Located in the highveld region of northeast South Africa, Gauteng is both the smallest and the most populous of the country’s nine provinces. It takes its name from the Sotho-Tswana phrase meaning ‘Place of Gold’, inspired by the gold industry upon which its largest city, Johannesburg, was founded. Most visitors to South Africa will fly in and out of Joburg’s O.R. Tambo International Airport, but here's why you should extend your stay in Gauteng—ranging from apartheid and gold rush landmarks to the booming modern culture of townships like Soweto.
Discover South African History at the Apartheid Museum
To understand South Africa’s complex society, one needs to learn about apartheid, the period of state-sanctioned racism that lasted from 1948 to 1994. The best place to start is at Johannesburg’s Apartheid Museum, which uses artifacts, photographs, film footage, and information panels to illustrate what life was like for South Africans of all colors during that time. You’ll learn about the establishment of black homelands; and the increasingly violent campaigns of the ANC. The museum is part of Gold Reef City and costs 100 rand ($6.71) for adults, 85 rand ($5.70) for children.
Continue Your Apartheid Education at Constitution Hill
South Africa’s journey from apartheid to democracy is also documented at Constitution Hill, the former prison that now houses the South African Constitutional Court. During the apartheid era, many famous political prisoners were incarcerated here, including Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi. Learn about their experience (and that of the other prisoners who lived here during Constitution Hill’s 100-year history) with a tour of the site’s three different museums. The precinct is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., with final tours departing at 4 p.m.
See Where Nelson Mandela Lived on Vilakazi Street
Perhaps the most significant of Joburg's Mandela landmarks is the former president and Nobel Peace Prize winner's house on the corner of Vilakazi Street in Soweto. Mandela lived here during his formative years while founding South Africa's first black law firm and the ANC Youth League. He also returned here briefly after being released from prison in 1990 after 27 years behind bars. Now a public heritage site, the house, and its simple displays give an insight into the humble origins of the iconic leader. Entry costs 60 rand (about $4) per adult.
Explore the Many Different Sides of Soweto
As the largest informal settlement or township in South Africa, Soweto is a place of extremes. On the one hand, it is a place of abject poverty with a history blighted by tragic events like the Soweto uprising of 1976. On the other, it is a place of renewal, where African artists and entrepreneurs are building successful new businesses that range from craft breweries to theaters. The best (and safest) way to explore Soweto’s rich history and burgeoning modern culture is to join a tour with a trusted local company like Soweto Guided Tours.
Enjoy a Fun Family Day Out at Gold Reef City
Families flock to Joburg’s Gold Reef City amusement park, which boasts 18 thrill rides and 13 rides, especially for smaller children. When you’ve had enough of the rollercoasters, there’s plenty more to explore within the same complex, including a bowling alley, cinema, and a casino for the grown-ups. An underground mine tour transports you back to the days of the Witwatersrand Gold Rush on which the city was founded, while two family-friendly hotels give you the perfect excuse to stay overnight. The theme park is located in the Ormonde suburb.
Shop 'til You Drop in Johannesburg
Johannesburg is one of the country’s best retail destinations with something for every kind of shopper. For high street fashions, head to trendy Sandton City Mall. For an eclectic blend of boutique stores and independent restaurants, try 44 Stanley or 27 Boxes; then, stock up on traditional African crafts at Rosebank Art & Craft Market. Maboneng’s weekly Market on Main is an atmospheric choice for locally produced food, fashion, and homeware. Many of South Africa’s top commercial art galleries are also located in Joburg, including Everard Read and the Goodman Gallery.
Experience Jozi’s Vibrant Theater and Music Scenes
For culture vultures, Johannesburg is just as rewarding. Joburg Theatre in Braamfontein is home to the Joburg Ballet and also hosts touring West End and Broadway musicals. Newtown’s award-winning Market Theatre has a reputation for inclusivity and specializes in South African plays. Music lovers will find concert venues all over the city and its surrounding area, but two of the most famous include Lyric Theatre (part of Gold Reef City) and Big Top Arena, both of which regularly host major international artists. The latter is located in nearby Brakpan.
Go Behind the Scenes at a Top Gauteng Stadium
Gauteng is home to some of South Africa’s most iconic sports stadiums. Ellis Park Stadium (now known as Emirates Airline Park) is famous as the location of the country’s 1995 Rugby World Cup victory and continues to host major rugby and soccer matches. FNB Stadium, also in Johannesburg, hosted the final of the 2010 FIFA World Cup and is the largest venue in the country for international sporting events. Both stadiums offer amazing guided tours that will take you onto the pitch and into the players’ tunnel and changing rooms.
Take a Tour of Pretoria’s Monuments and Museums
Johannesburg often steals the limelight from Pretoria, but the country’s administrative capital is well worth a visit for its many historical and cultural landmarks. Enjoy a picnic in the terraced gardens of the neo-classical Union Buildings, home of South Africa’s national government. At Freedom Park Heritage Site and Museum, the 2,286-feet Wall of Names commemorates South Africans who lost their lives in the fight for a free democracy. At the same time, the visually impressive Voortrekker Monument is a must-visit for anyone interested in the pioneer history of the Afrikaners.
