South Africa is where I was born and raised, specifically Johannesburg so this post is going to be oozing with national pride, I will not apologise one bit for it as this city deserves all the pride I can give.
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Firstly let’s address the elephant in the room.
Breakdown - click to jump straight to that topic
The first question I get asked when I tell people I’m from South Africa is – is it safe? The second question is without fail how come you’re not black then? But I digress, my honest answer to the first question is Yes and No, you don’t want to know what my honest answer to the second question is.
In order to survive (maybe wrong word choice haha) in South Africa, you need to have your wits about you and become a bit more suspicious about situations, if you do those two things you will be just fine. If you would like an in-depth guide on how to be safe when travelling read my post here. You will see a difference in the way people live, all houses are walled, gated and have electric fencing. A lot of homes have dogs for safety and all windows will have bars on them. There is a reason to have this amount of security, I won’t lie it’s not the safest country but it still is a welcoming one.
Do not do the following
- Walk alone late at night.
- Leave your windows and doors open and unlocked.
- Be flashy with your belongings.
- Trust everyone you meet.
Do the following
- Always be aware of your surroundings.
- Keep your bags, cameras, phones and the like close to you and not in easy reach.
- Keep passports and important documents in the hotel safe, only ever carry copies on you.
- Trust your gut, this will be your most valuable tool.
- Have an air of confidence about you, the more out of place you look the more likely of a target you become.
I always tell people I never felt unsafe in Johannesburg and perhaps that’s because I grew up there. You need to be cautious but not to the extreme that you don’t enjoy your time, otherwise why even go?
That’s enough doom and gloom, for now, I’m trying to convince you why Johannesburg is amazing so let’s move on to a more fun topic.
The best bits of Johannesburg.
Jozi, Jo’burg, City of Gold- like the many names Johannesburg holds, it holds many faces layered with a thick history. This history is what makes this city so intriguing: to see how it is recovering from its dark past. This past is what most the tourist attractions are based on. You can definitely fill a few days with these, but I wouldn’t recommend making Johannesburg your one and only stop. South Africa is such a beautiful country and it would be a shame not to explore it.
Johannesburg however, has its charm to it, with some claiming that it’s the largest man-made forest in the world. I would like to believe it’s true but no one can agree on it. If you go in spring (October/ November) you will notice the purple hue that graces the trees, like Japan has the cherry blossoms we have the Jacaranda trees, not sure if they compare but I like to find the beauty in everything. If you would really like to experience this in full force going to Pretoria is a better bet.
For a more convenient holiday, you’re going to need a car. South Africa, in general, is very car friendly. Main roads and major cities and highways are well maintained and easy to navigate. Like England, or should I say because of England we drive on the left which shouldn’t take you too long to adjust to.
Your next best option is Uber or a local taxi company. You’re less likely to be ripped off by Uber or a reputable taxi company. DO NOT get into a strange person car if you’re not sure if they are a taxi!
South Africa has two types of taxis, the one described above and what non-South Africans would call a minibus. The second type of taxi is an experience, they are very cheap and somewhat run like a bus, except the bell is you announcing where you would like to stop when you’re approaching that area. They are not regulated and can be very over cramped and daunting as they can and do make up their own traffic rules. I generally avoided them, but if you’re on a budget and brave enough take one, just ask an auntie for some guidance and you’ll be fine. If you have been on a tuk-tuk bus in Asia then these taxis will defiantly be an upgrade, got to take your wins where you can.
Buses and trains do exist just not to a great standard. Tourist on a bus or train screams potential danger to me. But this is just one overly cautious opinion. There is the Gautrain which is the fanciest it gets, but its expensive for what you get. So personally I would avoid it all together.
What to do?
South Africa’s dark history, packaged and labelled in the form of apartheid, brings us to our first activity – the Apartheid museum which I highly recommend you do. I am not a museum person but even I was kept entertained, which says something for the quality.
It cost R95.00 and will take you anything from 1 hour to 4 hours depending on how much you want to learn as it throws a lot of information at you. No matter your race or background it is an eye-opener at how cruel people can be and helps you understand the mentality and the social-economical situation in this beautiful country.
Once you’re done there walk across the parking lot and head over to Gold Reef City, which will lift your spirits. I have spent many a day in there as a teenager and have very fond memories of this theme park. It’s not the best or biggest in the world but it does have its charm to it.
