The Cape Winelands are an absolute must-visit for anyone traveling to Cape Town and its surroundings. There, you’ll find expansive mountainous landscapes lined with pristine vineyards, views as far as the eye can see, and, most importantly, unbelievably affordable world-class wine. For those unfamiliar with the region, it can be a bit intimidating. With so many wine estates to choose from, where do you begin? How do you get from one to the next?
The ultimate way to travel through the spectacular Cape Winelands in style is aboard the Franschhoek Wine Tram. This vintage-style railway tram will take you on a journey through Franschhoek Valley’s 300-year-old winemaking history while you sample some of South Africa’s prized wines. Along the way, you can hop on and off to visit some of South Africa’s oldest and most acclaimed vineyards, enjoy world-class cuisine, and partake in a range of activities, all while taking in the incredible views of this beautiful wine region.
A historic Cape Winelands town with a long history
Franschhoek, where you can climb aboard the train, is an old town with a winemaking history that dates back to the 17th century. It began when the French Huguenots settled in the valley and established farms, many of which were named after French areas. Some of the early farms, such as La Motte, La Provence, and Cabrière, still stand and have thriving wineries. There are even some original Cape Dutch farmhouses.
Franschhoek is referred to by some as the country’s gourmet capital. The Franschhoek Valley is home to many vineyards, and wineries range from boutique operations to much larger cellars. Couple this with some of the country’s — and even the world’s — top restaurants, and you’ve got yourself a gourmand’s dream.
The Franschhoek Wine Tram
In 1904, tram tracks were built as an alternative means of transport for farmers that used ox-drawn carts to market their products. The steam locomotives transitioned to diesel in the 1970s, and the trams ran all the way up until the 1990s. After that, there was less of a need for rail transport. The tracks were dormant for more than a decade, but in 2012, the line was revived into the Franschhoek Wine Tram.
In 2017, the Franschhoek Wine Tram introduced its new double-decker trams modeled after the Blackpool Corporation Tramways Double Deck Balcony Tramcar from the 1920s.
These trams were engineered in South Africa and travel at a maximum of 32 km/h (about 20 mph). This leisurely speed allows you to relax and take in your surroundings. Up to 78 passengers at a time can enjoy the scenic journey aboard the tram, and there are views all around.
Vineyards to stop at along your route
With its Mediterranean climate and glorious mountain slopes and valleys, the Cape region is ideal for viticulture. South African winemaking often bridges the traditional and the modern with a backbone of established old-world techniques and an open mind to new innovations.
The wineries in the region are diverse. From small, independent estates to massive, internationally acclaimed cellars, there’s certainly something for everyone. All the wine estates in Franschhoek are worth visiting, but a few notable wineries stand out.
Franschhoek is home to some of the oldest wine estates in Cape Winelands. There’s Boschendal, which started in 1685 and is the second oldest vineyard in South Africa, as well as La Bri, one of the first of nine farms granted to the Huguenots in 1688. One of the most popular vineyards is Babylonstoren, known for its stunning garden full of indigenous plants, fruits, and vegetables.
Leopard’s Leap is an excellent spot for families, thanks to its child-friendly outdoor space and extensive range of food options. Grande Provence is another historical spot with a beautiful natural setting where you can picnic or wander around the sculpture garden. Grande Provence will even organize a grape juice tasting for the little ones while the adults enjoy some of the winery’s award-winning wines.
At Pigcasso Wine Estate, you can see abstract artworks from the painting duo of Jo Lefson and Pigcasso (an actual pig). All proceeds from sold artworks benefit an animal sanctuary in Franschhoek valley called Farm Sanctuary SA.
Many estates offer pairing options, such as Grand Provence’s wine and hummus and Method Cap Classique and oyster pairings. Those with a sweet tooth will love La Bri’s Plaisir de Merle fudge pairing, Vrede en Lust’s Lindt chocolate pairing, or the Turkish delight pairing.
