The Best Things to See and Do in Johannesburg, South Africa

Johannesburg is a fast-paced city with loads of places to explore
Johannesburg is a fast-paced city with loads of places to explore | © THEGIFT777 / Getty Images
Maya QSapieka

Johannesburg is South Africa’s biggest city and the cultural and economic capital of Africa. Commonly referred to as “Joburg” or “Jozi”, it draws everyone from history lovers and movers and shakers to tree huggers (after all, it has the world’s largest urban forest). This handy Culture Trip guide takes a look at some of the best things to see and do that guarantee an unforgettable time in the City of Gold.

Johannesburg has the world’s largest urban forest, is the wealthiest city on the continent and home to the tallest building in Africa. Thanks to steady economic growth over the past decade, it has been enjoying something of a renaissance. Living in the shadow of its coastal, mountainous and affluent neighbour, Cape Town, it was a city once considered too chaotic, sprawling and unsafe, but the one thing it’s always had over Mother City is real heart.

Once derelict warehouses are now trendy art galleries, markets and bohemian apartments. Johannesburg also offers one of the continent’s most diverse food scenes. And its dedication to preserving the memories of the struggle heroes who transformed the country into what it is today is unparalleled in South Africa. Johannesburg is a forward-thinking, multicultural and well-integrated hub for young professionals, creatives and visionaries, and it has plenty on offer year-round.

Pro Tip: Johannesburg is relatively easy to navigate, with the Gautrain and its affiliate buses providing direct links to suburbs Sandton and Rosebank, as well as to OR Tambo International Airport, Pretoria and Ekurhuleni. Visitors can buy Gautrain Gold Cards from any Gautrain station. Alternatively, contactless bank cards can be used on the trains. Uber, minivan taxis and private taxis are also available for hire.

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Get lost in Sub-Saharan Africa’s largest art gallery

Art Gallery, Museum
Even those without much time to spare should schedule a trip to the Johannesburg Art Gallery. Located in the historic Joubert Park, the gallery boasts 9,000 works of art exhibited throughout its halls and gardens, making it the largest public collection of art and sculpture in Sub-Saharan Africa. It displays works by international and local artists dating as far back as the 17th century (with some prints dating back to the 15th century). Marvel at pieces created by Picasso, Rodin and Dalí, and discover home-grown talents such as Walter Battiss, JH Pierneef and Gerard Sekoto.

Try the flavours of the city at Neighbourgoods Market

Market, South African
Neighbourgoods Market has breathed new life into the once crumbling central suburb of Braamfontein – the bohemian student district that now boasts one of the city’s most popular weekend events in a parking garage. Listen to live music, stock up on locally made designs and find a spot at one of the long mess hall-style wooden tables to comfortably sample everything from paella and pad thai to tacos and sushi. Enjoy the sweeping views of the city from the upstairs outdoor terrace with some gelato during the hot summer months. There’s an evening market on the first Thursday of every month, too.

Wander along Soweto’s Vilakazi Street

Architectural Landmark
Short for “South Western Township”, Soweto was an entirely separate municipality from the City of Johannesburg until 2002. During apartheid – which ended in 1994 – it was the largest city in South Africa to have a population made up entirely of black Africans. Today, it’s the country’s oldest township, has been the epicentre for many important turning points throughout South Africa’s history and was the location for the 2010 FIFA World Cup’s final match and closing ceremony.The most famous place in Soweto is Vilakazi Street – the only street in the world to have housed two Nobel Peace Prize winners, Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu. Mandela’s former abode is now a museum, and Archbishop Tutu still resides in his Soweto home. Named after the first black African to teach at the University of Witwatersrand (one of the continent’s most prestigious academic institutions) and who helped in the production of the isiZulu dictionary, Vilakazi Street is also the location of the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum. The rest of the street is much like any other in Soweto, a stark reminder that the giants of South African democracy came from the most ordinary of places.

