Johannesburg was the start to our epic two week safari through South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe, but it was so much more. The city is fascinating – we knew about Johannesburg from our history books and I had an old friend from SA but still couldn’t predict what the city would hold. It’s hard to devise a Johannesburg itinerary because it’s largely a commercial city. A hub in Africa, the city isn’t the real destination – it’s a jumping off point.
Here’s how to make the most of your time in Johannesburg. Our 2-3 day itinerary gives you all the highlights and history of the city and points you in the right direction of African exploration.
Some links may be affiliate links. This means we may get paid if you buy something or take an action after clicking certain links at no extra cost to you.
What To Expect in Johannesburg
Johannesburg is a city of contradictions. The city rises in the middle of nowhere, formed nearly overnight in a region where the first humans lived. It is a gold rush town where the rich and the poor are separated by little more than a fence. The city carries the scars of an ugly past, and the tension of a challenging present. But after visiting Johannesburg you will not only feel the weight of history, but also the resilience of humanity and desire for a hopeful future.
Where To Stay in Johannesburg
When we researched where to stay in Johannesburg, we decided on the Fashion District. Sounds fabulous, right?
It’s billed as an up-and-coming neighborhood with character, and it definitely is that. When my friend picked us up to explore Johannesburg, he was a bit surprised that we picked the area. I understand his sentiment because some of the best places in our hometown are trendy and hip, but historically unsafe and undesired.
Anyway, these two white boys were just fine in the area and loved the neighborhood. It’s full of things to do, bars, clubs, art, hotels and hostels.
We could have stayed in Rosebank or Sandton, an area best known for its shopping mall. It’s a safe and super sterile area of Joburg, but not for us.
What we learned about Johannesburg is that it’s super spread out. The historical reason is so that blacks could live outside of the city center, but close enough to commute into the center and work for white families.
We stayed at the 12 Decades Art Hotel. It’s a gorgeous hotel that’s rustic and simple-chic. Each room represents a period in South Africa’s colorful history, hence the name ’12 Decades’. It was a great room, perfect facilities and friendly staff in an area with plenty to offer in terms of food, nightlife and transportation.
South Africa Travel Tips To Apply To Your Johannesburg Itinerary
We didn’t learn everything there is about Johannesburg, but this was one destination where we had local friends to show us the ropes. We picked up tips from them and a few we learned on our own, so here’s a bit of what we think you’ll benefit from.
- Say Howzit: That’s your basic informal greeting in Joburg. Howzit is ”what’s up?” or ”que pasa?” – use it to greet your server, the staff who check you into your hotel and anyone else while in Johannesburg.
- Traffic SUCKS: We’re used to annoying traffic in the satest – Philadelphia isn’t exactly an easy city to navigate quickly, but WOW Johannesburg is tough around commuting time. They have some public transportation, but the car is king. Avoid traveling highways and local roads during peak travel times.
- Be Confident (but cool): Crime is a natural concern for visitors to Johannesburg, but just like big cities in America (or elsewhere) you just need to know your surroundings. Be vigilant, don’t flash money or things of value and act like a normal person – looking like a tourist can make you prey.
- Get Out: Johannesburg is cool, and you should definitely experience a good night out in ”town” while there but your itinerary should include some day trips from Johannesburg. There’s so much to explore in South Africa and much of it is outside of the cities.
- Drive and Then Walk: Whether you’re in a taxi or you rent a car, you’ll find that the traffic gridlock extends beyond the commuter highways and into the city blocks. They can be notoriously bad for traffic and it’s common to just be politely asked to leave a taxi instead of dropped off at your destination. It will usually save you time anyway. The same goes for parking along your route – even a kilometer walk can save you time.
Day 1 Johannesburg Itinerary: Johannesburg City Tours and More
For your first day in Johannesburg you need to get acquainted to the city. After that, it’s key to relax, recover from your travels there and tune into the vibe of the city. We give you a way to do all that and have a little fun along the way!
Hop On Hop Off Johannesburg
I know we just told you how grim the traffic is, but Hop On Hop Off Johannesburg is actually a great way to first meet the city. Once commuters are at work, it leaves just your Johannesburg city tour bus on the road and you can see it all! With a city that’s spread out far and wide, the hop on hop off is a great way to go.
Another reason to add this to your Johannesburg itinerary is that you can use it to get between different spots in the city. There are 24 and 48 hours tour options, so even if you ride the whole rout – you can make it your personal taxi for day 2. I know, we’re cheap – but why pay for a taxi when you can have an open-air bus with multi-lingual tour information?
