Top Things to See and Do in Grahamstown

Grahamstown, South Africa
Grahamstown, South Africa | Photo by Joshua Dixon on Unsplash
Gill Lange

The small town of Grahamstown is a vibrant mix of culture and history that once acted as the frontier between the British Cape Colony and Xhosa territories. It is sometimes still referred to as ‘frontier country’ or ‘City of Saints’ due to the large number of churches and magnificent Victorian buildings that grace its streets. Here are the top 10 things to see and do in arty and colourful Grahamstown.

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Get festive at the arts festival

One of the city’s major highlights is the Grahamstown National Arts Festival, which runs over 11 days at the end of June through the beginning of July each year. It is the largest annual celebration of the arts on the African continent, and offers music, dance, opera and performance art, as well as many interesting craft stalls to browse. During this time, the usually quiet town bursts at the seams and buzzes with an electric vibe as just about every hall becomes a theatre, and parks and sports fields turn into flea markets. You should book accommodations need well in advance.

Mingle with the locals

Fish and Chips

The Rat and Parrot is a landmark pub that has been a hip and happening student hang out for years. Often the scene of a good party, it’s more of an institution than just a place to eat, as well as arguably one of the best known and longest running pubs in the Eastern Cape. Besides offering some of the coldest beer in town, an essential refreshment in summer, the well-varied menu serves everything from pizzas to old favourites, such as steak and egg and chips. Regular drink specials keep the spot buzzing.

Take a walk through the past

The Albany Natural Science Museum is the oldest of the Albany Museum Complex and gives visitors insight into the natural history and science of the Eastern Cape. It is also a research site, with studies concentrated around the early life histories of freshwater fish and people from the late Stone Age and early Iron Age. Notable exhibits include a reconstruction of the first dinosaur discovered in South Africa, the Gibeon meteorite and a working Foucault pendulum.

Find the monument on the hill

Originally built to encourage free and open debate as well as freedom of association, the 1820 Settlers National Monument stands as a living monument, hosting free and creative artistic performances and far-reaching educational and cultural projects. Inside this superbly equipped building, you’ll find an art theatre and the Fountain Court statue, designed to look like scaffolding with rectangles and diagonals representing the crosses of the British Flag. Free tours are offered upon request.

Browse through literary treasures

Located near the outskirts of the town, the National English Literary Museum is considered one of South Africa’s literary treasures, housing the world’s most comprehensive collection of resources relating to Southern African literature in English. Permanent exhibitions tell the story of South Africa through literature with audio and video components and two touch screens, while temporary displays change on a regular basis. The modern, custom-designed building is itself worth a visit and is the only museum in the county to have achieved a five-star rating from the Green Building Council of South Africa.

Visit a musical library

The International Library of African Music is an independent research centre housing a collection of more than two hundred traditional African musical instruments, many of which are still played today. Its primary purpose is to promote the research, publishing and teaching of African music with a vision of upholding traditional musical styles. It is a subdivision of the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the Rhodes University campus in Grahamstown, where it preserves thousands of historical recordings going back to 1929 and supports contemporary fieldwork.

Go to jail

The Provost military prison was built in the early 1800s and now, it is a popular historical tourist attraction as well as a coffee shop. It was named after the Provost Marshall, who was the officer responsible for maintaining order and meting out punishment to military offenders, such as deserters. Designed in a panopticon shape for ceaseless surveillance of the prisoners held within its walls, today, it offers a peaceful and cosy spot for a good cup of coffee.

Groove to good tunes

No matter what time of the year it is, Grahamstown is always alive with free-spirited artistic types and there is always some good local music to find. From trance parties and heavy metal to mellow acoustic tunes, Grahamstown has a bit of it all. Browse the local press to find out what is happening and when. You’ll probably be surprised at the talent in this little town.

Admire the church spire

Also known as the Grahamstown Cathedral, the officially named Cathedral of St Micheal and St George was erected in the 1800s and boasts the tallest spire in South Africa. Visitors can admire various memorial plaques, as well as memorial tablets that weave together the history of Grahamstown as a frontier post. The church bells hold their own interesting tale, as they were the first to be installed in Africa and hung in the cathedral tower in 1879.

Go looking for wildlife

M7WRHA Zebra’s wildlife animals in park reserve alert for predators late in the day.

The Kwandwe Private Game Reserve lies just outside of Grahamstown and is home to thousands of animals, including the big five. It flanks both banks of the life-giving Great Fish River and is a fantastic spot for a mini, malaria-free wildlife adventure. The 22,000-hectare reserve is renowned for its highly rewarding game drives that promise plenty of wildlife and include professional guides. Accommodation options vary and other activities include bush walks, fishing and historical tours.

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