Knysna is one of my favourite places in the world. The Garden route holds a special place in my heart and is a place that I will continue to visit forever. I grew up in Cape Town – well for my formative, primary school years and we used to holiday in the Garden route at least once a year. When I was 12 we moved to Pretoria but we visited Cape Town often and still took our annual Garden Route trip. We have stayed in and explored so many of the areas in this part of the country multiple times. And nothing quite lives up to the Knysna attractions.
The wonderful thing about the Garden route is that all areas are pretty close to each other. Whether you stay in Knysna, Wilderness, Plettenberg Bay or any of the other areas nearby – you can take day trips to the other places. Each area has something different to offer. Plett has the beaches, Wilderness has the forests, Knysna has the views and the lagoon. We often used to stay in an area known as Groot Brakrivier which is one of the less popular destinations but also has a lot to offer. No matter where we stay – we explore as much of the garden route as we can.
It’s very difficult to choose my favourite destination along the Garden route because I have such special memories from each of them. But, Knysna is definitely among my favourite. It’s a place like no other that will undoubtedly steal your heart. Taking family holidays in the area ever since I can remember, in fact, pretty much since I was born, our recent trip to Knysna was another one for the books and definitely worth a blog post.
The Garden Route pretty much runs from Mossel Bay in the West to Storms River in the East and spans a distance of just over 200km. Somewhere in between, you will find Knysna; a natural paradise of lush, indigenous forests, golden beaches, and tranquil lakes. Famed for many things – oysters, the Brenton blue, Knysna heads, and seahorses, it’s the forests and lagoon that are the heart and soul of this coastal town.
Sadly in mid-2017, the Garden Route area was struck with some uncontainable wildfires. One of the most hard hit areas was Knysna. The Garden Route fires destroyed a large part of Knysna and claimed the lives of many people – a very sad event! Tourism was hugely affected and the economy consequently took a hard hit. The good news is that now, a year later, they are well on their road to recovery. I haven’t taken a trip to Knysna since the fires so I can’t speak first hand, but the tourism department assures that everything is back to normal and running smoothly. By all accounts, the Knysna attractions have not been affects. Its forests, estuaries and friendly locals are as ready as ever to welcome visitors.
You absolutely need a car if you plan on exploring South Africa properly. It’s a big country and there’s no convenient public transport system like you would find in much of Europe. Sure, there are buses, trains, and taxi services but they don’t operate as efficiently or effectively. Ultimately you could take a roadtrip or you can fly into George airport or Plettenberg Bay airport and hire a car.
South Africa has four international airports; Cape Town (CPT), O.R. Tambo – Johannesburg (JNB), King Shaka – Durban (DUR) and Kruger Mpumalanga International airport (KMI). Cape Town international is the closest to Knysna. Since Knysna doesn’t have its own airport you would need to fly into either Plettenberg Bay (PBZ) or George (GRJ).
Plettenberg Bay airport is the smallest and has a limited number of scheduled flights to/from Johannesburg, Cape Town and Margate. George airport has more daily flights and is served by more airlines. Flights from Johannesburg and Durban will take just under 2 hours and flights from Cape Town will take under an hour.
If you are travelling from Mpumalanga or Durban it’s definitely recommended that you fly rather than drive. These cities are on the opposite side of the country and the drive could take as long as 20 hours.
Cape Town is the closest main city to the Garden Route area. If you’re coming from overseas, you could fly into Cape Town International airport, hire a car, spend a few days in Cape Town and then make a trip to Knysna. From the city, you head East using the N2 – it’s a scenic road trip that will take you around six hours.
Travelling from Johannesburg to Knysna is a lot longer. It’s a 12-hour journey – so be prepared. You will head South using the N1 and N9. Cape Town is definitely the better option for a road trip but a lot of people (especially locals) make the 12-hour journey from Johannesburg. You could always break the trip up by stopping over for a night in one of the halfway towns.
There are national bus services, like interscape, Baz Bus and Greyhound that travel from major cities to the Knysna area, which might work for you. However, keep in mind that you would need to hire a car once you’re in Knysna to get around.
Knysna attractions: What to see and do
Watch a sunset from Thesen Island
Thesen Island is a piece of heaven and one of the best places to catch a beautiful sunset. If you are not staying on the island you should at least stop by here to have a look. It is a marina development located in the Knysna estuary. It’s spread out over 90 hectares and consists of 19 man-made islands that are linked by 21 arched bridges and surrounded by 25 hectares of tidal waterways. Sound amazing? That’s because it is! The marina consists of 512 individual homes and 56 apartment units which are situated on their own island within the marina. All homes have been built in a colonial maritime architectural style to conform with Knysna’s vernacular architecture and its historical maritime and timber connections.
Linked by a bridge to the mainland, Thesen Island is within walking distance of the waterfront, yacht harbour, and Knysna town centre. But, if you stay on Thesen Island, you need not even leave. There are many bars, restaurants and shops on the island, offering guests more than enough activities to keep them busy. If you’re staying elsewhere on your trip to Knysna, stop by here to watch an epic Knysna sunset. Some of the most viby pubs and eateries can be found here. This could be called the heart of the Knysna attractions. Check out Tapas & Oysters and Sirocco, and don’t forget to find the perfect sunset view.
