The Garden Route South Africa is the country’s most iconic road trip. The full Garden Route stretches from the cosmopolitan city of Cape Town to the friendly town of Port Elizabeth. It winds past beautiful beaches, staggering cliff drops and peaceful beachside communities.
The epic road trip is one of the most popular things to do in South Africa. And for good reason. Whether it’s a honeymoon, a road trip with friends or a wonderful family holiday, it has something for everyone. There is simply so much to do en route. You could drive the Garden Route time and time again, and still do different activities every single time.
Best of all, the Garden Route is a great self-drive adventure. Whilst you can take bus services or organised tours, such as this one, you can definitely self-drive the Garden Route. So in this guide, I’ve listed top things to do along the Garden Route. I’ve also included suggestions of places to stay and to eat, all within an itinerary for driving the Garden Route.
Essential information: Garden Route South Africa
You can of course start the route in either direction. But for the purpose of this blog post, this itinerary will start in Cape Town and end in Port Elizabeth. More officially, the Garden Route actually starts in Mossel Bay (387km outside of Cape Town). And it finishes in Storms River (166km from Port Elizabeth). The distance between Mossel Bay and Storms River is actually only between 200km and 300km, depending on the route take. If you drove the official Garden Route from start to finish, this would only take you between 2-3 hours. So you can really see how many amazing attractions and places to visit are concentrated in this relatively small area.
However, this 7-day Garden Route itinerary could be squeezed into just 3 or 4 days if needed. But it’s more common to spend at least a week driving the Garden Route. There’s certainly enough to do to in two weeks, or even longer!
Best time of year to explore the Garden Route
As with everywhere along the coast in South Africa, the spring and summer months are the best time to visit. This is from around October to April. Daily average temperatures during this time range from 24c and 30c, and you can expect long sunny days. It can rain occasionally during the summer months. And when it does, it tends to linger a full day, rather than be a flash rain storm. But don’t worry, there are plenty of things to do on the drive if you do have a day of drizzle.
With the great weather, of course there will be larger crowds. The Garden Route is likely to be busy in some areas if you visit in the peak summer season.
Self-drive or organised tour
The best way to explore the Garden Route in South Africa is to hire a car. It offers unparalleled freedom and flexibility. You could collect a car at Cape Town airport and drop it off in Port Elizabeth. Doing this, you would just have to pay the one-way fee. You could of course, drive the Garden Route back to Cape Town again to drop the car off! If you had the time.
Furthermore, I would say the quality of roads is really good on the Garden Route. Traffic is minimal and it is a straight-forward two lane drive for the most part. I would say to only choose an organised tour if you’re a very low confidence driver. Or if having a car is simply impractical.
However, here are a couple of suggestions of organised tours doing the Garden Route South Africa:
- 3 Day Garden Route & Safari (depart and return Cape Town)
- 4 Day Garden Route Adventure Tour (depart and return Cape Town)
- 6 Day Garden Route & Addo Adventure Tour (depart and return Cape Town)
Driving tips in South Africa
As always in South Africa, be vigilant when stopping at traffic lights. Although the risk of any car robberies happening does decrease as you leave Cape Town.
Watch out for roaming wildlife. A real hazard across the whole country is wandering animals such as baboons, ostriches, tortoises and hares. Even antelope may suddenly come bounding from the side of the road. Drive carefully and slow down when you see the signs showing animals when doing day trips from Cape Town.
Remember to keep spare change at hand for toll roads. Many of these don’t accept foreign credit cards so keep some South African rand for this.
Also, remember to keep 5 Rand coins spare for parking guards at the attraction’s car parks along the Garden Route. The car guard will help direct you into a space and mind your car whilst you go off sightseeing. When you return, they will approach you expecting 5 Rand as a tip.
Where to stay on the Garden Route
The Garden Route offers tons of accommodation to suit all budgets. There are plenty of camping and glamping sites, as well as hostels for those looking for budget accommodation. For those seeking luxury accommodation on the Garden Route, there are some wonderful places to stay. I’ll include suggestions for each area below.
In terms of campsites along the Garden Route, these are some of the best:
Ebb & Flow campsite in Wilderness. Offering camping and caravan spots, as well as 4-bed log cabins and forest lodges.
Timber camping decks in the Knysna Forest. Beautiful camping decks for tents as well as treetop forest chalets.
