Snuggling against the banks of a beautiful lagoon in the heart of South Africa’s Garden Route, Knysna is one of my favourite coastal towns. Its natural beauty, rich history and vibrant culture make it popular with holidaymakers. Whether you’re an outdoor enthusiast, history buff or foodie, Knysna has something for everyone. Here are 27 things to do in Knysna.
The name Knysna probably comes from a Khoikhoi word meaning ‘fern’ or ‘fern leaves’, appropriate for a town surrounded by forests. Although the first farmer settled here way back in 1760, it’s largely through the efforts of British-born entrepreneur and timber merchant George Rex in the 1800s that the Knysna we know today started develop.
The Knysna Lakes area makes up a gorgeous chunk of the greater Garden Route National Park. It’s home to the endangered Knysna seahorse (see point 14), the bright-coloured Knysna turaco and narina trogon, the delicate pansy shell, dolphins and whales (see point 4). Knysna is perhaps most associated with its forests of towering yellowwood trees that are hundreds of years old and have impressive waistlines. Although some thousand elephants once roamed Knysna’s forests, today a single elusive cow still lingers.
Whatever you want from a holiday destination, Knysna can deliver – from lush indigenous forests to tranquil lakes and white beaches, from historical woodcutting, gold mining and ivory hunting sites to excellent restaurants, galleries and shops. It’s also an outdoor enthusiast’s dream, enticing you with fishing, water sports, hiking, cycling and abseiling. Here are some of my top picks of things to see and do.
1. Explore the Knysna Lagoon by boat
If you prefer, you can arrange a trip on a speedboat, motorised or sailing yacht, rubber dinghy or catamaran. You can even hire a self-drive houseboat from Knysna Houseboats for a holiday with a difference.
2. Visit the Knysna Heads
The Western Head is a protected nature reserve (see point 3) but the built-up Eastern Head has a multitude of large houses with great views for those who can afford to live there. Luckily for the rest of us, there’s also a public viewpoint at the highest point of Coney Glen Road, the small Coney Glen beach with rock pools, and at the end of George Rex Drive a nice walk along a pathway at the foot of the cliffs, where the wreck of the Paquita lies beneath the water.
3. Explore the Featherbed Nature Reserve
4. Go whale watching
To get much closer to these giants in the open ocean and share the excitement of watching them breach, spyhop or lobtail, join a 1.5 to 2-hour boat-based whale watching trip with Ocean Odyssey. They’re the only permitted whale watching company in this area and love to share Knysna’s natural assets with visitors.
5. Visit the Knysna Waterfront
The Knysna Waterfront is a popular and buzzy tourist destination. Take a stroll along the waterfront, shop for souvenirs, fashion, jewellery or décor items, admire the yachts in the harbour (or even book a sailing charter), enjoy an ice cream cone as you soak up the sun, sit down for a meal at one of a number of eateries from franchises like the Spur and Ocean Basket to restaurants like 34 degrees South and the Dry Dock Food Company.
6. Visit the Big Tree & Dalene Matthee monument
7. Go hiking
There’s also hiking at Goukamma Nature Reserve on the way to Buffalo Bay. Choose between six trails from 4-15km, from beach walks to dune walks with coastal fynbos, and forest walks that offer a good chance of seeing some of the 220 species of birds recorded in the reserve. Take along your Wild Card so you won’t have to pay entry to the reserve.
Looking for a Knysna forest walking experience without getting out of breath or spending lots of time? Find the Garden of Eden trail about 16km east of town. The circular loop takes you for a short walk (about 1km) through indigenous forest of stinkwood and Outeniqua yellowood trees, with wooden bridges crossing little streams. Listen and look for the Knysna turaco with its bright green plumage and red underwings. Stop at some picnic tables and benches along the way. There’s a small entrance fee to pay.
Find out more about some of the top Knysna trails here or pop in to the Visit Knysna tourism info office at 40 Main Road, Knysna.
For something a little different, walk the 9km circular Kranshoek Hiking Trail that starts at the Kranshoek picnic site in the Harkerville forest about 23km east of Knysna. With its cliffs and rocks, indigenous forest, fynbos and gorgeous sea views, it has something of the vibe of a one-day Otter Trail. You do need to be pretty fit to enjoy all the ups and downs, which can be tough on weak knees.
8. SUP at Thesen Island
Spend a few hours on an SUP (stand-up paddle board) exploring the water channels of Knysna’s scenic Thesen Island. Thesen Island is a marina development in the Knysna estuary, consisting of nearly 20 man-made islands linked by arched bridges. Rent a board and stick to the calm main waterways if you’re a beginner (bring extra clothes to change into because you’ll no doubt get a dunking or two). If you’re experienced, explore some of the inlets and coves between the islands. No kids under 12. It’s best to book ahead. Try Ocean Odyssey or Knysna Charters.