Those seeking a full meal can’t go wrong with the seasonal, casual fine dining menu at Chefs Warehouse at Maison estate — one of South Africa’s most celebrated dining establishments. Arkeste at Chamonix estate serves a fabulous a la carte selection of dishes that combine molecular gastronomy and pan-Asian fusion with classical French techniques. At the same time, Manger at Dieu Donne Vineyards offers sweeping views along with Mediterranean-style dishes that use fresh local ingredients. Be sure to book these restaurants before arriving, as they get busy during peak season.
Route options on the Franschhoek Wine Tram
Many wine estates offer accommodation, and you should spend a few days in Franschhoek to fully explore the region. It takes about an hour and a half by car to get to Franschhoek from Cape Town, and the Franschhoek Wine Tram offers transfers from Cape Town, Stellenbosch, Paarl, and Strand starting at about $36 per person. It’s not recommended to take public transport, but a few tour companies such as City Sightseeing offer packages with an inclusive transfer from the city and a Hop-On Hop-Off ride.
There are two tram terminals, the Franschhoek and Groot Drakenstein terminals. Your starting terminal depends on which line you select, but both serve up coffee and beignets as an excellent start to your wine journey.
With so many things to see along the tram tracks, you’ll have a tough time picking which “experience” package to indulge in. Here’s a breakdown of the options to choose from:
Hop-On Hop-Off Experience
The Hop-On Hop-Off experience is the most popular and the most flexible option. This journey can last anywhere between two and seven hours and is priced at just over $18 per adult plus wine tasting fees. Depending on the estate, wine tastings can set you back from around $2 up to $10, making it an affordable way to spend your day.
The Hop-On Hop-Off package allows you to pick one of eight tram lines: Purple, Orange, Blue, Pink, Green, Yellow, Grey, or Red lines. These lines let you explore up to six wine farms in a day. You’ll be able to choose where you go, what you eat, and how long you spend at each spot. The Blue and Green lines focus on boutique estates set against mountainous backdrops, while the Red and Yellow lines focus more on internationally renowned estates within the valley. If you’re short on time or would like to visit as many estates as possible, the Purple, Orange, Pink, and Grey Lines offer shorter intervals with around 30 minutes at each estate. Kids are welcome to tag along for around $7, while kids under three years old are free.
Exclusive Wine and Cuisine Experience
For an experience that you can share with up to 25 of your closest friends, the Exclusive Wine and Cuisine Experience is an indulgent journey that explores the best the valley has to offer. Your day begins with a breakfast and wine pairing (because wine is definitely the new coffee) at MIKO, the flagship restaurant at Mont Rochelle hotel and vineyard complete with 180-degree valley views. From there, you’ll partake in a Méthode Cap Classique (South Africa’s sparkling wine made in the same way that Champagne is) and macaroon pairing on board the vintage Brill tram. The next stop is a decadent lunch consisting of modern comfort food at Pierneef à La Motte. Of course, lunch includes a tasting of La Motte’s acclaimed wines before a viewing of its impressive art gallery. As there’s always room for dessert, your day will end with a dessert and wine pairing at Haute Cabrière as well as a Sabrage — a ceremonial opening of a sparkling wine bottle with a saber. All of this, as well as a coffee upon arrival at the terminal, is included in the ticket price of around $180.
Curated Wine Experience
The Curated Wine Experience is designed for those serious about their food and wine. Here, you’ll be able to learn more about the winemaking process with a lecture from a knowledgeable wine guide and take a tour through one of the cellars.
The package also includes premium wine tastings and a three-course lunch at one of the celebrated wine estate restaurants. Priced at around $83 per person, this adults-only option starts at 10:30 AM and ends at around 5:00 PM.
The final tour on offer combines the privacy of a group tour and the freedom (and excellent price) of the Hop-On Hop-Off tour. The Group Experience, like the Hop-On Hop-Off package, is priced at about $18 per person and does not include wine tastings or food. However, it can include a wine lecture or lunch/picnic for an extra fee upon request. There are two group experiences available: the Valley Experience and the Village Experience. The Valley Experience takes you through the stunning Groot Drakenstein Valley while the Village option explores the adorable Franschhoek Village. Both options visit three wine estates and last four to five hours. Kids can join in on this package too at under $6, or free for children under three.