Garden Route Road Trip itinerary
Driving South Africa’s Garden Route is one of the best ways to experience the natural beauty of that incredible country. There are many spots to visit on this road trip, so planning your Garden Route itinerary can be a bit daunting if you don’t know where to begin.
In size, the Garden Route actually isn’t very big – the Garden Route is only 300km or 190 miles long. Despite its size, this area has so much to offer and is bursting full with incredible beaches, hikes, and adventures ready to be explored. One of the main reasons we chose to visit South Africa was for the nature and hiking that it has to offer, and the Garden Route certainly did not disappoint.
If you’re also interested in hiking the Garden Route, I’ve got you covered with 4 hikes below. In this post you’ll find the Garden Route highlights you shouldn’t miss, so you know where you should stop on the Garden Route. If you’re looking for more amazing reasons to visit South Africa, don’t miss this post on 50 reasons to visit South Africa.
I didn’t mention any here since we didn’t visit them (we had just come from a safari), but there are dozens of game reserves and animal experiences you can ALSO enjoy along the Garden Route if you don’t plan on doing a full-fledged safari in Kruger Park. What is missing from my list, is Addo Elephant Park. As mentioned, we didn’t visit since we had just seen dozens of elephants in the wild in Kruger, but consider adding it on to your Garden Route Itinerary to complement the stops below.
Below I’ve provided my Garden Route itinerary for a 7 day trip, starting from Port Elizabeth and ending in Oudtshoorn before continuing on to Stellenbosch.
Looking for more tips on South Africa? Don’t miss these posts:
- How to go wine tasting in Stellenbosch and Franschoek
- 10 things to do in Cape Town
- Viva Safaris: Kruger Park Safari Review
7 Day Garden Route Itinerary
Day 1: Port Elizabeth
We kicked off our Garden Route tour by flying into Port Elizabeth from Jo’burg after our 6 day Kruger Park Safari. After an early morning flight to Port Elizabeth (around 1.5 hours flying time), we arrived to the small airport and picked up our rental car.
Pro tip: you can pick up and drop off your rental car to different locations in South Africa for a small fee. Just make sure you fill this in when you rent your car online.
Port Elizabeth is a great jumping off point for your Garden Route itinerary not due to the beauty of the city… but because it is a great location to get a history lesson by taking a township tour.
Port Elizabeth Township Tour
We joined a township tour with Calabash Tours. Normally I’m not into this type of tourism, but I read great reviews of township tours on other blogs, and Calabash was recommended by Lonely Planet, so I figured it must be good. The township tour with Calabash started with a tour of the city and an explanation of the history of apartheid in Port Elizabeth. The effects of apartheid are still clearly seen in Port Elizabeth, and are most visible when you enter the actual townships.
Your guide will then drive you to the townships where it is unbelievable to see the stark differences between standards of living. On one side of the street you may have a township of shanty houses built on dirt, surrounded by garbage with no running water or electricity. On the other side of the street, you might find suburban style homes fenced off with a car in the driveway. Visiting a township is an eye-opening experience, and I would argue is a must-do when you are in South Africa. Our guide from Calabash was very knowledgeable and was a township local.
Next we visited an elementary school where the principal proudly told us it had been 10 years since their last pupil died of malnutrition – this blew us away… we could barely imagine attending a school where children were dying from malnutrition. Needless to say, this trip really exposed us to life in the township and made us so thankful for the quality of life we take for granted. If you visit, you’ll get to know the local township’s school principal who is making incredible efforts to ensure the children in the community are receiving every chance for education. This was probably the most meaningful experience during our Garden Route itinerary.
Looking for more African adventures? Check out this guide to Namibia
Day 2: Jeffrey’s Bay
If you are a strong surfer or looking to take lessons Jeffrey’s Bay is the place for you. I booked 3 nights for us in Jeffrey’s Bay with the intention to surf every day, but alas, surfing was not in the cards for me there. The truth was, that in part of Jeffrey’s Bay it is very rocky to get out into the waves, and you stand a very good chance of getting cut up. In the other part of the bay, you have more opportunities for beginner surfers. For someone who’s (maybe) intermediate, I felt this wasn’t really the best location for me – Lombok is still my best option!
