Things to Do & Must-See Attractions in Gauteng
South Africa's national government is split between three cities, and in Pretoria, the government is housed in the Union Buildings, which were built in the early 1900s after Pretoria became the administrative capital of the newly united Union of South Africa. The two wings of the structure represent English and Afrikaans, with the court between the two representing the Union of South Africa.
The offices of the president of South Africa is still in the Union Buildings, and the country's flag flies over the left wing if the president is there. The amphitheatre was renamed in 2013 as the Nelson Mandela Amphitheatre, and a 29.5-foot-tall statue of Mandela stands in front of the Union Buildings now.
For most, Soweto (short for South West Townships) is synonymous with resistance to apartheid, South Africa’s former policy of racial segregation. The township’s complex past is visible in Soweto’s moving museums, historical monuments, and strong traditions.
The granite Voortrekker Monument towers 200 feet (60 meters) above Pretoria. The monument was built to honor the Great Trek—a 19th-century exodus from the then British-ruled Cape Colony to central South Africa. The monument depicts the treacherous journey in the Hall of Heroes, and an empty tomb represents the lives lost on the trek.
One of South Africa’s premier attractions, Kruger National Park is famous for the extent and diversity of its wildlife. The “Big Five” of game are all there—lion, elephant, buffalo, rhino, and leopard—and a world-class conservation program means you’ll also encounter wildebeest, giraffes, zebra, big cats of all stripes, and diverse bird species.
The Apartheid Museum details the injustice, cruelty, and absurdities of white minority rule in South Africa. Apartheid, meaning “separateness” in Afrikaans, was officially in effect from 1948 to 1994, though segregation had been a cornerstone of South African politics since the country’s inception. The museum is dedicated to helping South Africa overcome its oppressive past and look toward the future.
The Harties Aerial Cableway transports visitors to a mountaintop viewing platform and activity area and offers panoramic views of the Magaliesberg mountains and Hartebeespoort Dam. Located just 50 miles (80 kilometers) outside of Johannesburg, the gondola offers an experience similar to a trip to Cape Town’s Table Mountain.
The Nelson Mandela National Museum (Mandela House), is dedicated to the preservation of the history, heritage, and legacy of the Mandela family. Former South African president Nelson Mandela and his family lived in this Johannesburg house from 1946 to the 1990s before dedicating it to the Soweto Heritage Trust.
Perhaps nowhere is South Africa’s transition to democracy more vividly apparent than on Constitution Hill. For over a hundred years, buildings here functioned as a much-feared prison complex, holding everyone from common criminals to activists Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, even Winston Churchill (briefly) during the Boer War.
Since 2004, this site has been home to South Africa’s Constitutional Court, partially built with bricks from one of the old prison buildings, complemented with lighter contemporary elements. Visitors can see the court in session after a tour which takes in Mandela’s cell as well as a permanent exhibition dedicated to Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violent protest.
Built for irrigation purposes in the 1920s, Hartbeespoort Dam created a reservoir and a recreation hot spot that now draws visitors to what has become a small resort town. Nestled in the Magaliesberg, Hartbeespoort offers a mountain escape complete with scenic views and everything from cruises to paragliding.
The Gold Reef City complex is built on the site of an old gold mine, and visitors can still descend into the pits and see how the precious metal is extracted. Those in search of their own windfall should head for the casino, where roulette, baccarat, black jack as well as slot machines are on offer round the clock. First time flutterers and hardened high rollers are well catered for.
The theme park component of Gold Reef City offers thrills for all ages, with rides including the Anacaonda, the Tower of Terror and a roller coaster which provides a great view towards central Johannesburg on its exhilarating journey.
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Set among the rocky hills and bushland outside Johannesburg, Aha Lesedi, an African lodge and cultural village is made up of traditional homesteads and provides an opportunity to meet people from Zulu, Xhosa, Pedi, Ndebele, and Basotho origins. Lesedi reflects the diversity of South Africa’s original inhabitants with elements from many tribal cultures.
Just under 30 miles northwest of bustling downtown Johannesburg, this enclave of animals makes it easy to see many – giraffe, white rhino, Kruger lion, cape buffalo, hippos, flamingos, ostrich – not far from the city’s creature comforts. Six hundred individual beasts comprising more than 30 species call the 3,000-acre privately-owned slice of savanna home. The option to self-drive the reserve’s bumpy gravel roads or take an organized day or night drive in the park’s open-top vehicles makes this a popular stop with Joberg visitors without a lot of time.
