How to Spend a Weekend in Johannesburg
If I say South Africa, you say… Safari? Wine tasting? Penguins?
That’s exactly what came to my mind when I realised I would be stuck in Johannesburg airport O.R. Tambo for a very long layover. Obviously, all those things were incredibly far from me (South Africa is very big, in case you didn’t know), so I braced myself for an excruciatingly long wait.
That is, until I realised Johannesburg is an actual city full of things to do, places to see, and history to discover. I changed my flight so that I could spend the weekend in Jozi, and what a good idea that was!
Lifestyle in the Maboneng Precinct
While it’s still better to avoid walking around downtown, especially at night, in recent years there has been a lot of redevelopment and there are plenty of mostly safe pockets all over the city.
One such area is Maboneng Precinct, where trendy markets and graffiti have sprung up everywhere, making it a hub of art, creativity and fancy burgers. If you’ve been to Hackney or Peckham in London, Maboneng will definitely make you feel right at home. My advice would be to stay at Curiocity, a trendy hotel that ticks all the boxes: a cosy indoor bar with pool tables, tiny balconies to sip a cocktail on at sunset while watching the street below come to life, and even a jacuzzi! They have dorms as well as standard and premium private rooms, catering to everyone from round-the-world travellers to the stylish travel couple.
Whether or not you stay there, make sure you visit them to check out their guided walking tours of Maboneng, street art tours, pub crawls and even city skate tours.
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In the evening, head out for a meat feast at Pata Pata. A word of warning though: I believe I was served the equivalent of half a kudu (a species of antelope) when I went, so make sure you go with a big appetite!
The Bioscope picture house has a good selection of African and world cinema, sometimes quite obscure, as well as occasional live music till late. And when you wake up hangover in the morning, make sure you pay a visit to Betrand’s Cafè for the freshest smashed avocado on toast on the block.
On Sunday morning, don’t miss Market on Main a few blocks away inside the Arts on Main complex. Walk around the colourful stalls and take in the intoxicating aromas of multiple world cuisines at once: South African, Chinese, sushi, pulled pork, pizza, and much more. Work up an appetite on the rooftop in the inner courtyard, where they often organise free salsa lessons, and then rehydrate with fresh coconut milk drank straight from the coconut.
Apartheid Museum Johannesburg
Apartheid Museum Johannesburg
History at the Apartheid Museum
Lifestyle, trendy markets and eggs benedict are not all that Jozi has to offer however. The terrifying history of Apartheid is still very fresh in people’s minds, and a visit to the Apartheid Museum is definitely a must.
Despite its slightly bizarre placement opposite an amusement park, as soon as you step inside the museum you immediately perceive a shift in energy and awareness: the concrete structure of severe, straight lines juxtaposed with smooth elegant curves inspires an immediate understanding of the gravity of Apartheid, while giving hope for a better future.
Visitors are allocated tickets randomly, so even if you are white you might be assigned a non-white ticket: in that case you will enter through the segregated gate for non-whites, and walk down a see-through gallery where you can see your white counterparts well, but can’t reach out and touch them, an eerie experience that gives an inkling as to what life under Apartheid must have felt like for non-whites.
The museum continues following roughly a chronological sequence, and also includes a really informative and well-structured exhibition dedicated entirely to Mandela, from his beginnings in the Madiba clan in the village of Mvezo, to his political imprisonment and finally his presidency.
Nelson Mandela House
Nelson Mandela House
The Soul of Soweto
If you’re looking to get a closer-up perspective on Nelson Mandela, you should consider visiting his house in Soweto, which, however, has become a real tourist landmark and therefore tends to be packed on the weekends.
While you’re there, it’s worth taking a look at the Soweto Towers, a decommissioned power station now covered in stunning art (and Vodafone adverts) and used for… Bungee jumping and freefall (though if you’re a chicken like me, you can stick to wall climbing)!
Hartbeesportdam - Image: Arianna Meschia
HartbeesportdamImage: Arianna Meschia
Last but not least, if you fancy a bit of nature and an excellent oxtail soup, head to Hartbeespoort Dam about an hour and a half away from downtown Johannesburg. Here you’ll find Tan Malie se Winkel - a sweetshop, bakery and restaurant with plenty of old-world charm, serving home-made food including delicious bread and jams and the best oxtail soup I’ve ever tasted in my whole life.
Affectionately known as Harties, the dam area is a great destination especially for family days out, with its snake park and elephant sanctuary nearby.
What are you waiting for? Ditch your dreaded layover and let Jozi give you a much more authentic perspective on this beautiful and complicated country than any safari and wine tasting ever could!
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