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Experiencing Johannesburg like a local

It isn’t the capital city of South Africa, and it isn’t the oldest city either. It doesn’t have beaches, mountains or an influx of foreign tourists like Cape Town does, but as the locals will tell you, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to do. In fact, Johannesburg is a city with a fascinating history, a lively cultural scene and plenty of attractions.

A lot of the activities in the city exist because of its history. Johannesburg and Soweto were at the centre of a lot of the political actions and protests during apartheid, and there are many museums and memorials scattered around the city to commemorate those times.

Apartheid Museum

The Apartheid Museum needs at least half a day to be properly explored. With an impressive display of photos, videos, monuments and displays (including an intimidatingly large and fully-armoured police van) the museum explores the complete rise and fall of apartheid, and is something that should be seen by every South African to better understand our past. It is open seven days a week and the entrance fee is R100 per adult.

Lilliesleaf Farm Museum

The Lilliesleaf Farm Museum in Rivonia remembers the secret gathering place for much of the liberation movement. Members of the liberation found shelter at Lilliesleaf, where they would also gather for meetings. Former President Nelson Mandela also lived there for a while, under a false name, and pretended to be the groundskeeper. The museum is open seven days a week and tours cost R110 per adult.

Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum

The Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum is based in Orlando West in Soweto and explores the role that students played in the struggle against apartheid. The iconic photograph of Pieterson’s body being carried, with his sister running alongside, is famous all over the world, and the museum contains many testimonies, documents and photographs that help to fully explain the protest. The museum is open seven days a week and the entrance fee is R30 per adult.

Gold Reef City

Once you’ve taken in all the history, you can try out Gold Reef City. Johannesburg started as a small village in 1886, as a result of gold found on a farm nearby. Gold Reef City is a family-friendly theme park based on this gold rush. It boasts a mine museum, an underground mine tour, plenty of thrilling rollercoaster rides (and a few tamer ones for the younger children), South Africa’s only 4D theatre and a casino and hotel. Jump City trampoline park has also recently been opened as a new attraction. The cost is R210 per adult rider ticket.

Johannesburg Botanical Garden

For those after something a little more peaceful, the Johannesburg Botanical Garden is well worth a visit. Highlights include the Shakespeare Garden, Rose Garden, main arboretum and Emmarentia Dam. Expect to feel like one of the locals while here – you’ll most likely come across people fishing, kayaking, dog walking, jogging or just relaxing. At 81 hectares, the garden is big enough for everyone. The garden is open seven days a week from 6am to 6pm and entrance is free).

Walking tours

Another really fun way to connect with the “real” Johannesburg, and keep active and healthy at the same time, is through one of the walking tours. This is a great way to get around in a group and there are many companies offering tours that highlight different parts of the city. Enthusiasts can do street art tours, pub tours, food tours or rooftop farm tours. Prices vary from free to R50 and upwards per adult. There are also skate tours, cycling tours and tuk-tuk tours available.

Walking tours of Soweto are also a great experience, especially if you want to combine a tour with some sightseeing. Highlights include the Orlando Towers (fancy a bungee jump or abseil?), the FNB stadium (host of the 2010 FIFA World Cup final), Vilakazi Street (the only street in the world that has housed two Nobel Peace prize winners) and Diepkloof (a diverse and interesting neighbourhood). It’s also a fantastic chance to experience the Soweto lifestyle, as most tours stop off for a meal and drink at a local restaurant.

Checking off this entire list will be tiring work, so once completed why not reward yourself with a drink at the Westcliff Hotel. Perched on a cliffside and overlooking the Johannesburg Zoo and the northern suburbs, it offers one of the best panoramic views over the leafy metropolis sprawled out before you.

If all of this isn’t enough to entice you to visit this energetic and lively city, perhaps some of these fun facts will. Johannesburg is the world’s largest city not built along a coastline, river or lake, and is the world’s biggest man-made forest with more than 10 million trees. It has the tallest rollercoaster and the busiest airport in Africa, as well as the largest acute hospital in the world. To top it all, the Johannesburg Zoo houses the only two polar bears in Africa.

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