Still, don’t expect a Kruger-like experience where all the animals run wild and fate and chance take their toll on the circle of life. Predators are separated by fences and easily spotted during scheduled public feeding times. A reptile house contains captive versions of creatures many would just as soon not spot in the wild, and species from around the continent and beyond also have a home here: Bengal and white tigers, three varieties of leopard and two types of jaguar. There’s even a chance for photo ops with some of the results of the reserve’s onsite breeding center – baby white lions, tigers, cheetah and more –– at the Animal Créche.
The Rhino and Lion Nature Reserve, situated within the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site, makes it easy to hit multiple tourist stops such as the renowned Sterkfontein Caves and the Cradle of Humankind visitor center. The nearby Wonder Cave (operated separately), discovered by miners in 1898, has
cavernous ceilings reaching 50 feet is host to exploratory and abseiling tours. Overnight accommodations and entertainment facilities for young children are also available in the park.
Johannesburg has most of Africa's tallest buildings, and the building that's held the title of Africa's tallest office building for nearly four decades is the Carlton Centre.
The Carlton Centre is a combination office building and shopping center. The 50-storey building stands at 732 feet, but almost half of its floor area is below the ground level – that's where the majority of the shopping is located, in an underground shopping mall that's one of the city's top shopping destinations. Until 1997, the Carlton Centre was connected via this underground mall to the luxury Carlton Hotel.
The top floor of the Carlton Centre is known as the “Top of Africa,” and offers some of the best views overlooking Johannesburg.
You don’t have to head for the big game reserves to see the amazing variety of South African wildlife – it’s all on display at Johannesburg Zoo. On a sprawling 54 hectare (133 acre) site you’ll see evidence of an enlightened zoological program, with majestic lions, playful monkeys and distinctive horned oryxes all given room to roam.
Additionally, you’ll find non-native animals including polar bears, Siberian Tigers and camels. While enjoying the green expanse of one of Jo’burg’s great outdoor spaces you can watch crocodiles being fed, handle (non-venomous) snakes and visit a real farmyard.
Johannesburg's SAB World of Beer is a museum dedicated to beer, run by South African Breweries. Opened in 1995, the World of Beer is an interactive beer museum tracing the history of the drink in Africa. The exhibits begin with the earliest known references to beer, roughly 5,000 years ago in Egypt and Mesopotamia. In addition to the history of beer, visitors also learn about the beer-making process in different parts of the world.
Tours end in the Tap Room, where visitors can sample South African Breweries' beers and enjoy some snacks while looking out over Newtown.
Sun City is a resort and entertainment complex located north-west of Johannesburg. One of South Africa's top leisure destinations, the resort complex is conveniently located on the South African Garden Route and next to Pilanesberg National Park. Highlights of Sun City include a casino, spa, water park, and golf courses.
This giant brick warehouse divided in to seven sections is dedicated to all things transportation. From ox carts to early bicycles and modern day cars and trains, the James Hall Museum of Transport is a showcase of the implements that have propelled the people of South Africa for more than a century.
Most self-guided tours begin in the North Hall, home to motorcars from before and after the South African War. This area includes the museum’s oldest car, a green Edwardian Clement-Panhard (1900), as well as unusual artifacts like the minuscule 1957 MBW Microcar Isetta. Locomotives and retired city vehicles, like a double-decker bus, are on the open-air porch, and examples of buses and trolleys, including Johannesburg’s last electric powered Tram and a traveling library bus still filled with books, can be seen in the West Hall.
The two floors of the South Hall showcase a plethora of animal drawn vehicles from ox-carts to private carriages… there’s even an old horse-drawn Zeederberg Company mail coach and a Voortrekker wagon used by Afrikanners during the Great Trek to Johannesburg from the Cape Colony. From there, it’s about motorcycles and bikes in front of the East Hall where the silly- looking penny farthing bicycle, tricycles, scooters and rickshaws are on display. The back of the East Hall is a devoted garage for a suite of red fire engines. The courtyard is home to steam-powered vehicles, some of which regain their steam (so to speak) once a year, offering rides for a museum fundraiser. A wander through for most takes between one and two hours.
Newtown is a neighborhood in the center of Johannesburg, and it has been the focus of redevelopment efforts in recent years. Originally called “The Brickfields,” as brick-making was the primary industry, the neighborhood was burned to the ground in 1904 – on purpose. The reason given was to stop the spread of the plague. Later that year, as the area was being redeveloped, it was given the name of Newtown.
Today, Newtown is home to some important Johannesburg attractions, such as MuseumAfrica, Market Theatre, and Mary Fitzgerald Square.
