The ultimate insider’s guide to Pretoria

Posted on 18 April 2017

Under new management, Tshwane Metro is proclaiming big things in 2017 for Pretoria residents and visitors alike. Tyson Jopson went there to see what’s behind the noise.


A view from the corner of Church Street and Andries Street now Thabo Sehume Street & Helen Joseph Street.


The first time I decided to really explore Pretoria I was 15 years old and it was the middle of the night. I, and 12 schoolmates climbed out of our second-storey dormitory window in socks, like a clowder of cat burglars, and tiptoed across a quad where we’d play hand tennis on sunny afternoons. Then we put on our shoes, which we had tied to our belts by their laces, and sprinted across two sports fields wafting heinous levels of cheap cologne in our wake. We crawled under a barbed fence, scurried through the University of Pretoria and into Hatfield Square, where we tried our fake IDs on every doorman we could find. I suspect it may have had something to do with the alarming lack of facial hair and the fact that we moved in unison like a squeaking huddle of ducks, but none of them were buying it. And so neither were we.

The Ultimate 40 Best Things To Do In Pretoria

Hatfield seemed so big then. It seethed with large men in larger beards, throbbing dance music and everything smelled a little like vomit. We must have tried at least 10 bars that night with no success. Someone even joked that we could write an ‘Outsider’s Guide to Hatfield Nightlife’. Still, it was fun. But then one of us got caught with his arse hanging out of that second-storey palladium window trying to sneak back in at 3am, and we all faced expulsion.


The Union Buildings draws hundred of visitors daily. What many don’t know is that the site, Meintjieskop, was once part of a farm and sold for the sum total of a single Basotho pony.


Since then I have returned to Pretoria only once, for my 10-year high school reunion, and again now to – in a strange twist of fate – write that guide. Most of my boarding-school friends, on account of not living there in the first place, don’t live there now and I’m on the wrong end of millennial to be comfortable posting an ‘I’m in town, hit me up’ message on Facebook, so instead I head to The Pretoria High School Old Boys Club in Brooklyn at 4.15pm on a Friday afternoon to see who from the class of 2013 is propping up the bar there nowadays.

It’s October and the jacarandas are in full bloom – pinstripes of purple blossoms line sidewalks, fallen from bowing giants that close in over the roads, leaving just enough space for the crepuscular rays to leak through onto the dark asphalt. At the bar, grown men imitate cricket shots and occasionally shout at the television. The stools are low and the tables so high I feel like I’m just able to see above them, all elbows and nose, like Kilroy, or myself 15 years ago.

And then they arrive: Mark Robertson, Craig Serfontein, and Gareth Bailey. Everyone’s gotten rounder except for Craig, somehow he’s gotten longer. And finally I get around to having those drinks I was denied 14 years ago. Hatfield Square, Craig tells me, is gone – replaced by apartment blocks, a new-improved mall and a steady stream of Gautrain travellers. The Old East – Brooklyn, New Muckleneuk, Menlyn – are staging a trendy cafe culture crusade, with container-style bistros, eateries, craft breweries and the odd market. Nobody goes into the CBD, they tell me. Then again it’s not like any of us used to either. The following day I head into the city anyway, to Church Square, to see the old buildings around which much of our history was shaped. Pretoria is, after all, the Academic Capital of South Africa.


Murray Street jacarandas; a view of the longest street in the country. It measures 26 kilometres and has four different names. Popularly known as Church street.

Paul Kruger is there but his sandstone soapbox is now ringed by a palisade fence and the atmosphere is tense. A student protest forms, first slowly and then quickly, and then seriously as four riot vans rumble in. Right now this is no place for tourists to walk around with noses buried in maps and cameras round necks, but there’s a part of me that’s glad to see this square is still a place where voices are being heard. To some they may sound inchoate, but that’s not what matters. A protest doesn’t happen when everything is going well. Its mere formation is a tacit admission that there is a problem. Without that, democracy falls apart. But it is also loud, and I do not have the stomach for mobs so I duck into the Museum of Natural History a few blocks away and sit down next to Mrs Ples.

