48 Hours in Johannesburg: The Ultimate Itinerary

Johannesburg Council Chamber and Hillbrow cityscape
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As the home of the busiest international airport in South Africa, many visitors view Johannesburg as little more than a gateway to the rest of the country. However, there are many reasons to extend your layover in buzzing, bustling Jozi. Those interested in South African history will discover a treasure trove of gold rush, apartheid, and Mandela landmarks. Townships like Soweto give visitors the opportunity to experience how the majority of South Africans really live; while the art galleries, gourmet restaurants, and fashion boutiques of upmarket neighborhoods like Maboneng and Rosebank provide evidence of a cultural revolution underway. Here’s how we recommend spending 48 hours in South Africa’s largest city. 

01 of 06

Day 1: Morning

Silhouette of old gold mine at Gold Reef City, Johannesburg

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8 a.m.: After touching down at O.R. Tambo International Airport, catch an Uber to the fashionable northern suburb of Rosebank. With its tree-lined streets, Art Deco architecture, and thriving restaurant scene, it’s the perfect base for your Joburg adventure. Check in at Home Suite Home Bristol Rosebank. This boutique hotel has 28 spacious designer suites with a rooftop pool bar. Resist the urge to collapse onto your extra-length king-size bed, then head to the 24-hour snack larder to refuel before the first leg of your whistle-stop tour.

9:30 a.m.: Johannesburg was founded during the 1886 Witwatersrand gold rush, so where better to start than at Gold Reef City. This iconic theme park is designed as a replica of the original miner’s town that started it all, but you’re not here for the rollercoasters today. Instead, you’re here to join the Jozi’s Story of Gold guided heritage tour, which takes you 245 feet underground into an old gold mine. Learn about the prospectors who gave up everything to travel to the reef in search of their fortunes, then watch a live gold pouring demonstration before trying your luck at the panning station. The first tour of the day starts at 9:30 a.m. and lasts approximately 1.5 hours. Afterward, grab a bite to eat at one of the many Gold Reef City restaurants. We recommend Calisto’s for Portuguese-style chicken and peri-peri prawns. 

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02 of 06

Day 1: Afternoon

The segregated entrance at the Apartheid Museum, South Africa

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1 p.m.: After lunch, the next stop is the Apartheid Museum. You won’t have to travel far, as it’s also part of Gold Reef City. This is the best place in the country to learn about apartheid, the four-decade-long period of racial segregation and discrimination that inspired the fight for freedom and shaped South African society as we know it today. Before entering the museum, tourists are arbitrarily divided and made to enter through separate doorways for whites and non-whites, giving them a taste of what life was like for people of color during the apartheid regime. Inside, permanent exhibitions use film footage, photographs, text panels, and other artifacts to educate visitors about themes, including the Black homelands, the armed struggle for democracy, and the 1994 election in which Nelson Mandela became the country’s first democratically elected Black president.

Mandela’s roles as a comrade, leader, prisoner, negotiator, and statesman are covered in a separate exhibition dedicated to his life. The Apartheid Museum is open every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and we recommend that you spend at least 1.5 hours here. 

3 p.m.: From the Apartheid Museum, it’s a 30-minute Uber ride back to Braamfontein district in the city center. You’ll be just in time to catch a matinée performance at the Joburg Theatre, home of the Joburg Ballet. In addition to ballet performances, the theater also hosts hit Broadway and West End musicals, traditional African music and dance showcases, and concerts by major South African and international artists. If you happen to be traveling to Joburg with children during the Christmas holiday period, make sure to enquire about the theater’s incredibly popular festive pantomimes.

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03 of 06

Day 1: Evening

Upstairs deck of A Streetbar Named Desire cocktail bar in Johannesburg

Courtesy of A Streetbar Named Desire 

7 p.m.: With night falling over the city, it’s time to sample Joburg’s eclectic culinary scene. Kitamu, located in nearby entertainment precinct Melrose Arch, offers a gourmet take on traditional recipes from across South Africa and the African continent. The decor and music reflect the restaurant’s tribal inspiration, while the menu is a procession of local delicacies. To start, try a crocodile pie or (if you’re feeling extraordinarily brave), fried mopane worms. Main courses cover the full spectrum of African cuisines, from Moroccan tagines to Durban bunny chows, while the dessert menu reads like the recipe book of a traditional Afrikaans housewife. We’re particularly fond of the malva pudding, though the koeksisters (deep-fried plaits of syrup-coated dough) are a close second. 