It’s built over an old gold mine which closed in 1971. The theme is based on the gold rush in 1886. Even if rides are not your thing it’s worth buying the non-rider ticket and walking around the museums or old miners houses. The best activity for me is going down into the mine and getting a tour around, complete with hard hats and head torches. After the tour, they demonstrate how gold bars are melted and shaped.
As tourist attractions go, one of the most famous is in Soweto and it’s Nelson Mandela’s house, you can buy tickets online or at the door or even take a tour of the area that includes the house. I would recommend the latter as Soweto has a lot of interesting history attached as it’s the largest township or urban settlement. Soweto was created in the 1930s when the Apartheid government started separating races, uprooting ‘non-whites’ and relocating them, this was allowed due to their law called the ‘Urban Areas Act’ in 1923. Although Soweto no longer runs under the same laws, it comes with all the challenges from a suppressed environment so I encourage you to visit and see how other cultures live. You can even go bungee jumping between the Orlando towers, which looks like an awesome experience. I’m too chicken to try it though so if you do try let me know how it goes!
If shopping is your thing, then you’re in luck. We like our shopping centres and there are plenty to choose from. Santon is probably the most touristic and has a giant statue of Nelson Mandela in its main square. A close second is Rosebank Mall which has just recently been refurbished and has a great African craft market if you do visit be prepared to bring out your haggling skills.
If nature is more your interest, a bit outside Johannesburg is the Cradle of humankind. As a world Unesco heritage site it is a must-see on my list, you can either stay in one of the hotels overnight and experience different aspects of the site or you can make a day of it and visit Maropeng and Sterkfontein caves, buying a combination ticket costing you R190 will get you access to both sites, you will need transport to take you between the two so if you’re in a taxi ask them to wait for you, I took an Uber and struggled, it was our most expensive ride and it was very difficult to book a car trying to come back so just be wary of that.
The caves are quite impressive as you go deep inside them with a guided tour if it’s boiling outside then the caves become a welcome solace. Maropeng is the official visitor site and has lots of bones and stones as they like to call it, as well as interactive and interesting exhibitions. The surrounding areas are where quite a few discoveries were found from our ancestry. The history you learn about and the evidence you see is fascinating and eye-opening. If this subject is right up your ally I recommend reading Sapiens* and Homo Deus *
Finally, my last suggestion would be the Lion and Rhino Park and its wonder cave. The combined ticket costs R350 for a non-South African and gets you into the nature reserve as well as a tour around the wonder cave the cave ingredients were used to make cement and toothpaste and was last used in 1902. It’s the 3rd largest chamber is South Africa, the largest being Cango Caves and second largest Sudwala Caves. You start by descending around 80 steps and take an elevator further down taking you 40m below the surface into the cave.
If you have a car you can drive yourself around and see a host of animals from lions to wild dogs in their natural habitat. There are serval activities included in your ticket just pop over to their website as the list is extensive. If you would like a guided drive there is an additional cost for that.
Bonus tip – drive up to Northcliff hill and see the city from a nice vantage point.
Food, bars, and nightlife
Johannesburg is definitely a social city and has decent bars and restaurants all throughout the city. It has quite a large young population so the nightlife is thriving.
The most touristy place I can suggest is a place called Carnivore. As the name suggests it’s all based on meat with the waiters coming around with skewers of a weird and wonderful selection from kudu to chicken. I recently went and was actually quite dissatisfied with both the service and the quality of food. But the decor is very cool and nice to experience.
Areas such as Greenside (where I went to high school) Melville and Rosebank have a wide selection of bars and restaurants. Check this website out for some good suggestions.
Where to stay
As you can imagine my need for accommodation in Johannesburg was nil, being from there kinda means I had a home to stay at, but I’ll still dish out a few ideas for you. The posh areas are definitely Santon and most of the hotels are located here, however, there are hotels all over the city, click here which will take you to booking.com*, you will see all your wonderful options. Pro tip for you before you commit, pop open google and search for discount codes, works for me 60% of the time and you can normally find up to a 10% discount. I tend to choose a place by the traveller’s pictures and their reviews, but its all up to you on this one.
What do you think have I convinced you to spend a few days in Johannesburg and not just catch your connecting flight? Let me know your thoughts below!
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