This is your ultimate Johannesburg travel guide, with everything you need to know for your first visit. Among South African cities, Johannesburg is the most well-known across the world. It is located in the main province of Gauteng. Pretoria is situated atop the Witwatersrand basin, the site of the biggest gold deposit every discovered. Today, Johannesburg is a vibrant city with a population of over 950,000.
Economic Capital Of Southern Africa
Johannesburg is the economic capital of Southern Africa. It was founded in 1886 after the discovery of a gold outcrop on the small form of Langlaagte. There after, it grew rapidly because of the gold rush that led to South Africa being the largest gold producing country in the world in 1898. Colloquially, Johannesburg is referred by many names, like Joburg or Jozi. To locals, it is often referred to as Jozi Maboneng, which translates to Jozi, the place of lights.
A lot of South Africa’s history is linked to Johannesburg and it is so significant that many people around the world think that it is the Capital of South Africa, which it incidentally isn’t. The capital of Sout Africa is in fact Pretoria, the neighboring city to Johannesburg. Johannesburg is divided into 4 geographical areas, namely the North of Johannesburg, Johannesburg South, The West Rand and the East Rand.
History Of Johannesburg
Johannesburg sprouted from a mining town thanks to the discovery of the Witwatersrand goldfield, the largest goldfield to ever be discovered, which once accounted for 80% of the world’s gold in 1970. This would continue to be a big part of Johannesburg and South Africa’s heritage. A lot of Johannesburg’s history is centered on its origins as a mining town. You have places like Gold Reef City that even host amusement attractions in an actual mine. The province of Gauteng itself means place of gold in Northern Sotho. When you drive through Johannesburg South you will see remnants of closed mining operation, also known as mining dumps. These sand-coloured man-made mountains are a distinct feature that forms part of Johannesburg’s Character along the N12 eastwards from Johannesburg South to the East Rand city of Benoni.
Johannesburg Travel Guide
Johannesburg is a big city with a variety of location. It is always good to know the basics on how to get around and where to go. If it is your first time in the city, we have some useful tips of you to help you find your way around and make it to your destinations just fine.
Getting Around Johannesburg
If you aren’t too constricted on budget, the best way to get around Johannesburg is Uber. You can Uber to all the spots you want to go to with the benefit of having a temporary guide who will know their way around and advise you on which places you can go to. If you choose to drive, you can rent a car from Avis. If you do not know your way around, it is best to avoid driving at night as you can easily get lost and drive through areas that are unsafe.
The place in Johannesburg where it is safe enough to drive by yourself at night without that much concern is in the northern suburbs covered by the areas of Sandton and Randburg. You can also take the Gautrain during the day if you are traveling across areas covered by the route like Johannesburg to Pretoria or from OR Tambo International Airport to Sandton. The train is affordable and is a nice way to avoid traffic during peak hours.
The currency of South Africa is the South African Rand (ZAR) which is at around R14 to $1 at the time of writing. Thanks to the exchange rate, the power of currencies like the dollar goes a long way in Johannesburg and things are very affordable in comparison to other popular travel destination. If you want to change your currency into Rands, the first place is obviously at the airport. If you run out of Rands in the middle of your trip, you can find an exchange bureau at all major malls. Conversely, you don’t need to carry cash if you prefer swiping. VISA and MasterCard points can be found all over the city. Carrying less cash is also a safer and most travelers won’t need to carry more than around R200 or R300 at any particular time.
Key Areas of Johannesburg
South Africa has 9 official languages, that include English, Zulu, Afrikaans and Sotho among others. (Durban Zulu Shaka). The main language is English and everybody speaks it so communicating should not be an issue at all.
The two major universities in Johannesburg are University of Johannesburg (UJ) and University of Witwatersrand, also known as Wits. Naturally, there will also be entertainment hotspot in the vicinity of the areas. Near University of Johannesburg is Melville, which is a bohemian suburb and home to a collection of eclectic restaurants and cafes. Seventh street is the main place to check out and has various cafes and bars along the street.
Braamfontein, near Witwatersrand is another place worth visiting for the youthful or youthful at heart. Juta Street in Braam has some historically significant establishments, like Kitcheners, which is the oldest bar in Johannesburg. Across the street, there is Neighbourgoods which is a weekend market that visitors can relax at on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon.
