"It's really not as bad as you've been told!" Top 5 Page for this destination Johannesburg by CatherineReichardt

Johannesburg Travel Guide: 1,097 reviews and 2,290 photos

(perpetual work in progress)

I work in the mining industry and although I am originally from the UK, I have lived in Johannesburg on and off for nearly 25 years.

Jo'burg gets pretty awful press, and although much of the criticism (particularly around crime) is warranted, overall, it's really not a bad place to live. It even has a surprising amount to offer the tourist, so suspend your disbelief just for a few moments and read on!

Why consider visiting in the first place?

Well, for fear of stating the obvious, Johannesburg is the port of entry for the majority of tourists visiting South Africa. Although I can understand the temptation for tourists to simply change planes at OR Tambo, this means that they miss out on what Jo'burg has to offer, which I think is a pity. First time visitors may also not be aware that Jo'burg and Pretoria are only 60km from each other, but the two cities are worlds apart, and the contrast is fascinating.

One of Jo'burg's endearing characteristics is that it is a truly international and very cosmopolitan place. Unlike Cape Town - which, at least for tourists, can often feel like an outpost of Europe stuck onto the bottom of Africa - Jo'burg is unapologetically and unmistakably African with enough First World infrastructure to make for comfortable tourism (especially for those who are new to Africa and/or the developing world). Perhaps because the population is so mobile and so many people originally come from elsewhere, this is a friendly place where it is easy to fit in and there is little of the clique-y culture that can be an annoying characteristic of some other South African cities.

For those who like to travel, this is an extremely good base from which to explore Southern Africa, with direct flights to most African destinations and good links into Europe and Australia in particular, as well as being the hub of a (mostly) excellent road network.

You may not have realised that we live at altitude (about 1650m) which moderates extremes of temperature and apparently gives our rugby teams enormous advantage against opponents who live at sea level (a fact that sports commentators seemingly never tire of raising). We are also blessed with a glorious climate: warm - rather than hot - summers when the majority of our rainfall falls as awe-inspiring thunderstorms (to my mind, the best free fireworks in the world), and crystal clear, dry winters under brilliant blue skies.

There is no escaping the fact that Jo'burg started life as a mining camp, and the remains of mine dumps and head frames still punctuate the landscape along the old Reef outcrop to the south of the CBD - they are certainly not beautiful, but serve as a powerful reminder of the history and origins of our city. Even amid the hideous 60's concrete of the CBD, there lurk some Art Deco gems, and it comes as somewhat of a surprise to many visitors that some of the older inner suburbs are actually quite attractive!

However, let's be honest: apart from the stunning Apartheid Museum, there are very few truly world class tourist attractions in Jo'burg - and maybe it's all the more interesting because of that! That doesn't mean that there aren't lots of interesting (and often quirky) things to do - so if you're willing to scratch beneath the surface, you'll find enough to happily occupy a few days and provide excellent context to help you understand the turbulent history that has made South Africa what it is today.

Why blog about Big Bad Johannesburg?

I feel particularly sentimental about my Johannesburg page because it was the very first VT page that I ever developed, and I try to keep it as up-to-date as I can. I had previously used VT for my own research, but surfing idly through the Johannesburg pages three months before the start of the Soccer World Cup, I was horrified to see that the city was simply dismissed out of hand as not being a worthwhile travel destination. Coincidentally a friend who specialises in corporate travel lamented the fact that while German men were keen to book World Cup packages, she was seeing virtually no bookings for couples or families because Johannesburg was perceived as a dangerous place which offered nothing that was family friendly or culturally worthwhile. Yet we have a good life here and find lots of interesting cultural and social activities to keep ourselves and our small children happy. And thus began my personal crusade to do my little bit to rehabilitate Jo'burg's image ... well, I've always liked a challenge!

One of the aspects of VT that I most enjoy is that it encourages you to be a tourist in your own town and by trying to view your 'home turf' though the eyes of a visitor, you are prompted you to visit some of those tourist attractions that you've never quite got around to exploring yourself!

Obviously our exploration of our own city is limited by what is age-appropriate for our kids and the fact that friends' willingness to babysit so that we can 'play tourist' at less family-friendly attractions seldom seems to coincide with those places' opening hours! As a result, I have yet to visit Liliesleaf (the farm on which Nelson Mandela posed as a labourer when he went into hiding and where he was finally captured to stand trial for treason) andwe have also yet to participate in one of the monthly guided tours of Melville Koppies to explore the Iron Age relics, hike in the Suikerbosrand (a large nature reserve to the south of Johannesburg) and scale the Witwatersrand ridge by Gillooly's Farm ... these latter omissions we hope to address this coming year as the kids are now old enough to attempt longer hikes. It's always good to have something to look forward to!

