48 Hours in Johannesburg: Must-See Sights

January 15, 2018

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.

Read this post to learn some age-appropriate strategies for talking about privilege with your kids.

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:

1. 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)

2. 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)

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3. 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. For families looking for learning opportunities during their visit to Johannesburg, museums like the Wits Art Museum make for great worldschooling resources.

Artwork at the Wits Art Museum (September 2016)

4. 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)

5. Take a tour to get the most out of your 48 hours in Johannesburg

To really get the most out of your time in Johannesburg, taking a tour led by a local guide is really the way to go. Since Johannesburg is such a cosmopolitan city, there are so many different types of tours you can take. They range from historical to cultural, walking tours to food tours.

Here are some examples of tours you can book during your 48 hours in Johannesburg:

Johannesburg Half Day Small Group Tour

Maboneng Street Art Tour

Street food, public art & history tour

Taste of Africa (Food & Beer tasting Experience)

Click here to explore other regions of the world I've visited with my family.

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?

Are you planning to visit Johannesburg as part of a bigger travel adventure? Get my family gap year guide, Hey Kids, Let’s Go Travel! for resources, advice, and actionable steps for planning your trip.

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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