Drenched in natural beauty, the Western Cape province burrows enticingly around its capital, Cape Town, which sits in one of the world’s most alluring settings, between mountains and the sea. This incredibly photogenic province claims two of South Africa’s iconic landmarks: Table Mountain and Cape Point, as well as the southernmost point of the African continent, Cape Agulhas, where the mighty Indian and Atlantic Oceans meet. Whales swim in the cool, clear waters along the coast; penguins waddle along white-sand beaches; and tourists can take hiking trails carved into rugged rocks above the pounding sea. From Cape Town, the hinterland waves to farmland and charming Cape Dutch towns. Further inland, the stark, semi-desert landscapes of the Great Karoo and surrounding parks provide the perfect counterpoint to the lush coast. Here, visitors can photograph twisted red-orange rock formations; seas of colorful wildflowers; and seemingly endless fields of fynbos, the prolific native scrub. Travelers can explore part of the Western Cape’s coastline via the scenic Garden Route.
1 Table Mountain, Cape Town
No self-respecting tourist should leave Cape Town without taking in a picture of Table Mountain, one of the most photographed landmarks in South Africa. Rising 1,087 meters above the city center, this iconic flat-topped landmark beckons locals and visitors alike atop its panoramic plateau, breathing in the magnificence of this enchanting city. The mountain is the crown jewel of thick sandstone and shale Table Mountain National Park, which protects an incredible diversity of plants and animals. The best time to climb Table Mountain is when the top is clear of the cloud layer, the ‘tablecloth’, which often forms a fluffy duvet over the top of the mountain. Choose the right timing and lucky visitors can enjoy spectacular views of Cape Town and the entire Cape Peninsula from the top. The easiest way to climb this famous landmark is to hop aboard the revolving cable car that operates daily except in high winds. Once at the top, viewers can take three short nature walks or relax on the deck in the café and gaze at the view. Energetic climbers who want to climb the mountain on foot can choose from more than 350 routes for different levels.
To photograph the mountain itself, rather than the view from the top, hike or drive up the neighboring mountain at Signal Hill or Lion’s Head – both offer fantastic vantage points. In a beautiful setting on the eastern slopes of Table Mountain, Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens belongs to the Cape Floristic Region UNESCO World Heritage Site and is another must-see in Cape Town.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Cape Town
2 Robberg Nature Reserve, Plettenberg Bay
About eight kilometers from the popular coastal town of Plettenberg Bay, Robberg Nature Reserve is one of the top attractions on the famous Garden Route, an approximately 200-kilometer scenic drive stretching from Mossel Bay, in the Western Cape, to the Storms River, on the Eastern Cape. This beautiful reserve is located on a four-kilometer peninsula at the foot of Seal Mountain, where some of the rocks date back millennia. Hikers will be in heaven here. Breathtaking trails of varying degrees of difficulty run through the peninsula, but the queen of them all is the ten-kilometer walk around the point past rugged sea cliffs and past beautiful beaches. Birdlife is prolific – especially waterfowl, some of which breed here. Seals bask on the beach and splash in the sea, and whales and dolphins swim along the shore in season. Also keep an eye out for great white sharks. The visitor center in the car park provides information on the local flora and fauna.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Plettenberg Bay
3 Editor’s Pick Boulders Penguin Colony
A must-see for nature lovers is the Boulders Penguin Colony with three beautiful beaches where these charismatic creatures waddle along the clean white sand. In Simon’s Town , about an hour’s drive from Cape Town, the beaches are home to a breeding colony of over 2,000 endangered African penguins. In addition to seeing the penguins up close, visitors can paddle in the clear, calm waters. Huge granite boulders protect the bay from wind and currents making this a fantastic swimming spot for children. A short walk from here, Foxy Beach has a boardwalk that skirts the main penguin viewing sites. The beaches are part of the Table Mountain National Park Marine Protected Area, and the park charges a daily savings fee.
