A spunky, quite progressive university town located at the cross roads of the country’s major highways, Bloemfontein is the Free State’s capital and also the judicial capital of South Africa. As such it attracts a mix of business travelers, parents and travelers. Known as the “City of Roses,” Bloemfontein is home to 4,000 rose bushes, and if you happen to visit when the plants are in bloom, the scent can be either delicious or overpowering, depending on your nose.
Despite being a double capital, Bloem (as the locals call her) has a small time vibe. The central business district is safe, compact and easy to navigate on foot – it is laid out in a grid around Hoffman Square, although honestly there isn’t much to see or do in it for leisure travelers.
Most of Bloem’s dining, shopping and nightlife is concentrated about a five-minute drive northwest of the CBD. Here you’ll find Loch Logan Waterfront Mall, which has a collection of restaurants, bars and shops and a permanent flea market. Second Avenue, just to the north of the Waterfront, is the city’s restaurant row, filled with eclectic spots to eat and drink. The Mimosa Mall, located about two kilometers to the west of the Waterfront Mall on Kellner St, is Bloem’s other main hang-out spot, with more shops, restaurants and a movie theater.
The city is also famous as the birthplace of JRR Tolkien, author of the The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. He was born in Bloemfontein in 1892, but moved to England when he was five. Still, locals like to tell you that his recollection of the Bloemfontein district as ‘hot, dry and barren’ should be considered as inspiration for the fictional kingdom of Mordor. If you’re interested in learning more about Tolkein’s history with the city, head over to the Hobbit Boutique Hotel (www.hobbit.co.za, 19 President Steyn Ave). It is home to the local Tolkein literary society and located just a block east of the 2nd Street restaurant district. They can direct you towards the house where Tolkein was born, the cathedral he was baptized and the grave where his father is buried.
In the Waverly neighborhood, less than a 10-minute drive north of the CBD you’ll find one of South Africa’s most striking art galleries, the Oliewenhuis Art Museum (tel: 051-447 9609) at 16 Harry Smith St. In an exquisite 1935 mansion, it has a strong South African and contemporary art collection. Afterwards grab a bite at the café in the sculpture garden behind the museum.
Outside of downtown, there are sprawling suburbs and townships, including Manguang, where the ANC party was born. Today, you can experience life, and learn some important history, on a guided tour. These visit culturally important sights like the Mapikela House, now a national monument, where Thomas Mapikela, a founding father of the ANC, once resided. If you are interested in township nightlife, visit after dark. Guided evening tours hit the township’s buzzing shebeens (unlicensed bars), where you can sample home-brews and dance to the notes of an enthusiastic jazz quartet. Both day and night tours are informal, and can be booked through the Tourist Information Center (tel: 051-405 8489, www.bloemfontein.co.za, 60 Park Rd).
Bloem has a mix of mid-range and top end hotel options, both in the small guesthouse variety as well as the typical business style chains, including an excellent Protea. Unlike many other South African cities, Bloemfontein is lacking in budget backpacker options. It is easy to book online and pay with a credit card, but note that on cricket and rugby match weekends places fill quickly.
Many of the hotels and guesthouses do their evening own meals, but there are also quite a few good restaurants around Bloem. You’ll find the usual South African chains in the Waterfront and Mimosa Mall shopping centers. While Second Ave, just north of the Waterfront is the main eating street, and home to plenty of independent restaurants and bars that serves a range of food from around the globe, including Mexican.
As a university town, Bloemfontein has a good range of places to drink, party and, increasingly, listen to live music. The corners of Second Ave and Kellner St, and Zastron St and Nelson Mandela Ave bustle with revelers in the evening and compete for the nightlife scene with the Waterfront. There are cinemas in the Mimosa Mall and at the Waterfront. The Mystic Boer (tel: 051-430 2206,84 Kellner St) is Bloem’s most popular long-standing pub and live music venue provides an eccentric twist to Afrikaner culture – check out the psychedelic pictures of long-bearded Boers on the walls. It also does good pizza and burgers to sop up the alcohol.
How to get there
You can reach Bloemfontein in a number of ways, including by airplane. The airport is 10-kilometers from the city center and a number of international airlines fly into Bloem via Cape Town or Jo’burg. To come or go by bus, these leave from the tourist centre on Park Rd. Translux (tel: 051-408 4888, www.translux.co.za) runs daily buses to Durban (nine hours), Jo’burg/Pretoria (five hours), Port Elizabeth (nine hours), East London (seven hours), Knysna (12 hours) and Cape Town (10 hours). Interstate and Greyhound have similar routes and prices. Train is another option, but it is far less convenient than bus. The Trans Oranje runs stops in Bloemfontein on its weekly run between Cape Town and Durban. The Algoa runs five times weekly via Bloemfontein between Jo’burg. The trip takes about seven hours (as opposed to five on the bus).
How to get around
Bloem’s CBD is quite compact, and easy to walk, but if you need a taxi, call President Taxis (tel: 051-522 3399). If you want to travel like a local, the minibus taxi is the shared car service option – these go from downtown to the suburbs and townships, and while very cheap are usually packed and not always the safest option from both a pick pocket and driving perspective.
Compared to other South African cities, Bloem feels quite safe, and you’ll likely have no trouble here, even in the CBD, especially during daylight. Both the Waterfront and Mimosa Malls have 24-hour security and are safe day and night, and the restaurants along 2nd Street are also fine to walk between after dark. If possible avoid the area around the train station and anything east of the railway tracks, which is where the townships begin. We also don’t advise going to the townships without a local escort or on a tour.
It is customary to tip in South Africa for good service these days. Anywhere between 10 and 15 percent is acceptable. The Tourist Information Centre (60 Park Road, www.bloemfontein.co.za) is a good place to pick up a walking-tour map here or a free tourist guide to Bloem’s gallery and handicraft art scene. They can also advise on lodging if you haven’t pre-booked.