11 Awesome Things to Do in Johannesburg
Johannesburg is one of South Africa's most underrated cities, with plenty of awesome things to do and places to visit...
Johannesburg might have a grittier reputation than the likes of Cape Town and Durban but the lively city is turning itself around. Neglected, abandoned buildings are being reclaimed and renovated, and new developments, cafés, markets, galleries, restaurants and more are popping up all over.
So, here are a few of our favourite things to do in and around Jo’burg:
Meander through Maboneng
In Jozi – as the city is affectionately known by locals – people tend to catch cabs everywhere. So if you wander around on your own, you’re gonna stand out pretty obviously as a tourist. That said, with the right guide, exploring on foot is a great way to discover the city’s hidden gems, just like the cool district of Maboneng.
Meaning “place of light,” Maboneng is one of Jozi’s biggest success stories. Thanks to clever redevelopment, it’s been transformed from one of the most dangerous parts of the city into a safe, cool area which actively supports young, local entrepreneurs.
Its laid-back vibe makes it is a great place to grab a coffee from an independent café (you won’t find the likes of Maccas and Starbucks here) and check out the towering murals and graffiti from internationally renowned artists.
Make your stay a work of art
Being surrounded by so much artwork in Maboneng, it seemed only appropriate to stay in Curiocity Backpacker’s 12 Decades Art Hotel. Here, the rooms have been conceptualised by some of South Africa’s most celebrated artists, each representing a different period in the city’s history. Ours – “Minehaus” – was a nod to 1916-1926 gold-rush mining with modern touches from the De Stijl and Bauhaus design movements in the furnishings. Not only was the room itself totally chic but our door opened straight into the building’s art gallery.
Picnic in the sky
Maboneng’s Arts on Main is home to an awesome Sunday food market (10am-3pm) where you can feast on wraps, falafel, brownies, waffles, smoothies, burgers, paella and more. While it’s all very well to eat in the market itself, we decided to chow down on our goodies with a 360 view of the sprawling city. So, we jumped onto Curiocity Backpackers’ “picnic in the sky” experience. After agonising over which of the delicious-looking dishes to choose, we packed our treats into cute woven picnic baskets (provided by our tour guide) and headed to the Carlton Centre building. On the 50th floor, we had a leisurely lunch – picnic blanket and all – and admired the view. Byob is allowed if you want to crack open a bottle of wine too. Brilliant.
Find some treasures
It’s also worth popping into the second largest second-hand bookstore in Southern Hemisphere: the Collectors Treasury… this treasure trove is positively creaking with cool stuff: over two million books piled high on every surface (plus a load of random bric-a-brac) to be precise!
Go on a game drive
It might be the most famous but Kruger isn’t the only option when it comes to South African safaris. Pilanesberg Game Reserve might not be the biggest park in South Africa (it’s fourth biggest and home to all of the Big Five, for the record) but it didn’t disappoint. We stopped every few minutes as yet another animal came into view: the wiggling butt of a warthog dashing away from the road, a grumpy elephant blocking our path and lion cubs so adorable they looked like a cartoon.
Take a walk on the wild side
Feeling brave? You’ll need to if you’re going to jump out of your game vehicle and trek into the bush on foot. While our ranger did carry a gun for protection (eeek), he assured us he’d never had to use it before (phew) and, luckily for us, didn’t need to on this excursion. Honestly, the animals were much warier of us than we were of them but, while our walking safari didn’t allow us to get as close as we could have done in a vehicle, standing in the middle of the savannah with a family of wild rhino hanging out just a few metres away was one of the most breath-taking experiences of my life.
It was especially thrilling (read: terrifying) when the wind changed and Mama and Papa Rhino could smell that we were nearby. Spoiler: they weren’t too happy about it so, hearts pounding, we backed away slowly. Thankfully, despite our close encounter, we returned home safely without becoming anyone’s dinner. OBVIOUSLY never do this without a qualified ranger – walking safaris are not a DIY kinda trip!
You can’t go to South Africa without having a braai. After a long day, we were ravenous and piled our plates high with meat, fish, boerewors (essentially, massive sausages), vetkoek (a traditional South African fried dough), salad and pap (a kind of cornmeal porridge, a bit like polenta). After eating ourselves into a food coma we realised – too late – that we hadn’t left room for dessert. But, don’t worry, being total troopers, we managed to find room for some malva pudding dolloped in custard. Deelish.
Up, up and away
We were totally chill about going thousands of feet high in a hot air balloon until we actually started to lurch, inch by inch, off the floor. But, by the time our basket started creeping into the air, it was a bit late to turn back: the only way was up. With the Bill of Bill Harrop’s Original Balloon Safaris at the helm, we were in good (if not slightly eccentric) hands. Expertly adding powerful blasts of hot air when we needed to soar a little higher, he regaled us with stories and reassurances that ballooning is the safest aviation sport in the world – phew!
With the sun rising over the Magaliesberg mountain range behind us, we drifted over the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage site until our hour was up. Landing with the gentlest of bumps in a nearby field, we were greeted by a glass of champagne as we stepped out of our basket – imo, the best way to be greeted when arriving at any destination.
Soweto – short for South Western Townships – is the largest township in South Africa and the area where Nelson Mandela lived with his family for many years. As part of our two-hour Soweto Backpackers bicycle tour, we cycled around the main areas of the township, saw Nelson Mandela’s house and visited the memorial of Hector Pieterson, a schoolboy who was shot and killed by police in 1976 when joining his elder sister in a peaceful protest against the implementation of Afrikaans in schools. With lots of rest stops, the cycle isn’t too taxing but be prepared for a few hills and the challenge of having to high-five giggling kids on both sides at once as you go.
Check out the Newtown Heads
Another area of Jozi known for its graffiti is Newtown. Whereas Maboneng showcases a range of international artists, Newtown’s murals are predominantly by local artists. We joined a walking tour with PAST Experiences (be careful of your cameras and valuables if you visit alone) to see the “Newtown Heads” public art project. These 560 sculptures were created in early 2000s and relaunched in 2018 with lost, missing and stolen sculptures replaced and damaged artworks refurbished.
Finally, for the daredevils among you, let off some steam Magaliesberg Canopy Tour by throwing yourself off a ledge and soaring across a deep canyon – while attached to a zipwire, of course.
MTV Travelled With... Hayes & Jarvis (01293 762 456), which offers a 7 night holiday to South Africa from £1,619 per person including three nights B&B at the Garden Court Sandton, Johannesburg, followed by four nights full-board at the Bakubung Bush Lodge, Pilanesberg, car hire and return international flights from London Heathrow with South African Airways. Based on departures the 3rd April 2019. Ring to book. For more information please visit www.southafrica.net