11 Top-Rated Things to Do in Knysna, South Africa

Written by Meagan Drillinger
Mar 7, 2023
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Author Meagan Drillinger visited Knysna on her travels through South Africa in November 2022.

Sheltered from the crashing Indian Ocean by two iconic rock pillars, known as the Knysna Heads, Knysna is a tranquil little village that sits perched on a calm lagoon. Known for its laid-back lifestyle, protected nature reserves, and delightful restaurants and shops, Knysna is one of the most charming places to visit along South Africa's Garden Route.

View over Knysna, South Africa
View over Knysna, South Africa | Photo Copyright: Meagan Drillinger

The Garden Route is one of the most beautiful scenic drives in the world and one of the top attractions in South Africa. The route follows the N2 along the southwestern coast of the country between Mossel Bay and Storms River.

Knysna has captivated travelers for decades thanks to its sheer natural beauty, whether it's from a clifftop perch on a scenic coastal drive or from the water heading to protected Featherbed Nature Reserve. Even travelers who are just passing through often feel the call to stop at the Knysna waterfront for a lovely lunch and a pop into one of the shops.

No matter what you're in the mood for, you can find it with these best things to do in Knysna.

1. Marvel at the Knysna Heads

Knysna Heads
Knysna Heads | Photo Copyright: Meagan Drillinger

The very best introduction to the seaside town of Knysna is to get the lay of the land at the spectacular Knysna Heads. The Heads act like a natural gateway between the Indian Ocean, the Knysna River, and the Knysna Lagoon.

The two rocky cliffs stand like guardians between the drama of the ocean and the tranquility of the river that leads into the lagoon and the town of Knysna. Waves thrash against the rocky outcrops, making for impressive, breathtaking views of the contrast between wild nature and civilization.

One of the best spots to take in the Heads is from a viewpoint over East Head. It has a variety of viewing decks that look down across the river. The West Head is more difficult to access, as the roads are not public. To have views from the West Head, you'll have to take a ferry across the lagoon to enter the Featherbed Nature Reserve, which you absolutely must do.

2. Explore Featherbed Nature Reserve

Featherbed Nature Reserve
Featherbed Nature Reserve | Photo Copyright: Meagan Drillinger

The Lagoon in Knysna is one of its most identifiable features and, if you cross the lagoon, you'll be heading into Featherbed Nature Reserve. One of South Africa's Natural Heritage Sites, the reserve spans 150 hectares and is only accessible by ferry along the Western Head of Knysna.

The list of things to do in the reserve is lengthy, but the highlights include lagoon cruises, hiking nature trails and the Heads, as well as wildlife spotting. Keep your eyes peeled for the blue duiker, one of the smallest antelope species on the continent.

While in the reserve, you can participate in a variety of activities. Take a 4WD vehicle up the headland, or follow a specialist guide to learn about the history, flora, and fauna. Another option is to take a guided walk into the ancient sea caves that pepper the reserve.

Visitors can access the reserve from the Featherbed Ferry Terminus, which is off Waterfront Drive in Knysna. Reservations are a must. A typical tour takes four hours and includes lunch.

Address: Featherbed Ferry Terminus, Remembrance Drive Off, Waterfront Drive, Knysna, 6570, South Africa

3. Wander the Knysna Waterfront

Knysna waterfront
Knysna waterfront | Photo Copyright: Meagan Drillinger

The heart of Knysna is its downtown waterfront, with lovely views over the lagoon and a buzzing energy. The Knysna waterfront is where you'll find many of the town's great restaurants and boutiques, as well as lovely hotels and boats for private charter. It's a great place to go sightseeing and get to know the vibe of the town.

Knysna's best shopping is at the waterfront. Here, you'll find designer clothing, local artists' galleries, jewelry, souvenirs, and specialty stores. Basically if you're in the market for it, the Knysna waterfront probably has it. After you've shopped yourself silly, park at one of the many al fresco restaurants for great food and a view of the yachts cruising in and out of the marina.

If you're visiting on a weekend or during a holiday, expect the waterfront to be particularly energetic. Parking is available, but the lot can get full pretty quickly if it's a beautiful day. It's best to arrive early.

Address: 21 Waterfront Drive, Knysna Central, Knysna, South Africa

4. Get Out onto the Lagoon

Knysna Lagoon
Knysna Lagoon | Photo Copyright: Meagan Drillinger

The Knysna Lagoon can be seen from almost any point in town — it is one of the most defining features of the area. Perhaps the best way to experience the lagoon is to get out onto it with one of the many boat charters available at the waterfront.

You can also take the ferry across the lagoon to visit the Featherbed Nature Reserve on the western head.

Once upon a time, the British Royal Navy said that the lagoon had one of the most dangerous harbor entrances in the world, thanks to the Knysna Heads that stand at the lagoon entrance, separating it from the Indian Ocean.

The lagoon is a habitat for some of the magical bird species along the Garden Route, as well, from sandpipers and herons to African fish eagles and the Knysna warbler.

Among the other activities you can enjoy on the lagoon are wakeboarding, SUP, water-skiing and canoeing.

5. Visit Thesen Island

Thesen Island
Thesen Island | Photo Copyright: Meagan Drillinger

A small bridge separates the Knysna waterfront from the charming Thesen Island, a community within a community along the lagoon.

While the pace along the Garden Route is anything but fast-paced, Thesen Island slows it down a notch or two more. Residents take their time floating on their kayaks, wandering the paths that overlook the lagoon, or watching the birds that call the marshlands home.

While the residential side of Thesen Island is a gated community, Thesen Harbour Town is the main commercial area on the island and is open to all. This is where you will find the waterfront restaurants, coffee shops, boutiques, and a scenic village square that has a long pier that extends into the lagoon.

