As the rainbow nation’s biggest city, Johannesburg has had its fair share of social issues to deal with over the decades. Many travellers choose to look the other way, but those that delve into ‘Jozi’s’ psyche will discover a destination packed with amazing experiences. South African-born Joanne Karcz checks in with suggestions for ten top things to do…
Many travellers don’t stay in Johannesburg — they transit through to other areas of South Africa and beyond.
Believe me, it’s well worth taking a few days to explore this vibrant city that was built on the promise of gold. ‘Joburg’, or ‘Jozi’ as locals call it, has so much to offer.
Here are ten top things to do in Johannesburg.
1. Visit the Apartheid Museum
The world-class Apartheid Museum is a must-see. Built in 2001, it documents the rise and fall of apartheid. Visitors face the reality that was apartheid when issued with entry tickets ‘identifying’ the holder as ‘white’ or ‘non-white’. The ticket holder then enters the museum according to the relevant turnstile. Whenever I visit the museum it’s an emotional experience to see once again the story of a state-sanctioned system based on racial discrimination and the struggle of the majority against this oppression.
2. Do a Soweto tour
A tour of Soweto is another must. The largest black residential area in South Africa, it has a population of more than 3.5 million people. From informal settlements to the homes of wealthy residents, Soweto is a place of contrasts. There you will see the memorial dedicated to 13-year old Hector Pieterson. Hector was shot and killed by police on June 16, 1976 when he and other students took to the streets to protest the introduction of Afrikaans as the medium of instruction in schools.
3. Spend a day at Gold Reef City
On the same site as the Apartheid Museum you’ll find Gold Reef City. This amusement park has rides to suit all ages and is built around a gold rush theme. Apart from experiencing the thrilling rides, you’ll learn the story of gold prospecting in South Africa, do an underground mine tour and watch a gold pouring.
4. Experience traditional local culture at Lesedi Village
For a different cultural take on Johannesburg, Lesedi Village offers an insight into the traditional heritage of five local African tribes. Having a djembe (African drum) of my own, I can never resist having a go with one of local performers. Enjoy traditional dancing, including the miners’ Gumboot dance, which always has the audience tapping along to the rhythmic beat.
5. Learn about our origins at the Origins Centre
Origins Centre is a museum on the grounds of Wits University that takes visitors on a journey of discovery — beginning with the origins of humankind in Africa. An extensive collection of rock art is on display, including some of the earliest images created by humans, that were found in South Africa.
Afterwards, take a drive up to nearby Constitution Hill overlooking the city. Previously a fort and later a prison, it is now the seat of the Constitutional Court of South Africa. A tour of the old prison followed by a look inside the court provides an overview of South Africa’s apartheid past and the foundation of the constitution.
6. Marvel at the Cradle of Humankind
Another historical attraction well worth adding to your list of top things to do in Johannesburg is the award-winning Cradle of Humankind paleoanthropological site. The site is World Heritage-listed. Maropeng, as the visitor centre is called, means ‘returning to the place of origin’. Located about an hour from the city by car, the region is known as the birthplace of humanity. The self-guided, interactive exhibition at the visitor centre is ideal for all ages.
7. Shop for arts and crafts
Take a relaxing stroll through the Rosebank African Craft Market, next to Rosebank Mall in the city’s north, for a showcase of curios and crafts from South Africa and other African countries. It’s a great place to pick up fabric, beadwork, carvings and more.
On Sundays the Rosebank Rooftop Market complements the African market. There you can browse books, tasty delicacies and collectibles, while live traditional music plays in the background.
8. Feast on market specialties
On Thursdays or Saturdays head off to Johannesburg’s oldest outdoor market — the Bryanston Organic & Natural Market. Quality crafts, organic produce and a fabulous lunch are all on offer.
9. Meander through Johannesburg Botanical Garden
This 81-hectare Johannesburg Botanical Garden is described as one of the city’s ‘green lungs’. Once a sports field, the garden is open from sunrise to sunset and is best accessed by car (there is plenty of parking). Apart from the specialty gardens (Rose Garden, Hedge Demonstration Garden, Herb Garden, Succulent Garden and Arboretum), the open spaces and paved paths provide ample scope to relax with a picnic or go for a stroll. Walks range from 30 minutes to two hours, and it’s advisable to walk in groups. The Emmarentia Dam within the gardens is popular for canoeing, kayaking and sailing.
10. Get on the trail of the big five
If you are short of time, one way to experience the African bush and its fabulous wildlife is to visit the Pilanesberg National Park — a two-hour drive from Johannesburg. Here you may be lucky enough to see some or all of the Big 5 (lion, leopard, buffalo, rhinoceros and elephant). Ideally, stay a couple of nights and immerse yourself in the landscape — but if time is really short, an organised day tour from Johannesburg is a great option.
Tips for getting around
Getting around in Johannesburg is easy. The fabulous 80-kilometre Gautrain links the International Airport with Johannesburg and Pretoria, enabling easy transfers to accommodation in Rosebank or Sandton. Gautrain bus routes connect with the train but you will need a Gold Card (available at the station) for bus travel.
While you could hire a car, it might be less stressful to use one of the many shuttle services on offer. Buzz Around is one I can recommend.
So don’t just pass through Jozi. You’ll be missing so much!
Do you have any suggestions to add to this list of ten top things to do in Johannesburg? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Cover image: Bigstock
About the writer
Joanne Karcz is a Sydney-based writer and blogger. She published a blog when she walked the Camino de Santiago some years ago and has been writing about her travels ever since. She is also an aspiring travel photographer and takes her camera wherever she goes. Joanne has travelled through Europe, South America and Southern Africa. She loves discovering new things to see and do in her own Sydney backyard, and blogs regularly about the city’s suburbs.