Johannesburg epitomizes South Africa's paradoxical makeup—it's rich, poor, innovative, and historic all rolled into one. And it seems at times as though no one actually comes from Johannesburg. The city is full of immigrants: Italians, Portuguese, Chinese, Hindus, Swazis, English, Zimbabweans, Nigerians, Zulus, Xhosas. The streets are full of merchants. Traders hawk skop (boiled sheep's head, split open and eaten off newspaper) in front of polished glass buildings as taxis jockey for position in rush hour. Sangomas (traditional healers) lay out herbs and roots next to roadside barbers' tents, and you never seem to be far from women selling vetkoek (dollops of deep-fried dough) beneath billboards advertising investment banks or cell phones.

The Greater Johannesburg metropolitan area is massive—more than 1,600 square km (618 square miles)—incorporating the large municipalities of Randburg and Sandton to the north. Most of the sights are just north of the city center, which degenerated badly in the 1990s but is now being revamped.

To the south, in Ormonde, are the Apartheid Museum and Gold Reef City; the sprawling township of Soweto is just a little farther to the southwest. Johannesburg's northern suburbs are its most affluent. On the way to the shopping meccas of Rosebank and Sandton, you can find the superb Johannesburg Zoo and the South African Museum of Military History, in the leafy suburb of Saxonwold.

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  • 1. Apartheid Museum


    The Apartheid Museum, in Ormonde, takes you on a journey through South African apartheid history—from the entrance, where you pass through a turnstile according to your assigned skin color (Black or white), to the myriad historical, brutally honest, and sometimes shocking photographs, video displays, films, documents, and other exhibits. It's an emotional, multi-layered journey. As you walk chronologically through the apartheid years and eventually reach the country's first steps to freedom, with democratic elections in 1994, you experience a taste of the pain and suffering with which so many South Africans had to live. A room with 121 ropes with hangman's knots hanging from the ceiling—one rope for each political prisoner executed in the apartheid era—is especially chilling.

    Northern Pkwy. at Gold Reef Rd., Johannesburg, Gauteng, 2091, South Africa

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: R150, Closed Mon. and Tues.
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  • 2. Constitution Hill


    Overlooking Jo'burg's inner city, Constitution Hill houses the Constitutional Court, which sits on the most important human rights cases, much like the United State’s Supreme Court. The slanting columns represent the trees under which African villagers met to discuss important matters and each of the 11 chairs of the justices are covered in Nguni cowhide, representing their individuality. If not in session, you can view it and its artworks. This is also where you will find the austere Old Fort Prison Complex (also called Number Four), where thousands of political prisoners were incarcerated, including Nobel Peace Prize laureates Albert Luthuli and Nelson Mandela, and iconic Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi. There is no fee to explore the prison ramparts (built in the 1890s) but there is an hour-long highlights tour (R120) of the Old Fort Prison Complex every hour on the hour from 9 am to 4 pm, while the two-hour full site tour (R180) takes place at 10 am and 1 pm. Both tours visit the Women's Jail. Food I Love You, in the refurbished prison kitchen, serves breakfast, lunch, and grab-and-go bites with local flavor, while Motherland Coffee has a coffee truck on-site.

    11 Kotze St., Johannesburg, Gauteng, 2001, South Africa

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: Court free; Constitution Hill tours from R120 (tickets can only be bought via Webtickets; link found on website)
  • 3. Harties Aerial Cableway

    It will take you six minutes to get to the top of the longest mono-cableway in Africa to savor panoramic views of the Magaliesberg Mountains and Hartbeespoort Dam from an altitude of 1985 meters (6512 feet), and 345 meters (1132 feet) above the base station. At the top, a short circular pathway (less than a mile in length) takes in indigenous flora, while signposts point out geological features of interest. There’s a restaurant at the bottom station, as well as three restaurants at the top which sell pizzas, pastas, sandwiches, and burgers. Treat yourself to a late afternoon cocktail on the wooden deck at the mountaintop bar, while keeping an eye out for the resident Black Cape Vultures. After buying mementoes and branded items at the curio shop, you can also paraglide from the top with a qualified tandem flight instructor.

    Hartbeespoort, North-West, 0216, South Africa

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: R250; this is a cashless facility, tickets should be bought online or using a credit card at the base station, Closed Mon.--Tues.
  • 4. Maropeng Visitor Centre


    Maropeng is the official visitor center of the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site and offers much more than information about the region: it's a modern, interactive museum dedicated to the history of humanity that kids will love. It provides information about the various fossil sites in the area. About a 90-minute drive from either Johannesburg or Pretoria, it's one of the area's top attractions. It's best visited in parallel with the nearby fossil site of Sterkfontein Caves, but to visit both you'll need to set aside at least half a day.

