Ask anyone who has been to South Africa and they will tell you not to skip the 300-kilometre stretch or so of road running along the coast, AKA the “Garden Route“. This incredible road trip will take you through some of the most scenic towns, coastline and cities in South Africa, winding and weaving past lagoons, rivers, mountain passes, forests, bays and the most pristine beaches.
Most people start their Garden Route road trip in Cape Town or Port Elizabeth stop in seaside towns including Knysa, Plettenberg Bay and Mossel Bay along the N2 highway.
If you are visiting South Africa, make sure you set aside at least 2 to 3 weeks to drive along the Garden Route to take in the best of what the country has to offer. Read on for what you need to know to plan your ultimate Garden Route road trip itinerary and the most amazing Garden Route highlights!
Hiring a car in South Africa
We hired our incredibly trusty Hyundai through Avis and paid approximately 40 USD per day for rental and the one-way drop off so that we could pick the car up in Cape Town and drop it off in Port Elizabeth (the fee included collision damage waiver, theft loss waiver and unlimited free mileage). We added another 10 USD per day to add an extra driver and emergency roadside assistance.
You’ll need to show your local driver’s license, and they might ask if you also have an international license though they didn’t ask for a copy of ours. I would highly recommend Avis – the car was in tip top condition, the service was incredibly efficient and the pick up and drop off was extremely easy. Make sure you check the car with an attendant from the rental company to make a note of any existing scratches and damage, and take your own photos and video so you have a record in the event of any disputes. Click here to check for current car rental rates!
Looking for the best prices for rental car companies around the world? Click here to book your rental car ahead of your trip. Bookings can be cancelled or amended if your plans change!
Driving in South Africa
If you’ve driven in Australia or the U.K., you won’t have any issues driving in South Africa. South African drivers drive on the left (the steering wheel is on the right), and the N2 highway is well paved with multiple lanes. The speed limit tops out at approximately 110 KM/hour, and you will find a gas station and toilet every 100 KM or so (not as frequent as you’d think). Gas is cheap in South Africa (approximately 13-15 Rand/litre), and we often filled up the tank for under 30 US dollars. You may want to tip your gas station attendant 3-5 Rand for filling your tank and cleaning your windows.
There are minimal tolls, and our car from Avis had an e-pass that allowed us to get through without having to pay by cash or card. Navigation is easy in South Africa, you’ll just want to make sure that you have a local SIM card (we got a local SIM and data package from Vodacom at Cape Town Airport) and access to Google Maps. We found that Google Maps was pretty accurate when looking up directions along the Garden Route, and you can also download areas ahead of time and use it without an Internet connection.
Parking in South Africa
Most parking in South Africa is free/not metered, and “parking attendants” will offer to watch your car for you. You’re expected to leave a small tip of 3-5 Rand so make sure you have coins. Avoid leaving any belongings and valuables in your car.
When you’re booking your accommodation on the Garden Route, look for places that offer free onsite parking. Click here to see highly rated hotel options on the Garden Route in South Africa!
Best time to visit the Garden Route
When is the best time to visit the Garden Route? The peak season for travel in South Africa is during the summer months from December to February, so if you want to avoid the tourist crowds then consider visiting during the shoulder seasons in autumn and spring (September to December or March to May).
However, if one of the primary reasons for traveling to South Africa’s Garden Route is to go on safari game drives, then consider during the winter months from June to August as sightings are much easier during this season.
The temperature can fluctuate by a fair bit, and even during the winter months you can expect hot, sunny days and extremely cool mornings and evenings. Make sure you pack appropriately and bring layers, a light down jacket and hats/gloves.
Things to know before visiting the Garden Route
- Many towns in this part of South Africa are in a drought, so do your bit by conserving water and using hand sanitizer when it’s provided and limiting your shower time. Most places will ask that you follow the golden rule (haha, get it?) – “If it’s yellow, let it mellow. If it’s brown, flush it down”.
- Exchange money before you embark on the drive. The exchange rate is approximately 1 USD to 13 Rand, and most places will accept Visa or Mastercard. American Express is accepted in some places, but not all merchants will take it.
- You probably won’t need a visa to enter South Africa, but check the full list of visa-exempt passports here.
- This is probably one of the most budget friendly vacations you will go on, because the food, wine and accommodation is extremely cheap in South Africa.
- You can cover a lot of ground and see a ton of things in 2 to 3 weeks on the Garden Route.