Nature’s Valley Rest Camp in Tsitsikamma National Park. Forest huts and camping spots.
Storms River Mouth Rest Camp in Tsitsikamma National Park. Offering a mix of forest huts, rondavels and camping spots.
Budgeting for the Garden Route
As with most trips, this epic road trip can be done on a budget, or you can splash out.
Transport: The first thing you’ll need to consider is the hire car or the cost of the bus pass. Car hire will really vary depending on the time of year you drive the Garden Route. If you visit in peak season, car hire will be a lot more expensive. Most car hire companies also charge an insurance premium that lowers the cost of the excess should anything go wrong. So I would recommend budgeting for this.
Gas/Petrol: This is generally quite affordable in South Africa.
Accommodation: As mentioned, there are places to stay on the Garden Route to suit every budget. A nice hotel room is likely to cost around £50 per night. Whilst a camping spot will be around £12 per night.
Activities and Entrance Fees
One of the best things about the Garden Route is that so many activities are free or have a very low cost. For example, you’d need to pay an entrance fee into the national parks. But once in, many activities can be free like hiking and swimming.
To help you plan, here are the entrance fees to various sections of the Garden Route National Park:
- South African citizens (R62/£3.25 per adult per day, R31/£1.65 per child per day)
- Overseas tourists (R248/£13 per adult per day, R124/£6.50 per adult per day)
Nature’s Valley section:
- South African citizens (R56/£3 per adult per day, R28/£1.50 per child per day)
- Overseas tourists (R112/£6 per adult per day, R56/£3 per adult per day)
- South African citizens (R38/£2 per adult per day, R19/£1 per child per day)
- Overseas tourists (R152/£8 per adult per day, R76/£4 per adult per day)
- South African citizens (R38/£2 per adult per day, R19/£1 per child per day)
- Overseas tourists (R152/£8 per adult per day, R76/£4 per adult per day)
Another option is to purchase Wild Card membership. This gives one year’s unlimited entry to 80+ national parks, reserves and resorts across South Africa and neighbouring countries. It can be bought for an individual, a couple or a family (two adults, two children). This may work out to be really good value depending on how many parks you’re planning to visit.
The prices are as follows (valid until 13 October 2020):
All parks in Southern Africa (80+):
Individual R685/£36, Couple R1,130/£60, Family R1,380/£72.
A (slightly) less expensive if you’re a South African citizen is to opt for the SANParks Wild Card, which gives access to 21 parks in SA:
Individual R655/£34, Couple R1,065/£65, Family R 1,280/£67
Note this is not available to international tourists. You can check full details of all pricing here.
Garden Route South Africa Itinerary
So let’s get stuck into this itinerary. Although the official Garden Route is far shorter, logistically, for most travellers it’ll make sense to travel from Cape Town so that’s where I’ll start this route.
As I did the whole route to Port Elizabeth, I’ve extended my Garden Route itinerary to here and provided several suggestions of things to do and see near this lovely city.
Cape Town and Mossel Bay
From Cape Town, you have several options to go from here to Mossel Bay. For example, you could start your Garden Route itinerary by driving towards the Cape Peninsula. This shorter drive is one of top things to do in Cape Town. I’d normally suggest it as a day trip, but it is also a great start to the Garden Route if you have time. Along this mini road trip, you can spot penguins at Boulder’s Beach and visit the beautiful Cape Point Nature Reserve. You could also stop by the charming Simon’s Town or Kalk Bay.
Alternatively, you could also make your first stop Hermanus, instead of doing this as a day trip from Cape Town. This beautiful town is often visited by a huge Humpback whale population. It’s widely considered one of the best whale watching spots in South Africa. Between Hermanus and Mossel Bay is the official most Southerly point on the African continent, at Cape Aghulas.
As you can see in the below, the most direct way to get to Mossel Bay from Cape Town is along the N2. But Hermanus or the Cape Peninsula would be nice stop points.
But it is Mossel Bay that is the official starting point of the Garden Route. This is a relaxed coastal resort with some lovely beaches and interesting history. One night is probably enough time here, but it’s well worth a stop.
