Golden Gate Highlands National Park, South Africa
Golden Gate Highlands National Park, South Africa © Shutterstock / Alexandre G. ROSA

The Free State in South Africa tends to be a place travellers pass through rather than a destination in its own right. However, it’s well worth exploring for its natural beauty, adventure sports and history. 

A place of big skies and open pastureland, the Free State is ideal for a road trip; broad horizons are interrupted only briefly by a smattering of towns and villages and, apart from Bloemfontein, the urban centres are small and manageable.

1. Clarens

The jewel of the Free State, and at 1850m, its highest town, Clarens is one of those places you stumble upon and find yourself talking about long after you depart. With a backdrop of craggy limestone rocks, verdant green hills, fields of spun gold and the magnificent Maluti Mountains, Clarens is a picture-perfect village of whitewashed buildings and quiet, shady streets. Its mild climate coupled with excellent opportunities for horse riding and trout fishing make it a bucolic country retreat.

It's also an art destination, with many galleries focusing on quality works by well-known South African artists. Charming guesthouses (ranging from very simple to extraordinarily posh), gourmet restaurants, eclectic cafes and myriad adventure activities round out the appeal.

2. Parys

Parys is a growing, vibrant town that sits beside the Vaal River just 120km south of Jo’burg. It is home to a few impressive buildings, including the 1915 Anglican Church, built from blue-granite blocks. The immediate area is quite beautiful, with its valleys, ravines and cliffs, a covering of lush flora, and many resident plants, animals and birds. But it’s the adventure-sport options and the art-and-craft outlets lining the main street that draw most of the town’s visitors – particularly Jo’burgers on the weekend.

Woman contemplating the view from the top of the Sentinel Hike in the Drakensberg Mountains, Royal Natal National Park, Free State province of South Africa
The view from the top of the Sentinel Hike in the Drakensberg Mountains © Shutterstock / Alexandre G. ROSA

3. Sentinel Hiking Trail

The most famous of the hiking trails in the area is the 10km Sentinel Hiking Trail, which commences in Free State and ends in KwaZulu-Natal. The trail starts at the Sentinel car park, at an altitude of 2540m, and runs for 4km to the top of the Drakensberg plateau, where the average height is 3000m.

It’s about a two-hour ascent for those of medium fitness. At one point you have to use a chain ladder that runs up over a set of sheer rocks. Those who find the ladder frightening can take the route up the Gully, which emerges at Beacon Buttress (although some hikers argue that this route is even more hair-raising!). The reward for the steep ascent is majestic mountain scenery and the opportunity to climb Mont-aux-Sources (3282m).

4. Golden Gate Highlands National Park

The Free State's only national park is known for its dramatic, golden-hued sandstone cliffs and outcroppings, abundant wildlife (including eland, zebra and wildebeest) and centuries-old cave paintings by the San people. The landscape is breathtaking, and best experienced on multi-day hikes. If you've only got a day, though, the self-guided game drives are certainly worthwhile.

The historical Fourth Raadzaal, seat of Free State Provincial Government was completed in 1892 and is a national monument
The historic Fourth Raadzaal in Bloemfontein © Shutterstock / Grobler du Preez

5. Bloemfontein

With the feel of a small country village, despite its double-capital status – it’s the Free State’s capital and the judicial capital of the country – Bloemfontein is one of South Africa’s most relaxed and welcoming cities. Although it doesn’t possess the type of big-name attractions that make it worth a visit in its own right, you’ll likely pass through 'Bloem' at some point on your way across South Africa’s heartland, and there are some small-scale sights and good restaurants to keep you occupied for a day or two.

6. Philippolis

Founded in 1823 as a mission station, Philippolis, on Rte 717, is a town frozen in time, and the oldest settlement in the Free State. Seventy-five of its buildings have been declared national monuments, including the library, and many places are built in Karoo style, with thick walls to keep the semi-desert heat at bay.

Writers, artists and other luminaries have long congregated in this dusty outpost, which offers a wonderful bookstore, a history museum, several art galleries and proximity to the world's best opportunity to view and photograph wild tigers. Weekends are lively, with seemingly the entire town crammed into the historic Hotel Oranjehof bar, carrying on long after the stars have ceased to twinkle.

7. Ficksburg

Ficksburg is a lovely little mountain village on the banks of the Mohokare (Caledon) River that’s home to some fine sandstone buildings; keep an eye out for the town hall and the post office. Nestled into the purple-hued Maluti range, Ficksburg is particularly fetching in winter, when dollops of snow cover the craggy peaks.

Mild summers and cold winters make this area perfect for growing asparagus, apples and stone fruits, and Ficksburg is the centre of the Free State’s cherry industry. There’s a Cherry Festival in November, but September and October are the best times to see the trees in full bloom.

Lonely Planet travelled to the Free State with assistance from South African Tourism. Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.

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