Welcome to Johannesburg, the business capital of sub-saharan Africa and one of the most exciting cities on the African continent. A little over 130 years young, Johannesburg was founded in 1886 following the biggest gold rush that the world has ever seen and today the once dusty mining camp is the largest city in South Africa and the country’s economic hub. A melting pot of cultures from across the world, this is a truly pan-African city known for its vibrant street life, outstanding museums, rich contemporary art scene and huge green expanses of tree-filled suburbs and parks that have earned Johannesburg the honour of being one of the world’s “largest manmade forests”.
From some of South Africa’s best museums such as the Apartheid Museum, Constitution Hill, Liliesleaf and the Origins Centre to the UNESCO protected Cradle of Humankind and the historic streets of Soweto, not to mention the most beautiful parks and exciting contemporary art galleries, Johannesburg has more than its fair share of must-see attractions.
Here’s a look at just ten of essential Johannesburg experiences to add to your itinerary.
1At Clico Boutique Hotel you are situated right in the heart of one of Joburg’s most vibrant, walkable neighbourhoods, known for its wide choice of buzzing pavement cafes, bars and restaurants, great shopping and some of South Africa’s best contemporary art galleries. At the centre of the neighbourhood is a busy pedestrianised shopping precinct with plenty of great pavement cafes, boutique shopping and the excellent Rosebank Art and Craft Market. Meanwhile just across the road from Clico pay a visit to one of Joburg’s most prominent arts destinations, Keyes Art Mile, and admire the latest exhibitions by leading African artists at the Circa, Everard Read, SMAC and TMRW Galleries before heading upstairs for sundowners on the rooftop at Marble or Mix Cocktail Bar. On the First Thursday of the month, the neighbourhood celebrates First Thursdays, an art filled evening of late night exhibitions and performances, at the heart of which is the Keyes Thursdays street party at Keyes Art Mile.
2This national heritage landmark was once a colonial-era fort and later a prison that saw scores of political activists imprisoned including prominent figures such Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. Nowadays the site has been transformed from a place of oppression and imprisonment into a beacon of hope, equality, learning and justice. Home to the contemporary Constitutional Court building, the highest court in the land, the old prison buildings have been turned into museums detailing the brutalities and petty cruelties dealt out by the apartheid state and the lives of the many famous political prisoners who were imprisoned here.
3One of Joburg’s most popular parks, this delightful green space is just a five minute drive from the Clico Boutique Hotel. Take a stroll around the park, play bowls at the bowling club, have lunch at the African restaurant Moyo or row a boat on the lake. In the summer month’s the open-air swimming pool next to the park is a popular place to cool off.
4In the early 1960s the northern Joburg suburb of Rivonia (a 20 minute drive from Clico Boutique Hotel) was nothing but rolling farmland, and Liliesleaf a seemingly ordinary farm. Despite all appearances however Liliesleaf farm was actually the secret hideout and meeting place of some of the country’s most prominent anti-apartheid leaders led by Nelson Mandela. In 1963 the apartheid state security forces raided the farm, uncovering the anti-apartheid resistance plots to overthrow the government and the ensuing arrests led to the infamous Rivonia Trial, where Mandela and his fellow activists were sentenced to life in prison on Robben Island. Now a museum, Liliesleaf tells the story of the Rivonia Trial and the extraordinary tapestry of clandestine activities carried out by those opposed to apartheid both in South Africa and abroad from the 1950s up until the end of apartheid.
5This museum, part of the University of the Witwatersrand campus in Braamfontein, relates the fascinating history of our early mankind with an extensive collection of ancient South African rock art, tools and spiritual artefacts that date back more than 80,000 years on display and extensive exhibitions detailing the beliefs and rituals of our ancient African ancestors.
6The easiest way to get around Joburg and see all the major sights in a short space of time is by spending a day exploring the city with the open-top, hop-on hop-off City Sightseeing Bus. The ‘Green City’ tour starts in Rosebank, just a five minute walk from Clico Boutique Hotel, and connects to the ‘Red City’ tour of the city centre and south Joburg. Stops include Constitution Hill, Apartheid Museum, Origins Centre, the historic Main Street Mining District and Zoo Lake. There’s also the option of connecting to a City Sightseeing mini-bus at the Apartheid Museum for a whistle-stop, two-hour tour of the main sights in Soweto.
7South Africa’s most famous township played a crucial role in the struggle against apartheid and has plenty of excellent museums and memorial sights detailing this history including the Hector Pieterson Museum (named for one of the many protesting schoolchildren killed during the 1976 Soweto riots) and the Nelson Mandela House Museum. But there’s much more to Soweto than history. Take a walking or cycling tour with a local tour operator like the famous Lebo’s Soweto Bicycle Tours and get a different perspective on contemporary life in Soweto by meeting the locals, trying the cuisine, listening to the sounds of the streets and experiencing everyday Soweto life from the unique vantage point of a bicycle or tuk tuk.
8One of the best ways to get a feel for downtown Joburg’s fascinating history and exciting mix of cultures and communities is to take a walking tour with a local guide. Book a tour with a local specialised walking tour company such as such as Past Experiences, MainStreetWalks and Joburg Places, all of whom also offer customised routes, and discover the vibrant inner-city’s many hidden treasures that range from colourful street art and pan-African food to traditional fabric shopping shopping and beautiful architecture.
9The extensive Apartheid Museum outlines the long history of apartheid in South Africa and the fierce struggle to abolish it that was fought by countless prominent and ordinary people throughout the course of the 20th Century. This large and rewarding museum makes extensive use of archival video, audio and photographic footage to portray South Africa’s turbulent history of repression, resistance and eventually democracy and it is advisable to allow yourself a few hours to take it all in.
10The Cradle of Humankind is a UNESCO protected World Heritage Site 45 minutes drive north of Johannesburg where some of the world’s oldest and most important hominid remains have been discovered, some of them more than 2 million years old. Maropeng is the interactive visitor’s centre for the pristine 47,000 hectare site, which outlines the remarkable discoveries made here and their vital importance in our understanding of the evolution of our earliest ancestors. A five minute drive from Maropeng is the Sterkfontein Caves, where some of the most significant hominid fossils were discovered. Guided tours of the caves leave every hour and tickets can be bought in combination with your entrance to Maropeng. The Cradle of Humankind region also holds a host of delightful restaurants that make for the perfect-pit stop on a countryside day trip from the city.