Driving the Garden Route is arguably one of the world’s best road trips. It takes you on a 300km journey along the spectacular South African coastline with everything from lagoons, mountain passes, forests and of course, those infamous beaches. As this route’s unofficial “capital,” Knysna is almost a compulsory stop during your time here, whether you are looking for somewhere to base yourself while you explore this beautiful part of the world, or are just passing through. There are endless things to do in Knysna and the surrounding area, something I can personally attest to having recently spent three weeks on my latest trip there and having been busy exploring almost every single day!
Best Things to Do in Knysna
Knysna is a very peaceful town beautifully situated around a lagoon. The famous landmark here is the Knysna Heads, two huge sandstone cliffs between which the lagoon and surging Indian Ocean meet. The tranquility of the lagoon means water sports are one of the many popular activities in Knysna, while the vantage point at the top of the Heads makes it an excellent land based place to spot the whales that migrate past here between May and November.
In this guide I will cover virtually everything there is to do and see in Knysna, I will warn you, unless you are staying for a couple of weeks or more you will not be able to do it all! Pick what appeals to you most and regardless of whether you have one day or one month, I guarantee you will really enjoy the time you spent is this little corner of South Africa.
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How to Get to Knysna
The airports along the Garden Route are primarily, if not exclusively, domestic only. If you are coming from the UK or the USA, you will need to take a flight into Cape Town, Johannesburg or Durban and then take a connection.
Plettenberg Bay is the nearest airport to Knysna, half an hour’s drive (30km) east of the town. It is a tiny airport though and only accepts a couple of commercial flights from both Cape Town and Johannesburg a week. We have never managed to get our flights dates and times to line up well enough to make this work, so have always flown into George, a larger airport with multiple daily flights to Knysna from various airports across South Africa.
There are also car hire facilities from all the major rental companies here (Avis, Hertz etc), which was also a factor in us choosing George airport over Plettenberg Bay. At just under an hour’s drive (70km), it’s not too much of a challenge after a day or so’s worth of travelling! Plus, you are in for a treat driving on this route, particularly when you drive down into Wilderness…you’ll see what I mean!
See my top South Africa travels tips for more information on driving over here, including the extremely sensible way they overtake that might seem a bit odd at first if you don’t know what they are doing!
If you would rather drive, the distance from Cape Town to Knysna is 488km, about 5.5 hours straight drive. I would plan to stop on the way (Hermanus is a great option) as even if you don’t think you’ll want to, you would have to be made of stone to resist not stopping and taking in some of spectacular views on this route.
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Thesen Islands in Knysna
Connected to the mainland via a bridge next to Knysna Waterfront is a collection of 19 man made islands linked with arching bridges known as Thesen Islands.
Covering an area of over 222,400 acres, Thesen Islands are a superbly chic marine development with shops, restaurants and bars clustered in the middle. Despite this though, the area is very tranquil with not much traffic at all and reminds me of a quieter and more laid back version of the Hamptons in New York (plus a hell of a lot cheaper), making it one of my favourite places to visit in Knysna.
Most of the islands consist of beautiful colonial style homes (512 in total, plus 56 apartments), some with their own pools and jetties to park their boats or kayaks. Many of them are holiday homes and available to rent, so the islands becomes a lot busier during the peak of South Africa’s summer.
The access to the residential area is restricted to the those staying here only, but even if you’re not, there are still lots of reasons to visit. In the residents only area is a private beach, children’s playground, tennis courts, squash courts, cricket nets and an 18 hole putting green. There is no sneaking into this section though, they know how to do security in South Africa and access is controlled via some very robust electronic gates that requires an access card.
The centre (that is open to all) is very compact, with all the main places to see lined along Long Street, the same road you use to enter the island from Central Knysna. It ends in a village square type area, here you will find a pier and some of the best views of the lagoon and Knysna Waterfront back on the mainland.
Thesen Historical Walk
To learn a bit more about this island’s past as a sawmill supplying the paper industry through most of the 20th century, take the Thesen historical walk route following the illustrated information panels dotted around the island. You will also get to see many of the historic buildings, such as the Sawtooth Building, the Parking Garage and the Boatshed that have since been restored.
Related Post: Your Complete Guide to Plettenberg Bay
Stopping for brunch (try Île de Païn or Island Café) before taking a stroll through some of the many wonderful independent shops here is a truly lovely way to spend a morning. Stop at ChoColette, an artisan chocolatier, Out of the Blue for coastal laid back luxe styles and Paisley & Bloom Interiors for all the home décor inspiration you can’t fit in your suitcase.