Official Site: https://www.sanparks.org/parks/table_mountain/tourism/attractions.php
4 Cape Point
About 60 kilometers from Cape Town, Cape Point is one of the most popular day trips from the city. Not only is this the most southwestern point of the African continent, it is also part of the Cape Flower Region, a UNESCO World Heritage Site with one of the richest areas of flora on earth. Birdlife is also prolific with over 250 species. The view from the Cape Point Lighthouse is spectacular – visitors can climb the stairs, or better yet, the Flying Dutchman Funicularto the top.Other highlights here include exploring the nature trails, whale watching and wildlife spotting – look for Cape zebra and eland and watch out for the troops of cheeky baboons. Traveling to this far-flung strip of land can be as beautiful as the site itself. The drive along the Cape Peninsula passes through pretty beach towns and the best penguin viewing on the beautiful beaches of Boulders Bay . On the return journey, travelers can wind along steep cliffs on Chapman’s Peak Drive and enjoy amazing sunsets along the way.
5 Karoo National Park
Just outside the town of Beaufort West , Karoo National Park is a land of haunting beauty, where the flat-topped peaks of the Nuweveld Mountains rise above vast red-earth semi-desert landscapes dotted with green and gold. Established in 1979, the park is part of the Great Karoo– The largest ecosystem in South Africa and is an important fossil site. It protects many endemic species, including buffalo and rhinoceroses, as well as reintroduced species such as Cape mountain zebras, springboks, kudus, lions and brown hyenas. Oryx and klipspringer are a common sight here and the bat bat is perfectly suited to the dry conditions. Birders are also rewarded with the chance to see one of the breeding pairs of the rare Verreaux’s Eagle, as well as an amazing diversity of smaller species. Park highlights include Klipspringer Pass , the breathtaking panorama of Rooivalle View Point , and the Fossil Trail. For more information about the park, visit the fascinating details Ou Schuur Interpretive Centre . Karoo National Park is a popular stopover on the drive from Cape Town to Johannesburg, offering visitors comfortable Cape Dutch-style cottages. Note that 4WD vehicles are required for some of the tracks. Beaufort West, the gateway to the Karoo, is the birthplace of renowned heart surgeon Christiaan Barnard. Many awards and honors won by Barnard are displayed in the town’s museum, which stands near the small vicarage where he lived as a child.
Official Site: https://www.sanparks.org/parks/karoo/
Elegant Stellenbosch, the second oldest European settlement on the Cape, offers day-trippers from Cape Town a peaceful change of pace from the urban bustle. Vine-cloaked fields, ancient oaks and cobbled streets greet visitors, and charming Cape Dutch-style buildings give the air of a bygone era. Stellenbosch is also known for its fertile soils and fresh produce, which visitors can sample at an array of gourmet restaurants and cafes. Stellenbosch University is the oldest and most celebrated university in South Africa, and its students imbue the city with a vibrant atmosphere. Stop at the University Botanic Gardensto see native succulents, orchids and cycads, as well as the welwitschias, which are common in the deserts of Namibia. Also worth seeing is the Village Museum, a group of four houses dating from 1709 to 1850, which have been carefully restored and decorated in their original style, and the Rupert Museum focusing on South African art. Not far from the city, the Jonkershoek Nature Reserve has fantastic hiking and biking trails. In the region, visitors can feast on more gastronomic delights and breathtaking rural scenery in the nearby towns of Paarl and Franschhoek .
7 De Wildflowers and Birds of West Coast National Park
West Coast National Park is about a 90 minute drive from Cape Town and is a birdwatcher’s paradise. Established in 1985, this coastal park includes the Langebaan Lagoon and four small offshore islands. The park is home to over 250 bird species and many Arctic migrants in winter. Among the numerous species are cormorants, gulls, little sandpipers, curlew sandpipers, plovers, gannets, flamingos and the black-footed penguin. Wildlife is also abundant, although this is not a park to see Africa’s Big 5. Among the mammals are bontebok, eland, springbok, kudu and blue wildebeest. A tarmac road goes around the lagoon with bird hides and viewing platforms. In the old farm of Geelbek, on the south side of the lagoon, an information center serves as the starting point for several nature trails. Tourists can also embark on a birdwatching cruise on the lagoon. Besides birdwatching, popular activities here include hiking and biking the nature trails, kayaking on the lagoon and photographing the kaleidoscopic wildflowers that blanket the barren landscape here between August and September.
Official Site: https://www.sanparks.org/parks/west_coast/
8 Knysna Heads, The Garden Route
The beautiful Knysna Heads are one of the most popular attractions along the Garden Route, the scenic 200-plus-kilometer drive from Mossel Bay, in the Western Cape, to the Storms River, in the Eastern Cape. These two gigantic crags loom over a shimmering lagoon and offer plenty of panoramic views of the swooping surf below and the rugged and rocky coast. Hiking trails run through the heads and tour boats provide a spectacular vantage point from the sea. Visitors can also linger in one of the cafes in the area and dine with a view. Knysna is also famous for its succulent oysters, which the town celebrates at its annual oyster festival held in late June or early July.
