape Town are vibrant night spots, and Camps Bay and Clifton Beaches are where anybody who is anybody goes to get a tan.
It’s summer in the Cape, and it’s a good time to catch the whales in Hermanus before they leave for the summer. Hermanus is only an hour out of Cape Town, and a great two or three day stop on a tour of the Winelands. Take in a game drive on your way out, and drive back along the scenic coast road past Hout Bay on your way home to Cape Town.
December is the height of peak season, and when things really get exciting in just about every South African city. Summer in the Cape is hot, busy, and vibrant, with nightly parties and events to keep you entertained. Hotel accommodation will be at a premium, so plan for this and book in advance. Car hire is also advisable, as you’ll want the freedom to travel wherever you want without having to rely on the relatively sparse public transport.
Make sure you check out the strip of coastline from St James to Simonstown. Stop off for the most delicious local seafood in Cape Town at Harbour House in Kalk Bay Harbour before spending the afternoon visiting South Africa’s largest colony of Jackass Penguins on Boulder’s Beach. Before you leave, make sure you take a trip up the Winelands for a wine tasting tour and stop off to see the whales in Hermanus.