Here’s where to eat, what to do and some tips to get you through “11 days of amazing”. (Feature image by CUEPIX/Niamh Walsh-Vorster)
WHERE TO EAT
Saints Bistro & Inn has established itself as a firm favourite of those who live in Grahamstown. With an extensive menu, which changes often, regular specials and a flexible chef who is careful to adapt meals according to dietary requirements, its popularity is well deserved.
Saints always brings something special to the table during Fest and this year, its new Special Festival Menu promises hearty meals to warm in winter, including a slow braised oxtail and lamb neck stew. Favourites such as the stuffed calamari, Thai coconut chicken curry, and beetroot and cream cheese springrolls can also be expected.
2016 will also be its second year hosting the Standard Bank Jazz Café. Contact +27 (0)46 622 3007 for more information.
For French-inspired cuisine and arguably the best cakes and pastries in town, head to Haricot’s Deli & Bistro on New Street. Big letters announcing “The French Quarter” transport diners to an elegant spot in the heart of Grahamstown. Set in an old home, which has been renovated in a shabby-chic style, Haricot’s is ideal for a quiet bite to eat or tea and a slice of red velvet cake. For more information, contact +27 (0)46 622 2150.
The Highlander is located next to the St Andrew’s College’s lower field and offers visitors to Grahamstown a different view of the town. The open-plan restaurant and bar features cozy couch areas, a more formal table setting and outdoor seating, giving patrons the option of a casual pick-me-up or a full meal. And the large fireplace is a definite draw during the winter festival period! The menu is diverse with gourmet pizzas featured as a specialty. For more information, contact +27 (0)46 622 3564.
For a more casual experience, with a likelihood of live music and a promise of a great vibe, head downstairs to The Lowlander on the same premises.
You can’t go to Grahamstown and not visit the Rat and Parrot! For a more quiet experience, go for a meal during the day – expect classic pub grub and tasty pizzas. For a more authentic experience, head there at night for a few drinks and find out first-hand why students flock to this cozy joint (although Festival is during university holidays).
It’s also the place to be for any big sports fixtures. Find it on New Street and contact +27 (0)46 622 5002 for more information.
WHERE TO STAY
Apart from great food, Saints Bistro & Inn also offers cozy accommodation within great proximity to the town’s attractions. With various units which sleep between two and four people, options are versatile. Rooms feature typical Grahamstown charm with original features and a homely atmosphere. The friendly staff will have tons of recommendations for how to get the most out of your stay.
For a stay a just outside the bustling centre of town, head to 8A Grahamstown on St Aidans Avenue. This accommodation offers a number of suite options, all kitted with luxurious linen and amenities. It offers excellent views of Grahamstown – making relaxing in the lounge a great way to enjoy a chilly evening. For more information, visit the website or contact +27 (0)46 648 3466.
If you don’t mind a bit of a drive to get to Grahamstown for Fest activities, or are looking to extend your stay in the Eastern Cape, the nearby beach towns are a great option. The Oyster Box Beach House in the sleepy Kenton-on-Sea offers upmarket accommodation a stone’s throw from the beach. It may be a bit chilly to enjoy a beach day in winter (although you never know in this region), but the views are well-worth the short drive to Grahamstown. This is the perfect option for travellers looking to enjoy Fest and still have a relaxing break. Expect a quiet drive of about 45 minutes with pleasant views. For a group stay, try the Oyster Shack, which can accommodate up to eight people. Contact +27 (0)46 648 3466 for bookings.
The other popular nearby beach town is the slightly busier Port Alfred. For a quiet stay with excellent attention to detail, try The Beach House Port Alfred (082 6625720), which offers six en-suite rooms. Expect a 45-minute drive to Grahamstown, during which you’ll pass through the quaint village of Bathurst, which is well worth a stop, if even for a refreshment at the Pig and Whistle. You’ll also pass by the renowned “big pineapple“.
For the healthier among us, Relish offers an array of nutritious goodies close to all of Fest’s top locations. Expect gourmet sandwiches, baked goods and a charming atmosphere. The health smoothies come highly recommended. Find it at 8 Allen Street.
Conveniently located on the corner of Somerset and New, Homeground Coffee Roasters is ideal for a takeaway brew between shows. The coffees are aromatic and well priced and the freshly baked goods are in high demand during Fest.
