Tips + Trends

Find the Soul of South Africa in Johannesburg

As South Africa’s biggest city and the place Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu once called home, Johannesburg has had a difficult past, and its many unforgettable sights acknowledge and respect that troubled history.

Since the end of apartheid, Joburg (as it’s known to locals) has been steadily attracting travelers with an interest in experiences that will leave an indelible mark on the mind and spirit.

Here are some of the most intriguing Johannesburg attractions.

Apartheid Museum

While most of us know about South Africa’s history of apartheid and the rise of iconic leader Nelson Mandela, it’s another thing entirely to see and feel firsthand the artifacts and images from the country’s fight for democracy.

Visitors to the Apartheid Museum are immediately confronted with the cruel realties of life under apartheid with the museum’s two separate entrances, one for whites and the other for non-whites.

Inside, guests learn how black South Africans were classified and divided based on arbitrary features like the width of their noses and prevented from even walking in white neighborhoods unless they had proper documentation.

Especially compelling is a room where 131 nooses hang from the ceiling, each representing a government opponent who was hung. A visit to this museum is a brutal, emotional and transformative experience that is one of the best ways to gain insight into South Africa’s complex and compelling history.

Constitution Hill

johannesburg attractions
See the Old Fort Prison at Constitution Hill. (Photo: Getty Images)

If the Apartheid Museum immerses guests into South Africa’s harrowing past, Constitutional Hill showcases its pursuit of hope and justice as it found its way as a fledging democracy.

The Constitution Hill complex, built on the foundation of an old prison, houses the country’s Constitutional Court, which is the highest court of law in South Africa (akin to the U.S.’s Supreme Court). Officially inaugurated in 1995 by President Nelson Mandela, it’s where 11 of the country’s most powerful judges decide landmark human rights issues.

The site also features the remains of three of the country’s most notorious prisons: Old Fort, Women’s Jail and Number Four. Those jails once held the likes of iconic political activists Nelson Mandela, Gandhi and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. Private and public tours of the area are available, and visitors can actually even go inside the courtroom as long as it’s not in session.

Gold Reef City

johannesburg attractions
Let off some steam at a theme park. (Photo: Alamy)

From the Apartheid museum to Constitution Hill, a visit to many of Joberg’s sites, while fascinating, can lay heavy on the spirit. So give your mind a rest and your wallet a workout by having some fun at the country’s premier casino and entertainment complex.

Even if you don’t gamble, it’s a wonderful place to go if you’re traveling with kids because it features one of the country’s largest amusement parks. Few thrill-seekers can resist the earth-defying heights of the Anaconda roller coaster, or you can jump your cares away at the Trampoline Park.

It’s worth paying extra to go on the gold rush heritage tour, which takes you nearly 250 feet underground to explore a gold mine and learn about Johannesburg’s gold rush history.

Wits Art Museum

johannesburg attractions
Dive into the world of African art at the Wits Art Museum. (Photo: Alamy)

This under-appreciated attraction is definitely worth a look for an inspiring journey into the world of African art. The museum, which is free to visit, features more than 9,000 historic and contemporary works from across South Africa and the continent, with some temporary international art exhibits, as well.

The impressive collection, one of the largest in Africa, features paintings, photography, textiles, sculptures and more.

The modern, sophisticated space is worth a visit just to admire the award-winning architecture. And be sure to grab a coffee at the lively WAM Café, which is a popular meeting place for students of the nearby WITS University.

National Zoological Gardens of South Africa

While the history and citizenry of South Africa are enthralling, no visit to the country is complete without some kind of encounter with its wilder denizens. After all, who among us has not dreamed of seeing a lion, rhinoceros or elephant in person? (All at a safe distance, of course.) If you don’t have plans to go on safari, or even if you do, a visit to the city’s zoo is a must.

While visiting zoos in some countries can be a sad, disheartening affair with poorly managed facilities and small enclosures, Joberg’s is considered to be among the finest on the continent, with spacious animal enclosures, first-rate breeding programs and an excellent rehabilitation center.

The site is home to more than 9,000 animals, including one of the largest collections of African fish in the world and favorites like rhinos, elephants and lions.

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