The Garden Route stretches along the South African coastline from Mossel Bay in the west to Storms River in the east—a distance of roughly 125 miles. You can drive your hire car from one end to the other in 2.5 hours, but most visitors prefer to spread the journey out over several days. This gives you time to explore the route’s many treasures along the way, from pristine beaches and patches of emerald forest to quaint seaside towns and rolling mountain ranges. Imagine stopping at a local farm stall to sample homemade cheeses, bread, and biltong. Picture yourself pulling over at a roadside viewpoint to watch as whales play just a few hundred meters from shore. Go bungee jumping, walk alongside an elephant or tick rare endemic birds off your life list. These are just some of the experiences that await you on the majestic Garden Route.
Located 240 miles east of Cape Town, Mossel Bay marks the western boundary of the Garden Route. Although the presence of a significant gas-to-oil refinery gives the port town a slightly industrial air, its laid-back waterfront is full of old-school charm. Mossel Bay is famous as the place where the first Europeans landed on South African soil, back in 1488. At the Dias Museum Complex, you can see a life-size replica of Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias’ ship; and the Post Office Tree, which became the country’s first Post Office in 1500. Other Mossel Bay highlights include beautiful Santos Beach with its vast, golden sands and 19th-century Cape St. Blaize Lighthouse. Climb the latter for astonishing panoramic views. Mossel Bay is also an excellent destination for watersports, from surfing and scuba diving to whale watching and cage-diving with great white sharks.
A 35-minute drive east of Mossel Bay takes you along the coast and then slightly inland to George. It’s the largest city on the Garden Route and the second-largest in the Western Cape province. Championship golf courses are arguably George’s biggest claim to fame. They include the incredibly scenic, Ernie Els-designed Oubaai Golf Course, and the three Gary Player courses at Fancourt hotel. Wherever you go, the Outeniqua Mountains provide a breathtaking backdrop to your George adventures. They are also the inspiration for a host of exciting outdoor activities, including hiking, mountain biking, horse riding, and paragliding. If you don’t feel like being too active but still want to immerse yourself in the local scenery, take a drive up to beautiful Montagu Pass instead. Other top George attractions include Herold Wine Estate and the Outeniqua Transport Museum with its impressive collection of old steam trains and vintage cars.
Victoria Bay (known locally as Vic Bay) is only 15 minutes from central George but deserves its own spot on this list for several reasons. Firstly, it’s incredibly beautiful. The narrow bay is a perfect crescent flanked by cliffs, with azure waters and a wide strip of pristine yellow sand. Stop in en route or book a night in one of the waterfront cottages and spend a lazy afternoon braaing on the grass, sunbathing, fishing, or swimming in the protected tidal pool. Pods of dolphins are often spotted surfing on the backline, and in winter (June to November), both southern right and humpback whales can sometimes be seen from shore as they pass by on their annual migration along the coast. Vic Bay is also one of South Africa’s top surf spots, with a consistent right-hand point break that operates throughout the year thanks to the cove’s unique topography.
The next stop is Wilderness, just 10 minutes further along the coast. Your first impression of this aptly named beach town will be of breakers crashing onto a seemingly endless shore on one side, and on the other, a still lagoon backed by hills covered in a dense forest. The beach is perfect for long, windy walks—but beware, a powerful rip current makes it less suitable for swimming. There are plenty of opportunities for other adventurous activities, however. Take a boat cruise or canoe trip up the Touw River, where native bird species abound. Explore Wilderness National Park’s many hiking trails, or admire the scenery from the air with a visit to the local hang-gliding and paragliding school. Map of Africa viewpoint is another must-visit attraction. From here, the curve of the river as it winds its way through the hillside resembles the shape of the African continent.
Natural beauty is equally abundant in nearby Sedgefield, a coastal town surrounded by lakes, estuaries, and some of the country’s tallest vegetated dunes. To the west lies Swartvlei Lake, a popular spot for boating and fishing. To the east, Goukamma Nature Reserve protects 2,500 hectares of lush coastal forest. While wandering along its winding hiking trails, keep an eye out for monkeys, bushbuck and more than 220 bird species. The reserve’s freshwater Groenvlei Lake is a well-known bass-fishing destination. In between outdoor adventures, make sure to explore the town itself. With a bohemian, alternative vibe, it’s full of art galleries and independent cafés. On Saturday mornings, the famous Wild Oats Community Farmers’ Market showcases organic fruit, vegetables and gourmet foodstuffs from the local area’s finest growers and artisanal producers. Arrive early for the best selection of tasty breakfast goods, then sit down for an alfresco picnic.
