Despite its gritty reputation, Johannesburg is a fantastic city to get outdoors in. Trees blanket large swaths of town, rocky ridges provide sweeping views of the skyline and the weather is the best in South Africa – warm for ten months of the year and little rain save an occasional refreshing thunderstorm.
Here are 10 of the best places to step outside in Jo'Burg or Jozi (two of the city's beloved monikers).
Walking the Melville Koppies offers views over the Johannesburg skyline and provides some historical treasures too © Heather Mason / Lonely Planet
The Melville Koppies
'Koppie' is Afrikaans for a small hill, and the Melville Koppies is a primordial-looking series of them. Slicing through the inner suburbs of Jo'burg, it is divided into three sections – east, west and central. A window into the area’s prehistoric past, these koppies are littered with million-year-old rocks and a host of indigenous trees, flowers, and grasses. The east and west sections are open to the public from dawn to dusk, while the central section – containing Iron-age and Stone-age ruins – is open only for guided tours.
Location: 4 Judith Rd, Emmarentia
Stepping into Walter Sisulu National Botanical Gardens feels like a giant leap from Jozi's CBD © Heather Mason / Lonely Planet
Walter Sisulu National Botanical Garden
The Walter Sisulu National Botanical Garden is one of nine national botanical gardens in South Africa. Located in the city’s northwestern suburb of Roodepoort, it covers 300 hectares and has a fantastic collection of rare South African plants, as well as a soaring waterfall, a nest of black eagles and a pair of lumbering tortoises. Walter Sisulu is also one of Johannesburg’s most popular picnic spots and hosts an annual series of outdoor musical performances.
Location: Address: Malcolm Rd, Poortview, Roodepoort
With jacaranda blooms, weeping willows, grassy paths and its lake, Emmarentia Dam and its botanical gardens makes a natural escape © Heather Mason / Lonely Planet
Emmarentia Dam & Johannesburg Botanical Gardens
Emmarentia Dam, which adjoins the municipal Johannesburg Botanical Gardens, is a popular dog-walking park. The southwest section of the park is a designated off-leash area, where canines of all sizes romp through the grass and splash in a small pond. The northeast side of the park, where dogs aren’t allowed, has a sizeable lake (dam) with a rowing club and park benches for lounging. The Botanical Garden includes a lovely rose garden, which explodes in summer with blooms of every color.
Location: Olifants Rd, Emmarentia
Northcliff Ridge Ecopark
Northcliff Ridge Ecopark is one of the highest points in Jozi, with dramatic views to the north, west and south. Couples flock here for romantic sunset dates, but the ridge is also a great place to watch the sun rise from behind downtown's skyscrapers. The ecopark is reachable via a steep climb through the leafy suburb of Northcliff – a route favored by joggers and cyclists. Be careful once you reach the top; the park is mostly unfenced and the steep drop down the ridge is a long one.
Location: 5 Lucky Ave, Northcliff
The Wilds offers the chance to explore a part of Johannesburg that most locals have yet to utilise © Heather Mason / Lonely Planet
The Wilds, a municipal park on the edge of downtown Jozi, is the city’s most under-utilised outdoor space. True to its name, the Wilds is a rambling wilderness, scattered with pristine groves of indigenous trees and winding stone paths. The park was considered dangerous during downtown's decline in the 1990s, but today it is peaceful and secure. Most locals don’t know this yet though, so the park is usually empty. Artist James Delaney, who lives on the edge of the Wilds and schedules regular cleanups of the park, has installed a permanent exhibition of luminous aluminum owl sculptures in the Wilds’ yellow-wood forest.
Location: Houghton Dr (near the corner of St. Patrick Rd), Houghton
The Impala Stampede, one of the many artworks along the Main St Pedestrian Mall © Heather Mason / Lonely Planet
Main St Pedestrian Mall
The Main St Pedestrian Mall, also called the Main Street Mining District, is home to South Africa’s mining industry and its history. The mostly pedestrianised section stretches for about four blocks and is well landscaped and bordered by iconic works of public art. Look out for the striking Impala Stampede statue across from the Anglo-American headquarters at the corner of Main and Ntemi Piliso. Heading east along Main there are several more sculptures and placards describing Jozi's early history as a gold-mining camp. Cramer’s Coffee, at the corner of Main and Harrison, makes a great cappuccino stop.
Location: Main St (between the streets of Ntemi Piliso and Simmonds), Marshalltown
Klipriviersberg Nature Reserve
Klipriviersberg is the largest nature reserve in the Johannesburg metropolitan area, and the only place within the city that provides legitimate wildlife viewing. It’s easy to spot zebra, black wildebeest and other antelope while hiking in Kliprviersberg, as well as a host of birds. There are no predators in this park so it’s perfectly safe to walk, but do wear comfortable shoes and a hat. Klipriviersberg’s hiking trails can be strenuous.
Location: 4th St, Rietvlei
The calm waters inside the art deco surrounds of Zoo Lake Public Pool © Heather Mason / Lonely Planet
Zoo Lake Public Pool
The Zoo Lake Public Pool is one of several grand, art deco public swimming pools in Johannesburg. Walk through the whitewashed, blue-trimmed entrance and find an aquatic wonderland – a huge, square pool with crystal-clear water and families picnicking on a large patch of grass. Thanks to its mild weather, the city's swimming season is long. The Zoo Lake Public Pool (like most other outdoor city pools) is open from September to March.
Location: 57 Lower Park Dr, Parkview
James & Ethel Gray Park
James & Ethel Gray Park has the quaintest name of any city park, commemorating former Johannesburg mayor and historian James Gray and his historian wife, Ethel. The park itself is as delightful as its name. Surprisingly peaceful, given it's close to the busy M1 highway, the park's main draw is a large, grassy plateau overlooking a brilliant Jozi skyline. It's perfect for jogging, dog-walking, or simply taking an early evening stroll.
Location: Corner of Edgewood Ave and St Andrew St, Birdhaven
Ernest Oppenheimer Park offers some sporty respite in the city centre © Heather Mason / Lonely Planet
Ernest Oppenheimer Park
Ernest Oppenheimer Park is postage stamp-sized compared with Klipriviersberg or the Wilds. But the charm of this tiny park is its location: right in centre of Jo'burg, surrounded by the frenetic energy of the city. Renovated in the early 2000s after decades of decay, this park is the only spot in the city with a public basketball court. The court is tired but well used, hosting frequent pickup games. Ernest Oppenheimer also boasts the city’s most photogenic park bench, with a backrest reading: 'Jozi: Nothing Is Impossible'.
Location: Corner of Albertina Sisulu Rd and Joubert St