    Off R563 (Hekpoort Rd.), Johannesburg, Gauteng, 1911, South Africa

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: R100
  • 5. National Zoological Gardens of South Africa

    The city's zoo, covering nearly 200 acres, is considered one of the world's best, with about 9,000 animals from almost every continent (including rare Komodo dragons, the world's largest lizards). The animal enclosures here are much larger than those of most zoos. Like any modern zoo worth its name, this is just the public facade for a much larger organization that specializes in the research and breeding of endangered species. It includes an aquarium (with Africa's largest collection of freshwater fish) and reptile park, where the king crocodiles and the impressive collection of snakes don't fail to intimidate. A cable car transports you high above the zoo to a hilltop lookout, and it's a fun, worthwhile ride. It's also a good idea to rent a golf cart, so you can move more quickly between enclosures for the staggered feeding times each morning and afternoon.

    232 Boom St., Pretoria, Gauteng, 0002, South Africa

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: R110, Daily 8:30–5:30
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  • 6. Ponte City


    If there's a symbol of Johannesburg, it's Ponte City, a massive, hollow 54-story cylinder of apartments that you might recall from watching District 9. Built in 1975, and standing at a height of 568 feet with a flashing advertisement at the top, it was, until recently, the tallest residential building in Africa. Once the apex of grand living, it became a slum in the 1990s as the middle class fled to the suburbs. It has since been revitalized, with young professionals, students, and immigrants moving in. The Dlala Nje Foundation, on the ground floor of the building, is a safe space and community center for the neighborhood’s youth. It is funded by the four fascinating tours offered by the Dlala Nje Experiences Business, which takes visitors on walking tours of the inner city’s misunderstood suburbs. Leave all your prejudices behind as you explore Hillbrow, Yeoville, and Berea on a culinary, shopping, or queer tour, where you can interact with locals, many of whom are small business owners, to gain a refreshed perspective on this vastly diverse city.

    1 Lily Ave., Johannesburg, Gauteng, 2038, South Africa

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: Depending on tour
  • 7. Sterkfontein Caves


    It was in the Sterkfontein Caves, in 1947, that Dr. Robert Broom discovered the now famous Mrs. Ples, as she is popularly known—a skull of an adult Australopithecus africanus that is more than 2 million years old. The find reinforced the discovery of a skull of an Australopithecus child, the Taung Skull, by Professor Raymond Dart in 1924, which was the first hominid ever found. At the time, Dart was ostracized for claiming the skull belonged to an early human ancestor. Scientists in Europe and the United States simply didn't believe that humanity could have originated in Africa. Today, few disagree with this theory. Another important find was the discovery in the 1990s of Little Foot, a near-complete skeleton of an Australopithecus, embedded in rock deep inside the caves. And even more recently, the 2013 discovery of hundreds of Homo Naledi fossils (dating from around 300,000 years ago) in the Cradle of Humankind area. These fossil specimens remain one of the largest hominin finds in Africa. Guided tours of the excavations and caves last an hour and are not advisable if you are claustrophobic. Wear comfortable shoes. Start with the excellent museum, which has exhibits depicting the origins of the Earth, life, and humanity. A small on-site restaurant that serves light meals is open daily.

    Sterkfontein Caves Rd., Johannesburg, Gauteng, 1739, South Africa

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: R100
  • 8. Victoria Yards

    City Center

    Victoria Yards is an urban renewal project on the fringe of the inner city that has reimagined abandoned warehouses into a mixed-use lifestyle complex. It supports the surrounding community through its three on-site non-profits and urban farming project, while locals and tourists explore the 50-odd artists’ workshops, decor showrooms, galleries, and fashion outlets housed in its brick face buildings. The driving force behind Victoria Yards is sustainability with tenants making designer bags from vibrant shweshwe fabric (a printed cotton fabric) and plastic waste, homeware made from recycled industrial parts, upcycled pre-loved clothing, and a sorbet stand that buys overripe, unsold fruit from community street-side sellers to make frozen desserts. If your appetite gets the better of you on a visit, there’s an old-school "tuck shop," coffee roastery, and bakery that stands shoulder-to-shoulder to a small-batch gin distillery, as well as a bar, and a traditional walk-in fish and chip shop with wooden benches arranged in the courtyard. While it’s open 7 days a week, the First Sunday Market (first Sunday of the month, 10 am–4 pm) hosts a collection of additional vendors who sell everything from collectibles, antiques, and handmade African curios to food and drink. There is free, undercover parking available, as well as overflow on-street parking with parking guards, making it safe to visit on your own.