You can do some great hikes near Mossel Bay, including a 14km route from St Blaize Cave to Dana Bay and a much longer route known as the Oystercatcher Trail. Note this is a one way hike and you’ll need to jump in a taxi back to town. Mossel Bay is one of the places in South Africa where you can go cage diving, but if you’re after something a bit more relaxing then sunbathing and surfing is definitely top of the order in Mossel Bay. Make sure to check out this detailed guide on all the best things to do and see in Mossel Bay here.
Places to stay in Mossel Bay
If you plan on staying over night in Mossel Bay, there are some great places to stay. From the family-friendly convenience of the Protea by Marriot in Mossel Bay, to the stylish Lavandula Manor and 94 on Rodger.
Distance from Cape Town to Mossel Bay: 387km
This town, a little further inland is well worth the short detour. Home to both the Cango Caves, an interesting web of underground tunnels and caves, and the Cango Wildlife Ranch, the perfect place for up-close encounters with unusual animals. You can pay to hold lemurs as well as meerkats and servals. Oudtshoorn is known as the ostrich capital of the world, so make sure to stop at the nearby Cango Ostrich Farm too, a place to meet these quirky birds!
There are also plenty of great hiking trails nearby in and around the Klein Karoo if you fancy spending a couple of days longer here.
Some great tours in and near Oudtshoorn include:
Distance from Mossel Bay to Oudtshoorn: 85.6km
George is the largest town around and has an airport, so a convenient access point to Kynsna and Plettenberg Bay if you want to visit the Garden Route but you’re short on time. There’s also a large shopping centre here, but otherwise I wouldn’t recommend stopping for too long in George.
Distance from Oudtshoorn to George: 63km or go directly from Mossel Bay (46km)
Wilderness is nestled at the foot of the Outeniqua Mountains and is a small, peaceful town with an abundance of natural beauty. This beautiful town is bordered by the Kaaimans River to the West, and the Goukamma Nature Reserve to the east, and faces the warm Indian Ocean.
Its location means visitors can enjoy a wide array of outdoor activities along the vast stretches of beaches and in the nearby mountains, lagoons, forests, lakes and rivers. Days can be spent hiking, mountain biking, bird-watching, whale-watching, angling, boating, horse-riding and swimming. As you can see, if you’re into outdoors activities, you can easily spend several days here!
Make sure to check the SANparks site for a guide of the five main hiking trails in Wilderness and visit Dolphin Point Lookout too. Here you can take in expansive views over the stunning coastline and Kaaimans River Mouth.
Wilderness is the perfect place to immerse yourself in nature – make sure to take the time to absorb the charm of this soulful town.
Places to stay in Wilderness
Wilderness is home to the excellent Ebb and Flow Rest Camp, which offers budget-friendly forest huts, log cabins or camping spots.
Make sure to stop at BITE Wilderness for some great food and excellent craft beers, and book a table at the stunning Serendipity restaurant for a delicious South-African inspired meal in a beautiful location.
Distance from Mossel Bay to Wilderness: 59km
Knysna is a beautiful town set around a huge lagoon and is a definite highlight along the Garden Route. Days in Knysna can be spent exploring the huge estuary on boat trips, enjoying numerous watersports or hiking along the cliff tops. In fact, between just Knysna and Plettenberg Bay (the next town in my guide), you can easily spend a week or two doing something different every single day, especially if you’re travelling with kids.
My favourite things to do in Knysna include trying my luck at fishing in the huge lagoon, playing in the shallow waters near Bollard Bay beach or making my way around some of Knysna’s excellent restaurants.
Some excellent tours in Knysna include:
- Lagoon Boat Cruise and Oyster Tasting
- Knysna Kayak Hire
- Sailing Experience in Knysna
- Knysna Whale Watching Tour
- Downhill Forest Scootour Adventure
- Knysna Standup Paddleboard Hire
Places to stay in Knysna
Knysna has an enormous number of places to stay. Not only can you stay around the edge of the lagoon, but you can also stay on some of the islands within in the lagoon, including Thesen’s Island. My favourite place to stay is The Turbine Hotel & Spa and I highly recommend enjoying booking into their spa to enjoy some of their spa treatments too!
Places to eat in Knysna
Knysna food is great! I’ve enjoyed many delicious lunches at the East Head Cafe on its beautiful terrace out the back, and I also highly recommend sailing over to Featherbed Beach Bar for a wonderful lunch at the water’s edge. On Thesen’s Island, I highly suggest visiting 34 Tapas & Oysters, Ile de Pain, Sirocco and enjoying lunch at the Island Cafe at The Turbine Hotel.