- While this isn’t discussed much, you should know that the wealth disparity is extremely evident as you’re driving along the Garden Route. It was quite confronting and heartbreaking to see the level of inequality as you drive along and see shanty towns sandwiched between areas with the fanciest mansions you’ve ever laid your eyes upon. This is not a warning or cautionary advice – it is an observation, and something that I feel other travelers should be mindful of before visiting the Garden Route. Just as you would before you travel anywhere else in the world, it is worth doing some reading on the general socioeconomic and political situation so you are aware.
Amazing stops on the Garden Route
There are so many incredible places to visit on the Garden Route, and we planned our 2 week Garden Route itinerary so that we could maximize our time in South Africa and hit all the places we wanted to check out, without having to move hotels every single night. If you are an independent traveler who likes to unwind, spend a few nights in each place and venture out for day trips, here are some of the best stops on the Garden Route that you shouldn’t skip, things to do on the Garden Route and the best places to stay on the Garden Route!
1. Cape Town
Cape Town is an amazing place to start your Garden Route itinerary. This coastal city features some of the most incredible geography and landscapes, and is a melting pot of different backgrounds and cultures. You’ll want to spend a minimum of 3 to 4 nights in the city.
Where to stay in Cape Town: We decided to stay in the heart of Cape Town in the CBD and chose to book Cartwrights Studio. This beautiful studio apartment has a massive kitchen if you are self catering, otherwise there are plenty of restaurants nearby. Katrin, the owner, is very helpful and was kind enough to allow a late check out. What was especially handy was the secure (and free) parking within the building. Click here to check current rates and availability for Cartwrights Studio or click here for more highly rated hotel options in Cape Town!
Top sights and things to do in Cape Town: Hike up Table Mountain or take the cable car to the summit, see the beach boxes on Muizenberg Beach, visit the penguin colony on Boulders Beach and Foxy Beach, walk along the Cape of Good Hope, drive along Chapman’s Peak Drive, hang out in Camps Bay and watch the sunset, check out the V&A Waterfront and see the colourful houses of Bo-Kaap and learn about its unique heritage.
Cape Town travel tip: The weather in Cape Town isn’t always sunshine and rainbows, and on those foggy days you won’t be able to see much from Table Mountain (in fact, rain is much needed right now!). The cable car also shuts down if the wind is too strong, so check the Table Mountain Aerial Cableway website each day to see if it is open. They tend to update the cable car status at approximately 8 AM each morning. Make sure you buy your tickets online ahead of time so you don’t have to wait in the massive queue for tickets.
Where to eat in Cape Town: Chefs Warehouse for an incredible tasting menu, V&A Waterfront Food Market when you can’t make up your mind, Carne for the tastiest meat dishes, Kleinskys for amazing bagels and coffee.
Wilderness is, IMHO, one of the most underrated places to visit on the Garden Route. If you want to get off the beaten path in South Africa, head to Wilderness! The hidden gem of a coastal town sits between the ocean and the river, and is an amazing place to retreat and bask in nature. You should plan to stay in Wilderness for 2 to 3 nights and use it as a base to explore George, Mossel Bay, Victoria Bay and Knysa.
Where to stay in Wilderness: Wilderness was an unexpected highlight of our trip. We stayed at Pearl Moon Boutique Suites, a stunning guesthouse right along the river and a 5 minute walk away from the beach. The rooms are stunning and cosy, and the private terrace overlooking the river is the perfect place to unwind with a cup of tea. Each morning we were brought home made croissants and a platter of fresh fruit, and the rooms were cleaned daily.
The couple running the guesthouse have lots of insider tips and recommendations to offer, and are avid surfers who can point you in the right direction of local surf breaks. Click here to check rates and availability for Pearl Moon Boutique Suites, or click here for more highly rated hotel options in Wilderness!
Top sights and things to do in Wilderness: Check out Victoria Bay for a swim or surf, kayak and hike in Wilderness National Park, relax on the beach, and see the “Map of Africa” view point.
Knysa is a 40 minute drive away from Wilderness and has a whole host of accommodation options, but is significantly busier than Wilderness. It is popular for its small waterfront marina and oyster festival, as well as its stunning viewpoints overlooking the ocean. However, if I had to pick between the two, I would definitely recommend staying overnight in Wilderness instead of Knysa. Click here to check rates and availability for Pearl Moon Boutique Suites in Wilderness, or click here for more highly rated hotel options in Knysa!
Top things to do in Knysa: Check out the Knysa Heads view points, go whale watching, have dinner at the small waterfront, visit the Featherbed Private Nature Reserve.
