Bloemfontein’s location in the center of the country makes it a convenient stop-over for those traveling through South Africa by car; and a great base for exploring the wider Free State area. Known colloquially as Bloem and more romantically as the City of Roses, J.R.R. Tolkein’s birthplace is also a worthwhile destination in its own right. It is a center for Afrikaans culture with many attractions relating to Boer and colonial history, and has the diverse array of dining and entertainment options you’d expect from a double capital. However, despite its status as the capital of the Free State and the judicial capital of South Africa, Bloemfontein has the relaxed atmosphere of a provincial town.
Step Back in Time at the National Museum
For history buffs, the first port of call should be the National Museum, located in the city center. Established in 1877, it houses exhibitions on natural history, culture and art. You’ll find Stone Age tools, taxidermied animals and artifacts from indigenous Southern African tribes. In the Palaeontology Hall, fossils of bizarre Pleistocene-era mammals are displayed alongside the bones of their modern counterparts, while a detailed diorama gives an interesting visual overview of 150 years of Bloemfontein history. The best exhibit is the historical street scene. Complete with sound effects, it depicts daily life in a Free State town at the end of the 19th century. Open daily, admission costs just R5 per adult.
Uncover History at the Anglo-Boer War Museum
The Anglo-Boer War Museum tells the story of the 1899-1902 conflict between Great Britain and the Boer Republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. Photographs, paintings and artifacts including weapons and uniforms are displayed throughout seven exhibition halls and explain why the war began, how it progressed and the impact that it had on all South Africans. The exhibitions on the British concentration and prisoner-of-war camps are particularly moving. Make sure to visit the National Women’s Memorial, an obelisk outside the museum dedicated to the 26,000 women and children who died in the camps. The museum is open every day except public holidays and costs R20 per adult.
Tour the Universe at Naval Hill Planetarium
Located just north of the city center, Naval Hill is home to the first digital planetarium in sub-Saharan Africa. Take a seat beneath the planetarium’s domed ceiling and enjoy 3D projector shows that take you across the galaxy, exploring everything from modern astrophysics to the possibility of alien life. The building is also home to the Boyden Observatory. Combine your trip to the planetarium with visits to two other Bloem landmarks — a larger-than-life statue of Nelson Mandela and a 20-meter-tall white horse depicted with painted rocks on the hillside. Both are located a few minutes’ drive away. Tickets for the planetarium can be booked via Computicket and cost R50 per adult.
Catch a Show at Sand du Plessis Theatre
Situated in the heart of the city, the glass-fronted Sand du Plessis Theatre opened its doors in 1985. It 964-seat auditorium is uniquely designed with no central aisle and staggered seating areas instead of a main balcony, creating a venue that’s both spacious and intimate. The theater is home to the Performing Arts Centre of the Free State (PACOFS) and hosts everything from plays and musicals to ballet performances and modern dance shows. It’s also Bloem’s premier concert venue. Past shows include The South African National Youth Orchestra and popular indie rock band The Parlotones. There’s a licensed bar on-site for pre-show drinks. Tickets can be booked on the PACOFS website.
Walk Amongst Wildlife at Franklin Game Reserve
Also located on Naval Hill, Franklin Game Reserve gives you the rare opportunity to come face-to-face with iconic African animals without leaving the city limits. Giraffe, zebra, ostrich and many species of antelope roam freely here amongst a beautiful landscape of indigenous plants and trees. The birdlife and views are also exceptional. You can drive through the reserve or wander along its network of walking and jogging trails. Because there are no predators, exploring on foot is safe — however, many of the animals have become accustomed to human visitors and have lost their natural wariness. For their welfare and yours, do not try to touch or feed them no matter how close they come.
Enjoy Close Encounters at Cheetah Experience
To get your predator fix, pay a visit to non-profit endangered species breeding center Cheetah Experience. This facility supports dwindling wild cheetah populations by re-introducting captive bred animals into protected game reserves. It also houses leopards, lions and several of Africa’s smaller felines including caracals and servals. Educational Tours give you the opportunity to see these majestic animals up close and to learn about conservation efforts and issues. The center also offers dedicated Photography Tours and accepts volunteers and interns. It is open every day except Monday. Check the website for tour times. Educational Tours cost R140 per adult with discounts for children and pensioners; Photography Tours cost R500 per person.
