We’ve reached the end of our trip in Africa — wrapping up the last 24 hours in Johannesburg, a city known for its seedy reputation. While planning our 2 week vacation, I wasn’t sure that ending it in Johannesburg would be a good idea. Would it be safe? Could we go out at night?
The cheapest return flight to Los Angeles was out of Johannesburg. I can’t pass up a bargain, so I booked the flights and worried about the consequences later! But I am so glad we did — Kevin and I ended up having a fantastic time. Within the past few years, Johannesburg has been making a comeback — with a lively arts district, food halls and cultural events.
Though, we both agreed that it was a little unsettling that nearly every place in Johannesburg had a sign that we were “entering at our own risk.” Even our fancy hotel made us sign a waiver basically saying they weren’t liable if something happened to us on the property!
While there are parts that have an eerie, abandoned feel, a majority of the areas you’ll be visiting as a tourist are safe. Even with signs plastered everywhere warning of imminent demise, we didn’t feel unsafe. In many ways, it reminded us of Los Angeles — a sprawling city with pockets of communities that can be drastically different from one neighborhood to the next.
Johannesburg just takes a little research to figure out. Just like LA, you need to plan it out to maximize your time. Below are the top things to check out. And I’m certain you’ll love it as much as we did.
Neighborhood Guide: Where Should You Stay?
Picking the right neighborhood is critical to visiting Johannesburg. We opted for Rosebank, a high-end shopping district located in the Northern part of the city. And can’t recommend the Monarch Hotel enough ($180 USD a night) — it’s basically like Fort Knox with 24/7 security, video cameras and vault-like doors locked at all times. The hotel is also located inside a shopping complex. So if you are a shopper, it’s sort of a dream! There is a particularly nice indoor African craft market within steps of the hotel. It was perfect for those last minute gifts!
But to be totally honest, the main reason I booked a hotel in Rosebank was because it’s the only place in ALL of South Africa with a Starbucks. And I figured, if there is a Starbucks in the neighborhood, it must be pretty high end. And the Starbucks in Johannesburg did not disappoint. We used it as our base throughout the day and of course loved the free Wifi.
Must-Visit Site: Apartheid Museum
The Apartheid Museum alone is worth visiting Johannesburg. Many of the museums in South Africa were a little underwhelming. But nothing prepared Kevin and I for just how incredibly moving this museum would be.
The entrance of the museum replicates the race classification system where whites and non-whites were separated. When you buy your ticket, you’ll be told which entrance to go to. Inside, you’re confronted with a series of I.D. cards and photos of the committees that determined who you were. Needless to say, the injustice of apartheid is quickly seen as you pass signs for “European only” benches and read personal accounts of families being displaced based on their race.
We spent nearly 3 hours inside this museum — and honestly could have spent even more time. What struck me the most was the video footage of hate groups marching through the streets with their children in tow. The moment illustrated just how hate can be taught. But there were some uplifting parts of this museum — like the rise of Nelson Mandela and his inclusive and progressive constitution now guiding the country.
Tour Pick: Soweto Township
During your time in South Africa, you will hear about townships (segregated urban areas that were reserved for non-whites from the late 19th century until the end of apartheid in the 1990s). Soweto is a cluster of townships, on the south-western flank of Johannesburg and was created in the 1930s. It is the biggest black urban settlement in Africa with a rich political history.
This township is massive so we recommend joining a full-day Soweto tour, including a stop at the Apartheid Museum, with Illios Travel ($100 USD per person). The major reason I went with this company is that you get a local guide who actually lives in Soweto. Also, most importantly, you travel by a small 8-passenger van. We saw 60-passenger tour buses rolling through the neighborhood and something just seemed a little exploitative with that approach.
There is a major sense of pride for those who live in this township. And we have to admit, the township was a lot nicer than we expected. There certainly was major poverty and ramshackle housing. But we never expected to also see high-end gated homes, a major hospital and even a pilates studio! The full day tour goes through the history of the neighborhood and makes key stops at Nelson Mandela’s home on Vilakazi Street (the only street in the world with 2 Noble Peace Prize winners), the Hector Pieterson Museum and other landmarks.
Arts and Culture: The Maboneng Precinct
Like the rest of inner-city Johannesburg, the Maboneng Precinct was once, a no-go area. When apartheid ended in 1994 and Nelson Mandela led his party to power in the country’s first democratic elections, a crime wave swept through the city. As businesses relocated to the relative safety of Johannesburg’s northern suburbs (like Rosebank), squatters moved into the vacated buildings; car-jackings were common and walking any time day or night was off limits.
But today it’s a different story. Maboneng, a Sotho word meaning “place of light”, is a fitting name for a district that has fast become a center of creativity for Johannesburg’s urban artists.
With a mix of restaurants, coffee shops, clothing boutiques, art galleries, and retail and studio space, the precinct draws the inner-city public as well as the chic, art-going crowd of the city’s suburbs, bringing life back to this downtown Johannesburg neighborhood. The place can still be pretty dead on a weekday, and is best explored during the weekend food market along the Arts on Main warehouse.
Melville, located in the Northern suburbs (about a 10 minute Uber ride from Rosebank) is a great place to visit for dinner. We were there on a Wednesday night when the shopping complex 27Boxes hosts a night market. This is the place to be on a Wednesday night with live music, tarot card readings and art!
After exploring the market, we had our final dinner at one of the best places we ate at in Africa called Lucky Bean. The restaurant is low-key and specializes in South African dishes. Though I tried ordering a veggie burger (which doesn’t actually exist on the menu!). I had a hard time picking out what to eat, so ended up going with the ostrich filet. I know, not even remotely like a veggie burger! But it was really tender, and no, it didn’t taste like chicken!
Join a Local at a Night Festival
While Cape Town was a beautiful city and much more tourist-friendly, we were shocked at the amount of evening festivals in Johannesburg. I used Facebook of all things to find out about the evening Rosebank Art Walk (held the first Thursday of the month). But as I looked through the calendar on Facebook I was surprised to see the number of evening festivals throughout the month.
This is my kind of event – and was the perfect send-off to our trip. The art galleries were also all open and worth exploring – even if it wasn’t exactly our taste!
While Facebook is a fantastic way to discover local events, you can also visit the local events site here to find out what is happening. While Johannesburg might not look like much on the surface, you’ll find there is so much more if you give it a chance!