Africa is a continent of misperceptions. Not so much from people who live there, but from people who live outside of the continent. It’s frustrating to see these misperceptions perpetuated in the media, by movies, celebrities, government officials, and even the president of the United States. Take Johannesburg, for instance. Prior to visiting there, even I carried some misperceptions about the city. But after spending 48 hours in Johannesburg, I realized my ideas of the city were wrong.
As a blogger, I feel it’s my mission to spread a more positive view of the African continent. While it is true that the continent has pockets of areas that are facing extreme poverty or extreme danger, there are just as many (if not more) places in the continent that are rich in beauty, wealth, and culture. Even Johannesburg, which has a reputation for being a dangerous city, has many wonderful attractions worth visiting.
In 2016, on my way back from a work trip to Zambia, I had the opportunity to spend a few days in Johannesburg on an extended layover. I was so excited to get a chance to explore Johannesburg, as I had not yet had an opportunity to visit South Africa. When my company’s travel agent booked the flights for me, I realized that I would be spending a layover in Johannesburg. So I requested that they add an extra day for the layover so that I could actually spend some time in the city. I’m glad I did, because I had such a great time.
Johannesburg is the largest city in South Africa, and traces its roots to gold, when it was discovered in the area in the late 1800’s. Since then, it has grown into one of the 50 largest urban cities in the world, and the most populous city in South Africa. The city, like much of South Africa, also has a very complicated and racially-tinged history. The gold industry perpetuated a system of racial separation, with Europeans and non-Africans at the top, and native black Africans at the bottom, working the mines. This system of separation was institutionalized by the South African in the form of Apartheid. It wasn’t until the 1990’s that Apartheid was abolished, and black Africans were actually able to vote and have a say in their government. Since then, the country has made great strides in becoming a more racially accepting society, although sadly, racial inequities still exist.
With my limited knowledge of South African history, I spent my 48 hours in Johannesburg, staying at a lovely bed and breakfast owned by an Afrikaans woman who’s family has lived in Johannesburg for generations. It was a short visit, but I enjoyed every minute. At the end of my visit, I was sad to leave, and couldn’t wait to come back.
If you find yourself with 48 hours in Johannesburg, here are my top 4 picks of what to do in the city:
Learn about South Africa’s history at Apartheid Museum
South Africa’s history can be a bit difficult to take in. During the years that Apartheid was legal, black South Africans were forced to carry around identification papers and were prohibited from marrying non-black South Africans. They also faced a lot more legal hurdles to attaining higher education, compared to their non-black peers.
The Apartheid Museum, located in the southwestern part of the city, is a great introduction to South African history. The museum experience includes interactive displays, videos, and photos. Admission is 85 Rand for adults, and 70 Rand for kids. Guided tours are available for an additional cost.
Tour Soweto by bike
I always enjoy doing physical activities during my travels. Most of the time, I end up walking around cities that I’m visiting, but given the warnings I was given about safety prior to my visit to Johannesburg, I thought this time around, I would go for a more structured tour. Through Trip Advisor, I came across the Soweto Bicycle Tours, organized by Lebo’s Backpackers, a hostel in Soweto.
Soweto is a township in Johannesburg, where uprisings against the South African government’s enforcement of Afrikaans education during Apartheid took place. The township is almost entirely populated by black South Africans, and makes up about 1/3 of Johannesburg’s population. It’s also an area of Johannesburg that still faces a lot of poverty.
The bicycle tour was a good way to understand the township and its history a bit better. We rode past abandoned government housing projects, visited the Hector Pieterson Memorial, where the Soweto Uprising began, visited Nelson Mandela’s house, and even sampled locally brewed beer. Bike tours range from 2 hours to 4 hours to full day tours. Lebo’s provides bicycles and helmets, and a knowledgeable guide to take you to all the sites. Afterward, you can stay and enjoy a meal at the hostel. Starting at 470 Rand for a 2 hour tour, it was well worth the money.
Soak up fine art at the Wits Art Museum
A visit to a city for me isn’t complete without a trip to the art museum. I love soaking up fine art. For me, walking through a fine art museum is akin to meditation, except that you’re surrounded by so many beautiful things! The Wits Art Museum at the University of Witswatersrand is a relaxing place to spend a morning. Housing an extensive collection of historical and contemporary African art, it really provides a unique view of the culture of the continent. One of the common misperceptions about Africa is that it’s not as culturally developed as Europe of North America, but the caliber of art work at the Wits Art Museum really rivals those found at MOMA or the Louvre.
The Wits Art Museum is open Wednesdays through Sundays from 10am to 4pm. Admission is free, although donations are welcome.
Discover your inner archaeologist at the Cradle of Humankind
Prior to coming to Johannesburg, my coworker recommended that I visit the Cradle of Humankind. Though not technically in the city, proper, the Cradle of Humankind is worth visiting if you’re in Johannesburg.
Located around 50km northwest of Johannesburg, in Maropeng, the Cradle of Humankind is a paleoanthropological site that is also designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Many of the first ape-man fossil discoveries were found at this site, and visitors can come and learn about some of those early discoveries through exhibits at the Cradle of Humankind. A visit to the Maropeng Visitor Center is 120 Rand for adults, and 65 Rand for kids aged 4-14. A visit to the Sterkfontein Caves is 165 Rand for adults, and 97 Rand for kids aged 4-14. I was disappointed that I didn’t have my kids during this visit, but that just means I’ll have to take them back next time.
Johannesburg was a great city to visit, vibrant with culture and history, and a lot easier to get around than I expected. Contrary to many of the perceptions of Africa, it’s not a city completely wrought with danger and poverty, although there are certainly pockets of the city facing poverty. Like any major city in the world, its wise to be prudent and aware of your surroundings, but that also shouldn’t stop you from visiting and exploring.
These four places are a great starting point for spending 48 hours in Johannesburg, or even more, if time allows. Are you ready to get on a plane and visit Johannesburg?
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