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Greetings, Internet Stranger, and welcome to 24 hours in Johannesburg, South Africa. Johannesburg doesn’t always get the love that Cape Town gets. People say that Cape Town is amazingly beautiful, whereas Johannesburg is more urban. And then there are those who say that Jo’burg is too dangerous, and if you go there, you’re sure to be targeted by pickpockets.
Well, I spent a fabulous 24 hours in Johannesburg (and more), and I found it to be quite lovely, fascinating, and underrated. Plus, I was never pickpocketed even once, nor did I feel myself to be in danger. Give Jozi a chance and I’m sure you’ll find it to be just as delightful as I did.
24 Hours in Johannesburg
How To Get There
Now, I wish I knew where you lived, Internet Stranger, because I could send you a beautiful box of South African wine. But sadly, I do not, and so I can’t tell you how to get from your home to Johannesburg
But I can tell you that I used a lovely airplane to get from my hometown NYC to Johannesburg. (Of course we had a layover in London.) I recommend Expedia for the best way to find the cheapest flight to South Africa at the best time of day. It’s really easy to see all your options for flights by using their website.
Just click here to start looking for the best possible deals on your flight, so you can head out to 24 hours in Johannesburg ASAP.
24 Hours in Johannesburg
Where to Stay?
Usually I don’t believe in staying in luxury hotels. I mean, that’s money you could spend on a great meal or a sweet pair of earrings. But since it was my first time spending 24 hours in Johannesburg, I decided to splurge a bit for my accommodation on the Munro Boutique Hotel.
This place has a delicious breakfast and dinner available to order every day, absolutely stunning grounds, and a tasty welcome drink for you to enjoy. The owners themselves came to hang out with me some evenings, and they couldn’t have been a nicer couple.
24 Hours in Johannesburg
What to Pack?
- We’ll be doing plenty of walking on our 24 hours in Johannesburg both indoors and out, so make sure you’re dressed appropriately with comfy/cute sandals.
- Waterproof boots because you don’t want rain to spoil your adventurous 24 hours in Johannesburg.
- An umbrella because if it rains, you’ll need it, and this one stands up very well to tough South African winds.
- A cell charger so you can take photos of all the fascinating attractions you’ll find.
- The best international travel adapter–because if you’re American, like I am, or from the EU, your electronic devices won’t plug in without this
- A great spray sunscreen so even if the sun is blazing, your skin won’t get burned
- My favorite guide to South Africa, including Johannesburg.
- My favorite African cookbook, which features many South African recipes
- We’ll be seeing a lot of Nelson Mandela related sights, so you have to read his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom.
- But we’ll also be learning about murdered South African activist Steve Biko, so be sure to read some of his works as well.
- I always travel with travel insurance from World Nomads. You never know when something might go wrong, especially in this day and age, and you don’t want to get stranded in a foreign country without help. But with travel insurance, you’re protected even if you’re attacked by a gaggle of vicious penguins on your 24 hours in Johannesburg.
24 Hours in Johannesburg
Morning: Apartheid Museum
Being that I was totally unfamiliar with Johannesburg, and it’s a quite large and spread-out city, I opted to spend most of my 24 hours in Johannesburg on a tour. This eight-hour tour, led by a friendly young man who had moved to South Africa from Zimbabwe as a child, showed all the main highlights of one of Africa’s most interesting cities. I strongly recommend taking this tour if you can. You can book it easily here.
We started the tour with a short drive around Johannesburg, stopping at the Top of Africa building to get the obligatory views of Johannesburg. (You can see some of my photos from this view above.) But the morning is really dedicated to the fascinating Apartheid Museum.
Your guide will leave you on your own, so you have enough time to explore Johannesburg’s most famous museum. Picture taking is not allowed inside the museum; all my photos come from the outside of the museum, where it is allowed. I can’t possibly tell you everything I saw there, but I will let you in on…
Three Facts: Apartheid Museum
1) What is Apartheid?
Apartheid is a word from the Afrikaans language that refers to the separation of the races. (It literally means separateness.) Afrikaans is closely related to Dutch because the white “Afrikaner” South Africans were descended from Dutch settlers to South Africa in the 17th century.
One of the most memorable things about the museum is that your ticket assigns you either a “white” or a non-white identity, and you have to go through the appropriate entrance, as a reminder of what life what like during apartheid.