9 p.m.: If you find that all that sugar has given you a second wind, extend the evening’s festivities with a stop at trend-setting tapas and cocktail bar A Streetbar Named Desire. The beautiful city views from the upstairs deck provide the perfect backdrop for a cocktail menu filled with inventively named drinks that sound as delicious as they taste. For something uniquely South African, try the Rooibos Old Fashioned, made with bourbon, chocolate bitters, and rooibos syrup. If cocktails aren't your thing, don’t worry; the bar also serves a great selection of craft spirits, local beers, and wines by the glass. Streetbar Named Desire stays open until late from Tuesday to Saturday. At the end of the night, it’s a five-minute drive back to the hotel.

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04 of 06

Day 2: Morning

Soweto signpost showing places of importance


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9:30 a.m.: After breakfast at the hotel, settle in for a 30-minute Uber ride to Soweto. Here, you’ll join a half-day tour of South Africa’s largest informal settlement with local operator Soweto Guided Tours. The tour includes a visit with a resident in Kliptown, who will describe what it’s like to live below the poverty line in one of the poorest parts of Johannesburg. You'll stop at the Hector Pieterson Museum, named in honor of the Black schoolboy, who became an international symbol of apartheid when he was shot and killed by police during a student protest on June 16, 1976. The highlight for many people is the visit to Mandela House on Vilakazi Street, where the former president lived before his arrest in 1962. It’s now a museum filled with memorabilia from his time there.

The former home of Archbishop Desmond Tutu is also located on Vilakazi Street, making it the only street in the world to have housed two Nobel Peace Prize winners. The four-hour tour starts at 9:30 a.m. and costs 650 South African Rand ($43) per person. Make sure to book well in advance. 

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05 of 06

Day 2: Afternoon

Traditional Ethiopian injera platter

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2 p.m.: By the time the tour ends, you’ll probably be desperate for something to eat. Hotfoot it back to the city center, where the lively, ultra-chic Maboneng Precinct awaits discovery. Named after the Sotho word meaning ‘place of light,’ Maboneng is a rejuvenated industrial district filled with artisan eateries and coffee shops, art galleries, and clothing boutiques that represent the cutting edge of Jozi fashion. First things first: lunch. Our favorite options include Little Addis, where you can tuck into traditional Ethiopian injera platters using your fingers, and Eat Your Heart Out. The latter is Joburg’s version of a Jewish deli, with great options for vegetarian, vegan, Banting, and gluten-free diets alongside traditional pastrami on rye.

After lunch, take the time to explore Maboneng’s Arts on Main complex. Here, historic warehouses have been converted into a series of art galleries and studios, making it the spot for picking up out-of-the-ordinary South African souvenirs. If your visit happens to be on a Sunday, you’ll also be able to browse stalls selling locally produced food and fashion at Market on Main. 

4 p.m.: With your cultural appetite whetted by Arts on Main, it’s time to pay a visit to Johannesburg Art Gallery. Located in nearby Joubert Park, the building itself is an architectural masterpiece designed by renowned British architect Edward Lutyens. It’s the most extensive gallery in sub-Saharan Africa, with 15 exhibition halls and sculpture gardens spanning the full spectrum from 17th-century Dutch masters to contemporary South African art. Keep an eye out for works by iconic artists from around the world, including Picasso, Monet, Dali, Rodin, and legendary local artist William Kentridge. The gallery stays open until 5 p.m., so this will be a fleeting visit; make sure to prioritize what you want to see. Admission is free. 

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06 of 06

Day 2: Evening

Exterior of Mad Giant Brewery, Johannesburg

 Haldane Martin/Flickr.com/CC BY 2.0

6 p.m.: By this point, your feet are probably aching, but never fear; our next stop offers the perfect antidote for weary travelers. Located in Joburg’s oldest inner-city neighborhood, Ferreirasdorp, Mad Giant Brewery is the ideal place to take a load off. Pull up a stool at the bar and ask for a pint of hemp-infused Super Session ale, or sample limited-edition brews like the creatively named New England IPA, Jozi Carjacker. Can’t decide? Ask for a tasting flight or order a six-pack to take home with you. If you’re feeling up to it, the brewery does offer tours; but you may find you’d rather sit down in the sunshine outside and reminisce about the day’s adventures over a few cold ones. 

8 p.m.: When you start feeling hungry again, head over to the brewery’s sister restaurant, Urbanologi. The dining space uses the exposed steelwork and concrete floors of the original warehouse to create an industrial-chic vibe that won it the title of Best Designed Bar in Africa and the Middle East back in 2017. Jozi hipsters and tourists in the know sit side-by-side at communal wooden trestle tables, beneath the gaze of a larger-than-life cut out of the Mad Giant himself. Watch as chefs prepare seasonal small plates in the open kitchen using ingredients sourced exclusively from farms within a 150-kilometer radius. The menu changes regularly to reflect what’s available, but past favorites have included duck pancakes, pork terrine, and tempura shimeji mushrooms.