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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 is so much to see and plenty of activities to enjoy in Johannesburg. 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. Needless to say, visiting Johanessburg is one of several reasons why you should travel to South Africa. Furthermore, Johannesburg is a great starting point to a South Africa itinerary. You can easily take a train from Johannesburg to Cape Town or a quick flight to Kruger National Park.

Here is my ultimate, first timers guide to one day in Johannesburg featuring some of the best places to visit, dine and stay based on my first-hand experience.

Full Disclaimer: I was invited by Joburg Tourism to explore the city and experience tours. My opinions of the city are my own. 

 

Safety

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.

Getting Around

I recommend two different ways to sightsee in Johanessburg, the City Sightseeing hop on-hop off bus or with 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.

I was 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
https://www.citysightseeing.co.za/johannesburg

Joburg Tourism
http://www.joburgtourism.com
http://www.joburgtourism.com/packages/standard

Cresco Tours
http://www.crescotours.co.za/day_tours.php

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.

Constituional Hill

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.
https://www.constitutionhill.org.za

Apartheid Museum

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

Adults: R85
Students, seniors and children: R70
https://www.apartheidmuseum.org

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. 
Adults: R15
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
Closed Monday-Tuesday

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
https://www.tsogosun.com/gold-reef-city-casino

Soweto

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
Adults: R30
Students and seniors: R10
Children (ages 6 to 12): R5
https://www.gauteng.net/attractions/hector_pieterson_memorial_and_museum/

Orlando Towers

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
http://www.orlandotowers.co.za

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
Adults: R60
Students, seniors and children over 6 years: R20
children under 6 years: R5
http://www.mandelahouse.com

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

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
Sunday: closed
$$ – $$$
http://homestead.co.za

Aurelia’s Restaurant

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
$$$$
http://www.emperorspalace.com/things-to-do/restaurants/aurelias-restaurant

Chaf Pozi

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.

Chaf Pozi
Chris Hani Rd, Soweto 1808
Johannesburg, 1809, South Africa
+27 81 797 5756
Monday – Thursday: 11am – 6pm
Friday – Sunday: 9am – 2am
$$-$$$
http://chafpozi.co.za

Sakhumzi Restaurant

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
$$ – $$$
https://sakhumzi.co.za/our-story/

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!

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Based on my experience, I 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! I hope this guide has been helpful and given you a new and better perspective of Johannesburg.

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37 COMMENTS

  • Michelle Joy

    I’d love to visit here someday. Thanks for the tips and for sharing about the museums.

    • oursweetadventures
      AUTHOR

      Our pleasure, we hope you make it to Johannesburg soon!

  • Lisa

    I’ve only had an opportunity to visit once and it was to present at a conference so I really didn’t get to see much at all. I really want to go back. This is a great guide.

    • oursweetadventures
      AUTHOR

      Aww you should! It sounds like you had a great experience, but now need to really see and enjoy the city.

  • Nicky

    Great guide! And it’s very reassuring to read that it’s not as dangerous as its sometimes suggested to be – now I’d love to visit! Thank you!

    • oursweetadventures
      AUTHOR

      We were worried with our safety before arriving, but never felt like we had anything to fear. It is a shame Johannesburg has this bad reputation because it is actually a very vibrant and safe city.

  • Lindsey

    Soooo interesting and all are definitely good thing to know. Makes me confident that when I do get to the bucket list location of South Africa Johannesburg is definitely doable as well!

    • oursweetadventures
      AUTHOR

      Yes it is! It is the perfect location to explore in between going to a safari national park.

  • Cat Holladay

    This looks like a great couple of days! So glad to hear about the safety, it certainly gets a bad rap but I’m glad to know it’s isolated. Can’t wait to travel here!

    • oursweetadventures
      AUTHOR

      It is a shame Johannesburg has this bad reputation because it is actually a very vibrant and safe city. We hope you are able to visit the City of Gold soon.

  • Lucille

    Hi Christina & Adam, thank you so much for an awesome article on our amazing City. Hope to see you both back here soon. There is still so much more to see and explore.

    • oursweetadventures
      AUTHOR

      Hi Lucille! We miss you! We hope to see you again too because we know there is still so much to see and explore.

  • Faith Coates

    Fascinating piece. I have been researching S.A. food for a fellow blogger and was intrigued by your descriptions of the food in Soweto I am going to have to do much more research. The most touching part was Hector’s memorial, how terribly sad it reminds me of Ireland a little bit. I just wish the Irish would have a Truth and Reconciliation process it might help unite the country.

