Dubbed the City of Gold, Johannesburg is the largest city of South Africa with about 5.6 million inhabitants. It’s also home to the tallest tower in Africa (the Hillbrow Tower), the world’s largest hospital (The Chris Hani-Baragwanath Hospital) and the busiest airport on the African continent (OR Tambo International Airport). As if that wasn’t enough, it’s also the wealthiest city in Africa and has the world’s largest urban forest with 10 million trees – that’s 2 trees per person (I subtracted infants, they don’t get a tree)!
With these claims to fame under its belt, you’d think it would be the country’s capital city. Or, considering South Africa has no less than 3 capital cities, it is surely one of the three, right? Nope. I don’t know about you, but if I were Jozi (or Joburg), I’d be side eyeing Cape Town, Pretoria and Bloemfontein quite a bit.
Fun fact: Johannesburg is also home to Africa’s tallest building, the Leonardo… at least until Egypt’s Iconic Tower is finished in early 2022!
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So ignore all those safety warnings, read up on tips before visiting the country and head out to Johannesburg! Need some ideas on what to see? Here you go, Jozi’s top sights:
Start out with a gold mine, a hair-raising ride... and a wedding? Joburg’s gold rush-inspired theme park is a city within a city. There is a casino, shopping, restaurants, and even a wedding chapel. For something a little educational, take a tour of an authentic gold mine from the era that gave Johannesburg its nickname, the City of Gold.
Or, if you want to test your ability to hold down your lunch, you could drop 49 feet into a mine shaft on the thrill ride called Tower of Terror. At 6.3G, you’ll experience about double the force that astronauts do during takeoff. No other rollercoaster in the world will let you experience more G-force than this little guy. In total, 18 out of the 30 rides are roller coasters, so you can pack on the G’s all day.
Tip: Free entrance on your birthday!
At the time of writing, this museum is temporarily closed due to the Covid pandemic.
Have you had too much fun at Gold Reef City? Are you smiling from ear to ear? Right next door is the sobering Apartheid Museum that will wipe that smile right off. Photographs, films, display panels and personal documents will take you through South Africa’s history explain how the Apartheid came to life, what it did to its people and how it all finally came to an end. Since the country is still recovering from the 40-year oppression of black Africans, understanding the Apartheid is something every visitor to South Africa should prioritize.
To further your education in South African history, visit Constitution Hill, a former military fort and prison. Political prisoners and passive resistors, among others, were held here in terrible conditions, and walking through the halls lined with massive metal doors and walls with crumbling paint, I dare you not to get chills. Some famous inhabitants were Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, and Albertina Sisulu.
There were four blocks at the prison: one for white prisoners, one for non-white prisoners, a women’s block, and the awaiting-trial block. Today, the Constitutional Court has its seat in the very spot where the awaiting-trial block one stood, with four of the original staircases in and around the court building. One of the staircases holds the Flame of Democracy. This perpetual flame was lit by Nelson Mandela in 2011 and serves as a reminder to South Africans of their right to freedom.
Is you want to get away from the main tourist strip and get a reality check, venture into Soweto, a township on the southwestern side of Johannesburg (Soweto is actually an abbreviation of Southwestern Townships). The area was created by the White government in the 1930s to house Black Africans, since the plan was to remove them from Joburg proper. The conditions these people lived in, and often live in even today, are something to think about. Soweto also housed miners as it was adjacent to the main mining belt. The former miners’ housing can also be seen.
To this day, if you Google Soweto, you will be warned to stay out due to safety reasons. But you can easily and safely tour the town by yourself (just keep your wits about you) if you stick to the main sites: Vilakazi street with Mandela House and Tutu House, the Hector Pieterson Museum and Memorial, the fantastic Soweto Theatre or the Orlando Towers (you can bungee jump off one of them, too!).
To really get a grip on what Soweto was and is about, we highly recommend taking a tour. You will get to know the community and be taken to places that are otherwise off limits, as well as hear stories and experiences that you wouldn’t when just taking yourself around. Lebo’s Soweto Backpackers do great bicycle tours, and MoAfrika Tours’ guides are always locals from Soweto.