Even if you’re not a surfer, Jeffrey’s Bay (J-Bay) is a great jumping off point for both Port Elizabeth and the areas surrounding including Cape St. Francis. When you stop in J-Bay on your Garden Route itinerary there are a couple must-do’s:
Watch the surfers at Supertubes
J-Bay and it’s Supertubes are infamous surf spots where you can watch the amateurs or even pro’s work their magic in the waves. Each year the World Surf League hosts a surf competition in J-Bay, making it a surf mecca. This is also the place where the infamous shark attack took place during the surf competition in 2015, and has witnessed 7 non-fatal shark attacks since the 1980s. So, for me that was also reason enough just to watch the surfers, not to get into the water myself.
If you’re inspired by all the surfing, be sure to check out one of the MANY surf shops in J-Bay. There are tons of outlets, from RVCA to Quiksilver and everything in between. Just try not to blow your wallet on your surf gear.
Where to eat in Jeffrey’s Bay
Despite being a fairly small town, J-Bay has some great places to eat and drink.
For breakfast or lunch try:
InFood Bakery & Deli: here you’ll find some of the best coffee in town and delicious eats. Be sure not to get there too late since it closes quite early in the afternoon. InFood is conveniently located right next to many surf shops as well, so be sure to combine it with some shopping
J-Bay Bru Co: I feel like no blog post of mine would be complete without a microbrewery mentioned (this is just the first one in this post!), and this Garden Route Itinerary is no exception. J-Bay Bru Co was one of our favorite places in Jeffrey’s Bay, both for breakfast and for lunch. They have delish avocado toast (hello Millennials!) , shakes, burgers, pizzas, you name it! The other selling point for me was the adorable doggie on their logo, but I’m very easily swayed by cute dogs 🙂
Nina’s Real Food: Nina’s has an extensive menu which pleases anyone who comes through the door, from Poke Bowls to pies. Just check it out
Kitchen Windows: The name refers to the surf spot, FYI. Come here for a bit more of a romantic evening, and be sure to order fish – Jeffrey’s Bay is one of the best fishing areas in South Africa.
Visit Cape St. Francis
Since we had a bit of extra time in J-Bay because we weren’t surfing after all, we took a day trip to beautiful Cape St. Francis, just 25 minutes away, to go on a coastal walk. Cape St Francis is quite beautiful and is a great place to get out and stretch your legs. Cape St Francis offers several hiking trails you can choose from.
If you’re visiting during whale season (June-November), you’ll likely see some whales in the distance breaching. We even caught a glimpse of whales in late-November when we visited.
After taking a stroll along the coast, head to the town of Cape St. Francis and drive through this quaint town where all houses are painted white.
For lunch, head to St. Francis Brewing company, for lunch and a brew before heading out and continuing your Garden Route itinerary.
Day 3: Visit Tsitsikamma National Park
No Garden Route Itinerary is complete without a trip to beautiful Tsitsikamma National Park. We had a bit of bad luck and visited on a rainy day, so didn’t get to take part in all that this area has to offer, but there is a TON to do here.
We did much of the Waterfall trail hike, but unfortunately we never reached the waterfall! This trek requires that you clamber over a lot of somewhat sharp and slippery rocks, and with the rain, we didn’t dare go to far for fear of being a bit stuck in the rain on these rocks. Regardless, the area is beautiful in any weather and the hike has beautiful views of the coastline and water. I should mention, the Waterfall trail hike is a pretty difficult hike, as it requires scrambling over rocks. It can also be tough to find your way. You need to follow the little yellow footprints which are painted on rocks, so please watch out for this so you won’t get lost along the way!
If the weather would have been better, I would have loved to take a kayaking tour up Storms River mouth and canyon. This is a great way to see the canyon and get some exercise while on the water!