Admire the Oliewenhuis Art Museum Collection
Oliewenhuis Art Museum is housed in a magnificent Cape Dutch Revival mansion that once served as a temporary residence for royal and presidential visitors to Bloemfontein. In 1985 it was converted into an art museum and now provides a comprehensive insight into South African artistic heritage, from Old Masters to contemporary painting and sculpture. An atmospheric underground reservoir hosts regular temporary exhibits, while the landscaped mansion gardens are a wonderful place for a picnic. Here you’ll find four marked walking trails and a carousel with figures inspired by African and European mythology. There’s a tea room on-site and admission is free. The museum is open every day except Christmas Day and Good Friday.
Cheer for the Cheetahs at Free State Stadium
Free State Stadium was built for the 1995 Rugby World Cup and later hosted games during the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Today it’s known as the Toyota Stadium for sponsorship reasons and is the home of the Free State Cheetahs rugby union team. The Cheetahs compete in South Africa’s annual Currie Cup tournament and have a devoted following in Bloemfontein and the wider Free State area. Get tickets to a match to experience the fans' passion for yourself. The stadium has a capacity of 45,000+ and hosts plenty of food and beverage vendors on game days. Tickets can be purchased via the Cheetahs website and cost R30 per adult/R20 per child. Kids under seven go free.
Explore the Free State National Botanical Garden
On Bloem’s northern outskirts lies the Free State National Botanical Garden, a 70-hectare Eden featuring indigenous grassland and woodland spread out over a wide valley. There are over 400 species of plant on display, most of them from the Free State, Northern Cape and Lesotho. Wander meandering pathways that take you through the gardens and lawns to a dam and bird hide. There are 144 species of bird here, including the colorful lilac-breasted roller and the endemic fairy flycatcher. The garden is open every day and costs R25 per adult. There’s a restaurant on-site and guided tours are available from Monday to Friday for an additional R10 per person.
Join the Locals at Die Boeremark Market
Soak up Bloemfontein’s famously friendly atmosphere at Die Boeremark market, held every Saturday in the suburb of Langenhovenpark. Stalls sell fresh produce from the surrounding farms in addition to artisan cheeses, jams, breads and ready-to-eat treats (expect Afrikaans delicacies like koeksisters and melktert). Food isn’t the only thing on offer — you’ll also find everything from boutique clothing to second-hand books, while art and craft stalls are the perfect place to look for trip souvenirs. The market is especially loved by families, with pony rides and jumping castles for the kids. It’s located at 22 Bankovs Boulevard and runs from 7:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. Occasionally the venue hosts Friday night markets as well.
Shop ‘Til You Drop at Loch Logan Waterfront
If you find yourself in need of retail therapy head for Loch Logan Waterfront, the largest shopping center in central South Africa. There are more than 100 shops selling everything from clothing to jewelry, games and technology. There’s a gym for fitness junkies and a cinema for wet weather outings with the kids. When you’re finished shopping, recharge with a meal at one of the mall’s numerous restaurants, cafés or fast food outlets. Some of them have open-air seating overlooking the lake for which the mall is named. Loch Logan is open every day. During the week, trading hours run from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., with most shops closing earlier on the weekends.
Attend the Annual Mangaung Rose Festival
If you happen to be in Bloemfontein in the third week of October, make sure to attend the annual Mangaung Rose Festival. This magical event first took place in 1976 and is a wonderful way of celebrating Bloem’s City of Roses heritage. Every year, thousands of visitors and horticulturalists flock to the capital to enjoy rose-related events over the course of four days. These include street parades, massive flower displays by the municipality and local nurseries and a prestigious cut rose competition. The festival usually centers on one main location, but there are satellite events all over the city. These include open gardens, beauty pageants, live music and street stalls.