Under the apartheid regime, which lasted from the 1940s to the 1990s, South Africans of color were discriminated against and oppressed, much like they were under the Jim Crow laws in the American South. Many South Africans who resisted this injustice were jailed or even killed. One part of the museum is dedicated to South Africans like Steve Biko who were killed in prison.
(Again, read Steve Biko’s writings if you want to know more about him. You can also watch the movie Cry Freedom about Biko, which features an Oscar-nominated performance by Denzel Washington. But reading his work for yourself is better.)
2) What About Nelson Mandela?
Of course Nelson Mandela was the most famous person to resist apartheid, but he didn’t act alone. He was leader of the political group known as the ANC, or the African National Congress. (We’ll learn more about them in a bit.) The exhibit on Mandela is really interesting because we learn so much about his life as a young man.
Mandela was born the son of a chief, and his mother was one of the chief’s four wives. She converted to Christianity, and Mandela said this had an influence on his way of thinking. Often when we read about Mandela, he can sound like an angel or a saint, but not all of the stories about him in the museum were like this.
Apparently one time he was teased at school for his footwear, and he said this inspired him to go on to be a “fashion plate”. Nelson Mandela: Freedom Fighter, Father of His Country, Fashion Icon.
3) How Did Apartheid End?
Thanks to a relentless campaign from the ANC and other activists, which involved both protests and encouraging international boycotts, among other methods, South African President FW de Klerk released Nelson Mandela from prison and participated in South Africa’s first truly democratic election. De Klerk led the Afrikaner National Party and lost to Mandela, who led the ANC.
The ANC remains the political party in charge of South Africa today. At the Apartheid Museum, I learned that the current President of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, was a negotiator for the ANC back when De Klerk and Mandela were trying to determine what the new South Africa should look like. Ramaphosa had wanted to succeed Mandela as leader of the ANC, but when he wasn’t chosen, he left South Africa for a while until he was able to come back and lead the party.
Many South Africans I spoke to say they know the ANC has a problem with political corruption now, but they still support the party because of all the good work it did helping to end apartheid. After visiting the Apartheid Museum, it’s easy to understand why people feel that way.
24 Hours in Johannesburg
Afternoon: Explore Soweto (And Nearby)
Soweto is one of the most notable places in Johannesburg, so we have to stop in on our 24 hours in Johannesburg. My guide told me the area was meant to a township for Black South Africans only to live in. In fact, the white population of Johannesburg built walls so the Black people in Soweto couldn’t even see into the city. (WTF?) So many Soweto residents don’t like going to Johannesburg because they remember the bad old days.
However, while there’s a lot of poverty in Soweto now, there’s also much more to the area than that. Join me as I show you the…
Approximately Top 5: Soweto (And Nearby)
My guide took me to Sakhumzi, which is an African restaurant right near the house where Nelson Mandela used to live. In fact, this street is a most notable street because not one, but two Nobel Prize winners lived here. (The other winner is Archbishop Desmond Tutu.)
If you go for lunch, there will be a big buffet with all sorts of salads, stews, and grains. I recommend literally all of the vegetables and grains, which were delicious, and it can be hard to find tasty veggies when you are on the road. The chicken and beef stews were also flavorful. I did try the tripe, aka cow stomach, to be adventurous, and it did taste extremely tripey, so be warned if that’s not your bag.
For dessert, you need to get malva pudding, that classic South African apricot spongy cake covered in warm custard sauce. That’s just science.
3) Mandela’s House
After lunch, it’s just a quick walk to Mandela House on the famous Two Nobel Prize Winner Vilakazi Street. The house has been turned into a museum, and the house itself provides a tour with its own guides, so you’ll be joining a different group of people for this part of the tour. The guides here are often students, so please tip them generously at the end!
This house belonged to Nelson Mandela when he was young, and he lived here with his first wife. After he and his first wife divorced, he married his most famous wife Winnie Mandela. While Mandela was in prison, Winnie lived here by herself, but she eventually left because she was sick and tired of being shot at by the police. After Mandela was released from prison, he didn’t return to live at this house.
There’s tons of interesting memorabilia that belonged to Mandela in the house, like a giant belt gifted to him by Sugar Ray Leonard and a tree where the Mandelas buried the umbilical cords of their children. But my favorite was this giant photo of young Mandela and a great dog.
