Small towns are special in many ways, from lack of congestion to country cool, from old buildings full of character to friendly people with time to chat. I’ve chosen 20 of my favourite small towns for weekend getaways from Cape Town. Read on to see if I’ve included your favourite.
I’ve arranged the towns alphabetically in groups so that I don’t have the impossible task of ranking them. How can you say one town is ‘better’ than another when they’re so different, when each has its own particular charm?
With wineries and world-class restaurants thick on the ground, it’s no wonder Franschhoek is known as a gourmet food and wine destination. Succumb to the temptation to spend your days under shady trees sampling sophisticated menus and tasting some of the country’s finest wines. To avoid worrying about drinking and driving, plan your route with the Wine Tram, a double-decker tram and open-air bus that stops at some of wine estates.
Explore alluring shops and art galleries, visit the Huguenot Memorial Museum for insight into the history and culture of the area. Do a village walking tour or visit the magnificent food gardens at Babylonstoren. For something more energetic, take to the mountains or Mont Rochelle nature reserve on foot, horseback or mountain bike. Views down across the valley from the surrounding mountains are well worth the effort.
95km east of Cape Town along the N1 and R45
Although some houses were built as far back as the early 1800s, McGregor was only proclaimed a village in 1862. Walk the quiet streets to admire the old buildings, hike one of the trails into the surrounding mountains, go wine tasting or explore some of the studios and galleries on the art route. Perhaps best of all, stay over for a couple of nights so you can relax and listen to the bird’s dawn chorus or drink a toast to the sunset as it bleeds into the horizon.
150km east of Cape Town, 20km south of Robertson off Route 62
More things to do in McGregor
Take a walking tour of the town to appreciate its history and culture, pop in to some of the museums, shops and art galleries, wander the university’s peaceful Botanical Garden, visit a local market or support the community by taking a tour of the Kayamandi township.
Surrounded by towering mountains, Stellenbosch is also an outdoor lover’s delight, a place to go hiking and biking. One of the best places for an active nature rush is the Jonkershoek Nature Reserve.
55km east of Cape Town along the N1 and R304
More things to do in Stellenbosch
Your enduring mental snapshots of Tulbagh will be flashes of blue-grey mountains, knobby old oak trees, Cape Dutch gables, and rows of vineyards and fruit trees stretching into the distance. Don’t miss visiting the four museums in Church Street for a look at life here through the centuries. Go wine tasting and olive tasting, explore the art route, enjoy a meal in one of the local restaurants. Make the most of the stunning scenery by going hiking or horse riding into the surrounding mountains. Perhaps best of all, stay over on a farm to give you time to submit to Tulbagh’s peace and tranquility.
120km north-east of Cape Town along the N1 and R44, about 25km from Ceres on the R46
More things to do in Tulbagh
The Knysna National Lakes Area and forests that surround the town are home to the endangered Knysna seahorse, the bright-coloured Knysna turaco (lourie) and narina trogon, the delicate pansy shell, the rare Brenton Blue butterfly, dolphins and whales, and the only forest elephants in South Africa. Other giants of the forest are some towering yellowwood trees that are more than 500 years old and have truly impressive waistlines.
490km east of Cape Town along the N2
More things to do in Knysna
If it’s action you’re after, Wilderness is a perfect playground. Go boating on one of its lakes, row a canoe up the river, go fishing, windsurfing, hiking, abseiling, kloofing or paragliding. Take a walk along a vast unspoilt beach, head for the hills on your mountain bike or ride the gravel roads that link the lakes. You’ll run out of energy long before you run out of fun things to do.
440km east of Cape Town along the N2
More things to do in Wilderness
But it’s the quirkiness that you’ll remember long after you leave. There’s a small country hotel whose faded exterior belies the sumptuousness of paintings, sculptures and bold colours inside. Garden walls may be made of recycled bottles, garden gates of clanging enamel plates and mugs. Fantastical lamps and chandeliers are created here and you might find some recycled plastic peace doves dotted around town. Pop in to enjoy the vibe at the vintage diner with its décor of old tin signs advertising anything from Pepsi to Castrol motor oil.
Hike to the waterfall, visit the nature reserves nearby, go beer or wine tasting, see Barrydale in bloom in October or visit in December to experience the art festival.
245km east of Cape Town along the N1 and R62; or 265km from Cape Town along the N2 to Swellendam and then north through Tradouw Pass
More things to do in Barrydale
Follow in the footsteps of Olive Schreiner, Rudyard Kipling and Cecil John Rhodes who visited Matjiesfontein. Pop into the Laird’s Arms for a drink and to meet local character Johnny, take a trip on an old London bus to uncover some of Matjiesfontein’s history. Answer the call of a trumpet to enjoy a Karoo dinner, visit the museum under the railway station to soak up the atmosphere of Victoriana and Anglo Boer War relics, or simply drink in the Karoo air and star-filled night skies.