Also read: Weekend Getaways in and near Pretoria

She’s looking a little haggard, and it’s not because she’s two million years old. Her display case is grotty. Behind her, an arch window with a stained-glass Royal Arms is cracked and the panes are peeling. The exhibits are crumbling, and egregiously out of date. Hopefully it’s on the list of fixer-uppers for new mayor Solly Msimanga. I’m always sceptical of newbroom committees but his seems, at least in press, devoted to tearing up the floorboards and dispatching the city’s termites (the impudent kind that not only chew the foundations, but also send you a R100000 bill for bathroom tiles). For those living here, Craig tells me, there are already improvements: new slow zones at schools, recycling bins in parks and incipient housing projects. Pretoria is no stranger to renovations, especially the constitutional kind. It’s old administrative halls once echoed with ideas that liberated this country from a wretched course.


Zebras roam the Klapperkop Nature Reserve.


Now, more than ever, it feels like they will need to again. There is a lot to fix, and it will certainly not be without commotion. So, the following morning I change tack and go in search of the city’s more peaceful spaces. Spaces where I can think. Atop the Klapperkop Nature Reserve, I watch the highveld sunrise, first over the suburbs, and then the city. It’s beautifully quiet, and along a small ridge of rocks, facing east, sits a woman in prayer. Then I go for a short hike in Groenkloof Nature Reserve, a fecund triangle bisected by Churchill’s ‘mighty’ Apies River, and spend the afternoon at the Austin Roberts Memorial Bird Sanctuary, watching blue cranes strut like supermodels on the banks of the vlei while little egrets scoop chase prey in the shallows, disturbing the still water. You wouldn’t hear it, sitting there, but less than two kilometres away a stadium was about to erupt with the bellows of Pretoria’s most boisterous: Blue Bulls supporters. That night they destroy the Stormers in the Curry Cup semi-final, and like a meteorological encore, a storm hits the city soon after, the first in months. Drops the size of gobstoppers plummets through the jacarandas, collecting their blooms like comets, driving them into the asphalt below. Lighting streaks sideways, the smell of cool rain hitting hot earth fill my nostrils, and thunder assaults my ears.


Spotted some wildlife at Reitvlei Nature Reserve.


On my last morning, I head to Rietvlei Nature Reserve. There’s a small queue of cheerful folk at the gate, hoping to get in early to catch the golden light that  caramelises this wild veld, seemingly incongruous with its urban surroundings. Save for some power lines and a very conspicuous pipeline, you could almost forget you’re just minutes from a major CBD. Almost. I pass a skulk of jackals, wildebeest and zebra and head to a hide overlooking Marais Dam. Barbel noodle energetically in the shallows and starlings swoop overheard. A father and son creep into the hide after me, wordlessly pour two cups of coffee and settle in behind their zoom lenses. Save for a short greeting, we don’t speak. There’s just the click of shutters, smiles and faraway stares. Sitting there, I think about 2016. It’s been loud.

From voices spewing rubbish in foreign presidential debates, to voices at home, clamouring to be heard. Much of it is necessary, but much is not. And among it all there’s been little space for quiet, for saying nothing at all. Because very often, out of these spaces are born solutions – those great ideas that great cities are famous for. Great ideas that great cities could be famous for again.


The area behind this hide overlooking Marais Dam has a demarcated braai area, making it great for a family outing.


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Plan your trip


Getting there

Pretoria is about an hour’s drive from Johannesburg (with no traffic). The nearest airport is Wonderboom and flights from Cape Town are from R1400 return.


