Top 10 Things to Do in Johannesburg on a First Visit, South Africa
As one of the 'rainbow nation's' biggest cities, Johannesburg has had its share of social issues to deal with over the decades — but don't let that dissuade you from dropping by. A wealth of cultural experiences await the intrepid traveller, including these ten must-dos.
Few international visitors linger in Johannesburg; most simply transit through to other areas of South Africa and beyond.
However, it’s well worth taking some time to explore this vibrant city, which was built on the promise of gold. And aptly perhaps, ‘Joburg’ or ‘Jozi’ (as locals call it) is one of those destinations where the more you dig, the more you’ll find. Give yourself three or four days to take it all in.
Here are ten top things to do in Johannesburg on a first visit.
Watch our video of ten top things to do in South Africa:
South Africa is a country that many Aussies dream of visiting for its rich cultural heritage, fabulous food and wine, and of course, spectacular wildlife viewing. It’s a destination like no other, and in this episode of our online travel series we bring you tips for ten great things to do in South Africa on a first visit.
1. Visit the Apartheid Museum
The world-class Apartheid Museum should be at the top of your Johannesburg to-do list. Built in 2001, it documents the rise and fall of the apartheid system of racial segregation that existed in South Africa from the late 1940s until the early 1990s. Each visitor is randomly issued with an entry ticket designating them as ‘white’ or ‘non-white’, and they must enter the museum through the relevant turnstile. It’s just a small example of what life was like for the majority of South Africans who faced this oppression.
2. Do a tour of Soweto
Opposition to apartheid gathered momentum in the sprawling black township of Soweto on Johannesburg’s western side. Today it has a population of more than one million people and encompasses everything from informal settlements to luxury enclaves. Book a tour of the township to view its many cultural and historical sights. You’ll see the small four-room former home of Nelson Mandela — constructed in 1945, destroyed by fire in 1988, and rebuilt by the community. It’s now a museum dedicated to sharing Mandela’s pivotal role in bringing apartheid to an end and reuniting the country.
Just a short distance from there is another poignant link with the past — a memorial dedicated to 13-year-old Hector Pieterson. Hector was shot and killed by police on the 16th of June, 1976 when he and other students took to the streets to protest the introduction of Afrikaans as the language of instruction in schools.
3. Spend a day at Gold Reef City
Situated right next to the Apartheid Museum, Gold Reef City amusement park will keep visitors of all ages well and truly entertained. Apart from shaking things up on the thrill rides, you’ll learn the story of gold prospecting in South Africa, do an underground mine tour, and watch a gold pouring.
4. Learn about traditional local culture at Lesedi
Get an insight into the traditions of five local African tribes by visiting Lesedi Cultural Village — an hour’s drive north of the city. Enjoy a range of presentations, including drumming and dancing (the ‘gumboot dance’ always has the audience tapping along). Having a djembe (African drum) of my own, I can never resist hopping up to have a go with the performers!
5. Investigate our origins at the Origins Centre…
It’s generally accepted that humans first evolved in Africa, and the Origins Centre museum on the grounds of Wits University takes visitors back to where it all began. An extensive collection of rock art is on display, including some of the oldest forms of human creative expression ever discovered. You’ll also see stone implements and other ancient artefacts.
Afterwards, head up to the nearby Constitution Hill complex for a sweeping view of Johannesburg’s city centre. Previously a fort and later a prison, Constitution Hill is now the seat of the Constitutional Court of South Africa. A tour of the old prison followed by a look inside the court provides another take on the country’s apartheid past.
6. …and see the Cradle of Humankind
Evolutionists and history buffs will also want to visit the award-winning Cradle of Humankind. Maropeng, as the visitor centre is called, means ‘returning to the place of origin’. Located about an hour from the city by car (book a day tour to get there and back with ease), this UNESCO World Heritage-listed paleoanthropological site has yielded the fossilised remains of several hominids (thought to be our last common ancestor with the apes). The self-guided, interactive exhibition is excellent, and is suitable for all age groups.
7. Shop for arts and crafts
If you’re looking for souvenirs of your stay in South Africa, you can’t go wrong at the Rosebank Art and Craft Market (next to Rosebank Mall in the city’s north). Browse the stalls for curios and crafts from a range of African countries. It’s a great place to pick up fabric, beadwork, carvings, and much more.
8. Feast on market specialties
Still on the subject of markets, set aside a Thursday or Saturday to check out the popular Bryanston Organic and Natural Market — Johannesburg’s oldest outdoor marketplace. You’ll pick up quality arts and crafts, decor items, and organic produce, not to mention a fabulous lunch from the onsite food vendors.
9. Explore Johannesburg Botanical Garden
Johannesburg Botanical Garden is often referred to locally as the city’s ‘green lungs’. Once a sports facility, and covering 81 hectares, the garden is open from sunrise to sunset and is best accessed by car (there is plenty of parking). Apart from the specialty gardens (Rose Garden, Hedge Demonstration Garden, Herb Garden, Succulent Garden, and Arboretum), the open spaces and paved paths provide ample scope to relax with a picnic or go for a stroll. Walks range from 30 minutes to two hours, and it’s advisable to walk in groups. The Emmarentia Dam within the gardens is popular for canoeing, kayaking, and sailing.
10. Get on the trail of the Big Five
If you want to experience the beauty of the African bush and encounter its amazing wildlife during your stay in Johannesburg, Pilanesberg National Park is the closest option (a two-hour drive each way). Here you may be lucky enough to see some or all of the Big Five (lion, leopard, buffalo, rhinoceros, and elephant). Ideally, stay a couple of nights in the park — but if time is really tight, it can be visited on an organised day tour from the city.
Top Oz Tours offers a great range of South Africa day tours, guided experiences, and attraction tickets and passes. There are no booking or credit card fees when you book through us, and you’ll have access to the widest choice of activities and most competitive prices.
Do you have any suggestions to add to this list of ten top things to do in Johannesburg on a first visit? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Joanne Karcz is a Sydney-based travel writer, and has explored much of her home country, Europe, South America, and Southern Africa. She published a blog while walking the Camino de Santiago some years ago and has been writing about her adventures ever since. Joanne is also an aspiring photographer and takes her camera wherever she goes. She loves discovering new things to see and do in her own Sydney backyard, and blogs regularly about the city’s suburbs.