Discover Johannesburg’s creative hub, Maboneng

Architectural Landmark
Vogue once likened the Maboneng Precinct in downtown Johannesburg to South Africa’s answer to Brooklyn’s Williamsburg. A grungy, hipster urban development, it’s the city’s most innovative suburb, comprising unique cafés, independently owned restaurants, enviable nightlife and endless shopping opportunities. Sundays and the first Thursday of each month are the busiest days here, as Arts on Main, a multi-use facility housing galleries, shops and cafés, hosts the weekly Market on Main.Maboneng is the place to go for local contemporary art, such as that found at the gallery and bookshop David Krut Projects. Meanwhile, street art by some of the world’s greatest talent, including South African artists Falko and Freddy Sam, adorns the precinct’s walls. After exploring the area, pop into a local restaurant, such as The Blackanese for wonderful Japanese-inspired mashups such as biltong sushi, or Pata Pata for steaks, cocktails and live music surrounded by decor inspired by 1950s Sophiatown, Johannesburg’s original jazz haunt.

Discover our human ancestors and play with lion cubs at the Cradle of Humankind

Archaeological site, Museum

The exterior façade view of the Maropeng Tumulus Building and the Cradle of Humankind

The Cradle of Humankind is internationally recognised as the place where humankind began. Discovered in 1924, the first-ever hominid fossil, Australopithecus africanus, is on display here at the Maropeng Visitor Centre. It’s a Unesco World Heritage site with 13 excavation sites and is a 40-minute drive from Johannesburg’s city centre. The Sterkfontein Caves, which is home of the longest continuing palaeoanthropological dig in the world, are also located in the area. Notable finds include the pre-human skull dubbed “Mrs Ples”, and a near-complete hominid skeleton called “Little Foot”. Note that both sites, although on the same road, are situated 10km (6mi) apart.Also situated within the World Heritage site reserve is the Lion and Safari Park, a 1,000ha (2,471-acre) animal sanctuary where visitors can sign up for a guided game drive or traverse the park in their vehicle. Cheetah and lion walks depart twice daily; alternatively, play with lion cubs and feed giraffes, ostriches and antelope in this waterside paradise.

Immerse yourself in South Africa’s struggle history

Constitution Hill is more than just the location of the country’s constitutional court – it’s also a living museum. Originally a prison and a military fort, today it recounts South Africa’s long road to democracy. Its exhibitions take place across four locations on the compound: the Old Fort (once a whites-only prison); the Number Four Jail (once a non-whites-only prison); the Women’s Jail; and the Awaiting Trial Block (now the constitutional court). Many notable figures, including Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi, were all prisoners here at one point or another, along with thousands of others, including children. It’s also famed for its art collection and celebration of contemporary South African storytelling through regular concerts and events. Tours take place hourly, and tickets are available to buy via Webtickets or on arrival at the Visitor Centre.

Take a rollercoaster ride through an old gold mine

Amusement Park, Casino
Located on an old gold mine, Gold Reef City is among South Africa’s largest and most-loved theme parks – styled around the gold rush that started in 1886. Take a tour of an authentic, disused underground gold mine (the only tour of its kind in the city) via the museum, and explore the original mining houses on display. While it houses a casino, the Lyric Theatre, a Victorian train station-themed cinema complex, a trampoline park and a 10-pin bowling alley, it’s the 18 thrilling rollercoasters and water rides that really draw the crowds in. For example, the popular Tower of Terror features a vertical drop into an old mine shaft and currently holds the record for the highest g-force on a rollercoaster.

Learn about the rise and fall of apartheid

Also located within the Gold Reef City complex is the Apartheid Museum, one of Johannesburg’s most popular attractions. Teaching visitors about 20th-century South Africa since 2001, it’s the first of its kind, documenting the rise and fall of the apartheid system via exhibits curated by filmmakers, historians and designers. Film footage, photography and historical artefacts comprise the permanent and temporary exhibition rooms. A third exhibition space dedicates itself entirely to the life and work of Nelson Mandela. The non-profit museum relies on donations, contributions and sponsorship, and recommends setting aside a minimum of two hours to explore. Group tours can be booked in advance via the museum’s website.
This is an updated version of a story created by Corlena Bailey.

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