One of the attractions in the Constitution Hill area of Johannesburg is the Old Fort Prison Complex, which date from the late 19th century. The prison buildings were built by the Boers (Afrikaans speakers) starting in 1896 as the place to put any British invaders who were captured. During the Second Boer War, the tables were turned when the British took over the Old Fort and used the prison to hold (and execute) captive Boers.
Later, during apartheid, the main part of the Old Fort was a “whites-only” prison. An exception was made for Nelson Mandela, who was held here briefly in 1962 before his Rivonia Trial. Gandhi was also among those held in another part of the prison complex.
It may be hard to picture the tree-lined suburbs of Johannesburg’s Rivonia as farmland, but just over 40 years ago it was. And Liliesleaf was a farm with a dual purpose: Many of the events that led to the overthrow of apartheid were concocted at Liliesleaf. Its remote location housed clandestine planning meetings and government-opposition discussions by leading members of the ANC during apartheid in the 1960s. Open to the public as a museum since 2008, the multiple farm buildings now house photographs, maps, films and period information that share the history of the rise of apartheid to its eventual collapse, the heritage of the liberation movement and the farm’s unique role in the country’s history.
A visit here begins at the Liberation Centre and its auditorium with a 12-minute introductory film. From there, visitors can guide themselves through the farm’s various spaces or opt for a docent-guided tour. These must be booked at least five days in advance and vary in length from 45 minutes to 3 hours, depending on preference.
One of Liliesleaf’s highlights is the garage area where Nelson Mandela lived under the pseudonym David Motsamayi between 1961 and 1962. Today the building houses exhibits on Radio Freedom and the farm laborers who worked at Liliesleaf unaware of its other use. In July of 1963, police officers arrived concealed in a laundry van and detained of eight key party members in a raid. The event proved a major setback after two years using the space as a headquarters. An entire building is dedicated to the persisting mystery of how exactly the police knew about Liliesleaf, and near the end a four-part film plays on loop, detailing the subsequent prison break by the eight detainees. The onsite Cedric’s Café, named for the farm’s codename, offers light meals and snacks.
Museum Africa, Johannesburg’s main cultural and historical museum, occupies an imposing building which was once the city’s main fruit and vegetable market. Its inner city location is key; Museum Africa concentrates on urban living, and thus complements the numerous cultural displays which show life as it has been lived for centuries in rural areas.
One of the most interesting interactive displays examines the importance of gold for South Africa – not just the prosperity it has brought, but the high human toll of the mining industry. Elsewhere you’ll find The Sounds of the City, an exhibit which highlights Jo’Burg’s dazzling musical heritage, a phenomenon which echoes far beyond the city itself. A recreation of a shebeen, a type of shanty bar, puts the unique melodies and rhythms of the townships in context.
Johannesburg's Workers' Museum, as the name suggests, exposes the conditions in which the city's substantial migrant population lived and worked in the 20th century. The museum occupies a former workers' compound, where hundreds of men lived in cramped and dirty conditions. These men worked for the city's sanitary and power departments, and lived under what amounted to little more than slave-like conditions. The compound was built in 1913, and it was used until the 1980s.
Today, the compound houses the Workers' Museum (opened in 2010), offering a poignant reminder of a dark period in Johannesburg's past through exhibits illustrating the horrid life a migrant worker lived. In addition to rooms such as bunk rooms and toilets, the museum also has a workers' library and resource center.
The Workers' Museum is managed as a branch of Museum Africa (its entrance is on Newtown Park, in the Newtown Cultural Precinct). It tells the story of migrants who came to Johannesburg from across Southern Africa, leaving behind their homes and families. Centrally located in the Newtown Cultural Precinct, the original dormitories, concrete bunks, and punishment room at the old compound building reveal the workers’ hardships under the migrant labour system. This was a cornerstone of the economy from the early 1900s to the 1970s, when at last the system of job reservation began to break down.
Set on the bed of an ancient volcano, Pilanesberg National Park is prized not only for its geological and archeological value but also for its diverse abundance of big game. Tour the park on safari to photograph wildlife and learn about the park’s unique geological formation and evidence of human existence dating back to the Stone Age.
Opened in 2003 by the political leader himself, Nelson Mandela Bridge is the largest cable-stayed bridge in southern Africa and a gleaming icon of Johannesburg’s rejuvenated city center. The bridge soars over more than 40 rail lines, linking the Newtown and Braamfontein neighborhoods and symbolizing the unity for which Mandela was known.
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