Sarah Kingdom offers up her way of exploring Johannesburg and challenges popular preconceptions.
Johannesburg, Jo’burg, Jozi, Joeys, Joni, JHB, iGoli, E’Goli, or the ‘city of gold’, South Africa’s biggest city began as a gold-mining settlement it what is now known as one of the greatest gold-mining areas on earth. Located in the eastern part of the country, Johannesburg is a massive and vibrant city, not just an industrial giant, but the heart of the country’s economy and a city that has shaped the country’s history and politics.
Often overlooked by travellers in favour of other more picturesque parts of South Africa, Johannesburg is frequently just a stopover for international tourists or a jumping-off point for a safari. But it’s worth spending a little time here. There’s a lot to see, learn and do. This is a city of contrasts; there’s the poverty and struggles of Soweto, but there’s also the glitzy skyscrapers and ‘super homes’ of Sandton, often referred to as Africa’s richest square mile. Despite its complicated past, Johannesburg has a lot to offer tourists, read on for some Johannesburg highlights.
The City Centre
A great way to start your Johannesburg experience is by heading into the city centre, which is full of historic buildings. Visit Chancellor House, where Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo set up South Africa’s first black-owned law firm. Get a 360° View of Johannesburg from the Carlton Centre, a 50-storey skyscraper located in central Johannesburg. Admire heritage buildings on historic Main Street. Visit the Workers Museum and Museum Africa. Get a feel for the hustle and bustle of the people, lifestyle and culture of this complex city.
If you’re visiting South Africa, it’s a good idea to spend some time learning about apartheid – a brutal, period of national segregation that lasted 43 years. A visit to Constitution Hill will give you a better understanding of this troubled era. Constitution Hill was once a notorious complex of prisons, known as The Fort, where political activists were incarcerated throughout the apartheid era. Thousands of men and women, of all races, ages, social status and political beliefs, including Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi, were imprisoned here. Constitution Hill overlooks the city and has been transformed into beautiful, thought-provoking museums, focussing on promoting human rights.
Visiting Constitution Hill will give you deeper insights into South Africa’s history and you should pair your visit with a tour of the Apartheid Museum, whose immersive exhibits explore this tragic time in more depth.
The Apartheid Museum
Established in 2001, The Apartheid Museum will give you glimpses of apartheid, the laws of segregation according to racial groups, and South Africa’s painful journey to freedom.
A group of esteemed architectural firms collaborated here to envision the museum’s structure, situated on an expansive seven-hectare plot. The result is a remarkable demonstration of innovative design, spatial arrangement, and landscape, providing international visitors with an exceptional and authentic South African experience.
On arrival, your entry ticket will randomly classify you as white or non-white, and you may only enter through the gate indicated for the race you have been allocated, setting the atmosphere for the rest of your visit. The two main exhibitions are the Permanent Exhibition and the Mandela Exhibition, in addition, you’ll find temporary exhibits that explore different aspects of the issue more in-depth. The permanent exhibition takes you through some of the painful events of South Africa’s struggle for liberation.
The Nelson Mandela exhibition allows you to learn about this leading statesman who was at the forefront of the country’s struggle against apartheid, including his time as a prisoner for 27 years.
Soweto Township and The Orlando Towers
About 20km from Joburg’s centre, Soweto is the largest and most famous township in South Africa, with around 1.3 million inhabitants. During the apartheid regime, Soweto was at the heart of the movement to end apartheid and was a no-go area for tourists. More recently the South African government has focussed on developing tourism in Soweto, making it a safe, dynamic and interesting place to visit, with some wonderful historical areas to explore, as well as an up-and-coming adventure sports scene.
Take a guided tour – delve into the heart of Soweto and be captivated by its rich history and culture. Learn about the township’s significant role in South Africa’s past and present, as well as its contributions to the country’s vibrant tapestry. You’ll be taken to the main landmarks, including Vilakazi Street, the only street in the world to have housed two Nobel Peace Prize winners, Nelson Mandela and Arch Bishop Desmond Tutu. You can also sample authentic cuisine, shop for unique crafts, and interact with the locals, gaining insights into their daily lives and traditions.