Don’t miss the opportunity during your 24 hours in Johannesburg itinerary to check out the different types of housing in Soweto. There are some quite nice affordable houses built by the government, but unfortunately they ran of money. My guide said a lot of these houses are empty because it’s too hard to decide who will live in them, since there aren’t enough for everyone.
Many people in Soweto live in shacks without running water. My guide said that they still have to pay rent even if they don’t get any utilities or real upkeep. I didn’t take photos of the shacks because it’s tacky to do that without asking permission.
Soweto also has a more well-to-do population, as you can see from the house above. My guide called this area the “Beverly Hills of Soweto”. He also said that Soweto is one of the safest parts of Johannesburg because so many tourists visit there and the locals want to be friendly. I did find the residents of Jo’burg to be some of the friendliest people I have encountered in my travels! Literally everyone I spoke to was happy to help if I needed it.
4) Hector Pieterson Memorial
The Hector Pieterson Memorial is dedicated to a child who was killed during the Soweto Uprising in the 1970s. Students were protesting the fact that their classes were taught in Afrikaans, which was the language of the white government, not the language that many of the students spoke. (South Africa has eleven official languages today.)
During the protests, the police started firing on the crowd, and a 12-year old boy named Hector Pieterson was killed. A man named Mbuyisa Makhubo picked up Hector’s body, and the moment was photographed, becoming an iconic image of the brutality of apartheid. (You can see the photo in my picture of the memorial above.)
There is a museum attached to the memorial, but you won’t have time to visit on this tour. You can come back if you have another 24 hours in Johannesburg.
5) Walter Sisulu Square
The last stop on the tour was Walter Sisulu Square, which is named after a different South African activist and member of the ANC. In 1955, the Congress of the People, which included people from all races who wanted to create a more just South Africa, met here to create the Freedom Charter.
This document outlined all the rights that the Congress of the People believed South Africans should have. Principles include “The People Shall Share in the Country’s Wealth!”, “All Shall Enjoy Equal Human Rights!”, and “There Shall Be Peace and Friendship!” (Yes, there really are that many exclamation marks.) My guide said that the Freedom Charter was really trying to create a utopia, but many of the principles were used to create South Africa’s constitution.
On a more prosaic note, many films set in South Africa have been shot in this square. My guide mentioned Invictus, starring Morgan Freedom as Nelson Mandela, but there have been others.
24 Hours in Johannesburg
Evening: Dinner at Marble
We can’t say it’s a proper 24 hours in Johannesburg without a delicious dinner, can we? So let’s mosey on over to Marble for some top-notch steak. (If there’s one thing South Africans do well food-wise, it’s meat!)
Start off with some of their delicious bread with housemade butter and spreads. The waiter said that it was pumpkin butter, but it tasted more like peanut butter to me. Maybe I misheard him? South African accents can be tricky for us Yanks!
One of their signature appetizers is the Marble “Avo” Ritz, which is topped with plump and firm prawns. I’m not quite sure what they did to this avocado to make it taste so good. Usually I could never eat an entire half an avocado in one sitting, but this dish made me want to keep noshing.
Of course the main reason to go to Marble is to try one of their outstanding steaks. Tragically they were out of the South African beef for the filet, so I just went with the American beef. (USA, USA, USA!) The other cuts all seemed too big for me to eat.
The steak came with crispy beans and broccoli rabe, which added a nice bit of bitterness to compliment the rich steak. They also served the steak with both French fries and chips (or chips and crisps, if you are South African). I much prefer fries to chips, but it was nice to have a choice. The steak was so good, it didn’t need any of the sauces. Just a dab of butter was the perfect touch.
After such a big meal, you’ll want a refreshing dessert like this spongy cake with stone fruit and citrus sorbet. The three different texture, ranging from the heavier cake to the light sorbet were the most interesting part of the dish. But nothing says summer in January like an amazing bowl of fresh stonefruit. It’s enough to make one want to spend every January in South Africa!
That’s a Perfect 24 Hours in Johannesburg!
What would you do with 24 hours in Johannesburg? Are you ready to start booking your hotel in Johannesburg now? And could anything be cuter than that photo of Nelson Mandela with the giant dog? Please leave your thoughts below!
Note: If you want to know how I put my travel itineraries together, just click here. Keep in mind that while each article is about how to spend 24 hours in a place, that doesn’t mean you should ONLY have 24 hours in Johannesburg.