Created in the 1930s when the South African government began separating black residents from whites in Johannesburg, Soweto is an acronym for South Western Townships. Now the largest township in South Africa, its history is intrinsically linked with the apartheid era. Many iconic anti-segregation activists lived and worked in Soweto (including Nelson Mandela); while the events surrounding the Soweto Uprising of 1976 became a focal point for protestors around the world.
Although many of Soweto’s residents still live below the poverty line, the township has become a place of rebirth in the years since democracy was established in South Africa. Full of black-owned businesses and entrepreneurs fueled by a sense of cultural pride, Soweto is home to successful restaurants, theaters, and sports stadiums. You can tour historic landmarks in the morning, then spend the afternoon bungee jumping or getting to know the locals in a streetside tavern.
Pay Your Respects at Nelson Mandela House
From the outside, there’s nothing special about the mass-produced house at 8115 Vilakazi Street. And yet, it served as the home of South Africa’s first black president from 1946 until his imprisonment in 1962. Mandela’s family continued to live there after his arrest, and he returned there for 11 days after his release in 1990. Visitors can follow in his footsteps as they walk across the house’s simple cement floors, marveling at original furnishings and displays detailing the life of Madiba and his family. Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s home is also located on Vilakazi Street, making it the only street in the world to have housed two Nobel Peace Prize winners.
Learn About Apartheid at the Hector Pieterson Museum
On June 16, 1976, black schoolchildren took to the streets to protest the government’s decision to implement Afrikaans as the language of instruction in schools across the country. Apartheid police opened fire, killing 176 young learners including 12-year-old Hector Pieterson. A press image of Pieterson’s lifeless body being carried through the streets by one of his peers became an international symbol in the fight against apartheid, and in 1990 a memorial was erected close to the place where the boy was shot. The museum, located next door, showcases a moving collection of images, documents, and oral testimonies relating to the uprising.
Discover the Roots of Democracy in Walter Sisulu Square
Walter Sisulu Square is located in the heart of Kliptown, Soweto’s oldest suburb. In 1955, 3,000 anti-apartheid activists gathered there to adopt the Freedom Charter; the document upon which the current South African constitution is based. An open-air museum explains how the Freedom Charter was inspired by the wishes of thousands of South Africans from all walks of life, while sculptures raised on concrete plinths represent each of its 10 clauses. The clauses are also engraved in bronze on the Freedom Charter Monument, which was built out of bricks taken from Sophiatown, a black suburb destroyed during apartheid.
Sample Traditional South African Food
Soweto’s proud heritage means that it’s a great place to sample authentic black South African cuisine. The traditional way to do so is at a shisa nyama, where you select your own cuts of meat and watch as the server cooks them to order over an open fire (better known in South Africa as a braai). Popular sides range from a stiff mealie meal porridge called pap, to tomato-and-onion chakalaka relish. Umngqusho, a stew made of samp and beans, is another must-try dish; while braver foodies can challenge their taste buds with grilled chicken feet and heads known as walkie-talkies. Some of the most popular places to eat in Soweto include traditional shisa nyama Chaf Pozi and more upmarket restaurant Vuyos.
Watch a South African Play at Soweto Theatre
At the epicenter of the township’s burgeoning arts scene lies Soweto Theatre. Located in Jabulani suburb, the building is instantly recognizable by its adventurous contemporary design (look for three cubed-shaped buildings clad in primary-colored ceramic tiles). This bold landmark represents a brave new era for Soweto and focuses on developing local talent from within the township and the wider Gauteng area. Some plays are even performed in indigenous languages. As well as highly acclaimed theatrical productions, the venue hosts concerts, documentaries, poetry readings, and comedy shows as well as monthly craft and food markets.
Sip Sowetan Craft Beer at Ubuntu Kraal Brewery
Soweto Gold lager was the first craft beer to be produced in a South African township. You can sample it at its source with a visit to Ubuntu Kraal Brewery, located a few minutes away from Vilakazi Street. Start with a tour of the microbrewery to see how the brand’s various brews are made; then grab a table on the beer garden terrace for an afternoon spent drinking and socializing in the sun. The brewery also offers a gourmet take on shisa nyama, with a signature dish being pork ribs basted in Soweto Gold Apple Cider. On artfully aged corrugated iron walls, vintage photos of township heroes remind you where you are. Opening hours are from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., Wednesday to Sunday.
Bungee Jump From the Orlando Towers
Once part of a coal-fired power station, the mural-covered Orlando Towers (also called the Soweto Towers) have been reborn as a hotspot for adventurous types. Adrenaline junkies come to bungee jump off the suspension bridge between the two towers, which allows for a thrilling 328-foot free fall. You can also experience the world’s highest SCAD free fall or an 82-foot wall climb up the outside of one of the towers. There’s a paintball course on-site and experienced base jumpers can apply for permission to take the leap from the top. If all of these activities sound a little intense, ride the elevator up to the viewing platform for 360-degree views of Soweto instead. Bookings for most activities are on a first-come, first-served basis.
Visit the Credo Mutwa Cultural Village
Located in Soweto’s Jabavu neighborhood, this slightly trippy attraction is part-museum, part-outdoor gallery, and part-indigenous garden. It houses the larger-than-life sculptures of African artist and traditional healer Credo Mutwa. Mythical creatures, deities, and tribal rulers are all featured, and draw their inspiration from African folk tales. Mutwa, an outspoken believer in the existence of extraterrestrial life, is hailed as a prophet by his followers. It is said that some of his sculptures foretold the AIDS epidemic and the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. Whether you subscribe to these beliefs or not, the cultural village makes for an interesting outing.
Shop for Souvenirs at LoCrate Market
Johannesburg is home to a wealth of arts and crafts markets, and one of the most popular is located right in the heart of Soweto. Held on the first Sunday of the month between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m., LoCrate Market features a wide range of stalls selling art, crafts, and fashions from local producers. Whether you’re more excited by tribal jewelry or slogan T-shirts from emerging African designers, this is the place to shop for souvenirs. Food trucks offer artisan eats and craft beers from across South Africa and beyond while live music and DJ sets add to the festive atmosphere.
Experience Soweto After Dark on a Night Tour
The township comes alive at night, although for safety reasons, few tourists stay long enough to experience it. If you want to see how Sowetans party, join the guided bar crawl offered by local operator MoAfrika Tours. The adventure starts with an afternoon pick-up from your Johannesburg hotel, followed by dinner at one of Soweto’s lively shisa nyamas. Afterwards, you’ll be safely transported through the streets to three of the township’s best nightlife spots: jazz club Palazzo di Stella, legendary nightclub The Rock (known for its rooftop lounge and heaving dance floor), and Kwa-Thabeng shebeen. The price includes transportation, a knowledgeable local guide, and your first drink in every bar.