Its Zulu name, umGungundlovu, is the name used for the district municipality. This is popularly translated from the Zulu as "Place of the Elephant", although it could also be translated to mean "The elephant wins". Umgungundlovu is thus thought to be the site of some Zulu king's victory since "Elephant" (Indlovu) is a name traditionally taken by the Zulu monarch.
Pietermaritzburg is popularly called Maritzburg in Afrikaans, English and Zulu alike, and often informally abbreviated to PMB. It is a regionally important industrial hub, producing aluminium, timber and dairy products. The public sector is a major employer in the city due to the local, district and provincial governments being located here.
The city was founded by the Voortrekkers, following the defeat of Dingane at the Battle of Blood River, and was the capital of the short-lived Boer republic, Natalia. Britain took over Pietermaritzburg in 1843 and it became the seat of the Natal Colony's administration. Fort Napier, named after the governor of the Cape Colony, Sir George Thomas Napier, was built to house a garrison.
There are two interpretations about the origin of the city's name. One is that it was named after Piet Retief and Gert (Gerrit) Maritz, two Voortrekker leaders. The other is that it was named after Piet Retief alone, since his full name was Pieter Maurits Retief. In this interpretation the original name was "Pieter Maurits Burg", later transliterated to the current name.
Summers are warm and occasionally hot, with frequent rainfall. Winters are dry with high temperature variation, with light air frosts being possible.
Access to Pietermaritzburg by road is easy, lying as it does on the major N3 freeway from Durban to Johannesburg. The R56 connects Pietermaritzburg with Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and East London to the south-west.
- Note: The Seat61 website reports that this service was suspended as a result of the COVID pandemic and as a result of looting and cable theft has yet to resume service [Upated February 2023].
Pietermaritzburg is on the route between Johannesburg and Durban. Passenger trains are few and far between, Shosholoza Meyl[dead link] overnight trains in each direction every second day. Journey time from Johannesburg is just over 11 hours. It's possible to travel on long-distance trains from Durban too, journey time for this stretch is 2½ hours.
- 1 Pietermaritzburg railway station (corner of Church and Railway streets, south-west edge of the city centre). Exercise caution when traveling on foot in this part of town, due to muggings and bag snatching.
Pietermaritzburg receives daily flights from Johannesburg. Service can be slightly erratic or heavily booked, so keep that in mind when booking important flights.
Regular daily bus services connect Pietermaritzburg to major cities in South Africa. The bus station is located in Burger Street, opposite the McDonalds and it serves major bus companies. Grey Hound is the most reliable and it operates several round-trips from Durban to Johannesburg daily, where Pietermaritzburg is the last stop before Durban.
Private transport is the best way of getting around. Car rental is strongly advised. Otherise, minibus-taxis are cheap but uncomfortable and occasionally unsafe. Some of the sights of Pietermaritzburg are within walking distance, if you don't mind trudging along for a few kilometres. Private taxis (cabs) can also be hired, but they are substantially more expensive than the minibus-taxis.
- Yellow Cab company, ☏ .
The central minibus-taxi rank is in Market Square, which is in the Central Business District near the Natal Society Library and the City Hall.
To get to the Central Business District from any of the suburbs by minibus-taxi, look for a taxi that is travelling to "eTuwen" or simply "Town". (There should be a guy leaning out the window announcing this loudly.)
You don't want to go to eThekwini, which is Durban. You want to go to "town". Ask the conductor if you're unsure.
Minibus-taxis have set routes, so there are a lot of places you can't get to using them.
The CBD isn't as safe as the suburbs. The area around the City Hall is pretty good, but I'd advise against long rambling walks into unfamiliar parts of it.
The City Hall, which is in the CBD, is the largest red brick building in the Southern Hemisphere. It contains a large organ, and occasionally hosts concerts.
The Natal Society Library is behind the City Hall, and has a large children's wing.
Further afield, Queen Elizabeth Park up on the hills above the city contains zebra, buck and the like. No leopards or dangerous creatures, so you can walk around and enjoy the park on foot. Make sure you don't get your food stolen by monkeys, though.
The KwaZulu-Natal National Botanical Gardens in Mayor's Walk are spectacular and worth an extended visit. The gardens focus on indigenous flora and offer diverse walks through forests and open ground. A restaurant and coffee shop is located at the entrance. Weekend visitors will witness a stream of wedding parties going to the gardens to have their photos taken.
