A First Timers Guide to The City of Gold – Johannesburg
We had the great opportunity to visit Johannesburg twice during our layovers within Africa. There are plenty of activities to enjoy in Johannesburg and during our few days in the city, we were able to do a lot of sightseeing, learn about the city’s history, eat delicious South African cuisine, and stay at two wonderful hotels. We encourage tourists who travel to South Africa to visit game reserves, to also take the opportunity to spend at least a full 24 hours in Johannesburg. Seeing wild animals is amazing, (we know, it’s why we went to South Africa), but seeing the culture and history of Johanessburg is amazing too. Here is our first timers guide to some of the best places to visit, dine and stay within Johannesburg (based on our first hand experience), along with some helpful tips.
Full Disclaimer: we were invited by Joburg Tourism to explore the city and experience tours. Our opinions of the city are our own.
Related posts: The Best Tips for Flying To and Within South Africa!
Johannesburg, the City of Gold – tends to get a bad reputation as one of the most dangerous cities in the world. We are here to tell you, that is not the case. In fact, South Africa as a whole is one of the safest countries in Africa. Just like all major cities, there are growing and influential areas, suburbs, good school districts and more, but there are also areas of poverty and slum. Not once we did encounter any dangerous areas or incidents while in Johannesburg, what we did experience was pure culture and history.
We recommend two different ways to sightsee in Johanessburg, the City Sightseeing hop on-hop off bus or Joburg Tourism where they can provide you with a private guide.
Hop On-Hop Off buses are always a popular way to see a new and unfamiliar city. The great thing about a hop on-hop off bus is the opportunity to stop at several destinations you wish to see for an entire day, while paying for a budget friendly price. Along the routes there are also audio guides to use at your disposal, so you can learn about the places you are seeing or visiting. For people who have a lot of time to enjoy sightseeing at their own pace, this is a great fit for you. If you enjoy a more intimate setting that goes based on your tight schedule, we recommend a private driver.
We were invited from Joburg Tourism to enjoy a private driver/tour guide. This was our first experience with a private driver/tour guide and we enjoyed every second of it, in fact, we do not think we can enjoy another group tour ever again. Our guide, Lucille from Cresco Tours, was very knowledgable about the city and was able to show around Johannesburg and educate us more about the city than we have ever imagined. It was also comforting to be able to sightsee and learn about Johannesburg on our own time. To know that we never had to worry about catching our next ride somewhere or continuing to switch tour guides at every site. We were able to make a strong relationship with Lucille and enjoy our time exploring Johannesburg. If you decide to book with Cresco Tours, be sure to ask for Lucille!
City Sightseeing Hop On-Hop Off
In the Heart of Johannesburg
The heart of Johannesburg is the central business district. There are plenty of things to see, dine and stay in this area. In addition to some fun sightseeing, there is also a lot of culture and history that has defined the city of Johannesburg and South Africa as a whole.
If you only have time to do one thing in Johanessburg, we encourage you to visit Constitutional Hill. It was one of the most moving tours we have ever experienced. It reperesnts Johanessburg’s past, present and future.
Before the tour, there is a video that gives you a brief history of Constitutional Hill. The brief history is that black, white and colored men and women were prisoned here for speaking their minds of the harsh truth that was occurring in Johannesburg during that time. The treatment they were receiving was unbearable and inhuman. Walking through the prison cells, courtyard, torture chambers and isolation cells was depressing – we could not fathom the history that took place here. To see people be treated so inhuman because they were trying to get their freedom, equality and dignity was heartbreaking.
Some exhibits within the tour had pictures, audio and video of ex-prisoners’ stories of the series of events that happened to them everyday. Constitutional Hill has three prison blocks – Number Four (for black, asian and indian “native men”), Old Fort (for white men) and Women’s Goal (for black and white female prisoners).
The tour has prison cells that showcase the prisoners living arrangements, which were very poor – they would cram in dozens of men in a small prison room. We were told that in the courtyard, the men would have to strip naked and receive brutal beatings.
The isolation cells might have been the most heartbreaking of them all. Visitors can step into the isolation cells to see what it was like for the prisoners. The prisoners were only supposed to stay inside the isolation cells for no more than 30 days, but some stayed there for an entire year. Without even stepping into the isolation cells, we cannot begin to even imagine what it was like to be in their shoes.
A lot of historical men and women of Johanessburg were imprisoned at Constitutional Hill, including two of the most influential leaders of our world, Nelson Mandela and Ghandi. In honor of these men, Constitutional Hill has dedicated one of the prison cells into a small msusuem of their history here and in life.
Out of this tradegy comes hope. Johannesburg created their congress room in the center of Constitutional Hill and embraced their history for a better future. The bricks of the building are the same bricks the prisoners would mine. There is a small narrow window across the congress room where the judges can only see people’s legs walking by. This feature is to remind the judges that they sit in the chairs to help create a better world for all those people walking outside. We enjoyed the congress room a lot because of how much thought and meaning went into building the room.