9. Visit Belvidere’s historic stone church
The last direct descendant to hold the Duthie estate in the Duthie name was Augusta Vera Duthie, a noted botanist who died in 1963 and is commemorated in a stained glass window in the church.
One thing I love about this little church is that it was designed by a woman – Sophy Gray, wife of the Bishop of Cape Town at the time. Her charming churches are scattered over the country, from Cape Town and Graaff-Reinet to Port Elizabeth and Pietermaritzburg. Another is how peaceful it is to wander around the well-kept gardens and linger at some of the old gravestones.
10. Go mountain biking in the forest
If you’re feeling energetic, do the 19km Homtini MTB Route that starts at the Krisjan se Nek picnic site and follows jeep tracks and logging roads through indigenous forest and plantation. It’s a circular 19km trail that should take you about 1.5-2 hours. Get a permit at the Goudveld entrance gate, then drive another 4km to the starting point.
The 22.4km Petrus se Brand MTB track takes you through forest, fynbos and plantations between Diepwalle and Harkerville. It should take 2-3 hours. There are also other mtb trails at Harkerville. Get more info and maps about Knysna MTB trails here.
11. Walk on the beach
Brenton on Sea also has a creamy white beach, perfect for swimming, sun bathing or walking. As always when swimming in the ocean, be aware of the possibility of rip currents. (All beach lovers should read NSRI’s advice about how to stay safe in a rip current here.)
12. Travel forest tracks on a scooter
Go on a thrilling downhill ride on a fat-tyred scooter with Scootours Knysna. You’ll ride in a minibus to the top of a hill in the indigenous forest and have the excitement of a downhill ride back down to the bottom. Although the machines have no motors, you don’t need to worry – they do have brakes. The idea isn’t to get to the bottom at breakneck speed anyway, but to enjoy nature like the colourful Knysna turaco and shy bushbuck you may spot along the way. The tours take about two hours and happen every day at 9:00, 12:00 and 15:00. Best is to book ahead on the link above. Note that when it’s raining heavily, there are no Scootours.
13. Explore the Knysna Art Route
The Circles in the Forest mural along the back of the old Town Hall is a tribute to Knysna writer Dalene Matthee (see point 6) and some mammals, birds and plants that make Knysna special. It comprises 80 circular artworks by 60 artists.
One of Knysna’s smallest special creatures, the Knysna seahorse (see point 14), features on a mural at the SANParks offices on Thesen Island.
For more about the Knysna Art Route, download a brochure here.
14. Meet the Knysna seahorse
15. Spend time at a country market
Sadly, Totties Farm Kitchen which was one of my favourite restaurants in the area didn’t survive the pandemic of 2020/21, but the historic venue on the Rheenendal Road is now home to Totties Country Market on Sundays from 10:00 till 15:00. The main building used to be the home of Florence Eleanor van Reenen, nicknamed ‘Tottie’ because she called her grandchildren ‘Little Tots’. Born in New Zealand in 1878, she came to South Africa as a nurse during the Anglo Boer War. She started a general dealer and butcher here in 1922 to supply the staff from her husband’s sawmill. The market is packed with arts and crafts, artisan products and food stalls. Your kids will also love the Knysna model trains.
It’s also worth taking a drive (about 25km) to the Wild Oats Community Farmers’ Market on the western edge of Sedgefield on a Saturday morning. You’ll find organically grown veggies, homemade cakes, fine cheeses, honey, pickles and much more. Or sit on a tree stump in the shade to enjoy a farm breakfast, pancake or delicious curried mince vetkoek.
16. Walk the old Millwood goldfields
In a large shed you can see some of the old 19th century machinery – a huge steam engine, jaw crusher, stamp battery and boiler. Although lost for over a century in the forest where it was left when miners abandoned the goldfields, it was recovered in the late 1980s by tractors, bulldozers and even a helicopter. You used to be able to go into one of the tunnels where there are still veins of gold-bearing quartz, and see the holes they drilled in the tunnel sides to put dynamite to blast further. According SANParks, the tunnel is currently closed but may reopen sometime in the future.
To get to the starting point of the walk, drive up the Rheenendal Road and take the Bibby’sHoek/Millwood turnoff to the right, then follow the signs. There’s a boom at the SANParks gate where you need to get a permit. There used to be a little tearoom and photo museum in the only one of some 70 goldfields buildings that is still standing at Millwood, but sadly this has closed permanently. Nevertheless, it makes a good place to park to start the walk.