Do this

Drive or cycle through the Klapperkop Nature Reserve. Go in a group and during daylight hours. There have been muggings. Open 6.30am – 7pm (summer). Entrance is free. 0124408316

Spot wildlife at Rietvlei Nature Reserve. Open 5.30am – 7pm (summer). Entrance R50. 0123581810

Get the binoculars out at Austin Roberts Memorial Bird Sanctuary. Open 6am – 6pm. Entrance to the hide is free. Guided walks are R55 per person. 0124408316

Have a picnic in front of the Union Buildings. It’s still a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon. Open 5.30am – 9pm. Entrance is free. 0123081727

Hike, bike or 4×4 at Groenkloof Nature Reserve. Go in groups to be safe. Open 5.30am – 7pm (summer). Entrance is R25. 0124408316


Eat here

Moo Moo, Brooklyn Mall, makes a steak so tasty, I didn’t even mind the garish menu. From R70 for a 200g sirloin. 0123468888

The Blue Crane Restaurant, New Muckleneuk, is great for a quiet lunch with just the adjacent vlei’s birdlife for company. Sandwiches from R55. 0124607615

Huckleberry’s Restaurant, Magnolia Dell, is the kind of spot that begs for an afternoon drink and a short stroll. Beer from R30. 0123464588

Burger Bistro, Hazelwood, nails burger-topping combos in a funky setting. Try the Lance Armstrong, it’s ‘Like a banting, but we cheat a little,’ reads the menu. From R52,50 for a regular burger. 0815107080


Stay here

Ambiance Guest House, Brooklyn, is a very special find – French country-style living with spacious rooms, rustic-chic decor and glorious linen in a private, garden enclave. From R510 per person sharing. 0123620500

Rietvlei Chalets, Rietvlei Nature Reserve, is a great out-of-town option. I didn’t stay (it was fully booked to end 2016, which is a good sign), but the setting is idyllic and guests can fish in the Rietvlei Dam or ride the nearby mountain-bike trails. R850 for a chalet (sleeps six). 0123581819

Battis Guest House, Menlo, is old-fashioned and a bit musty, but a quirky homage to the eponymous artist. Stay in the upstairs loft room if you can. From R550 per person. 0123464145


Where the locals go

Lourens Louw, student
‘Varsity is currently closed, so I don’t go out much, but [Madison Avenue] is always great.’ Find it on Facebook.

Delphon Beckwitz, artist
‘Sometimes I like to go out to Rietvlei Nature Reserve to do still-life paintings.’

Mbali Mavundla, lawyer
Park Acoustics at the Voortrekker Monument is a great way to cure the Sunday Blues.’

Unathi Bodlo, financial advisor
Capital Craft, for good food and unusual beer.’

Pearl Moroka, accountant
‘Tugela Restaurant at the Farm Inn, Silver Lakes! Little gem not many people know about.’

Naomi Smit, relations manager
Lucky Rodrigo is a great late-night hotspot, after 12pm.’

Cyclists on Murray Street populated with jacarandas.


Top 3 roads to visit for jacarandas

1. Murray Street‘s jacarandas join above the road like a tunnel.

2. Farrel Street is a dead end so there’s less traffic (great for photos).

3. Herbert Baker Street is where you’ll find Pretoria’s only white jacarandas. Head there in the late afternoon for the best light.


5 must-visit markets

Hazel Food Market, Greenlyn, is every Saturday (8am – 2pm). It also hosts a periodic night market.

TripSwitch Market, Kara Heritage Village, is on selected Fridays (4pm – midnight). See Facebook. [email protected]

Irene Village Market, Olifantsfontein, is every Saturday (9am – 2pm).

Pretoria Boeremark, Silverton, is every Saturday (5.30am – 9.30am).

Market at The Sheds, 012Central Precinct, is on the last Saturday of each month (11am – 6pm).


Also Read: The 20 Best Restaurants in Pretoria East


Read more from this story in the January 2017 issue of Getaway magazine.

Get this issue →

Our January issue features a bucket list of 45 experiences to have at least once in South Africa, a new way to experience the Wild Coast, and a beautiful beach holiday in Sri Lanka.


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