11 Kotze St
Johannesburg, 2017, South Africa
+27 11 381 3100
Open daily: 9am – 5pm
Prices vary for age and type of tour, so please click here to get an in-depth page of prices.
A visit to Apartheid Museum is a museum unlike any other, representing the rise and fall of apartheid in South Africa. Guests take an emotional journey through a series of 22 individual exhibition areas, which tells a story of a state-sanctioned system based on racial discrimination and the struggle the majority of people endured to overthrow the tyranny. South Africa does not shy away from their past, but embrace it to make a better future – the Apartheid Museum is South Africa’s beacon of hope to show the world who they really are. It is a museum not to be missed.
Northern Park Way and Gold Reef Rd
Ormond, Johannesburg, 2001, South Africa
+27 11 309 4700
Open daily: 9am – 5pm
Students, seniors and children: R70
Top of Africa
To experience the best views of Johanessburg, head to the 50th floor of the Carlton building, also known as the Top of Africa. Why is it called the Top of Africa? Because it is THE tallest building in Africa! At the observation deck, guests can see the city and its surrounding landscape with 360 degree unobstructed views. Though we went on a hazy day, it did not deteriorate from the beauty of Johanessburg. We were able to see the business district, suburbs and of course, the mining grounds.
150 Commissioner St
CBD, Johannesburg, 2001, South Africa
+27 (0)11 308 1331
Monday – Friday: 9am – 6pm
Saturday: 9am – 5pm
Sunday: 9am – 2pm
Tickets can be purchased at the front desk, located behind the store “Studio 88”, one floor below ground level. If lost, ask a security guard or a store clerk.
Children under 10: R10
Gold Reef City
Gold Reef City has is a place for tourists of all ages – two hotels, a casino, a theme park and a mine tour! Guests must pay an entrance fee to enter the theme park regardless if they will partake in any rides. Guests wanting to actually go on rides must pay a higher price. To visit the mine tour will also cost an additional fee, but it is well worth it for those interested in learning how Johannesburg became The City of Gold! During the mine tour, guests will feel the cold air as they descend into the depths of the earth and discover the riches of South Africa’s history and gold. They will also have the opportunity to pan for gold in freezing cold water and watch gold being poured into golden bars!
Northern Pkwy & Data Cres
Ormonde 99-Ir, Johannesburg, 2159, South Africa
+27 11 248 5000
Wednesday-Sunday: 9:30am – 5pm
Thrill Rider above 1.3m: R210 or R320 to include mine tour
Non-Rider above 1.3m: R120 or R230 to include mine tour
Guests under 1.3m: R130 or R240 to include mine tour
Students and seniors 60+: R175 or R285 to include mine tour
Heritage Mine Tour: R340
Children under 3 years are admitted free of charge
Soweto is a the largest black town in South Africa and is known for its culture, history and the home of Nelson Mandela. Great local food can be found around town with an entertaining culture and lifestyle.
Hector Pieterson Museum and Memorial
The museum was built in honor of Hector Pieterson and is located only two blocks away from where Hector was shot and killed. For those who do not know the story, students were walking to the stadium to gather for a protest and were met by the police. The children threw stones at the police and the police responded with gunfire. Hector was the first one to be shot by the police. This tragic event started the 1976 uprising in Soweto and throughout the country. The museum is dedicated to all the children, women and men, whose lives were lost during the apartheid tyranny. Outside the museum is a beautiful memorial which represents the event of the students and police officers. The memorial is built with a fountain that flows to the streets – the water flowing symbolizes the blood shed from the children. The iconic picture of Hector dying in the arms of another Soweto resident with his sister next to them, is placed next to the memorial.
Tip: If you are going to the Apartheid Museum, it is suggested not to visit the Hector Pieterson museum on the same day because of the amount of emotion placed upon the visitors. It is also said that a visit to the Apartheid Museum is enough to capture the history of the events, but if you want to learn more of what happened in Soweto then going inside the Hector Pieterson Museum is advised. Otherwise seeing the memorial with a tour guide to explain the symbolism of the event is enough.
8287 Khumalo Rd
Orlando West, Johannesburg, 1804, South Africa
+27 11 536 0611
Monday – Saturday: 10am – 5pm
Sundays: 10am – 4pm
Students and seniors: R10
Children (ages 6 to 12): R5
What was once used as a power station for over 50 years, is now South Africa’s largest mural painting in the country and a place to have fun. Soweto has a lot of culture and history, which the Orlando Towers signifies in their colorful painted murals that can be seen from miles away. For those seeking adrenaline, you can bungee jump, base jump or freefall from the top of the towers! After you enjoy your thrill of choice from the Orlando Towers, don’t forget to dine at Chaf Pozi (more info on the restaurant at Places to Dine). Spending a day at Orlando Towers and finishing your evening at Chaf Pozi will be an experience you will never forget in Johannesburg!
