For travellers heading to South Africa, the obvious backpacking route tends to include sightseeing in Cape Town and wine tasting in Stellenboch, before road tripping the Garden Route and sometimes a quick visit to Durban.
Johannesburg – which has historically had a negative reputation compared to South Africa’s other cities – isn’t top of many traveller’s lists but, with much work being done to rejuvenate the city in recent years, this is changing. There are now loads of things to do in Johannesburg and its surrounding areas.
So, whether you’re into food, art, adventure or wildlife, here are the top things to do in Johannesburg you absolutely shouldn’t miss.
1. The Apartheid Museum
The Apartheid Museum, which opened in 2001, provides comprehensive insight into the history of South Africa’s apartheid. Across the 22 exhibition areas are film, photography, artefacts and information explaining how apartheid came to be and how it was overthrown.
Visitors should allow at least a couple of hours to have sufficient time to see and digest the content. The museum is a must-see Johannesburg attraction, but be aware that guests may find some of the exhibits distressing.
2. Mandela’s Homestead
“It was the opposite of grand, but it was my first true home of my own and I was mightily proud. A man is not a man until he has a house of his own.” Nelson Mandela, The Long Walk to Freedom.
Mandela House, 8115 Orlando West, Soweto, was Nelson Mandela’s home from 1946 to 1996, when it became a public heritage site and museum explaining Mandela’s story. This is one of the truly unmissable things to do in Johannesburg.
While in the area, it’s worth spending some time exploring Soweto – South Western Townships – which you can do on a leisurely bike ride with a knowledgeable guide through Cycle Soweto.
Johannesburg has a great scene for food-lovers – from chic fusion restaurants like Urbanologi, which has its own craft brewery – to Maboneng’s independent coffee shops and bustling “Arts on Main” Sunday food market (open 10am to 3pm). Foodies, fill your boots with traditional South African cuisine!
If you’ve visited Maboneng to check out the food market or to chill in one of its boutique cafés, it’s worth hanging around to explore the area (which is now one of the safest in Johannesburg!). Its laid-back Brooklyn-esque vibe, murals from renowned international artists and friendly locals make it a great spot for backpackers to visit or stay.
Curiocity Backpackers has a chilled, low-key vibe – and, importantly, free wifi – and its sister hotel, 12 Decades Art Hotel, is situated inside an actual gallery with each room designed by a different South African artist. You’ll also find a buzzing nightlife scene here with lots of restaurants, bars and live music.
5. The Carlton Centre
For a 360-degree view of Johannesburg and its surrounds, head downtown and up to the 50th floor of the Carlton Centre building. Towering over the city at a height of 223m (or 732 feet), it’s the tallest building in Africa.
The building has a shopping centre on the lower floors and access to the viewing platform on the 50th floor costs just 15 Rand (less than £1).
6. Graffiti City Tour
It’s hard to miss the graffiti and murals plastered on buildings all over the city but, without a guide, you won’t learn anything about the artworks you see while exploring.
PAST Experiences offers walking tours of the inner city specifically designed to show you the best and most significant pieces of graffiti from both local and international artists. It’s also a great option for art-lovers and photographers who are nervous of walking around the city alone with expensive camera equipment – while Johannesburg is becoming safer, there are some areas where tourists are targeted by thieves, so having a savvy guide is a must.
7. Gold Reef City
Johannesburg is the largest city in the world with no primary water source – so what brought settlers here? Gold. The gold rush in the 1800s brought people from across the world flooding to Johannesburg to make their fortunes and the city expanded quickly. Put simply, if there was no gold, there would be no Johannesburg.
Gold Reef City – a unique mining-themed amusement park – is one of the city’s top attractions. The theme park is situated on the site of an old gold mine and has plenty of activities to keep you entertained: a casino, bowling alley, cinema complex and exhilarating theme-park rides as well as an underground mine tour. This is one of the most unusual – and exciting – things to do in Johannesburg.
8. Zip Lining
For even more of an adrenaline-rush, along with some amazing views, Magaliesberg Canopy Tour is just a couple of hours drive outside the city. You’ll rush down a zip line through a deep gorge in one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world, stopping at 11 platforms as you zig-zag your way along the course.
For nature lovers, there are signs on each of the platforms giving you more information about the flora and fauna you’ll spot along the route (as long as you don’t have your eyes squeezed tight!).
9. Hot Air Ballooning
Johannesburg might not be the first place you think of for a hot air balloon trip, but you won’t regret taking a scenic balloon safari.
Bill Harrop’s Original Balloon Safaris will take your Johannesburg experience to new heights as you float leisurely over the stunning Cradle of Humankind World Heritage site. The views over the mountains are out of this world and, if you’re lucky, you might even see some antelope or giraffes wandering across the landscape.
South Africa is home to over 20 national parks so. While it’s arguably the most famous, you’d be mistaken to think Kruger is the country’s only safari option.
Pilanesberg National Park is less than three hours drive from Johannesburg and you have the chance to see all the Big Five animals roaming wild here as well as a huge variety of other animals and plants. At over 500km2, it’s also the fourth biggest national park in South Africa.