9 Hermanus: whale watching and water sports
About 120 kilometers east of Cape Town, Hermanus is a popular holiday resort and one of the best places in the world to see whales close to shore. From July to November, large numbers of southern right whales swim along the coast here, and the town celebrates these gentle giants every September at the annual Whale Festival. Besides this amazing wildlife spectacle, the top tourist attractions here are the beautiful sandy beaches to the east of the town and the excellent water sports facilities. Thanks to some record catches, the coastal waters attract large numbers of fishermen. The heart of the town around the harbor is quite small and easy to explore on foot with restored fishermen’s houses now occupied by restaurants and shops. Other highlights include the 12-kilometre Cliff Path and the delightfully bird-rich Fernkloof Nature Reserve , just outside the town, with webbed footpaths passing through native fynbos and proteas. Book well in advance in Hermanus during peak season, December to January, when the population doubles.
About two hours from here, the De Hoop Nature Reserve encompasses a picturesque stretch of coast and its beautiful hinterland with 1400 species of plants, some extremely rare, and 63 species of mammals (50 of them on land and 13 in the sea).
10 Cederberg Wilderness Area
Cederberg Wilderness Area
About 300 kilometers north of Cape Town, the rugged Cederberg Wilderness Area is a photographer’s guarantee with its wide-open views and bizarre rock formations that turn red with iron oxides. The Cedarberg is also famous for its wooded gorges and caves decorated with Bushman paintings, as well as the unique flora, such as the white snow protea, found only in this area. Named for the once abundant cedars that grew here, the Cederberg is a series of hills stretching for some 100 kilometers between Clanwilliam to the north and Ceres to the south, reaching its highest point in the Sneeuberg(2,028 meters). Hiking trails crisscross the area and, unsurprisingly, rock climbing is also popular. The best time to visit the Cederberg is between September and April – especially September and October when the wildflowers are in bloom.
In the fertile valley of the Olifants River, the town of Clanwilliam makes a great base for visiting the Cederberg Wilderness Area, with its Cape Dutch-style buildings, Rooibos Tea House, and the pretty Ramskop Nature Reserve , which glows with a blaze of colorful wildflowers in August and September. North of Clanwilliam a scenic road winds up to Pakhuis Pass with panoramic views. Another worthwhile journey, 20 miles from Clanwilliam, is the pretty Biedouw Valley with bizarre rock formations and beautiful spring flowers. Also stop at the quaint town of Wupperthal with its whitewashed thatched cottage.
11 Cape Agulhas
About 220 kilometers from Cape Town, Cape Agulhas is the southernmost point of the Republic of South Africa as well as the African continent itself. This is where the Atlantic and Indian oceans meet, a fact rather unpleasantly announced on a small cobalt blue sign. While not as scenic as the dramatic Cape Point coastline (South Africa’s most southwestern point), this is a place for travelers to tick off their bucket list, breathe in the fresh sea air on the gently sloping rocky beaches and snap a photo next to the sign. Cape Agulhas means ‘Cape of Needles’, possibly referring to the fact that compass needles of the early Portuguese navigators point north here; others think the name refers to the sharp reefs off the coast. The lighthouse, now a museum, was built in 1848 and is the second oldest in South Africa. A radio beacon warns ships cruising the Cape, though visitors will see the rusted hulls of ships that succumbed to frequent, rogue waves. The sea in this area is one of the most productive fishing grounds in the world.
Matjiesfontein, in the Little Karoo, halfway between Cape Town and Beaufort West, is a quirky little town that feels like it’s frozen in time. In 1880, a Scotsman James Logan settled here and founded a spa after the dry air cured his chronic lung disease. The spa was a huge success, and in the late 19th century it attracted the rich and famous, including the Sultan of Zanzibar and Lord Randolph Churchill (Winston Churchill’s father). Matjiesfontein was declared a National Monument in 1975, and today it preserves many Victorian-era buildings, including the elegant Lord Milner Hotel. Employees dressed in period costume add to the historical feel. Matjiesfontein is popular with South Africans for weekend breaks, as well as international travelers who stop here on train journeys from the interior to Cape Town.