See the Capital in Bloom During Jacaranda Season
Blooming jacaranda trees are a harbinger of summer in many South African cities, but nowhere are the pale indigo blossoms more plentiful and beautiful than in Pretoria. Nicknamed the Jacaranda City, the capital’s streets are planted with between 40,000 and 70,000 of these exotic trees, which were initially imported from Argentina. Some of the oldest jacarandas are found around Bosman and Cilliers Streets, while the residential suburb of Groenkloof boasts a display of rare white jacarandas on Herbert Baker Street. Jacaranda season lasts from October to November every year.
Reconnect with Nature at Walter Sisulu Gardens
In a province dominated by its urban areas, Walter Sisulu National Botanical Garden near Roodepoort has been voted as Gauteng’s best place to get back to nature for nine consecutive years. The garden showcases the natural highveld landscape with a variety of habitats, including densely forested ravines and open grassland. There are more than 600 naturally occurring plant species and a wide range of small mammals. Entry costs 55 rand ($3.69) per adult, and facilities include a restaurant, walking trails, and bird hides.
Spend a Day (or Two) on Klipkraal Hiking Trail
For a complete escape from city life, plan an outing on the Klipkraal Hiking Trail near Heidelberg in southern Gauteng. There are two-day hiking routes: the Panorama Trail (8 miles) and the Kraal Trail (6.5 miles), which can be combined for an overnight adventure with accommodation in one of the trail’s cozy lake houses. Expect beautiful highveld and grassland scenery, abundant bird and butterfly sightings, and occasional views of distant Vaal Dam. Only 30 hikers are allowed on the trail at one time, so booking in advance is advisable.
Visit the Legendary Cullinan Diamond Mine
Located 30 minutes east of Pretoria, Cullinan Diamond Mine is the third-richest diamond mine in South Africa and the world’s most important source of rare blue diamonds. Above all, the mine is famous for having produced the largest rough gem diamond ever found. The Cullinan Diamond was discovered in 1905 at 3,106 carats and is now part of the British Crown Jewels. Guided tours give you the chance to see replicas of the Cullinan Diamond and other famous stones and to view the big hole, engine room, and hoisting shafts.
Walk in the Footsteps of Our Ancestors at Sterkfontein Caves
The Sterkfontein Caves in western Gauteng are famous for the fossils paleontologists have found there. These include Little Foot, an almost complete Australopithecus skeleton that dates back more than three million years. This find and others from the Cradle of Humankind have been instrumental in improving our understanding of how our hominid ancestors evolved to become modern man. Cave tours take visitors deep underground while many of the artifacts uncovered at the site can be seen on display at the nearby Maropeng Visitor Centre. Combination tickets cost 190 rand ($12.74) per adult.
Go on Safari in Rietvlei Nature Reserve
Gauteng may not have as many game-viewing opportunities as its neighboring provinces, but you can still experience the thrill of a safari at Rietvlei Nature Reserve. Located on the outskirts of Pretoria, the reserve protects 3,800 hectares of pristine grassland and a full cast of wild animals. Keep an eye out for predators, including cheetah and leopard, endangered white rhinos, and many different antelope species. The park is also great for birding, especially around Rietvlei Dam. Wildlife-viewing options include guided game drives, walking trails, and horseback safaris.
Play a Round at Glendower Golf Club
Currently ranked first in Gauteng and second in the country, Glendower Golf Club is one of South Africa’s best golf courses. The 18-hole, par-72 course was first opened in 1937 but has since been redesigned to keep up with international standards. As the host of the South African Open on many different occasions, the course has welcomed the likes of Ernie Els, Rory McIlroy, and Graeme Storm. You can join this exclusive club by booking tee times online. Glendower Golf Club also offers a pro shop and lessons with PGA professionals.
Escape to the Magaliesburg Mountains
The scenic town of Magaliesburg lies just over an hour’s drive northwest of Johannesburg in the foothills of the Magaliesburg Mountains. Gauteng residents and visitors love this corner of the province for its valleys and rivers, and for the many nature activities to be found nearby. Try your hand at fly fishing or mountain biking, explore the countryside on horseback, or shop for souvenirs at a local craft studio. From game farms and wellness retreats to hot air balloon charters and quaint B&Bs, there’s something for everyone in Magaliesburg.
Travel in Luxury Aboard the Blue Train
Those that wish to explore South Africa in the grand style of the colonial fortune-seekers can do so aboard the Blue Train, which runs on lines initially built to transport passengers from the mail ships in Cape Town to the gold reefs of the Witwatersrand. Today, the iconic royal blue train continues to carry passengers on two different routes, both of which start in Pretoria. Opt for a 31-hour journey through spectacular scenery to Cape Town; or head east to Kruger National Park. Expect luxury accommodations and five-star cuisine.