One thing to try is definitely the oysters in Knysna – the town is known for them!
From Knysna, it is just 30 minutes to Plettenberg Bay (32km drive)
This beautiful beach town is the home of the South African summer holiday, so if you visit November – February, expect it to be very busy with locals on vacation. It’s affectionately known as Plett and many South Africans have holiday homes there.
My favourite thing to do in Plettenberg is to visit the Robberg Nature Reserve, one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. From one of several hiking routes in the Reserve, you might see seals, dolphins and whales and the beaches here are truly some of the best in South Africa.
Other brilliant things to do in Plettenberg include diving with seals, canyoneering, mountain biking, hiking and if you’re with kids, definitely stop at Adventure Land, a huge complex of pools, slides and water-based activities.
You can even go on game drives near to Plettenberg. As Knysna and Plett are so close, I’ve popped all the best things to see and do near the two below.
Places to eat in Plettenberg Bay
One of the most popular places for lunch in Plett is Lookout Deck. Serving up excellent seafood all day long, it’s definitely somewhere to include whilst in Plett.
Slightly outside of town, the Bramon Wine Estate is well worth a visit. You can even spend a full day here, but make sure to book in advance for picnic-style lunches at the only vineyard in the area.
Another popular spot is the awesome Emily Moon River Lodge, a bohemian guesthouse where day visitors are welcome to visit for lunch, dinner or sunset drinks. Other places not to miss include curries at Lemongrass and seafood at The Fat Fish.
Best things to do near Knysna and Plettenberg Bay
As mentioned above, the two towns are just a 30 min drive apart, making them excellent places to spend a couple of nights whilst driving the Garden Route. I’ve listed some of the best things to see and do near Knysna and Plett here:
- Knysna Elephant Park is well-worth a visit, and is one of the best things to do on the Garden Route for kids. Visitors can arrange several different elephant interactions, from feeding them to walking with them. Another similar alternative is at Plettenberg Bay’s Elephant Sanctuary.
- At nearby, Tenikwa Animal Sanctuary, you can have even more animal encounters, including the chance to walk with a cheetah. Book your visiting to Tenikwa here.
- Another stop is the Garden Route Wolf Sanctuary, a fascinating centre to learn about these interesting creatures.
- If you can fancy getting out on the water, then perhaps consider whale watching with Ocean Safaris. July to December is a particularly good time to do this.
Other great tours include:
This town is, as you might guess, a paradise for nature lovers. Just another 30 minutes’ drive along from Plettenberg, this coastal town sits at the foot of the Tsitsikamma Mountains and between the Salt River and the Groot River lagoon. Similar to Wilderness, it’s a beautiful place to stop on the Garden Route.
There are an endless array of activities to enjoy here, between the untamed coastline, the deep forest and the rugged mountains. The order of the day in Nature’s Valley is simply to embrace Mother Nature, and all of the wonders she decided to place in Nature’s Valley. Trails wind through the forest canopy, where you might emerge into an opening with a deafening waterfall ahead of you, or see curious monkeys playing in the trees above you.
One of the most unusual things to do on the Garden Routes is here at Nature’s Valley in its ‘gully’, where visitors can swim with sharks in shallow waters. The sharks, known as Sharptooth Houndshark are not dangerous, and the ones here feed on lobsters, crabs and other small fish.
If you’re up for some physical adventure than make sure to hike the Kalanderkloof hiking trail, or cycling the Groot River pass amongst the indigenous rainforests of the Tsitsikamma.
Distance from Plettenberg Bay to Nature’s Valley: 34km
Another 40km along the Garden Route and you’ll find yourself in the Storms River National Park. This is another stunning spot to visit as it is where the Indian Ocean meets the river. The drive from Knysna and Plettenberg Bay to Storms River weaves between canyons, with jaw-dropping views from the bridges you cross on route.
Storms River is known for awesome adventures in the forest canopy, including rope bridges, suspension bridges and zip lining. In fact, a canopy tour in Storms River is often considered one of the best things to do in the whole of South Africa!
In the river and along the shoreline, kayaking and tubing are two of the best activities to do, as well as snorkelling in the marine protected area, where you might see sharks, rays and even octopus!
