Gauteng

Sightseeing

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The Joburg skyline as seen from the City Sightseeing bus
The Joburg skyline as seen from the City Sightseeing bus
Photo by Felix Lipov / Shutterstock

History and heritage

Gauteng has some of South Africa’s finest history museums, with a particularly strong focus on examining the long period of oppression at the hands of the apartheid state and the brave and difficult struggle for freedom and democracy in South Africa.

In Joburg make sure to give yourself at least half a day to take in the huge Apartheid Museum which offers a comprehensive view of the history of apartheid in South Africa. The national heritage landmark Constitution Hill, which was once a prison and is now home to the South African Constitutional Court, also reveals in vivid detail the cruelties of apartheid while giving a voice to the many ordinary and extraordinary people who were imprisoned at Constitution Hill for their opposition to apartheid. 
 
In the leafy northern Joburg suburb of Rivonia, the excellent Liliesleaf is another must-visit museum that looks in detail at the activities carried out at this former farm by Nelson Mandela and his fellow activists which eventually led them to a sentence of life imprisonment on Robben Island. Meanwhile in the suburb of Sophiatown, Sophiatown The Mix is a museum and community centre that highlights the devastating 1955 forced removals which saw the destruction of the vibrant multi-racial suburb as all ‘non-white’ residents were forcibly moved to distant townships under the apartheid regime’s Group Areas Act.
 
The Constitutional Court at Constitution Hill. One of the stops on the City Sightseeing bus tour of Joburg


In Pretoria check out the many historical museums such as the 52-hectare Freedom Park is an impressive memorial to South Africa’s history and heritage, themed around humanity, freedom and healing. Rich in symbolism the memorial park showcases the different struggles South Africa has faced along the path to democracy with a high-tech and extensive museum that looks at the long history of oppression in South African under colonialism and later under the apartheid state. There also some wonderful old house museums such as the beautifully-preserved mansion Melrose House where the 1902 Peace Treaty of Vereeniging, was signed ending the Anglo-Boer Wars. Just outside the city you can also find some fascinating house museums such as the Jan Smuts House Museum to the south in Irene or the impressive Sammy Marks House Museum just east of the city.

And finally in Soweto, the Hector Pieterson Museum and Memorial looks at the student riots of 1976 and the brave struggle for education and equality that was led by the school children of Soweto, while the Kliptown Museum remembers the historic Congress of the People and the resultant Freedom Charter that was created by those opposed to apartheid in 1955 and of course there's also the Nelson Mandela House Museum too.

Ancient fossils and caves

Exhibit at the Sterkfontein Cave visitor's centre, Cradle of Humankind
Some of the world's oldest hominid fossils were discovered in Gauteng in the Cradle of Humankind, now a world heritage site, and remains of our ancient ancestors continue to be found here.Maropeng is the visitor’s centre for the Cradle of Humankind, with an extensive modern exhibition that takes an interactive approach to the history of life as we know it from the Big Bang to the evolution of humankind and the spread of people across continents. The stories behind the numerous discoveries made here are also showcased alongside copies of the original fossils. A perfect accompaniment to the museum is a guided tour of the nearby Sterkfontein Caves where the remains of Little Foot, Mrs Ples and other famous fossils were found.

If you don’t have time to make it all the way out to the Cradle of Humankind, visit the excellent Origins Centre at Wits University in Braamfontein, Joburg. The museum explores and celebrates the history of modern humans, tracing the emergence of humanity along an 80 000-year path to its African source including an extensive collection of ancient rock art, stone age tools, and artefacts of spiritual significance to early humans.

Art museums and galleries

William Kentridge's Centre for the Less Good Idea at Arts on Main in Maboneng
Twenty years ago Joburg emerged from relative apartheid isolation and today the city is grabbing headlines internationally for its flourishing art scene and rise to prominence of artists, curators and gallerists. The world-famous South African artist William Kentridge has his studios in downtown Joburg’s Maboneng precinct, while major young names who have taken the world by storm such as Mary Sibande, Blessing Ngobeni and Nelson Makamo (who counts among his celebrity collectors Kelly Rowland, Trevor Noah and Oprah) also call the city home.

Joburg’s art calendar is one of the city most enlivening aspects, with weekly art openings, two major art fairs, and a number of art gallery neighbourhoods, including Braamfontein, Maboneng and Rosebank, as well as a district of artists’ studios in Newtown and in the east in Doornfontein and at Victoria Yards. There is also a unique openness and accessibility within the local contemporary art scene with artist studios often hosting open day events where you can explore the studios and meet and buy from the artists themselves. Joburg is one of the world’s major emerging art capitals and no visit to the city should be complete without visiting some of the dozens of independent art galleries based in the city.

Meanwhile in Pretoria a big must-visit for those who enjoy contemporary art is the stunning new Javett Art Centre UP. Officially opened on Heritage Day 2019, the Javett-UP is one of the largest new art museums to open in South Africa in recent years. The museum's vast art collection includes a very impressive and expansive selection of 20th Century South African art from the private collection of philanthropist and museum founder Michael Javett, as well as dozens of large-scale iconic South African artworks on loan from private, public and corporate collections. Adjoining the museum is the stunning Gold of Africa wing which has provided a spectacular new home for the iconic gold rhino, leopard and other priceless treasures from the precious Mapungubwe collection.

Guided tours

Street art in the Joburg City Centre on a MicroAdventures Tour (mural by DBongz)

Undoubtedly one of Gauteng's most compelling attractions is the vibrant and historic Joburg City Centre. Taking a guided walking or cycling tour is the perfect way to experience aspects of the city that might otherwise be hidden from view and a great way to experience the city for the first time, as its bustling and busy streets can be intimidating to newcomers. 

Whether it's a focus on history and heritage, culture or street art, you can find an experienced guide in Johannesburg to lead the way. Joburg’s most enriching tours focus on the historic city centre covering a variety of themes from migrant history and food to fabric shopping, public art and architecture. In fact Joburg offers such a variety of interesting tour experiences, it is worth booking yourself in to enjoy a couple of different tours if you have the time!

Take a tour of the city by skateboard with City Skate tours, enjoy the stories of Joburg’s unique migrant history and discover hidden rooftops and underground bars with JoburgPlaces, take a ride through Joburg’s public art and historic architecture on a cycling tour with MicroAdventure Tours and explore Joburg’s rich graffiti and street art scene with Past Experiences. We also highly recommend joining Dlala Nje for one of their memorable walking tours of the infamous pan-African inner-city neighbourhoods of Hillbrow and Yeoville for a different perspective on the city and the chance to enjoy awe-inspiring views from the 52nd floor of Hillbrow’s Ponte building, Africa’s tallest residential building. 
 
A rich history in every direction at Lebo's Soweto Backpackers

South Africa’s most famous township, Soweto has a unique spirit and culture that is all its own and it is worth booking a tour with a local guide and putting aside a day to really get under the skin of this fascinating place. From fashionable buzzing weekend streetside shisa nyama (barbecue) hangouts to bungee jumping and quad biking, Soweto has it all.

Some recommended tour guides include the pioneering Lebo's Soweto Bicycle Tours who offer 2-hour, half-day or full-day tours on foot, by bike or by tuk tuk, taking in everything from struggle history to traditional African customs and including a delicious home-cooked lunch at the delightful Outdoor Restaurant which looks out over the Lebo’s community farm and gardens.

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