240km north-east of Cape Town, just off the N1 about 30km west of Laingsburg
More things to do in Matjiesfontein
Today the ostrich farms still exist but focus more on food than fashion. Oudtshoorn also lies along the Route 62 wine route, so wine tasting is a popular activity. Don’t miss a visit to the CP Nel Museum in a lovely old sandstone building. Here you can relive history through numerous fascinating exhibits, including of the ostrich feather boom.
Visit the Gamkaberg Nature Reserve nearby or if you feel the urge to raise your heart rate, tackle a hiking trail where you’ll also be able to see birds and a diversity of plants. Drive a 4x4 route, go ziplining or sky diving in the area.
420km east of Cape Town along the N2 and N12
More about Oudtshoorn’s old buildings
Prince Albert lies at the foot of the Swartberg mountains, surrounded by vineyards, sheep, fruit and olive farms. If wide spaces and stillness appeal to you then you’ll love this small Karoo town that was named after Queen Victoria’s husband.
Amble along the streets to enjoy the Cape Dutch, Karoo and Victorian buildings, some of them national monuments. Duck into the shops to browse and buy, or relax for a while at a restaurant or coffee shop. Don’t miss a visit to the Fransie Pienaar Museum to see fossils and other displays that tell the story of the peoples who used to live here. These include the families of the Gamkaskloof who lived an isolated existence until an access road was built in 1962. Prince Albert also has its fair share of interesting ghost stories.
Drive the Swartberg Pass, which Thomas Bain built in the 1880s. It starts about 20km from Prince Albert. The gravel road climbs in a series of steep zigzags and sharp bends to 1585m, giving extensive views out over the Karoo. Also worth visiting along the pass is the Swartberg Nature Reserve (Gamkaskloof). Go birding, hiking, cycling and star-gazing in the clear Karoo air.
390km north-east of Cape Town along the N1 and R407
More things to do in Prince Albert
Sutherland is one of the coldest places in South Africa so if you visit in winter, especially July and August, there’s a good chance you may see the town and surrounding landscape blanketed with snow. This may not be a draw card for visitors from the northern hemisphere, but it’s pretty special for the average South African.
Although Sutherland is a tiny one-horse town, you’ll find a few restaurants and lots of B&Bs catering to visitors. Walk the streets to admire the old buildings with their typical Karoo stoeps, visit the Anglo Boer War cemetery or the Jewish cemetery, both of which are a testament to part of the town’s history. Other attractions include hiking, 4x4 routes, bike trails and fossils for those interested in palaeontology.
350km north-east of Cape Town along the N1 and R354, 100km north of Matjiesfontein
More things to do in Sutherland
Stay over to change gears to village time, admire the roses and gardens. Take a flask of coffee with you on an early morning walk into the nature reserve on the edge of town. Walk or cycle the streets to appreciate the 19th century architecture, browse some of the speciality shops, enjoy coffee or a meal at one of the restaurants. Join an art class, taste wine or craft beer, go horse riding along country lanes. Don’t miss the Saturday morning market where the locals go to buy fresh produce and home-made goods as well as to catch up on the news of the week.
Just a 5km drive from Greyton, go back in time to visit Genadendal – the oldest Moravian mission village in South Africa. It dates back to 1738 but its old water mill, museums and church are still well preserved.
140km east of Cape Town along the N2 and R406
More things to do in Greyton
But there’s much more to Hermanus than whales. Think lofty mountains, a dazzling stretch of coastline, white beaches, surf crashing along the rocks, a diversity of plants in the local nature reserve, and a valley of vineyards so beautiful it’s called Hemel en Aarde (heaven and earth).
Blow your hair back with a range of outdoor activities like hiking, biking, kayaking, surfing, horse riding and paragliding. Or set a more sedate pace along the wine route or art route – including stunning public sculptures that look out to sea along the coast. Go shopping for books or antiques, make a booking at one or two of Hermanus’s restaurants that offer good food and gorgeous views.
120km south-east of Cape Town along the N2 and R43
More things to do in Hermanus
Perhaps the most important thing to know about Kleinmond is that it’s part of the Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve so if nature and sustainability are your passion you’ll be in heaven here. A biosphere reserve is a special type of conservation area in which both the environment and people find their place in the sun, to their mutual benefit.
In the area you’ll find the Kogelberg Nature Reserve with its hikes and 1800 species of plants, the Rooisand Nature Reserve with a wealth of birding and a chance to catch a glimpse of free-roaming wild horses among the dunes and wetlands. And there’s an unspoiled coastline to make your heart soar.
There are some restaurants and coffee shops, a few interesting shops to browse. But to me Kleinmond is mostly about nature and the outdoors – a flourish of activities like hiking, horse riding, birding, whale-watching and river rafting. For a more contemplative experience, you can enjoy art galleries or wine tasting in the area.