17. See Noetzie’s castles
On the eastern outskirts of Knysna you’ll find a road leading to Noetzie beach, where you can admire the stone castles on the cliff looking out to sea. The sign-posted gravel road goes past a tumble of shacks, so keep your doors locked. At the end of the road you’ll find a parking area. Lock your car and make sure all valuables are out of sight. From here it’s a steep descent along stairs to the beach. Remember to keep enough energy for the steep ascent later!
There are only six castles, which were built in the early 20th century, but together they will stir your romantic side. Most of them are private homes or holiday homes so you won’t get to see inside, though the outside is fascinating enough. If you simply must see inside – and you have seriously deep pockets – you can hire a villa at the Pezula Private Castle or Lindsay Castle to live like royalty for a few days. But most of us can only go to gawk so take your cozzies for some time on the beach too. If you want to cool off, don’t go too far into the sea because there are some changeable currents here.
18. Learn about Italian history in Knysna
Sadly, the descendant of the spinners who made all this happen has been forced to sell and the lovely little church will no longer be open to visitors. He still has all the photographs and documents and hopes one day to find another venue in Knysna to house them. The church remains an historical building, though, so luckily no one can pull it down.
Read more about the chapel and its history
19. Look into the past at Millwood House
The Pitt Street House in the grounds has photos and documents from the Anglo Boer War of 1899 to 1902, when the Knysna Fort was the Cape Colony’s southernmost fort. There’s even a connection with the Italian immigrant story of San Ambroso (see point 18) through a photo of one FH Rabbolini, a fireman on the Cape Railways, who was awarded a gold watch for saving a railway engine that was attacked at Gouna siding in July 1901.
Other buildings document Knysna’s short-lived gold rush story and its woodcutting and sawmill history. If the past fascinates you as much as it does me, the museum is well worth an hour or two of your time.
20. Enjoy a picnic lunch in the forest
Jubilee Creek is a perennial favourite for picnics, with a short nature walk along the river. Drive up the Rheenendal Road and take the turnoff to Millwood, then follow the signs. You need to pay an entrance fee unless you flash your Wild Card. There are also nice picnic spots in the Diepwalle and Gouna forests, as well as at the Valley of Ferns on Prince Alfred Pass (see point 22).
21. Drive the Seven Passes Road
Read more about the Seven Passes Road
22. Drive Prince Alfred Pass
Thomas Bain – yes, the guy who also built the Swartberg Pass near Prince Albert – was the legend behind another pass in the Knysna area too, the Prince Alfred Pass between Knysna and Avontuur/Uniondale. Built in the 1860s, it’s another example of his method of construction using dry stone walling. At 68.5km it’s the longest mountain pass you can drive in South Africa, as well as being the second oldest unaltered pass still in use (after the 7.4km Montagu Pass near George). Drive east out of Knysna and take a left turn onto the R339, signposted to Diepwalle Forest and Uniondale. It’s a scenic route that’s fun to drive and has some spectacular views. Don’t miss the Spitzkop viewpoint turnoff that takes you to the highest point around Knysna that’s accessible by vehicle. There’s also a nice picnic site at the Valley of Ferns (Dal van Varings) shortly after the Spitzkop turnoff.
This is a gravel route best done in a 4x4 or at least a vehicle with high clearance. If it has been raining heavily, check whether the pass is open with the tourism office in the main road before you set out.
23. Visit Pledge Nature Reserve
24. Experience the Oyster Festival
The 10-day Knysna Oyster Festival is the Garden Route’s biggest annual event, bringing thousands of visitors to the area every June/July. It’s a family-friendly medley of music concerts, wine tastings and other lifestyle events, kids’ activities and sporting activities like the Knysna Cycle Tour and the Knysna Forest Marathon. Obviously, restaurants also provide opportunities to taste the oysters that lend the festival its name.
25. Eat out at Knysna restaurants
East Head Café has superb views out over the lagoon from inside and especially the deck outside. The food includes seafood like calamari, prawns, and fish & chips, as well as burgers, salads and tramezzini. If you still have space, don’t miss the giant lemon meringue for dessert.
Read more about East Head Cafe
Ile de Pain started out as a coffeeshop that also sold breads and other baked goods, but has grown into a full-fledged restaurant. Sit outside under the trees and enjoy good coffee and croissants, or in winter try the delicious hot chocolate. The lunch menu offers salads, toasties and tartines, sourdough flatbreads, burgers and steak.
