Western Cape
Close to the ground.

Western Cape is best known for the historic Cape Winelands, which have been producing premium wines and exporting them around the world for more than 300 years. But the province is far more than its grape vines.

To the east of the winelands, the iconic artery roads of Garden Route and the interior Route 62 cut through the province to the Eastern Cape. The coastal route is rife with adventure activities such as shark cage diving and bungee jumping, as well as plentiful opportunities to whale watch and unwind on white and beaches. On the interior route, outlandish pursuits including ostrich racing, squeezing through crevices of underground caves and driving the switchbacks of the 1,583 metre Swartberg Mountain Pass make for memories that last a lifetime. Route 62 is also home to some of South Africa's oldest and most charming country towns.

The less trafficked western coast of the province is known for its picturesque fishing villages with fresh-from-the-ocean seafood and at the northern corner of Western Cape, the rugged paths of the Cederberg Wilderness take hikers past pristine streams, springtime wild flowers and caves adorned with San rock art.

Much of the history of the Western Cape is eclipsed by Cape Town. San ‘bushmen’ were the original inhabitants of the area, but some 2000 years ago Khoikhoi pastoralists migrated from the north and brought their livestock to graze on the fertile slopes near the Cape Peninsula. Together the two peoples became jointly known as the Khoisan. However, it was in Mossel Bay, roughly 400 km east of the Cape, where Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias was blown ashore in 1488 and first encountered the indigenous African herdsmen. On his way back to Portugal he stopped in False Bay before returning to Europe with news of the Cabo Tormentoso or ‘Cape of Storms.’ Soon renamed Cape of Good Hope, the natural port developed as a strategic mid-way stop for ships en route to find riches in the Indies.

The Khoisan welcomed initial trade with passing ships, however the establishment of a Dutch East India Company (VOC) settlement in 1652 and the encroachment by ‘boers’ (Dutch for farmer) on traditionally held grazing land led to violent conflicts. But indigenous clans lacked the unity needed to form a formidable resistance, and after a series of wars they were easily overpowered as Boer settlement expanded across the Cape Flats. In 1679 a new VOC commander Simon van der Stel was charged with opening up the Cape interior for settlement. Within a few months he explored the farther reaches of the peninsula and established nearby villages such as Stellenbosch and Simon's Town. The small port quickly transformed into a growing colonial settlement as Dutch, German and French Huguenot refugees flocked to the colony. The latter brought with them knowledge of grape farming and from their settlements in Paarl and Franschhoek perfected the South African cultivation, giving birth to the famed South African winelands. As settlement pressed into the interior, slaves were imported from Indonesia, Malaysia, India and East Africa to till the fields and work the docks. However, large farms were constantly at risk of attack by bands of displaced Khoisan who raided their livestock. Boer settlers countered by forming militias known as ‘commandos’ and hunted the Khoisan to near extinction. Remaining Khoisan fled north but others were subdued and resigned themselves to working on Boer farms for little pay. Eventually assimilating into the culture of their ‘masters,’ the Koisan began to adopt Dutch language and culture, and together with imported Muslim slaves from the Indies, formed the foundations of the future mixed-race population known as the ‘Cape Coloured.’

Stellenbosch

GPS: S 33 56.231 E 018 51.534 pop. 200,000 | elevation 108 m/354 ft

Stellenbosch is a scenic university town just 45 minutes from Cape Town and smack in the middle of wine country. The town's wide range of accommodation options and top quality restaurants make this an ideal base from which to tour the surrounding vineyards. Quaint downtown streets are lined with cafés and restaurants that invite you to slow your pace and appreciate the scenery. When restaurants start closing up, the area quickly turns into a university watering hole as thousands of students hit the streets to meet and drink. Most city streets do not have signs, so look for the name of the street printed on the curb in a yellow painted block.

Around Stellenbosch

Franschhoek

GPS: S 33 54.703 E 019 07.221 pop. 14,000 | elevation 274 m/899 ft

The picturesque town of Franschhoek is a little bit of France tucked within the breathtaking mountains of the Winelands. Franschhoek, meaning "French corner," was settled in 1688 by French Huguenot refugees who fled religious persecution during the 17th century. Today it's a gourmet and gastronomic Mecca in South Africa and boasts some of the best, and most expensive, restaurants in the country. The city is centered on the main Huguenot Street and is navigable on foot, with many good wineries within walking distance from the center of town. Nothing here caters to the budget crowd, but the quaint village and gourmet dining options make it well worth a visit.

Paarl

GPS: S 33 43.873 E 018 57.770 pop. 130,000 | elevation 120 m/394 ft

Paarl Mountain proves a dramatic backdrop to the industrial hub of the winelands and the area's largest city. Notably marked by a behemoth monument, the town is a bastion of Afrikaner culture and heritage and if you look closely you'll see exquisite examples of traditional Cape Dutch architecture still standing side by side with Main Street's car dealerships. While the town itself pales in comparison to the beauty of its neighbors, top-notch surrounding vineyards and exceptional accommodation options make Paarl a pleasant base for wine touring.

Around Paarl

Hermanus

GPS: S 34 25.174 E 019 14.553 pop. 50,000 | elevation 23 m/75 ft

The cliff-side town of Hermanus is the whale watching capital of South Africa. The former fishing village has become increasingly more developed in recent years to cater to the tourist crowd that flocks to the city during the calving season (July-October) when whales come into Walker Bay. Between August and September, you are almost guaranteed to spot a whale, sometimes with its newborn calf. There are hundreds of B&B and guesthouses in town, many of which overlook the ocean, making it almost possible to whale watch from bed.

