The Free State province in South Africa is often overlooked by tourists visiting the country.

Places like Cape Town, Durban and the Kruger National Park get all the glory, while central South Africa is considered an inconvenient drive on the way to the next exciting place. In fact, the Free State is one of the most beautiful provinces in South Africa.

Large parts of the province are distinguished by flat grassland, farmland and the occasional koppie (little hill. But as you head towards the east the scenery becomes greener, the hills turn into mountains and the pace of life slows.

Free State Tourism used to have a motto that said something along the lines of: Visit the Free State; Discover your soul.

The country’s beloved former president and the most famous ex-con and humanitarian in the world, Nelson Mandela had this to say about the Free State:

“The Free State landscape gladdens my heart, no matter what my mood. When I am here I feel that nothing can shut me in and that my thoughts can roam as far as the horizons.”

With plaudits such as this, isn’t it time you came to see what central South Africa is all about?

Top 4 things to see and do in the Free State

1) Without a doubt, Clarens is the first must-see destination in the Free State. It’s a little village in the foothills of the Maluti Mountains that is roughly three hours away from Joburg, Bloemfontein, and Durban. It’s often referred to as the Jewel of the Free State thanks to its outstanding natural beauty as well as the hospitality of the residents.

It’s small and sleepy and a haven for artists and art lovers alike. The town boasts many galleries, restaurants and luxury guest houses and, being in the foothills of one of the most spectacular mountain ranges in the country, is surrounded by picturesque hiking and walking trails. Not to mention fishing and picnicking at the many dams.

2) Bloemfontein Botanical Garden provides a quiet patch where you can get away from the busy, growing capital city of the Free State. It has over 124 species of birds, 54 species of reptiles and 50 mammal species, as well as countless species of flora. There is a gentle path for those who like to stroll among the flowers and a couple of slightly more taxing hikes up the dolerite koppies.

During summer there are sunset concerts but lectures and moonlight walks are available all year round.

3) The Vredefort Dome is a World Heritage Site and the place of the biggest meteorite impact in the world. If that wasn’t enough it’s also the oldest impact site in the world. The Vredefort Dome Conservancy was formed by a group of concerned landowners in the region who wanted to preserve the integrity of the site while still making the most of tourism. As a result, it’s possible to walk, cycle and even drive around certain parts of the Dome.

4) The Gariep (or Xhariep) Dam Nature Reserve is between Bloemfontein and Colesburg and provides a host of water sports, game viewing, bird watching, and picnicking opportunities. The reserve is the biggest in the Free State and contains the largest springbok population in South Africa. The springbok is South Africa’s national animal, not to mention the emblem of the South African rugby team.

The Gariep Dam Village has a number of guest houses and B&B’s for you to stay overnight and fully enjoy the wildlife experience.