    16 Viljoen St., Johannesburg, Gauteng, South Africa

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: No First Sunday Market in Jan.
  • 9. Church Square

    Anton van Wouw's statue of President Paul Kruger, surrounded by sentries, dominates this pleasant square, which is flanked by some of the city's most historic buildings: the Old Raadsaal (Council Chamber), designed by Dutch architect Sytze Wierda; the Palace of Justice (used as a military hospital during the South African War), built in early Italian Renaissance style; and the modern Provincial Administration Building. On Wednesday mornings you can watch a ceremonial military parade and flag-raising.

    Bordered by Paul Kruger and Church Sts., Pretoria, Gauteng, 0002, South Africa
  • 10. Cullinan Diamond Mine

    Anyone can go to a jewelry store and bring home South African diamonds, but how many people can say they got their sparkler from an actual mine? At Cullinan Diamond Mine, you can not only buy diamonds, but get custom-made pieces from the resident jeweler, though don't expect your piece to include the world's largest diamond—the 3,106-carat Cullinan Diamond unearthed here in 1905 is now in the crown jewels in London. Two-hour surface tours of the mine take place daily at 10:30 am and 2 pm (with the second tour commencing at 12:15 pm on weekends and public holidays). The four-hour underground tours, which demand that you be quite physically fit, takes place on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays from 8:30 am. You must reserve all tours in advance and wear comfortable closed shoes; children under 10 are not permitted on either tour. Cullinan has a series of delightful tea gardens to choose from. For pleasant outdoor dining, the Whispering Oaks Garden Cafe (closed Tuesdays) serves breakfasts and lunches.

    99 Oak Ave., Cullinan, Gauteng, 1000, South Africa

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: Surface tours R150, underground tours R600
  • 11. Diagonal Street

    City Center

    On this street in the city center, among stores selling traditional African fabrics and household appliances, you'll find African herbalists' shops purveying a mind-boggling array of homeopathic and traditional cures for whatever ails you. If you're lucky, a sangoma (traditional healer) might throw the bones and tell you what the future holds. This is also the site of the old Johannesburg Stock Exchange building (the modern version is in Sandton) and the so-called Diamond Building, resembling a multifaceted diamond.  You'll get the most out of visiting Diagonal Street on a guided walking tour—go with Past Experiences where owner and guide Jo Buitendach will introduce you to the locals and shop owners.

    Diagonal St., Johannesburg, Gauteng, South Africa
  • 12. Ditsong National Museum of Cultural History

    This museum offers an insightful look at the country's indigenous cultures. You can marvel at San rock art, African headdresses, clay sculptures, and several permanent collections of archaeological material dealing with Pretoria, South Africa, and the many people who call this country home. The museum also has a restaurant.

    149 Visagie St., Pretoria, Gauteng, 0002, South Africa

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: R35, Daily 8–4
  • 13. Ditsong National Museum of Military History


    Located in a park along the City Sightseeing hop-on, hop-off green bus route, this museum has three exhibition halls and a rambling outdoor display focusing on South Africa's role in the major wars of the 20th century, with an emphasis on World War II. On display are original Spitfire and Messerschmidt fighters (including what is claimed to be the only remaining ME110 jet night fighter), various tanks of English and American manufacture, and a wide array of artillery. Among the most interesting objects are the modern armaments South Africa used in its war against the Cuban-backed Angolan army during the 1980s, including French-built Mirage fighters and Russian tanks stolen by the South Africans from a ship en route to Angola. More recent exhibits include the national military art collection, memorabilia from the Anti-Conscription Campaign of apartheid days, and an exhibit on the history of Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation, or MK, the African National Congress's military arm). The tall, freestanding South African (Anglo-Boer) War Memorial, which looks like a statue-adorned mini Arc de Triomphe, is the most striking landmark of the northern suburbs.

    20 Erlswold Way, Johannesburg, Gauteng, 2196, South Africa

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: R70
  • 14. Ditsong National Museum of Natural History

    This massive natural-history museum has an extensive collection of land and marine animals from around the world, with an emphasis on African wildlife. The beautiful building also contains the most comprehensive display of taxidermied African birds in southern Africa. Of particular interest are the Genesis exhibits, tracing the evolution of life on Earth, and the geology section, with displays of weird and wonderful rocks and minerals. Mrs. Ples, the famous Australopithecus skull found at the Sterkfontein Caves in the Cradle of Humankind, resides here.