4. Plettenberg Bay
Plettenberg Bay (or “Plett”) is perhaps one of the most famous coastal towns on the Garden Route. It boasts incredible white sand beaches on either side of the town and has many hiking trails and nature reserves in the area. It will take you just over an hour to get to Plett from Wilderness, and is another great option if you’re looking to stay a night or two to break up the long drive. We stopped in Plettenberg Bay on our way to Jeffrey’s Bay, but you can click here to see highly rated hotel options in Plett.
Top things to do in Plettenberg Bay: Hike Robberg Nature Reserve (one of the most famous Garden Route attractions), check out the Whale Tail lookout point, check out the Signal Hill view point, hit the beach, relax!
Where to eat in Plettenberg Bay: We loved the coffee and brekkie at La Cafeteria, just steps away from the Central Beach.
5. Jeffreys Bay
Jeffreys Bay (or “J Bay”) is in the Eastern Cape and is a world-famous surf town where the World Surf League hosts one of the champion tour competitions. Even if you do not surf, it is worth spending 2-3 nights in this small town as it offers some of the most extraordinary sunrises and sunsets I’ve ever seen, and dozens of dolphins frolic in the bay each morning.
If you are a surfer, you’ll want to stay at least 5-7 nights to try to catch solid swell in the winter months.
Where to stay in Jeffreys Bay: We had the most incredible view from our room at Shaloha Guesthouse right in front of the famous Supertubes break. Each morning we watched dolphins swim in the bay, and were greeted with a fiery sunrise and dreamy sunsets.
The staff are wonderful and breakfast is hearty and delicious. We were blown away by how cozy the property is, and the well stocked bar (prices pretty much at cost) in the room was perfect for when we wanted a sunset drink on the balcony. You absolutely have to stay here if you’re visiting J Bay – the location can’t be beat, it’s a 10 second walk to the beach! Click here to check current rates at Shaloha Guesthouse or click here for other highly rated hotels in Jeffreys Bay.
Top things to do in Jeffreys Bay: Take a surf lesson, watch the dolphins from the shore, hit the beach, catch some incredible sunsets and sunrises, swing over to Cape St. Francis, check out the small surf museum.
Best places to eat in Jeffreys Bay: We absolutely loved the food in J Bay. Head to Ninas Read Food when you can’t make up your mind (they have tons of vegetarian and vegan options), visit Fifth Wave to get your coffee buzz, and check out Infood Bakery & Deli for tons of fresh and delicious dishes.
6. Amakhala Game Reserve or Addo Elephant Park
It is safari time! There are several options if you want to see some incredible wildlife and go on a safari on the Garden Route. If you have a slightly flexible budget, consider staying in a luxury tent at Bukela Game Lodge in the private Amakhala Game Reserve where you can see the “Big 5” and be pampered. The benefit of staying in a private game reserve is that the number of visitors is limited, and there are far fewer safari jeeps zipping about.
Alternatively, Addo Elephant Park is an amazing national park with more accommodation options to suit all budgets. We stayed at Bukela Game Lodge for 3 nights, but would have happily stayed for 3 more if we had the time. You can click here to read my full review of the safari glamping experience at Bukela Game Lodge, or click here to check current rates and availability!
After an action-packed week and a half, we chose to wind down and end our Garden Route road trip in Stellenbosch before flying out of Cape Town International Airport. The easiest way to get back to Cape Town/Stellenbosch after visiting Addo Elephant Park or Amakhala Game Reserve is to fly from Port Elizabeth Airport. A one-way flight ticket with FlySafair will cost you just over US$100, and is the quickest and most efficient way to head back to Cape Town.
Stellenbosch (and the neighbouring wine region of Franschoek) is home to dozens and dozens of award-winning wineries and vineyards as well as stunning restaurants. You should plan to spend a minimum of 2 nights in Stellenbosch to go wine tasting and indulge in spa treatments.
Where to stay in Stellenbosch: Please listen to me and book yourself into Banhoek Lodge. Banhoek Lodge is one of the most cosy and elegant hotels I’ve ever stayed at – the rooms are beautifully decorated with plenty of natural light, and the view from our private balcony was simply breathtaking. See for yourself! Banhoek Lodge is a small property so book ahead to make sure you grab a room with a view. Click here to check rates and availability at Banhoek Lodge, or click here to check out other highly rated accommodation options in Stellenbosch!
Ready to book your Garden Route road trip? Click here to see more highly rated hotel and guesthouse options on the Garden Route in South Africa!
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