This post is part of a series about my 5 weeks of solo travel. Read the introduction here, check out the first stop on my itinerary (Italy) here, and if you’re curious about the costs, you can check out my saving and spending.
It took me so long to get to Johannesburg, and my flight there was so uncomfortable, that by the time I arrived I was hardly sure what day it was. All I wanted to do was get to my hostel and collapse onto a bed. Alas! That was not to be. I stayed at Curiocity, and though I could drop my bags it was too early to check into my room. Thus, I unintentionally jumped straight into the itinerary I had planned. This post is going to tell you all about what I did – hope it’s helpful as a Joburg travel guide. Enjoy!
Market on Main
Curiocity is on Fox Street in a district called Maboneng. Lucky for me, just up the road is the Market on Main. I knew from my research that I wanted to check it out, but it only happens on Sundays; the day I arrived was the only Sunday I’d be in town. Naturally, when the front desk told me I couldn’t go to my room, I headed straight for the market.
It was an easy walk up a lively, sunny street. Different stalls were set up on the sidewalks, selling paintings, jewellery, books and souvenirs. At the end of the street is an indoor/outdoor restaurant, and next to that a warehouse kind of building with an urban-DIY kind of vibe. On the lower level there were tons of small stalls set up selling all kinds of food. (I never made it upstairs, where I think they had things like clothes.)
With all the options, it was hard to decide where to begin! I wanted something South African, but the offerings were pretty international: Lebanese, Greek, Mexican, Ethiopian – even ital! Well, what I’m calling ital. It was all vegan, heavy on the vegetables, and prepared by at least one rasta man who addressed me as goddess. Eventually I opted for Indian, but I also had a couple steamed dumplings, sampled sorbet and the “mystery dish” from Dig Inn.
Many of the vendors were friendly and welcomed the photos I asked to take of them and their food. I spent a while with Marcus at Dig Inn, and found chatted with locals as we stood in line. I definitely recommend this spot if you’re in Joburg on a Sunday. The offerings were diverse and interesting; I only wished there was space in my belly to try more food.
On my first full day I went to the Apartheid Museum. I was impressed by the way it was put together, both the physical building and the exhibits. The experience begins with a racial assignment, which dictates the way you enter the museum. Once you’re through the introductory walkway you can take in the museum however you’d like. I gave myself 4 hours.
In the year leading up to my visit I read a few autobiographies by South Africans. It turned out that between the three of them – Nelson Mandela, Mark Mathabane and Trevor Noah – I had an excellent understanding of apartheid from its early days, through the 70s and 80s and then at its tail end. The men also took different approaches – Mandela’s was pretty unemotional and politically-oriented; Mathabane’s focused on the grinding poverty in the Alexandra township; and Noah’s was informative but hilarious.
I recommend all of them, but if you’re in Joburg go to the Apartheid Museum as well. It was the museum that explained the history of the Afrikaners to me, and helped me appreciate what apartheid meant for the country as a whole. Mandela’s autobiography was incredibly detailed, but it was something else to watch news footage, look at weapons and read the stories of individual South Africans.
Sandton, Rosebank and Melrose Arch
I made friends with Thabo, the Uber driver that took me to the museum, and we planned to meet up that evening to drive around the posh neighbourhoods. (I know, I know! Where’s my sense of stranger danger? I’m workin on it.)
We hardly spent any time in Rosebank, which I believe we drove through on our way to Melrose Arch, but it was clear from the wide avenues and the clean streets that we’d crossed into different territory. Melrose Arch is an upscale outdoor mall, complete with restaurants and places to stop for ice cream or coffee. The complex was fully decked out in lights, from Santa sleighs and stars shooting overhead to stockings and teddy bears so large you could sit on them. There were lots of people out like we were, taking in the lights and posing for pictures.
Our last stop was Sandton, another example of the wealth disparity in the country. We drove by multiple luxury car dealerships and a law firm that looked like a grecian temple. Thabo parked outside Nelson Mandela Square, an even more upscale mall and much bigger than Melrose Arch. The night was cold, and I was dreaming of hot chocolate, which gave some focus to our wandering. There were huge art installations decorating the multi-storey spaces, and lights strung around the inner square, with its enormous statue of Mandela.
With more time I would have liked to go back to any of these places, maybe for a bite to eat or just to spend more time browsing around.
As someone who gives walking tours, I wanted the opportunity to be a guest at least once on my journey. Curiocity offered a few different activities, with a tour of Johannesburg being one of them. I took the tour my second day, and although it wasn’t my favourite thing it was still cool to take a relaxed walk through the city, guided by a local.
