Grahamstown: How to entertain yourself when it's not arts festival

2018-09-05 12:01 - Gabi Zietsman
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Cathedral of st michael and st george in gramstown

There's more to do in Grahamstown than just the annual Arts Festival. (Photo: iStock)

There's little as shocking for a National Arts Festival partygoer as visiting Grahamstown outside of the festival period - and it can get even weirder during holiday time when all the students and school boarders have abandoned the frontier town, leaving behind a silence only broken by the bray of a roaming donkey.

But if you happen to find yourself in this town, when the crickets are sounding a little too loud, it has a multitude of stories to tell through its museums, gardens, heavenly buildings and a bloody history of colonial conquest and amaXhosa resistance.

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Founded in 1812 as a military outpost, the town grew with the arrival of the 1820 Settlers and its expansion into Xhosa territory. Today, it's become an educational stalwart with Rhodes University and an abundance of boarding schools. It's currently in the process of a name change, which might see Grahamstown becoming Makhanda soon, named after the Xhosa warrior, philosopher and prophet who led the attack against the British in 1819.

But if you want to know what there is to do in the town in the 21st century, here are a few ways to wile away the Eastern Cape sun according to an ex-Rhodes student.

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See a mummy at the Albany Museum

The second oldest museum in the country, the Albany Museum is made up of a network of heritage sites across the town - including the Natural Sciences Museum and the History Museum, which are right next to each other. 

The one has a replica of the first dinosaur found in the Eastern Cape and a model of the solar system, while the other houses one of the few Egyptian mummies in South Africa. It came from ancient Thebes and was acquired by the museum somewhere in the first decade of the 1900s, alongside a mummified cat and other Egyptian artefacts. 

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People-watch from the Observatory Museum 

Also part of the Albany network is the Observatory Museum, which has the only working Victorian camera obscura in the southern hemisphere. It has a 360-degree view of the city, perfect for spying on people walking down the street.

It's housed in one of Grahamstown's most classical buildings, which once belonged to a watchmaker and jeweller who kept adding levels to a building only meant to be a simple shop and house. Besides checking out the observatory, the museum also gives visitors a glimpse into 20th century Grahamstown.

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Sip on some coffee in The Old Provost prison

Situated on the Rhodes campus, the Old Provost prison is quite unique compared to other British prisons in South Africa. Based on the Panopticon prison, the cells were placed in a quarter circle with a double story watchtower in the middle - making it easy for guards to have surveyed all the prisoners at once.

Today it's been turned into a coffee shop, where you can muse on the past while sipping on a hot cup of energy to get you ready for the rest of your Grahamstown expedition. 

Get lost in the Makana Botanical Gardens

Right next to the Provost is the entrance to the Makana Botanical Gardens. While it may not be as grand as the Kirstenbosch one in Cape Town, it's been the destination for many a cheap student date and picnic birthday parties among the indigenous plants and trees.

There's an old military cemetery within its boundaries, but if you wander deep enough into the gardens you'll find easy footpaths that will take you on a mini-adventure through the town's natural scenery, and perhaps discover a few secrets along the way - just watch out for zoned-out joggers.

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Sing to the heavens at the Cathedral of St Michael and St George 

There's a running joke that Grahamstown has so many religious institutions you'd be able to go to a different church every Sunday for a year, hence the nickname City of Saints. The most famous church however is the imposing Cathedral of St Michael and St George in the centre of town. Its sheer size looks almost comical surrounded by small Victorian buildings, and inside beautiful painted glass windows will almost make you forget about what's on the outside.

Its spire is the tallest in South Africa at 54 metres and has a variety of bells that are rung on Sundays between 18:00 and 18:55, much to the chagrin of hungover students.

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Watch the sunset from Monument

On top of Grahamstown's tallest hill is the 1820 Settlers National Monument, dwarfed by the strange architectural giant that is the university's main hall for graduation ceremonies. While you can contest the legacy of these settlers in modern South Africa - especially in terms of the town's name change - what you cannot deny is the beautiful views from this hill to give you a real 360-view of the whole area.

Even better is to drive up just before sunset (or sunrise if you're an early bird) and melt into the rays of the Eastern Cape sun bidding adieu to the City of Saints.

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Drink a pint at the Rat and Parrot

As your visit to the quiet side of Grahamstown winds down, you can grab a draught (or tower) at the most famous pub in town. While Grahamstown restaurants are notorious for coming and going, the Rat and Parrot has been a constant favourite since 1994, at the dawn of the new Rainbow Nation.

Some of the best pizzas in town, this is the place to start if you want a true student pub night out, and they also have on tap a locally brewed craft beer from Featherstone Brewery to help ease you into the real world when you leave Grahamstown again.

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