Pietermaritzburg is conveniently set less than an hour’s drive from the beach, and a similar distance again from the first swells of the Drakensberg mountains. Around the city in every direction lie farmlands, which is perhaps why ‘Maritzburg’, as it is locally known, has managed to retain its small town feel. This despite being the capital city of KwaZulu-Natal and a significant centre of the local economy.
Ironically, although it is named after a pair of Afrikaans leaders (the ill-fated Piet Retief, murdered by the Zulu king Dingane, and Gerrit Maritz), Pietermaritzburg has an unmistakably English feel about it. A stroll around the city centre reveals this through the monuments and buildings that share a Victorian heritage.
A drive from the city in almost any direction reveals beautiful scenery. To the north is the charming village of Hilton - all mist and drizzle, quaint gardens and beautiful views of the distant mountains.
Driving east reveals the pleasures of Wartburg, a slice of Germany complete with the cuisine. Further south is the Valley of a Thousand Hills where the Umgeni River winds its way through fold after spectacular fold. And heading west out of Pietermaritzburg one encounters the beautiful grasslands of Ixopo, made famous by Alan Paton in Cry the Beloved Country.
Pietermaritzburg is also a great sporting centre, playing host to the annual Comrades Marathon and Dusi Canoe Marathon, as well as a large number of cycling events.
Look out for
The National Botanic Gardens of Natal is a 44ha patch of natural bush and cultivated gardens in the suburbs of the city. Picnic by the pond, birdwatch or enjoy lunch at the restaurant.
The Natal Museum has a comprehensive collection of the country’s cultural and natural history. This comes complete with a recreation of a typical Pietermaritzburg street from the 1800s.
The Church of the Vow, built after the Battle of Blood River and another link to the area’s Afrikaans heritage. It includes a museum of the Voortrekkers’ lifestyle.
Every April the Royal Agricultural Show is held, focusing on agriculture and arts and crafts.
The Tatham Art Gallery, housed in the old Supreme Court and home to a variety of African art and a cultured café.
Wander up to World’s View, a viewing site 1 083 metres above sea level, and gaze out over the city and the countryside beyond. Also keep an eye out for the Voortrekker tracks that are still visible and have been declared a National Monument.
Pop into Publicity House and plan a walk around town. Make sure this takes in the architecture of the legislative assembly, the red-brick city hall and the arcades and lanes of the CBD. Look out for the statue of Mahatma Ghandi, commemorating his links with the city.