South Africa’s largest city is often overlooked in favour of the coastal allure of Cape Town, the historic pull of Pretoria or big game reserves further afield, but there’s a lot to learn and more to love in Johannesburg than you might think! Sure, Jo’burg is a bit rough around the edges, but travellers who enjoy a journey off the beaten track will find plenty to see and do in this multi-faceted city.
When travelling as a family, you want to get the most out of your chosen destination (not spending your child’s inheritance in the process) and to design a schedule that keeps everyone happy. With this in mind on your South African holiday, the following Johannesburg attractions showcase the city at its best and promise first-rate holiday memories for all.
The first to-do on your list should be a visit to the “Top of Africa” at the Carlton Centre in downtown Johannesburg. The slab-like building may appear unimpressive from street level, but a journey to the observation deck will prove otherwise. The 50-storey skyscraper boasts 360-degree panoramic views of Jo’burg, reaching out to the mining belt in the city’s south and the suburban skylines of Braamfontein and Hillbrow northward. Starting out as a ritzy hotel some four decades ago, the Carlton Centre is now filled with an assortment of retail and office spaces, including a conveniently placed cafe on the top floor – it’s just a small admission fee to reach the tiptop, R10 – R15. It may no longer hold rank as the tallest building in the Southern Hemisphere, but the urban views are unbeatable.
Johannesburg’s Neighbourgoods Market is considered by many to be the best shopping experience in town. A must-do weekend activity, the markets are tucked away inside a multi-level office car park every Saturday until lunchtime. An authentic, vibrant community spirit breezes through Braamfontein’s popular bazaar with plenty of cross-cultural cuisine, organic produce, local music, handmade jewellery and wares from independent designers, making it the perfect place to pick up a stylish souvenir. Visit for breakfast or brunch and sample the chilled fruit smoothies, craft beers, regional curries, or an iconic Balkan Burger, shared at a communal table alongside fellow world travellers and welcoming locals eager to share the secret gems of Jozi.
The eco-certified Lion Park awards visitors an unforgettable up-close-and-personal experience with the kings of the jungle. At the park you can venture inside the caged enclosures with experienced guides on hand, petting and playing with the furry lion cubs or hand feeding the graceful giraffes. The park territory is divided and shared between four lion prides (including the endangered white lion), a clan of cheetahs and camps of wild dogs and hyenas. Take a self-drive tour through the main park or a guided day/night drive to see the big cats in action – a great option if you don’t have a chance to get to one of Africa’s “Big Five” reserves. Located about 45-minutes away from downtown Johannesburg, the Lion Park aims to educate visitors on African wildlife and promote conservation.
Johannesburg Art Gallery
Add a little culture to your itinerary with a quick squiz at the Johannesburg Art Gallery. Easily located at the heart of the Jo’burg business district, the gallery is the largest on the sub-continent and boasts over 9,000 works of art, 15 exhibition halls and expansive sculpture gardens. The colloquially known “JAG” plays host to a world of art including 17th Century Dutch paintings, 18th Century British and European works and contemporary South African pieces. Book ahead if you’re interested in joining a tour, or take advantage of the free admission with a self-guided stroll through the grand building any day excluding Monday. Keep an eye out for artworks on show from the greats such as Picasso, Monet, Rodin and Battiss.
You can’t visit Johannesburg or wider South Africa without acknowledging the scars of its somewhat turbulent past. If you’re travelling with history buffs, the Apartheid Museum should definitely be on your radar – set aside at good two hours to give it justice. Both a sobering and moving experience, the museum illustrates the ups and downs of the city’s complex past and is jam-packed with historical significance. Rated as the number one attraction in Johannesburg, the Apartheid Museum sheds light on a dark period, giving credit to unsung heroes with 22 exhibitions of films, photographs, artefacts and thoughtful illustrations of human stories. Today, Johannesburg is working full-steam towards a brighter future but still acknowledges the battles it fought to win that freedom.