As Dutch-speaking Voortrekkers (pioneers) moved inland from the Cape, they established Pietermaritzburg in 1838 along the Umsunduzi River. Today it lies midpoint between the coastal city of Durban and the Drakensberg mountain range, along the N3 route linking the coast with Johannesburg.
Family attractions include Butterfly World, a walk-through fairyland enclosure filled with brightly coloured butterflies and birds. There’s also a butterfly craft shop, art gallery and coffee shop.
For the gamblers there’s the large Golden Horse Casino, featuring slot machines, gaming tables and business conference facilities, while the Midlands Mall shopping centre offers more than 160 retail outlets.
When spring arrives (September), the KwaZulu-Natal National Botanical Garden is a particular delight. Here, rare and endangered indigenous plants are cultivated, around 100 bird species may be seen, and there is a garden featuring plants with health properties.
Pietermaritzburg is located along the N3 arterial highway, 80km from the coastal city of Durban. It is well signposted on the N3 whether approaching from Johannesburg to the north or Durban to the south. There is also a light aircraft airport at Oribi on the city outskirts.
Self-drive is ideal to get to the wildlife spots outside of town and to access all the historical points of interest, but many lie within walking distance around the city. Taxis are plentiful and car rental companies do brisk trade too.
The Howick Falls; Karkloof Forest; Hilton Forest; Midlands Mall; Midlands Meander; Drakensberg mountains (another hour and a half's drive).
Every year there are four major sporting events associated with Pietermaritzburg: the Comrades Marathon, the Amashova cycle race, the Dusi Canoe Marathon and the Midmar Mile open-water swim.
The Midlands Meander route has more than 100 arts and crafts outlets in the beautiful KwaZulu-Natal countryside. The city offers half-day and full-day driving tours that take in prime attractions, but these can be customised to suit individual needs. Walking tours for those who enjoy the outdoors are offered around the city and its gardens and wildlife spots.
Tel: +27 (0)33 345 1348
A wide range of accommodation options is available in Pietermaritzburg, from backpackers and wildlife reserves to guest houses, B&Bs, self-catering venues and hotels.
Any time of year is fine, although the city experiences temperatures in the high 30s during summer and around zero degrees Celsius in winter. Winter days are beautiful and surprisingly warm.
A weekend in Pietermaritzburg would be ample time to see the best of what this city has to offer.
To see azaleas and South Africa’s national flower, the protea, Wylie Park is perfect, while Bisley Nature Reserve offers walking trails, wild flowers and birds, just 7km outside of town. There’s also a self-guided walking trail, impala, zebra, blesbok, bushbuck, grey and blue duiker, rock hyrax and crown eagle in the Queen Elizabeth Park Nature Reserve.
Art lovers should head to the old Supreme Court building that dates back to the 1870s, which houses the Tatham Art Gallery. The gallery features ancient beadwork, basketry, wood and bronze sculptures, as well as British and French 19th- and early 20th-century paintings.
Being a historical centre, Pietermaritzburg has a number of museums and historical places of interest. Opened in 1904, the KwaZulu-Natal Museum is the province’s largest national museum renowned for its unique collections, which include the last wild elephant in KwaZulu-Natal, an extensive mollusc collection and a life-size model of Tyrannosaurus Rex.
The Msunduzi Museum complex is another historical hub. Here you’ll find the Church of the Vow, Andries Pretorius house (named after one of the leaders of the Voortrekkers), an ox wagon and a furnished period house at 333 Boom Street.
Comrades Marathon House is dedicated entirely to the world-famous road running race, which was launched in 1921. It contains trophies, photographs, media coverage and the history of the race, which is run from Durban to Pietermaritzburg and vice versa in alternate years.
If your time in Pietermaritzburg is limited, half-day and full-day driving tours are customised to suit visitors’ needs. Other than those mentioned, attractions you may wish to visit include: the Hilton forests and spectacular views over the Umgeni River; Midmar Dam; the Mandela Capture Site; World's View; Scottsville Racecourse; and the Mahatma Gandhi statue.
A half-day walking tour leaves from opposite the Tatham Art Gallery, passes the colonial legislative building, and stops at the KwaZulu-Natal Museum, the Imperial Hotel, St Peter's Cathedral and the heritage-rich Church Street Mall.
On the first Sunday of every month there’s the Maritzburg Oval Market at Alexandra Park, with jumping castles, pony rides, entertainment and stalls selling everything from delicately handcrafted jewellery to organically grown vegetables, hand-painted tablecloths and woven baskets. On the last Sunday of the month there’s the Alex Upmarket, along the banks of the Dusi River, with more than 100 stalls featuring handmade arts and crafts, and tasty food. The Pietermaritzburg Farmers’ Market at Mayor's Walk sells fresh produce, homemade jams, cheeses and baked goods every Saturday.
Four game and nature reserves may be found a short drive from the centre of Pietermaritzburg: Umgeni Valley Nature Reserve with 260 bird species, giraffe, wildebeest, kudu, a number of trails and cliff-side accommodation; lion, rhino, antelope and zebra may be seen at the Lion Park from the safety of your car; Tala Private Game Reserve is a birders’ paradise with 280 species, rhino, giraffe, zebra, wildebeest and hippo; and the Albert Falls Nature Reserve offers water sport and camping activities at the dam, and zebra, giraffe, antelope and other wildlife, including myriad birds.
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