Johannesburg City Centre
The city centre in Johannesburg is a place to avoid for travelers. Unlike the city centre of Pretoria that has a lot of historical landmarks and is pretty safe to walk around, Johannesburg CBD does not have anything worthwhile to see and is quite unsafe in many areas at all times of the day. The exception for travelers is Maboneng, which is a gentrified area in downtown Johannesburg that has been regenerated and has ample security which makes it perfectly safe at all times of the day. The contrast between Maboneng and its surrounds is stark, however it is one of the best places to visit and a worthwhile visit, especially during the day.
The Northern Suburbs comprise a district that is made of up the larger urban areas of Randburg and Sandton (which includes the greater locality of Fourways). The Sandton business hub is the richest square mile in Africa. Here you will find all the first world luxuries that you find elsewhere in the world. Sandton has become the new central business district of South Africa, with many of the top companies building headquarters in the city.
You can expect all the upmarket experience that you need here. The Sandton skyline is adorned with skyscrapers showcasing modern architecture and the trace of Johannesburg’s new central business district.
Everything you want, you can find here, from 5 star hotels, high end shopping malls, and rooftop bars to soak in views from Johannesburg all the way to the Magalies mountains. The crown jewel of Sandton had long been the Sandton City Office Tower but it is faced a lot of competition for the crown of sandton’s skyline with an increasing number of skyscrapers built in the vicinity. The tallest building in Sandton is now The Leonardo which eclipsed Sandton Office tower in 2018 which is still currently under construction.
The South Rand is the region of Johannesburg that is nearest to most of the historically significant landmarks. This is largely due to the fact that a lot of the activity in Johannesburg’s development arose from the mining boom of the late 1800s and beyond. The theme of gold is an almost inseparable part of the identity of Johannesburg. The South Rand also borders the current mining districts in the South-Western region.
Johannesburg is South Africa’s economic capital so infrastructure here is the best that you will find on the continent. Roads are of word class standards and any car is sufficient for making your way around. Traveling around the city is good throughout the day so you can drive around by yourself with Google Maps so long as you remain within an area. Traveling at night is fine in high income areas, for example, if you are remaining in the suburbs that make northern Johannesburg. Google Maps does not account for certain areas that might not be safe and can take you through unsafe areas. For example, I once had to travel from Sandton to Bedfordview, two upmarket areas but the maps took me through Alex, which is a township and would not be ideal to travel through for visitors.
Where To Stay In Johannesburg
Johannesburg has a wide variety of of hotels that will satisfy every type of need, from affordable popular name hotels to 5 star boutique hotels for the if you so please.
The jewel of Johannesburg is Sandton, the commercial hub of the city which continues to grow as the commercial heart of the city of gold. The Sandton City Centre has it all, with numerous luxury hotels and apartments like the Michelangelo adjacent to Sandton City, which accommodates guests as both a hotel and place to stay and an entertainment venue.
Places To Visit
Johannesburg has a multitude of great places to visit for all the creature comforts that you are accustomed to. If you are looking for shopping malls with international brands, hidden gem cafes and restaurants or amusement parks, there are enough to go around. Here are some of the best places you can visit.
Nelson Mandela Square
If you want 5 star accommodation, hotels like the Michelangelo provide all the luxuries that you can expect. If you are not a millionaire with thousands of rands to throw around, there are many options for affordable hotels that are still pretty good bang for the buck.
Nelson Mandela Square is the premium exclusive shopping destination in South Africa. It is a public square that is situated adjacent to Sandton City Centre. Was formerly known as Sandton Square and was renamed to the name of the former South African President. High end designer stores abound in this location and it has a wide selection of restaurants and cafes where you can enjoy lunch in the open atmosphere of the square.
Together with Sandton’s business hub, it forms the largest retail complex on the African continent. Sandton City is the heart and central point of Sandton. The Sandton Gautrain station is directly adjacent to this complex so it is easily accessible with regard to transport.
Melrose arch is a trendy precinct in Johannesburg, located between Sandton and Rosebank in the northern suburbs. It is home to the African Pride Melrose hotel, one of our favourite hotels in Johannesburg. The very first branch of the most well-known African restaurant, Moyo is the branch in Melrose Arch. So if you want to taste African cuisine at its best, you can spend a night at the Moyo restaurant.