For some ideas on possible itineraries in Johannesburg, which you can 'mix and match' depending on your available time, budget and interests, follow this itinerary link which then contains hyperlinks to the individual tips.

For other destinations that can easily be done a day trip from Johannesburg, follow these links:

My Pretoria page
My Potchefstroom page
My Hartbeespoort page
My Magaliesberg page

There's also some more generic stuff on my South Africa page, which is particularly focused on planning your trip:

My South Africa page

So, for what it's worth, this is my very personal perspective on what I believe makes this city of ours so interesting and infuriating, schizophrenic, brash, challenging and accessible. Hopefully by taking a little time to explore these often 'second division' attractions, you will begin to understand the paradox that is South Africa (and without the crowds!). Enjoy!

Pros and Cons
  • Pros:Cosmopolitan, quirky and challenging with glorious weather and friendly people
  • Cons:Crime and the almost complete absence of decent public transport
  • In a nutshell:A brash, vibrant, schizophrenic city - love it or hate it, but don't miss it!
  • Intro Updated Sep 23, 2012
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Reviews (210)

Comments (28)

  • Nemorino's Profile Photo
    Sep 6, 2013 at 1:22 AM

    Me again, coming back to catch up on some of your updates from the past year. I also think it is good that VT encourages us to be tourists in our own towns. I certainly have a different and more positive impression of Johannesburg now, after reading your tips, even though you do not gloss over the city's problems.

  • CDM7's Profile Photo
    Aug 29, 2013 at 2:44 PM

    Enjoyed reading your Johannesburg page,although I only spent one night here at the beginning of a tour of South Africa in 2005.

  • kenHuocj's Profile Photo
    Jan 4, 2013 at 2:14 PM

    Enoch Sontong's grave is in Braamfontein Cemetary

  • vpas's Profile Photo
    Dec 18, 2012 at 7:44 AM

    Believe me I am glad to read the title of your page!!!

  • gwened's Profile Photo
    Sep 4, 2012 at 5:57 AM

    very good advise on warnings. I know been there,no problems,and drove into the country lol!!!

  • Nemorino's Profile Photo
    Jul 10, 2012 at 8:11 AM

    Hi Cathy, I’ve just been taking advantage of an unexpectedly quiet afternoon to read another chunk of your marvellous Johannesburg page. While I still can’t claim to understand the intricacies of rugby or cricket, I do think I have made some progress in that regard by reading your delicious texts, including the cultural and historical contexts of both. (I have similar problems trying to explain baseball and American football to my students here in Germany.)

  • kenHuocj's Profile Photo
    May 30, 2012 at 5:50 AM

    it's been over 4 years since my last visit Guess it's time to save for another trip for my Suip en vreet, Braai not bbq as known here, also the dam and Krokodile art meander towards the H Dam ;-)))

  • Mommy&Niki's Profile Photo
    May 25, 2012 at 1:52 PM

    Thank you so much for taking the time to do this! I will be back to read some more!! Do you know of any bead / jewlery supply stores or craft arena that supply beads in Joahnesburg? I am traveling for business in a month and would love to visit one. thanks , Cass

  • Apr 27, 2012 at 3:35 AM

    > Hello Cathy ( do you mean here)
    >
    > I already send you a message didn't just find out that there is also an
    > inbox
    > have to find out how this site works haha
    >
    > we also saw some of the world but to long ago to give some advise cant
    > remember the details.
    >
    > oure plan is
    > 0845 arrive in Johannesburg
    > next day 1245 train to Cape town
    >
    > rent a car in cape town and drive allong the coast to kruger park
    > and back to Johannesburg.
    >
    > we also want to see umhlaga or reed dance in Zwaziland
    > but we can't find the excect date.
    >
    > maybe you have read about it.
    are there things that we better bring from The Netherlands (daipersor something els)
    Or is is everyting good to get and which store would you recoment.

    > Greeting Richard

  • Yaqui's Profile Photo
    Mar 19, 2012 at 9:01 AM

    You did such a fabulous job here. I have learned about so many things here. A top 5 page for sure!

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