Photo Courtesy of Pascal Parent
Johannesburg is South Africa’s largest city. Variously known as Jozi, Jo’burg, or its Zulu name, Egoli (City of Gold), the place has attracted a myriad of cultures over the centuries, all drawn by the famed fortune that gave rise to this city. Visitors to Jozi in summer will find hot days with cooli…ng afternoon showers. Winters are fantastic too, with bright, sunny days and chilly evenings. Activities from inner-city art walks to feasting on the local culinary dishes will keep any traveler entertained.
What to know before you go to Johannesburg
O.R. Tambo International is the closest airport. Many hotels can arrange shuttles to pick you up. The Gautrain can take you to Sandton, where you can switch to a bus that will take you into Johannesburg (but remember that Gautrain buses don’t operate on weekends). Be vigilant with taxi operators (as in any country); use only a licensed taxi with a working meter. If you’re renting a car, make sure you have an international driver’s license, and remember that here you drive on the left side of the road.
Johannesburg is a very big place, and to see everything in the city and on its outskirts—or even farther afield in the province of Gauteng⎯a car rental would be ideal. However, if you’re sticking to areas like Sandton in the north, you can get around via Gautrain buses and tuk-tuks or, in central Jozi, the Rea Vaya Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) System. Local mini-bus taxis shuttle just about everyone around to anywhere; they’re very cheap, but be warned that their drivers can be a bit reckless. You can travel between suburbs by car, taxi, or the Gautrain or Metro Rail trains.
At Maropeng, known as the Cradle of Humankind, travelers can learn about the history of humans as a species. The first fossilized skull of the hominid Australopithecus (nicknamed “Mrs. Ples”) was discovered here. The Maropeng facility offers a wide range of activities, including drives through the lion and rhino park in an open-top game-viewing vehicle, hot-air ballooning over the Highveld, and exploring the world below in the Sterkfontein Caves.
From pap and wors (sausages and porridge) to biltong and beer, South African food won’t disappoint. Have a hearty braai (barbecue) while watching rugby with friends. Malva pudding (a sticky, cakey dessert topped with custard or ice cream) is an appropriately indulgent follow-up. On a hot summer evening, throw back some Klippies (brandy) and Coke for a nightcap. Try bobotie, a dish of Indonesian origin, made with spiced meat and a baked egg topping. In Soweto, be sure to try out some traditional fare at popular meeting spots such as Chaf Pozi or Wandie’s, and if you’re in Newtown, go on a tour of the SAB World of Beer and get a couple of free beers to enjoy as you learn about the history of brewing. (South African Breweries or SAB is one of the world’s largest brewers of beer.) If you’re looking for something spicy, the outlying district of Fordsburg is the destination for delicious Indian dishes, and Cyrildene (also known as New China Town) is a local favorite for Asian dishes.
South Africa is known for both its achievements and its atrocities. In Jo’burg the Apartheid Museum is a good place to start. Next door, Gold Reef City Theme Park delves into the Johannesburg of the gold rush days. Here you can discover what it was like to live here in the late 1800s. You can also take a trip down into a gold mine and learn about the hardships miners had to endure while searching for the precious mineral. A trip into Soweto will open your eyes to the way a good portion of Jo’burgers live, struggling to make ends meet. You can walk down the street where two Nobel Peace laureates lived (Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu) or visit the Hector Pieterson Museum for insight into the era when students took a stand against the oppressive apartheid government. Travel into the culture-rich Newtown area for a bit of art from Museum Africa or a bit of a stage act at the Market Theatre. A few blocks over is the original China Town, where the majority of Chinese immigrants used to live. Walk a couple streets up to Chancellor House, which was Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo’s law office, the first black law office in the country.
Johannesburg has a good range of annual festivals covering food, music, arts, and culture. Ram Fest, Jo’burg Day, In The City, and the Joy of Jazz are some of the top music festivals, usually headlined by top international acts. Foodies can partake in the Taste of Jo’burg, the Good Food & Wine Show, Jozi Craft Beer Festival, and the FNB Whisky Festival. Other cultural offerings include SA Fashion Week, the Photo & Film Expo, Arts Alive, and the Jo’burg City Festival.
Johannesburg is full of people trying to make it big. It is the New York of South Africa, with a great diversity of African cultures. Many travelers comment that it’s strange to see high walls with electric fencing and heavy security, but the reality is that crime does happen in this beautiful place. That shouldn’t deter you from coming to Johannesburg. As long as you are vigilant and aware of your surroundings, you are sure to have a good time. Allow enough time to deal with congested roadways in getting from place to place⎯the traffic along major routes is an experience in itself.
read before you go
Justin Lee is a freelance photographer based in Johannesburg. He loves shooting with pretty models, but also photographs hardcore MMA Fighters for EFC Africa, food, products, and the beautiful outdoors of his country. He has contributed to local travel publications like Getaway and City Pocket Guides, and has also done work for Adidas, FashionTV, and City Sightseeing. When he's not behind a camera, you can find him catching up with friends or trying to find some hidden gem in the city. See more of Justin's work and catch up with his adventures on his website, Justin Lee Photography.