Commonly known as Jo’burg or Jozi, this is the vibrant heart of South Africa. A rapidly-changing city looking optimistically towards the future. New loft apartments and office developments are being constructed at a rapid pace here and the hipster-friendly neighbourhood of Maboneng is now considered one of the most successful urban-renewal projects in the world. Unstuffy with a lot to see and do, Johannesburg is awash with superb museums, mostly offering deep insight into South Africa's past such as the Apartheid Museum. Delve in and experience the buzz of a city undergoing an incredible rebirth.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Johannesburg.
Do not leave Jo'burg without visiting Constitution Hill. One of South Africa's most important historical sites, the deeply moving and inspirational exhibitions here are split across four locations: the Old Fort, which dates from 1892 and was once a notorious prison for white males; the horrific Number Four Jail, reserved for nonwhite males; the Women's Jail; and the Awaiting Trial Block – now mostly demolished and replaced by the Constitutional Court. Tours depart on the hour and provide essential context.
The Apartheid Museum illustrates the rise and fall of South Africa’s era of segregation and oppression, and is an absolute must-see. It uses a broad variety of media to provide a chilling insight into the architecture and implementation of the apartheid system, as well as inspiring stories of the struggle towards democracy. It’s invaluable in understanding the inequalities and tensions that still exist today. Located 8km south of the city centre, just off the M1 freeway.
A highlight of Jo'burg's northern suburbs is Liliesleaf Farm. This was the secret headquarters of the ANC (African National Congress) from 1961 until a dramatic raid in 1963 that saw the capture of several of the organisation's leaders including Nelson Mandela. Free tours provide all the background, but you can also explore at your own pace, learning the story of South Africa’s liberation struggle through a series of high-tech, interactive exhibits.
Nothing sums up the changing fortunes of inner-city Jo'burg better than Ponte City, which can be visited on tours with Dlala Nje. This 54-storey cylindrical skyscraper was hijacked in the late 1980s by squatters and rapidly declined into a vertical urban slum. Flash forward a couple of decades – the building's owner, Kempston, has taken back control and refurbished the structure, which is now safe and home to an ethnically mixed community of working- and middle-class South Africans.
Inaugurated in 2004, with its design based on the African concept of 'justice under a tree', the Constitutional Court is a very real symbol of modern South Africa. Incorporating some 150,000 bricks and the former stairwells of the Awaiting Trial Block that was demolished after the end of apartheid, the court houses a highly impressive contemporary art collection showcasing both local and international art. The court is open to the public: Lucky visitors may even hear a case being argued.
Built as a replica of the Ottoman Selimiye Mosque in Edirne, Turkey, the Nizamiye Mosque is a real find in the far-northern Jo'burg suburb of Midrand. Looming beside the M1 Hwy, it was built by hundreds of Turkish artisans – with 100% Turkish materials – transported to South Africa by Turkish businessman Ali Katırcıoğlu. Inside the mosque, the hand-woven carpets and massive tiled dome are awe inspiring.
The home, sculpture garden and small 'matchbox' gallery of artist Andrew Lindsay is extraordinary. The garden is dominated by a mobile phone signal tower covered with thousands of plastic bottles. Mosaics and wooden sculptures are found amid the lush foliage and in one corner is the tiny gallery where you can buy affordable art drawn and painted on matchboxes (including Lindsay's illustrated guide to Jozi in a matchbox) or printed on tea towels and aprons.
This handsome building, taking up an entire block, has been the mining company's HQ in Africa since 1939. It has an impressive main entrance with delicate metalwork, soaring etched glass panels, and stone steps flanked by carved friezes of African flora and fauna.
Located on the site of an old Afrikaans Dutch Reformed church in a hard hit neighborhood in Jo'burg's western suburbs, the Lam Rim Buddhist Centre is an unexpected surprise. The former church tower is painted in jaunty shades of yellow and red, and inside is a stunning, kaleidoscope-coloured Tibetan Buddhist shrine. The Centre, founded in 1993 by the Venerable Geshe Damcho Yonten and visited by the Dalai Lama in 2004, offers free meditation classes on Thursdays at 7pm.