Many people will tell you that no trip to South Africa is complete without visiting Johannesburg, a buzzing modern former gold rush city with bags of history. Whilst I disagree that you should purposefully choose to spend your valuable holiday time here, sometimes it’s unavoidable thanks to pesky flight layovers. So here’s how to make the most of it, and who knows, you might just be surprised at how much you enjoy it.
This one’s for the history buffs. Constitution Hill in Braamfontein was once a fort during the Anglo-Boer War, and today is home to the South African Constitutional Court. There are short tours where visitors can discover how the country has moved on democratically since Apartheid. Definitely one of the city’s top attractions.
Museums and Art Galleries
Johannesburg is pretty good at museums and art galleries. The one that shouldn’t be missed is of course the Apartheid Museum, which presents the story of South Africa’s shameful modern history, and helps visitors to better understand the country they are travelling in. If contemporary African art and historical artefacts are your cup of tea then you’ll enjoy the Standard Bank Art Gallery, or if natural and social history is more your thing then try the Wits Art Museum.
Nelson Mandela Square
This is where you’ll find a huge statue of the man himself, as well as a bunch of decent casual restaurants. There are certainly worse places to have a spot of dinner.
Parks and Green Spaces
Johannesburg is famous for its green spaces and reportedly has more than 10 million trees. There are a lot of parks which is great for stretching the legs after a long flight. One of the best areas to walk is the Melville Koppies, a hill ridge overlooking the city with plenty of local wildlife (no lions!) and the remains of ancient human settlements. There are also the Walter Sisulu Botanical Gardens for those of you who are into plants, or for a picnic with a view, pop into one of the numerous bakeries in the city then head to the lake in Delta Park.
I’m a little embarrassed to be including shopping malls on a list of tourist attractions, but they seem to be a big thing in Johannesburg. Last time we visited our relatives in the city we were whisked off to a mall almost before we’d unpacked our suitcases and we were a little bemused. Yet if you’re into shopping, then there’s probably nowhere better. These malls are incredible in scale and you could spend the entire day there if you wanted. Sandton City is known as the best mall, closely followed by Rosebank which has a huge rooftop craft market every Sunday.
Whilst we’re on the subject of shopping malls, I have to mention Montecasino. This place is really quite amazing. It’s a massive leisure complex designed like an Italian village, and has everything from a theatre showing world class Broadway productions, to cinemas, casinos and even a bird park. We learned all about proteas and hornbills before we’d even set foot in the African bush.
This once notorious township district is today a popular tourist destination as well as a thriving residential neighbourhood. Visitors interested in learning more about culture and the struggles during Apartheid can take bike tours, bus rides and walking tours to see a rather different side of South Africa.
Normally I’d suggest avoiding ‘cultural villages’ as you won’t be experiencing anything particularly ‘authentic’ and nothing beats the more ‘real’ interactions you’ll have with local people out in the reserves. Yet if you have time to kill and are curious, then go for it. The Lesedi Cultural Village is just an hour from Johannesburg and does highlight the diversity of the people who make up South Africa.
The Cradle of Humankind
This UNSECO World Heritage Site is also about an hour from the city, and offers visitors guided tours into vast caves where hominid fossils have been discovered. It’s a fascinating look at human evolution, and the museums and visitor centre are well worth the slight detour.
Pilanesberg National Park
Personally if I had the time, I’d forget all of the above and head straight out of town to Pilanesberg National Park. Nothing beats a bit of wild animal action after all, not when you’re in Africa. The park is a 3 hour drive from Johannesburg, so it will be a long day out, so if your flight allows, why not stay overnight instead? It is best however to visit Pilanesberg at the beginning of your trip to South Africa. If you head there having been on safari in other more remote reserves, you may be a little disappointed.