Johannesburg, one of the largest cities on the continent and South Africa’s financial capital, is a stopover point for most visitors travelling in or out of Southern Africa. Many head straight out of town for a safari, but don't make that mistake. In just two days you can take in some of its rich and tumultuous history, fantastic arts and culture, and the developing foodie scene.

Stretching over eight rows of parked trains, the brilliantly lit white towers and cables of the Nelson Mandela Bridge stretch towards the skyline © Henrique NDR Martins / Getty Images
Bright lights, big city: Nelson Mandela Bridge lights up the night in Johannesburg  © Henrique NDR Martins / Getty Images

Day One

Morning

Ease into things with a quiet breakfast in one of Jo'burg’s leafy suburbs. Croft & Co, a coffee shop on Tyrone Ave in pleasant Parkview, is a great choice. Croft serves some of the best scrambled eggs and sausages in town, service is friendly, and wi-fi is fast. Grab a table outside if the weather is nice, which it nearly always is. Catch a taxi to nearby Rosebank and board the hop-on, hop-off CitySightseeing Bus. The double-decker red bus is a particularly effective way to get around in Johannesburg, where public transport is tricky for tourists to figure out. The top of the bus is a perfect vantage point for photographing the busy downtown streets.

A stark sentry tower stands testament to Constitution Hill's past as a prison © Heather Mason / Lonely Planet
A stark sentry tower stands testament to Constitution Hill's past as a prison © Heather Mason / Lonely Planet

Hop off the bus at Constitution Hill, one of the most significant historical sites. Once the site of a military fort that later became a notorious prison, Constitution Hill is now home to a museum, a restaurant and South Africa’s highest court. The museum tells a powerful story about what life was like at the Old Fort Prison, where many prominent anti-apartheid activists were held. The court is always open to the public, and is worth visiting for the beautiful works of art on display in the hallways. And be sure to take a walk around the ramparts of the Old Fort, which has beautiful views of the city.

Behind a glass wall emblazoned with black letters reading African Flavour is a wood-floored room with white walls and white bookshelves filled with colourful books. Patrons sit on sofas reading © Heather Mason / Lonely Planet
African Flavour Books in Braamfontein carries a large collection of South African and African titles © Heather Mason / Lonely Planet

Afternoon

Braamfontein, which is adjacent to Constitution Hill and also a stop on the CitySightseeing Bus route, has several good options for lunch. Try 86 Public, a pizzeria at the corner of Juta St and Melle St, or the Immigrant Bar on the ground floor of the Once in Joburg hostel. African Flavour Books on Melle St is an independently owned bookstore with an excellent selection of South African and African titles. Braamfontein also has several hip clothing shops and quality art galleries, including Stevenson Gallery and the Wits Art Museum.

An a bright orange brick wall 'Apartheid Museum' is written in all caps. 'Apartheid' is in black, while 'Museum' is in white Gil.K / Shutterstock
Black and white stand together on the wall of the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg ©Gil.K / Shutterstock

Be sure to make time to ride the bus across town to the Apartheid Museum, which offers the most comprehensive history of South Africa’s apartheid era. A visit can be overwhelming and very emotional; most visitors need at least two hours to take enough of it in.

A couple sit in a leather chesterfield sofa in this darkened bar, with a red glow radiating across the ceiling, tables and sofa from a neon sign reading 'Be naked when I get home' - next to the sing is a framed black-and-white poster of Bob Dylan © Heather Mason / Lonely Planet
Hell's Kitchen, one of many drinking dens in the Melville area of Johannesburg © Heather Mason / Lonely Planet

Evening

Melville, a suburb just northwest of downtown, offers some of Johannesburg’s best nightlife. There are many popular restaurants to choose from, including the Lucky Bean and the Great Eastern Food Bar. Drinking holes also abound – try Hell’s Kitchen for whiskey and beer, or Mooteebar for exotic, South-African-themed cocktails.

Day Two

Morning

Have breakfast at the Salvation Café in 44 Stanley, an industrial complex converted into high-end dining and retail space. Allow some time to browse the shops, which have plenty of authentic South African gifts, clothing and souvenirs. Next, enjoy a walking tour through the Johannesburg central business district (these are best booked at least several days in advance). Past Experiences offers a range of cultural and public-art-focused tours, and JoburgPlaces’ tours provide excellent historical context on the city.

A crowd gathers under an awning on the flat roof of Market on Main, sharing the space is a vintage 1930s car. Trees climb up to this level on the left and renovated old industrial buildings back the scene ©Antonella Ragazzoni / 500px
Market on Main strikes up every Sunday on the site of Arts on Main in Maboneng ©Antonella Ragazzoni / 500px

Afternoon

Spend a few hours in the trendy Maboneng on the eastern side of the city, where artists’ studios, shops, cafés, and theatres have transformed abandoned warehouse spaces. Grab a plate of cheap but delicious Ethiopian Food at James XVI Ethiopian or a burrito at Mama Mexicana. Street vendors and musicians set up shop along Fox St on weekends, and Market on Main, which is popular for food, kicks off every Sunday at Arts on Main. Take a quick taxi ride up Commissioner St to the Carlton Centre, Africa’s tallest building, and ride the lift up 50 floors to the Top of Africa. The windows may be smudged, but this top-level viewing deck provides incredible 360-degree views of Johannesburg and the surrounding areas. Gaze out over Soweto to the southwest, Hillbrow to the northeast, and the Magaliesburg mountains in the far north. Note that pick-pocketers and muggers frequent the area around the Carlton Centre, so be aware of your belongings. Ask a security guard on the ground level of the building for directions to the Top of Africa lift.

Evening

Make a booking (essential) for dinner at Urbanologi, a spacious, beautifully designed restaurant in the city’s newly revived Ferreirasdorp neighbourhood. Urbanologi serves innovative small plates and adjoins the Mad Giant Brewery, a key player in South Africa's evolving craft beer scene. Watch a play at the historic Market Theatre in Newtown – it was Jo'burg’s first integrated theatre during the apartheid era, and continues to be a leader in groundbreaking, innovative small-scale productions.

Where to Stay

Once in Joburg is an upscale hostel, or poshtel, centrally located downtown in Braamfontein. Dorm rooms for up to four people are an option, as are well as en-suite singles and doubles. The hostel staff offers many fun group activities and there is a restaurant/bar on site. The Four Seasons Hotel the Westcliff is Johannesburg’s best luxury hotel, with two restaurants, a spa and the added benefit of being just a ten-minute drive from downtown. Melville has dozens of popular guesthouses and B&Bs, including, Motel Mi Pi Chi, Ginnegap, and the Lucky Bean Guest House.

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