2. Zoo Lake
3. Johannesburg Zoo
4. Military Museum
5. Constitution Hill
1. Constitution Hill
2. Mining District
3. Carlton Centre (for the Roof of Africa viewing deck)
4. James Hall Transport Museum
5. Gold Reef City Casino Hotel (join the Soweto extension tour here)
6. Apartheid Museum
7. New Town
8. Origins Centre at Wits University
9. Neighborhoods Market
The Hop On Hop Off Johannesburg experience could easily be your whole day. The beauty is you can tie in any of these other activities along the way. At the very least, hop off and grab lunch in any number of spots. We recommend finding lunch at Gold Reef Casino and visiting the amusement park for your afternoon.
Gold Reef City and Soweto Tours
When the Johannesburg gold mines closed in 1971, a campy amusement park crept up in its place. All of the buildings are designed to replicate the gold mining history of the region. It’s fitting in the amusement park, and depending on your luck – with the casino too!
You can visit Gold Reef City in combination with the Hop On Hop Off Johannesburg experience and Soweto Tours. Soweto is a black township that sprung from shanty towns near the mines of Johannesburg. During apartheid, it was a black township and the site of many riots and violent uprisings in the struggle against apartheid.
When in Soweto you can visit the home of Nelson Mandela on Vilikazi Street (probably the most visited street in South Africa). Desmond Tutu still lives on the street. You must also take a photo of the brilliant Orlando Power Station.
The Orlando Power Station is an old coal power plant with cooling towers that are now covered in murals. They dominate the skyline, landscape and instagram. There are even bungee jumping options and a swing from the towers.
However you decide to visit Soweto, be aware that it’s a powerful and meaningful place. It’s also still home to a new generation of citizens and it’s more than a tourist attraction. Having a tour guide is the best way to visit and you can get a combination ticket to do the Hope On Hop Off Johannesburg experience with the Soweto tour and trip to Gold Reef City.
Gold Reef City is a cool way to spend time in Johannesburg. It’s got something for the whole family – an amusement park, a casino and there’s even a hotel in case you don’t want to leave. If we were there with my brother, sister-in-law and nephews this is probably where we would have made home base while in Joburg. That’s why we’ll leave the hotel info and hint-hint to Nate and Lindsay:
Day 2 Johannesburg Itinerary: Apartheid Museum
You cannot visit South Africa and skip the incredible history of Nelson Mandela and the Apartheid Era. The Apartheid Museum is an important stop in your time in Africa. It’s an incredibly heavy day, so we advise going to the museum early in the day – you can easily spend four hours walking through the exhibits.
There is food available outside of the museum, but we recommend eating in the morning, spending a full morning at the museum and heading to Nelson Mandela Square afterward.
See the Apartheid Museum
One of the most important, touching and enriching experiences for families visiting South Africa is the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg. The museum should be a staple in any Johannesburg itinerary, and while the trip though the halls is a heavy experience, it’s hard to imagine visiting South Africa and skipping it.
Before you ever reach the gates of the museum, most people are keenly aware of the history of South Africa. Understanding the Apartheid Era is an important part of visiting Johannesburg.
When you pick up your tickets to the museum you’re assigned a random racial identity. The assigned race is often different than the one with which you approached, but it’s how you enter the museum. For us Mike was ‘white’ and I was ‘black’. Because of our different races, we entered through separate doors and our lives were depicted from the lens of our given identities. During the first 15 minutes in the museum, daily life was described for us based on the group we were assigned.
It was difficult, but necessary to face this dark history immediately. Something like apartheid can’t be dropped in doses or delivered with artificial flavoring, it has to be swallowed like the poison that it was. It slaps you in the face as soon as you enter – and that’s the only way.
Still, during the journey through the Apartheid Museum, you’re left with hope, not harm or hatred. This museum encapsulates the entire experience of visiting South Africa. You’re continuously reminded of the past while only looking forward. You remain appreciative of the strides that an entire society of people took to achieve generational healing in a much shorter period – a period that we’re still living through.
Stop at Mandela Square
After the powerful and somber experience of the museum, you’ll need a mental break and the chance to take a deep breath. There’s no better spot to it than Mandela Square. It’s not a far drive (during non-peak hours) and there are plenty of spots around for a late lunch.
Most visitors to Johannesburg eventually get to Mandela Square. If for no other reason, because there is a giant, 9 meter tall statue of Nelson Mandela.
After learning of the darkest parts of South Africa’s past – it’s a fitting end of the day. You can sit and enjoy a bite to eat or a drink on Mandela Square at Standton Mall. Look around and you’ll see a free and multi-cultural South Africa that was once cut off from the world but now invites you in.
Day 3 Johannesburg Itinerary: Hartbeespoort Day Trip From Johannesburg
While the city of Johannesburg has plenty to offer, we highly recommend day trips from Johannesburg. Escaping the city to discover the surrounding area is one of the best things to put in your Johannesburg itinerary.
Johannesburg sits on the Highveld plateau, an inland grassland in northwest South Africa. The area is most notable for its mining history, as Johannesburg itself was settled to support a gold rush in the surrounding area. This means the area has an interesting history with frontier towns and mountains that still offer great experiences for tourists.
