“Kirstenbosch – The Most Beautiful Garden in Africa”
A trip to Cape Town is incomplete without a day trip to Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens! Nestled against the eastern slopes of Table Mountain, these lush gardens are simply bursting with both indigenous and exotic plant and animal life. Kirstenbosch is wonderful for botanists, nature enthusiasts, outdoor lovers, bird watchers, foodies, families, and anybody who enjoys beautiful views and interesting plants. Having grown up in Cape Town, I have visited the gardens many, many times, and yet every time is a new adventure!
How old are the gardens, and where did Kirstenbosch get its name from?
The area of land that is now Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens was first visited by the indigenous Khoi Khoi people for around 2000 years before Jan Van Riebeek arrived in the Cape and started a Dutch settlement. Stone Age tools have been found in the Dell, which confirms the presence of ancient peoples living in the area and taking advantage of the shelter, water, and food availability long before Europeans ever set foot on African soil.
The European occupation quickly spread to Kirstenbosch, and the area was originally used for timber and farmland. The origins of the name Kirstenbosch are uncertain, but it is likely that the area was once owned by the Kirsten family, hence “Kirsten’s Forest” (bosch = forest). Cecil John Rhodes owned Kirstenbosch from 1895 until his death in 1902, upon which he left the land to the government.
In 1913 the Botanical Society was founded, and with the help of passionate botany Professor Harold Pearson, a neglected and over-grown farm was transformed into Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. Pearson’s grave is in the gardens, with a gorgeous view of the slopes of Table Mountain – it bears the inscription, ‘If ye seek his monument, look around.’ I couldn’t agree more!
What should I expect from a visit to Kirstenbosch?
The gardens are huge (covering 828 hectares, or the space of about 800 international rugby fields!) and diverse, with many areas to explore and lots to see. I’d recommend at least a full day (6-8 hours) at Kirstenbosch for the full, immersive experience, including a picnic lunch or lunch at Moyo restaurant. There are various themed walks, such as the fynbos walk, the cycad walk, fragrance garden, and more, so you may want to choose a few things to prioritise to do first, in case you run out of time.
If you are planning to hike up Table Mountain, you can start at Kirstenbosch and take either the Nursery Ravine or Skeleton Gorge paths up the mountain, walking directly from the gardens. These routes take you up the Eastern slopes of the mountain, and you can take the Table Mountain Cable Car down, for easy access back to the city centre. That way, you can take the sightseeing bus from Cape Town city centre to the gardens, hike up and across Table Mountain, and take the cable car down back into the city centre. Easy!
Whilst my personal recommendation is to explore the gardens at your own pace and whim, knowing about a few extra-special attractions is helpful if you’re short on time. A map of the gardens provided at the entrance is useful, but I thought I’d share some of my photographs and show you exactly what to look out for!
1. Boomslang Tree Canopy Walk
The Boomslang Tree Canopy Walk is a relatively recent addition to Kirstenbosch (built for the centenary of the gardens in May 2014) , and a spectacular one at that. The walkway is engineered to be flexible enough to move slightly with the wind, which gives it the feeling of being on the back of an immense snake – hence the name, “Tree Snake” (Boomslang).
With the highest point of the walkway 12 m above the ground, you will be up close and personal with the tree canopy, and walk among beautiful birds and foliage that we don’t often get to see. There are information boards along the way, so the curious traveller can learn a bit about the geography of the Cape, and the kinds of trees you’ll find as you walk by. (My favourite is the Forest Fever Tree, or Anthocleista grandiflora). The views of the mountain are stunning, so make a note to remember your camera (and tripod!).
2. The Cycads, Dinosaur Walk, and the Dell
I simply love the cycad garden because it feels so prehistoric – these bizarre trees have a 340 million year history, which is quite fitting for the current dinosaur sculpture exhibition. The cycad garden now has 9 life-size dinosaur sculptures, including 4 dinosaurs indigenous to South Africa.
This area of Kirstenbosch is great for kids and adults alike, as the scenery is unique and interesting, and dinosaurs are a great attraction. The exhibition is only running until June 2017, however, so I’d visit sooner rather than later.
