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WWhen you’re in Free State province, or you pass through it on that long road from Cape Town to Johannesburg, you should certainly make a stop in Bloemfontein – it’s also a perfect overnight stop on the journey. With awesome museums, a great zoo, amazing architecture and a city completely encircled by a nature reserve, it’s a fantastic South African city experience.
Bloemfontein, or ‘Bloem’, as the locals call it, is the judicial capital of South Africa. It’s pretty much in the centre of the country and Free State province, and also happens to be where The Lord of the Rings author JRR Tolkien was born – it’s safe to say that there’s more than a little magic here.
It’s unique in that it has the size and heft of a large African city, yet has the feel of a small country town, with thousands of rose bushes colouring the streets. The literal translation of Bloemfontein from Afrikaans is ‘fountain of flowers’, which gives the city its nickname, the City of Roses. Hence, the annual Rose Festival is a popular local event.
Bloemfontein is also filled with history, in the shape of museums and military buildings commemorating the South African War (formerly known as the Second Anglo-Boer War) of 1899 to 1902. If you’re a history buff, you must know that the National Museum and Anglo-Boer War Museum are highly regarded among historians.
The South African Armour Museum displays tanks, weaponry and an original military hospital. Overlooking the city is Naval Hill, with a striking white horse marking its slopes. The horse was laid out during the South African War as a landmark for approaching horsemen.
Naval Hill is also home to a statue of Nelson Mandela directly overlooking the birthplace of the ANC in Bloemfontein. The hill boasts yet another attraction: one of the most advanced planetariums in South Africa, which has undergone a massive refurbishment.
Sure, it may have a dry and dusty appearance, but Bloemfontein is home to the Free State National Botanical Garden, and the tropical oasis of The Orchid House in Hamilton Park. If you need to put some spring in your step, colourful flowers are always in bloom at Kings Park Rose Garden, where you can take in the popular monthly art markets and all that they offer.
While in Bloem, you might also pop by the Windmill Casino, and the zoo offers some brilliant outdoor picnics.
It doesn’t stop there: if you’re fan of architecture, take in the only twin-spired Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa, built in 1880. You should also visit the Oliewenhuis Art Gallery – a neo-Cape Dutch manor house. Then there’s Freshford House Museum, which brings to life the 1890s. To complete your architecture tour, the magnificent City Hall, the Supreme Court of Appeal and the Fourth Raadsaal buildings are also impressive.
Beyond the city, the Franklin Nature Reserve is home to a dynamic array of wildlife, and the Cheetah Experience is another must-do.
TTravel tips & Planning info
Who to contact
Free State Tourism
Tel: +27 (0)51 404 0300
How to get here
Bloemfontein has an airport and is located roughly in the centre of the country. If you’re keen for a road trip, take the N1 from Johannesburg (400km/5 hours) or Cape Town (1 000km/11 hours), the N3, N5 and N1 from Durban (635km/7 hours), or the N10 and N1 from Port Elizabeth (650km/7.5 hours).
Best time to visit
Bloemfontein experiences extreme temperatures in mid-summer and mid-winter, so spring and autumn are the most pleasant times to visit – September to November and March to May.
Around the area
Bloemfontein is conveniently situated near Lesotho, the Horizon Route (which starts at Philippolis in the south) and the scenic eastern Free State.
Tours to do
The Cheetah Experience is a must.
Many attractions are within easy walking distance, but having your own vehicle to explore in is more convenient.
Length of stay
Two nights, or more if you’re interested in local battlefields and history.
Where to stay
Bloemfontein has a wide range of accommodation to suit all budgets. The Protea Hotel, Urban Hotel and Golf Lodge are popular venues.
There's the week-long Bloemfontein Rose Festival in October