48 Hours in Johannesburg: Four Must-See Sights

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Africa is a continent of misperceptions. Whether it’s in the movies, the news media, and even in the advertisements, we often view African cities as poverty-stricken, rather than thriving and prospering. Take Johannesburg, for instance. Prior to visiting there, even I carried some misperceptions about the city. But after spending 48 hours in Johannesburg, I realized my ideas of the city were wrong.

As a blogger, I feel it’s my mission to spread a more positive view of the African continent. While it is true that the continent has pockets of areas that are facing extreme poverty or extreme danger, there are just as many (if not more) places in the continent that are rich in beauty, wealth, and culture. I loved exploring the city of Lusaka in Zambia. Even Johannesburg, which has a reputation for being a dangerous city, has many wonderful attractions worth visiting.

This post was updated on April 27, 2020.


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An exhibit at the Cradle of Humankind during a visit of 48 hours in Johannesburg
An exhibit at the Cradle of Humankind (September 2016)

An opportunity to visit Johannesburg

In 2016, on my way back from a work trip to Zambia, I had the opportunity to spend 48 hours in Johannesburg on an extended layover. I was so excited to get a chance to explore Johannesburg. It was also my first time visiting South Africa.

When I realized I would be spending a layover in South Africa, I asked my company’s travel agent to extend my layover to 48 hours in Johannesburg. So I’m glad I did. Johannesburg is such a fun city to visit.

A city with a sad history

Johannesburg is the largest city in South Africa, and traces its roots to the gold that was discovered in the area in the late 1800’s. It is now one of the 50 largest urban cities in the world, and the most populous city in South Africa.

The city, like much of South Africa, is a mix of complicated and racially-tinged history. The gold industry perpetuated a system of racial separation, with Europeans and non-Africans at the top, and native black Africans at the bottom, working the mines. This system of separation was institutionalized by the South African in the form of Apartheid. You can read more about Apartheid in the history section of the South Africa guidebook by Lonely Planet.

It wasn’t until the 1990’s that Apartheid was abolished, and black Africans were actually able to vote and have a say in their government. Since then, the country has made great strides in becoming a more racially accepting society. Yet sadly, racial inequities still exist.

A memorial that you can see when spending 48 hours in Johannesburg, dedicated to Hector Pieterson. A marble fountain with an inscription, in the water are large stones, and a stone wall in the background.
Hector Pieterson Memorial in Johannesburg (September 2016)

What to do in 48 hours in Johannesburg

With my limited knowledge of South African history, I spent my 48 hours in Johannesburg, staying at a lovely bed and breakfast called Northcliff Manor, owned by an Afrikaans woman who’s family has lived in Johannesburg for generations.

It was a short visit, but I enjoyed every minute. The rooms are so elegantly decorated, the breakfast is delicious, and the property itself is beautiful. I felt incredibly safe walking around the neighborhood as well. At the end of my visit, I was sad to leave, and couldn’t wait to come back.

If you find yourself with 48 hours in Johannesburg, here are my top 4 picks of what to do in the city:

Learn about South Africa’s history at Apartheid Museum

South Africa’s history can be a bit difficult to take in. During the years that Apartheid was legal, black South Africans were forced to carry around identification papers and were prohibited from marrying non-black South Africans. They also faced a lot more legal hurdles to attaining higher education, compared to their non-black peers.

The Apartheid Museum, located in the southwestern part of the city, is a great introduction to South African history. The museum experience includes interactive displays, videos, and photos. Admission is 100 Rand for adults, and 85 Rand for kids. Guided tours are available for an additional cost.

An exhibit at the Apartheid Museum during a visit of 48 hours in Johannesburg
An exhibit at the Apartheid Museum (September 2016)

Tour Soweto by bike during your 48 hours in Johannesburg

I always enjoy doing physical activities during my travels. Most of the time, I end up walking around cities that I’m visiting. But walking around the city alone is a bit more risky in Johannesburg. As an alternative, a bicycle tour is a great way to get in some physical activities during your 48 hours in Johannesburg. I love the bicycle tours that Soweto Bicycle Tours offers. These tours are part of Lebo’s Backpackers, a hostel in Soweto.

Soweto is a township in Johannesburg, where uprisings against the South African government’s enforcement of Afrikaans education during Apartheid took place. The township is almost entirely populated by black South Africans, and makes up about 1/3 of Johannesburg’s population. It’s also an area of Johannesburg that still faces a lot of poverty.

The bicycle tour is a good way to understand the township and its history a bit better. The tour goes by abandoned government housing projects and the Hector Pieterson Memorial, where the Soweto Uprising began. The tour also visits Nelson Mandela’s house, and gives riders a chance to sample locally brewed beer. Bike tours range from 2 hours to 4 hours to full day tours.

Lebo’s provides bicycles and helmets, and a knowledgeable guide to take you to all the sites. Afterward, you can stay and enjoy a meal at the hostel. Starting at 550 Rand for a 2 hour tour, it is well worth the money if you want something to do during your 48 hours in Johannesburg.