There are also several walking trails and waterfall hikes, mostly taking around 2-3 hours, and exhilarating mountain biking on the scenic Storms River Pass. Book your hiking tours here.
One other activity to do near here, which is particularly good for thrill-seekers, is the bungy-jump at Bloukrans Bridge. At 216m, it’s one of, if not the highest bungy jumps in the world.
From Storms River to Port Elizabeth, the final stop on this Garden Route itinerary, it takes around 2 hours of driving (170km).
This world-renowned surf spot is on the way to Port Elizabeth. Often known as J-Bay, Jeffreys Bay is the surf capital of the world. Every year, the planet’s best surfers come to Jeffreys Bay to ride some of the iconic waves and soak up the atmosphere. If you’re not into surfing yourself, it’s actually a great beachside community to spend a few days in with excellent accommodation options and good beach facilities.
You probably don’t need that long here if you’re not into surfing.
The final stop on this Garden Route itinerary is the friendly city of Port Elizabeth, one of the lesser visited cities in South Africa. Whilst it doesn’t have the obvious natural beauty of Cape Town or the vibe of Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth is in itself a peaceful, chilled out town to spend a few days in.
Port Elizabeth, aka PE is a safer and calmer place to visit in South Africa that still offers plenty of interesting attractions and beautiful places to visit.
Things to do in or near Port Elizabeth
My favourite place in PE is the unbelievable Sardinia Bay beach, which, despite seeing all of incredible beaches on the Garden Route, will still blow you away with its beauty.
Accessed by climbing a huge golden sand dune, you emerge on a vast beach with miles of soft golden sand and turquoise waters. There are few facilities here, but days can easily be spent enjoying the sea or playing ball games on the expansive sand. Make sure to stop at Grass Roof café, which is a brilliant farm stall and restaurant with a great laid back beach atmosphere. Sardinia Bay is about a 15 minute drive from the heart of PE, but if you want more centrally located beaches than try perhaps Hobie Beach or Humewood Beach.
In the heart of Port Elizabeth, a day can easily be spent in Summerstrand between the beach there and The Boardwalk. This is a shopping and leisure centre in one, all built around an artificial lake. There’s a light show on the fountains in the evening, as well as numerous other entertainment venues, shopping and great restaurants.
Another great spot to visit in the historical centre of PE is Route 67, an arts and heritage trail showcasing artworks made by artists based in the Eastern Cape. The idea is that there’s one piece of art for every year that Nelson Mandela devoted to South Africa, and the trail weaves together the story in the run-up to the 1994 elections. Whilst wandering in the old part of the city, why not also visit the old public library?
Addo Elephant Park
Another amazing activity to do near Port Elizabeth is to visit Addo Elephant Park. Just 45 minutes from the centre of PE, and you can experience a true African safari – and you can even self-drive in the park with your hire car!
If you don’t fancy self-driving amongst the wild animals, fear not! Another option is to book a full day guided tour, such as this one!
As South Africa’s third biggest national park, it offers more than 440,000 acres of game viewing land, and you can see a lot more than elephants – including lions, zebras, rhinos, hyenas and antelope.
I spent the most amazing day here, but you also do overnight stays. Some recommendations include:
More wildlife viewing opportunities are on offer at the Cape Recife Reserve too, where you can see an abundance of marine life and penguins.
Places to eat in Port Elizabeth
I’m always so pleasantly surprised by the dining options in PE, and have now sampled a fair few places in the city. La Kouzina on the seafront is an amazing spot for Greek and sushi in one spot, as well as the neighbouring Coachman’s restaurant. Make sure to also stop by the original Vovo Telo, the now super popular café and bakery that has spread across South Africa. Another great smoothie and coffee spot is Rhubarb and Lime, which is right by St George’s Park, home to the city’s cricket ground.
Garden Route South Africa
So there you have it! My complete guide to planning your Garden Route itinerary, including all the stop towns and beaches communities to visit. I hope this is useful but feel free to drop me a line if you would like any further information.
If you’re planning on spending a bit of time in Cape Town, then you might find some of my other guides useful. From this detailed Cape Town itineraries post, to these guides on the best places to eat in Cape Town and things to do in the city too.
Disclaimer: This visit to South Africa was entirely paid for by myself. There was no involvement from the tourism board or a hotel. This is an independent guide.
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