The Free State presents a vast wheat-coloured landscape. This is the agricultural heartland of South Africa that seems to run on a different timeline to the rest of the country. It’s the land of rugby, sunny skies and big wide open spaces – so nature and physical activity play a big role in this part of the world.
Bloemfontein is the capital city. Known as ‘The City of Roses’, it has grown in leaps and bounds over the years. It is now home to malls, a handful of high-quality restaurants and some high quality hotels. Here historical architecture seems to sit happily beside modern high-rises. A walk down President Brand Street delivers a veritable history lesson in sandstone.
As you walk through the city, keep an eye out for The National Museum, the Oliewenhuis Art Museum, and the First and Fourth Raadsaals. In-between, spot the numerous monuments commemorating people and events, including the rather sobering National Women’s Memorial. You also won’t want to miss beautiful King’s Park, with its thousands of rose bushes. Your wandering will at some point take you to Naval Hill. This military landmark from the Anglo-Boer War is in the Franklin Game Reserve – an actual game reserve in the middle of the city.
Refreshment and shopping can be enjoyed at the Loch Logan Waterfront. If you’re a real foodie, make sure to book a table at the Oude Kraal Country Estate and Spa: its meals using fine local produce are legendary. Then again, the entire Free State is known for it’s superb ‘boerekos’, served with home-grown hospitality.
On the face of it one small Free State town, or dorp, looks almost identical to another. Look a bit closer, though, and you’ll discern something fabulously quirky about them. They appeal strongly to city-dwellers from Johannesburg and Pretoria trying to find a little sanity and a laid-back country lifestyle. Consequently these towns have become migration destinations, with charming results. Many have become havens for artists and craftspeople. Particularly noteworthy small towns of the Free State include Clarens, Parys, Smithfield, Rosendal and Ficksburg.
Clarens is probably the town most responsible for putting the Free State on the tourist map. Situated in the Eastern Free State (Thabo Mofutsanyana), this fun little town offers a mix of art galleries, cafes, B&Bs and guest houses. There’s an abundance of natural attractions and a few oddball characters thrown in for good measure.
The quirkiness continues when you visit Parys, with its mini Eiffel Tower – or the UFO centre in Smithfield. You can spend the night in the local jail in Philippolis or travel to Ficksburg for its annual cherry festival.
The Free State is also not short on spectacular natural attractions. The Golden Gate Highlands National Park has long been a magnet for nature lovers across South Africa. And if you want some adventure thrown in with your sightseeing, head deeper into the surrounding Maluti Mountains.
If you’re looking for culture and ancient history, you’ll find both in the Free State. You’ll have to sometimes take on some rugged terrain to get to it, though, so read up and make the necessary arrangements in advance.
The Basotho Cultural Village is one of the most authentic cultural villages in the country and at Thaba Nchu you can visit Chief Moroka’s grave. From there, make your way to the numerous sacred San art sites and don’t forget to stop over at the Mmabana Cultural Centre for some artistic fulfilment. Military history enthusiasts can visit the battlefield sites scattered all over the province.
You can turn the clock back even further by visiting the Vredefort Dome - a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s the world’s largest meteorite impact site, estimated at being over 2 000 million years old, with a 190km radius.
Adventure-seekers and water sports enthusiasts should head for the Gariep Dam, the Ash River, the Meulspruit Dam, the Sterkfontein Dam and the Vaal Dam.