I felt safe in Johannesburg, but was warned many times not to go in certain areas alone, and definitely not to travel on foot. When I’d ask at the front desk if it was ok to walk the 20 minutes to a nearby mall for example, I got a grave no. Fox Street had 24 hour security, so we were free to move around there no problem, but otherwise it was door to door Uber service. It’s no exaggeration to say it felt freeing to walk around and move a little slower through the streets.
Aside from enjoying the stroll, the highlights of the tour for me were the amazing building art and going up the tower of the Carlton Centre. The Centre used to be the tallest building in Africa, and the top floor provides a panoramic view of Johannesburg. The city has a scary reputation, but I definitely think a walking tour is worth doing, both for the pace and the perspective.
The next day I left early to go to Constitution Hill. The site of South Africa’s highest court was chosen deliberately because it used to be an awful, human-rights abusing prison complex. There are several buildings on the site, and the ones that used to be prisons – Old Fort, Number Four and the Women’s Jail – are now museums. I took a guided tour of Number Four and then walked self-guided through the old fort and the women’s jail.
Number Four prison was specifically for men of colour (political and common-law offenders), and the conditions were unbelievably disgusting. Even on the warm sunny day, free to come and go between spaces, considering the atrocities committed against the men was a heavy experience.
The tour ended inside the Constitution Court building, with its super high ceilings, art gallery and constitutional rights carved into the very doors. The symbolism and optimism is strong; the message is one of learning from the past and protecting the future of all South Africans.
I retraced our steps on my own, doing more reading and looking closely at the exhibits. At that point I thought I was pretty much done. I figured I would quickly stroll through the women’s jail and the old fort to see what they looked like. Well, I definitely underestimated how much there would be to see and think about in those spaces. They both had fascinating, though equally disturbing, stories to tell. Many people know that Mandela was imprisoned on Robben Island; he was incarcerated at the old fort as well – separated from the men of colour he might have influenced in Number Four.
Braamfontein and the Neighbourgoods Market
I’m not sure how much longer I stayed at the complex going through those two buildings, but by the time I left was pretty tired. I pressed on: next on my list was the Wits Art Museum. It’s a free gallery that’s part of the University of Witwatersrand, but unfortunately there wasn’t much to see. I got a little lost on my way, so the underwhelm was disappointing. On the bright side though it meant the afternoon would be less taxing. It also meant that I had more time to explore the Braamfontein neighbourhood and maybe find a cool place to eat.
The Wits is in Braamfontein, a small suburb of Johannesburg. It seemed like a cool place, particularly since it’s home to the Neighbourgoods Market on Saturdays. I really wanted to check this out, but I wasn’t going to have a Saturday in Joburg so it was always a no-go for me. I wish I could have though, it seems like the Market on Main but bigger.
In any event, the co-owner of Curiocity told me it was safe to walk Braamfontein, so after leaving the Wits I decided to at least find the site for Neigbourhoods. I passed lots of little boutiques and cafés, pretty buildings and young people wandering around.
I ended up at a random coffee shop where they roast and grind the beans in the front area, and got to chatting with the staff. It was a really nice rest stop, right across the street from what would have been the market. The vibe at the coffee shop was great, but I didn’t want to get stuck in traffic on the way back to the hostel. Eventually I ordered a Taxify and made my way home. It was a low key afternoon, especially after the intense morning. I recommend checking out all there is to see and try in the neighbourhood!
I didn’t get to tour Soweto until the very end of my trip, on the way back from the wedding. Through pure serendipity, I met a couple in Abaco whose daughter married a South African and now lives in Johannesburg. Ashley, Thato and I met up on my last day. They gave me a driving/walking tour of Soweto, and hanging out with them was the best way to end my trip.
First of all, the township is huge. I knew it was big but still, beyond my imagination. It’s a city unto itself, with millions of people, commercial and residential districts. I actually stayed my last night at a hostel called Lebo’s Soweto; it was peaceful, cozy and green. The Sathiges picked me up from Lebo’s and we drove to Walter Sisulu Square, where we started our tour. We’d never met until the moment they came for me, but we got along really well. Thato grew up in Soweto, so I couldn’t have asked for a better guide; it was a real gift to be able to see the city and all of Johannesburg from their perspective.
My days in Johannesburg were full and fun. I learned so much and got to meet some very welcoming, friendly people. I would do all these activities over again, and then some, if I had more time. If you’re planning a visit, I hope the recommendations in this Joburg travel guide help you out!