    • oursweetadventures
      AUTHOR

      We are delighted to hear you enjoyed our article. The food in Soweto was very delicious as well as the food we enjoyed in the city. A lot of great, well seasoned and prepared meat with vegetables that actually taste delicious. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact us.

  • Katie

    This post pops up at the perfect time! I am heading to Joburg next week and will be referencing this while there. I’m looking forward to visiting Mandela’s house and the Orlando Towers.

    • oursweetadventures
      AUTHOR

      We hope you have a great trip!

  • Debbie

    Such great tips. I’ve been wanting to visit Johannesburg in a long time. I will definitely reference this when I do make the visit.

    • oursweetadventures
      AUTHOR

      We can’t say enough great things about the city and the country of South Africa. We will definitely be going back.

  • Dada

    It must a trip of a lifetime visiting Johannesbourg! Hopefully I will someday visit the sites you mention above, if not all atleast the some! So many cities in the world has bad reputation but I guess if we are caution and travel with our head then it should be alright.

    • oursweetadventures
      AUTHOR

      Hopefully you can go to all of the places on the list. The city does have a bad reputation but like any other city that might have a bad reputation you travel smart. We did a tour and felt safe the entire time. There is so much to see and do in Joburg

  • Sara Essop

    I’m glad you enjoyed your stay in my city, Johannesburg. It certainly does have a lot to offer 🙂

    • oursweetadventures
      AUTHOR

      The city has a ton to offer every interest for all people.

  • Adrenaline Romance

    The first thing that comes to my mind when someone mentions the city of Johannesburg is a large spaceship hovering above the city. Blame it on the movie District 9. We would definitely say yes to an opportunity to visit Johannesburg. By the way, the artwork on those power station towers are stunning! How did they do it?

    • oursweetadventures
      AUTHOR

      Joburg has so much to offer everyone. Museums, sports, culture, food. The city decommissioned the power plant in 1998 and it stood barren for a few years until they started to transition that township into more of an entertainment area. The power plants now have different symbols of Africa all over it.

  • Ami

    That is a well detailed guide on what to do here and how to go about it. Among the places to visit, I was really struck by the Prison. I know it would have been depressing to see all that , especially the isolation rooms but there is no better way to understand and appreciate the struggle than visiting this place. Glad you addressed the safety part too. Cheers

    • oursweetadventures
      AUTHOR

      The prison was very moving and yes, depressing as well. It was a very informative tour that we took. We learned so much during the tour. The isolation cells allow you to close the door and see what it was like to be behind the door.

  • Glad to see you do not find Johannesburg as dangerous as what is being written out there. Also, love that you enjoyed private tours- we love them too! The food is interesting too, did you like the pap?

    • oursweetadventures
      AUTHOR

      We didn’t know if we were going to enjoy the private tour but we feel we got so much more out of the tour that way. We could ask so many more questions than we normally would. The Pap was interesting. we did enjoy it and would definitely have it again.

  • Marlies

    Johannesburg is a very interesting place but I do have to admit that the reason I haven’t visited it yet is because I thought it was to dangerous. I am happy to read this is not the case. I would love to visit those places in Johannesburg one day.

    • oursweetadventures
      AUTHOR

      There were areas that we felt maybe it is best to avoid but we also were getting tours in those areas and felt safe with our guide. In fact it seemed like everyone knew her and respected her very much. We would definitely go back to Joburg

  • HArsh

    Been planning taking a trip down South Africa but never considered Johannesburg at all. Have a change of heart now. Can we club any other city to visit along with Johannesburg?

    • oursweetadventures
      AUTHOR

      Joburg was the only city we visited while in South Africa. We were in and out of a couple airports while there but that was it. We heard great things about Cape Town and Durban.

  • Agness of e Tramping

    Wow! Johannesburg seems truly picturesque. Your guide is so detailed, exceptional and helpful, C+A. How many days would you recommend staying in Johannesburg to see all the highlights?

    • oursweetadventures
      AUTHOR

      We would say that 2 days would be pretty good depending on what you want to see. Thank you for the nice comment

  • Dee GoGo

    Lovely post! Ill be headed that way in December. I hope its still as lovely then! Great tips and thank you for sharing!

    • oursweetadventures
      AUTHOR

      We hope you have a great time while you there! Share your experience as well

  • Kristie

    I’d love to get to South Africa someday. As you said, Johannesburg has a concerning reputation, but it sounds like you can safely travel there. How striking the contract between the noble name of Constitution Hall and its actual appearance and purpose. I am sure it was a moving tour.

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