From its galleries, museums, restaurants, pubs and wide, tree-lined streets to its classic old Rhodes University campus, Grahamstown has become a city of diversity, artistic expression and academic exploration. Every July, Grahamstown celebrates all that is good about South African creativity in the form of its world-renowned National Arts Festival. If you called Grahamstown the 'Settler City', the 'City of Saints', 'Sleepy Hollow' or 'Rini', you’d be correct on all counts.
This Eastern Cape town is where the early British settlers – craftspeople and builders in the main – produced some of the most remarkable architecture in South Africa. Just spend a day walking its streets, and you’ll find yourself back in the mid-1800s: follies, fancies and Victorian styles reminiscent of London. Settler City. Perhaps, because there were so many skilled immigrants, a large number of churches and schools were built. City of Saints.
Grahamstown also lies in a geographic dip – it’s always a little warmer in town (which is good when the cold winters set in) than on the outskirts. Sleepy Hollow. Rini is also the name of a local chief who once held sway in this area, before the grinding succession of 9 frontier wars between the British and the Xhosa, who did not relinquish their part of the Eastern Cape lightly.
But mostly, Grahamstown should be called 'Student City' after the thousands of young men and women who study at Rhodes University. Rhodes is world-famous for the inventors, thinkers, writers and academics it has produced over the generations, and when it is open for learning, the town buzzes. The students – who enjoy these tree-lined streets and the thrill of learning in a country setting – set the tone of Grahamstown during term time with their parties, their events and their purely joyous presence.
And when the mid-year vacation arrives and the students leave for home, Grahamstown gets ready for the party of the year: the annual National Arts Festival. The festival really kicks off on a Sunday afternoon in July up at the Settlers' Monument. The conductor hoists his baton high and the gleaming orchestra sweeps the crowd off to a magical place ruled by music and delight. And residents and visitors alike alight on 10 days of amazing…
How to get here
Grahamstown is the centre of the Frontier Country tourism district of the Eastern Cape. The closest big city is Port Elizabeth, which is about 150km away (set aside 2 hours' driving time). It is long drive from Johannesburg - about 900km (11 hours or so to drive).
Where to stay
Makana Tourism at 63 High Street showcases a wide variety of accommodation in Grahamstown.
Tours to do
Grahamstown ghost tours are legendary - Spirits of the Past with Alan Weyers is recommended for this.
DID YOU KNOW?
South Africa’s oldest independent newspaper is the Grocott’s Mail, operating out of offices in Grahamstown.