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 our pick of the top things to do in Johannesburg.
Visit a Township
During apartheid, when the South African 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 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. For your safety, make sure to book a tour with a trusted operator like Soweto Guided Tours.
Eat Shisa Nyama
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, 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 that's widely loved and typically made of beef. The main event is usually served with chakalaka—a relish of tomatoes, onions and beans—and pap, a side of boiled, ground maize similar to polenta. Recommended places to try authentic shisa nyama (which translates directly as "burn meat") include Joe's Butchery in Alexandra and the hugely popular Busy Corner Imbizo Shisanyama in Midrand.
Johannesburg's city streets were once bustling reminders of the gold-mining city's potential, but today most businesses have left the city 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 cafés in the area have become trendy places to see and be seen. Soak up the atmosphere at hipster hangout Chalkboard - the craft beer and artisan pizza restaurant connected to independent cinema The Bioscope.
Go Out in Braamfontein
The gridded streets directly to the north of 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. Braamfontein is also home to the Neighborgoods Market, which presents fresh foods and local products in a warehouse space complete with interesting murals. Held every Saturday, the market is open from 9:00am to 3:00pm and located at the corner of De Beer and Juta Streets.
Take in a Show
Braamfontein's Joburg Theatre hosts everything from ballet shows to musicals and comedy festivals. However, it's just one of many places to take in a show in the City of Gold. Market Theatre opened in 1976 and is a historic landmark with over 300 awards and a reputation for presenting exceptional contemporary South African productions. For Johannesburg-based performing arts, head to independent POPArt Theatre (which also hosts regular outdoor events at pop-up venues across the city). Gold Reef City is home to two stages, including The Lyric, an opulent, 1,100-seater choice for international theater, concerts and comedy shows. Johannesburg's most famous music venue, however, is the 3,500-capacity Big Top Arena which has hosted the likes of James Blunt and the Pixies.
View Local Art
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.
Visit Nelson Mandela Sites
Jozi loves iconic past president Nelson 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 of Sandton City. If you only have time for a single visit, head to The Mandela House on Vilikazi Street in Soweto. The president's former township home is now a moving museum; entry costs R60 per adult.
Visit Constitution Hill
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. The attraction is open daily from 9:00am to 5:00pm, with the last guided tour departing from the Visitor Centre at 4:00pm.
Learn About Apartheid
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 era is displayed over 20-plus powerful permanent and temporary exhibits and interactive displays. The experience starts at the entrance, where guests enter through separate doors for Whites and non-Whites, giving them a taste of what life was like in a time of institutionalized racism. The museum is part of the Gold Reef City entertainment complex and is open every day from 9:00am to 5:00pm. Entry costs R95 per adult.
Ride the Gold Reef City Rollercoasters
If you need an emotional pick-me-up after a sobering tour of the Apartheid Museum, spend the rest of the day exploring Gold Reef City's theme park. Built on an old gold mine and inspired by the 19th-century Witwatersrand gold rush, the park features 16 thrill rides and 14 rides designed especially with smaller kids in mind. Adrenalin junkies should make straight for high-octane rollercoaster Anaconda; or fighter jet simulator The High Flying Maverick. The theme park is also famous for its subterranean mine tour, which takes you 75 meters underground. During the tour, you can pan for gold and watch the molten metal being poured. Rides are open from 9:30am to 6:00pm Wednesday to Sunday, while the wider Gold Reef City complex also includes a casino, theaters, multiple restaurants and two hotels.
Shop Til You Drop
Johannesburg is a shopaholic's paradise with an astonishing choice of retail possibilities ranging from upmarket malls to fashionable boutiques and craft markets. For global brands and high street fashion in an slick urban setting, head to Sandton City Mall or Rosebank Mall. 44 Stanley offers a more unique shopping experience, with a collection of carefully curated boutiques and restaurants arranged around leafy courtyards and arcades. At 27 Boxes in Melville, recycled shipping containers house stores selling local fashion, artwork and artisan cuisine. If you're in the market for traditional African souvenirs, you'll find everything from wood carvings to bead work and ethnic jewelry at renowned basement arcade Rosebank Art & Craft Market.
Visit Pilanesberg National Park
If you're in Johannesburg for a few days on business but still want to experience an authentic safari while you're in South Africa, make time for an overnight visit to Pilanesberg National Park. Located a three-hour drive from the city center, the park is set within the crater of an ancient volcano and provides a scenic home for an astounding variety of animals including the Big Five. In addition to both black and white rhinos, Pilanesberg is a sanctuary for the endangered African wild dog; while keen birders can spot over 300 different avian species. For the best sightings, pack a picnic and spend an hour or two in the photographer's hide at Mankwe Dam. There are accommodation options to suit all budgets, from tented camps and self-catering chalets to luxury lodges. Self-drive safaris are charged at R110 per adult, R30 per child and R40 per vehicle.