Nestled against the side of Table Mountain, Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden is a tranquil green oasis in Cape Town. In a city that can feel in your face at times, Kirstenbosch Garden in Cape Town is a welcome respite that feels like a world in itself.
What To Do at Kirstenbosch Garden
Kirstenbosch is very popular with tourists and locals alike. It’s an easy place to spend a relaxing summer afternoon. Our family really enjoyed spending some time in nature after a couple of days of city sightseeing.
Children playing in a stream at Kirstenbosch.
Image Credit: Slack12
There are well-marked trails leading through Kirstenbosch. Even though it was a busy weekend, there were times we felt there was no one around. We had this green forest idyll to ourselves.
If you are feeling active, you can take a trail from Kirstenbosch up to the top of Table Mountain. The route is well-signposted and takes a few hours. With more active children than mine, I would think it was pretty enjoyable. There are ladders to climb and rocks to scramble. When my kids heard that it was a five hour hike, however, they opted for a picnic on the grounds of the garden itself.
Table Mountain shrouded in fog (again).
The tree canopy walkway was very busy. Known as the Boomslang after the South African snake, the steel and wood walkway winds it way above the treetops. It was opened in 2014 to celebrate the 100 year anniversary of the Kirstenbosch Gardens. My children loved messing around on it because it swayed with movement.
The Boomslang walkway
The Kirstenbosch Garden
The garden itself has lawned areas and lots of native vegetation. In fact, it was one of the first botanical gardens in the world with a mission to preserve the native plant life. So, of course, there is lots of the native Fynbos, including the low-lying shrub stuff as well as protea plants.
In the summer months, there are regular concerts in the park which are very popular. Right before Christmas, there is even a series of Christmas carol concerts. Although we were at Kirstenbosch during an evening there was a concert, we decided we were too tired to attend (and it was a South African band we did not recognise).
Visiting Kirstenbosch Garden in Cape Town
Kirstenbosch lies about 8 miles from the centre of Cape Town. Parts of the garden wheelchair accessible. The gardens are open 7 days a week. There are cafes and tea rooms in the Garden which will allow you to take food away for a picnic on the grounds. There is also a fantastic (and extensive) gift shop.
Kirstenbosch is one of the many cool things to do in South Africa which is a great family destination. My kids loved all the animal-related activities like going on a mini-safari, swimming with penguins on Boulders Beach and hiking the Cape of Good Hope where they saw wild baboons. My husband’s favourite part was the eating and drinking his way through Stellenbosch and I loved our Garden Route road trip.
This post is linked up with Weekend Travel Inspiration and Photo Friday.
Whenever you travel you always find things different from what you expected, sometimes in a good way and sometimes not. For better or for worse, our expectations of what to expect when we travel is formed by what we read and hear in books, media and word of mouth. As a first time visitor, I found these twelve things an unexpected surprise in South Africa. These 12 travel tips for South Africa will help you make the most of your visit to this beautiful country.
12 Things you should know before you visit South Africa for the first time
Travel Tips for South Africa
We spent 2 weeks in South Africa of which we did what many first time visitors do. After a few days in Cape Town, we hired a car and travelled along the Garden Route. We went as far as Plettenberg Bay before looping back and visiting the vineyards near Cape Town.
In no particular order, here are some of my observations and tips to help you navigate South Africa.
Sometimes You Really Don’t Want To See The Doctor
That Cape Town wind is strong! The Southeastern wind nicknamed The Doctor whips through the area in the afternoon. At lower levels it’s refreshing on a hot day but at higher levels, you can hear the ringing in your ears!
We read at the museum for the Castle of Good Hope that Lloyds of London for a while refused to insure ships going to Cape Town because the wind was so unpredictable.
Where Your Home Can Be Your Fortress
The divide between the richer and the poorer areas are clearly visible. The wealthier houses have concrete fences with electric wires and on-call security services protecting them. Each house is effectively a little fortress. The wealthier areas and the townships sometimes exist right next to each other too.
