Johannesburg: Just a transit point? Think again!

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South African guide Lesley is our guest blogger today. Having lived in the Gauteng area for fifty years, Lesley has a wealth of knowledge about the region’s historical, cultural and natural attractions – and a love of imparting local knowledge to visitors. Below she offers thoughtful suggestions on getting the most out of your visit to her hometown of Johannesburg, when time is a factor.

Many people are under the impression that there is very little to see or do in Johannesburg. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In many ways, Johannesburg encapsulates South Africa – the good and the bad. It is a young city that grew incredibly fast – from 0 to 120,000 people in just four years – and that brash, go-getter attitude of the early times has not entirely been lost. There is an energetic feeling to the city that is not found anywhere else in South Africa.

Exploring this city and its surrounding areas is fascinating – there is history, from the oldest to the most recent; the natural world; adventure; art and architecture; cultural experiences; fabulous restaurants; music; shopping – the list goes on. The only restriction is time!

For those visiting Johannesburg for a short time, such as an airport layover, distance must be considered. The city sprawls, and travelling time can be long. Trying to do too much will result in a rush, and possibly having to cut a museum visit short. Some museums are very small, and half an hour to forty minutes will suffice, whereas others need two to three or more hours. Below you’ll find five itinerary suggestions to help you learn as much as you can about the history and culture of my city, in as little time as possible.

Beginnings – why is it here?

This city is perched on a rocky ridge with very little natural water – not exactly the best place for a large city. So why here? The history of the city makes an entertaining morning, with time for one short museum visit. If the air is clear, a visit to the top of the Carlton Centre provides a panoramic view.


This cultural museum, housed in the old Fresh Produce Market in Newtown Cultural precinct, is well worth a visit. Exhibits range from the living spaces of a cross-section of society, including a shanty town, to clothing exhibits and the Ben-Susan Museum of Photography. Close by on Mary Fitzgerald Square is the Workers Museum and Library, the Turbine Hall and the Electric Workshop.

City to Soweto – Apartheid’s start

The gold rush started a mining industry hungry for labour, and the emphasis was firmly on the exploitation of the rich resources as fast as possible. So how did this result in apartheid? Trace the origins through the city to the Walter Sisulu Square of Remembrance where the Freedom Charter, the basis of our Constitution, was drawn up; the Hector Pietersen Memorial which commemorates the student uprising of 1976; and Nelson Mandela House Museum.

Apartheid Museum

Leading on from Soweto, the Apartheid Museum is a wonderful experience. It examines apartheid in all its forms, tracing the story from beginning to end. To fully appreciate the museum and its additional exhibits, a visit of 2-3 hours is recommended. This is a truly world-class museum.

Constitution Hill

The foundation of our new democracy is the Constitution, and the Constitutional Court – the highest court in the land – has its home on the site of The Fort. It was built in 1892 as a prison and buildings were added until the 1920s. The prison housed all the liberation movement leaders over time, as well as Ghandi and many trades-unionists. A visit to this wonderful museum will take about 2 hours, and is great in combination with a short city tour.

If you’re headed to Jo-burg anytime soon, for business or pleasure, in transit or as your final destination, consider contacting Lesley to make the most of your time there. One thing she didn’t mention in this article is that in addition to her knowledge of urban areas, she’s also an expert on South African wildlife, and is a registered field guide.
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