    432 Paul Kruger St., Pretoria, Gauteng, 0002, South Africa

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: R35, tours additional R5, Daily 8–4
  • 15. Elephant Sanctuary Hartbeespoortdam

    The Elephant Sanctuary has three refuges across South Africa, including this one in the Magaliesberg Mountains. Five of the rescued mammals live here, including Amarula, a bull that spent most of his life in zoos; and Khuma, the matriarch. Visits must be prearranged and include interactive educational sessions. As part of the session, you can groom and feed the elephants; learn about their habits, personalities, and anatomy; and (for an additional fee) ride one of Africa's largest mammals. A small on-site lodge sleeps up to 12. This is a good option if you're spending a day in the Hartbeespoort area (do the Ann van Dyk Cheetah Centre and the Hartbeespoort Aerial Cableway on the same day), or visit it on the way to Pilanesberg or Madikwe if you're headed there.

    Hartbeespoort, North-West, 0216, South Africa

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: R695; elephant rides are an extra R525, Sessions daily at 8, 10, and 2
  • 16. Freedom Park

    Opened in 2013, the 129-acre Freedom Park is a cultural heritage site dedicated to the struggle for freedom and human rights, while chronicling Africa’s 3.6-billion-year-old history, from the dawn of humanity to South Africa’s post-apartheid present. At Salvokop, a prominent hill that welcomes you to Pretoria on the highway from Johannesburg, and within view of the Voortrekker Monument, the site comprises a memorial, interactive museum containing national archives, and a garden of remembrance. The park was launched in 2002 by then President Thabo Mbeki, who said, "We dedicate this day to all the heroes and heroines in this country and the rest of the world who sacrificed in many ways and surrendered their lives so that we could be free." It is also a spiritual resting place that honors those who fought for and shaped the country’s liberation struggle. If you have limited time, do the 360-degree virtual tour via the website.

    Koch Ave. at 7th Ave., Pretoria, Gauteng, 0002, South Africa

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: R150
  • 17. Gold Reef City


    This theme park lets you step back in time to 1880s Johannesburg to see why it became known as the City of Gold. One of the city's most popular attractions, especially for families, it has good rides that kids will enjoy and is based on the history of Jo'burg. In addition to riding the Anaconda, a scary roller coaster on which you hang under the track, feet in the air, you can (for an additional fee) descend into an old gold mine and see molten gold being poured. The reconstructed streets of the bygone era are lined with operating Victorian-style shops and restaurants. And for those with money to burn, the large, glitzy Gold Reef Village Casino beckons across the road.

    Northern Pkwy. at Data Crescent, Johannesburg, Gauteng, 2159, South Africa

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: R200 general admission; additional R120 for underground mine tour or additional R190 for full heritage tour
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  • 18. Hartbeespoort Dam Snake and Animal Park

    The Hartbeespoort Dam Snake and Animal Park is not big (you can walk through in less than two hours), but it has lions, tigers, pumas, jaguars, hyenas, many primate species, and birds of prey. Its selection of reptiles is overwhelming. Snake cages line the walkways, containing anything from harmless little garden snakes to poisonous cobras and giant pythons. Keep an eye out for snake shows, especially on weekends. The park offers a ferry boat cruise and a tea garden.

    1 Scott St., Hartbeespoort, North-West, 0216, South Africa

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: R100, Daily 8–5; shows on Sat., Sun., and holidays at noon and 3 pm
  • 19. Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum

    Orlando West

    Opposite Holy Cross Church, a stone's throw from the former homes of Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu on Vilakazi Street, the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum is a crucial landmark. Pieterson, a 12-year-old student, was one of the first victims of police fire on June 16, 1976, when schoolchildren rose up to protest their second-rate Bantu (Black) education system. The memorial is a paved area with benches for reflection beneath trees that have been planted by visiting dignitaries, an inscribed stone, and water feature. Inside the museum, multimedia displays of grainy photographs and archival footage bring that fateful day to life and put it into the context of the broader apartheid struggle. The museum courtyard has 562 small granite blocks as a tribute to the children who died in the Soweto uprisings. Suggested visiting time is at least 30 minutes. You can also hire an on-site tour guide to take you around (recommended donation is minimum R100).

    Khumalo St. at Phela St., Soweto, Gauteng, 1804, South Africa

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: R52, Closed Mon.
  • 20. Johannesburg Art Gallery

    City Center

    This three-story museum hosts excellent local and international exhibitions in 15 halls and has collections of 17th-century Dutch art, 18th-century French art, and paintings by great South African artists such as Jacob Hendrik Pierneef, Ezrom Legae, Walter Battiss, Irma Stern, Gerard Sekoto, and Anton van Wouw. It exhibits only 10% of its vast collection at a time. You can also admire a large selection of traditional African objects, such as headrests, tree carvings, and beadwork. The parking and gallery itself are safe, but the area it's in is not, so don't walk around outside.

    King George St. at Klein St., Johannesburg, Gauteng, 2001, South Africa

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: Free, Tues.–Sun. 10–5

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