What to Do in Johannesburg, South Africa

  • 01 of 09

    Leave More Time Than a Layover

    Hillbrow Tower Cityscape
    Henrique NDR Martins/Getty Images

    Most visitors to South Africa might only know Johannesburg for its O.R. Tambo airport — the largest and busiest on the African continent — but eGoli (Zulu for the "City of Gold") offers much more than an air travel transfer hub these days. A layover in Joburg can be spent learning about Apartheid and gold rush history, exploring sprawling townships, viewing galleries and street art sites, and mingling with local producers at markets. Whether you've got a couple of hours or a couple of days to explore, here's what to do in Johannesburg. 

  • 02 of 09

    Visit a Township

    South Africa, Gauteng Province, Johannesburg, aerial view of Alexandra Township
    Martin Harvey/Getty Images

    During Apartheid, when the South Africa population was segregated by race, sprawling, haphazard townships popped up on the outskirts of every major city. Today, these vibrant communities are still home to the country's working class, and though families are slowly being moved into updated and upgraded homes via a governmental lottery system, the townships remain largely unchanged. Steel shacks still outnumber modern-style homes, and shebeens (speakeasy-style drinking establishments where women traditionally brewed beer illegally) remain important meeting places for local residents. 

    In Johannesburg, join a tour to the townships of Alexandra or Soweto, both of which are former homes of Nelson Mandela himself. In Alexandra, visit local artists who display their masterpieces in their own homes with the Maboneng Township Arts Experience, and in Soweto, the country's largest township with around one million residents, learn about Apartheid and eat local delicacies.

  • 03 of 09

    Eat Shisa Nyama

    Elspeth Velten

    South Africans are serious about their braai—the local form of barbecue is something that's enjoyed often across all of the country's cultures and classes. At a traditional Zulu shisa nyama restaurant like Joe's Butchery in Alexandra, guests select their meat and wait as an employee grills it to order over an open fire. The most popular options include beef, lamb, chicken, mutton, and boerewors—an Afrikaans sausage of beef, lamb and pork that's widely loved. The main event is typically served with chakalaka—a relish of tomatoes, onions and beans—and pap, a side of boiled, ground maize similar to polenta. 

  • 04 of 09

    Explore Maboneng

    Elspeth Velten

    Johannesburg's city streets were once bustling reminders of the gold-mining city's potential, but today most businesses have left the city's center in favor of safer and more wealthy suburbs. The result of this exodus was the deterioration of the city of Johannesburg itself—but things are starting to change in the Maboneng Precinct in the city's east. The neighborhood is the focus of an urban renewal project, where warehouses are being converted into luxury apartments and art vendors pop up on the weekends. The weekly Market on Main showcases local artists, brewers, and food stalls in the Arts on Main space, and several cafes in the area have become trendy places to see and be seen.

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  • 05 of 09

    Go Out in Braamfontein

    A wide angle night shot of Braamfontein and the surrounding cityscape of downtown Johannesburg CBD, Johannesburg, Gauteng, South Africa.
    Siphesihle Mmusane/Getty Images

    The gridded streets directly to the north of the Johannesburg's center are home to students and young professionals and lined with restaurants, bars, galleries, and shops. Come evening, venues like the Joburg Theatre and the Orbit Jazz Club host local talent and lively crowds. Every Saturday, Braamfontein is home to the Neighborgoods Market, which presents fresh foods and local products in a muraled warehouse space. 

  • 06 of 09

    View Local Art

    Mural of Nelson Mandela, Soweto, Johannesburg, Gauteng, South Africa
    Ian Trower/Getty Images

    Art has long been an important form of expression throughout South Africa's tense history, and the fact remains today—many of Johannesburg's abandoned buildings and streets are constantly being doused in a fresh coat of meaningful paint. Several companies offer tours of Newtown, Joburg's culture precinct that's home to permanent art museums and galleries as well. Or, take in the murals of Soweto, which often center around a common theme: Mandela.

    For a gallery experience, head to the Wits Art Museum in Braamfontein, home to collections of classical and contemporary South African art, including the colorful and culturally important works of Walter Battiss. In Rosebank, the impressive new Circa Gallery exhibits contemporary art and installations on a space that was formerly used as a parking lot. 

  • 07 of 09

    Visit Nelson Mandela Sites

    Nelson Mandela Square, Johannesburg, South Africa
    Klaus Lang/Getty Images

    Jozi loves Mandela, and it shows. In his life, Mandela spent time living in multiple area townships — he fled an arranged marriage in a different part of the country as a young man and settled in Alexandra in the early 1940s, and later on, after his long imprisonment on Robben Island, he moved to Soweto at the end of Apartheid. Mandela also spent his last days in the upscale Johannesburg suburb of Houghton, where his family still resides and admirers leave messages on stones on the roadside. Mandela's face appears on countless murals in the city and its surrounds, and he was recently immortalized in statue form at the aptly named Nelson Mandela Square in a shopping mall in the business district at Sandton City.

  • 08 of 09

    Learn About Apartheid

    Journeys exhibit, The discovery of gold in Johannesburg in 1886 attracted migrants from all over So
    Blaine Harrington III/Getty Images

    Apartheid in South Africa may have officially ended in the 1990s, but the country's healing is far from over, and an understanding of the systemic segregation that was the law of the land for over 50 years is essential to any visit to the country. At the Apartheid Museum, the entire history of the institution is displayed over 20-plus powerful permanent and temporary exhibits and interactive displays. The museum opened in 2001, not long after the end of Apartheid in 1994. 

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  • 09 of 09

    Visit Constitution Hill

    Constitutional Court, Constitution Hill, Johannesburg, Gauteng Province, South Africa
    Roger de la Harpe/Getty Images

    Today, Constitution Hill is home to the South African Constitutional Court, but it's most famously known as the "Robben Island of Johannesburg" — the location is home to the historic Old Fort prison complex, which was used to house political prisoners, including both Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, during Apartheid. The site's three museums open to visitors include the Old Fort Museum, the Women's Gaol Museum, and the Number Four Museum — the section of the previously all-white prison that was constructed to house black prisoners. Visitors can also tour the Constitutional Court, which was established in 1994 (but opened in this location in 2004) to enforce human rights after Apartheid.

    As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with some discounted services for review purposes. While it has not influenced this review, About.com believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest. For more information, see our Ethics Policy.