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Top 6 Things to Do in Johannesburg for Adults

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1 month ago

A lot of people will tell you that Johannesburg isn’t worth your time. They’ll say that it’s just a launchpad into the (incredible) Kruger National Park for safari, or that it’s simply too dangerous, but there are so many things to do in Johannesburg – especially for adults seeking to better understand the complex and sad history of South Africa.

In fact, we would argue that two days in Johannesburg is necessary to understand the deeply intriguing nations of people who make up the nine provinces of South Africa. We are absolutely certain that you’ll walk away from each of the experiences that we suggest with a newfound appreciation for the country that will inform how you understand the peoples and cultures that you come into contact with.

These experiences will change your view about South Africa, but, unfortunately, for the vast majority of these we recommend that you visit on a tour (we’ve recommended the best of them below). Johannesburg remains quite unsafe, so having a good tour guide can mean the difference between a great experience and a bad memory.

1. Apartheid Museum

No trip to South Africa (not just Johannesburg) is complete without visiting the acclaimed Apartheid Museum. The Apartheid Museum has long been considered as the pre-eminent museum dealing with South Africa’s apartheid history, and it doesn’t take long to see why. This is very much a thing to do for adults in Johannesburg because the Apartheid Museum is a sprawling complex with a huge amount of information to take in.

The first thing you will notice in the Apartheid Museum is that you are given a ‘white’ or ‘non-white’ card at the beginning which will dictate the path that you will take through the first section of the museum. It’s an incredibly powerful and stark reminder of how life was for South Africa’s white and non-white population during the apartheid years.

You could spend upwards of four hours here, but we recommend that you at carve out at least two hours to really take in the message.

The best tours will take you through the Apartheid Museum, the Hector Pieterson Museum and Memorial, Vilakazi Street, and the Soweto Towers, but you want to make sure that whichever tour you choose will carve out at least two hours for the Apartheid Museum.

2. Constitutional Court

A visit to the Constitutional Court at Constitution Hill is easily the best way to understand South Africa’s transition from apartheid to a democratic state. It’s inspiring to know that the location of the court today is on the site of what was a feared prison complex that once held Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela (and even Winston Churchill for a short period).

A good tour of Constitution Hill will help you put into context the socio-economic status of South Africans today and how non-whites managed to shed the evils of their past and create a democratic state for all who live in it. There is a palpable heaviness to the area, with reminders of the injustices of the past on display at every turn.

The tour will conclude with a tour of the Constitutional Court, all of which is incredibly interesting (down to the design of the animal skin draped over the desk). For those of us raised in countries with older written constitutions (the U.S. and Australia, for example), it’s particularly interesting to hear how a newer constitution governs a nation.

Your tour of Constitution Hill will also necessarily include the old prison complex. The spaces are bare, but it is your guide that will bring life (and death) to what happened between these walls.

3. Tour of Soweto

Make sure that your tour includes a stop at the Hector Pieterson Memorial where you’ll learn what happened during the Soweto Uprising of 1976, as well as a stop through Vilakazi Street where you’ll see the former homes of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. Make sure you carve out about an hour for the Memorial which equips you with everything you need to know about this fascinating area.

The Soweto Towers have become something of an icon of Johannesburg, but these days the Towers are used simply for bungy jumping. The drawings on the Towers are dynamic and tell part of the story of the area, so the Towers are definitely worth a stop.

4. Hillbrow and Ponte Tower tour

One of the most thought-provoking yet fun things to do in Johannesburg for adults is a tour of Hillbrow and Ponte Tower. The honest truth is that the Hillbrow and Berea communities remain dangerous, so we do not recommend that you visit this area on your own. Interestingly, Hillbrow has developed a reputation for its LGBT community, so any good tour will take you on a journey through the lives of the area’s (very brave) queer, anti-apartheid activists.

There is absolutely only one tour of the area the we recommend, namely because the guides are able to provide genuine insight into the lives of the people in these very misunderstood areas. They also use the majority of the tour cost to support children in the local area. The three-hour tour will include a stop at Ponte Tower, the iconic brutalist structure which dominates Johannesburg’s skyline.

The Ponte Tower was once a set of luxury apartments for the privileged whites of Johannesburg. Those whites occupied the outward-facing apartments, and their non-white servants were relegated to the spaces facing the inner core. It’s a reminder that even the design of some of the biggest buildings in the country reflect the policies of the apartheid era.

5. Maboneng

The best place to end a day of sightseeing in Johannesburg is at Maboneng, a trendy downtown neighborhood famed for its murals, art and diverse food. The entire area is bustling, and its a great daytime and evening vibe. Maboneng is a street photographer’s dream; virtually everywhere you look is covered in art, and if it isn’t, it’s an art gallery.

There is visible security through Maboneng so it’s one of the few areas that you can walk around safely without a guide (though we still wouldn’t recommend it at night).

One of the most fun things to do for adults in Johannesburg is to take a break on a rooftop lounge in Maboneng and soak in the expanse of Johannesburg. Jojo Rooftop Lounge is the place to go for a great rooftop restaurant and bar with panoramic views. And stop by Home of the Bean for excellent coffee.

6. Craft shopping

During your travels in South Africa, you’ll encounter a lot of shops selling virtually the same goods (carvings of the Big Five, table runners, the same colorful artworks, cutlery sets etc.).

A lot of these products are good quality and might catch your eye, but we recommend that you go shopping in Johannesburg for local arts and crafts. It’s much cheaper than Cape Town and elsewhere in South Africa. Rosebank is a great place to do your crafts shopping in Johannesburg, and it’s easily one of the best things to do in Johannesburg for adults (especially those of us decorating a home).

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