Not All Township Homes Are Equal
Even in the townships, you can tell there are some nicer areas than others. Lots of the small houses in the townships seem to have satellite receivers.
Township in South Africa
As one of our guides explained to us, people remain in townships because they still can’t afford the non-township areas. Even if people do move out of the township, they always return to see their families in the townships. This community aspect of the townships reminded me of the favelas of Brasil.
A Country With Growing Pains
South Africa is an interesting amalgam of first world country and developing country. For example, the water is fine to use, and driving on the roads is very easy. Locals have an excellent command of English. We had no problems feeding the children with non-ethnic food which was widely available. Taxis were plentiful, efficient and cheap to use. We had no issues either with vendors trying to hassle us to buy things.
On the other hand though, the WiFi was very patchy. Ironically, the Cape Town service was called Always On but from what I can tell, it should be called Intermittently On.
Feets Don’t Fail Me Now
The transportation infrastructure outside of central Cape Town seemed poor. We barely saw any buses or trains. People were either walking, cycling or hitchhiking on the motor ways in order to get around. In fact, we saw people dodging cars on the motorway to get from one side to the other.
Image: Pieter van Marion
Time Really is Relative
The country does seem to run on Africa time (always a bit later than advertised!). For example, the New Year’s carnival in 2015 was several weeks after its originally advertised date of January 1st. There were transportation issues with getting the revellers to the parades (see point 5 above!).
A Lush Landscape
I don’t know about the rest of the country but Cape Town and its environs is very lush. We were told that the Europeans had imported trees to plant.
Green fields in the South African landscape
You Rediscover What The Word Massive Means
South Africa is a huge country! I mean huge!! If you look on the map, it occupies the tip of the African continent.
It isn’t until you start driving around though that I realised the country is massive and has a lot of different types of terrain. Driving along the Garden Route we came across forests, mountains, beaches and farmland all within hours of each other.
South Africa is a great place to do a road trip if you have the time to spare to cover the vast distances. The most popular South Africa road trip itinerary is from Cape Town to Johannesburg which you can do in 1 month. We did part of that road trip with the Garden Route over the course of a week.
A Celebration of Cultural Diversity
South African culture is very diverse. We found influences from the Dutch, the English, the Portuguese, other African countries, the Indians, and the Cape Malay everywhere. The most colorful part of Cape Town were the Cape Malay homes of Bo Kaap.
For example, I frankly didn’t even know that the Portuguese had made much of a cultural impact on South Africa because their explorers hadn’t really stuck around as settlers. Yet, we kept coming across Portuguese-influenced cuisine such as peri-peri and trinchado. The rainbow nation moniker really is very apt and not just a marketing tool.
Popularity Has Its Issues
I know South Africa is very popular but we were surprised by just how popular it was. We couldn’t visit Robben Island because the tickets to visit it were sold out for 4 months in advance. People book tickets very far in advance!
We thought we were organised booking hotels in September but we really had a tough time getting reservations for December.
Image: Mads Bodker
Don’t Expect American-style Service
Tourism in South Africa is clearly booming. Service, however, is not the greatest. For example, even Parisians who are notoriously snooty greet you with a polite “bonjour” when you enter a store.
South Africans don’t seem to greet you as a matter of course when you enter their establishment or pass them on the street.
Image: Danie van der Merwe
I wondered to myself if I’d been in England too long when people we let pass us on the roads didn’t acknowledge our courtesy. How rude!!
One Language to Rule Over Them All
I erroneously assumed that everyone spoke Afrikaans as well as English. I was told, however, that Afrikaans was only spoken by white South Africans. There are actually 11 official languages in South Africa – English, Afrikaans and 9 of the African languages. At school, everyone studies English and their local language.
We hired a rental car through Hertz from the airport at Cape Town for the duration of the trip. In Cape Town itself, we hired a car and driver to take us around or used local taxis.
