Johannesburg rarely appears on the list of recommended destinations, unless you are coming for business, or landing at OR Tambo Airport before heading to Kruger Park. The city of 5 millions has long suffered from a reputation for violence and crime. But the recent years have brought a second wind to the city of gold, and the art scene is blossoming.
Downtown Johannesburg view from the Carlton Centre
So if you give it a chance, Johannesburg, Jozi as some call it affectionately, is likely to surprise you. The city may not be known for famous monuments, but it offers a large palette of cultural and historical experiences. Enjoy a unique shopping experience at the artisan market in Rosebank, plan a historical visit of Constitution Hill, the sadly famous jail which hosted both Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, or take a drive to the Cradle of Humankind, one of South Africa’s eight World Heritage sites.
If you make a brief stopover in Johannesburg, here is a short list of activities, each doable over half a day, allowing you to maximise your time in or around the city. The list is, of course, just a sample of possibilities. More amazing activities are possible, although some will require driving further or following a booking process. All the options mentioned underneath are easy for those who have not had a chance to plan.
One of several cubs at the Lion Park in Johannesburg
- The Lion and Safari Park: Rated as one of the best animal attractions in the world, the park offers a chance to see lions, giraffes, cheetahs, ostriches or even meerkats. If you are in South Africa but do not have the opportunity to visit one of the great animal reserves, the Lion and Safari Park will provide you with a very exciting alternative.
- Apartheid Museum : Impressive, moving, fascinating, deep, challenging, chose your own adjective, for this visit will be yours to experience. Unlike most museums, the Apartheid Museum is open every day. Not only does it take you through the history of the Apartheid regime, but it also highlights the history of immigration in South Africa via the examples of multi-ethnic families. In both an instructive and a chilling way, the entrance to the complex has segregated entrances, and you will enter the museum according to the ticket randomly delivered to you.
Ndebele Houses at the Lesedi cultural village
- Lesedi Village : The Lesedi Cultural Village is a showcase village, that aims at presenting different south african tribes: Zulu, Xhosa, Ndebele, Pedi and Basotho, with their traditions, languages, original tribal habitat The arrival at the place may feel “staged” as you are welcomed with dances and cheers, but as the staff slowly pulls you in with the visit, and the presentations, the experience switches from entertaining to fascinating. As a visitor, it is a chance to witness dances, hear specifics about the history of those tribes and what makes each of them unique within the South African mosaic structure. This is your chance to try and learn to say words in Xhosa, hear the story of the Pedi warriors and why they wear kilts, interact and ask questions. You will laugh, you will learn, you will leave the place with a very moving feeling that you have felt, for a quick moment, the deep essence of this fascinating country.
- Cullinan: If you have more than a day of spare time during your Johannesburg stop over, you may want to consider a drive to Cullinan. The diamond mine is famous for the record breaking diamond of the same name. If you are not excited at the idea of visiting a diamond mine, you can also go there for the historical village itself. Trading post style of houses, Culling is a real postcard village, with cafés and restaurants, small art and craft galleries, we stopped there for a couple hours before heading back to OR Tambo Airport. Located East of Pretoria, count an hour to drive back to the airport.
Although this post only covers a few highlights and suggestions of activities, all close enough to Johannesburg, Soweto was not mentioned. It will be the topic of a separate and specific post.