Despite not making the final list for South Africa’s three capitals, Johannesburg is the nation’s largest and most economically powerful city. A goldmine in more than one sense, the city produced the majority of the world’s gold until 2007, and with 40% of current global gold reserves, Johannesburg also generates 20% of the nation’s GDP.
Johannesburg is not one of South Africa’s main tourist destinations, and many visitors are there for business or en route to other cities and neighboring countries. But with a population of over three million people, Johannesburg has plenty to offer both short- and long-term visitors, including a wide spectrum of African and European culture.
One of Johannesburg’s best aspects is that its tourist attractions are not based around the usual monuments, museums, and galleries (although these staples are well represented—the Old Fort ramparts of Constitution Hill date back to 1892, Museum Africa features evolutionary exhibitions, and Johannesburg Art Gallery is the biggest art space on the African continent). Johannesburg’s living heritage is its main attraction.
Take a guided tour of Soweto, a black township with over 1.5 million residents that is synonymous with the country’s fight against apartheid. Rather than a voyeuristic day trip, a visit to Soweto is an enlightening experience that introduces not only how other people live, but how resilience helped them win their struggle. Pass by the tiny Mandela Family Museum in Orlando West, where Nelson Mandela lived from 1946 until his imprisonment in 1962 and briefly returned after his release in 1990.
Another essential place to visit is the Apartheid Museum in Ormonde. A story of the triumph of human spirit over adversity, the museum charts the rise and fall of apartheid and how South Africa is coming to terms with its past while focusing on its future.
Dining in Johannesburg, much like in South Africa in general, is influenced by a number of different countries: English, Dutch, Portuguese, Malaysian, and Indian flavors have all combined with African cuisine at some point in history to create a diverse and delicious range of dishes. The consequence of this is that, outside of a few upmarket restaurants dedicated to single cuisines, many everyday South African classics are likely to have crept onto the menu.
Jo’burgers are known for their love of meat, so a steak seared on a hot braai (barbeque) is an absolute must, or perhaps explore Afrikaans cuisine with a stew cooked on coals in a cast-iron Poitjie, seasoned with Portuguese peri-peri spice. Another delicacy is the Malaysian-inspired Bobotie: lightly-curried mince with a savory custard topping, often used to stuff Dutch Vetkoeks—deep-fried dough balls. Finally, the curiously named Bunny Chow is in fact an Indian curry served inside a hollowed-out loaf of bread.
Nightlife in Johannesburg is just as eclectic and includes cocktails at contemporary bars in Fourways and Rosebank, student-inspired mayhem in Melville, and classy nights out in Rivonia and Sandton.
South Africa is well known for its wildlife, and many people fly into Johannesburg, pick up a rental 4x4, and drive northeast for four hours to the world-famous Kruger National Park. Closer to home, and to the other Johannesburg tourist attractions, is Pilanesburg National Park, a game reserve featuring the Big Five: lion, leopard, elephant, rhino, and buffalo. Pilanesburg is just two hours from Johannesburg and adjacent to Sun City, the infamous dining, leisure, entertainment, and casino complex, which includes two world-class golf courses.
Alternatively, take a road trip to Hartbeespoort Dam. Just an hour from Johannesburg, the dam is ringed by the Magaliesberg mountain range and is a popular destination for watersports fanatics. Take a trip on the cableway to the top of the Magaliesberg for a panoramic view of the glistening water.