Discover Pretoria's pretty, gritty splendour on a city walking tour
This half-day tour is a perfect blend of old architecture, interesting history and fresh energy — just make sure you take a bag for the mielies
It’s ironic that, sometimes, places on our doorstep can feel the most distant. Take, for example, Pretoria’s inner city which, according to guide Gilda Swanepoel, “became forgotten with the exodus of the middle class to the Eastern suburbs”.
The no-nonsense tour guide greets me with her tour partner, Gabriel Chauke, outside the Herbert Baker station building in downtown Pretoria on the kind of blistering day for which the city is known.
Swanepoel started Eenblond Tours in 2017 after spending some time travelling through SA with her dog. Along the way, her travel blog gained popularity and she picked up the name of the travel company she’d later form when a writer covering her expeditions referred to her as the “Eenblond” (solo blond).
Swanepoel now offers small-group, experience-centred tours around Joburg, with her Soweto and Newtown and Fordsburg street art and street food tours proving particularly popular.
But when one of her bigger clients asked her to put together a tour of Pretoria, she started researching and mapping out the best route to take, finally opening her Pretoria inner-city half-day walking tour for bookings towards the end of last year.
INTO THE CITY
Swanepoel says she doesn’t really do historical tours. Instead, her focus falls on the people and the experiences she can offer her guests along the way. But a tour of the inner city of Pitori — as the locals have affectionately dubbed their city — would be incomplete without a few facts and dates.
It helps that Swanepoel studied at the University of Pretoria, so telling stories — not just rambling off facts — about the places we pass on the tour comes naturally.
At the beautifully preserved Melrose House Museum, where the South African War was concluded with the signing of the Peace Treaty of Vereeniging in 1902, she points out a magnificent wild fig tree that was planted more than 120 years ago. Across the road in Burger’s Park, you’ll find more of them.
Passing what is today a library for the department of education, we learn that the same building functioned as a hospital during the South African War as well as the prison that Winston Churchill escaped from.
From here, we wind our way through the city, passing through the Tram Shed, a tram depot dating back to the 1880s that has been converted into a shopping centre. Inside, there are both run-of-the-mill shops and entrepreneurs.
Street art isn’t plentiful, but here and there you’ll pass something cool, a noteworthy piece being a 2mx3m mosaic by Johannesburg-based artist Hannelie Coetzee as a tribute to her aunt Koek, a figure in her life who loved her without judgment.
A MARRIAGE OF TRANSFORMATION AND STAGNATION
There’s a quick stop at 012central, a trendy precinct development in the city that forms part of an inner-city rejuvenation project.
Pretoria’s answer to Johannesburg’s The Playground market is Market@theSheds, an inner-city market with food vendors, stalls, pop-up art exhibitions, creative activations and live music.
After suspending business with the outbreak of Covid, the market reopened on March 5. If you’re on tour on the last Saturday of the month, pop in after the tour to experience a fresh, energetic side of Pretoria you’ll undoubtedly enjoy.
The rest of the route follows a straight line: past the impressive Reserve Bank, into the State Theatre for a quick look around and down Church Street, passing the street vendors on Sammy Marks Square as you make your way to Church Square, where the majestic statue of president Paul Kruger stands, covered in bird poop.
There is much to feel frustrated by and lessons Pretoria can learn from its counterpart in the south. For one, as Swanepoel points out, the city doesn’t have a robust heritage society as you’ll find in Joburg, and many of the most striking buildings with incredible potential are going to waste.
That said, I felt my morning of ambling around was well spent. Apart from the beautiful architectural gems tucked away on the clean streets, both big and small, a highlight by far was the freshly boiled mielie from Kenneth Makamu’s cart along Church Street. The big, pearly kernels provided a deep satisfaction I think back on with longing. The next time he sees me, he best believe I’ll be coming around with a big green Checkers bag.
TAKE THE TOUR
The tour costs R400 a person and runs from 9am to 4pm, Mondays to Saturdays. Tours meet outside the Pretoria Gautrain and Herbert Baker stations where they depart from and return to. It is advisable to either drive to and park your car in the public parking area, or use the Gautrain as Uber drivers have difficulty accessing the area. Wear comfortable walking shoes and a hat, and take some sunscreen and a small amount cash. Children eight years and older are welcome to join.
Visit eenblond.co.za for more information.