There are botanical gardens and then there is Cape Town’s Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden. Nestled beneath the imposing eastern flank of Table Mountain, its impossibly dramatic setting is just one of the reasons why many in the know have long considered Kirstenbosch to be the world’s most beautiful botanical garden. This unofficial designation gained additional credence earlier this year when it was named ‘Garden of the Year‘ at the International Garden Tourism Awards in Toronto, Canada.

So what makes Kirstenbosch so special and well worth an afternoon if you are headed to Cape Town?  For one thing, it’s more than just a garden; while the garden itself encompasses 36 rolling, magical hectares, it lies within a sprawling 526-hectare nature reserve that blends seamlessly into the natural forests and endemic fynbos ecosystems of the mountain above. A system of trails allows visitors to explore the environs of the reserve and get a feel for what the Cape was like before the arrival of settlers in the 17th century.

Pan out even further and you’ll see that Kirstenbosch lies in the heart of the Cape Floral Kingdom, part of which is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site (hence, it is the only botanical garden in the world with a UNESCO designation). Though the Cape Floral Kingdom encompasses less than 0.5% of Africa’s landmass, it is home to nearly 20% of Africa’s species of plants. Or, as UNESCO puts it, “The outstanding diversity, density and endemism of the flora (found here) are among the highest worldwide.” (Note: The Cape Floral Kingdom is one of the world’s six Floral Kingdoms. To put that into perspective, another Floral Kingdom, Holarktis, encompasses all of the US, Canada, Europe and most of Asia, while another, Neotropsis, covers all of South and Central America including 99% of Mexico.)

Kirstenbosch by Andrea is licensed by CC BY 2.0.

Kirstenbosch by Andrea is licensed by CC BY 2.0.

Kirstenbosch was founded in 1913 to conserve and display this embarrassment of floral riches, making it the first botanical garden in the world dedicated to showcasing and protecting its country’s indigenous plant life. Over 7,000 cultivated species, including outrageously-flowered fynbos, proteas, pincushions, and heaths, as well as towering trees, bucolic ponds, and grassy open spaces, all combine to create a dreamy and surreal landscape that often seems more redolent of Dr. Suess than reality.

So, while there are many, many “can’t miss” things to do and see in Cape Town, make sure that a visit to Kirstenbosch is at or near the top of your list. You won’t regret it.