You can find a lot of great restaurants in Thesen, but Sirocco is a local favorite for its gorgeous waterfront views. If you need a good coffee shop and a place to pick up souvenirs, Odyssey Cafe is a very cute little spot right in the harbor town.

6. Visit Knysna Elephant Park

Knysna Elephant Park
Knysna Elephant Park

If your South Africa plans don't include a safari (or even if they do), you'll want to make a trip to visit the Knysna Elephant Park to get your fix of these gorgeous gentle giants.

Established in 1994, this was the first park in South Africa to provide a home for orphaned elephants. Today the facility has helped to care and raise more than 40 elephants that needed a home.

Visitors to the park will be amazed at the facility, which is a free-range environment that gives the elephants the space to move around at their leisure. Visitors can have a supervised personal encounter with the elephants, which includes walking alongside them and feeding them.

Entrance to Knysna Elephant Park
Entrance to Knysna Elephant Park | Photo Copyright: Meagan Drillinger

If you really want to make it a memorable experience, consider an "elephant sleepover," at Knysna Elephant Park Lodge, where guests can spend the night within the elephant sleeping quarters for a most special overnight experience. While during the day the elephants have free roam over the property, at night they return to a special sleeping area called a boma. Here is where guests can also spend the night in a lodge.

7. Drive the Garden Route

South Africa's Garden Route
South Africa's Garden Route | Photo Copyright: Meagan Drillinger

South Africa's Garden Route is one of its most popular itineraries for visitors coming to the country — and one of the most scenic drives in the world.

The 300-kilometer road trip route follows the N2 from Mossel Bay to the Storms River mouth and, as it happens, cruises right past Knysna.

The route is cushioned between the Indian Ocean and the Outeniqua and Tsitsikamma Mountains, surrounded by spectacular forests and known for its outdoor adventure opportunities. The Garden Route is a must for anyone visiting the country, with a winding road that traverses past jaw-dropping vistas, rolling hills, open plains, crashing surf, and through quaint villages.

You can drive the Garden Route in either direction from Knysna. You can make Knysna your homebase and do sections of the drive, too. For example, the drive from Knysna to nearby Plettenberg Bay is about half an hour.

The drive to Knysna makes a great road trip from Cape Town, as well.

8. Wander the Garden of Eden

Garden of Eden
Garden of Eden | Photo Copyright: Meagan Drillinger

Along the N2, just outside of Knysna, is a lovely place to stretch your legs among the towering trees. This protected natural area is called the Garden of Eden and is cut with a kilometer-long stretch of wooden boardwalk that crosses over streams and travels underneath a great canopy of trees.

It costs approximately R10 to enter the Garden of Eden, and the entire route is accessible for all travelers. Those who want to meander off to explore other areas can take one of the several walking trails that split off from the boardwalk.

It's nothing supremely adventurous, but it is a delightful walk that is tucked away from the road in a lush, verdant forest environment. If you've been driving the Garden Route, this would be a good spot to get out of the car for a charming brush with nature.

9. Have Some Laughs at Adventure Land

Knysna may be right on the sea, but Adventure Land is a whole new type of aquatic experience. This 24-hectare park is jam-packed with waterslides and swimming pools, making it a great place to visit for families.

One of the most popular rides at Adventure Land is its Supertube, a 75-meter tube that packs in twists and turns before churning you out into a splash pool below. Aquatic enthusiasts will also love the kamikaze slide, which was built for speed. A free-fall slide also gives a shot of adrenaline as you free-fall 12 meters down a drop.

For those who want to walk on the mild side, a mini-supertube is much calmer than its big brother. A kiddie slide and pool are also available for the little ones in tow.

The park setting is lovely, too, surrounded by towering trees and flecked with large lawns that are perfect for picnicking. Pack a lunch, load up the family, and prepare to spend the day.

Address: N2 Harkerville, Plettenberg Bay, 6600, South Africa

10. Spend the Day at Brenton-on-Sea

Brenton-on-Sea | Photo Copyright: Meagan Drillinger

Knysna is known for its lagoon, but is otherwise lacking when it comes to great beaches. For beaches, residents of Knysna head to the next town over, Brenton-on-Sea, which is on the other side of the West Head.

The beauty of the Garden Route is that it is literally bordered with absolutely beautiful beaches and dotted with quaint towns. A quick drive from Knysna will bring you to the seafront village of Brenton-on-Sea, home to some of the best beaches along the Garden Route. The drive into Brenton-on-Sea is particularly stunning, with coastal views the entire way.

Brenton is named for Sir Jahleel Brenton who is credited with naming Knysna a harbor in the 19th century. One of the best things to do in Brenton-on-Sea is visit the Brenton Blue Butterfly Reserve. The butterfly is endangered, and Brenton-on-Sea is largely undeveloped to ensure its protection.

While visiting Brenton-on-Sea, you can pass through the Goukamma Nature Reserve. This attraction encompasses 14 kilometers of coastline, with ample hiking and walking trails.

11. Buffalo Bay Beach

Buffalo Bay Beach
Buffalo Bay Beach | Photo Copyright: Meagan Drillinger

The reason residents and tourists in Knysna head to Brenton-on-Sea is predominantly for its beaches, most notably Buffalo Bay Beach. This is the best place to visit in Brenton-on-Sea because it is among the most beautiful beaches in South Africa thanks to its long, leisurely stretch of sand and crashing, white-capped waves of the Indian Ocean.

If you're looking for a great beach hike, the walk from Buffalo Bay to Brenton-on-Sea town is a popular one. The 5.2-kilometer walk is relatively easy, following the beach and the dunes. You can do the walk in either direction, but many like to end the hike at Brenton-on-Sea because it offers the opportunity to find something to eat at the end of a long walk.