Johannesburg Sightseeing | Two Days in The Dream |
Our trip to South Africa was unforgettable in so many ways. Although, the 19-hour flight to get there was a real drag, we were grateful to explore the numerous incredible sights and places, especially Johannesburg. Johannesburg sightseeing as a new experience was truly extraordinary!
There was no place more perfect to kick off our trip than the city of Johannesburg! We spent three nights there in total, one night on our way to Victoria Falls, as well as two nights after we came back from Botswana and before we headed to Cape Town later on.
Johannesburg is South Africa’s largest city, known colloquially as the “city of gold” or the modern-day El Dorado for its immense natural gold deposits- a highly lucrative mining industry. It was established in 1886 after gold was discovered in the ground, and derives its name from the Dutch men who made this discovery.
As a tourist, Johannesburg was a bustling, modern metropolis in a historic locale, and our itinerary was packed, so we managed to see quite a bit of it!
Here are a few of the highlights from our trip:
The Saxon Hotel
On our first night in Johannesburg, we stayed at the Saxon Hotel in the suburb of Sandhurst. The hotel is famous for having a very famous occupant; Nelson Mandela stayed here for several months after his release from prison while writing his autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom”. The hotel has even named a suite after him!
The decor is modern and simple with artistic flair, and South African culture is imbued in every design element. Dark wood, cream-colored linen, bold shapes and tribal motifs can be found in the suites, which were clean, well-lit, and absolutely gorgeous. Amenities also included a wide selection of wine from their cellars, a pool, gorgeous gardens and restaurants whose offerings rotate seasonally. After a long, tiring flight, the Saxon was a long-awaited oasis for us to rest and recharge before our next flight to Livingstone, Zambia!
Fairlawns Boutique Hotel
After the safari in Botswana, we had another wonderful opportunity to experience the Sandton area. Billed as an “urban sanctuary” and located in a suburb just outside of Johannesburg, the Fairlawns Hotel has a variety of suite and villa options for travelers. Some of the rooms overlook the great lawns surrounding the hotel, while others offer a view of the grand courtyard.
Each room is decorated differently from the others, making it feel like a home away from home. The decor is romantic and elegant, even in the so-called “Tree House Studio,” named for its location high in the treetop canopy. The hotel also offers a full-service spa and dining room featuring amuse bouches as well as an al fresco dinner option. They have also installed a piano lounge near the private dining area. All in all, it was a much-needed, incredibly relaxing stay after a long day of Johannesburg sightseeing.
Things to See
Constitution Hill Precinct, Old Fort Prison
During our Johannesburg sightseeing trip, a considerable amount of our itinerary consisted of seeing the many historical sites throughout Johannesburg, including the Old Fort Prison. It is often jokingly called “The Robben Island of Johannesburg” due to its housing of political prisoners throughout the 20th century, and though it closed in 1983 it has become a landmark for this reason. In January of 1908, Mahatma Gandhi was jailed here for refusing to carry an identification card with him in the streets, an act of civil disobedience in protest of the poor living conditions and unfair treatment of the Indian population in Johannesburg. He was held in the prison for about a month before negotiating his release with the South African government.
Nelson Mandela was also imprisoned in the Old Fort Prison beginning in 1962. He was arrested after the American Central Intelligence Agency, deeply entrenched in the Red Scare, feared his association with Communism and revealed his location to the South African government. He was charged with inciting workers’ strikes and leaving the country illegally, and was held in the jail until he was condemned to life in prison on Robben Island. It was amazing to be able to experience this part of Johannesburg’s rich cultural history! This was just one of many stops on our trip in which we were able to explore the impressive legacy of Nelson Mandela.
A Visit to Soweto
Later on, we drove to the township of Soweto outside of Johannesburg. On the way there, we passed through Johannesburg’s busy city center and financial district, saw the many street vendors of the Hillbrow area, as well as Sandton City, where Nelson Mandela used to live. “Soweto” is actually an abbreviation for “South Western Townships”, referencing their location in relation to Johannesburg, similar to how New Yorkers abbreviate “Tribeca.”
Soweto is home to a number of shops, museums, and historic sites as well. It is one of the largest municipalities in South Africa. It is also home to the largest hospital in the world, the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital. We took a walk down Vilakasi Street, noted for being the only street to ever be home to not one, but two Nobel Prize winners: Archbishop Sir Desmond Tutu and (you guessed it) Nelson Mandela. There are a number of street vendors in Soweto, including meat and vegetable sellers and barbershops. It was a relaxing way to spend part of the day, and a great opportunity to experience the local culture!
Lunch at Sakhumzi Restaurant
Located near the Apartheid Museum, Sakhumzi Restaurant boasts an authentic Soweto experience right on Villikazi Street. “Kasi,” a word meaning township, is important to their restaurant, which values community gathering and highlights local flavor in their dishes and ingredients. Their menu includes a variety of traditional dishes as well as some unique offerings with a cultural flair, such as the Soweto Steak, seasoned with a local spice blend. Though we visited during the day, they have lively nightlife at Sakhumzi Restaurant, including signature cocktails, seasonal events, and some live music that we were lucky enough to catch during our lunch!
The Apartheid Museum
We learned as much about the history of Johannesburg as possible on our trip. Since so many of the places we had visited thus far were connected to Nelson Mandela, the Apartheid Museum in Soweto was also part of our Johannesburg sightseeing tour.
The Apartheid Museum opened in 2001 and is the only museum in the world to focus solely on Apartheid history. It is an extremely informative resource and fascinating place to visit. They currently have 22 permanent exhibitions, including the Pillars of the Constitution, an impressive sculptural installation featuring the values laid out in the constitution, considered to be one of the most expansive human rights protections in the world. Standing amidst pillars representing values like equality, respect, and diversity was an incredibly powerful experience.
Johannesburg and its surrounding areas were an amazing stop on our trip to South Africa. While our visit was comprised of Johannesburg sightseeing and learning about the city’s culture and history, simply walking around can give visitors a sense of the local scene in a similar way. We were fortunate to experience a lot of the area in such a short time! Our next was the beautiful city of Cape Town!
Have you been to Johannesburg? How was your experience? Any recommendations for things to do or places to eat? Comment below!