Have a sundowner or meal at Senza
Senza is one of my favourite restaurants in Knysna purely because of the setting. This is a pizzeria, seafood and cocktail bar overlooking the incredible and renowned Knysna Heads. The views here are breathtaking. The outside area is where you want to be – you can hear the waves crashing as you look out onto the ocean beside you.
We had my birthday dinner here on our recent trip to Knysna but the vibe at night is a little different to the day. This is definitely more of a brunch or sundowner spot. In the evening visitors prefer Knysna town and areas like Thesen Island, where there is more of a vibe. But, during late afternoon and early evening, Senza is the place to be.
Take a ferry trip across the lagoon to Knysna Heads
There are several lagoon cruises available from the Waterfront to the Knysna Heads. Truthfully it doesn’t matter which one you take – just to it. Whether it’s the sunset cruise, a luxury cruise on the catamaran yacht, or the three legs lagoon cruise which is a fun and adventurous cruise to the Heads, Otter Cove, and Island Rock, a trip to Knysna Heads is a prerequisite for first time visitors.
The Knysna Heads are notorious for having been the resting place for seamen and fishermen that tried to negotiate the unpredictable, powerful waterway in the past. Two dramatic sea cliffs guard the entrance to the lagoon from the surging ocean. The waters crash and surge through the passage between them which makes for some breathtaking views.
Visit the waterfront
A trip to Knysna is not complete without a visit to the famous Knysna Waterfront Quays. As one of the most popular shopping destinations in the region, it boasts a spectacular marina, a base for luxury yachts and many of the cruises that the Knysna attractions have to offer – chartering into the pristine Knysna lagoon.
This shoppers paradise also offers a wide variety of restaurants and fine dining establishments where you can sample some of the regions finest wine. You really can’t go wrong here with an incredible view and a viby atmosphere. It’s perfect for a superb meal or even just an evening sundowner.
On our recent trip we indulged in some sushi and cocktails at Dry Dock. This is a lagoon side restaurant that is situated on the water’s edge. Truth be told I’ve never been a big sushi fan but this place changed my mind. It was the best sushi that I’ve ever tasted and ever since I’ve really gotten into the whole sushi thing.
Do a Knysna forest walk or hiking trail
Knysna is a haven for the outdoor enthusiast and nature-lover. It offers many forest walks and hiking trails that are suitable for all fitness levels. Whether it’s a peaceful one-hour walk through the lush forests and valleys or a more strenuous full day hike through the dunes and mountains, experiencing the Knysna attractions wouldn’t be complete without exploring it’s lush scenery.
The Woodcutters trail offers a 3km (1.5 hours) or 9km (4 hours) hike where you will be surrounded by majestic mountains, 600-year-old Outeniqua Yellowwoods, and serene streams in the heart of the Knysna Indigenous Forest. If you looking for an incredible coastal walk then check out the Goukamma Nature Reserve. This is a 8km (4 hour) walk that starts by climbing through the dune forest and up to the top of the dunes for a phenomenal 360-degree view of the beach, Goukamma River, indigenous forest and George mountains. There are many other trails to check out too; including Natures Valley, The Elephant Walks, and Millwood Mines Circuit.
For a truly unique experience look into The Featherbed Nature Reserve. This is a private Nature Reserve that covers the whole of the Western Head of Knysna. It’s only accessible by ferry across the lagoon and promises an exquisite piece of paradise. If you happen to have or know someone who has a private boat, you can make your own way across to Featherbed.
Go for a swim in the lagoon at the beach of Milkwood collection
This is without a doubt my favourite place to swim in Knysna. While the Knysna attractions boast some beautiful beaches, most of them have quite rough seas and are not great for swimming. But there is not much that beats swimming in the lagoon. Knysna lagoon is an estuary and a water sport haven. Water skiing, wakeboarding and tubing on the lagoon are endless fun for people of all ages. Canoeing, kayaking and sailing are some of the favourites among visitors and fishing is also a popular activity. But, sometimes you just want to take a swim, right?
Close to the Knysna Heads you will find Milkwood collection – a tranquil resort located on the lagoon. The beachfront here is an ideal setting for sun tanning and swimming with incredible views. There’s a public parking area situated a few meters from the resort – used by daytime visitors of the Knysna Heads. If you park here and start making your way over to Milkwood, you will find a wooden pathway leading downhill towards the beach. Only a few steps down you will find yourself on the lagoon.
We spent some time here almost everyday on our most recent trip to Knysna. The water here is so warm and refreshing at the same time. There are also small dinghy boats docked here, but you can swim around them until you get out deep enough. The water depth here is quite shallow, depending on the tide. But, most of the time the boats have to be walked out into deeper waters.
Why a trip to Knysna is worth it
There are so many more things to do in Knysna, not to mention the surrounding areas. I haven’t even mentioned any of the numerous other activities like zip-lining in Tsitsikamma, bungee jumping in Bloukrans (which I did), the Robberg Nature Reserve in Plettenberg Bay, and the nature trails of the Wilderness. The best part is that you could do all of these as day trips when staying in Knysna.
I could go on forever about the Garden Route. You could easily spend a month here, but I know this is often not possible. You should try to spend at least a week here though. There is so much to see and do and if you’re anything like me, you won’t want to miss out on any of it. Once you experience the Knysna attractions once, you will definitely want to return! So take your time and it explore it properly.
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