A road trip across South Africa’s popular Garden Route is worth including in your itinerary, especially if you have time to spare. I started writing this post in November 2020 and while it took me 1.5 years to finish writing, I can’t help but enjoy the process as it took me back to November 2019, when I spent almost a whole month galavanting across South Africa! One of the most memorable parts of that trip was my epic 4-day roadtrip on the Garden Route, something I wished I was doing instead of being stuck in the frigid cold of Toronto.
Exploring South Africa beyond visiting just Cape Town is a must; I haven’t had the chance to explore much of Eastern Cape nor Johannesburg (beyond a 4-day Safari trip which took me through the famous Panorama Route) but I hope this is something I can eventually do in the future. The Garden Route has so much to offer to anyone visiting South Africa – whether it’s your first time, 10th time or if you live there, there’s a reason many bloggers and travel guides will recommend this trip.
Below, I’m sharing my Garden Route itinerary; I’ve also included the points of interest that are used to “mark” the “official stops” of the Garden Route. You can extend or shorten your trip based on who you’re travelling with and your travel style.
What is the Garden Route?
The Garden Route refers to a stretch of coastline drive (on the N2) along the Western Cape and technically finishing up at the border of the Eastern Cape. The “Garden” portion of the name refers to the diversity of wildlife, nature and cities that dot the drive. Although there are “designated” stops / towns that mark the “official” route, it’s not a hard and fast rule for you to stick with just visiting those cities.
Popular with locals and tourists alike, this is a trip well-worth the effort to plan and execute especially considering how easy it is and varied in terms of things to do / see / eat / visit. Even an eleventh hour decision on my part still became one of the best and most memorable part of my South Africa trips in the 3-4 times I’ve visited the country.
The Garden Route is well-developed; I’m talking about the many available hostels, local guesthouses and Airbnb, and the well-maintained roads. This makes the drive very safe, pleasant and comfortable. I rented a car and had no troubles navigating the drive between the cities. Gas stations, rest-stops and restaurants are widely available, especially as you get close to the cities. The drive between cities are usually 3-5 hours long so there’s lower risk of running out of food/gas en route.
Officially, the Garden Route stretches 300km with Mossel Bay in Western Cape (approx. 4-5 hours from Cape Town) as the starting point, and finishing up at Tsitsikamma National Park / Storms River Mouth.
The trip can easily be as short or as long as you’d like although most of my readings indicate 4 days to be a minimum to not only cover the highlights but do it at a pace that’s reasonable and without spending too much time on the actual drive. I’ll first go through my actual 4-day itinerary and add suggestions where you may want to consider extending if you have the extra time!
A 4-Day Garden Route Itinerary
I sadly only spent 4 days on the road exploring the Garden Route; below I’ve shared what and where I spent most of my time and what I wished I had done differently on this trip.
I decided to base myself in Knysna to avoid booking multiple guesthouses that would have been a bit too costly. This meant, I did skip a bunch of attractions up front and that’s probably one thing I wished I’d done differently – it would have been so nice to make a quick stop at Cape Agulhas and if I was visiting in season, stopped by Gansbaai or Hermanus! I’ve included a Google Map marked with the various highlights here to break down the below itinerary in a way that makes sense!
- Day 1: Departed Muizenberg, drove straight to Mossel Bay (1/2 a day) and continued driving to Knysna (my “home base”)
- Day 2 Tsitsikamma National Park, Stormsriver Mouth and Bloukrans Bridge (1 day); approximate drive time from Knysna to Tsitsikamma National Park was 2 hours each way
- Day 3 Knysna Heads / Lagoon, explored the Knysna Quays (1 day)
- Day 4 Plettenberg Bay and Wilderness National Park, Map of Africa (1 day)
Although the Garden Route doesn’t officially start until you reach Mossel Bay (4.5 hours drive from Cape Town), two additional stops can be added when in season – a visit to Gansbaai (shark diving) or Hermanus (whale watching) for an additional 2 days as both towns are an easy 40-50 minute drive from each other. Given these activities’ popularities, it’s advisable to book ahead.
Where to Stay on the Garden Route
Comfort // Mossel Bay
Beach-front location and restaurant with the added bonus of staying someplace unique (a remodelled train carriage!) Santos Express will be a convo-starter!Book Here
Budget // Tsitsikamma
If you want to stay at the heart of the action, SANParks has a few options to choose from at Tsitsikamma: tent sites, caravan spots to chalets and cottages at reasonable prices. Book Here
Splurge // Plett
Similar to Knysna, you’ll find there are plenty of B&B and luxury options to choose from throughout Plett. A splurge at the Sky Villa gives you stunning beach or mountain views!
Comfort // Knysna
A comfortable family-run B&B with breakfast included in the fare. Tucked away in a quiet neighborhood but a short walk and drive away from the main attractions!Book Here
Splurge // Knysna
Knysna is home to plenty of luxury/splurge-worthy options! Being a popular holiday destination for locals, you can enjoy the amenities of a country club during your holidays!Book Here
Budget // Knysna
You can’t go wrong even with a budget stay in Knysna – the family-owned inn is a charming B&B located at the heart of Knysna. With a terrace and BBQ facilities for guest-use.