It is characterized by cobbled alleys and open-air cafés. The location is suited for foot traffic so it is ideal for a family outing with the kids and the sun in your face. During the festive season, the place lights up beautifully with stunning light displaces that are highly anticipated by locals.
Gold Reef City
Gold Reef City is a Gauteng’s biggest amusement park, themed around the gold rush in the 1980s that led to the origins of Johannesburg. It is built on an old gold mine which was closed in 1971. Gold Reef city consists of the amusement park, casino and hotel accommodation. The theme park has 16 thrill rides, 14 rides for kids and loads of other attractions, dining destinations and retail stores.
Although the mine is no longer operational, it is still open as an attraction for visitors and presents an authentic underground mine experience. The theme park is open from Wednesday to Friday and entry is from R125 per person.
Cultural Sites In Johannesburg
Johannesburg has a host of cultural sites that you can visit. These destinations give an insight into the history of the city and of South Africa. You can learn more about the events that led the city to what it is now.
The Apartheid Museum
The apartheid museum is one of the most popular tourist spots in all of South Africa. It gives visitors an insight into South Africa in the 20th century. It illustrates the rise and fall of apartheid through provocative films footage, photographs, and artefacts that relate to the events and human stories of that period. Visitors are given insight into Apartheid by being separated by racial appearance and finer physical features that were used to segregate. If you want to have a better understanding and experience some of what apartheid was, then the Apartheid Museum is a must-visit.
Kitcheners Carvery Bar
Kitcheners is the second oldest bar/pub in Johannesburg and is located in the Milner Park Hotel. The building is the second oldest building in Johannesburg and was built in 1898. Today, the building is part of the restored Braamfontein area that is frequented by students. The clientele varies depending on when you go the and the difference between the crowd while the sun is up and after sunset is, well, night and day. It is all encapsulated in their slogan, “local pub by day, legendary parties by night”. The place still maintains its old-style aesthetic and is a cool escape for an alternative vibe. There are live performances most days of the week, with a heavy alternative influence.
Vilakazi is the street that where the former South African president, Nelson Mandela lived. The street is located in the town ship of Soweto, 10 km south of the city centre. The old has which Mandela and his family lived in has been preserved as a museum and is now a popular tourist destination. The street has been developed into a vibey area with lounges and events where you can spend the day eating local food like Kota and getting the sense of the average South African. Visit the place for a laid-back afternoon, and together with a local tour operator, get to know the history of this part of the liberation struggle of South Africa.
Things To Do In Johannesburg
Maboneng is one of the hottest places to visit in Johannesburg. It has a variety of activities form food markets to rooftop bars to even art galleries and food stalls. The name, meaning place of light is taken after the colloquial name of Johannesburg itself. It is the result of an urban regenerated project that renewed part of the Johannesburg city centre to a lively hub of activity with an artistic flair. There is a prominent security presence in the area so it is the rare exception of a completely safe place to visit in the Johannesburg city centre. There are, however, occurrences of petty crime like pick pocketing and snatching of cellphones so practice care with valuable items like cellphones.
If you are looking for an adrenaline rush while you are in Johannesburg, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better option than this one. Visitors can bungee jump from a platform in between the two 100m high towers. There are additional ways to descend the tower like abseiling and SCAD free-falling. If jumping from the tower is a bit too exciting for your tastes, there is still stuff for you to do at the Towers. For the more faint of heart, you can head up just to take in the 360 degree view of Soweto. Other activities that are available at the location are wall climbing and paintball shooting.
Neighbourgoods is an outdoor market in the trendy Braamfontein area. It offers the perfect mix of great food, great music and friendly people. You can visit various food stalls that serve varied food for every taste. The mood is set at the entrance where you are met by a band that play musical instruments and ladies singing. The place encapsulates the diversity of South Africa, from the food, to the music to the people. Upstairs above the market is an upper deck where you will find great views for taking photos. The market operates on only one day of the week, every Saturday from 9am to 3pm. So if you have had an eventful Friday night, be sure to wake up early to make it to Neighbourgoods in time and revel in some laid back vibes.
