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FFree State is all too often a flat, brown blur, as tourists travelling between Cape Town and Johannesburg breeze through the province and past its capital, Bloemfontein (the largest city in the Manguang Metropolitan Municipality – whichever name is used tends to depend on the politics of the speaker). However, if you have no pressing need to be in Western Cape or Gauteng, you should certainly take a few days to stop and smell the City of Roses – which also happens to be South Africa’s judicial capital.
The area around Mangaung/Bloemfontein offers an exciting mix of experiences for the intrepid tourist. There are adventure activities, heritage routes, arty towns, cultural villages and a range of outdoor attractions that are worth exploring.
About 200km south of the city, you'll find the Gariep Dam on the Orange River, renowned for water sports (‘gariep’ is the Khoikhoi word for ‘river’ and is the earliest known name given to the Orange). There’s also the Gariep Nature Reserve, home to a variety of game and birdlife. In the same area you’ll find the Tussen die Riviere and Caledon Nature Reserves, which also offer superb rest and relaxation.
Within 2 to 3 hours’ drive from ‘Bloem’, you’ll find a rich choice of destinations. A scenic drive you shouldn’t miss is along the R711 between Fouriesburg and Clarens in eastern Free State (the district of Thabo Mofutsanyana, which borders neighbouring state Lesotho).
From there, drive on to the Golden Gate Highlands National Park with its majestic sandstone outcrops, the perfect spot for a photographic safari. Head further south and you can explore a Sotho Cultural Village as well as the mountain town of Phuthaditjhaba (‘the place where several tribes meet’), near the Lesotho border. Hiking in this part of the Drakensberg mountain range is also very popular.
Bloemfontein’s surrounds include small Free State towns full of charm. Clarens is renowned for its artists, restaurants and scenic location, while Ficksburg has cherries, sports bars, home industries, heritage buildings and colourful locals. Small towns like Fouriesburg, Clocolan and Ladybrand also offer fascinating snapshots of life in this agricultural province.
In northern Free State, you’ll find the Vredefort Dome, the oldest known meteorite impact site in the world – and now a great adventure-tourism destination in the province. Whether you’re into adrenaline, history, architecture, battlefields, San rock art, archaeology and geology, or birdwatching and game drives, you’ll find a tour to suit your special interests within easy reach of the provincial capital.
Free State is also the gateway to neighbouring Lesotho, a mountainous country famous for pony-trekking and hiking. The city of Kimberley, where in the 1860s its famous Big Hole was the site of the biggest diamond rush the world had ever seen, lies just over the border (170km from Mangaung) in Northern Cape province.
TTravel tips & Planning info
Who to contact
Mangaung/Bloemfontein Tourism Information
Tel: +27 (0)51 405 8489
How to get here
Bloemfontein/Manguang is easily accessible via the N1 – it’s about a 400km drive from Johannesburg and 1 000km from Cape Town. There are also direct flights to Bram Fischer International Airport in Mangaung.
Best time to visit
The height of summer can be very hot, and the depths of winter very cold – although not unbearably so, so this is an all-year destination. However, visitors from more temperate climes generally find the shoulder seasons (August to October and March to May) more pleasant. If you want to experience the Ficksburg Cherry Festival, brave the rising heat and come in November…
Free State is quite a large province, so self-drive is your best bet.
Length of stay
To see everything from Kimberley in the north-west to Clarens in the south-east, plus all the Free State attractions in between, will take you at least a week, if you want to do it justice.
What to pack
Hiking boots, sunscreen and hat, comfortable clothing and warm attire for evenings when temperatures drop. Camping gear if you are planning on roughing it.
Where to stay
See the listed websites for accommodation options – there’s a range to suit most budgets.