Cape Town, Kruger National Park, KwaZulu-NatalSouth Africa has some big-hitting sights. But a lot of visitors leave the country’s largest city, Johannesburg, off their itineraries.

This is a mistake: it’s the best place to learn about South Africa’s past and look to its future. And if you need a break from the city’s size and energy, you can head off for nearby safaris, adventure sports and glimpses into the history of humanity.

Whether it’s your first visit to South Africa or your 50th, you should make time to feel the Jozi vibes – here are a few tips on getting the most out of it.

Why should you go?

Johannesburg is South Africa’s most diverse, progressive and energetic city, the country’s best showcase for activism and optimism. There’s really nowhere better if you want to see the face of modern South Africa, and get a sense of how far the nation’s come and where it’s going next.

Though the city – like the rest of South Africa – is still dealing with the legacy of racial segregation, it has become a truly diverse place. Walk around Johannesburg and you’ll hear snatches of Afrikaans, Zulu and Xhosa, but you may also catch some Urdu, Hindi or Chinese.

High-intensity in everything it does, Johannesburg manages not only to be the country’s biggest and the continent’s richest city but also – at least according to the locals – the world’s largest man-made forest. There are some ten million trees dotted around, lending the place a surprisingly fresh and spacious feel.

cityscape in johannesburgPaul Saad/Flickr

But is it safe to visit Johannesburg?

The short answer is: yes, it’s safe to visit.

The slightly longer answer is that some areas are safer than others. The northern suburbs are fine to wander around freely, and downtown areas like Maboneng – a no-go area barely a decade ago – have become safe and exciting models of urban regeneration.

Tourists are most at risk of opportunistic crimes like theft and mugging. The best way to protect yourself is to use your common sense: don’t stand on a street corner with your DSLR around your neck staring at a map; don’t carry all your cash around with you; and if you’re going to a less safe district, hire a local guide.

mabopeng, johannesburgSouth African Tourism/Flickr

Great! So what should I do in the day?

As you’d expect from a city this size, there’s a lot to do – starting with retail therapy. Other than Melville’s 27 Boxes, a bunch of shipping containers filled with shops and restaurants, the northern suburbs are mostly home to opulent, anonymous malls. Downtown is much more inspiring, with Maboneng’s Market on Main – a Sunday staple for arts, crafts and street food – and Collector’s Treasury – a labyrinthine, longstanding bookshop – among the best spots.

To get to grips with Johannesburg, try one of the excellent tours on offer. On Mainstreetwalks’ Maboneng Precinct tour, for instance, you’ll discover the best of this exciting district’s community-led regeneration. To find out more about the stunning graffiti you’ll spot on your walk, book onto one of Past Experiences’ street art tours. And to learn about Soweto, try Lebo’s tuk-tuk tours. The entertaining, knowledgeable local guides will show you both the township’s struggles and its hopes for the future.

The city’s museums include MOAD, the continent’s first museum dedicated to design, and Newtown’s cavernous MuseuMAfricA, with thoughtful exhibits on Johannesburg’s art and history.

Further from the centre, the Apartheid Museum is a nuanced exploration of the history and legacy of racial segregation in South Africa, which is also the focus at the Mandela House Museum and Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum in Soweto.

street art in johannesburg-Rebecca Hallett 

And in the evening?

Start your Friday or Saturday night in Fordsburg, the historic Indian district, and hit up the night market around Mint Street. Arrive hungry, as you won’t be able to resist just one samosa, a tiny bite of uttappam, a couple of jalebi

If you’re still (somehow) hungry, head next to Maboneng for memorable African-Asian fusion at Blackanese, a generous Argentine grill at Che, or Ethiopian cuisine at Little Addis Cafe. After dinner join the young, mixed crowd at Living Room for a sundowner with a view.

Continue your night by exploring Joburg’s thriving jazz scene – Braamfontein institution The Orbit is known as South Africa’s best jazz bar, with Sophiatown’s Afrikan Freedom Station another historic venue. A more recent addition is the Marabi Club, which pays homage to the early 20th-century marabi music scene; the classic cocktails and waistcoated waiters set the vintage vibe.

the orbit, johannesburgSouth African Tourism/Flickr

Where should I stay?

The northern suburbs offer luxury hotels and prestigious developments, with Sandton the best known – but its international hotel chains and mega-malls could be anywhere. Melville and Parkhurst are less polished, more endearing options with good streetlife and independent businesses; consider Little Forest Guest House and Die Agterplaas.

In the CBD (Central Business District), you could spoil yourself with a stay at the new Hallmark House hotel, in an arresting industrial-style building just outside Maboneng. An excellent budget option is Curiocity Backpackers, right in the heart of the district.

Alternatively, head to Soweto and stay at Lebo’s Soweto Backpackers, run by local Lebo Malepa. This sprawling township – about a third of Joburgers live here – is where the city’s non-white residents were forced to live during apartheid. Its history is one of struggle but also of hope, encapsulated by Vilakazi Street, where you can see the homes of both Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu.

curiocity in johannesburgAdamina/Flickr

And what if I want to escape the city for a while?

There are plenty of places nearby to get some breathing space, with the Magaliesberg mountain range particularly popular with Joburgers – head to Hartbeespoort Dam to get a cable car straight up into the mountains. Relax afterwards at Silver Orange Bistro, with its contemporary South African cuisine, wine list long enough for repeat visits, and gorgeous setting in an orange orchard.

If you’re after adrenaline rather than R&R, try Ama Zwing Zwing, a great zipline experience under an hour’s drive from the city; the larger Canopy Tour Magaliesberg is about an hour and a half. For hiking and biking, make a beeline for the forty square kilometres of Kgaswane Mountain Reserve. You can camp overnight and follow the Rustenberg Hiking Trail for a couple of days, or explore one of the shorter routes.

pilanesberg, johannesburgRebecca Hallett

The archeological sites of the Cradle of Humankind are easily accessible from Joburg; the Sterkfontein Caves, where Mrs Ples and Little Foot (australopithecus fossils) were found, are a highlight. At the Maropeng Museum you can see the incredible homo naledi fossils excavated in the area – plus a fascinating video about their discovery in a tiny chamber almost 100 feet underground (claustrophobes should cover their eyes).

Going on safari in the malaria-free reserves of North West Province is another great way to escape the city. Madikwe is an excellent reserve near the Botswana border, and is refreshingly uncrowded as no independent day visits are allowed (you have to book through one of the lodges).

To safari independently you should head to Pilanesberg, just a couple of hours’ drive from Joburg. That said, you’ll still get the most memorable experience by staying at a lodge – Kwa Maritane and Bakubung are great choices for their experienced rangers who will impress you with their knowledge on a game drive or bush walk.

rough guide south africa lesotho swaziland coverDiscover more of South Africa with The Rough Guide to South Africa. Compare flights, find tours, book hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to buy travel insurance.

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