The seaside town of Knysna lies at the heart of South Africa's famous Garden Route—approximately 124 miles (about 200 kilometers) of gorgeous coastline between Mossel Bay and Plettenberg Bay. Located between the Outeniqua Mountains and the sparkling blue of the Indian Ocean, Knysna has twice been voted South Africa's number one favorite town, and with good reason. It is both friendly and convenient, with plenty of picturesque bed and breakfasts, boutique shops, and gourmet restaurants geared towards its booming tourist trade. The town also has more than its fair share of attractions, many of which are inspired by the area's spectacular natural setting.
Note: Much of Knysna was devastated by fires that spiraled out of control in the wake of strong winds caused by the 2017 Cape Storm. Approximately 10,000 people were forced to evacuate, and countless homes and businesses were destroyed. However, tireless efforts to rebuild the town have overcome the worst of the damage and Knysna remains a truly worthwhile destination for visitors to the Western Cape.
Spend a Day at the Beach
Knysna's beaches offer a great way to experience the outdoors for free. When the tide is in, there’s safe swimming at Leisure Isle's Bollard Bay Beach. With plenty of clean sand, it's also the perfect destination for sand-castle-loving kids; a nearby picnic site offers barbecue facilities, toilets, and shade.
If you're after a long, romantic beach walk, try the 5-mile (8-kilometer) trail from Brenton-on-Sea to dramatic Buffalo Bay, where at times dolphins have been seen.
Find Tranquility in the Forest
Knysna is surrounded by patches of state forest perfect for a wide range of adventurous activities, including hiking and mountain biking. At Millwood, the Homtini Cycle Route offers 12 miles (19 kilometers) of unspoiled trails, while the Petrus-se-Brand mountain bike trail at Diepwalle winds through the trees for 15 miles (24 kilometers). Knysna Tourism details everything about exploring the region's woodland areas, from national parks and reserves to gardens.
Like most South African towns, Knysna has its own informal settlement, or township. Companies like Emzini Tours offer township tours give residents much-needed income while also offering visitors an insight into the life of the local Xhosa people. While exploring the township's ramshackle streets, you'll make new friends, visit local schools and businesses, and even have the opportunity to sample authentic African cuisine.
Discover the Local Birdlife
Knysna supports a variety of different habitats, making it an optimum spot for birding throughout the year. Look out for waders and sea birds at Woodbourne Marsh and alongside the causeway (raised road) to Leisure Isle; for African fish eagles, check up the river from the White Bridge (N2 national route) over the lagoon. In particular, keen birders should keep an eye out for the Knysna turaco, an endemic woodland species with striking green-blue plumage and unmistakable scarlet-colored under-wings.
In recognition of its marine biodiversity, Knysna was established as a Hope Spot—a special place critical to the ocean's health—and the town is a prime destination for scuba divers. The lagoon is home to several interesting macro species, including the endemic and endangered Knysna seahorse. At around 4 inches (10 centimeters) in length, divers will need a good eye to spot this species; however, there are plenty of larger animals to look out for as well.
A favorite dive site is the wreck of the Paquita, a German ship sunk in 1903, found on the eastern side of the famous geologic formations called the Heads.
For an amazing close encounter with one of Africa's most iconic species, head to Knysna Elephant Park, located just off the N2 national route between Knysna and Plettenberg Bay. The park, open since 1994, cares for orphaned, abandoned, and abused African elephants, and offers visitors the chance to meet the world's largest land mammal in a natural, cruelty-free setting. There, you can join an elephant-back safari, or accompany the elephants on their daily bush walk. The park has a restaurant and is family-friendly with a playground onsite.
Drive to the public lookout on Knysna's Eastern Head for beautiful views of the lagoon, or sign up for an eco-tour at Featherbed Nature Reserve on the Western Head to learn about the local fauna, flora, and history. The tour starts with a 25-minute boat trip across the lagoon before you’re driven to the scenic viewpoint. You can return by car, or walk approximately 1 mile (2 kilometers) back through the coastal forest and along the lagoon’s edge in time for an alfresco lunch at the reserve restaurant.
The road over Knysna’s Eastern Head and down the other side is extremely steep in places, but it’s the only way to get to a beautiful and small sheltered cove called Coney Glen. Since the waters can be dangerous, avoid swimming in deep water. Still, you can spend a day in blissful peace—perfecting the art of the South African braai (barbecue) at the grassy cookout area, snorkeling in the adjacent rock pools, or catching a tan on the sandy beach. For photographers, it's one of Knysna's most rewarding spots.
Whether you opt to join a deep-sea fishing trip or to rent a rod and try your luck from shore, Knysna offers plenty of opportunities for people who love to fish. The lagoon is a prime spot for estuarine species like garrick, kob, and spotted grunter, while the beaches of Brenton-on-Sea and Buffalo Bay offer rock-and-surf species like shad, bronze bream, and white steenbras. Wherever you decide to fish, don't forget to buy a permit from the Knysna Post Office.
Knysna is known for the quality of its restaurants, and in particular for its seafood. Oysters are grown in the estuary and are some of the freshest in South Africa, and as such have become synonymous with the town's culinary scene. Sample them for yourself at the eateries on scenic Knysna Quays harbor, hop on a 90-minute lagoon cruise to snack on oysters and drink white wine while learning all about the local industry or experience the madness of the town's annual Oyster Festival taking place for several summer days.
This article was updated by Jessica Macdonald.