Chris Hani Rd, Soweto 1808
Johannesburg, 1809, South Africa
+27 71 674 4343
Thursday: 12pm – 5pm
Friday – Sunday: 10am – 6pm
Prices vary depending on activity
Nelson Mandela House
Visiting Nelson Meandela’s House is almost a must when visiting Johannesburg! If you are fans of the legendary man, we highly recommend you visit his house. The house is full of gifts he received from leaders all over the world, in addition to awards he received throughout his life. Outside the house, visitors can see and feel with their fingers the bullet holes from people who shot at his house. Inside the house, visitors can see the last picture ever took of him before he was imprisoned next to the picture of him when he was released.
8115 Vilakazi St & Ngakane St
Orlando West, Johannesburg, 1804, South Africa
+27 11 936 7754
Open Daily: 9am – 5pm
Students, seniors and children over 6 years: R20
children under 6 years: R5
Playing Soccer with the Children
As we were driving throughout Soweto we kept seeing several children playing soccer in the middle of the streets. When we parked to visit the Nelson Mandela House, there were children playing in the parking lot. As soccer players, we could not resist playing with the children, so we joined them. It was a surreal experience that we will never forget. If you happen to find street vendors selling soccer balls, it would change the children’s world if you buy one for them, otherwise they will love it if you join them in a game or two!
Places to Dine
Homestead focuses on South African food using the freshest and local ingredients. Their speciality is called “bowl’d food” where guests pick their starch, meat, vegetables, sauce and salad – essentially all of the components are served in bowls and placed on a wooden tray. One of their starch options is pap, also known as mieliepap, which is a traditional South African corn porridge, similar to polenta, but prepared differently. We recommend guests to enjoy it with a meat stew served on top.
58 Anderson St
Marshalltown, Johannesburg, 2107, South Africa
+27 11 689 1000
Monday – Saturday: 10am – 10pm
$$ – $$$
A luxury dining experience at Peermont D’Oreale Grande at Emperor’s Palace. The ambience of Aurelia’s Restaurant during the night is romantic with its dim lighting, candles and fresh flowers on the table. Their dinner menu is quite extensive, which showcases the chef’s creative molecular gastronomy appetizers, entrees and desserts. The dishes have a little Mediterranean flare with some South African cuisine that can please any palate. To read our full review of Aurelia’s Restaurant, click here.
64 Jones Rd, O.R. Tambo
Kempton Park, 1627, South Africa
+27 11 928 1727
Lunch served daily: 12:30pm – 4pm
Dinner served daily: 6:30pm – 10pm
After you experience the Orlando Towers, dine at Chaf Pozi, an authentic South African Shisa Nyama (barbecue) cuisine restaurant at the base of the towers. At night, Chaf Pozi turns into a shebeen (live music and dancing), which is an integral part of South African urban culture and represents a sense of community, identity, and belonging.
Chris Hani Rd, Soweto 1808
Johannesburg, 1809, South Africa
+27 81 797 5756
Monday – Thursday: 11am – 6pm
Friday – Sunday: 9am – 2am
Located across the street from the Nelson Mandela House is Sakhumzi, which serves local Soweto, authentic-home cooked cuisine. We have never encountered such a vibrant community during a dining experience. Everyone greeted us with a warm welcome as if we were family. Everything is made fresh from the kitchen and served as either a buffet or a la carte from the menu. The buffet has a great selection of authentic Soweto food, from traditional pap to lamb stew, sausage, tripe, cow tongue and more.
6980 Vilakazi St
Orlando West, Soweto, 1804, South Africa
+27 11 536 1379
Monday – Thursday: 11am – 10pm
Friday – Sunday: 11am – 12am
$$ – $$$
Places to Stay
Johannesburg is full of several different types of beautiful hotels – boutique, eco-friendly, luxurious and more. We highly recommend two hotels, Peermont D’Oreale Grande at Emperor’s Palace and The Reef Hotel. Both hotels are amazing for different reasons.
Peermont D’Oreale Grande at Emperor’s Palace is a five star hotel and the perfect hotel for layovers, as well as, a phenomenal hotel for luxurious vacations. It is in between Johannesburg’s central business district and Soweto, so also great for location. Click here to read more about this hotel.
The Reef Hotel is a four star hotel located in the heart of Johannesburg – the central business district. The hotel has some amazing features, such as a jacuzzi on their sun deck and a rooftop bar. Click here to read more about this hotel.
In addition to these two hotels, here are more fabulous hotels to stay at:
- Four Seasons Hotel The Westcliff
- Hyatt Regency Johannessburg
- The Peech Hotel
- Saxon Hill, ranked as one of the Worlds Best Hotels in Travel and Leisure.
Book your hotel in Johannesburg by using our Booking affiliate search box! It does not cost you more, but we would receive a small commission for your booking. We would be very appreciative if you do book with us!
Based on our experience, we suggest at least two full days in Johannesburg! Spend one day in the heart of Johannesburg and another day in Soweto. There is truly so much to see and experience in Johannesburg. It is not a city to be used as a layover, it is a city to be seen! We hope this guide has been helpful and given you a new and better perspective of Johanessburg.
Christina + Adam