Let me get this straight, before any misunderstanding: there’s many more things to do in Johannesburg than one would ever expect; so many that 24 hours is barely enough to cover a fraction of them. To be fair, even places I visited during my short stay actually deserve way longer. Unfortunately, 24 hours is all I had in the city; but I made the most of it and enjoyed it so much that I vow to visit again.
Johannesburg Take Two
I have to admit that I had not planned to visit Johannesburg at all. You see, I had been there in August 1997 (though I would hardly count that as a visit). I had not been to any of the attractions in Johannesburg (besides, many more developed in the 21 years since my first visit). Back then I was hardly an experienced traveler (it was my first intercontinental trip ever!); the city was in turmoil after the official end of apartheid and the few locals that I knew told me tales of an extremely dangerous city I’d be better off not exploring.
Fast forward 21 years, and Johannesburg OR Tambo International Airport now is the main international hub in Southern Africa – so it made sense to fly in and out of it for my 5 weeks trip in the region. Yet, I had little interest in it. Until I stumbled upon a post by Indiana Jo where she mentioned the Apartheid Museum. That resonated with me (I am a former human rights lawyer after all). Of all the places to visit in Johannesburg, I would not want to miss that.
A quick look into my flight schedule, and I was sold. I would only have 24 hours in Johannesburg (referred to by the locals as Joburg or Jozzie), but I may as well make the most of it, and squeeze in as much as it was reasonable to do: Soweto tours, Apartheid Museum, and little else. I had a plan.
Three Things To Do In Johannesburg – On A 24 Hours Layover
I landed in Johannesburg on an incredibly mild morning in what was supposed to be late fall. Locals complained about how cold it was that day, whereas I was pleasantly surprised. It was warmer than Sardinia, where it was late spring. Soon after dropping my bags at the hotel, I was out, decided to hit some of the most famous places to visit in Johannesburg.
It didn’t take me long to realize that a lot has changed in the 21 years that passed since my first visit. Johannesburg proved to be a fun place to explore, even if only for a short time; the city has cleaned up enormously, and it now is a trendy, fun place to visit – with art, culture, restaurants and coffee shops, and events galore. There’s many more things to do in Johannesburg than the ones I enjoyed and I definitely recommend visiting for a longer time!
So, with no further ado, let me get straight into the 3 unmissable things to do in Johannesburg on a 24 hours layover.
For a full guide about South Africa, read my post “20 Fabulous Places To Visit In South Africa.”
Visit The Apartheid Museum
Of all the things to do in Johannesburg, this one had the priority to me – I guess it is easy to understand why, with my background. I find that museums that explain the history of a country are a great way to get acquainted with it. That’s why I visited the Museo de los Derechos Humanos in Chile, Yad Vashem in Israel and the Museo de la Revolucion in Havana, Cuba.
The Apartheid Museum is everything I expected it to be. In fact, it was much more. It simply is one of the unmissable places to visit in Johannesburg – and if you ask me, the one that most deserves a visit when in town for a short time.
The exhibit is huge – I only spent a couple of hours there, as I had planned more things to do in Johannesburg for my layover. But to be honest I think it deserves at least 4. I know of people that, after spending 3 or 4 hours, have actually gone back the next day to explore more.
Upon arrival, visitors are given an entry ticket that randomly classifies them as whites or non-whites. The entrance is different, depending on the color of the skin. That’s just to set the atmosphere for the rest of the visit.
The Apartheid Museum can get a bit overwhelming with all the information – in fact, I found the exhibit to be a bit chaotic and poorly laid out. Yet, of all the places to visit in Johannesburg, this is unmissable and by visiting I learned much more about the history of the apartheid than I would have hoped for.
The Apartheid Museum is open every day from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm. It is one of the stops on the Hop On – Hop Off Bus (by the way, this is one of the most fun things to do in Johannesburg for those who have enough time there!). It costs R95 ($7 USD) to enter, and an additional R10 for a guided tour. It may be a good idea to join a guided tour to make the most of it.
These are some of the best tours that include a visit to the Apartheid Museum:
- Johannesburg and Soweto Apartheid Full Day Tour
- Soweto & Apartheid Museum Full-Day Tour
- Soweto Tour & Apartheid Museum Visit
- Constitutional Hill & Apartheid Museum Half Day Tour
Go On A Tour Of Soweto
One of the nicest things to do in Johannesburg it to get to know the nearby Soweto (short for South Western Township), the massive township that was created by the white government between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th with the aim of keeping the white and black population of South Africa separate.
Nowadays Soweto is the largest township in South Africa, counting around 1.3 million inhabitants. It makes for a very interesting place to visit and one of the most interesting things to do in Johannesburg, thanks to its history of civil unrest and fight against the Apartheid regime, as well as its rich cultural heritage.
There’s a wealth of Soweto tours that help visitors get a better understanding of the township. I did a bike tour that left from one of the trendiest hostels in the area – Soweto Backpackers.
Soweto tours go to all the most important landmarks and neighborhoods in the township. Going through the poorest parts of Soweto, I learned about the harsh reality of life there. Yet, everyone I met had a smile for me, and children were incredibly eager to pose for photographs – they ran after me as I biked around, asking “shoot me, shoot me!” It’s easy to see why I recommend going on a tour of Soweto as one of the unmissable things to do in Johannesburg.
Soweto tours typically stop at the memorial site of Hector Pieterson, who was shot dead at the age of 12 during the 1976 student uprising and protests as Afrikaans had been imposed as the only language of education. It finally stops at Vilakazi Street, where Nelson Mandela used to live with his wife and where his family kept living, throughout the years and despite the continued harassment by the police forces.