Knysna is considered the heart of the Garden Route, both geographically and metaphorically. Although the town still bears some scars from the devastating fire that raged through it in 2017, it has mostly recovered—and its picturesque location along the edges of the Knysna lagoon and estuary remains as magical as ever. The pool flows into the ocean through a dramatic bottleneck flanked by twin cliffs, while spectacular beaches and verdant forests define the surrounding area. Outdoor pursuits range from kayaking and scuba diving to hiking, mountain biking, and more. In town, charming guesthouses stand alongside boutique clothing stores and art galleries. In particular, Knysna is famous for its oysters. You can sample them at its waterfront restaurants, on a scenic lagoon cruise or at the annual 10-day Knysna Oyster Festival. Another top attraction is Knysna Elephant Park, where you can enjoy ethical interactions with rescued elephants.
It takes approximately half an hour to drive from Knysna to Plettenberg Bay, one of the most popular resort towns in South Africa. Tourists and locals alike are drawn by the bay’s picture-perfect beaches—including Central Beach with its safe swimming, family-friendly facilities, and summer lifeguards. Other watersports include sailing, surfing, scuba diving, boat cruises and whale-watching tours; while keen golfers can tee off in style at Plettenberg Bay Country Club or Goose Valley Golf Club. If you have time, it’s definitely worth taking a detour to nearby Robberg Nature Reserve. Its peninsula setting allows for breathtaking coastal views dominated by the Cape Seal Lighthouse (the highest in South Africa). Plett has an impressive choice of restaurants and accommodation to suit all budgets. However, if you plan on staying during the December festive period, make sure to book well in advance as the town is always busy.
Just to the east of Plettenberg Bay lies an area known as The Crags. This section of the Garden Route is famous for its wildlife sanctuaries, with the most popular being Monkeyland, Birds of Eden, Lawnwood Snake Sanctuary, and Tenikwa Wildlife Rehabilitation & Awareness Centre. At Monkeyland, you can take a guided walk through the forest, meeting free-roaming gibbons, lemurs, monkeys, and other adorable primates along the way. The inhabitants of Birds of Eden are also free to fly throughout the world’s largest dome-style aviary. There are more than 3,500 different birds from all over the world, although the focus is primarily on African species from turacos to flamingos. If you’re more interested in reptiles, you’ll love the hands-on interactions at Lawnwood, while Tenikwa allows for up-close encounters with Africa’s big cats in their natural environment. Other sanctuaries in The Crags area specialize in wolves and raptors.
For adrenaline junkies, the top stop along the Garden Route is Bloukrans Bridge, an impressive arch that spans the Bloukrans River and the border between the Western and Eastern Cape provinces. The bridge hosts the world’s highest commercial bridge bungee jump, operated by Face Adrenalin. The experience starts with a zipline ride from the bank to the highest point of the arch. Then, you’ll be fastened into a full-body harness before taking the 216-meter/709-foot plunge into the ravine below. Afterward, you’ll be winched back up to the bridge and then return to the bank via a suspended skywalk. If you jump, you’ll join celebrity Bloukrans Bridge veterans, including Prince Harry, pro surfer Kelly Slater, and record-setter Scott Huntley, who completed 107 jumps here in 24 hours. If you don’t want to jump, you can opt for a scenic bridge walking tour instead.
Tsitsikamma National Park
Tsitsikamma National Park is located near Storms River and the eastern boundary of the Garden Route. It’s renowned for its awe-inspiring scenery, from untamed beaches and protected tidal areas teeming with marine life; to gorges and mountains cloaked in indigenous fynbos. The opportunities for adventure are endless, whether you’re more interested in birdwatching, mountain biking, waterfall ziplining, river tubing, canoeing, or snorkeling. Above all, the park is famous for its hiking trails—these range from a couple of hours in length to several days. The iconic route is the Otter Trail, a five-day hike from Storms River Mouth to Natures Valley that covers a total distance of 42 kilometers/26 miles with accommodation provided by basic forest huts. Alternatively, the luxurious Dolphin Trail is a two-day adventure with gourmet meals and four- and five-star accommodations included. You’ll even have a porter to help carry your luggage.