South African Breweries World of Beer
Located in Newton, the South African Breweries World of beer is a museum is one of the most popular tourist spots in South Africa. The tour will take you through the history of beer and it’s role in culture and economy. The tour will give you insight into beer from its ancient origins, to the South African and European heritage. The museum attracts more than 50,000 visitors a year and operates every day of the week from 10:00 to 18:00. If you are so inclined, you can combine the tour with a beer tasting and sample some of the finest beers South Africa has to offer.
Nestled in the heart of Sandton, Taboo is easily the most recognizable name in nightlife in South Africa. It is also one of the biggest nightclubs in Johannesburg, with three floors and an outside area that can accommodate up to 1300 guests combined. Taboo Nightclub in Sandton is the longest surviving nightclub in South Africa, and with good reason. In the nightclub industry, many come and go but Taboo is a mainstay and has been around for 15 years.
Madison Avenue, or Maddies at it is affectionately known hosts a more casual vibe, with more of a student crowd. The music spans house, commercial and “old School” music. Saturdays are hosted by Buddhafunk, the brainchild of DJ’s Jason 2Ray and DJ Neal bringing an eastern influence to Joburg’s night scene.
Onyx is the kid on the block in the nightclub scene and has become a contender for the top choice right out of the gate. It is located in the Michaelangelo Towers and is open from Thursday to Sunday. Their genre selection varies on each different day to appeal to different music tastes so the crowd changes from day to day.
Tiger’s Milk in Cedar Square, Fourways might not be a nightclub in the common sense but it is one of the best places to visit on a night out. It is a restaurant that serves “Dude Food” and is open until 12AM. On the weekend it is always abuzz with patrons enjoying themselves to drinks and good food.
Saint is an upmarket Restobar (restaurant with a bar) in the heart of Sandton city centre. Saint is one of the premium locations for a night out and the attention to detail is in the place is impressive. The venue is cosy and elegantly furnished with contemporary decor to give a high end atmosphere. An intimate dinner and an after-work drink are equally at home in this location. The ambience is great. the services is excellent and the food is fantastic so if you are anywhere in the area, be sure to give Saint a visit.
Soiree caters to the mature upmarket clientele. The venue is elegant, sophisticated and service is always on point. They have a wide variety of drinks and serve quality snacks, and staff are always friendly, consistent and efficient.
Randlords is one of the most exclusive night venues in Johannesburg. Perched at the highest point in Braamfontein, you have a 360 degree birds eye view of Johannesburg, with views of the FNB stadium to the south, and the Sandton skyline to the north. Breathtaking during the day, the place really comes alive at night and gives sense to the term Jozi Maboneng. If you are looking for an exclusive cocktail event with eye-pleasing décor, Randlords is a good bet. Just remember to come dressed to the nines.
Cellphone And WiFi Connectivity
You can get a local sim card if you want to keep in touch with loved ones and friends from home. To get a sim card, you need to go through what is known as the RICA process, which means that you need to provide identification documents.
The rates for calling are around R2 on average across the different cellphone carrier networks. This can be quite high relative to other places in the world. If you are staying in South Africa for an extended period, you will have to choose a network after considering the trade-off between reliable network reception and price. When it comes to
price, the best cellphone networks are Telkom Mobile and Cell-C. Where they fail is in reliability, particularly when you move out of the urban city areas to more remote places. Vodacom has the best reception of all but also the highest prices. If you are staying in Johannesburg you can opt for other networks but if you plan to travel to more remote areas and still get reception, you want to go with the best carrier quality which Vodacom and followed by MTN.
WiFi coverage in Johannesburg is not as wide-reaching as some might expect but it is improving and most of the key destinations that you will visit in the urban areas will have WiFi. Most of the hotels will also have fiber internet if the infrastructure is available in the area, otherwise there will be ADSL internet. So at the end of the day you can catch up with all your social media activities with no issues.
Is Johannesburg Safe?
Johannesburg is a city with both excellent and bad parts. South Africa itself is one of the most unequal countries in the world, and being the economic capital of the country, Johannesburg is the prime example, where you will find both highly affluent and poor areas. One of the effects of this is an increased crime rate so you should be aware of which places in Johannesburg you can visit and which are not safe. Most visitors to Johannesburg will spend most of their time in the Northern areas of Johannesburg and to a lesser extent, visit areas near the South or heritage sites in the West Rand like the Cradle of Humankind.