The highlight of this day trip is to venture into the Magaliesberg mountains northwest of Johannesburg, exploring some attractions around this area.
Hartbeespoort Dam is located about 90 minutes north of central Johannesburg. The dam was built in the 1920’s to help irrigate the growing agricultural industry in the grasslands north of Johannesburg. Today the reservoir formed by the dam offers opportunities for boating and other water recreation, but the highlight is visiting the dam itself.
The dam is an arch that you can walk or drive over, and there are excellent views of the barren rock surrounding the dam. While the dam itself isn’t terribly imposing, it certainly offers a view into the landscape of the area and is a neat spot for some pictures.
Tan’ Malie Se Winkel Restaurant
Just down the road from the dam is the Tan’ Malie Se Winkel. This is an Afrikaner restaurant that takes you back into time. The Afrikaners (or Boers) are descendants of the Dutch settlers of South Africa that arrived in the colonial era.
This area was only populated by Boers in the mid-1800’s as people migrated from Cape Colony in the southwest to escape British rule. These Boers were primarily nomadic herders and farmers who engaged on what is known as the “Great Trek” to arrive in this area.
The restaurant is filled with nick-knacks and memorabilia from early 20th century Boer life, and offers the unique cuisine of the culture and era. You can have a sit-down meal here or just sample some of the pastries and finger food that they offer.
Something to definitely try is biltong, the local cured meat. You can sample local favorites like ostrich or other regional game. Mike tried it, but I’m an at-will vegetarian and I decided to be right then.
Hartbeespoort Aerial CableWay
No matter where we travel, we love nothing more than going somewhere high to get an amazing panorama of the area. Located just 10 minutes from the dam, the Hartbeespoort Aerial CableWay offers you a spectacular ride to the top of the Magaliesberg mountains.
The view from the top of the CableWay will give an impressive view of the area, and there is a nice walking path with information boards that explain the geography and history of the area.
This region is fascinating, as you will stand near the cradle of humanity where some of the oldest artifacts of human life have been found.
Then to the north you will see the mines and foundries of the area that give South Africa so much of its mineral wealth. And in the distance you see the cities of Johannesburg and Pretoria, marking the core of the Gauteng region.
There are also several small restaurants both at the top and bottom of the cableway, offering drinks and meals with a great view.
More Things To Do in Hartbeespoort
Cradle of Humankind
While South Africa is filled with fascinating modern history, it is the truly ancient history of this area that is the most incredible. Some of the oldest artifacts of humans come from this area, earning it the nickname the “cradle of humankind”.
About 40 minutes south of Hartbeespoort Dam is the Cradle of Humankind Maropeng visitors center. Here you can see exhibits showing some of the incredible discoveries in the area, as scientists piece together the origins of humanity. You can also visit the Sterkfontein Caves, a neat adventure into the cave network where so many artifacts of our ancestors have been found.
Ann Van Dyk Cheetah Center
If you don’t have time for a proper safari, this is a good opportunity to see the fastest cats of the African wild. This is a cheetah sanctuary, focused not just on displaying wild animals but on conservation of the species. The center offers a variety of guided tours that let you see these amazing animals through the park, and some tours include a “cheetah run” where you can see them get up to full speed!
Lion & Safari Park
Located about 25 minutes south of the Aerial CableWay is the Lion and Safari Park. They offer a variety of tours, including self-drive and a guided tour through the park. A visit here can’t compare to a real safari in Kruger Park, but it can be fun for children and let you get up close to some African wildlife!
Crocodile River (whitewater rapids)
Being surrounded by mountain ranges, the area has several good rivers for white water rapid tours. One of the best rivers is the Crocodile River, and several tour companies offer part-day trips down the river.
Browse availability and rates of these great activities and others on GetYourGuide.
Instant ticketing confirmation, cancel up to 24 hours before your activity and get your tickets sent right to your mobile device!
Now You Know How To Plan A Johannesburg Itinerary
okay, so now you see how to build an unforgettable trip to Johannesburg.
But where do you go from here?
Our Johannesburg itinerary led us to an incredible safari. We did the Botswana & Falls Adventure tour from G Adventures. You can use the link to read more about it – but if you haven’t found the right safari tour for you there are a few options.
Most visitors leave greater Johannesburg for Pilanesberg National Park or the super popular Kruger National Park. Some fly into Tambo International Airport (Johannesburg) and don’t even spend time in or around the city – they just book it to the safari tours.
The point of our post here (and hopefully you got it) is that there’s still a lot of cool stuff to do and see in Johannesburg.
And if you want to check out other South African tours, safari through Kruger, traverse Botswana, sip South African wine on Table Mountain and anything else in your dream vacation – check out listings from G Adventures HERE.