Colourful houses in Soweto in Johannesburg, South Africa
travel diary

Three days in Johannesburg: being a tourist in my hometown

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Stay: 58 on Hume

History tour: Johannesburg/Soweto guided tour

Street art tour: Maboneng Precinct

Food tour: Day/night street food tour

Day trip: Cradle of Humankind and lion safari

Johannesburg is the city closest to my heart. I can’t simply write about it like I would about travelling to any other city - it's the city of my childhood and memories. It is the city where I have never really belonged and will never be able to entirely leave. I love Johannesburg.

This isn’t a sentiment that is shared by many others. Although Johannesburg is the first stop in South Africa for most international tourists, a large number simply pass it by. Their reasons are simple; it’s not a pretty city, and it’s not an easy place to visit.

There’s no real centre, walking places isn’t really an option, and there are endless warnings about crime. Yet, with a bit of effort, you can burrow beneath the gritty exterior of Johannesburg and discover an integral piece of South Africa that so many people miss.

Here's how we spent three days in South Africa's largest city.

Streets lined with jacaranda trees in Johannesburg, South Africa

We stay in Sandton, Africa’s economic capital, where people live now in compounds and Alexandra, Johannesburg’s most notorious township, is just down the road from multinational corporations’ offices and designer boutiques. We find cafes and shopping centres and wander through Sandton City with its glossy shops and restaurants.

Heading north towards Pretoria we find ourselves driving past tree-lined suburbs, with villas tucked into the hills in a way that’s surprisingly reminiscent of Tuscany. The sense of Italy increases when we visit Montecasino and find ourselves standing in an indoor village that could almost be Verona.

Slot machines and gaming tables are just along a cobbled road and the flashing lights add to the surreal surroundings. A night staying at the African Pride Hotel in Melrose Arch completes our peek into the glitzy side of Jozi.

The exterior of Montecasino in Johannesburg, South Africa

Venturing out of the Northern suburbs, we bypass the botanical gardens and Emmarentia dam where I remember playing as a child. Instead, we visit Neighbourgoods Market, discovering an overwhelming array of cheeses, breads and spreads, with a seemingly endless supply of options for lunch, from paella and crepes to oysters and champagne. Not far away is the new urban precinct of Maboneng, an early effort to revitalise the inner-city with art, food and entertainment.

Just a little further south is Gold Reef City, an amusement park themed around Johannesburg’s Gold Rush and, our destination, the Apartheid Museum, a new addition since I left the country. The Apartheid Museum is cool and quiet. I find the stillness respectful and I value being able to share some of my country’s history with my husband, giving him an opportunity to understand a little of the struggles of so many South Africans.

The entrance of the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, South Africa

The Apartheid Museum is just to the Hector Pieterson Memorial, which documents events of the 1976 Soweto Uprising where more than 170 protesting school children were killed. Nelson Mandela's House, another museum, is just around the corner.

I remember other places we have been, where we have shared a little of the horrors of those countries’ pasts, and I find myself thinking how the pain of a people is truly precious. To come to South Africa and not learn about its heritage is to miss out on part of its soul.

Planning a trip to South Africa? Read our South Africa travel guides

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Roxanne de Bruyn

Author - Roxanne de Bruyn

Roxanne is the founder and editor of Faraway Worlds. She is a freelance writer and guidebook author and has written for several travel publications, including Lonely Planet, TripAdvisor and The Culture Trip. With a background in communications, she has studied ancient history, comparative religion and international development, and has a particular interest in sustainable tourism.

Originally from South Africa, Roxanne has travelled widely and loves learning the stories of the places she visits. She enjoys cooking, dance and yoga, and usually travels with her husband and young son. She is based in New Zealand.

Last Updated 14 November 2023

Overlooking beautiful Clifton Beach

South Africa

South Africa is a country of contrasts. As well as enjoying the spectacular coastline, peaceful bush and safaris, visitors can also learn about South Africa's difficult history and diverse heritage.