Johannesburg Travel Guide

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‘Jo’burg’, the capital of the region Gauteng, is a fascinating city with a modern centre, combining its ways with the older surroundings.

It is a very modern city with excellent shopping by any standards, but being a financial centre it does not hold as many attractions for tourists as other cities like Cape Town. Sights in Johannesburg include the new Museum Africa which offers an honest and self-critical look at the nation’s sometimes troubled past and the Market Theater Complex which houses theaters and a Saturday flea market.

History buffs will be interested in the Smuts Library at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits University) where South African statesman Jan Smuts’ book collection is preserved. The university’s Gubbins Library has an extensive collection of books on Africa. The Apartheid museum, next to Gold Reef City theme-park, is a fantastic architectural piece and a moving yet informative means of learning about Apartheid and the recent political history of South Africa. The experience, far from being harrowing, is uplifting and inspiring.

The old city centre is not particularly popular, following a mass move by the populus to the suburbs in the 1980s and 1990s. Though it is reviving, most of the best that Johannesburg has to offer are in Suburbs, especially in the wealthy northern suburbs (which include Sandton, Bryanston, Northcliff, Fourways etc). The main road in the suburb of Melville, near old town centre, is a popular party-strip and offers good bars, restaurants, clubs etc in a slick environment. 

Tours are easily arranged in Johannesburg for those interested in visiting the black suburb of Soweto (the name is an abbreviation of Southwestern Townships). The tours begin with the ultramodern township hospital and continue through all types of neighborhoods ranging from shanty towns and worker’s hostels to the modern home of Nelson Mandela (he lived there for only a short while upon his release from prison). The tour also includes Mandela’s earlier and more humble home where he lived when he was arrested more than 30 years ago. For us the most striking sight was a functioning high school with every single window broken. It was surrounded by razor-wire fences. Also consider visiting Oriental Plaza, a shopping complex, where the majority of shop owners are South African Indians (much of the wares have Indian connections).

Excursions include a half-day trip to see the fossils at Sterkfontein Caves (a half-hour drive from town the site itself takes several hours to tour) which is generally regarded as the richest paleoanthropological site in the world, and named a UNESCO world heritage site because of this. Gold Reef City (part of what was once Crown Mines, one of many mines in and around Johannesburg) is more like a theme park than a mine tour: it features numerous themed-rides, gold smelting, a museum ride on a vintage steam train and performances by African tribal dancers. There are several working gold mines to visit near Johannesburg, including Welkom, Evander, Carletonville, Klerksdorp and Orkney. However, to visit these mines prior permission is needed — write months in advance. (Satour will help arrange such visits. Be aware that many mines do not allow anyone under age 16.)

There are also several game reserves and breeding stations within a half-day drive, such as the Lion Park, the De Wildt Cheetah Research and Breeding Station, the Lion and Rhino park and the Crocodile Farm. If you’re going to be in Johannesburg on a Sunday consider a visit to the Heia Safari Ranch 24 mi/38 km from town where tribal dancers perform—it provides a good introduction to the country if Johannesburg is your first stop. An alternative to the ranch is South Ndebele Village: an interesting Botshabelo tribe open-air museum that shows how tribes used to live.

Johannesburg is characterised by American style mall culture. Whilst some smaller malls, such as Hyde Park, are aimed at a more sophisticated crowd many are much like typical American malls and aimed at teenagers and shoppers. Sandton City is the largest mall in the Southern Hemisphere and has everything from bad fried food to world standard haute cuisine (the Gazibo restaurant being worth a special look).  Monte Casino is a mall built in a complex that resembles an Italian Village, and is an interesting stop. Other notable large malls include the Mall of Rosebank (featuring an art cinema-house, craftmarket, excellent shopping with huge variety etc), the Brightwater Commons in Randburg (redolent with eateries and good for an outdoorsy feel), the Fourways Mall in Fourways, Cresta Centre in Northcliff as well as Westgate, Northgate, Eastgate and Southgate.

As goes for most big cities, crime is not an uncommon thing in Jo’burg. Practice common sense. Keep your valuable belongings at a safe spot, so you don’t have to worry about them. Do not walk in unpopulated areas and be aware. The Johannesburg International Airport is located just east of Johannesburg. Because of the crime situation in Johannesburg hotels in Sandton (a suburb of Johannesburg, about 25 kilometres north of the city centre) or near the airport are recommended for unescorted visitors on their first night in the country.

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