Honestly, we didn’t go in a “bad” shop here and you can find a full list and map of all the businesses on Thesen Island here.
Take to the Water
If you’re looking for adventures in Knysna, then taking to the water is the obvious way to indulge, be it kayaking, a romantic sunset lagoon cruise or going out to sea in the hope of spotting dolphins or whales (Knysna is known as one of the best whale watching locations in South Africa).
Related Post: Everything You Need to Pack for a Trip to South Africa
Knysna Boat Trips
We did this fantastic Knysna lagoon cruise at sunset with Ocean Odyssey which as there was six of us, ended up being a private trip, which made it even better. You spend some time sailing around the Knysna Lagoon before going through the Heads and out to sea, where you may just spot some dolphins or whales.
Included is a glass of sparkling wine and what I though was a great tapas sharing platter which you can enjoy while sailing back through the Knysna Heads as the sun starts to set. You might also find that if you ask nicely, you can captain the boat yourself for a bit!
Dolphin & Whale Watching
Ocean Odyssey have a shop on Thesen Island and offer a few different kinds of boat tours, with their specialty being their three daily whale watching trips, one of the most popular Knysna tours. The Southern Right and Humpback whales are frequently spotted in these waters, often with their calves, from June to September. All year round you have the opportunity to see the smaller, shyer Bryde whales as well as dolphins. Check out their instagram page for what can only be described as some spectacular sightings.
SUP & Kayaking
Hiring a stand up paddleboard or kayak is a great way to explore all the Thesen Island canals (its also a great way to have a nose at all the houses in the residential area), as well as the lagoon itself. You can hire SUPs from Ocean Odyssey (they also have electric bikes if you prefer to spend your time on land) or from the Turbine Water Club.
The latter is part of the Turbine Boutique Hotel & Spa, have a chat to them and they can help sort pretty much any water based request! You don’t have to be staying at the hotel to use the Club, but I believe that some of the services are complimentary to hotel guests only, with a charge for everyone else.
The Knysna Seahorse
The town’s most famous residents are the endangered Knysna seahorses that have only ever been found in three estuaries along the Garden Route. If you do take to the waterways, keep an eye out for them clinging to the canal wall mesh. If, however, like us, you didn’t manage to spot them, head to the end of the pier to the SANParks office building. You can go inside for free to learn more about these creatures from some informational boards and pictures, as well as see some in a tank in the reception area, kept for “conservation purposes”.
I am not a conservation expert by any stretch, but it always makes me a bit sad to see animals in a small space and all the seahorses seemed to be quite sad and listless…. although I have absolutely no idea if that’s how they behave in their natural environment.
Related Post: 6 Beautiful Beaches in Knysna, Sand Sea & Sunsets
Where to Eat & Drink
Thesen Island was my favourite location for a great selection of restaurants, bars and cafés. As a die hard sushi fan, so Siroccos was my favourite (they are also a great place to try oysters in Knysna), especially as they had a cocktail bar called The Project above it which was a great spot to watch the sun go down.
You can read more about the best restaurants in Knysna here; I cover Thesen Island quite extensively as I went to almost every eatery on the island during my stay here!
Knysna’s Leisure Island
Not exactly a hub of activity (in fact it is possibly the sleepiest neighbourhood I have ever been to), Leisure Island is home to Bollard Bay, one of the best beaches in Knysna.
It is great for families as the beach is actually on the lagoon, so the water is super calm, clear and very shallow. You can also rent kayaks and SUPs to further explore. This Knysna beach has the closest and best views of both the Heads (do not be tempted to approach or try and cross through them to the ocean though, the rip tides are lethal).
The only other thing do here is to visit Steenbok Nature Reserve for a peaceful and scenic walk around the island to see lots of indigenous Garden Route flora and fauna.
There are two places to eat on Leisure Island, luckily both of them are very good!
The Knysna Heads
If you have to choose one thing to visit on your Knysna itinerary, make it the Heads (and to be fair, they would be hard to miss), the two dramatic cliffs guarding what is claimed to be one of the most dangerous harbour entrances in the world. On one side you have the peace and tranquility of the lagoon and on the other, the surging ocean with crashing waves.
Related Post: A Complete Guide to the Garden Route Town of Wilderness
To get some of the most fantastic views in all of the Garden Route, go to the East Head View Point to walk along the edge of the cliff from lagoon to ocean side. The views of the lagoon are pretty, but it is the views out across the ocean that really got me.
From here you can see why it takes an expert to sail through this passage, rough is an understatement! Below you is Coney Glen beach, lovely for a picnic and a popular location for sundowners. It is also a great place to spot dolphins and whales from, the latter of which we were lucky enough to see.