Swellendam

Montagu

GPS: S 33 47.176 E 020 07.194 pop. 10,000 | elevation 231 m/758 ft

The little town of Montagu marks the gateway to the Klein Karoo on Route 62. The shops and restaurants that line Long and Bath Streets haven't changed much in 50 years and while strolling downtown it's easy to imagine that this town has been forgotten by time. The area surrounding Montagu is rife with natural wonders - local rock formations in the stunning Cogman's Kloof Pass provide some of the best rock climbing and hiking in the Western Cape. Most of the town's restaurants and accommodation are located on Long Street and Bath Street (alternatively called Brown Street and Bad Street).

Oudtshoorn

GPS: S 33 35.322 E 022 12.241 pop. 90,000 | elevation 352 m/827 ft

Situated in the heart of Klein Karoo (or Little Karoo), Oudtshoorn is a quirky commercial center surrounded by the stunning peaks of the Swartberg Mountains. The sleepy farm town rose to fame in the late 1800s when it became the world's largest supplier of ostrich feathers, in high demand for the lavish fashions in Europe and the Americas. Ostriches - and ostrich riding - are still some of Oudshoorn's primary draws, but the area is home to other diversions that are just as unique. Make a visit to the vast dripstone caverns of the Cango Caves or revel with thousands during the country's largest Afrikaner cultural festival in April.

Prince Albert

GPS: S 33 13.421 E 022 01.790 pop. 1,500 | elevation 620 m/2,034 ft

Prince Albert is a small country enclave nestled beside the rocky Swartberg Mountains. The spectacularly steep Swartberg Pass, with its switchbacks supported by hand-packed stone walls, is a legendary challenge for Klein Karoo joy riders. Perhaps because this sleepy town has little to offer as far as mainstream attractions it is beloved by intrepid travelers searching for a break from the tourist mill. Church Street is lined with shops, galleries, antique stores and a handful of restaurants that make for a leisurely afternoon of poking around. But to truly appreciate the low and contemplative beauty of Prince Albert, you'll have to unwind here for a few days.

Mossel Bay

GPS: S 34 10.976 E 022 09.049 pop. 80,000 | elevation 31 m/102 ft

Mossel Bay has been a traveler hot spot for centuries – the first contact between Southern Africans and Europeans occurred on Santos Beach in 1488. But since the opening of a large oil refinery in the '80s, tourism in Mossel Bay has been down at the heels. If you ignore the industrial sprawl on the edges of the city, it's easy to appreciate the beautiful architecture, unhurried warmth and rough-and-tumble lifestyle that attracts fishermen, bikers and South African families alike. But the wide and sandy swaths of swimming and surfing beaches that pepper the coastline are reason enough to pay the town a visit.

Knysna

GPS: S 34 02.297 E 023 02.739 pop. 52,000 | elevation 5 m/16 ft

The City of Knysna is strung across the coast of a shimmering lagoon, which feeds into the ocean through a rocky pass called The Heads. Knysna's commercial and touristic center is in its downtown area at the base of the lagoon, where visitors and locals can enjoy a host of great restaurants and poke around the arty shops of the town's hippie culture. The farther you get from the city center, the slower you'll find the pace - Thesen Island has a distinct upmarket beach town vibe, and Leisure Island, its woodsy counterpart, feels far from the urban bustle. There are many ways to explore the area's gorgeous waters, forests and wildlife, but you'll have to head out of town to appreciate Knysna's best aspects.

Plettenberg Bay

GPS: S 34 03.381 E 023 22.322 pop. 35,000 | elevation 86 m/282 ft

Plettenberg Bay is an exquisite coastal resort town that draws droves of visitors for its beaches, natural wonders and kick-back elegance. Though the town has its share of surfers and beach bunnies, a stroll down Main Street is enough to see that Plett attracts a ritzier crowd. To love it here, you'll have to stray from downtown and explore the lagoon, strand and indigenous forests that inspired early Portuguese explorers to dub the area "Bahia Formosa’ or "beautiful bay."

Langebaan

GPS: S 33 05.468 E 018 01.923 pop. 8,000 | elevation 7 m/23 ft

Langebaan is a small beach town with a big following for its wind-fueled sports. Its glassy lagoon and reliable winds make it an ideal spot for windsurfing and kiteboarding between September and April. Langebaan's downtown is just a few shops and restaurants along Bree Street and Main Road, but the beaches and streets fill up on the weekends when visitors from Cape Town head up along the west coast for a quick dose of R&R.

Paternoster

GPS: S 32 48.568 E 017 53.437 pop. 700 | elevation 13 m/43 ft

Paternoster is a quaint fisherman's village of whitewashed huts beside the Cape Columbine Nature Reserve. While much of the town's livelihood has changed its focus to tourism, seafaring traditions live on and you can still see fishermen returning with their daily catch in the early mornings. Crayfish is particularly popular and delicious in Paternoster, but avoid purchasing them from locals on the street, as most of these have been illegally caught and overfishing threatens the local crayfish population.

Clanwilliam & Around

GPS: S 32 10.544 E 018 53.556 pop. 3,000 | elevation 84 m/276 ft

Clanwilliam is a historic town situated at the base of the Cederberg Mountains that is best known as the home of Rooibos Tea. It makes for good base to explore the Cederberg region, especially during August and September when millions of indigenous flowers spring up and carpet the fields. The nearby Clanwilliam Dam also draws water sports enthusiasts.