To write a post comparing Stellenbosch versus Franschhoek in the Cape Winelands is fairly dangerous. I may have furious hoteliers from both towns claiming that I have been biased. However let’s make this comparison as it’s what our clients want to know.
Where I come from the Cotswolds in England (though I moved here over 20 years ago), we used to have what we used to call “show villages”. Bourton on the Water would be a classic example. It is immensely picturesque with a babbling brook running through it, charming little shops and art galleries and a wide village green bordered by handsome golden-stoned Cotswold cottages (which would be considered large houses anywhere else in the country). Its obvious appeal led to coach loads of tourists wanting to spend their money. (They even had to establish a coach park on the edge of the village!) Lovely little expensive shops sprang up to lighten the weight of the punters’ wallets. There is nothing wrong with Bourton on the Water; it’s just that it is somewhat unreal. Real villages don’t look like that.
To my mind, there is something of the Bourtons about Franschhoek… Yes it is a pretty little town in a gorgeous valley with a central street crammed with chi-chi little shops and the ubiquitious art galleries. There are no end of charming little places to eat. So I can see its obvious appeal to the visitor. But is it real? (Does that even matter, you may ask?)
Stellenbosch is South Africa’s second oldest town, and probably the most beautiful. Governor Simon van der Stel visited the Eerste River Valley in 1679 and decided this was the perfect place to establish farms to feed the growing restocking needs of all the ships passing through Cape Town on their way from Europe to the Dutch East Indies. This charming town was established soon after in 1685 and offers an array of oak-lined streets with picturesque Cape Dutch houses with their characteristic white limestone walls, and ancient water furrows lining the streets. It is home to some of the best restaurants in the country with three restaurants currently in SA’s top ten (Terroir, Rust en Vrede and Overture), the finest wine estates as well as the popular Stellenbosch University.
- A patchwork of charming oak-lined streets brimmed with shops, bistros and yes, art galleries. But given that the town is not reliant only on tourists, the range and prices are wider and more eclectic. Restaurants are not just for tourists but for locals and students.
- The only University town in South Africa (perhaps alongside Grahamstown) and the sizeable student population lends a vibrancy and carefree air.
- Loads of history dating back to the 17th century with some interesting museums to visit such as the Village Museum and the Stellenryk Wine Museum.
- Being larger, there is plenty of offer in addition to wine and food-tasting. The Rupert Museum contains one of the finest collections of South African art as well as a motor museum, the Eagles Encounter and Giraffe House area great wildlife awareness centres and Jonkershoek Nature Reserve is ideal for walking.
- Stellenbosch is more central than Franschhoek so every part of the Cape Winelands is within a 30 minute drive, whereas it would take you well over an hour to get to Vergelegen from Franschhoek
- Similarly you have a vast array of wine estates in all directions (over 100 at the last count), many of which have excellent restaurants for lunchtime stops. Its probably fair to say that many of the better wine estates in South Africa are in the Stellenbosch valley with its slightly milder climate – think Thelema, Kanonkop, Rustenberg…
- This is a town, rather than a large village, so there is traffic and there is an industrial area on the northern side of the town. Depending on your route into the town, you may be immediately captivated by the outskirts of Stellenbosch. The easy analogy here is Oxford in England versus Cambridge.
- Its vibrancy also means that parking is an issue. No more so than in many touristy towns in Europe but to struggle to find parking in South Africa is a rarity! You may have to park further away and walk a few hundred metres…
As with its shops, Stellenbosch has a wider array of places to stay. If you are on a budget, Stellenbosch will offer more options that Franschhoek. We use a variety of places but some of our favourites include River Manor, Majeka House & Spa, Oude Werf Hotel, Rusthuiz Guesthouse and Lanzerac Hote & Spa. Some – River Manor, Oude Werf & Rusthuiz – are in the town centre or easy walking distance away. Others are on the edge of town so that you would need to use a rental car or have a private guide.
The origins of this charming and beautifully situated village date back to 1688 when some of the French Huguenots fleeing religious persecution in Europe settled in the valley, then known as Elephants Corner. As the settlers increased the elephants ceased their annual migration to the valley, which gradually became known as French Corner, or ‘Franschhoek’ in Afrikaans. The French influence is evident today in the names of the surrounding wine estates and the number of excellent restaurants.
- It is very easy to get around. Franschhoek is basically one long main street with secondary streets in a grid fashion. There are no real issues with parking though you might need to park one street back from the main road.
- It’s very pretty as it is smaller than Stellenbosch and dominated by its verdant mountain backdrop. There are lovely street cafes and bistros where you can sit out and relax in the sunshine.
- As well as the wine estates to visit, there’s also the Franschhoek Motor Museum and the Franschhoek Wine Tram which visits several wine estates so that you don’t have to worry about wine-tasting whilst driving.
- Though Stellenbosch perhaps has the edge in fine dining, these are mainly based on the surrounding wine estates. Franschhoek excels with their array of IN-village restaurants.
- Franschhoek is unashamedly a tourist town. Even more so than the rest of the Winelands, everything is orientated around either wine-tasting or eating and drinking. This is not necessarily a bad thing but if you also enjoy Cape Dutch architecture, history, museums, exploring little alleyways then Stellenbosch might be a better bet.
- As it is orientated around tourist visitors, everything is pretty expensive in the shops and galleries. (On the other hand, they are geared towards visitors so it’s all pretty slick.)
- Franschhoek is in the north-eastern part of the Winelands so it is not central. This is not a major issue unless you are catching a morning flight from the airport. (You would save yourselves an extra 45 minutes in bed if you base yourself in Stellenbosch.)
Again a wealth of places to stay but mostly in the middle to upper to extremely expensive. We like Franschhoek Country House, Avonsrood and Rusthof Guesthouses, Le Quartier francais and, if you want to push the boat out, La Residence. As with Stellenbosch, only some of these are within walking distance of the shops etc.
Other places to stay in the Cape Winelands
Of course these are not the only towns in the Cape Winelands. Paarl is the largest town and well worth a visit if you have a few days but here the commercial part of the town has dwarfed the old historic area – unlike in Stellenbosch. Somerset West is also very popular but it is somewhat sleepy for me. The big plus of staying there is that it is close to the beaches of the Southern Coast and to Hermanus. So it makes a great base for an extended stay of 5-6 nights. We always recommend Vergelegen Homestead and Wine Estate, to nearby Lourensford estate for its wine and chocolate pairing.
Conclusion on Stellenbosch versus Franschhoek
There is no set answer with regards to Stellenbosch versus Franschhoek. Where you stay in the Cape Winelands is a matter of your own personal preference in terms of what you like to do. As you can see, I love Stellenbosch and hate to think that Franschhoek is being chosen just because it is better marketed (which it certainly is), but both have their charms.
If you want to start planning your South Africa trip, feel free to contact us!