While many “One Day In...” stories are somewhat hypothetical (how often does one actually spend only one day in any city?), spending 24 hours or less in Johannesburg is actually not uncommon at all. The city’s OR Tambo International Airport is a major hub for South African Airways, and the 15-hour nonstop flight to New York takes off in the evening. This means that layovers from all other points in Southern Africa can easily last for hours, giving visitors a great opportunity to explore the city before heading home.
We reached out to a few specialists with South African Tourism and the Johannesburg Tourism Company to get their advice on what to see and do in South Africa’s largest city. Here are just a few suggestions for your clients to choose from—any of these can last for a few hours or most of the day, depending on their interests.
David DiGregorio of South African Tourism suggests visiting the Apartheid Museum, which focuses on the rise and fall of apartheid, the state-sanctioned system based on racial discrimination, in a series of 22 individual exhibitions. He also recommends a tour of Soweto, the neighborhood that illuminated apartheid for the world and is still a vibrant community today. (Fun Fact: Much like New York, Johannesburg uses acronyms for place names, and Soweto is actually SoWeTo—for “South West Township.”)
Laura Vercueil of the Johannesburg Tourism Company recommends a visit to Braamfontein, and farther into the Central Business District to take in all the regeneration projects in the inner city, which include Arts on Main, the Fashion District, Main Street and Newtown.
Shoppers will want to head to the northern suburbs for the many shopping malls, which house top international brands as well as popular local ones. Sandton and Rosebank are the city’s exclusive, trendy shopping meccas where high-end international brands jostle for shelf space with the labels of local designers like David Tlale, Stoned Cherrie, Black Coffee and Sowearto. The Fashion District in downtown Joburg has been called a “melting pot for the fashion conscious,” reviving the inner city as the go-to place to find trendy and hip clothing.
The Johannesburg Zoo is one of the most popular local and tourist attractions in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg. Founded in 1904, the zoo covers 200-plus acres of land and is home to more than 320 species, totaling about 2,000 animals. Best of all, it is open to the public 365 days a year, including Christmas, New Year’s Day and during the Easter holidays.
The Origins Centre at the University of the Witwatersrand is a museum focusing on the emergence of human beings and humanity in Southern Africa. Conceptualized by a team of academics and designers from Wits University, the center has an extensive collection of rock art from the Wits Rock Art Research Institute. Visitors can see the earliest images made by humans, which were found in South Africa, as well as local fossils and the contribution these fossils have made toward understanding the development of humankind. Another exhibit focuses on the destruction of southern African rock art traditions at the hands of colonialists, before ending with the rediscovery and study of the artwork.
The SAB World of Beer is a museum dedicated to the history of beer and brewing. Covering everything from ancient Mesopotamia to Africa and Europe, the tour gives brew aficionados a full history of the drink. The greenhouse grows natural ingredients for beers, and a full-scale brew house reveals the intricacies of the brewing process.
Montecasino in Fourways, north of Johannesburg, has been called Gauteng’s most popular entertainment destination, with a casino, entertainment complex and cinema all together. Montecasino also hosts local and international performers, and can be a good pick for an evening out.
If visitors have a bit more time to spend in the city, Vercueil suggests they take The Struggle Route, which includes the Mandela Family Museum, the Walter Sisulu Square of Dedication, the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum, Liliesleaf Farm and Constitution Hill.
South African Airways flies direct from Washington, D.C., and nonstop from New York’s JFK Airport to OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg. Travelers can transfer at Tambo to connecting flights to just about any other destination in Southern Africa.