In Cape Town, we stayed at the Twelve Apostles Hotel and Spa and the Hyde All Suites Hotel in Cape Town. We had to change hotels because we left booking so late that there was no availability for all of our days in one hotel.
On the Garden Route, we stayed at the Schoone Oordt Country House in Swellendam, the Tsala Treetop Lodge near Plettenberg Bay and The Garden Route Game Lodge near Albertinia, all of which were excellent. You can read a review of our stays at Schoone Oordt Country House and Tsala Treetop Lodge .
In Stellenbosh, we stayed at the Spier Hotel in what was ostensibly a family room. We loved the wine tasting and landscaped grounds. My children also loved the grounds and the pool. I was unimpressed with the mattress on the floor which was supposed to be the bed for our children. Needless to say, we crammed in all together on the one actual bed in the room.
Have you been to a country that surprised you in some way? Do tell.
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In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight.
I hate to ruin your 60’s song nostalgia but, actually, that song is wrong for two reasons.
1. A lion isn’t the king of the jungle because they don’t live in jungles. No one is sure why jungles came to be associated with lions. Lions like to live in grasslands, scrub country and plains. They use the vegetation to creep through the landscape and pounce on unsuspecting prey.
2. Lions primarily hunt at night and sleep during the day.
Thanks to a safari in South Africa, I now know lots about lions.
Garden Route Game Lodge
Although the rest of the Garden Route Game Lodge is an open safari, the lions we saw were in a separate enclosure. Our guide explained to us that lions are natural hunters who kill even if they are not hungry. If the lions at the safari were let loose, they would need to replace yearly many of the other animals we saw such as the springbok, impala and zebra.
On the plus side, we could see the lions every day and watch their behaviour. After having seen The Lion King a million times, my children could sit and watch actual lions. Mostly the lions slept but occasionally they would wander around.
It was fascinating to watch the dynamic between the male lion and his little harem of three lionesses. There was clearly a Chief Wife who kept a wary eye on us. She was quite protective of the male lion. From what we could tell, she couldn’t care less how close our jeep got to the other lionesses.
At one point, the one we called Chief Wife was clearly wary of us and moved up closer to the male.
Lioness on the watch
7 Surprising Facts About Lions
Our guide was very knowledgeable about lions. Did you know these 7 surprising facts about lions?
1. Male lions are not good hunters. All that mane gets in the way. The mane protects the lions though when the males get into a fight. A male lion only gets to keep his pride for 2-3 years before a stronger male lion comes along and takes over. Hence, they do a lot of fighting.
2. Male lions pretty much spend their time eating, sleeping and mating. If you add in beer and a sports channel on television, that would seem an ideal lifestyle for many men I know too.
I think this lion could use a cigarette don’t you?!
A lion ‘romp’ though doesn’t last very long (less than a minute) but they can ‘romp’ up to 40 times a day. No wonder the Chief Wife lets her man have a harem.
3. The female lions at Garden Route Game Lodge got yearly vaccinations to prevent pregnancy because any lions born in captivity would need to be sent to a zoo or a safari park with other captive lions. Captive lions can not be released into the wild because they lack hunting skills.
4. What do male lions do? They defend a pride’s territory. The male lion we saw on safari has the easiest job ever since his pride is the only one in the safari park and his territory is protected by a fence.
5. Although the females are the hunters, the male lion gets to eat first. The lionesses also raise the children and teach them hunting skills.
6. A lion could sleep up to 20 hours a day. Although they look kind of sleepy and dopey, don’t be fooled. A lion can spring into action and run up to 50 miles per hour in short bursts.
7. You can tell a male lion’s age by the colour of their mane. The darker the mane, the older the lion. A lion in captivity can live up to 25 years presumably because they don’t have the stress of protecting their pride and their territory.
My children were fascinated with this gentle introduction to Simba and his friends. Next time we are planning on a safari at a larger national park so that we can see a slightly less molly-coddled version of lions in the wild.