Believe it or not for such a fantastic location, to my knowledge you only have two dining options up here. East Head Café is at the foot of the cliff more on the lagoon side, which serves the best breakfast in Knysna.
The other is Head Over Hills, a luxury boutique hotel perched right on the edge of the ocean side of the cliff. Not only is the food excellent here, but their small restaurant opens up over the ocean; the location just doesn’t get better.
There is a big con going on in Knysna that the Western Head is inferior to the Eastern one and is all but inaccessible, except for by guided tour to the Featherbed Private Nature Reserve there. I believed them on my first trip to Knysna.
On my second, after noticing a road with more traffic than should be coming in and out of a nature reserve, I finally got a waitress to admit to me that there was something else over there.
The following morning I drove over and found out that not only does the other side of the Western Head lie home to what I think is the best beach in Knysna, if not the entire Garden Route, but there are some absolutely spectacular views (not to be too controversial, but I think they rival those of The Heads themselves), a butterfly reserve and two sleepy communities in Belvidere and Brenton.
Getting to the Western Head by Car
If you’ve spent any time on Thesen or Leisure Islands, the Western Head looks really close and it is, if you take a boat and then you want to climb to the top! You need to drive round; take the N2 west out of Knysna and immediately after you have crossed the bridge over the lagoon and leave the town, take a right, signposted “Seven Passes”. Immediately take another right so you drive under the bridge you just drove over and then you just follow the road until is stops at Brenton Beach.
The first town you pass is Belvidere, a hamlet sized suburb that wouldn’t look out of place in the UK. There is a mixture of locals and holiday rentals here, with the only amenities being The Bell Tavern (the smallest pub in Knysna) and the Belvidere Manor Hotel, which has a restaurant named Caroline’s Bistro.
Continue driving up the cliff and as you start to bear left, you will see Margaret’s Point with some amazing views over Knysna and the lagoon. You can pull into the lay-by and there are picnic benches to take it all in.
When you reach the apex of the cliff, there is a second smaller viewpoint, this time on the right hand side of the road with views over Brenton Beach below and far out over the ocean. Not a bad place for whale watching either!
Brenton Blue Butterfly Reserve
Further east along the cliff as you reach the final town of Brenton is the Butterfly Reserve. The Brenton Butterfly is one of the rarest is the world and only flies in this five acre space (there are no nets or fences, that is just how big their ideal habitat is) in November and February.
While there are no barriers preventing you from entering the reserve, you are not allowed entry unless by guided tour. Tours are run twice a day with a maximum of four people per tour. They are also only run when the butterflies are active (November and February) and if the weather conditions are mild.
Tour Bookings: call Dr Edge on +27 44 381 0014 between the hours of 8:00am and 5:00pm, Monday to Friday.
A bit livelier than Belvidere (to be fair, it would hard to get more laid back!), the main draw here is the beach, which when you see it, is not hard to see why. This was my favourite beach on all of the Garden Route (yes, including Wilderness beach); it has the perfect mix of fine white sand, clear seas (with almost no rocks and zero seaweed), dolphins frequently frolicking in the shallows and a 7km curved stretch that is perfect for beach walking (one of my favourite holiday activities).
All in all, complete bliss on a plate. There are lots of holiday rentals here, some with absolutely killer views, as well as one resort hotel, Brenton Haven, the closest accommodation to the main beach. So close in fact, that we regularly stopped in the on site café for some ice cold smoothies on the shaded deck overlooking the ocean.
There are a couple of other places to eat here, but other than that, there are surprisingly few things to do in Brenton-on-Sea given the amount of accommodation that is here. To be fair though, when the beach is that good, I’m not sure they need it.
Featherbed Nature Reserve
A privately owned nature reserve, Featherbed is one of the most popular Knysna attractions. The best way to get there is by tour as visitor numbers are heavily restricted and you need to be accompanied by a registered guide.
Side Note: A year after I went, the entire reserve was destroyed in the Garden Route fires that destroyed much of the ecosystems along the coastline. The area is still recovering, but tours are running again. While I haven’t been back since, members of my family have and said that the walk has been cut short and isn’t quite as good as it once was, but still a worthwhile trip.
You will take a ferry from the Knysna Waterfront across the lagoon while learning the history and the biodiversity of the area, all while laughing a lot; I remember the woman on the other end of the speaker systems was extremely entertaining!
On the other side you are taken to the top of the cliff by what as I can only describe as some kind of funicular crossed with a tractor that honestly feels like it is going to break down before it gets to the top (more entertainment though).