If you walk downwards into the Dell, you will find Colonel Bird’s Bath, a source of fresh spring water used by colonial settlers in the Cape. The stream flows out of the Dell and into the main pond, which is surrounded by grassy lawns and dotted with huge oak trees that provide shade for picnics and afternoon naps.
3. Proteas & Fynbos Walk
Whether you’re an avid amateur botanist or simply someone who appreciates beautiful and unique plants, the fynbos walk in Kirstenbosch is well worth visiting. Fynbos is made up of many curious and fascinating plants, most of which only grow in the Cape Floral Kingdom (Capensis, the smallest and richest floral kingdom in the world).
Fynbos is incredibly diverse, including the majestic and easily recognisable proteas, delicate ericas, and many other strange plants that sometimes look like they come from another world! The protea gardens are quite a way up the slopes of the south western side of the gardens, but the views and tranquillity are well worth the walk.
Lunch at Moyo Restaurant – What to Eat!
If you have some money in your budget for a treat, then why not have an indulgent lunch at Moyo Restaurant? There are many delicious meals available, including more exotic African dishes featuring springbok antelope, ostrich, and even crocodile! (Those dishes obviously don’t appeal to me as I’m vegetarian, hah, but apparently they are very good). There’s also a good selection of South African wines and many typical local South African dishes for you to try.
Check out the menu here to plan your day – there’s plenty to suit different dietary restrictions, and the prices are listed too so you can make sure that you allow for lunch in your budget.
Planning a picnic lunch for Kirstenbosch:
Alternatively, you could plan a picnic to enjoy under a tree on the sprawling lawns. You can bring food and drink (including alcohol) into the gardens, so you can prepare a picnic to bring with you on your visit. My recommendation is to buy some ready-made picnic supplies at a local supermarket, like Woolworths or Pick’n’Pay, or to prepare some snacks at your accommodation if you have the facilities.
Picnic at Kirstenbosch – My Recommended Noms:
- Selection of bread, savoury crackers, and crisps
- Local cheeses – Fairview cheese is my absolute favourite (a full post to come on Fairview Wine & Cheese Farm!). Get some goat’s cheese, brie, Camembert, and feta for a cheesy feast.
- Olives, artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes, and other yummy deli things
- Cold meats (if you eat eat meat, of course)
- Hummus and dips
- Wine! A dry rosé, sauvignon blanc, and chardonnay are my top picks.
Kirstenbosch Summer Concerts
Many Capetonians spend their summer Sunday evenings (usually from November to April) at a Kirstenbosch concert. The concerts feature local musicians and artists, and prices vary greatly depending on who you’re planning on seeing! You can bring a picnic and a bottle of wine, and settle down on the grassy hill for an evening of music and relaxation. The season is over for this year until November 2017, but you can check here for updates and details on next summer’s lineup.
- Location from Cape Town city centre – Kirstenbosch is 13 km (8 miles) from Cape Town’s city centre, and it is well signposted on all major roads.
- How to get to Kirstenbosch – If your accommodation is based in the city and you have a rental car (recommended!) you can drive there. Take De Waal Drive (M3) in the direction of Muizenberg, at the Rhodes Drive (M63) traffic light intersection turn right and follow the signs to Kirstenbosch. Free parking is available at Gates 1, 2 and 3.
You can also take the The City Sightseeing Hop On Hop Off Bus, with the Blue Route mini peninsula tour. The bus stops at the Garden 15 times a day during summer (mid Sept to April) and 12 times a day during winter (May to mid September), 7 days a week. The bus stop for the City Sightseeing bus is at the Visitors’ Centre (Gate 1). The first bus arrives at 09:50 and there is one every 20 minutes in summer, and one every 35 minutes in winter, until the last at 16:20.
- Opening Hours:
Sep-Mar (Summer) Mon-Sun,
Apr-Aug (Winter) Mon-Sun,
I’d recommend arriving as early as possible, especially in summer, to avoid crowds and the midday heat!
- Entrance Fees (as of 1st September 2016)
SA Students (with card): R30
Children (6 – 17 years): R15
Under 6 years: Free
BOTSOC members: Free
SA Senior Citizens (with ID): Free on Tuesdays except on public holidays
Unfortunately, there are no group discounts available with ticket purchases.