Johannesburg is the financial heart of southern Africa. Located near South Africa’s administrative capital in Pretoria (South Africa has three capital cities, Pretoria is where the President and his cabinet are located); this is a large, vibrant city with vast disparities in income. Despite its rise as an international city, Johannesburg seems to remain, as noted, a particularly unloved city.
Things to do in and around Johannesburg
Despite Johannesburg’s low ranking as a tourist destination, there are many things to do here.
Visit Soweto. A visit to Soweto is not “slum tourism” or poverty voyeurism. While there is plenty of poverty, this is a growing, dynamic, and culturally rich city that provides insight into the both the past and future of South Africa. General tours include visits to the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum (which has an absolutely brilliant interactive museum that makes it worth more than just a quick stop) and the Nelson Mandela home. A visit to Soweto is guaranteed to make you angry, disgusted, and deeply saddened by both the horror and the complete lack of reason for what happened here; but it will also leave you hopeful and proud of what people can do to overcome hatred, poverty, injustice and violence.
Pet a lion. I am generally not one to visit a petting zoo, but we ended up enjoying our visit to the Lion Park. It was fascinating to be able to actually touch the lion cubs (which have fur that feels more like horse hair than that of a house cat). This also ended up being the only place we saw lions this trip, so that was nice. Despite my positive experience as a visitor here, I remain uncomfortable with this type of park and concerned about the lives of the wildlife living in such places.
There are lots of other options available in and around Johannesburg, including opportunities to:
- Experience history at the Apartheid Museum.
- Delve deep into the past at the Cradle of Humankind, a World Heritage Site that begins with an exploration of the ancient past.
- Interact with history at the Museum Africa.
- Experience the food, music, and culture of Soweto through one of any number of specialized tours. (I will do this the next time I am here.)
- Join the fun at Gold Reef City, where Johannesburg’s gold mining past sets the theme for a giant amusement park.
- Wander through the Johannesburg Botanical Gardens.
- Hike the trail at the Melville Koppies Nature Reserve for a hint of what this area was like in the days before gold mining consumed the landscape.
- Take in the visual arts at one of the city’s many galleries.
- Cheer on your favorite, soccer, cricket, or lawn bowling team.
- Head over to Pretoria, to take in museums, historic buildings, and – in October of each year – the purple blossoms of more than 70,000 jacaranda trees.
- Watch the African Lippizzaners dance and then visit the horses in the stables after the performance.
- Tour the Cullinan Diamond Mine.
A full list of activities can be found on the Accommodation Direct ebsite for Johannesburg.
We stayed at the Protea Hotel Wanderers Hotel in the Illovo area of the city, a residential suburb which seems to be noted mostly for cricket and its proximity to shopping.
Not generally fans of big corporate hotels, we actually liked this hotel a lot. It is an architecturally interesting building with adequate-size, functional guest rooms (well, aside from the adjustable chair that was stuck at floor level), with both South African and European outlets. Free internet was available at least to some degree, although I had technical problems getting it to work on my computer. The restaurant wasn’t fabulous, but it wasn’t bad either.
The hotel is situated on a large property (it also has a lawn bowling club with a very large bar and restaurant, as well as bowling greens) in what seems to be a quiet neighborhood. There isn’t really anything one can walk to from here, aside from a shopping mall. A shuttle serving a number of shopping and restaurant districts is available for a minimal cost.
While Johannesburg has many great dining options, our schedule limited us to dining at the hotel.