For thrill-seekers, the Orlando Towers offer an adrenaline-pumping experience like no other. These striking structures, which were once part of a power station, now serve as an entertainment centre and adrenaline-junky paradise. Bungee jumping, from a 328ft high suspension bridge, is the big attraction here.
Visit the ‘super cool’ Maboneng Precinct. Once a run-down part of town, a renovation project has turned it into an up-and-coming neighbourhood, where you’ll find great restaurants, cafés, bars, boutiques, and art galleries. Maboneng is a Sesotho word meaning ‘place of lights’, and the name perfectly describes the district, which is Johannesburg’s downtown fashion corner, buzzing lifestyle playground and one of the city’s major creative hubs, filled with remarkable works of art, beautiful murals and colourful graffiti.
The “Maboneng Township Arts Experience” tour, is a national public arts initiative that celebrates the vibrant creativity of South African townships! Over the past decade, The Maboneng Township Arts Experience has achieved remarkable milestones, converting more than 50 homes into unique galleries, and providing a platform to showcase the talents of over 40 artists.
The Walter Sisulu National Botanical Gardens
If you’re looking for something a little more ‘natural’, you’ll find plenty to enjoy at the Botanical Gardens. There are nine national botanical gardens in South Africa, and the Walter Sisulu, with its 200 acres of greenery and seven gardens of local and international plants, is one of them.
Highlights include the Witpoortjie Waterfall, Birds and Butterfly Garden, the Fern Trail, Children’s Garden, Herb Garden, and the impressive array of desert plants in the Succulent Garden. If you’re a theatre fan, spend some time in the Shakespeare Garden, which is filled with plants and herbs that were featured in the Bard’s plays. The gardens are a great place to unwind and enjoy a bit of nature in the heart of the city.
Johannesburg Art Gallery is one of the best art spots to visit in Johannesburg. Located in Joubert Park the gallery houses an impressive collection, including prints that date back to the 15th Century, works of artists such as Dali and Picasso, and a section dedicated to local artists. Make your way over to the University of the Witwatersrand Johannesburg campus to visit the Wits Art Museum with 15,000 works dating from the 19th Century to modern day. Another excellent venue is the Goodman Gallery which focuses specifically on art with a social justice component, exhibiting established and emerging artists, many of whom are regarded as having helped shape the landscape of contemporary art in Southern Africa
For foodies keen to taste something super-traditional, opt for a typical African meal in Soweto, Yoeville or Maboneng. South Africa’s rich cultural heritage is reflected in its food and one of the coolest things to do in Johannesburg is to enjoy the cuisine. Local delicacies can include chicken neck, chicken feet, pigs’ trotters and tripe, all accompanied by the unmissable ‘paap’, a ground maize dish quite similar to polenta. Check out the Taste of Africa food tour which will get you sampling a variety of Pan-African restaurants in the thriving Yeoville neighbourhood.
The Cradle Of Humankind
Visiting the Cradle of Humankind near Johannesburg is a profound journey into our evolutionary past and an opportunity to see some of the oldest rock art in the world, as well as extraordinary fossil finds that have shaped our understanding of human evolution. Among the treasures here are the famous fossils “Mrs Ples” and “Little Foot,” providing valuable insights into our ancient ancestry. The Maropeng Visitor Centre complements the experience, offering interactive exhibits that narrate the story of evolution.
The rolling landscapes, dotted with archaeological sites, provide a tangible connection to the earliest chapters of human history. This UNESCO World Heritage Site not only educates but also evokes a sense of awe, inviting visitors to contemplate the intricate tapestry of life and the remarkable journey that led to our existence.
Had enough art, culture or food, and want to stretch your legs, how about teeing off at one of the best golf courses in Johannesburg? The Royal Johannesburg Golf Club, which has been running since 1890, offers two championship-level courses. At the Bryanston Country Club, there are a variety of greens for people of all skill levels, complete with plenty of entertaining water hazards. The links at Observatory Golf Course feature challenging holes and are committed to making the sport affordable for average individuals.
Tell me more about Exploring Johannesburg
There’s plenty to keep you busy on a visit to Johannesburg, whether it’s adventure or relaxation. The city boasts a rich history and culture, with museums, galleries, and historical sites to explore, and its fair share of other activities too!
Don’t forget to visit Visit South African Tourism for more information on visiting and exploring Johannesburg.