48 Hours in Johannesburg

South Africa’s largest city is one of the country’s major cultural hubs and a thriving destination in its own right. Our guide helps you get the most out of your stay.

Photograph by Greg Giessing
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Johannesburg is a metropolis in motion, with new buildings and revitalised districts rising up around the city.
Photograph by Greg Giessing

It wasn’t so long ago that visitors only tended to stop in Johannesburg en route to safari in Kruger National Park.

An exciting arts scene, revitalized historic districts, and award-winning restaurants have made the capital of Gauteng province a go-to escape for travelers wanting an authentic and immersive urban experience.

“Jo’burg really has become a world-class city.” says Bruce Beattie, local restaurateur and Director of Union Leisure. “Visit a neighborhood like Sandton and it feels as cosmopolitan as London or New York with its eateries, shopping and bars, yet you’re only a stone’s throw away from the Cradle of Humankind.”

The Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site is an area of outstanding natural beauty, and home to 40 percent of the world’s human ancestor fossils.

Downtown, Maboneng, whose name comes from the Sesotho – one of the major languages spoken in South Africa - word that translate as “place of light,” has been appropriately transformed into a bright, collaborative hub with art studios, restaurants, bars and a thriving independent cinema, The Bioscope, attracting creatives, locals and visitors alike.

And the township of Soweto – which holds a pivotal place in South Africa’s socio-political history, and was once home to former President, Nelson Mandela – is now one of the city’s most dynamic districts, offering a warm welcome to visitors who come to experience its festivals, music and food, or bungee jumping 320ft from Soweto Towers.

Here’s what to do with 48 hours in this exciting, ever-evolving city…

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A visit to the moving Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg’s Gold Reef City is key to understanding the country’s history.

DAY ONE

Morning: Walk Through History

Find your place in Jo’burg with a walking tour. South Africa’s “City of Gold” sprung up when rich deposits were discovered in the 1880s, sparking the Witwatersrand gold rush. The miners’ village, known as Ferreira’s Camp, boomed, and within just 10 years became the biggest town in South Africa: Johannesburg was born.

Near the site today is Chancellor House, where Nelson Mandela and fellow anti-apartheid politician Oliver Tambo set up the city’s first black law firm, while opposite stands Shadow Boxer, Marco Cianfanelli’s monumental statue of a young, fighting-fit Mandela.

Amidst redeveloped industrial spaces, skyscrapers and vibrant flourishes of dynamic street art, some heritage buildings remain, including City Hall and Braamfontein’s Constitution Hill, once a prison that held Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi, now home to a museum and the Constitutional Court of South Africa.

Daily walking tours leave from Park Station’s Gautrain concourse – just pay your guide what you think the tour is worth. Want a more extreme experience? Sign up with City Skate Tours’ Ayanda Mnyandu for a skateboarding lesson, before taking a whiz on wheels around the city.

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Murals decorate a wall in Downtown Johannesburg, highlighting aspects of the country’s vibrant, diverse culture.

Afternoon: Strike Gold

Above the spot where miners once toiled, Johannesburgers now seek golden treasure of the liquid kind at the Mad Giant Brewery. Set within a rejuvenated industrial space, 1 Fox Precinct, the brewery offers tours and tastings, and produces world-class malt beers to stand alone, or pair with Asian street food from restaurant, Urbanologi. The menu, designed by executive chef Jack Coetzee, packs a punch with sharing plates created from locally sourced, sustainable produce, cooked in the open-plan kitchen. After lunch, drop in to the Ginologist distillery, to try their three unique flavors of South Africa’s spirit du jour.

Evening: Sample the Neighborhoods

Johannesburg’s food and drink scenes have exploded in the past few years, with the city’s characterful neighborhoods offering a diverse range of options for sundowners and dinner.

In the mood for some upmarket wining and dining? Sandton is the place. Dubbed the ”The Richest Square Mile in Africa,” this area is a financial, shopping and entertainment hub, signposted by the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. Here you’ll find gleaming towers such as Sandton City and The MARC which form multi-use office spaces with upscale malls on the lower levels, Nelson Mandela Square, with its swish eateries watched over by a six-meter-tall bronze statue of Mandela, and impressive dining venues like supper club, Alice & Fifth, and decadent Italian joint, Saint.

Parkwood, Parktown North and Parkhurst, within five minutes of each other, have more of a hipster feel, with vibey independent bars and restaurants. Social Parkwood celebrates local craft beers and gin, while next door’s Saigon Suzy offers authentic Vietnamese food including bao and pho, plus private karaoke booths upstairs in the kitsch No Tell Motel.

In contrast, the 12 Decades Johannesburg Art Hotel in Joburg’s cultural Maboneng Precinct – a regenerated district at the epicenter of the city’s thriving art scene – is definitely worth shouting about. South African artists and designers, including Kim Lieberman and Mikhael Subotzky have conceptualized the rooms, which reflect different periods in the city’s history. And if you’re an artist yourself, you’re in luck – donate an artwork and you can stay for free.

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A Soweto guide drinks Umqombothi, traditional Xhosa beer made from maize meal, corn and sorghum malt, yeast and water.

DAY TWO

Morning: Journey from Dark into Light

Ease your way into the day at one of the laid-back cafes in Maboneng. Eat Your Heart Out is a local favorite, with healthy, Jewish-inspired dishes and all-day breakfast options including shakshuka, latka and kitka toast. While you’re there, drop into Arts on Main, a revamped industrial space with galleries, studios and boutiques. South African artist, William Kentridge, has a space here and local design label, Love Jozi, has moved in, too.

Set aside a minimum of two hours to visit the Apartheid Museum, 15 minutes’ drive from Maboneng at Gold Reef City. Archive images, artifacts, and video footage take visitors on an emotional journey from the dark days of segregation into a brighter, hopeful future for all South Africans.

Afternoon: Explore Soweto

A visit to Joburg’s famous township of Soweto is a must, with its historic landmarks, lively streets and squares that pulse all day with impromptu music and dance, and buzzy shebeens (a local term for bars that originated with Irish miners who came in the gold rush) that fill with residents and tourists at night.

There are plenty of ways to explore this former neighborhood of Nobel Peace Prize winners, Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, including tours by tuk-tuk, bicycle, and quad-bike, where you’ll meet the locals and soak up the township’s ebullient street life.

Visit the small museum at Mandela House, former home of the President, then join the locals at Soweto institution, Chaf Pozi, to experience shisa nyama (a traditional South African communal barbecue), before you leave (and definitely after you bungee from the iconic Soweto Towers above).

Evening: Catch a Film

Choose from an extensive list of South Africa’s less-discovered wines and nibble on empanadas or tacos as you catch the sunset from the terrace at Hispanic-inspired eatery, La Boqueria in Parktown. Then kick back with a movie at The Bioscope, an independent cinema in Maboneng. Screening local, international and classic films to a hip, creative crowd who watch from comfortable, repurposed car seats, The Bioscope reflects the inspirational ethos and spirit driving the city. Independent and bold, revitalizing old to create new, pushing boundaries and challenging the mainstream: the time for Jo’burg is now.

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