Grahamstown locals and students are all familiar with Sisa Mapetu – barista of Hand Made Coffees and a firm favourite character in the community. Visitors heading to Fest can get to know Sisa at the Festival Gallery branch, which he’ll be managing. Expect a fantastic cup of coffee served with a smile at this coffee shop which oozes charm. Find more details on the Facebook page.
WHAT TO DO
With the Village Green being a hot attraction, many Fest-goers may overlook the Atmosphere Market – and they’d be missing out. This market runs throughout the year in Grahamstown, filling a much-needed gap in the town. Expect good food, interesting items and a great vibe. Its hook is in the name – the atmosphere; its much more of an occasion than a shop-and-dash. Find it at 37 on New and keep an eye on its Twitter feed for more info.
If you’re staying near St Andrew’s College, be sure to check out South Africa’s Oldest Official Letterbox. Unfortunately I didn’t send a letter from it during my four years in the town, but I certainly wish I had. Why not go old school and share your Fest memories with loved ones in the form of a letter from this iconic letterbox? You’ll find it on north-west end of Worcester Street, near the circle.
Visit the traders who set up their hand-made products in front of the Drostdy Arch. Often known by locals, fondly, as “the ladies under the Arch” they are firmly embedded in the arts and culture of the town and have wonderful items for sale. More vendors tend to flock to this site during Fest, but keep an eye out for the ladies’ gorgeous hand-knitted apparel.
Some who attend the Festival tend to skim past the Fringe programme, choosing to rather spend their budget the main attractions, but Fringe has tons to offer. With everything from dance to comedy, some of the country’s brightest up-and-comers highlight the Fringe section and are far too often overlooked.
Tickets for Fringe are very reasonable and many shows have discounts on opening or closing days – so be sure to get your hands on a programme. For tips on which show most deserves your time and cash, check out the reviews in Cue – printed copies can be purchased around the Village Green.
The Transnet Village Green Fair is an absolute must for anyone visiting Grahamstown for Fest. The venue is usually Rhodes University’s Great Field, but it’s completely transformed during Fest with large tents full of stalls and food trucks around them. Expect vintage clothing – beautiful, wearable items (not at all what you’d expect from a market-type set up) – jewellery, home-made food items and home decor.
Be sure to dedicate plenty of time here – I went every day for all eleven days in 2015 and found something new everyday. The food stalls and trucks are fantastic, with everything from Mexican to shawarmas and authentic Belgian waffles (the stalls may vary each year).
Enjoy a completely different side of Fest with the National Arts Festival Street Parade. Join the town’s locals in this happy event which signals the end of one Festival and the possibilities of the next. Put on your walking shoes – this is one to experience first-hand.
Walking around Fest, you’re bound to hear the name “The Long Table“ come up. This restaurant and bar pops up yearly during Fest and has become a favourite spot for Festival-goers and performers alike. Expect a jovial setting with guests mingling wherever they can get a seat at the long tables – and hearty, homely cooking. Find it at St George’s Hall (108 High Street).
Parking anywhere in town during Fest is a nightmare. Your best bet is to head out early, leave your car for the day and walk between venues and the Village Green. Some venues may be a bit too far to walk, so be sure to map out routes to avoid missing your shows. Try to stick to protected areas for safety reasons. There is a good amount of parking on Rhodes University campus and behind the Village Green (next to the DSG fields). If your accommodation is near the attractions and offers safe parking, leaving your vehicle there is another option.
Be safety vigilant, especially at night. Grahamstown has started to get a reputation for petty crimes (predominately muggings) and although law enforcement is very much present during Fest (reducing incidents dramatically), it’s best to travel in groups and keep valuables somewhere safe.
While Grahamstown officials are usually quite good at filling in potholes before Fest comes to town, be alert while driving as the town is notorious for its poorly maintained roads. Be especially vigilant when heading away from immediate Fest attractions, as these areas are sometimes overlooked.
Be sure to mind the donkeys (and occasionally cows)! The much beloved creatures frequently wander onto roads. They are quite traffic savvy and tend to stay clear during Fest, but keep a watchful eye, particularly at night. They’re friendly and open to selfies, so don’t get a shock if you happen upon one while on foot.
The weather in Grahamstown is notoriously volatile so be sure to pack a variety of clothing. As Fest is in winter, be sure to pack warm clothes, but layers are advisable as afternoons can warm up (especially with all the walking between venues). Pack for rain too – you just never know in Grahamstown.