People who live in Swellendam know just how much there is to do in the area, but those who think of it as a two-hour drive from Cape Town on their way to the Garden Route need a little encouragement to stop and explore. Here are 20 things to do in Swellendam; spend three days here and you’ll barely touch the surface.
Swellendam lies between the Langeberg Mountains and the Breede River about 200km east of Cape Town. The third oldest town in South Africa, it was declared the Western Cape’s Town of the Year 2020 by local TV programme Kwêla in March 2020. This is due in part to the friendliness of the locals and the attractiveness of the town, but also because of the diversity of things to do in the area. Here’s my pick of some of them.
1. Visit a museum
Over the road is the Old Gaol and Ambagswerf (trades yard). Two of the cells off the courtyard have been opened to the public, and the Ambagswerf around a water-mill exhibits tools used in the past by craftsmen like wainwrights, blacksmiths, coppersmiths and tanners.
Read my post about why to visit these museums
2. See one of the prettiest churches in the Cape
While you’re here, you’re very close to another gorgeous old building worth taking a short walk to see. Facing the church, look to your right and at the top of the road is Schoone Oordt. Built in Georgian style in 1853, it was Victorianised in the late 19th century. Today, it’s a beautiful guest house.
3. Bike around town
Swellendam is small and quiet enough to be a pleasurable place to ride a bike. Bring yours with you and visit some of the major attractions at your leisure, from museums to art and photo galleries, restaurants and the beautiful Dutch Reformed church.
4. Go for a hike in Marloth Nature Reserve
5. Visit the Bontebok National Park
6. Go shopping
For beautiful handmade soaps, creams and lotions pop in at the Rain shop at 274 Voortrek Street. Wild-harvested organic African oils like Kalahari melon, baobab and marula form the backbone of the products, giving them a natural, earthy scent. The shop is a feast for the eyes as well as the nose. Almost every product is moulded, woven, carved, poured, wrapped, filled and labelled by hand in an effort to provide employment that lifts people out of poverty. Fair Trade, Beauty without Cruelty and Reduce, Reuse and Recycle principles underpin everything, but you won’t care; you’ll just want to buy a piece of it to take home with you.
7. Visit a pottery
Show a genuine interest and he’s happy to chat and show you around, giving you a new appreciation for pottery as art, especially when he explains that it takes 18 hours to get the kiln to the required 1320oC. ‘Then we have to wait another two days for the kiln to cool down so we can see whether the work’s been successful or not,’ he says. Nerves of steel.
It’s a 100% home industry David’s been working at for 47 years, first in Joburg and from 1996 in Swellendam. He does everything himself, even mixing his own clay and making glazes, some of them in the old-fashioned Japanese way, from ash. Felicity does all the beautiful brush work.
8. Learn something new
Sign on for a course with the Swellendam Winter School and learn a new skill. Courses are grouped under categories, making it easier to find the ones you’re interested in: creative arts and design, nature and heritage, food and wine, home crafts and design, mind and body, and yoga retreats. The Winter School runs from May to August and courses may be one, two or five days in length. Think bread making, soap making, mind development, bird identification, organic gardening, hand printing and more. It’s a great chance to stay over in charming Swellendam accommodation and learn more about the town and its residents at the same time as stretching your brain.
9. Taste honey and see live bees
10. Visit a berry farm
There are two Swellendam berry farms where you can pick your own blackberries, youngberries and blueberries in season (November to January). At The Berry Farm you can also walk in a berry maze or enchanted forest, swim or canoe on the river, or enjoy a tractor ride. At Wildebraam Berry Estate you can also sample homemade products like liqueurs, jams and syrups even if you visit out of season. I’d recommend phoning ahead since personal attention may be lacking if they have a big group booking.
11. Take the kids to see the fairies
12. Go horse riding in the mountains
If you love horses and nature, what better way to spend a few hours than by combining the two on an outride. Two Feathers Horse Trails offers rides through forests, across rivers and along the foothills of the Langeberg mountains in the Marloth Nature Reserve (see point 4). There are rides suitable for both beginners and experienced riders, but you must book at least a day ahead.
13. Sample some Swellendam restaurants
Find out about some of my favourite Swellendam restaurants
14. Go on a river cruise
Go on a river cruise on the Buffelsjag River about 12km east of Swellendam. You don’t have to be staying at Umshanti to enjoy a cruise on the double-decker river boat but you do need to book ahead. Other activities on the property include hiking, canoeing, tandem microlight rides, cycling and swimming.
15. Do a township tour
Find out more about my experience of this township tour
16. Stay over for a few nights
As you can see, there’s more than enough to do in Swellendam to occupy a few days, so it makes sense to book a stay at Swellendam accommodation. Choose from 5-star fully catered luxury, B&Bs, self-catering units and even budget-friendly camping. Check out booking.com to see what’s available for your dates and in your price range.
17. Visit Suurbraak
18. Visit DJ Contemporary Art Gallery
While you're in Suurbraak, don’t miss popping in at Donovan Julius Contemporary Art Gallery to meet the friendly artist and see his vibrant artworks – or buy one of them. Find a bold world of colour created by self-taught artist Donovan, whose mission through his art classes is to inspire local kids to ‘dare to dream’.
19. Drive the Tradouw Pass
20. Slurp a milkshake in Barrydale
Barrydale is a small town with a big personality so allow time to explore some of the shops or just wander the streets with your camera.
Find out more about things to do in Barrydale
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