Wrapping around the twin coasts of southern South Africa, the Western Cape is roughly the size of Louisiana. Its landscapes are both majestic and varied, ranging from beaches and coastal woodland to the semi-arid desert of the Karoo and the soaring Cederberg Mountains. A third of the province’s population live in Cape Town, a top South African tourist destination famed for its world-class culture and cuisine. Other must-do activities in the Western Cape include wine tasting, whale watching, and learning about South Africa’s multicultural history.
Drive the Garden Route from Mossel Bay to Storms River
Arguably one of the most scenic drives in South Africa, the Garden Route stretches for roughly 125 miles along the coast, and is a great introduction to the province for first-time visitors. Make stops along the way to see some of the Western Cape’s most attractive towns and beaches. Tee off on championship golf courses in George; ride epic surf breaks in Victoria Bay; visit the wildlife sanctuaries around The Crags; go zip lining in Tsitsikamma National Park; or bungee jump off the Bloukrans Bridge, home to the world’s highest commercial bridge bungee jump.
Watch Southern Right Whales in Hermanus
Part fisherman’s village, part holiday resort, the picturesque coastal town of Hermanus is best known as the whale watching capital of South Africa. Every year, southern right whales arrive by the hundreds to mate, calve, and raise their young in the protected waters of Walker Bay (and within a few hundred feet from the shore!). You can watch them for free from lookout points along the Hermanus Cliff Path, and with an official Whale Crier to announce sightings, you’ll never miss out on the action. Whale season runs from June to December.
Snack on Fresh Oysters in Knysna
Another Garden Route gem, Knysna is framed by the Outeniqua Mountains on one side and the Indian Ocean on the other. In between the two lies a beautiful estuary and lagoon, creating the perfect habitat for fresh oysters. Oysters are the focus of many Knysna restaurants. You can pair oysters with local white wine while learning more about the oyster industry on a cruise of the lagoon, or immerse yourself in oyster-producing culture at the annual Oyster Festival. The latter is usually held over 10 days at the end of June.
Hike Coastal Trails in Robberg Nature Reserve
A 15-minute drive from the center of Plettenberg Bay takes you into the pristine wilderness of Robberg Nature Reserve. Here, you can expect stunning ocean panoramas, unique sand dunes, evidence of Stone Age habitation, and the Cape Seal Lighthouse (the highest on the South African coastline). While exploring the peninsula’s hiking trails, keep an eye out for blue duiker and abundant birdlife. Seals and dolphins are spotted year-round, while whales are frequently seen in winter. The daily conservation fee costs 50 rand (about $2.80) per adult and 30 rand (about $1.70) per child.
According to Golf Digest South Africa, all three of the golf courses at Fancourt Hotel near George rank among the top 15 courses in the country. One of them, The Links, occupies the number one ranking and is an iconic destination for golf enthusiasts. Designed by golfing legend Gary Player, the course offers 18 championship holes set amidst undulating, dune-style landscapes, the Outeniqua Mountains serving as the backdrop. To play on The Links, you need to be a member or an overnight guest at the 5-star Fancourt Hotel.
Venture inland to the Klein Karoo region to discover one of the Western Cape’s most famous geological features: The Cango Caves. Carved millions of years ago out of Precambrian limestone, the cave system now offers guided Heritage and Adventure tours. Wander from one illuminated dripstone cavern to the next, marveling at the fantastic formations created by age-old stalagmites and stalactites. The caves can be found roughly 20 miles north of Oudtshoorn (a town famous for its ostrich farms) on the R328. They are open every day except Christmas Day.
Located near Beaufort West in the Great Karoo, Karoo National Park offers a completely different safari experience to Big Five reserves like the Kruger. Its semi-desert scenery ranges from vast areas of open scrubland to towering plateaus accessed by switchback passes. The best way to explore is in your own vehicle (rent a 4x4 if you want to tackle the park’s off-road eco trails). Keep an eye out for desert-adapted wildlife, ranging from eland and klipspringer antelope to hyenas, jackals, and lions. Entry costs 224 rand (about $12.70) per adult, per day.
Visit Cape Agulhas, Africa's Most Southerly Point
Cape Agulhas is the southernmost point on the African continent, and the official meeting place of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. These geographical extremes are marked by a cairn (great for photos). You can also climb 71 steps to the Cape Agulhas Lighthouse and Museum—the oldest working lighthouse in Southern Africa—and hear stories of the many ships that have fallen foul of the region’s rough seas. The wreck of the Meisho Maru is still visible on the Cape Agulhas shoreline. Entry to Agulhas National Park costs 184 rand (about $10.40) per adult.
Admire Stunning Scenery in the Cederberg Mountains
The Cederberg Mountains stretch between the rural towns of Clanwilliam and Citrusdal, and are known for their dramatic sandstone rock formations. Come to hike and rock climb amidst astonishing scenery, and to discover the mysteries of the region’s ancient San and Khoi rock art sites. Fly fishermen can cast a line into mountain streams in hope of hooking a Clanwilliam yellowfish, while botanists will appreciate the endemic fynbos that make the Cederberg part of UNESCO’s Cape Floral Region. The CapeNature-managed Cederberg Wildnerness Area offers self-catering chalets and campsites.