Needless to say, these are all very emotional places to visit in Johannesburg: going isn’t necessarily among the fun things to do in Johannesburg, yet it is a must. I am a strong believer in the importance of learning from our past, to avoid making the same mistakes in the future. And Soweto proved to be a place full of hardship yet at the same time full of hope in a better future.
Here’s some of the best tours of Soweto:
- Johannesburg and Soweto Apartheid Full Day Tour
- Soweto by Bike: Half-Day Johannesburg Cycle Tour
- Johannesburg: Soweto & Apartheid Museum Full-Day Tour
- Johannesburg: Soweto Tour & Apartheid Museum Visit
- Johannesburg: Small Group Soweto Bike Tour w/ a Local
Have A Traditional African Meal In Soweto
South Africa has such a rich cultural heritage that this is reflected in its food too, and one of the coolest things to do in Johannesburg is enjoying the food. When I enquired about a typical South African meal, I encountered a puzzled look. The answer I got was that there’s so many cultures and nationalities that live next to each other, that a typical South African meal could be just about anything. Besides, Johannesburg apparently is the foodie capital of South Africa.
I settled for a typical African meal in Soweto, guessing it would be one of the unmissable things to do in Johannesburg. Despite hardly being a foodie and not eager in trying new foods, I decided this would have been my chance to go all African. My traditional meal included local delicacies such as chicken neck; chicken feet; pigs feet and tripe – all accompanied by a variety of salads and the unmissable “paap,” a maize kind of dow which is actually quite similar to the polenta served in Bergamo and surroundings.
When I told my mother about the kind of food I ate, she laughed saying that those things are traditional also in Sardinia, where I grew up!
Other things to do in Johannesburg – for those who have more time
My time in Johannesburg was very limited, so of all the things to do in Johannesburg, I had to select the ones that I valued the most. Yet, the city has a lot more to offer and those who have more time should make the most of it.
Here’s a few more places to visit and things to do in Johannesburg.
Go To The Cradle Of Humankind
I am a huge fan of archaeological sites and try to include a visit to one anywhere I travel. Unfortunately, I stayed so short in Johannesburg that I didn’t have time to visit the Cradle of Human Kind. However, this is one of the most interesting places to visit in Johannesburg. Sterkfontein caves is where Mrs Ples and Little Foot were found, and a visit also allows access to Maropeng Center.
Here’s some of the best tours to the Cradle of Human Kind:
- Cradle of Humankind-Half Day Tour
- Cradle of Humankind Tour
- Cradle of Human Kind Tour with Wonder Cave
- Full-Day Cradle of Humankind Tour & Lunch
Join A City Walking Tour
There’s no better way to get to know a place thank walking. I think that one of the nicest things to do in Johannesburg is walking around. However, taking a wrong turn in this city may have bitter consequences. Hence, the best thing to do in going on a guided tour, with a group and a guide that will know where to go and that will make visitors stay safe at all times.
Of those found online, I find this to be the nicest city walking tour of Jozzie. The bonus? It also goes to Maboneng, a prominent area for street art.
See Johannesburg From Above
Seeing a city from above gives a whole different perspective about it. One of the coolest things to do in Johannesburg for those who have more time in the city is to go on a hot air balloon ride. This gives passengers an idea of how vast the city is. This is one of the best hot air balloon rides in Johannesburg:
Take The Hop On Hop Off Bus
I admit I have never been a big fan of the hop on hop off bus. It seems to me that it has the label “tourist” all over it. But guess what? I am a tourist any time I get out of my hometown, and hop on hop off buses are actually a good way to stay along the tourist route and get to see all the main attractions in a city. The same goes with Johannesburg: the hop on hop off bus is a good way to explore attractions in Johannesburg especially when having a limited time.
Here’s two good hop on hop off bus tours in Johannesburg:
Tips To Make The Most Of Johannesburg
I am a big fan of getting local SIM cards wherever I travel, so I can stay connected with family and friends, and to keep on top of my business and social media while on the road. Getting a local SIM card is one of the most important things to do in Johannesburg, not only for the social aspect, but also as a safety measure to use apps such as Google Maps and Uber and have access to local emergency numbers.
After surviving the ordeal of getting a SIM card in India, I found getting one in South Africa easy peasy. Getting a card as soon as landing is what to do in Johannesburg. It takes no more than 10 minutes to get it activated, and all is needed is the passport and cash or card to pay. I opted for a Vodacom, as it is the network that has the best coverage in the country.
Johannesburg is much safer today than it used to be in the past, yet I’d say that one of the most important things to do in Johannesburg is keeping your eyes open. Some tips for keeping safe include using Uber for transportation (hence the need of a local SIM); keeping on the tourist route (follow that of the Hop On Hop Off bus, for example); follow locals’ advice (if they recommend not going to a place or to travel by Uber, just do that!); and join organized group tours.
Where To Stay In Johannesburg
A city as vast as Johannesburg is packed with good accommodation options, for any budget and all needs. Here’s some of the best places to stay in and around Jozzie:
- Curiocity Backpacker is a good hostel located in Maboneng, near to a lot of bars and pubs. It’s perfect for backpackers and solo travelers. Click here for the latest rates and here for reviews.
- The Aviator is a good hotel near the airport, in Kempton Park, and offers a very convenient and free shuttle to and from the airport. It has beautiful common areas and a good breakfast. Click here for the latest rates and here for reviews.
- Lebo’s Soweto Backpackers is perfect for those who want to stay in Soweto. It’s located on the outskirts of the city; the atmosphere is easygoing, and the rooms lovely. Click here for the latest rates and here for reviews.
Have you ever been to Johannesburg? Of the things to do in Johannesburg, which one did you enjoy the most?
Legal disclaimer: I was a guest of Johannesburg Tourism Board during my visit and I wish to thank them for such a wonderful welcome in the city. Needless to say, the views expressed in this post are my own.