110km south-east of Cape Town on the R44
More things to do in Kleinmond
Although the village is charming, I also love to get out into the surrounding countryside to explore the wine farms and nature areas. A good way to enjoy Stanford like a local is to visit one of the weekend village markets. If you’re self-catering, it’s a chance to buy some first-rate produce and chat to the friendly locals. They’ll be happy to tell you about their favourite places and things to do.
Explore the nooks and crannies of an antique shop, listen to a church bell tolling the time, go whale-watching or have a picnic along the river. Go wine tasting, beer tasting or cheese tasting, eat a meal in one of the chic country-style restaurants that use locally sourced ingredients to create good food. Want to burn off energy? Go kayaking, horse riding, mountain biking or hiking, or just climb on board for a sundowner boat cruise on the river. Every night you spend in Stanford you’ll go to bed with a smile on your face.
145km south-east of Cape Town along the N2 and R43
More things to do in Stanford
Visiting Swellendam gives you a chance to admire one of the Cape’s most attractive churches. You’ll find plenty good restaurants and coffee shops too, and interesting little speciality shops from antiques and bric a brac to cheese and honey. My favourite activities here have been a township tour of Railton with the irrepressible Meisie Bokwana and chatting to the locals to pick their brains about their best spots and things to do in the area.
220km east of Cape Town along the N2 towards the Garden Route (almost exactly halfway between Cape Town and George)
More things to do in Swellendam
Darling lies between wheatfields and vineyards on the West Coast. If you were to pass through on the main road you’d wonder why anyone would come here for a weekend. But get off the somewhat dreary main drag and you’ll discover a town with lovely old trees and beautifully restored Victorian buildings.
Part of the Cape Floral Region, Darling is well known for its hundreds of species of flowering plants, especially in spring when the Darling Wildflower Show is in full swing. Perhaps its best known residents are Pieter Dirk Uys and his alter-ego Tannie Evita Bezuidenhout. While you’re in town, don’t miss a visit to the Evita se Perron dinner theatre at the old station – or the Boere kitsch Boerassic Park behind it.
Duck into the delightful small museum, go wine tasting, eat at a restaurant, taste the local craft beer, take a short drive to the beautiful West Coast National Park for a dose of outdoor freshness, ocean views and a splash of pink flamingos on the lagoon.
80km north of Cape Town along the R27 and R307
More things to do in Darling
Something in the West Coast air here is special, forcing you to relax and live at a slower pace than the city rat race. Paternoster is also a mecca for foodies, given the number of really good restaurants that have popped up over the years.
Cape Columbine Nature Reserve and lighthouse on the edge of town provide a peaceful excursion into nature, especially in spring when the wild flowers splash the veld with their bright colours. Keep your eyes peeled for birds, dolphins, seals and whales (especially in October and November).
160km north of Cape Town along the R27, R45 and R399
More things to do in Paternoster
May is usually a buzz of activity with the annual Olive Festival with its special events and tastings, but you can taste olives here at any time of year. Wine tasting is a popular activity too, as is trying a few of the local eateries. Don’t miss a visit to the Short Street precinct with its characteristic Karoo architecture, or enjoying a drink on the long stoep of The Royal Hotel opposite.
Those with a cultural bent will enjoy the small museums along the historical route, while there’s a host of lovely shops selling all kinds of goods from fresh produce to clothing and gifts. For the outdoor lover there’s hiking, cycling, birding and game drives.
100km north-east of Cape Town along the N7 and R46
More things to do in Riebeek Kasteel
It’s perhaps best known for its Sixteen Mile Beach which stretches from town all the way to the West Coast National Park in the north. Not surprisingly, two of the major sources of income here are fishing and tourism, especially during wildflower season from August to October. Although the cold Benguela current means swimming is icy, wet-suited water sports like surfing and wind-surfing are all the rage.
Look out for the historic white lime kilns. Back in the day when the Cape was still a refreshment station for the Dutch East India Company, the Dutch built them to burn mussels to make lime for cement. Pop in to Yzerfontein Tourism’s office in the town’s oldest building to find out more about the town’s heritage.
Breathe in the fresh sea air, go hiking, cycle through town, go fishing, see whales frolic in the bay between July and December. Don’t miss a visit to the West Coast National Park for nature and West Coast Fossil Park for ancient heritage.
85km north of Cape Town along the R27 and R315
More about Yzerfontein
Note: Of course, this isn’t a full list of all the lovely small towns the Western Cape has to offer for a weekend getaway – or longer. Think Arniston, Calitzdorp, Clanwilliam, De Rust, Gansbaai, Langebaan, Montagu and many more, each with its own special charm and atmosphere. I’ve chosen my favourites but if your favourite isn’t on the list, please share it in the comments below and tell us why you love it.
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