Day 1: Cape Town to Mossel Bay to Knysna
Bartholomeu Dias Museum Complex / The Post Office Tree
I left Muizenberg (15 minutes from Cape Town city centre) around 10AM in the morning and made it to Mossel Bay at a decent time (2-3pm) and made a quick stop to visit the Bartholomeu Dias Museum. Entry is very inexpensive and aside from the museum (which you can tour in as little as 30-45 minutes), be sure to stop by the The Post Office Tree (the first post-office in South Africa) that is still “active” today! You can mail your own letter/post-card here and although it takes around 2 months (I beat the postcard returning home to Toronto), it has a unique stamp that marks it as having been mailed from here!
The story behind this post office tree is that a sailor from the 1500-1600’s left a letter in a tin or shoe and placed it near the tree; it was discovered by another sailor around a year later and this this informal exchange became the a post-office system of some sort in South Africa. From then on, seagoing sailors would leave notes and hang it here. Note that the post-office tree is shaped like a boot near the milkwood tree. You can’t miss it as there are pathways to it along with signs!
Here’s a 10-second video I posted on Instagram when I mailed my postcard.
Alternatively you can mail it from the Giant Mail Box located in the gardens of the Protea Hotel and Café Gannet (which is located right next to the museum). As the name implies, the massive mail box is… bigger than your normal mail box but conveniently a ladder is provided to climb and post your letter/mail! Similar to the “Post Office Tree”, any letters or postcards are marked with a special stamp!
Pro Tip! If you’re planning to mail a postcard/letter from The Post Office Tree or the Giant Mail Box, it’s best to come with your own postcard and prepaid stamp! I don’t recall anywhere that sold stamps, although there is a small souvenir shop inside the museum where you can buy postcards
Feeling hungry from the drive? A quick delightful lunch / rest stop can be enjoyed at Kaai 4 Braai Restaurant, a short drive away from the Bartholomeu Dias Museum, an inexpensive, harbour-side restaurant featuring freshly caught catch of the day cooked in the traditional South Africa braai (bbq/grilled) style. The food is decent and although not the most bang for your value kind of spot but the experience and views make up for it!
After a quick late lunch/early dinner, I continued my way to Knysna where I had booked a 3-days, 2-nights stay at the fabulous Orange Inn; Knsyna serves as an excellent base for my adventures since it’s conveniently a 30-50 minute drive each way to explore other popular Garden Route stops!
Day 2: Knysna to Tsitsikamma National Park
Hiking / Camping / Kayaking or blackwater tubing / Bungy-jumping Bloukrans Bridge
A day is the minimum time you should spend at Tsitsikamma National Park – SANParks (South Africa National Parks) does an excellent job at managing their various national parks and it is possible to book accommodations on-site (camping or self-catering chalets) if you want to spend some time exploring which is highly recommended! I didn’t and felt that although 1 day was enough time, I would have loved to do more hiking and exploring!
Tsitsikamma National Park was the highlight of my Garden Route trip – lots of activities to be enjoyed from hiking, camping, kayaking, blackwater tubing, horse-riding, abseiling and more! You really cannot be bored here and given how many activities there are to enjoy, you’ll want to consider booking ahead of time given the cap.
Things to do in Tsitsikamma National Park
- Hiking the Mouth Trail to the Tsitsikamma National Park Suspension Bridge (2km – 1 hour) – the bridge is a popular photography spot and hangs over the Storms River Mouth before it flows into the Indian Ocean. Why is it so popular? It hangs just 7 metres above the surface of the water, so prepared to get wet!
- Blackwater Tubing (3 hours): If you think the suspension bridge is the closest you’ll get to experience the Storms River Mouth, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to know that tubing or kayaking are great alternatives to get really wet! Kayaking with Untouched Adventures will take you to caves, cliffs, and ancient indigenous forests over a 2-3 hour trip. Great and popular for the young and old alike!
- Kayaking (2-3 hours): An alternative is tubing with Tube n Axe for those who wants a different kind of water-based experience
- Segway tour: for a more relaxed experience, you can check out the Tsitsikamma Segway Tour which takes you to various spots on a segway scooter. Tours are typically 1-2 hours long.
- Horse-riding with Kurland Park: Another unforgettable alternative for those looking to experience the park and its surrounding on horseback. There are several options to choose from including carriage tours and mountain/forest rides in addition to children-friendly lessons
- Hiking the Otter Trail (45km, 5 days): anyone serious about hiking might want to consider hiking the popular Otter Trail. It will set you back up to 5 days due to its distance but you will be rewarded by some of the finest sights the country has to offer. SANParks requires hikers interested in hiking the trail to sign a waiver form and watch a training/safety video as well as bringing their own first-aid, and cooking/emergency equipment. Resting huts are located all over the trail and a “check out” certificate is issued at the De Vasselot Rest Camp.