- 1 Pietermaritzburg City Hall, 145 Chief Albert Luthuli St. Built in 1902, this was for a long time the largest brick building in the Southern Hemisphere. A prime example of Victorian architecture and national monument.
- 2 KwaZulu-Natal National Botanical Garden, 2 Zwartkop Rd.
- 3 Voortrekker / Msunduzi Museum, 351 Langalibalele St. Depicts the heritage of different cultural groups of KwaZulu-Natal, including the Great Trek by the Afrikaner people into the interior of South Africa.
- 4 Tatham Art Gallery, Chief Albert Luthuli St. Fine artwork, including an impressive and ornate clock on the second floor. You'll find a coffee shop on the second floor. Free entrance.
The nightlife in Pietermaritzburg is pretty limited. Two or three clubs dominate the scene. Crowded House (in the CBD, fairly near to the City Hall) is one of the most popular, playing pop and dance music. Exclusive Lounge nearby plays kwaito and house music. Franki Bananaz is a cocktail bar in Armitage Road that is popular with the twenties set. For a more alternative scene, the Red Door in Quarry Road (off Victoria Road) plays alternative rock/punk music on Friday nights. Live folk and rock music can be heard at the Red Door on Tuesdays and Saturdays.
Pietermaritzburg offers pubs and sports clubs. The Stagecoach which is near the university has a lovely pub atmosphere.
Caffe Vacca Matta at the Golden Horse Casino (in Scottsville) has a more upmarket pitch. Serving as a restaurant in the afternoon and early evening, it becomes a nightclub later on. Dress tends to be slightly more formal, with collared shirts, no jeans or takkies, and the like. The minimum age at Vacca Matta varies, so phone in advance.
Every year in May the Comrades Marathon is held. The course alternates between the "up" run (Durban to Pietermaritzburg) and the "down" run (Pietermaritzburg to Durban). The distance you have to cover varies slightly from year to year, but is approximately 89 km.
- 1 Bisley Valley Nature Reserve.
Liberty Shopping Mall (which is far away from everything else) contains masses of shops, including specialist stores for a host of different goods. In town you can find plenty of shops that sell food, including fast food outlets. There are also vendors on the pavements, although their goods aren't much to write home about.
Downtown in the CBD you can find large clothing stores, as well as smaller Indian shops that sell anything you can think of. Fireworks are particularly popular around Diwali.
- 1 Imperial Hotel, 224 Jabu Ndlovu St, ☏ . One of the few higher end hotels in downtown, this century-old hotel offers an historic ambiance.
Bed and breakfast
- Bancroft B&B, 247, Old Howick rd, Hilton (take the Cedera off-ramp from the N3 into th R103, travel over the freeway into Hilton, pass the traffic lights at Crossways, after 1.6 km down the hill (towards town) on the right hand side), ☏ , , email@example.com. Check-in: 2PM, check-out: 10AM. Bancroft B&B is in the beautiful forested evergreen hills above Pietermaritzburg, is a Georgian style house, with a beautiful facade, offering 2 comfortable suites, with DSTV, Wireless Internet, a hospitality fridge, tea and coffee facilities, fans, heaters and a nice view into the gardens. R320 sharing & R430 single.
- Yes Please B&B, 98 Alan Paton Drive, Scottsville (from N3 off-ramp on Alan Paton), ☏ , . Check-in: noon, check-out: 10AM. All rooms are fitted with air-conditioning & DSTV. Modest dining area offering breakfast, lunch or dinner. Transfers available to and from King Shaka International Airport and regionally. From R350.
Pietermaritzburg Airport can connect you to all cities in South Africa via Johannesburg. Durban is only about 50 min drive away, and Durban International Airport can get you direct to Cape Town, East London, Bloemfontein, Mozambique, Eswatini and anywhere else you need to go (with a connecting flight through Johannesburg International.)
In the other direction the Drakensberg Mountains lie about two hours drive away, offering an array of outdoor activities, with plenty of resorts and the like dotted around.
20 min out of Pietermaritzburg, the town of Howick offers a small touristic place with the Howick Falls as the highlight.