Taking advantage of active time with a bike tour of Soweto (September 2016)

Soak up fine art at the Wits Art Museum

A visit to a city for me isn’t complete without a trip to the art museum. I love soaking up fine art. For me, walking through a fine art museum is akin to meditation, except that you’re surrounded by so many beautiful things! The Wits Art Museum at the University of Witswatersrand is a relaxing place to spend a morning.

Housing an extensive collection of historical and contemporary African art, it really provides a unique view of the culture of the continent. One of the common misperceptions about Africa is that it’s not as culturally developed as Europe of North America. However, the caliber of art work at the Wits Art Museum really rivals those found at MOMA or the Louvre.

The Wits Art Museum is open Wednesdays through Sundays from 10am to 4pm. Admission is free, although donations are welcome.

Artwork at the Wits Art Museum (September 2016)

Discover your inner archaeologist at the Cradle of Humankind

Prior to coming to Johannesburg, my coworker recommended that I visit the Cradle of Humankind. Though not technically in the city, proper, the Cradle of Humankind is worth visiting if you’re in Johannesburg.

Located around 50km northwest of Johannesburg, in Maropeng, the Cradle of Humankind is a paleoanthropological site that is also designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Many of the first ape-man fossil discoveries originate at this site. Visitors come and learn about some of those early discoveries through exhibits at the Cradle of Humankind.

A visit to the Maropeng Visitor Center is 120 Rand for adults, and 65 Rand for kids aged 4-14. A visit to the Sterkfontein Caves is 165 Rand for adults, and 97 Rand for kids aged 4-14. I was disappointed that I didn’t have my kids during this visit. However, that just means I’ll have to take them back next time.

house in south africa
Maropeng Visitor Center at the Cradle of Humankind (September 2016)

A starting point for spending 48 hours in Johannesburg

Johannesburg is a great city to visit, vibrant with culture and history. It is a lot easier to get around than I expected. Contrary to many of the perceptions of Africa, it’s not a city completely wrought with danger and poverty, although there are certainly pockets of the city facing poverty.

Like any major city in the world, it’s wise to be prudent and aware of your surroundings. At the same time, that shouldn’t stop you from visiting and exploring.

These four places are a great starting point for spending 48 hours in Johannesburg, or even more, if time allows. Are you ready to get on a plane and visit Johannesburg?

Four Ways To Spend 48 Hours In Johannesburg | The Wandering Daughter | Tips for experiencing Johannesburg, South Africa in 48 hours. #Africa #SouthAfrica #stopover

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24 Responses

  1. I’d love to do what you did there, especially visiting the Cradle of Humankind, as I’ve worked on a few digs. The Apartheid Museum reminded me of visiting the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, also a sobering experience.

    1. I’d love to visit the Civil Rights Museum. It’s so important for us to remember this part of our country’s history.

    1. Yes, it was a bit on the packed side! I think if I had been in Johannesburg with my kids, I would have spaced all the activities out a bit more.

  2. What you have said is so true, Africa is a continent surrounded by misconceptions. The only way to full understand it is to go there and see it for yourself.

    Our trip changes us forever and Africa has left a permanent imprint on us. We really want to go back and learn more. The history, people their cultures and of course the nature are all awe inspiring and worthy of a journey of discovery.

    Thanks for sharing. Keep travel blogging. Adventure is better shared with friends!

    1. Thanks Anthony! I really didn’t know anything about Africa until I visited Togo about twelve years ago. Since then, I have realized there is so much more to the continent than what we read about in the news or in magazines or blogs.

  3. Looks like you had a great time and I am not surprised. I am seeing a lot of South African posts these day . May be intentionally I am eyeing on it for my next trip 🙂
    Nice write up .

  4. I have only had the opportunity to fly through Johannesburg on my way to Durban but I am completely taken in by the Art museum and the cradle of humankind. I feel as you do about art museums its a quiet, meditative place of absolute beauty. This city is so steeped in history it’s hard not to be attracted to it.

    1. Thanks Amy! I would have loved to go see the World Cup in Johannesburg. What teams did you see?

  5. Lovely ideas – I genuinely like your mission to spread a more positive perception of the continent (deservedly so!), but at the same time, you still don’t shy away from urging people to learn about SA’s apartheid and things like that. If (no, when!) we finally make it there, we’ll have to make a few of the stops you mention 🙂

    1. Thanks Meagan! I feel like places are like people, multi-faceted and possessing both good and bad qualities. Hope you get to go to South Africa some day.

  6. Africa is a gem itself. Thanks for sharing your experience and four takes on how to do this! This makes me want to pack my bags immediately

  7. We applaud you for making it your mission to spread the positives about Africa! We would love to visit some day and South Africa is definitely on the list.

    1. I hope you get to go! I haven’t had a chance to explore much of South Africa outside of Johannesburg, but I hear they have wonderful national parks.

  8. I love your approach to the continent of Africa, and agree with you that, as bloggers, we are responsible for shedding light on the truth of each of its 54 countries. It’s crazy how they all get lumped together when there is so much religious, historical, linguistic, geographic, and economic differences. Anyhow, thank you for including the history of Apartheid in this post, and also showing people that Johannesburg is a great place to explore. I haven’t yet been to South Africa, so I loved seeing what there is for me to do when I eventually get there. Love it!

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I'm a full-time traveling mom who's passionate about worldschooling.

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