There are many more things to do in Johannesburg than you’d imagine.
Often overlooked in favor of other picture perfect places to visit in South Africa, Johannesburg attractions are many, varied and insightful. Jo’burg, Jozi or E’Goli, as locals affectionately call it, is also known as the “city of gold,” for its history is strictly linked to gold mining. Today Johannesburg remains the financial center of South Africa; a city that has shaped the country’s history and politics; and a city of striking contrasts – on one side the poverty and struggles of Soweto; on the other, the glitzy skyscrapers and the secluded villas of the few rich.
Typically used as the starting point for a safari and mostly enjoyed on a quick layover, Johannesburg has changed a lot in the last 20 years. I visited for the first time in 1997, soon after the official end of the Apartheid regime, and back then the city was in turmoil – a dangerous place where tourists were a rare sight.
Fast-forward to 2020, and you’ll find a Jozi with such a thriving cultural scene that makes it worth a visit. Spend long enough in town and you will find many interesting art galleries; very well curated museums; markets; excellent restaurants, cafés and bars.
Continue reading this post to discover the best activities in Johannesburg and for tips to make the most of the city.
The Best Things To Do In Johannesburg
Visit the Apartheid Museum
This is one of the best places to visit in Johannesburg. You see, museums that explain the history of a country are a great way to familiarize yourself with it. So, much like the Museo de los Derechos Humanos in Chile, Yad Vashem in Israel and the Museo de la Revolucion in Havana, Cuba, the Apartheid Museum of Johannesburg is a must-see.
There is no other way to put it: the Apartheid Museum 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. Opened in
Opened in 2001, the massive exhibit is a combination of paper clippings, documents, films, photos and other historical artefacts that take you through the history of Apartheid. There is an entire exhibit dedicated to Nelson Mandela. Some will tell you to spend at least two hours browsing through the exhibit, but I think you need four as a minimum. I even know of people that, after spending 3 or 4 hours in the museum, have actually gone back the next day to explore more.
Upon arrival, you will be given an entry ticket that will randomly classify you as white or non-white. The entrance is different, depending on the color of the skin. That’s just to set the atmosphere for the rest of the visit.
PRACTICAL INFORMATION: The museum is open daily from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm. Admission is R100 ($6.50).
GOOD TO KNOW: The Apartheid Museum is one of the stops on the Hop On – Hop Off Bus. So you can get there fairly easily. Get your hop-on hop-off pass here.
These are some of the best tours that include a visit to the Apartheid Museum:
- Johannesburg and Soweto Apartheid Full Day Tour
- Johannesburg and Soweto half day tour
- Jo’burg in one day – Soweto, Apartheid Museum and city tour
- Constitutional Hill & Apartheid Museum Half Day Tour
TIP: Care to learn even more about South Africa’s history and political struggles? Visit Liliesleaf Farm Museum, once the center for the leaders of the liberation movement. You can also go to the South African Museum of Military History, which takes you to the many wars fought on South African soil, including the Anglo-Zulu war.
Soweto (short for South Western Township, which actually was a separate municipality until 2002) is 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.
At about 20 km from Jo’burg, nowadays Soweto is the largest township in South Africa, counting around 1.3 million inhabitants. It became internationally popular for being the location for the 2010 FIFA World Cup’s final match and where the closing ceremony was held.
Soweto has an interesting, unique and rich history of civil unrest and fight against the Apartheid regime, as well as its rich cultural heritage.
Upon visiting you will learn about the harsh reality of life there – although the latest governments have been making an effort to improve the infrastructure. Many live in corrugated iron houses. A few big, modern and comfortable houses have appeared here and there. Yet despite the difficult living conditions, people there are extremely friendly. Children are eager to pose for photographs – “shoot me, shoot me!” you will hear them say.
The main landmarks in Soweto are:
THE MEMORIAL SITE OF HECTOR PIETERSON – Pieter 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. You can also visit the museum by the same name.
VILAKAZI STREET – The street that has been named after the first black African to teach at the University of Witwatersrand (one of the best universities in Africa) is where Nobel Peace Prize winner 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. You can also visit the former home of Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
The best way to experience Soweto is on guided tours – you really need someone that takes you to the main landmarks and tells you about their relevance. So, one of the best things to do in Johannesburg is signing up for a tour. I did a hike one that departed from Soweto Backpackers, but you can find many good ones sold online.
