With nine provinces in South Africa, it’s understandable that some will be left out from the limelight. We all know about the treasures of the Western Cape, the hidden gems of the Eastern Cape, the hustle of Gauteng, the sunny weather in KwaZulu-Natal and the amazing wildlife in Mpumalanga. But what about the Free State? What do we know about the central province?
Well, it’s home to South Africa’s judicial capital city, Bloemfontein, which is also the capital of the province. It also has strong political roots — it is where both the National Party and the ANC were born. It also has several noteworthy museums and cultural centres, including the Anglo-Boer War Museum and the Oliewenhuis Art Museum & Gallery.
Another highlight of the Free State is the many small towns scattered around the province, each with its own character, culture and historical roots. If browsing through small-town antique stores, visiting town festivals or just enjoying small-town life sounds like fun to you, then make sure to visit some of these in the Free State.
Clarens, referred to as the jewel of the Free State, is the province’s best-known small town. Its centre is geared for tourism, with several hotels (including a Protea Hotel in the Marriott chain), top class restaurants and boutique shops.
But among the town’s top tourist attractions is the Clarens Brewery, one of the country’s first brew-pubs, cider makers and distilleries. Set in the foothills of the magnificent Maluti Mountains, it makes a variety of craft gins, ciders, juices and liqueurs.
Apart from eating, drinking and shopping, Clarens also offers several outdoor and adventure activities, including white-water rafting, hiking, 4X4 trails, golf, hot-air ballooning, abseiling, horse riding and fishing.
It’s also a haven for artists and there are several galleries. Keen art fans should make a point of visiting the Art and Wine Gallery and Artefunto Contemporary Art Galleries.
The town also has a packed events calendar, including the Clarens Beer Festival in February and the HOGS Valentine’s Weekend. Various trail running, cycling, mountain biking, swimming and running events take place there throughout the year. In recent years, Clarens has been home to the Lush Festival, a popular musical event, featuring top local bands, held over the Easter Weekend.
On Saturdays, there is a superb farmer’s market in the central park area of the town, where you can pick up some lovely trinkets and other homemade things, along with delicious foods.
Ficksburg is all about cherries! A visit to this small town will always have to include a visit to the Ionia Cherry Farm, where you can sample their delicious cherry-inspired produce. Make sure to taste the famous cherry liqueur! For the ultimate cherry explosion, visit in November for the annual Cherry Festival.
Other attractions in Ficksburg include the Gumtree (South Africa’s tallest sandstone building), the monument to General Fick and the White Mischief Cruise boat.
Parys is just over an hour’s drive from Johannesburg, making it an easy weekend getaway for the city folk. There might not be too much to explore in the town but most tourists head there for its outdoor activities. Parys offers white-water rafting, abseiling, paintball, quad biking, horse riding, hiking and fishing.
Just outside the town is a micro-brewery — the Dog and Fig Brewery. If you enjoy craft beers, then make sure to visit it. Otherwise, without having to venture out of town, there is the Pickled Pig Ale House, a classic gastro-pub that tries to stock as many different local and imported craft beers as possible, along with a good selection of wines. The food is also pretty good.
Another fun highlight in Parys is the Bon-Af Berry Farm. You can pick your own selection of berries for a picnic or visit the tea garden for an afternoon scone.
Harrismith is a small, charming country town, founded in 1849. It is best known as being the halfway house between Johannesburg and Durban, where road trippers often stop for a rest. It lies just off the N3, about 314km from Johannesburg and 315km from Durban. It’s also often used as the last point to stock up on goods before heading into the Drakensberg.
Apart from being a refuelling and restocking point, there are also a few interesting things to do in the town. The Sterkfontein dam is nearby for water enthusiasts and there is the Platberg Game Reserve and Botanical Garden and a few hiking and mountain biking trails.
Clarens, Ficksburg, Parys and Harrismith are the most tourist-friendly towns in the Free State and are all worth exploring for a weekend getaway.