Explore Philippolis in the Free State
Smack in the middle of South Africa is a town that may appear run-down to some, but to others is a place where relaxation and tranquillity are essential for a weekend away.
Welcome to the Free State town of Philippolis. It’s not a town one would normally choose to spend the weekend in, yet for some reason, I felt this was the place I should spend my 30th birthday since I find joy in exploring klein dorpies in South Africa.
It is an 826-kilometer drive from Cape Town, so consider staying overnight if the journey is too long. We stayed in Beaufort West before taking the N1 and then onto the pothole-riddled R717 into town. It is not only one of the oldest settlements in the Free State, but it also has the highest number of national monuments in the province.
As the weekend approaches, the main street is bustling with locals. We find our lodging, which happens to be right next to the magnificent Dutch Reformed church. The van der Post accommodation is a four-person establishment with a small kitchenette, bathroom, and lounge area. Fun fact: It shares the grounds with the Laurens van der Post memorial garden. Laurens Jan van der Post was a well-known author and political advisor to British leaders.
Philippolis was founded in 1823 as a Khoi mission station. The London Missionary Society, represented by Dr. John Philip, founded it, hence the town’s name. The Griqua nation and a succession of their leaders, from Adam Kok I to III, followed the Khoi. Then the Boers arrived and started farming this semi-arid land. Basotho and Xhosa people arrived soon after.
We open the wired gates and stroll down Voortrekker street, admiring the architecture of the old buildings such as the Library and Gariep Museum, while the sun is still high in the sky. A few nods are expected to greet the residents as we admire the slope-roofed homes and the sound of birdsong.
There are only a few restaurants. Because this is common in small towns, we make a quick reservation at the Philippolis Hotel by ringing the bell and asking for a table for the evening. We return to our establishment and sit on the stoep, taking in the silence as a few cars pass by, waving excitedly – as if we were kids.
We make our way to the Philippolis Hotel for dinner as night falls. We were inappropriately dressed for a karoo hotel. It reminds us of arriving in Prince Albert late at night and our host making a reservation at the Swartberg Hotel; dressed as if we were going to the beach. Breakfast and dinner options are available on the menu. Courtney orders a T-bone steak, and I order a sirloin. It was a fantastic meal, and I have no complaints about the service.
It’s the next morning, and Pitstop Restaurant is the only place open for breakfast. We walk in the stillness of Saturday morning because it’s only a stone’s throw away. It definitely has a pub atmosphere, with long barn tables and a bar stocked with various liqueurs. We’re the only ones there, so we order breakfast quickly before walking through the streets of the town.
We went on the hunt for lunch after soaking up the sun in the dead of winter, chilling and reading. However, nothing is available, so we return to Pitstop before the host says, “Are you back? Why not come watch the rugby with us at 5 p.m.? “. We laugh because we know we’re not coming back and we’re not rugby fans.
We realize we don’t want to go out that evening, so we order a takeaway pizza from the Philippolis Hotel and call it a night before driving to our next adventure the next morning.
Please don’t get us wrong. We enjoy lively towns, but there is always beauty in small towns that have nothing to offer but beauty, peace, and small-town charm. Many will argue that booking an entire weekend stay in Philippolis is not worth the time. Even with only one petrol station that opens at odd hours, I believe it’s a dorpie filled with love.
For more travel inspiration, make sure you subscribe to my monthly newsletter.
Till the next small town.