- Bungy-jump off Bloukrans Bridge: absolutely not for the faint-hearted, bungy-jumping is an adrenaline-pumping activity you can take a short drive away from the park. FaceAdrenaline operates the popular jumping activity spot. Booking ahead is highly advisable and for those not interested in the activity, there’s a viewing spot with a restaurant you can visit and “people-watch” those brave enough to do the jump.
Day 3: Exploring Knysna
Visiting the Knysna Heads Viewpoint / Knysna Heads, Relaxing at Knysna Quays
After an adrenaline-filled day at Storms River, I opted for a much more relaxing day exploring Knysna. Not a massive area by any means, and a lot of things can be squeezed in one day. I opted to start my day visiting the Knysna Heads Eastern Viewpoint where you can get a stunning panoramic view of the world-famous Knysna lagoon on one side, and the lagoon flowing into the ocean on the other.
There is very few parking here which is why I opted to visit the spot first thing in the morning. The trail is very easily done and if you really want to, you can also take a boat ride and enjoy the lagoon in a boat. From my vantage view, the churning of the water made my stomach queasy so I opted to enjoy it from the trail.
A can’t miss experience in Knysna is their oysters! I found myself at the 34 Degrees South twice during my visit, enjoying their oyster specials but also because they are a unique type of restaurant – complete with a tapas / sushi bar, as well as their own fish monger and grocery, this is the place to pick up some unique spice blends and souvenirs to bring home. As you will be sitting right next to the quay, this makes the perfect boat-watching spot as well.
There are plenty of less expensive restaurants and local shops at the Knysna Waterfront. I particularly enjoyed a spot called Sailor Sam (Opens on Google Maps as they don’t have a website). Great seafood options, cooked to your preference and a great bang for your bucks. You can pick up more Knsyna oysters here as well!
There is a Knysna Mall near the waterfront with grocery stores, banks and FX office if you need to pick up basics or if you need to exchange money (as I did when I ran out of cash for parking and small items!)
Day 4 (AM): Plettenberg Bay (Plett)
Surfing / Visiting the Robberg Nature Reserve & Birds of Eden Sanctuary
I didn’t spend too much time at Plettenberg Bay (Plett) which is a small harbour town between Knysna and Stormsriver but stopped by to have lunch and pick up some snacks from the grocery store. I would have loved to spend more time here as I hear impressive things about the town’s beaches and the awesome things you can do nearby from archery, paragliding, spas, and multitude of markets. If I had more time, I certainly will ensure I spend more time at Plett!
Things to do in Plettenberg Bay
- Exploring the Robberg Nature Reserve: Part of the Garden Route, the reserve is a beloved, picturesque stop if you haven’t gotten your fill from Tsitsikamma! There are several hiking trails you can enjoy
- Paragliding with Flytime: If paragliding down Sea Point in Cape Town makes you want to do more of it, check out Flytime in Plett which gives you a much more unique views of the landscape than the Mother City!
- Birds of Eden: The largest free-flight aviary in the world which covers an area of 2.3 hectares of forest waterways with 1.2km of walkways is worth checking out! It is also home to 3500 birds of some 200 species.
- Yoga Retreats: If you’re looking to relax and chill, Plett provides a great deal of options to choose from! Yoga retreats with stunning views of the mountain and ocean!
- Visit the various wineries: Winelands can be found aplenty and Prett is home to many that boasts quality drinks outside of Stellenbosch and Frankshoek.
- Visit the day and night markets: I am obsessed with visiting local markets and checking out all local artisans and shops have to offer! The market options are many in PLett and worth spending some time checking out!
Day 4 (PM): Wilderness (George) to Cape Town
My last stop on the Garden Route is Wilderness (15km away from George), where you can find “The Map of Africa” viewpoint and go paragliding. There wasn’t much to do here so after taking a few pictures of the viewpoint (which also looks like the front of a crocodile), I began my trip home to Cape Town.
This viewpoint is one of the trickier one to find even though it is a popular paragliding take off spot. It is easier if you input the GPS coordinates as opposed to trying to follow the directions.
If I had more time, I would have taken a detour to Oudtshoorn, the ostrich capital of the world where you can visit an ostrich farm and buy a beautifully carved ostrich egg souvenir or visit Cango Caves on guided tours! As it was quite out of the way for me, I opted to drive straight back to Cape Town!
Another optional step includes the popular Cape Agulhas viewpoint which is where the Indian and Atlantic ocean meet and also the southernmost point of the African continent!
Where to Next?
- There’s no reason to not rent a car in South Africa, especially if you’re planning to explore not only the Garden Route but do a self-drive safari!
- If you’re looking to explore all of South Africa, consider taking the BazBus – a hop-on-hop-off cross country bus!
- Here’s how much it costs to go to South Africa as a solo traveller
- Here’s my recommended Garden Route itinerary if you have 1 week to spend!
- If you enjoy the Garden Route, here’s my post on doing a self-drive road trip!