Other popular Knysna restaurants include 34 Degrees South, o Pescador and the Dry Dock Food Company at the Knysna Waterfront, Sirocco on Thesen Island, and Butterfly Blu at Brenton on Sea with its kick-ass sea views, especially at sunset.
26. Stay over in Knysna accommodation
If you’re inspired by the thought of forest camping, have a look at SANParks’ Diepwalle Forest Camping Decks and Tented Decks. For other options that include luxury boutique hotels, B&Bs, self-catering cottages, guest farms, backpackers and camping, browse Visit Knysna’s website.
27. Take a trip further afield
Knysna is close to other Garden Route centres like George, Wilderness, Sedgefield, Plettenberg Bay and Storms River/Tsitsikamma so you’re well placed for day-trips to these areas. Here are just a few of gazillions of things to do in the wider area.
- Go paragliding at Wilderness – Soar like an eagle over South Africa’s Lake District or the ocean for great views from a tandem paraglider.
- See the Map of Africa, Wilderness – This viewpoint in Wilderness Heights looks down on a forested patch of land in the shape of Africa created by the winding Kaaimans River.
- Go birding in the Wilderness Lake District – There are some 300 bird species in this area and I love to spend time in the Malachite Hide across the railway line at Langvlei and at the Rondevlei Hide. See my post 20 things to do in Wilderness for more cool activities here.
- Admire the mosaic artworks in Sedgefield – Wander around Sedgefield to meet a colourful menagerie of mosaic creatures like fish, tortoises and guinea fowl. Benches along the vlei have sprouted jewel-coloured mosaic designs, and there’s a not-quite-life-sized VW Beetle. They’re all part of a skills development and upliftment project.
- Go fishing – Fish for alien bass on Groenvlei lake (get a permit from the Goukamma Nature Reserve office), or go angling with a rod from the sea shore if you have a licence.
- Surf at Victoria Bay – About 55km west of Knysna is tiny Victoria Bay, a beautiful cove that’s one of the best surfing spots along the Garden Route
- Hit the beach at Plett – If you love the beach, it would be hard to get better choices than Plett’s three main ones: Lookout Beach, Central Beach, and Robberg Beach. In the December/January high season, they get super-busy so try to get there early.
- Visit the Plett wine route – Plettenberg Bay is South Africa’s smallest wine growing region with about 58ha of some 100 000ha planted countrywide. Visit some of about 10 wineries, from Bramon, Newstead and Lodestone to Packwood, Bitou and Kay & Monty. Find out more and get a map here.
- Go hiking at Robberg Nature Reserve – There are three circular hiking trails in this CapeNature reserve (from 2 to 9km) in Plett. You’ll get great views and may spot dolphins, seals, whales or even a tiny blue duiker. There’s an entrance fee unless you have a Wild Card.
- Visit Monkeyland – The ethical Monkeyland primate sanctuary at The Crags just east of Plett is a refuge for free-roaming species from capuchin monkeys and gibbons to lemurs, and a great outing for the whole family. Nearby are sister animal sanctuaries, Jukani Wildlife Sanctuary (big cats like jaguar and tiger) and Birds of Eden, where a mesh dome over 2.3 hectares of indigenous forest forms a massive free-flight bird sanctuary with both local and exotic species. Animals in these three sanctuaries have been rescued from the pet trade and wildlife trafficking and now get to live out their lives in peace.
- Fly through the treetops – If the idea of ziplining through the treetops like Tarzan appeals to you, don’t miss the thrilling Tsitsikamma Canopy Tour through indigenous forest at Storms River. Platforms for the ten slides are built 30m up, some around giant Outeniqua yellowwood trees. Your guide will kit you out in a harness to keep you safe and tell you about forest ecology along the way.
- Walk a suspension bridge – Walk through indigenous forest to a suspension bridge in the Tsitsikamma section of the Garden Route National Park. It hangs about 7m above the roiling waters of the Storms River as it heads for the Indian Ocean.
- Go bungy jumping – Conquer your fear of heights by bungy jumping off Storms River bridge. At 216m, it’s the fourth highest bungy jump in the world and the highest in Africa. You get winched back to the platform afterwards. No kids under 12.
- Explore the forest on a Segway – Get a brief training session on a Segway at Storms River before you feel the freedom of exploring the pine and indigenous forests. Stand on a platform above the two wheels and shift your weight to control the motorised vehicle – easy to learn in 10-15min, and great fun.
Where to find Knysna
Knysna is about 480km east of Cape Town along the N2 highway. It’s about 260km west of Gqeberha (Port Elizabeth), also along the N2.
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