Put on your suspenders and colorful socks, it’s time to visit the hipster neighborhood of Maboneng! It’s cool, it’s arty, it’s trendy! If alternative and independent are adjectives you like, Maboneng is the place for you.
Maboneng is a place to chillax the day away. Think dozens of restaurants, quirky cafés, boutiques selling all kinds of weird (but interesting) stuff, factories turned into studios and galleries, street art, concerts. You can almost feel the atmosphere, right?
If you can, visit Maboneng on a Sunday for the vibrant Market on Main. You’ll be able to shop for everything from flowers and produce to vintage and design products, but mostly, you can absorb the vibe and people watch with a good coffee or a regional dish from one of the sellers.
I don’t know about you, but I think it’s time for a breather! Some fresh air and a nice walk sound about right. Or maybe you aren’t into the hipster vibe that is the Maboneng district, but still want to hang out and see some real Jozi life?
Zoo Lake Park is where locals gather for picnics, jogs, to walk their dogs and kids, and row their boats on the lake. You can too! It’s byok (bring your own kid), but you can definitely buy a basket of goodies to eat and rent a little blue boat and join in on the fun. There are two restaurants/cafes in the park as well.
To really experience the park as the locals do, try to visit during one of the many events: concerts, art shows, the annual charity event Carols by Candellight held in December and the hugely popular Jazz on the Lake that takes place every September.
Fun fact: It is dubbed “The people’s park”, and when the founders of Johannesburg gifted it to the city, they did so under the condition that it would remain open to the public, specifically to people of all races. This was quire forward-thinking for 1904.
All right, now you’ve rested and rowed in the park, it’s time for full-day trips.
You can learn a lot about South African history in Johannesburg. But how much do you know about the history of humankind?
The Cradle of Humankind is a UNESCO Heritage Site and an important paleoanthropological site about 1 hour out of Johannesburg. A large number of some of the oldest hominin fossils have been found here, including Mrs. Ples, the most intact pre-human skull, and Little Foot, a nearly complete skeleton, both over 2 million years old. They were found in the Sterkfontein Caves, where paleoanthropological work still continues to this day. The caves used to be coral reefs growing in a shallow sea and can now be visited as part of a tour.
It is important to realize that the area is huge and you will need your own car to get between the individual sites. The Maropeng Visitor Centre is a great place to start, with some amazing discoveries on display and interactive exhibitions to make it fun and interesting. Plus, the entrance is a grassy mound that could be straight out of Hobbiton!
At the Sterkfontein Caves, you will first see the museum and then be taken on a tour of the actual caves. During this walk (bring good shoes and expect a lot of stairs!), a guide will tell you all about Mrs. Ples and Little Foot, both of which were discovered in the caves decades ago.
If you don’t have a lot of time in South Africa or aren’t planning on straying away from Johannesburg too much but still want to see some of Arica’s fabulous fauna, Pilanesberg is only 2.5 hours away from Jozi and can make a great day trip. You can still see the big 5 there and it’s located in a malaria-free zone! Win – win! Plus, accommodation is more affordable here than in other safaris in the country, if you want to extend your day trip to an overnight trip.
The game reserve is located in a volcano crater and you can either self-drive or take a tour. They do 1- to 5- day tours, so there is definitely a lot to see. There is even a black rhino reserve on the northwest side of Pilanesberg. It has a separate entrance. Since the animals are free to roam throughout the park though, you can still spot the big 5 even here in the rhino corner. One of the accommodation options that are worth a look there is the Black Rhino Game Lodge.
And don’t forget to visit the Pilanesberg Centre, which is in the heart of the park, for some coffee and souvenirs, plus a great viewing deck.
You could spend a week in Johannesburg and never get bored. You probably won’t, because there are so many things to see in South Africa and you don’t have a 6-week vacation, but just sayin’, you could. It doesn’t have a couple of oceans like Cape Town or the spectacular hiking of Blyde River or Drakensberg, but it has a lot of trees! They even turn purple in September! Just kidding. Since you read this article, you know there is so much more to Jozi than that.
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