Johannesburg, the rough and tumble economic hub of Southern Africa and historic epicenter of the anti-apartheid struggle, does not often make the short list for family vacations. Its reputation for crime is not unwarranted and many safari itineraries eschew it entirely, sending travelers out to Kruger, Botswana or Capetown just as soon as the arrive. But Johannesburg is a proud, vibrant and fascinating city. The rich historical sites within the city and just outside make it a truly worthwhile family destination. Today in Johannesburg there is finally a generation of young people who never experienced apartheid and their enthusiasm, optimism and ownership of their city are magnetic. Two or three nights here as you adjust to your time zone half-way around the world can be fun and fascinating. Here are some of the sights and activities I highly recommend you build into your visit to Jo’burg.
The Apartheid Museum — The Apartheid Museum tells the story of South Africa’s apartheid system— how it came to be, its dark and brutal conditions, the struggle to bring it to an end and the triumph of the South African spirit. The museum is powerful, informative and beautifully designed.
Hop-On Hop-Off Bus — You may have seen these double-decker tourist busses in other cities around the world. They aren’t usually my favorite way to explore a city but in Johannesburg I highly recommend doing this tour. You will see so many different parts of the City, including some you probably wouldn’t/shouldn’t visit on your own. The audio tour is really informative and presents the perspective of different people who would have lived in the city over the years.
Neighbourgoods Market — This vibrant and hip food market takes place on Saturdays in the trendy Braamfontein district. Come hungry!
Constitution Hill — If you have a little more time and desire more education about the history and governance of South Africa, one of the guided tours of Constitution Hill will be very informative. The site was a former prison (Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi were prisoners there) and military fort and it is now the highest court in the Country.
Soweto — Soweto is a place of contrasts and rich political history. The famous township was established in the 1930s when blacks began to be forced out Johannesburg. By bicycle, tuk-tuk or car, you can see the Soweto of today, visit the one-time houses of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu or learn about the famous student-led Uprising of 1976 at the Hector Pieterson Museum and Memorial.
If you have time, make sure to get outside of the City as well. You can visit the Cradle of Humankind, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and Sterkfontein Caves where some of the oldest fossils in the world have been discovered. Maybe visit an old gold mine or take a sunrise hot-air balloon flight then come back to earth for breakfast.