I have found some really useful tips for taking the kids on safari – such as keeping them interested with their own binoculars and alternating safari days so the early morning wake up calls aren’t so terrible. Especially with my children now moving onto the tween/teen morning slumber stage, I will found that advice particularly useful. We packed a lot into 3 days because a safari experience can be expensive. However, when you are travelling with children, perhaps 6 days would be a better option. After all what’s the point of a cool and expensive holiday if your family isn’t enjoying it?
I was really looking forward to staying at Tsala Treetop Lodge on the Garden Route during our South African trip. The description seemed heavenly and a private little family treehouse seemed like such good fun. Although very nice indeed, I had a very different experience than I expected. As luck would have it, there was torrential rain during our stay.
We were glad though we were at Tsala during this rainy period because it was so super comfortable. The treehouse had two bedrooms with ensuite bathrooms, an open plan living area with a kitchenette and a small terrace and an enclosed yard with a private plunge pool.
My husband and I got a fire blazing and curled up with a good book and a bottle of wine in front of the superb view.
We really felt like we were in our own private nest in the trees even with the kids in the adjoining room.
The children had their own separate bedroom, bathroom and television. To their delight, the television had Nick Junior. They had been going through a serious period of Spongebob Squarepants deprivation during the trip. The rain was in some ways exactly what we needed – enforced relaxation during a vacation. There was so much to do and see in South Africa we were definitely feeling a little run ragged.
Did you notice that the headboard is an antique door? It was very cool. We had a good laugh at the door knocker which was still attached to the door. We wouldn’t have been surprised to find our daughter had tied up her brother so that she could have uncontested use of the remote control.
There were thoughtful little touches everywhere. For example, the bathtub had bath salts laid out just inviting you for a warm soak.
The shower was an indoor/outdoor combination that I had never seen before. You could choose to shower outside amidst the trees or even just nip out for a quick rinse before returning to the indoor shower. My son thought being naked outside in a forest was the best thing ever. A very European attitude which I personally find a little worrying.
The Tsala cabin had a private plunge pool which we did not use thanks to the downpour. We also didn’t get use the gorgeous terraced area.
We really got the feeling of being isolated behind our high walls which is pretty typical for South African homes which have serious security around the houses. We decided it was lovely for a short break but we could not live with such isolation long-term. I am too used to seeing neighbours walking by on the street or saying hello over the garden fence. I can’t imagine it would be easy to have a sense of community if everyone is locked behind their own private gate.
The Tsala had beautiful interior decor throughout. I thought it was a beautiful mix of antiques and contemporary furnishings.
glossy ostrich eggs
The on-site restaurant Zinzi was excellent and very conveniently located for our dinner. We also had a very nice breakfast buffet at the main lodge in the morning.
Tsala Treetop Lodge is set in an indigenous forest between the towns of Knysna and Plettenberg Bay on the Garden Route. They share their location and facilities with Hunters Country House which is also owned by the same hotel group.
It’s not often that you find a gorgeous view and great food in a restaurant at a tourist destination. We accidentally stumbled onto the gem of a restaurant that is the Two Oceans Restaurant because our fabulous tour guide made us a reservation. Needless to say we were very appreciative!
The Two Oceans restaurant is at Cape Point near the area where you can take a funicular or hike up to the lighthouse which still serves as a navigational beacon for South Africa.
We opted to sit inside the restaurant because we were tired of being buffeted by the wind outside. The view to the outside is just as fabulous with floor to ceiling glass windows. The views are of False Bay (so-called because ships in historical times would sail into False Bay thinking they had finally sailed around the Cape of Good Hope only to realise they were mistaken).
The terrace outside though is sheltered and it really does depend on how windy it is on the day. I kid you not, that Cape Town wind can be vicious especially in the afternoon.
The Lunch Options
The food was just as excellent – lots of fresh fish and seafood. Being South Africa, there is an extensive wine list that was also really good.
