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Johannesburg Travel Guide

  • Photo: Sudhir Misra / Shutterstock

Plan Your Johannesburg Vacation

Johannesburg, or Jo'burg, Egoli ("City of Gold"), or Jozi, as it is affectionately known by locals, is the commercial heart of South Africa and the primary gateway for international visitors. Historically it is where money is made and fortunes are found. The city has a (perhaps rather unfair) reputation for being an ugly, dangerous place you ought to avoid on any trip to South Africa. On the

contrary, much of Johannesburg is quite pretty, largely because of the millions of trees that cover it (it has, purportedly, the largest human-planted forest in the world), and statistically speaking it is less dangerous than Cape Town.

But like all big cities in the world, there are some areas that are safer than others; you should keep your wits about you in Jo'burg and not flaunt expensive equipment or jewelry in public places. Johannesburg is South Africa's most-visited city by far, and it's well worth a stopover of at least two or three days. There's plenty to see here, including the Apartheid Museum and Constitution Hill in the city, not to mention the nearby city of Soweto, and the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site about 90 minutes away. All the attractions listed in this chapter, including areas like Sandton, Rosebank, Greenside, and Parkhurst, are perfectly safe to visit on your own.

Ask a jol (lively party) of Jo'burgers what they love about their hometown, and they may point to its high-paced energy; its opportunity; afternoon thunderstorms in the summer; the Pirates versus Chiefs derby (the Orlando Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs are South Africa's most loved—and hated—soccer teams); spectacular sunsets; jacaranda blooms carpeting the city in purple in October and November; a great climate; the dog walks around Emmarentia Dam; the fast-paced lifestyle; the can-do attitude; the down-to-earth nature of its people; and the city's rich history. For many, Johannesburg is the gateway to the rest of Africa, and it may very well be the continent's most cosmopolitan city.

Johannesburg’s origins lie in the discovery of gold. The city sits at the center of a vast urban industrial complex that covers most of the province of Gauteng (the g is pronounced like the ch in Chanukah), which means "Place Where the Gold Is" in the Sotho language and is home to the world's deepest gold mines (more than 3.9 km [2.4 miles] deep). More than 100 years ago it was just a rocky piece of unwanted Highveld land. But in 1886 an Australian, George Harrison, officially discovered gold, catapulting Johannesburg into a modern metropolis that still helps to power the country's economy (though gold mining has been winding down in recent years).

With a population between 8 and 10 million—if you include the surrounding cities like Soweto, the East Rand, and the West Rand—greater Jo'burg is a fairly populous city by world standards (bigger than New York but smaller than Tokyo) and is by far the country's largest city. Despite its industrial past, Jozi remains a green city, with more than 10 million trees and many beautiful parks and nature reserves, which is all the more exceptional considering it is the largest city in the world not built on a river or near a significant water source.

In the late 1980s many of central Johannesburg's big businesses fled north from urban decay to the suburb of Sandton, now an upmarket commercial hub in its own right. But lately local government and businesses have been reinvesting in the inner city, and parts are being revived. The Maboneng precinct in the city center, for instance, is a hub of trendy restaurants, markets, and art galleries.

In addition, local government has invested in an extensive new public transportation system that serves the local working population and tourists alike. This includes the Gautrain rapid rail system that connects Johannesburg with Pretoria and the O. R. Tambo International Airport, moving Jo'burg steadily toward its goal of being—as the city’s government is eager to brand it—“a world-class African city."

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Top Reasons To Go

  1. History in Your Lifetime. Do a self-guided tour of the Constitutional Court, built on the site of a prison whose inmates included Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. The Apartheid Museum takes a holistic look at South Africa's road to democracy.
  2. Iconic Soweto. Visit the site of some dramatic anti-apartheid struggles, including the Hector Pieterson Museum, as well as former homes of Nobel Peace Prize laureates Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
  3. African Arts and Crafts. The African Craft Market in Rosebank showcases ornaments, masks, and fabrics from across Africa, ranging from the cheap and cheerful to one-off collector's items.
  4. Cradle of Humankind. Visit the Sterkfontein Caves and Maropeng Visitor Centre at this World Heritage Site, about 90 minutes from Johannesburg, to view humankind's evolutionary pathway, fossils, and paleontology, presented in a fun, kid-friendly manner.

When To Go

When to Go

Jo'burgers boast that they enjoy the best climate in the world: not too hot in summer (mid-September–mid-April), not too cold in winter (mid...

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