These are the best tours of Soweto:
- Johannesburg and Soweto Apartheid Full Day Tour
- Johannesburg and Soweto half day tour
- Jo’burg in one day – Soweto, Apartheid Museum and city tour
Go to the Cradle of Humankind
Visiting the Cradle of Humankind is a must when in Johannesburg. Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, this is located at about 40 minutes drive from downtown Jozi, and known as the place where humankind begun, this is the site where the first-ever hominid fossil – an Australopithecus Africanus – was found in 1924. The fossil is currently on display at Maropeng Visitor Center.
At about 10 km from the Cradle of Humankind you will find the Sterkfontein Caves, which are six linked underground chambers with a lake set at about 40 meters below ground level. This is where Mrs Ples (a pre-human skull) and Little Foot (a complete hominid scheleton) were found.
A guided tour to visit the Cradle of Humankind is recommended.
- Cradle of Humankind shared half day tour
- Cradle of Humankind Tour with Wonder Cave
- Full-Day Cradle of Humankind Tour & Lunch
And to Constitution Hill
Visiting Constitution Hill will give you more insights into the country’s history. This former prison was known as The Fort and became infamous for the terrible living conditions and brutal treatment of political prisoners and other criminals. Among the most notable prisoners there were Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi.
Constitution Hill overlooks the city and is now the site of some interesting exhibits which include Number Four museum, the Old Fort museum (where the whites-only prison was located), and the Women’s Gaol museum. Where there once was the old “Awaiting Trial” there now is the Constitutional Court of South Africa, which you can visit on guided tours. You can book your guided tour here.
Wander around Maboneng Precint
Visiting Maboneg Precind truly is a must-do when in Johannesburg. The name means “place of light” and light you’ll surely get there. Once this was a run-down part of town, but renovation project turned it into one of the most up and coming neighborhoods, where you’ll find great restaurants, cafés, bars, boutiques, art galleries – make sure not to miss Arts on Main and Revolution House – and great places to stay.
The Market on Main is one of the best known in town. For entertainment, go to Bioscope, an independent cinema.
For a good walking tour of Maboneng, click here.
Visit a market
Located in Braamfontein, one of the most up and coming student districts in the city, Neighbourgoods Market was opened in 2011 and quickly became more than just a place to try delicious food from around the world.
The market is located in a massive building whose facade was decorated by Edoardo Villa. At the parking lot located in the basement you will find the market proper. The second floor offers beautiful views of the city and the rooftop is where you will find vintage boutiques and jewelry stalls.
It quite simply is a fun place to hang out with friends, and one of the most fun things to do in Johannesburg.
GOOD TO KNOW: Braamfontein is also home to the Wits Museum, which opened in 2012 and is part of the Wits University Cultural Precinct. It has a fantastic collection of works from African artists.
GOOD TO KNOW: If you are a fan of flea markets, check out the one in the parking lot of Market Theater, one of Johannesburg attractions. This is converted market building where you will find a bookshop, an art gallery, a jazz venue. Adjoint you will also find Museum Africa.
Take a day trip to Pilanesberg National Park
If you feel like getting out of town, head to Pilanesberg National Park. At just 2-5 hours drive from Jo’burg, this is a fantastic place to see wildlife – and much easier to explore compared to Kruger.
The park is located in an extinct volcano crater, in a transition zone between the Kalahari Desert and the Lowveld, which means that the wildlife is very varied there. Expect to see the Big Five, as well as zebras, giraffes, antelopes and even wild dogs and various species of birds.
GOOD TO KNOW: The Lion and Safari Park, located close to the Cradle of Humankind, is often cited as a fun day trip from Johannesburg. It’s supposed to be a sanctuary where you can go for game drives (guided or self-guided) and even interact with animals. Please beware that I don’t support the exploitation of animals for entertainment, and I recommend you don’t engage in such activities. Please read my post The Complete Guide To Becoming A More Responsible Traveler. You may also want to read this article.
Or to Pretoria
At 55 km and less than an hour drive from Jo’burg, Pretoria, the administrative capital of South Africa, may as well be on a different planet. The city is packed with beautiful gardens – visit in the spring and the colors of the jacaranda will be quite a sight. Unmissable sights include the Voortrekker Monument and Heritage Site and Freedom Park, as well as the National Botanic Garden.
PRACTICAL INFORMATION: You can get to Pretoria easily on the Gautrain. Alternatively you can join a guided tour departing from Johannesburg such as this one.