Be sure to make your way across Tsitsikamma’s suspension bridges and walk the Mouth Trail. This is the busiest route in Tsitsikamma as it is the easiest, but you can make it a lot more challenging for yourself if you cross all the suspension bridges and make your way to the lookout point for nearly 360 degree views from the plateau.
If I go back, I would love to do the Otter Trail, a 5 day, 4 night trek along the coast line of 45km in total.
For the thrill seekers, Tsitsikamma is also very close to Bloukrans Bungy, the world’s highest commercial bungy jump. I’ve already jumped out of a plane once in my life, so I’m done with these types of activities, but I dare you to try it!
Day 4: Plettenberg Bay
Plettenberg Bay, or Plett as the locals call it, was one of my favorite places during our Garden Route trip. It’s an easy drive from Tsitsikamma National Park, so consider driving here straightaway after your visit – it takes about an hour and 20 minutes driving.
Hiking in Plettenberg Bay
Plett is a vacation spot for many South Africans – it’s a lovely community with beautiful homes and a huge sweeping beach front. The best part of visiting Plett though, is the hike around Robberg Peninsula. Robberg is a must-do on your Garden Route Itinerary and is an exhilarating and beautiful hike. I strongly recommend hiking the entire 9km around the peninsula to really take in the entire experience, but there are shorter routes as well. Hiking in South Africa is superb in general, and the Robberg Peninsula is no exception.
Where to stay in Plettenberg Bay
During our stay in Plettenberg we stayed just a few minutes walk from the beach at Sea Breeze Beach House, which is a short drive from both the Robberg Peninsula and from the center of the town where you’ll find some great restaurants. Sea Breeze Beach House was one of our favorite accommodations from our 3 weeks in South Africa. There are tons of cute details in the hotel (I loved the door pulls in the shape of animal heads… but hey, I’d just come from safari so maybe I was a bit biased!), the towels are fluffy, the beds are comfortable and the breakfast is delicious! Traveling with a family and looking for more great places to stay in South Africa for families? Then don’t miss this post on the best child friendly hotels in South Africa.
Day 5: Knysna
We actually didn’t spend a separate night in Knysna, but drove to Knysna from Plettenberg Bay. Most places along the Garden Route are a fairly short drive from each other, so it is easy to stay in one place for several nights and use it as a jumping off point for other locations – Plettenberg Bay is actually perfect for this.
We knew Knysna was a must visit but wasn’t likely one of the places we wanted to stay for a night, so we just spent a day visiting this beautiful beach town. Of the two South Africans I know from work, both told me their families have beach houses in Knysna (#jealous). It is a beautiful, upscale town that is really worth a visit.
If you visit Knysna, the one thing you need to make sure you do is visit the Knysna Heads. From the Knysna Heads you get breathtaking views of the town, sea and cliffs surrounding the area. Visiting the Knysna Heads is very easy and also a site to see – to get there you’ll drive through a neighborhood of beautiful beach houses perched on the heads. At the top, park your car (there will be a parking attendant), then be sure to visit all the look out points to take in the views.
After visiting the Knysna Heads, be sure to check out Coney Glen Beach below. Somehow, when we visited the beach was almost entirely empty, which really allowed us to take in the scenery. If you have time, Coney Glen Beach can be a perfect place to have a picnic or just sunbathe. Or… if you’re like me, take a dozen pictures of yourself in this beautiful landscape.
For lunch afterward, head to East Head Cafe, grab a spot on their patio overlooking the water, and enjoy life.
Day 6: Wilderness
Before we went here, I just loved the name: Wilderness. Despite its name, in reality it’s not that wild, but it is a beautiful place to stay for a night or two. There was something about Wilderness that gave me distinctly Californian beach town vibes… I’m not sure what it was, but it reminded me a lot of being home, so naturally, I liked it.