Outside of gated communities, you should not walk in the streets at night in any of the areas. Even in safer areas. you can find opportunistic crime. As far as townships go, the only one that is visited by tourists is Soweto because of its rich history. There are many tour operators in the area and visits here are best with a guide and relegated only to the day.
Johannesburg has no environmental diseases so if you are traveling there you don’t have to worry about taking preventative medication or prophylaxis. You only need to worry about these if Johannesburg is one of the stopovers of a trip and you intend on attending Safaris in areas like the Kruger National Park which have malaria.
Safe Drinking Water
You can drink water straight from the tap in any part of Johannesburg you will be visiting. The water in Johannesburg is supplied by Rand Water which provides water benchmarked against global standards and scores a score of 100 for potability (that’s a fancy word meaning water that you can drink).
If you insist on bottled water, however, it is sold practically everywhere and there are plenty of bottled water shops at many shopping centres so you can buy by the litre and bring your own water cans if you want to stockpile. The price for a litre of water from a water start is typically between R1 and R1.50.
In Johannesburg (and South Africa at large) the best medical services are found in private healthcare. The private hospitals are world-class. If you need medical attention, there are services available to meet your needs. Like if you go anywhere else, it is always advisable to have your travel insurance in order. This will ensure that in the chance that you need medical treatment, you will be fine.
Whenever traveling through South Africa, it is worth knowing the three emergency numbers, just in case.
The number for police is 10111
The number for an ambulance line is 10177
The emergency number if you are on a cellphone is 112
All of these numbers are toll free be sure to have at least the cellphone emergency number in your wallet.
Places To Visit Near Johannesburg
Cradle Of Humankind
The Cradle of Humankind is not just considered a South African cultural site. It has been declared a world heritage site by the United Nations. Africa is the birthplace of the human race and the Cradle of Humankind is considered as such thanks to the large number of fossils found in the area, as well as containing some of the word’s oldest human
fossils. Little Foot, the oldest, most complete human fossil was discovered at this site.
Maropeng and the Sterkfontein Caves are the official visitors’ centres for the Cradle of Humankind. The Maropeng visitors’ centre is a museum and exhibition focusing on the development of the human species. You can view fossils and other artefacts that give a picture of the evolution of the human race. If you want to take a break for a snack there are restaurants in the precinct that have meals that cater to all tastes. The Sterkfontein Caves are the discovery site of two of South Africa and the world’s most famous hominid fossils, Mrs Ples and Little Foot.
The visitors centres are open every day from 9am to 5pm. They are very popular tourist destinations so before going, be sure to call the centre to ensure that they are not full booked.
Dinokeng Game Reserve is just an hour away from Johannesburg and has all the away-from-the-city attractions that will please any tourist. It is the nearest Big Five location to Johannesburg at only 75km away. You can get away from the bright lights of the city and enjoy the wildlife and diverse flora of the South African Bushveld. Take a hot air balloon ride to see it all from a birds eye view. The accommodation is enough to fit your needs. There are self-catering units, bed and breakfast chalets, and if you really want to be close to nature, you can camp or caravan on one of the designates sites.
The Best Time To Visit Johannesburg?
The best time to visit Johannesburg is between September and March, which mark the Spring to Summer seasons in South Africa. Most of the activities you will want to see or partake in are focused on the warmer months of the year. Most events activities of interest are best enjoyed in Summer and there are no activities in South Africa that can only be experienced in Winter.
This being Africa, the citizens of South Africa are people of the sun. So people will tend to stay at home a lot more during the colder seasons. The possible plus is that there will be fewer people out so if you want to see less traffic at spots to visit, Winter might be the ideal time for you.
Johannesburg is the economic heart of South Africa and of Africa. While not being an official capital of South Africa, it is the de facto capital that most people in the world know more than any other city in South Africa. There is a lot to see there and it presents a tourist experience that is unique. From the history as the site of once the world’s largest gold producing city, to a now increasingly developed metropolis, it is well worth the visit experience.