Browse around Johannesburg Art Gallery
With an impressive collection spread across its halls and gardens, Johannesburg Art Gallery is one of the best places to visit in Johannesburg. Located in Joubert Park, the exhibit includes prints dating back to the 15th century; 17th century paintings: and the works of artists such as Dalí and Picasso. There is a section entirely dedicated to local artists such as Sekoto and Pierneef. Admission is free.
Explore Walter Sisulu National Botanical Gardens
There are nine national botanical gardens in South Africa, and Walter Sisulu is one of them. It’s the perfect place to visit if you feel like immersing yourself in nature without having to leave the city. It’s highlights certainly are the Witpoortjie Waterfall and the views of red-rock cliffs. There even is a Birds and Butterfly Garden (black eagles are known to nest in the park1!) and a Fern Trail, and a Children’s Garden too.
GOOD TO KNOW: If you are in town with your kids in tow, you may want to visit Gold Reef City. Boasting accurate reproductions of the times of the gold rush, fun rides, rollercoasters, a trampoline park, and historical exhibits, it is a fun place for the entire family.
Visit Lindfield Victorian House Museum
If you are as fascinated as I am by life in Victorian times the Lindfield Victorian House Museum, a Provincial Heritage Site is a must-see. Katharine Love, the owner of the house and still living there, will guide guide you around this living museum fully dressed in Victorian attire. This Victorian home that was designed by Herbert Baker and the furniture and items on display all date back to the 19th and early 20th century, and are incredibly well kept.
PRACTICAL INFORMATION: The museum is open from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm by appointment only. To book your visit, you send a text to Katharine +27 083 589 8668. Tours last two hours and cost R100 (around $6.50 USD).
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. Johannesburg is thought to be the foodie capital of South Africa, but if you want to go for something super-traditional, opt for a typical African meal in Soweto. Local delicacies include 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 polenta.
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 is to go on a hot air balloon ride. This way you can get an idea of how vast the city is. You can book your hot-air balloon ride here.
Take the hop-on hop-off bus
Hop-on hop-off buses are actually a great way to get to know a city, as they connect all the main tourist sites. Johannesburg attractions are all connected on an easy to follow tour that you can do independently over the course of one or two days. It’s one of the top things to do in Johannesburg.
Here are two good hop on hop off bus tours in Jozi:
Practical Tips To Make The Most Of Johannesburg
How to get to Johannesburg
Johannesburg OR Tambo International Airport is one of the main African hubs, with all major international carriers landing there. At any time of year, you will be able to find incredibly cheap deals for flights from Europe and even from the United States.
The easiest way to get from OR Tambo International Airport to downtown Johannesburg is to take the Gautrain. Trains run every 15 to 30 minutes from 4:50 am to around 9:00 pm. After that, you should take a taxi or a shuttle bus. You can book it here.
Where To Stay In Johannesburg
A city as vast as Johannesburg is packed with good accommodation options, for any budget and needs. Here are some of the best places to stay in and around Jozi:
- 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 if you would rather 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.
When to visit in Johannesburg
Although locals may complain about the cold temperatures in Johannesburg during the Fall and Winter, in my experience those are actually great times to visit. I visited in May and August and both times I was positively surprised by how lovely the weather was. Even in winter, the weather was warmer than Sardinia, where winter is notoriously mild. In fact, last time I visited it was actually warmer than Sardinia where it was late spring.
In general, the best time to visit Johannesburg is supposed to be between March and May, when the summer heat is gone; and between September and November, before temperatures rise again. That’s also when you’ll find the most convenient flight and hotel deals.
Safety in Johannesburg
Johannesburg is much safer today than it used to be in the past, but you must always keep your eyes open. Some tips for keeping safe include using Uber for transportation; 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.
For safety reasons, I recommend getting a local SIM card as soon as you arrive in South Africa. You can use data for apps such as Google Maps and Uber and to 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. It takes no more than 10 minutes to get it activated, and you need is to show your 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.
Remember to always get a good travel insurance for your trips. You can find a good one here.
Further readings about South Africa
Are you planning a trip to South Africa? Make sure to visit my other posts:
- 24 Fabulous Places To Visit In South Africa
- The Best Beaches In South Africa
- 20 Fun Things To Do In Durban
- 17 Absolutely Unmissable Things To Do In Cape Town
- The Best Airbnbs In Cape Town
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.