Hiking in Wilderness
Wilderness is pretty small, but amazingly has its own national park. The opportunity to hike here was another reason for us to pay a visit to Wilderness. In Wilderness we did the Half-collared and Giant King Fisher Trail which is a 7km loop that will take you about 3 hours. You’ll walk along the river, and cross the river to the other side and keep following until you reach waterfalls where you can picnic or just chill out in the sun on the huge boulders in front of the waterfalls. The hike is relatively easy – there are no steep ascents – so its good for all ages.
Where to stay in Wilderness
During our stay in Wilderness we shacked up at Tequila Moon, a very comfortable place to stay complete with views over the Wilderness lagoon and a huge bathtub. Tequila Moon is a short drive from the center of Wilderness (less than 10 minutes), and also a very short drive to the hike in Wilderness National Park.
Day 7: Oudtshoorn
From Wilderness is typically where most Garden Route Itineraries diverge – some choose to continue along the coast to Gansbaai and up to Cape Town – this is a good option if you are interested in cage diving with sharks. Others, like us, decide to head into Oudtshoorn and into the Klein Karoo desert. I would argue that after 6 days of coastal time, the end of your trip is a great opportunity to discover what life is like inland – and it is different.
We visited Oudtshoorn for one main reason – ostriches. Oudtshoorn the ostrich capital of the world. I bet you didn’t know that there even was an ostrich capital, right? Admittedly, Oudtshoorn has way more to offer than just ostriches, and if we would visit again I’d love to spend a few extra days in the Klein Karoo. Why? I find the colors and the landscape here incredible. The earth has a rich red/orange color, the landscape is dotted with pops of green shrubbery, and in the distance purple mountains loom large. As you drive through this landscape you see the world’s biggest birds loping in the distance. It really feels other worldly in the Klein Karoo.
Back when no respectable lady would wear a hat without an ostrich feather, and when boas were still in style, ostrich breeding had its heyday in South Africa. Now that ostrich feathers are decidedly out of style, ostriches are still bred for their meat, and their feathers are used for souvenirs or more practical purposes like feather dusters.
Visit Highgate Ostrich Farm
Once in Oudtshoorn we decided to visit the Highgate Ostrich Farm. Visiting an ostrich farm in South Africa is a must-do in my humble opinion. There are many places where you can see ostriches, but we chose Highgate because they still hold ostrich races, and it seemed like a place where the animals were treated ethically. At Highgate you can take the 1hr 20 minute tour which ends with a chance to ride the ostriches and a traditional ostrich race. I didn’t ride an ostrich, and I don’t regret it! They are a lot bigger in real life than you might think and I was a bit too intimidated to mount one.
During your tour at Highgate you’ll get to feed the ostriches, learn how they are bred, and if you’re lucky, see some adorable baby ostriches. So, go forth, and visit an ostrich farm in Oudtshoorn!
Where to stay in Oudtshoorn
For our night in Oudtshoorn we stayed at Miles B&B Guesthouse, run by a local family. The stay was very comfortable, and they even arranged for us to be picked up and dropped off for our dinner reservation. Miles B&B Guesthouse is cute and comfortable, and in the morning you’ll get breakfast made for you by a very cute elderly couple.
From Oudtshoorn, continue your trip through South Africa by driving to the winelands of Stellenbosch and Franschoek, approximately a 4.5 hour drive.
Is it safe to self drive the Garden Route?
Yes, we found it to be safe, but in South Africa you should always be cautious. We never left anything in our car – not even our suitcases. We also always drove during the day. When you park your car, be sure to park it near other cars, or have a parking attendant watch it (plenty of people will offer to look after it for a small fee). Keep your wits about you, don’t flash anything of value, and you’ll most likely stay safe on the Garden Route.
Did this post help you plan your Garden Route itinerary? Let me know in the comments below!
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Gabby is a native (Northern) Californian who spent the majority of her 20’s living the expat life in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, exploring Europe and beyond. 27 countries later, she’s relocated back to her home base in California where she explores her passions for the travel and the outdoors.