Things to Do & Must-See Attractions in Johannesburg
Soweto (short for South-West Township) was synonymous with resistance to Apartheid in South Africa, particularly as repression was stepped up in the 1970s and 80s, a time when images of the sprawling district on the edge of Johannesburg were rarely far from television news. The area has traditionally housed black workers who commute to more prosperous white areas of Johannesburg, and overcrowding has always been an issue.
But this is also a place of amazing cultural richness and a trendsetter for the whole country: South Africa’s heart beats to the rhythms of Soweto. Take a guided tour to discover the truth about life in Johannesburg’s most famous district and savor the taste of the township in one of the huge array of restaurants, offering everything from barbecues to modern variations on traditional Zulu dishes.
The injustice, cruelty and day-to-day absurdities of white minority rule are impressively detailed in Johannesburg’s Apartheid Museum. “Apartheid”, meaning “separateness” in Afrikaans, was officially in operation from 1948 to 1994, though segregation had been a cornerstone of South African politics since the birth of the Union in 1910.
Apartheid turned South Africa into a pariah state, shunned by much of the international community and almost torn apart by internal tensions, including the infamous Sharpeville riots of 1960. This excellent museum tells that story through photos, documents and film footage, as well as interactive features which bring the reality of racial classification alive.
South Africa’s belated emancipation following Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in 1990 is celebrated by the seven pillars of the constitution you will see in the courtyard: democracy, equality, reconciliation, diversity, responsibility, respect and freedom.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
More Things to Do in Johannesburg
The Origins Centre museum traces the beginning of human history in Africa, and then places visitors in the human timeline with DNA testing. Located in the Braamfontein area of Johannesburg as part of the University of the Witwatersrand, Origins Centre opened in 2006. As the name suggests, the museum's exhibits of fossils, artifacts, and rock art take visitors through history to the origins of humankind some 80,000 years. Interactive displays enhance the experience for all ages.
Visitors are also invited to take a DNA test in order to trace their own ancestral history in addition to a tour of the Origins Centre. The cost of the DNA test is extra.
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.
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 Johannesburg Botanical Gardens are a popular escape from the busy city, and the adjacent reservoir created by the Emmarentia Dam provides an additional space for outdoor recreation.
The Emmarentia Dam opened in 1912, and its reservoir is used for boating and fishing. On its western shore, the Johannesburg Botanical Gardens cover more than 308 acres and include an herb garden, a succulent garden, and the rose garden from which the rest of the property grew. The rose garden was started in 1964. The eastern side of the Emmarantia Dam is also good for picnics, barbecues, and outdoor recreation, primarily consisting of woods and grassy meadows.
One of South Africa’s premier attractions, Kruger National Park is famous the world over for the extent and diversity of its wildlife.
The “Big Five” of game are all there: buffalo, elephants, leopards, lions, and rhinoceroses. A world-class conservation program means you’ll also encounter wildebeests, giraffes, zebras as well as big cats of all stripes. This vast territory covers a number of geographical zones, with a range of fauna including the distinctive baobab and low-lying plants of the typical South African “veldt”. Man-made attractions include an elephant museum, the evocative ruins of an old Portuguese trading post, as well as traces of civilizations dating back to the Iron Age.
Few statesmen enjoy such universal admiration as former South African President Nelson Mandela, the man who led the way on South Africa’s long road to freedom. For many years Mandela lived with his family in Soweto in this simple brick bungalow with concrete floors, and it was to here that he returned after his release from prison in 1990.
When Nelson and Winnie Mandela split in 1996, the then president donated the house to ensure that “8115 Orlando West” – an address familiar to all South Africans – would remain as a monument to the anti-apartheid movement. The house has since been sensitively restored and visitors can see exhibits and humble household objects which add a personal touch to the story of its occupants’ heroic struggle.
The “Cradle of Humankind” is an area north-west of Johannesburg which has produced some of the oldest proto-human fossils on Earth. Lesedi Cultural Village, right in the middle of this region, sketches in a few of the developments which have happened in the three or so million years since our ancestors stalked their prey across the veldt. Lesedi reflects the diversity of South Africa’s original inhabitants, and contains elements of Zulu, Xhosa, and Ndebele cultures, among others. Together they offer a tumult of sensory delights, from the riotous color schemes of traditional huts to lively dances, all in a setting in harmony with the surrounding bushland.
In the 1980s Sun City constituted a test of integrity for rock and pop stars, as performing in the huge entertainment complex north-west of Johannesburg meant tacitly colluding with the apartheid regime. Nowadays a trip to Sun City needn’t compromise anyone’s ideals – unless you’re strongly opposed to gambling.
Among the many options for going on a safari near Johannesburg, the Pilanesberg National Park offers all of the Big Five on a reserve that shares a border with the popular resort Sun City. The park, most often known as the Pilanesberg Game Reserve, stretches over nearly 221 square miles and is essentially contained within the crater of a long extinct volcano (hence its roughly circular shape). Inside the park there are more than 116 miles of roads – these are not paved, but they're maintained well enough that visitors can do self-guided driving tours through Pilanesberg National Park as well as go on guided safari drives. There are even “hides” where you can get out of your car and watch for animals in a safe and camouflaged spot. Because of the volcanic setting, Pilanesberg National Park is as interesting to geologists as it is to animal lovers. Several rare minerals can be found inside the park, as well as evidence of human existence dating from the Iron Age and Stone Age.
Built in the 1920s, the Hartbeespoort Dam is located between two mountain ranges in an area that was once popular for hunting a type of antelope called the hartebeest. A farm known as Hartbeespoort was on the site and purchased by the government in order to build the dam. The result was the Hartbeespoort Reservoir, created from the Crocodile River.
The dam stands more than195 feet tall and stretches 490 feet across the valley. The reservoir behind it is nearly 150 feet at its deepest point and has become a popular recreation site for residents of Johannesburg and Pretoria. The water quality is generally considered to be poor, but there are lots of opportunities for boating excursions and picnics along the water's edge.
A 181-square-mile (470-square-kilometer) area to the west of Johannesburg contains about 300 caves where thousands of hominid and animal fossils have been discovered, some dating back as much as four million years. The UNESCO-listed Cradle of Humankind is one of the most significant archaeological and anthropological sites in the world, having produced the most complete human fossil record in the world and more hominid fossils than anywhere else.
Visitors to the Cradle of Humankind should begin their explorations of the area at Maropeng Visitor Centre, shaped like a giant grass-covered burial mound, where a variety of exhibits detail the formation of our planet and the four-billion-year history of life on Earth. Not all excavated sites within the Cradle of Humankind are open to the public, but visitors can explore the Sterkfontein Caves, one of the most famous fossil sites (and location of the worldâs longest-running continuous paleoanthropological dig.
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