Fish for Record Catches in the Breede River
The mouth of the Breede River is known as one of the best destinations in the Western Cape for fishermen. Fish the estuary for trophy saltwater species including kob, spotted grunter, and garrick—or join a deep sea charter in search of musselcrackers and yellowfin tuna in season. Mudlark Riverfront Lodge makes for an excellent base, with boats available for rent and great shore fishing from the property itself. Before wading too deeply into the river, remember that the biggest bull shark on record was also caught in the Breede River.
Tour the Picturesque Villages of the Cape West Coast
If you’ve done the Garden Route and want to step off the beaten track, journey up the Atlantic coast instead. The Cape West Coast stretches north of Cape Town to the provincial border, and is dotted with rugged, unspoiled beaches and sleepy fishing villages. Some of the top places to visit include Elands Bay (home to some of the best surfing in the country), St. Helena (famous for whale watching), and Paternoster. Paternoster is a top spot for foodies, with renowned seafood restaurants such as Leeto Restaurant at the top-rated Strandloper Ocean Boutique Hotel.
Located just 1.5 hours from Cape Town near the idyllic town of Langebaan, West Coast National Park is a well-known destination for birders and botanists. Its focal point is the Langebaan Lagoon, a world Ramsar site. Here, a series of hides allow birdwatchers and photographers a close-up view of indigenous and migrant waterbirds, including large flocks of greater and lesser flamingos. From August to September every year, the park’s main attraction is its wildflowers, which bloom in an astonishing profusion of color across the Seeberg/Mooimaak and Postberg areas.
The Western Cape is famous for the world-class vineyards that dot the hills and valleys of the Cape Winelands around Stellenbosch, Paarl, and Franschhoek. With so many to choose from, one of the best ways to experience the region’s winemaking heritage is on the Franschhoek Wine Tram. This hop-on, hop-off service transports you between selected wine farms on a vintage tram or tram-bus, leaving you free to enjoy the spectacular scenery en route. Choose from several different routes and decide how long you want to spend at each stop.
Learn About Apartheid History in Cape Town
In between experiencing all the amazing things that Cape Town has to offer, take the time to learn about apartheid, the era of state-sanctioned racism that ended with the democratic election of Nelson Mandela in 1994. Your first stop should be Robben Island and the former prison where Mandela was incarcerated for 18 years alongside other notable freedom fighters. Next, visit District Six, where black Africans were forcibly evicted after the neighborhood was designated a whites-only area in 1966. Or, take a guided tour of Khayelitsha township.
Take a Drive Along the Southern Peninsula
Explore beyond Cape Town’s touristy V&A Waterfront by hiring a car and taking a drive through the seaside villages and viewpoints of the Southern Peninsula. Top stops along the way include the historic naval base of Simon’s Town and nearby Boulders Beach, where you can walk among the world’s most famous colony of endangered African penguins. Continue on to Hout Bay via Chapman’s Peak Drive, stopping at cliffside viewpoints along the way to admire mesmerizing ocean views. If you're feeling hungry, Hout Bay’s harborfront Wharfside Grill is well-known for its local seafood.
Climb or Ride the Cableway Up Table Mountain
Table Mountain’s flat-topped silhouette looms over Cape Town city center and contributes to its status as one of the most beautiful cities in the world. A visit to the top is a rite of passage for any first-time visitor, whether you choose to ride the cableway or hike up the mountain’s north face. Once you reach the top, you’ll be treated to magnificent views of the city and Table Bay spread out below. The easiest hiking route takes 2.5 hours, while the last cable car takes you up in time for sunset.
Dive With Sevengill Sharks in Cape Town's Kelp Forests
For adrenaline junkies in search of the ultimate rush, there’s nothing quite like encountering apex marine predators in their natural environment. Into the Blue Scuba Centre in Cape Town offers qualified divers the opportunity to come face-to-face with prehistoric sevengill sharks in the kelp forests near Simon’s Town. Shark Explorers, on the other hand, allows non-divers the chance to view them from the safety of a shark cage. Cape Town’s dive sites are also frequented by smaller shark species, including the adorable striped pyjama shark. Shore dives start from 450 rand (about $25.50) per person.
Travel Back in Time in Colonial Matjiesfontein
Founded in 1884 by Scottish railwayman James Douglas Logan, the Central Karoo town of Matjiesfontein grew to fame during the Victorian era as a spa town. In 1975, the entire town was declared a National Monument in recognition of its fine Victorian architecture. Stay at the beautifully restored, 19th-century Lord Milner Hotel and discover its history as a military hospital during the Anglo-Boer War. Visit old-fashioned cars and wagons at the Transport Museum, or take South Africa’s shortest hop-on, hop-off tour aboard a vintage London bus.