Spotting lions on safari, doing a deep dive into South Africa’s divided history and enjoying a birds-eye view during a hot air balloon ride are among the best things to do in Johannesburg, a sprawling, bustling city that for many visitors is their first stop in South Africa.
JoBurg is one of the closest major cities to Kruger National Park, so it’s common to spend a quick day or two here before heading off to the iconic wildlife preserve for the adventure of a lifetime.
Johannesburg is the type of place with a deep, sobering history, rather than the more tourist-friendly spots like the white sand beaches and scenic attractions that you’ll find over in Cape Town.
That said, there are still plenty of activities here, and the grittiness of the city offers a glimpse into what life is really like in South Africa while its fantastic museums help give a better appreciation for what the country has been through and where it is today.
From touring townships to unforgettable animal encounters, here are the best places to visit in Johannesburg.
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One of the most lively–and notorious–places to visit in Johannesburg is Soweto, especially during the weekend when locals are blasting their music and getting the party started.
Home to more than 1.2 million people, the city’s dichotomy is on full display in the Township. Beautiful homes with manicured lawns and nice cars parked in the garage look out at the slums where multiple families live in single-room shacks without running water, electricity or bathrooms.
While parts of Soweto can be dangerous, it’s still a popular tourist destination for those interested in seeing a more authentic, grittier part of the city away from the sports stadiums, luxe hotels and gleaming skyscrapers.
Soweto’s best known landmark is the Soweto Towers, a pair of former power stations which now host an adventure centre with activities like paintball, wall climbing and even bungee jumping from a 100-metre-high bridge suspended between them.
Another highlight is Vilakazi Street, which has bragging rights as being home to not one, but two Nobel Peace Prize winners: Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
Mandela’s former home at 8115 Orlando West is now a heritage site, and visitors can walk through the modest home which has been converted into a museum.
Plaques detail the history of the Mandelas’ efforts to end apartheid, the constant harassment Mandela’s wife Winnie and their daughters endured while essentially being held prisoner in their own home, and there are still bullet holes in the walls where police shot at the home.
There’s also a memorial erected on Vilakazi Street in honour of Hector Pietersen, who was killed by police in the deadly 1976 student uprising. A famous image captured by Sam Nzima made 12-year old Pietersen a symbol of the fight against the Apartheid government, and is also displayed here.
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Get a history lesson at the Apartheid Museum
One of the top things to do in JoBurg is touring the Apartheid Museum, which provides in-depth insight into this dark period of time in South Africa.
A series of exhibits, short videos, artifacts and photos detail the country’s haunting history, starting with separate entrances for black and white people which gives visitors the first-hand experience of segregation and what life was like here decades ago.
The permanent exhibition highlights South Africa’s struggle for liberation, colonialism and life under apartheid, while the Mandela exhibit details the former president’s 27 year imprisonment and remarkable journey to power.
The Apartheid Museum is open Wednesday through Sunday. Be sure to budget at least three hours for a visit to properly see each exhibit.
Visit The Playground
Part artisan market, part food hall not to mention a performance venue and bar–The Playground really has it all.
This happening spot in the Braamfontein district is open every Saturday, and you’ll immediately be wowed by the Instagram-worthy art and light installations which makes this one of the most fun places in Johannesburg.
Local vendors serve up all types of food at the stalls inside, like fresh-rolled sushi, steaming-hot stews and sweet treats. Artsy creations include custom-designed jackets, intricate purses and flowing dresses, and you can also channel your inner Picasso and let loose on a blank canvas.
Spanning a few storeys in a highrise with great views of the surrounding downtown area, the top floor is where you’ll find cool cocktails being crafted at the bar, while a DJ spins beats nearby.
Admission is R20 for adults from 12- 6 pm, kids are free.
Go on a safari
No trip to South Africa is complete without experiencing the thrill of a safari, and you don’t have to go all the way to Kruger National Park to do it.
Located a two-and-a-half hour drive northeast of the city in a malaria-free zone, Pilanesberg National Park is home to the Big Five. Yes, that means you can see the likes of lions, rhinos and leopards, along with elephants, giraffes and graceful antelope.
In fact, there are more than 7-thousand animals here, 360 species of birds, and 200 kilometres of roads to explore it all. Guests can book a guided tour, or pay the park entrance fee for a self-guided drive.
While there are lodges within the park for overnight stays, day-tripping into Pilanesberg is a popular tour from Johannesburg. Some good options include:
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Globe Guide tip: Those who find themselves with extra time when they visit Johannesburg may want to book a fun getaway to Sun City. Bordering the park, this resort area has multiple hotels and villas, restaurants, poolside cabanas, a casino and waterpark.
Take a hot air balloon ride
Floating high in the sky during a hot air balloon ride is a bucket list-worthy adventure, and those who book one from Johannesburg might even see wild animals below!
Most flights launch from Krugersdorf which is a half hour drive from the city, and the pre-dawn start time means you’ll be up, up and away in time to take in the mesmerizing experience of an African sunrise from more than a thousand feet above ground.
See the grasslands below, and float over the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site before landing in time for breakfast or champagne brunch.
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YOU MIGHT ALSO ENJOY:
- Spectacular spots along South Africa’s Cape Peninsula
- Safari Style: What to wear on a safari (without looking like a total nerd)
- Highlights of the stunningly-scenic South Africa Panorama Route
- Cute colony: Visiting the Boulders Beach penguins in Cape Town
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