Expertly presented, the food looked so good that it seemed almost a shame to disturb the plate. The whole experience was our idea of a perfect holiday lunch – hanging out with our family in the sunshine with a gorgeous view over a delicious, relaxing lunch.
The children’s menu is somewhat limited, and caters to a slightly more sophisticated palate than the usual kids’ menu. For example, there is mushroom crostini and calamari. The simplest plate was the honey chicken kebabs which my daughter loved. They also seemed to have baby food on offer. My son was fine with the extensive choice of sushi.
I should mention that there is a full sushi menu. I absolutely loved that Cape Town restaurants have such a good selection of delicious sushi and Japanese food.
The desserts did not let us down either. As usual, we shared a couple of plates because we were full after such a big lunch. The quality of the desserts seemed too good though to pass up.
chocolate & pear
I wish I could say that after lunch, we worked off our extensive lunch by hiking all the way up the cliff to the top of the Cape of Good Hope. Nope. Not our style.
Good to Know:
You need to make reservations at Two Oceans because it is very popular. If you don’t, you will wind up at the little cafe next door with its standard menu of pizza and sandwiches. It looked somewhat dire in my opinion. Alternatively, you can bring a picnic. The Cape Point nature reserve is somewhat large and you’ll be hard pressed for dining options otherwise.
Cape Town is a fabulous city to visit with children. It has got great weather, cheap and easy transportation and lots of good dining options.
Here are my suggestions for 5 things to do in Cape Town that both children and their parents will enjoy. These ideas are in Cape Town itself which is a sprawling port city. If you leave Cape Town and head into the countryside or Cape Point, there are even more family-friendly activities.
See Cape Town from above
Both Table Mountain and Signal Hill offer magnificent views over Cape Town. Table Mountain has a cable car that runs regularly except when it is too windy (usually in the afternoons). It’s best to reserve tickets in advance because the lines are long. It is a very popular destination!
Table Mountain with cloud cover
Signal Hill, on the other hand, is a simple drive up the mountain. At noon every day, there is a cannon shot from Signal Hill which in the old days used to signify lunchtime for the farmers in the areas surrounding Cape Town. The best part of the viewing area of Signal Hill is the fabulous view you get of Table Mountain.
Visit the Gardens
The beautiful Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens lie on the Eastern slopes of Table Mountain. On Sunday evenings, there are concerts in the park. It’s also just a great place to walk around and enjoy a nice picnic. We also liked the Boomslang which is a treetop canopy walkway. The Boomslang moves as people walk on it (freaked me out a bit but the kids loved it).
The Central Garden is smaller and a historical garden. It was where the Dutch used to grow crops for their settlement in historic times. This crop garden is being recreated slowly as pictured below. Nowadays, it also has beautiful paths, a giant chess set, a little cafe with great cakes and a charming playground.
The V&A Waterfront comprises of two harbours and a giant shopping, entertainment and restaurant area. We enjoyed taking a ride on the Cape Wheel (similar to the London Eye). There are also some excellent restaurants.
The waterfront area has a couple of exhibit options as well. The Two Oceans Aquarium is great for kids. The Aquarium ticket allows you to go in and out during the same day so that it’s useful for getting children out of the noonday sun. While we were walking around we saw The Art of the Brick exhibit which we had seen in New York and London was going to be in the exhibition centre through the first part of 2015.
Go to the beach
All the Cape Town beaches are public. There are some fantastic white sand beaches, both for swimming and surfing. About 10 minutes from the centre of Cape Town, our favourite beaches were Clifton Beach and Camps Bay, both next door to each other. They are popular with both locals and tourists.
Visit the Castle of Good Hope
The Castle of Good Hope has got a torture room which should spark the imagination of gory youngsters. It’s also got a military museum which will be a gentle introduction to South African history. There are lots of nooks and crannies to explore in the Castle of Good Hope as well as great views of the city from the castle walls.
As you can see, there’s a good mix of sightseeing, relaxation, walks and educational activities in Cape Town to keep everyone in the family happy and occupied.