From there you take a beautiful walk along the cliff, before heading down and around the coastal path taking in caves and beach on your way (about a 2.5km walk). There are quite a lot of steps so be prepared! If you don’t fancy the walk or “accidentally” only packed your heels, that dodgy contraption can take you back down the hill again.
At the end of the walk is a covered area under the milkwood trees where you can enjoy a buffet lunch. I am not usually a buffet fan as more often than not I find them to have below average food, but this one was bloody excellent. So good in fact that I even had a second plate while enjoying the views back across the lagoon (you won’t get bored of these views!).
Rather controversially, I am not sold on this area and personally much prefer Thesen Island. Contrary to popular belief, there aren’t many things to do on Knysna Waterfront; there is a small outdoor shopping mall, a cluster of restaurants and bars and the marina, which is also the departure point of most water based tours that take place on the Knysna Lagoon.
It is as close to “bustling” as anywhere in Knysna will get, so if you prefer your evenings on the livelier side, this is the place to be. I will warn you though, nightlife in Knysna is most definitely on the tame side, this is not a party destination!
The shops are ok, mostly geared towards tourist souvenirs with a higher end jewellery store thrown in. The views across the lagoon are superb, particularly if you are lucky enough to catch the sunset behind the Western Head.
The restaurants line the marina over two levels; you can read my thoughts on where to eat on Knysna Waterfront here (there is one standout), but for the most part there wasn’t a huge amount of differentiation between them in my opinion.
Top Tip: Head across the road from the Waterfront to sample some of the best (and cheapest) seafood in Knysna at Freshline Fisheries.
Hiking in Knysna
Visiting the Garden Route will cajole even the most dedicated coach potato to take to wandering among nature, so it’s not surprising that hiking is one of the most popular activities to do in Knysna. I quite like walking, even when it’s cold and rainy in England, so carved out time on most days to do the same in South Africa, albeit in the sunshine!
All of these Knysna hiking trails require you to have a permit as the areas are managed by South Africa National Parks (SANParks). They are obtainable from the entrance for a small fee, usually for around R20 per person.
Always bring your own water, getting thirsty in this heat is at best uncomfortable and and worst, dangerous.
Jubilee Creek Short Walk
An easy Knysna walking trail covering 3.6km in the shaded forest with lots of nice places for picnics alongside the stream. Bring your swimsuit as there is a swimming hole at the end to cool off in!
Directions: see here for coordinates and directions from Knysna
This more challenging circular hike is actually 20km or so outside of Knysna towards Plettenberg Bay. There are two versions that you can do, the full 9km or a shorter 4km version. There are lots of downhill and uphill climbs here, so be prepared. It’s a beautiful trail starting at the top of a waterfall, through the forest and out along the coastline. Take a picnic and enjoy it by the waterfall on your return.
Directions: see here for coordinates and directions from Knysna
Goukamma Nature Reserve
If you pick just one Knysna hiking trail , I would recommend you make it this one. Located on the road towards towards Sedgfield, this area is both a World Heritage Site and a Marine Protected Area. There is coastal and forest fynbos with lots of opportunity to spot birds and wildlife, both on land and at sea. This area also includes two of the best beaches in Knysna.
There are six trails ranging from 4km to 15km in distance. The most popular one is the Blombos trail, but I also like the look of the Bushpig trail which starts with a boat ride across the river! These hikes are more challenging that Jubilee, but easier than Kranshoek.
Directions: see here for coordinates and directions from Knysna
Best Time to Visit Knysna
Their seasons run the exact opposite to ours in the Northern Hemisphere, so our summer is their winter etc. Prices are at their highest through December to mid January when many South Africans are on their summer breaks. They also peak again at the end of June / beginning of July when the eternally popular Knysna Oyster Festival is held.
Personally I would try and go for their summer (although I do love the sound of the Oyster Festival) but outside of their peak times, if you can do October/November then you will get some warmth but still get a decent chance to spot some of the whales migrating past.
Final Thoughts: What to Do in Knysna
A town well worth visiting on your Garden Route road trip, there are endless fun things to do in Knysna. The challenge is there is never enough time, so be strategic, pick your favourites and whatever you do, make sure you leave some time to grab a drink and some seafood and watch the sun go down, it may just be your favourite moment of the trip.
– View & book accommodation in Knysna here.
– Check flight routes and prices with Skyscanner. You can fly into Plettenberg Bay airport from both Cape Town and Johannesburg, although the flights are fairly sporadic. George Airport (an hour’s drive) operates more flights from more destinations.
– From the UK, British Airways fly from London Heathrow to Cape Town and Durban (three times a week to each) and Johannesburg (twice every day).
– Click here to buy your Lonely Planet Guide for South Africa.